I Spy Something Christmas
An excerpt from the novellette by Josh Lanyon
I don't trust any man who says if he had the chance to live his life over, he wouldn't do it all differently
Right. Maybe not all, maybe not everything, but if I had it all to do again, I'd make bloody well sure I woke up fewer times in hospital. Although finding Stephen sitting at my bedside was some compensation for the pounding head and throbbing shoulder.
"How do you feel?" His voice was low, his green eyes dark and unsmiling.
I nodded, licked my lips, got out, "Brilliant. What happened?"
I rather thought I knew what had happened, seeing that it wasn't the first time it had happened -- so Stephen's terse, "Someone shot you," wasn't the shock it might have been. Or perhaps should have been.
"You're going to be fine," Stephen added reassuringly. He probably needed the reassurance more than I did. This wasn't routine for him. Actually, it wasn't routine for me either anymore, not since I gave up the spy game six months ago and settled down so Stephen could make an honest man of me.
"I'm all right." I squeezed his hand and he squeezed back.
The room was as dark as hospital rooms get -- not particularly dark -- it was clearly very late. The window across from the bed offered a view of lightless night. Now and again white splotches hit the glass and vanished. It was snowing again.
After a time it occurred to me to ask, "Who shot me?"
"You don't remember?"
I put a hand up to my head. There was a plaster over my left temple, and stitches beneath the adhesive bandage. "No. What happened?"
Stephen was watching me closely. "That's what the campus police and the sheriff's office would like to know."
"It happened at the university?"
"Was anyone else hurt?"
I waited for him to go on, but he said, "I'm not supposed to discuss it with you until you've given your statement."
"It's going to be a brief statement. The last I recall I was sitting in Smith Library."
"I see. That's the official explanation?" Stephen sounded very Southern Gentleman. His face gave nothing away, which in itself was a tell. My heart sank. I'd hoped the old distrust and disappointment were behind us.
"It's the only explanation."
He didn't believe me. He was too polite to say so, my being injured and all, but I was getting to know Stephen pretty well by now.
"I don't lie to you, Stephen."
He nodded. He still held my hand, so I preferred to concentrate on what he was communicating by touch. His thumb feathered across my knuckles. Shhh. Shhh now...
My head was still thumping away in time to my heartbeats. More than anything I wanted to close my eyes and forget my troubles for a while. But that was not an option.
I said, "When I can get out of here?"
"Honey, you're not going anywhere." Stephen sounded definite on that score. "You've got a concussion. They're going to keep you at least forty eight hours for observation and tests."
"No. Not necessary."
"It's absolutely necessary."
"I'm not spending the night here. I hate hospitals."
"I know," Stephen said dryly. "It's a little awkward, me being a doctor and all."
I sputtered a laugh and sat up gingerly. I couldn't have been too concussed since I didn't fall over again, but the blood thudded in my temples and my stomach gave a dangerous lurch. I was out of practice, that was the trouble.
Stephen let go of my hand and stood over me. He put his hands on my shoulders--my good shoulder anyway--trying to press me back in the hospital bed, but I wasn't having any of it, and he wasn't prepared to wrestle me down. "Mark, this is idiotic. It's after midnight."
"Then it's high time we were home and in bed." I held my arm with the IV out to him. "Will you do the honors or shall I?"
He swore under his breath then gently, deftly unhooked me. I stood up, gripping the bed rail for support.
"I know. Can you take care of everything? Fill out the paperwork? Talk to whoever you have to talk to."
"It doesn't work like that!"
But it did and we both knew it. "Stephen, I need your co--help. I can't sleep here. I want to go home." That was true, but more to the point, until I knew what had happened to me--and why--I needed to be on my own turf where I could more effectively assess and respond to potential threat.
Stephen said again, helplessly, "Mark." He did not often sound helpless.
"I'm all right. Truly. Or I will be once we're home." I offered what I hoped was a conciliatory smile. Stephen reached out to steady me.
"This is crazy. You need to get back in that bed. Now."
I pulled away from him, though it was the last thing I wanted to do. It was a little unsettling the way Stephen brought out in me a desire to let go, to lean. "Where are my clothes?"
He sucked in a breath and I forestalled the imminent explosion. "Stephen, you're a doctor. I couldn't be in better hands, right? I'll recover much faster at home."
"Sit down," he ordered. "Don't move until I get back."
I obeyed, sitting on the edge of the bed and holding my hands up to illustrate perfect compliance. He left the room. I closed my eyes and concentrated on not falling over. I felt completely and utterly wretched, but it was all right now. Things were in motion. Stephen would handle everything. It was one of the things I liked best about him: he was a man who got things done. If he said he would do a thing, there was nothing left to do but fill out the report. It was a trait I had valued highly in my previous line of work, but it was just as useful in civilian life.
The door opened and Stephen was back. I wondered if there would ever come a time my heart didn't lift at the sight of him. He was a fit and handsome fifty: tall, lean, long legs and broad shoulders. Tonight he wore jeans and tweedy blue-gray sweater that made his eyes look blue and his hair platinum.
"That didn't take long."
He gave me an unamused look and handed over a plastic bag. "Your personal effects."
I put on my watch and the sterling earring Stephen had given me for my last birthday while he retrieved my jeans and boots from the cabinet against the wall. "They cut your jacket off. Your sweater and your tee shirt too."
"Hell. I liked that jacket. I'd only just broken it in."
Stephen pulled his sweater off, and when I started to object, gave me a glinting look. "Ta," I said meekly.
I managed to dress without falling over--something Stephen was clearly waiting for--and we crept out into the silent and sterile hall.
The nurse at the floor station gave us a disapproving look. "Doctor," she said primly.
"Nurse." Stephen sounded equally forbidding, which made me smile. He kept his arm around me. I didn't really need the support, but I didn't mind it either. We got in the elevator. The light was hard and unflattering. It seemed to carve grooves around Stephen's mouth and nose.
"You look tired," I said.
"I am tired."
"I'm sorry I put you through this."
He shook his head as though there was no response to that, and perhaps there wasn't.
Christmas music was playing quietly in the lobby when the elevator doors opened. An orchestral version of "Blue Christmas," my all time least favorite Christmas song. We went past the displays of kiddie art: lop-eared reindeer, deformed Santas, and menorahs that looked more like instruments of torture; past the towering and tacky gold Christmas tree; past the closed gift shop, mechanical toys still bobbing their heads on the window shelves; past the weary front desk personnel, and out through the automated glass doors.
The snow had dissolved to a slushy rain. Stephen hustled me across the slick parking lot, unlocked the black SUV, and helped me inside. The rain rattled down like nails on a tin roof.
He climbed in behind the driver's seat, started the engine and turned on the heat. The radio blasted on as well, a local news station.
I pictured Stephen's drive to the hospital. Sorry, Stephen.
He turned off the radio. The windshield wipers squeaked across the glass.
I shivered. Stephen said, "Are you sure you're up to this?"
He shook his head, but he put the vehicle in motion.
We didn't talk. It was late, the driving conditions were poor, Stephen was weary. Not the time for a chat.
I wracked my brains, tried to remember...but the fact was, it had been an ordinary day. A day like any other. Friday. The final day before the winter break. A quiet day with most of the students and staff already on holiday.
I'd had an uneventful meeting with my advisor in the afternoon and, knowing that Stephen would be working late, I'd decided to stay and study in the campus library.
And that was what I'd done. The last clear memory I had was of trying to ignore my growling stomach--I hadn't bothered with dinner--while reading a particularly dull paragraph on classroom audio systems.
"They shot me twice and didn't manage to hit anything vital?" It wasn't really a question. I was mostly thinking aloud, thinking that it was either an amateur or a warning. Except there was no reason for anyone to warn me off. I wasn't involved in anything.
"They?" Stephen inquired.
"Assuming, that's all."
"Not sure really."
Stephen's terse change of subject told me he believed I was prevaricating. "You were shot once. In the shoulder. Not much more than a graze. You hit your head when you fell. That's how you got the concussion."
Stephen nodded. "The walkway was wet and slick."
The miles rolled by and Stephen's grim muteness began to impinge on my consciousness. Belatedly, I thought again about what a hellish shock he must have had when he got the phone call that I'd been shot. The original Bad Boyfriend. That was me.
It was more than shock, though. I could feel his tension, his...anger? No, not anger. Worry, yes. But more. Suspicion.
I broke the lull. "Stephen, I give you my word I'm not involved in anything."
"And if you were, you couldn't tell me anyway."
"I would tell you. We agreed. No lies between us."
"We did agree."
"But you still think I'm lying?"
I could feel him weighing his words. "I think if you thought it was safer -- safer for me, certainly -- you'd withhold information. I don't suppose you'd think of it as lying."
"Give me a little credit."
I didn't like the silence that followed my words. Stephen said at last, "We don't need to talk about this now. You're feeling like hell whether you want to admit it or not. I'm not giving you any ultimatums."
He must have heard the bitterness in my tone. He said painstakingly, "I love you, Mark. Nothing changes that."
But he was hurt and disappointed.
As was I. Despite all we had been through, despite the last months of domestic tranquility, Stephen still didn't trust me.
A blue Christmas indeed.
Copyright 2000-18, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.