Where Nerves End (A Tucker Springs Novel)
This title is part of the Tucker Springs universe.
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Jason Davis can handle a breakup. And an overwhelming mortgage. And a struggling business. And the excruciating pain that keeps him up at night thanks to a shoulder injury. But all of it at once? Not so much. When his shoulder finally pushes him to a breaking point, Jason takes a friend’s advice and gives acupuncture a try.
Acupuncturist Michael Whitman is a single dad struggling to make ends meet. When a mutual friend refers Jason as a patient, and Jason suggests a roommate arrangement to alleviate their respective financial strains, Michael jumps at the opportunity.
But Jason soon finds himself regretting it—he’s too damn attracted to Michael, and living with him is harder than he thought it’d be. In fact, the temptation to act on his feelings would almost be too much if not for the fact that Michael is straight. Or at least, that’s what their mutual friend claims.
(Note: This is a revised second edition, with minor additions, of the first edition originally published elsewhere.)
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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One night without pain didn’t seem like too much to ask. Just eight goddamned hours of uninterrupted unconsciousness. No scalding hot showers at three fifteen. No forcing back nausea long enough to throw down a few pills. No waking up convinced I’d been run over by a truck.
Either it really was too much to ask, or I was asking the wrong deity, because I was awake again. And tonight, the pain was excruciating.
It had jarred me out of a semisound sleep in the form of a white-hot blade extending from my left collarbone to the back of my shoulder. It didn’t matter how many times this happened, it always startled me, and it always made my eyes water.
Biting back curses, I carefully freed myself from Kyle’s—Kevin’s?—arms and gingerly sat up. Once I was upright, I took a few slow, deep breaths until the pain subsided enough for me to focus my eyes.
The alarm clock said a little past five, which meant I’d been asleep for less than an hour. Now that was just cruel, damn it.
I needed a hot shower. I got up, moving carefully and quietly so I wouldn’t wake up . . . whatever his name was.
In the shower, I closed my eyes and breathed while the water—turned as hot as I could stand—beat on my shoulder. My doctor insisted on ice instead of heat, but fuck that. Ice made the spasms worse.
After ten solid minutes under the hot water, the pain receded a little. I tried to find comfort in that minor relief, but I knew better. As soon as I was out of the shower, the pain would come right back, sinking unseen teeth into my left shoulder.
Slowly releasing my breath, I focused on my game plan. Once the water stopped, I’d have less than five minutes to get downstairs, eat something, and take a painkiller. Any longer than that, and the spasms would have a chance to move back in before I could head them off at the pass with a bit of chemical intervention. As long as I could do it in that time, I stood a small chance of getting some sleep.
In theory, anyway.
Toweling off was never a pleasant procedure with a fucked-up shoulder. I dried myself enough to keep from dripping all over the hardwood floors—slipping and busting my ass wouldn’t help matters.
I just hoped to God I could get to the bottle of painkillers before the spasms came back, especially since it sometimes hurt bad enough to nauseate me. That, in turn, complicated the whole “eat a few bites and take a pill” part of the equation.
I wrapped the towel around my waist and headed downstairs. In the kitchen, I flicked on the light above the stove. I wasn’t big on convenience food, but I kept things like bagels around specifically for when I needed to take a pain pill. Something quick that wouldn’t aggravate the nausea that showed up on the worst nights. Nights like this.
I’d have kept it all upstairs, along with the painkillers, but I’d convinced myself that if I had to wake up completely and come all the way down to the kitchen instead of popping a pill while I was half-asleep, then I’d only take them when I absolutely needed to.
In theory, anyway.
I settled on half a bagel, and while I slowly, carefully ate that, I stared down the bottle of pills the same way I did every time this happened.
Is it really bad enough tonight, Jason?
Can you suck it up and sleep on it?
Do you really need this?
I rolled my shoulder, and the motion carved bright red lines along my collarbone and through the muscles. My eyes stung, and for a couple of seconds, I couldn’t even draw a breath. Yeah, I needed the pill.
I swallowed it. In a few minutes, I’d go back to bed, and with any luck the drug would kick in before sunrise. Hopefully it would at least take the edge off; I’d been using this shit so long, I was building up a tolerance, and it helped less and less every time. My doctor had suggested a higher dose or a stronger narcotic, but I’d balked. I was dependent enough already.
Sighing, I rested my hands on the counter and slowly tilted my head, trying to stretch the muscles across my shoulder blade. Not that it ever helped, but that didn’t stop me from trying.
Something had to change besides my painkiller dosage. I had a business to run, a life to live. Lack of sleep and an abundance of pain interfered with every goddamned thing from driving my car to enjoying my sad excuse for a sex life.
Pursing my lips, I glanced at the stairs leading up to my bedroom where Kevin—no, I was pretty sure his name was Kyle—was still asleep. Just once, it would be nice to have sex with someone without having to modify everything we did to keep from aggravating my shoulder. Nothing killed the mood or took the luster off an orgasm quite like fierce, unrelenting pain. I couldn’t even enjoy rough sex anymore because I spent the whole time worrying that our pursuit of good pain would trigger the not-so-good pain. Sex wasn’t very appealing when this was the end result.
But Kyle had given me that look while I was getting ready to close the club last night, and it hadn’t taken me long to decide, Oh, what the hell? He was cute, he was aggressive, and he was a damned good kisser. When I could hear him over the music, he’d whispered the filthiest things in my ear. One flirty hand over the front of my pants, and I’d stopped trying to talk myself out of it.
I rubbed my shoulder, silently begging the spasms not to spread up my neck or down my back before the drugs kicked in.
This had to stop. I couldn’t live like this.
“You know,” my friend Seth’s voice echoed in my head, “I keep telling you—”
“I’ll pass on the acupuncture. If I’m going to spend money, I’d rather spend it on something that actually helps, you know?”
“Suit yourself,” he’d said with a shrug and gone back to working on my tattoo. “But if you change your mind, give me a buzz, and I’ll hook you up with a guy who can help.”
In the silence of my kitchen, I closed my eyes and kneaded the back of my neck as the stiffness crept upward. For the first time, I was truly tempted to get that number from Seth.
But then there was money. All the worsening financial problems that kept me awake when my shoulder didn’t. Things had been spiraling out of control since I’d lost my business partner last year, and it hadn’t gotten any better when Wes moved out, taking his half of the mortgage payment with him. Ironically, my relentless pain had been one of the catalysts for our breakup, and the breakup had created more problems, which had stressed me out enough to make my shoulder worse. If irony were a painkiller, I wouldn’t have this damned ongoing Percocet prescription.
The muscles knotted tighter. The tension climbed higher, inching toward my hairline and clawing its way around to the other side of my neck. Stiffness coiled around my spine, descending toward the middle of my back. The more I worried, the more it hurt. The more it hurt, the more I worried.
To hell with it. Tomorrow, I’d get that number from Seth. I really couldn’t afford it, but oh fucking well. Maybe the acupuncture would help.
I prayed to anyone who’d listen that it would.
By the grace of God and coffee, I was able to drive safely the next morning. Cameron, as his name turned out to be, lived on the other side of town, and since I was headed that way anyway, I took him home.
As my car idled in front of his apartment building, he grinned and said, “Give me a call if you ever want a rematch.”
I returned the grin. “Bet on it.”
He made no move to kiss me, just winked and got out of the car. I hadn’t decided yet if I’d call him. Probably not. He certainly wasn’t lacking in bed, but I wasn’t interested in much beyond a one-night stand right now. Maintaining a relationship was a bitch when someone started equating “my shoulder hurts too much” with “I have a headache.” Casual sex with men whose names I barely knew was less stressful these days.
After I’d left Cameron’s apartment, I pulled into another parking lot and dialed Seth’s cell phone. Surprise, surprise, it went straight to voice mail. That meant he was either working on someone or fucking someone. Probably the former, since Saturdays were the shop’s busiest days.
I set my phone on the passenger seat, turned on to the main road, and headed over to the Light District. This was the town’s unofficial gay neighborhood. Seattle had Capitol Hill. San Francisco had the Castro District. Tucker Springs had the Light District.
At ten o’clock on a Saturday morning, the streets weren’t that busy. Once more shops and the breweries opened around the cobblestone town square and along the narrow side streets, the place would be crawling with locals and tourists alike. For now, it was mostly deserted.
It was here, half a block from the tourist magnet town square and not far from my nightclub, that Seth had set up his tattoo shop. Sitting under a couple of loft apartments, Ink Springs fit in surprisingly well with the old-style brick storefronts of the New Age shop and the used bookstore on either side. It was a far cry from one of those shady, grungy shops in the more questionable parts of town, and Seth had gone for a tasteful sign that didn’t stick out like a rock-band T-shirt at a black-tie gathering.
The “open” sign in the window was dim, but the shop lights were on. I parked between Seth’s beat-up red Chevy S10 and a gray sedan, then went to the door.
It was locked, but Seth looked up from working on the back of a guy lying facedown on one of the black leather tables. Seth gave a sharp nod and set his tattoo gun aside. He said something to his client, then came across the shop, peeling off his rubber gloves as he walked.
He turned the dead bolt and let me in. “Hey Jason. I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Yeah, sorry to bug you at work,” I said as he locked the door behind me. “I, um, I wanted to ask you about that acupuncturist friend of yours.”
Seth’s eyes widened. “You’re actually going to call him?”
“I . . . maybe.”
He grimaced. “Bad night?”
“Real bad.” I chewed my lip. “You really believe in the stuff he does?”
“Absolutely,” he said without hesitation. “Hand to God, it’s—”
“Oh, that’s meaningful coming from an atheist heathen.”
He laughed. “What can I say? But I swear, the shit works like a damned charm. It drives me fucking crazy too. It shouldn’t work. It doesn’t make a bit of sense, but”—he shrugged with one shoulder—“it does.”
“Really? It seems so . . .”
Seth smirked. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of needles.”
“I wouldn’t get that past you, would I?”
“Not a chance.” He had, after all, been the one I’d trusted to carve a much more bearable variety of pain into my upper arm.
“Okay, it’s not the needles. I just don’t get how it’s supposed to work.”
“I guess it, I don’t know, gets the Qi moving the right way or . . . yeah, something like that.”
“The Qi? Seriously? You of all people buy into that?”
“I don’t know if I buy the Qi part, but something works.”
“I can’t believe anyone talked you into even trying it.”
“It took him a while, believe me. I’ve known Michael since before he went to Hokey Pokey school, and he still had to twist my arm for two years after I had my car accident.” Seth gestured at his neck. “Made all the difference in the world. That shit’s amazing.”
“So what finally changed your mind? Did he bring you a stack of peer-reviewed studies or what?”
“Honestly?” Seth glanced at his waiting client, then turned to me again. “I was in so fucking much pain after that wreck, and nothing was helping. Michael sat me down and told me he couldn’t deal with seeing me like that when he had a shot at helping me. And then he said the worst-case scenario was that it would do nothing, and the best-case scenario was that I’d be able to sleep again.”
Sleep. God. Sleep.
“All right. Sold.” I gestured at Seth’s client. “Don’t let me keep you from your work. I can get the number when you’re done.”
“The hell you can.” He nodded toward the desk behind the counter. “My cell is next to the computer. It’s an awfully technical phone, but I’m sure you—”
“Shut up.” I chuckled.
Seth returned to his client and put on a pair of fresh gloves. As the tattoo gun buzzed to life again, I took the phone off Seth’s desk and turned it on.
“It’s listed as Tucker Springs Acupuncture,” he said without looking up from his work.
“Got it.” I found the listing and sent it from his phone to mine. “Thanks, man.”
“Anytime. Good luck.”
I made the call on Monday afternoon, and on Tuesday morning, I followed the receptionist’s directions across town to a shopping center a couple of blocks from the freeway. Nothing screamed credibility for a medical professional like setting up shop in a strip mall. On the other hand, I knew all too well how difficult it was to find a place with a reasonably affordable lease and some actual visibility. That was why my nightclub lived in an old converted warehouse on the not-so-nice side of the Light District. Glass houses, throwing stones, etc.
Sitting in my car, I took a deep breath and stared at the clinic.
The sign over the windowed storefront read “Tucker Springs Acupuncture” between a black and white yin-yang and another symbol I didn’t recognize. Seth had been after me for two years to do this, and middle-of-the-night desperation had finally made me give in, but now, I wasn’t so sure.
I was here though. I’d made the appointment and had the cash in my wallet; cash I could ill afford to spend. Aside from money, though, what did I have to lose? It wasn’t like that shit was dangerous or anything. I couldn’t imagine there were too many side effects to tiny, superficial needles, and I didn’t see myself getting addicted to it.
I stared at the letters and the yin-yang and the tinted windows below them, silently demanding they justify themselves. Offer proof. Offer some reason for me to walk through that shining glass door. When it came to alternative medicine, I was as skeptical as Seth was about life in general. I regarded every treatment as not only snake oil, but the snake itself. At best, quackery. At worst, dangerous. And no matter what, fucking expensive.
But after the last couple of nights, I was desperate.
On the way inside, I stopped to read the sign in the window. It echoed the name and yin-yang overhead, and in a smaller font, listed the various ailments that the acupuncturist claimed to treat.
On and on and on. God, this smacked of a snake oil salesman. One tincture to treat every ailment under the sun! A miracle cure! Hallelujah! That’ll be $79.99 please—cash, check, charge, or firstborn.
My shoulder throbbed relentlessly, and my head was light from lack of sleep and the second dose of painkillers I’d taken at six fifteen.
Maybe I was just desperate, maybe I was as gullible as the next person, but two words on that lengthy list drew me through the door:
The clinic smelled oddly . . . herbal. Something pungent, vaguely familiar, and slightly burned. Strong enough I couldn’t ignore it, but not powerful enough to be nauseating. I could have been mistaken, but I swore I smelled one particular herb that hadn’t been legal until fairly recently, at least not without a government-issued license and a compelling reason.
The waiting area itself wasn’t all that different from what I’d expect in a doctor’s office, though it lacked the sparse, sterile appearance. Framed prints of tranquil landscapes lined the dark-green wall between two mahogany bookcases. A plastic milk crate tucked beneath the table held brightly colored plastic toys, and a few well-worn magazines leaned on each other inside a metal magazine rack. Between a Buddha statue and several books on Chinese medicine was a trickling fountain in a clay bowl. Water ran over pebbles and fake jade, and on top stood a tree that resembled a bonsai tree.
“You must be Mr. Davis.”
I immediately recognized the singsong voice of the receptionist, and turned my head. He was a cute kid, probably a college student. Square-rimmed hipster glasses, stylishly messed up hair with highlighted tips, and just a little flamboyant. I wondered if he was part of the reason Seth came here on a regular basis. This kid was a hundred percent his type, right down to the tan that did not happen naturally in Colorado this time of year.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m Jason Davis.”
He smiled. “Right on time. Dr. Whitman needs you to fill this out as best you can.” He gave me a pen and clipboard. “And be totally honest, because . . .” He waved a hand and sighed dramatically. “He’ll get the answer out of you one way or another, so don’t try to hide anything.”
I laughed. “Is that right?”
“Trust me.” The kid had a mischievous sparkle in his eye. “He’s one of those people; you might as well tell him what he wants to know. He’s kind of like the CIA, minus the car batteries and waterboarding.”
“Good to know.”
I took the paperwork to the waiting area, and sat beside the table with the books and fountain.
The form was about what I’d expect from any medical professional. The usual crap about injuries and ailments. And of course, Are you currently taking any medications, including over-the-counter?
I chewed the inside of my cheek, tapping the pen on the form. I’d heard holistic practitioners frowned on modern medicine. Poisonous chemicals and evil pharmaceutical companies or some crap like that. Whatever. The last thing I needed was a lecture on why I shouldn’t be taking the pills that often meant the difference between one hour of sleep and three.
But if he was going to get the answer out of me anyway . . .
I sighed and wrote OTC anti-inflammatories + doctor-prescribed Percocet for pain. The man would probably have heart failure when he found out I was sucking down pain pills instead of meditating or drinking purified water blessed by a unicorn. Oh well.
After I’d filled everything out, I handed the form to the receptionist, then returned to my seat. While I waited to be called back, I fixed my gaze on the trickling fountain. There was a heavy sense of hopelessness in the realization that it had come down to this. That I was desperate enough to try anything that had the slightest promise—mythical or otherwise—of relieving my pain.
What if it didn’t help? What if nothing did? I was at my wit’s end after five years. What would happen in ten, twenty, fifty years if I couldn’t find some sort of long-term—even short-term—relief?
“Jason?” The receptionist’s voice brought me out of my thoughts. He raised his chin so he could see over the high desk. “Dr. Whitman’s still with another patient, but he should be out in a few minutes.”
I forced a smile. “No problem.”
My stomach fluttered with nerves. As if I didn’t have enough to think about, it occurred to me that I hadn’t asked Seth about this guy. They’d been good friends for a long time, which said a lot, since Seth didn’t trust most people any farther than he could throw them. I could only imagine the banter between these two. Seth the hard-core prove-it-or-it-didn’t-happen atheist versus “Dr.” Whitman the acupuncturist.
What kind of person went into acupuncture, anyway? What was I dealing with here? A guy who could sell used cars and snake oil? Or a New Age hippie type who bought into this as much as his clients did?
Give him a chance, Jason.
I closed my eyes and released a breath. I would give him a chance. But the proof had damn well better be in the pudding, or I wasn’t buying.
Down the hall, a door opened. As footsteps and a male voice approached, I turned my head. An elderly woman appeared first, and when the source of the male voice came into view, I almost choked on my breath.
Apparently that was the kind of guy who went into acupuncture. Holy fuck.
I couldn’t say if I’d been expecting dreadlocks and hemp or glasses and a lab coat, but what I hadn’t been expecting was six-foot-plus of oh my God with a heaping dose of please tell me you’re single. He looked like he’d stepped out of a laid-back business meeting: pressed slacks, a plain white shirt with the first button casually left open and the sleeves rolled to his elbows. His hair was almost black, short enough to be neat, and long enough it just started to curl. Long enough for a man to get a grip on if—
Jesus, Jason. You get a grip.
A thin string of twisted brown leather hung around his neck and disappeared down the V of his shirt, and he had a beaded hemp bracelet on his left wrist, so he wasn’t entirely without the signs of a hippie lifestyle. While the acupuncturist and his patient exchanged a few words, I stared. Goddamn, he was hot. He’d taken that old cliché “tall, dark, and handsome” and made it his bitch. Dark-haired, dark-eyed, tall enough I’d have to look up at him, and his perma-smirk hinted at something devious hiding inside that mind of his. And handsome? Good God, yes. The perfect amount of ruggedness roughened his edges, tempering his borderline-pretty-boy look like an invisible leather jacket and sunglasses. If the receptionist was Seth’s type, this guy was undeniably mine.
And then he looked right at me. “Mr. Davis?”
I cleared my throat and stood. “Jason.”
He extended his hand. “I’m Dr. Whitman, but most people call me Michael.”
“All right. I guess I’ll call you Michael.”
He smiled, which crinkled the corners of his eyes just right to draw my attention, and suddenly nothing was on my brain except And I thought I was a sucker for blue eyes. Apparently brown eyes did it for me too.
Don’t mind if I do . . .
Michael led me down a hall with four doors on either side, and gestured for me to go into the third one on the left. In the center of the room was a table. Not an exam table, though. Closer to a massage table. Black leather, cushioned, complete with the doughnut-shaped cushion on one end so someone could lie facedown.
“Just have a seat for now. We’ll go over your history, primary complaints, and all of that before I treat you.”
I sat on the table, and Michael took a seat on a small, wheeled stool. He scanned the form, stopping abruptly when something apparently caught his eye. “You own Lights Out?”
I nodded. “You’re familiar with it?”
“I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never been.” He smiled, glancing up through his lashes, almost shyly. “Can’t imagine I’m exactly part of your target demographic.”
I laughed. “Not many people in this town are.”
We went through the usual rigmarole, as if I was going to a new doctor. Did I drink? Did I smoke? Pain’s a four on a good day, eleven on a bad night, seven right now. Blah, blah, blah.
Then he scowled at the page, and I didn’t have to ask which part he’d read.
“So you’re taking Percocet?” He looked up at me. “How often?”
“Whenever I need it.”
He raised an eyebrow. “And how often do you need it?”
I shifted uncomfortably. “A few times a week. Usually when I can’t sleep.” I paused before quickly adding, “When the pain keeps me up at night, I mean.”
“I see.” He glanced at my form, then blew out a breath. “And you’ve been doing this for how long?”
“I’m not addicted to them,” I said through my teeth.
Michael patted the air, and his voice was gentle. “I wasn’t making any accusations. I’m more concerned about the burden long-term use of a narcotic puts on your liver.”
“On . . . my liver?” I cocked my head.
He nodded, scribbling a few notes on the form. “Kidneys too.”
“You’re not going to tell me to stop taking them, are you?”
Michael narrowed his eyes slightly, and I suddenly understood the receptionist’s comment about car batteries and waterboarding. Michael hadn’t said a word, but I was certain he saw right through me, right to the “fuck you” that was ready to light up in red neon letters the second he told me I shouldn’t take anything.
He folded his hands on top of the form. “I’m not going to tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t take them. What I’m hoping to do is remove your reason for having them at all.”
Oh God, please.
I swallowed. “And if you can’t do that?”
“Then I’m not doing my job.” He held my gaze for an uncomfortable moment. “Tell me, how exactly did you injure your shoulder?”
My face burned. Hell if I knew why. Wasn’t as if I hadn’t told this story to a million people before, usually with embellishments to make sure everyone laughed uproariously at my stupidity, so why did it make me self-conscious now?
I cleared my throat. “I suppose ‘showing off like an idiot’ isn’t a conclusive enough answer?”
Michael laughed. “Not really, but it’s certainly an intriguing one.” He inclined his head. “Go on.”
“I was mountain biking, took a single-track trail way faster than I should have, lost control, and face-planted.” I gestured at my shoulder. “Landed on my face and my shoulder.”
Michael grimaced. “How is your neck?”
“My neck was fine, thank God. Scraped the shit out of my face, but the helmet protected my head. My shoulder took the brunt of it.”
“Better that than a head or neck injury.”
“No kidding. Or swallowing my teeth.”
He shuddered. “Indeed. Fortunately, I think we can manage the injury you do have.” His eyes narrowed again as if he were reading me somehow.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
“You’re carrying a lot of stress.”
I laughed dryly. “Am I getting that gray already?”
“No.” A grin flickered across his lips. “But the tension isn’t just in the area where you’re experiencing pain. You get headaches when you’re tense, don’t you?”
“Some more than others.” He gestured between his eyebrows. “But I’m guessing yours radiate from here?”
This guy was good.
“Sometimes, yeah,” I said. “But, you know how it is. Stress about money, that kind of shit.”
He groaned. “Oh, believe me, I know that feeling very well.”
“Really? I figured you’d be raking it in here.”
Michael shrugged. “I’m not a cardiologist.”
“So you’re a peasant like the rest of us?”
“Basically. Anyway, you get that heavy ache in your forehead that makes your eyes hurt, right?”
Shit. He was really good.
“Yeah, I do.”
“I figured. Next time that happens? Press the sides of your thumbs right here.” He demonstrated, putting his thumbs together above the bridge of his nose. “Press in, and then pull them across like so.” He pulled his thumbs apart, slowly drawing them along the arches of his eyebrows, and lowered his hands. “Do it three or four times, and it should diffuse some of the tension.”
“Good to know.”
He scanned my paperwork again. “You said you hurt your shoulder five years ago. Aside from the initial healing period, has the pain gotten better or worse since then?”
“It’s mostly stayed the same, but . . .”
His eyebrows rose. “Hmm?”
I shifted, the table creaking quietly under me. “It started getting worse when my relationship went south. And ever since he moved out, I’ve been struggling financially, so . . .”
“That’ll do it,” he said softly. “Stress almost always increases chronic pain.”
“Yeah.” I laughed bitterly. “And actually, the pain was part of what made my relationship go south.”
Michael cocked his head, but didn’t speak.
I cleared my throat. “My ex, he, uh . . . We had some issues, and I think my shoulder turned into an excuse to fight. If I was in too much pain or too drugged out of my head to do much around the house, or I had to cancel some plans, he lost his mind. The way he saw it, I was only in pain when he wanted me to do something.”
Michael scowled. “And you said the pain got worse when he left? After living under that kind of pressure, I’m surprised it didn’t improve.”
“He left me with both halves of a mortgage I can’t afford.” I rolled my shoulders gingerly. “It’s nice to not have to justify taking it easy anymore, but . . .”
“Yeah, I can understand that.”
He continued through my history, asking questions about everything from my health to my family to my job. I gave him vague answers about financial issues and the loss of the club’s co-owner, neither of which I ever liked talking about, and he didn’t press for details. Strangely, his line of questioning didn’t prompt a “none of your goddamned business” reaction the way it probably would have if I was talking to my doctor or dentist. It helped that he didn’t make any snarky comments about “damn, if it weren’t for bad luck, you wouldn’t have any luck at all.” I’d give anyone a free pass to ask away as long as they didn’t jump on the “which god did you piss off?” bandwagon. I couldn’t figure out how some the information he requested was relevant to fixing my damned shoulder, but I answered without hesitation.
Car batteries and waterboarding indeed . . .
“Usually I’d have you lie down,” he said, “but I’m going to have you sit up so I can access points on the front and back of your shoulder. I’ll need you to take off your shirt. Shoes and socks too.”
I did as he asked while he reached into a small chest of drawers and pulled out a handful of plastic packets. When I looked closer, I realized each packet contained an individually wrapped needle, each resembling a two-inch long antenna. A little less than half of the needle was thicker than the other with a small loop on the end. They were so fine, I couldn’t imagine them breaking through anything—never mind skin—without bending.
As he laid out the needles, he glanced at my upper arm and did a double take. “Wow, that’s quite a tattoo. Seth’s work?” I almost expected him to run his fingers over it the way some guys did. Kind of hoped he would. Really hoped he would.
I also hoped he was oblivious to the phantom tingling where he, being a professional, hadn’t run his fingers across my inked skin. “Yeah. Seth did it. He did an amazing job.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him do a tattoo that wasn’t amazing.” He met my eyes and laughed softly. “So this means you don’t have a problem with needles, then?”
“Yeah, something like that.” I didn’t, but admittedly, my stomach knotted up a little as he tore open one of the packets. “So, um, tell me how this works?”
“The body has energy flowing through it. Qi, as the Chinese call it. Sometimes the channels get blocked, or interrupted, and the needles”—he gestured with the one he’d freed from the package—“help with those blockages. If you’ll pardon the pun, the point of acupuncture is to get the Qi flowing properly.”
In my mind’s eye, I saw him digging beneath my skin with the sharp instrument until he’d bent the channel o’ Qi to his will. I was pretty sure that wasn’t how it worked, but the mental image didn’t do much to relax me.
Evidently seeing the apprehension written across my face, he said, “Trust me on this.” When our eyes met, his half smile—combined with what the low, warm light did to his already-dark-brown eyes—certainly stimulated my heart. Among other things.
But then he took a seat and focused his attention to my foot, and I remembered the needles he hadn’t yet put in. He slid the needle into a thin plastic tube, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. As he pressed the tube against my foot just below my ankle, I held my breath.
Then he tapped the end of it and, a second later, slid the tube off, leaving the needle sticking out of my skin at a sharp angle.
It didn’t hurt. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. It hurt, but not like I’d expected it to. There was the briefest sting, there and gone so quickly I barely noticed it, but the ache that followed was . . . strange. It was a dull feeling, but almost electric.
I flexed my ankle.
“Doing all right?” Michael asked.
“Yeah. It just feels weird.”
“It’s different, especially the first time.” He leaned down and positioned another needle. He tapped it into place so it was almost perpendicular to my skin, and the same warm, achy sensation with tingling edges bloomed around its point. “What you’re feeling is deqi.”
I raised an eyebrow. “The what now?”
“Deqi.” He looked up from freeing a third needle from the packaging. “The sensation of the Qi arriving.”
“I see.” I watched him slide the needle into the plastic tube. “So is this the kind of thing where I have to be a believer for it to work?”
“It’s acupuncture, Jason.” He tapped the needle into place. “Not Santa Claus. It’ll still work even if you don’t believe.”
“Good to know.”
He switched to my other foot, and curiosity got the best of me.
“Okay, I have to know. My foot? When I’m here for my shoulder?”
He nodded without looking up. “I’m concerned about your liver and kidneys, and how they’ve been affected by the medications you’ve been taking. So this will stimulate them and help them flush out some of the toxins.” He positioned the needle about an inch below the base of my first and second toes, right between the bones.
“Uh . . .” I studied him. “Isn’t . . . isn’t the liver . . . not in my foot?”
“The liver channel begins in the feet. Stimulate and unblock that channel—” he paused to tap the needle into place “—and it helps to soothe and decongest the liver.”
“Soothe? Decongest?” I shook my head. “You’re the expert here.”
“Trust me on this.” He glanced up, and I’ll be damned if the son of a bitch didn’t wink. “I know what I’m doing.”
Somehow I doubt you know all of what you’re doing, Dr. Whitman . . .
As he continued, I couldn’t decide what was more fascinating: the needles themselves or his long, nimble fingers manipulating them with expert precision. I had no doubt there was a complex technique to all of this, one he’d spent years learning. There had probably been a time when he’d been clumsy and uncertain, but now he made it look easy. Effortless.
After he’d finished putting needles in my feet, he stood. “Okay, now for a few in your shoulders.”
“What about these?” I gestured at the ones sticking out of my skin. “How long do you leave them in?”
“Oh, you know. Come back in a week or so.”
We locked eyes, keeping straight faces. Then the corner of his mouth twitched, and I laughed.
He chuckled as he turned away to pull out a drawer from the cabinet. “Just ten or fifteen minutes.” Something rustled and clattered. “Usually I’d leave you to relax and let them do their job, but I’m thinking your shoulder needs a slightly more . . . active approach.”
“Active? In what—”
He turned around again, and I damn near groaned aloud.
The receptionist just had to mention a car battery, didn’t he?
In one hand, Michael held a plastic box about half the size of a phone book. Several knobs stuck up from the top, and one side had about ten places to plug in peripherals. In his other hand, he had half a dozen thin red and black wires. On one end, they had plugs to connect them to the box. The other end? Miniature fucking jumper cables. Of course.
“Do I get a choice between this and waterboarding?”
Michael rolled his eyes. “Nathan loves telling people that.”
Regarding the machine warily, I said, “Yeah, but he told me minus the car batteries and waterboarding.”
“Don’t worry. All these do is put a mild electrical current through the needles. Problems like what you’re experiencing sometimes need extra stimulation to get the Qi flowing properly.”
I still wasn’t so sure about this thing. “Why do I get the feeling the people who invented acupuncture didn’t have those?”
He smirked. “Well, even Eastern medicine has made advancements, you know.”
“So has the CIA.”
Michael laughed. “Relax.” He set the machine on the table beside me and laid the wires on top of it. “The worst you might feel is a dull ache.”
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“If it’s too intense, say so, and I’ll either turn it down or remove the needle. I don’t want you to be in pain.”
He rested the heel of his hand on my shoulder, and I took a sharp breath.
“Is that tender?” He lifted his hand away.
“No, you’re fine. I just”—shouldn’t like you touching me that way—“wasn’t expecting it.”
“Sorry.” His hand put his hand back. A second later, he pressed the plastic tube against my skin.
I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on the impending sting and ache. When he tapped the needle, it stung, and it ached, but I was only half-focused on the weird sensations. My tingling nerves were too busy following the warmth of his hand wherever he touched me.
I had never thought I’d be disappointed when a man was finished arranging needles in my flesh, but I was.
He reached for the box and its cables. “I’m attaching the leads to the needles,” he explained. “And I’m going to tape them down so they don’t yank the needles out.”
I shuddered. That was one more mental image I didn’t need.
As promised, he taped the leads down. Then he turned on the box, and as he adjusted the currents, he manually tweaked the needles. It felt as if he was . . . stirring them? Moving them, anyhow, but not in a way that was painful. It reminded me of a dentist doing work while I was numb—I knew he was doing something, and it seemed like it should have hurt, but it didn’t. Not even unpleasant, necessarily, just weird.
And he was right about the electric stimulation. A warm, dull ache radiated from the needles, along with an intermittent tingle that sometimes bordered on uncomfortable, but it was only unpleasant inasmuch as it was alien. But even while he manipulated the needles sticking out of my flesh, I couldn’t keep my mind off his hands. I swore his fingertips were more electric than the jumper cables.
Jesus Christ, Davis. Get a fucking grip.
It was impossible to guess how long this went on. I closed my eyes and let him do his thing while I savored every time his skin brushed mine.
My eyes flew open. It was less the sound of my name that startled me, and more the gentle heat of his hand around my upper arm. “Sorry, what?”
“You all right?”
“Are you getting light-headed?”
“I—” I was a little dizzy, wasn’t I?
That’s what happens when you forget to breathe, dumb-fuck.
I glanced back at him and smiled. “No, I’m fine.”
He eyed me uncertainly, then released my arm—no, your hand can stay there!—and went back to work. “If you need to lie down or anything, speak up.”
“I’m fine,” I said. “Just need to remember to breathe.”
Michael laughed. “That’s usually a recommended part of the treatment, yes.”
I laughed too, which pushed some more air into motion and alleviated the dizziness. “Guess you were relaxing me a little too well.”
“That’s why I usually have people lie down for this.” He steadied my shoulder with one hand—ah, there it is—and adjusted a needle below my collarbone. “But I want to work on the front and back simultaneously.” He leaned to the side so we could make eye contact. “I can do the front, then back, if lying down would be more comfortable.”
“I’m fine. This is fine.”
I nodded. He held my gaze for a moment, then continued.
Maybe five minutes later, he was finished, and removed the taped leads before coming around to stand in front of me.
“Let me check your pulse.” He beckoned, and when I extended my arm palm up, he clasped the back of my hand in his while he pressed his fingers to the inside of my wrist. I had no doubt my pulse was elevated now, and rising.
He didn’t comment, though, as he made a note of my pulse. “How does your shoulder feel now?”
“Better, actually.” I’ll be damned. It really does feel better. “Still a little stiff, but . . .”
“Good. There’s one more thing I need to do, and this might sound strange, but—”
“Is this the part where you want to see my tongue?”
He laughed. “Seth warned you, eh?”
“Yeah. I thought he was fucking with me.”
“Nope. Afraid not. So . . .” He made a “go on” gesture.
“Do I have to say ‘Ah’?”
Michael laughed again. “Whatever floats your boat, but I still need to see your tongue.”
And I’d like you to do something besides look at it.
Good thing this was a slightly awkward examination. At least if my cheeks were as red as I thought they were, he’d probably write it off as me feeling ridiculous rather than embarrassed by the thoughts wandering through my mind. And maybe a little flustered. Just a little.
Okay, a lot.
“All right,” he said, and I closed my mouth as he jotted something on the form.
“Dare I ask what you’re looking for on my tongue?”
“You can tell a lot about someone by their tongue,” he said so matter-of-factly, I felt like an immature school kid for completely misinterpreting the comment.
“Can you, now?”
Michael nodded. “The color and the texture say a lot about what’s going on elsewhere.”
I cleared my throat. “Really?”
“Mm-hmm,” he said. “For example, looking at yours, I definitely need to focus some attention on your liver and kidneys. Probably the gallbladder too. Between your tongue and your wiry pulse—”
Another nod. “It’s a sign of your liver being out of balance, as well as a secondary deficiency in your kidneys.”
“So, what do I need to do about that?”
“I’d recommend coming back to see me. Between the acupuncture, some dietary changes, and maybe some herbal treatments, we can get everything back to functioning the way it’s supposed to.”
I exhaled. “How many times do you think I should come in?”
“It’ll probably take at least seven or eight visits to get you back on track. After that? It’s up to you if you want to have regular treatment.”
I scowled as I mentally calculated the cost. Michael must’ve encountered this a lot, because he went on, “If money is an issue, especially since insurance doesn’t usually cover my treatment, we can work out a plan. I can’t give away my services, but if I can help, I’ll do what I can to make the treatment accessible.”
Tempting. Very tempting. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”
He gave me a few of the usual pointers—ice, not heat, dumbass—and then removed the needles from my shoulder and my feet.
I put on my shirt and shoes, and Michael led me out into the hall. On the way back to the waiting area, I had to squint as my eyes readjusted to the fluorescents overhead and the sun coming in through the tinted glass. Why was it so surreal to be out here again? Even my own car, the shopping center, the view of the mountains, seemed . . . strange. As if I’d been on an altogether different plane for a little while.
We shook hands. Then I turned to finish with the receptionist, and Michael took another patient back. As he disappeared down the hall, I debated taking him up on his offer to work out some kind of financial plan.
I just couldn’t decide if I wanted to come back for the acupuncture or the acupuncturist.