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After breakfast, if the weather was clear, Brian went for a long run around the gravel track that encircled the Yard.
Brian looked forward to his run. The pumping of his long legs. The feel of his taut muscles working. The crunch of the gravel under his shoes. The air rushing into his face. Running made him feel alive. And running made him feel free.
At first Ron had thought it was a waste of valuable time. When Ron exercised it was in the Gym, working with the weight machines. Ron liked to spend a minimum of time to get the maximum effect. Running seemed aimless and self-indulgent. But Brian enjoyed it, so Ron didn't complain. Or he didn't complain too much, except on the days when they got a late start at the Law Library because Brian didn't want to leave the track and go inside to a stuffy office. In that way Ron thought that his boy was really still a child who needed a strong hand.
But eventually Ron found that he enjoyed watching Brian's morning run. It was a quiet way to begin the day, sitting out in the fresh air and the early sunshine. There were some old bleachers next to the softball diamond and Ron sat there with the morning newspaper in his lap, watching his boy move relentlessly around the track. It was a beautiful sight.
And Ron wasn't the only one who was watching. Bri had a regular little fan club who gathered every morning to watch the kid's progression around the track. There were a few older inmates who were too powerless to attract and keep punks of their own, so they lived vicariously looking at other men's boys and occasionally buying time from the available whores on the Quad. Then there were the queens who loved swooning over Brian's chestnut hair, his gold and green eyes, long lashes, and even longer body. Even a couple of the jockers who had their own punks stopped by to watch the show. They were envious, but content to look at -- but not touch -- Mister R.'s tall prize.
And Bri was a prize. Ron marvelled over his luck every time he gazed at the boy. Ron didn't mind other men watching his kid as long as they kept their distance. In fact, Ron wanted them to watch. Wanted them to envy. Bri Baby was the most beautiful punk in the Quad and everyone acknowledged that fact. And Bri Baby belonged to Ron, every inch of him. Everyone had to acknowledge that fact, too.
After each lap, as he passed the bleachers, Bri waved at Ron and smiled. And Ron waved back. Then he turned and gave the members of the fan club a smug smile. Sometimes Ron called out, loudly, "Don't get over-heated, Bri!" or "One more lap and then we have to go!"
The queens always put their heads together and giggled at the way Mister R. liked to show that HE was in charge, that HE was the boss in the relationship, when it was obvious to them that Bri Baby had the snobby lawyer wrapped around his little finger -- not to mention his 9-inch dick!
Ron couldn't believe that it had been over a year since he'd taken Brian out of the low-riders' tip and begun the process that had transformed both of their lives. He set his newspaper aside and squinted at the track. Another guy was also running, a stocky man who was puffing as he tried to keep up with Brian's smooth, striding pace. Brian's hair was getting a little long, thought Ron. It was time for a trim. He noticed how it looked like molten bronze in the bright sunlight.
"Penny for your thoughts, Counselor." A voice interrupted Ron's musings.
"Mr. Hunt. To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?"
The biker settled himself down next to the ex-lawyer. "Just thankin' you for your help on that parole. I got the word this morning. Next month I'm outa this hole."
Ron nodded. The loss of Cisco would be no skin off Ron's ass. In fact, his absence would be one less reminder to Brian of his miserable life before Ron had intervened. Brian wouldn't have to tense up every time he saw the bikers enter the Chow Hall or gather near the snack bar on the Yard.
"Just doing my job, Mr. Hunt," said Ron, coolly. He noticed that Cisco's eyes were on the gravel track. His eyes were following Brian. They were always following Brian. "Good luck on the outside. Don't get into trouble again."
"Trouble?" Cisco scoffed. "Me get into trouble? No way, dude!" Cisco grinned. "I'm gonna kick back with a case of beer and a couple of hot mamas. And then I'm gonna get my bike back on the road and fly, man!"
"Sounds good, Mr. Hunt. You do that." Ron kept his distance from Cisco. He'd helped him with his parole mainly to get him out of the Quad. The low-riders were all bastards and he could never forget what they had done to Brian.
"Maybe go to Mexico. Lots of weed and women down there, you know what I mean?" Cisco poked Ron with his elbow.
"Yes, Mr. Hunt," said Ron, moving away slightly. He didn't want Cisco touching him. "I know what you mean."
"Only one thing still bugs me, Mister R." Cisco frowned.
"And what is that?" Ron's voice was like ice on this hot day.
"The way you suckered me, Counselor. The way you cheated me outa what's mine," Cisco said.
"You were never cheated, Mr. Hunt," Ron replied. "What you lost you never owned in the first place."
"I'm talkin' about Baby!" said Cisco.
"I know you are," Ron answered. "I'm saying that you may have had Brian and used Brian, but you never owned him. You didn't have the intelligence to understand what you had and therefore you lost him. You took prime goods -- beauty, brains, talent -- and wasted him at every turn. YOU ruined him. YOU drove him down. YOU gave up on him and auctioned him off. And I stepped in and took him. Because you are stupid, Mr. Hunt, and I am assuredly NOT stupid. And that's why I have the most beautiful punk in the Quad. Probably the most beautiful punk in the entire prison system of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And he's absolutely loyal to me. Absolutely MINE, in every way." Ron looked at the biker contemptuously. "Yes, you'll be out of here soon. You'll have your freedom and your bike and your skanky females. But you'll waste that freedom, Cisco. You'll be back inside soon enough -- but hopefully not in Stanton."
"You think you're such a smart guy, don't you, Counselor?" Cisco huffed.
"I know I am, Mr. Hunt," said Ron. "That's the difference between you and me. You think that you are smart, but you are not, while I KNOW that I'm smart. And that's why I have Baby -- and why you have shit." Ron stood up. "So if you'll excuse me? I have an important appointment."
Ron walked down the wooden bleachers to the track. Brian pulled up next to Ron. His golden skin was glistening with sweat.
"Hey!" said Brian, catching his breath.
"Hey, Baby!" said Ron. He glanced up at Cisco in triumph. The low-rider got up and slunk away. Ron didn't see him again.
"I need a shower!" said Brian. "It's hotter than a bitch out today!"
"A shower sounds like a good idea," Ron agreed. He wrapped his arm around the kid's slender waist. This was his -- and it always would be. "A very, very good idea. Let's go."
And the two of them, the man and his boy, walked off the Yard, heading back to their home on the third tier of the East Wing.
He heard someone moving around him. Rattling the old Venetian blinds as they were opened. Light flooded into the room and Brian blinked.
"Well! Someone is awake!"
A kindly woman was gazing at him. She was holding a clipboard and a towel. She set them down on a table next to the bed.
"Where am I?" Even as he rasped the words, they sounded so cliché, but he really didn't know where he was. He tried to recall the last thing in his memory, but he couldn't. Everything was all confused. "Am I in California? It's so sunny."
"No, dear, you aren't in California," the nurse laughed. She turned his arm over and examined a tube that was sunk into his vein. "Why would you think that?"
"I don't know." And he didn't. But he wasn't where he should be, that was certain. "Is this a hospital?"
"You're in County General, dear. Don't you remember what happened to you?" the nurse asked gently.
Brian shook his head. He felt dizzy.
"Sit up a bit. You need to take your pill now." The nurse cranked the bed slowly and then tried to get Brian to sit up. But the pain stabbed through him, shooting down his left side until he gasped. "I know it hurts, but you have to try anyway." She put the pill on his tongue and held a cup up to his mouth, setting a plastic straw between his lips. "Swallow that down."
He hadn't realized how dry his mouth had been until he felt the water. It was tepid, but the sensation was delicious. He sucked at the straw desperately and tried to reach for the cup.
"That's enough for now," said the nurse. She had gray hair and beady brown eyes like a bird.
She eased him back against the pillow and the pain shot through him again, this time more sharply. And that's when he remembered. The shank. Digging into him and pulling down. The blood. Falling to his knees. And....
"Justin!" he cried. "Where's Justin?"
"Who?" said the nurse. "You be quiet now. That pain pill should help you relax. The doctor will be in later." She set the cup back on the table and cranked the bed down a bit.
Brian closed his eyes again and was gone.
He felt someone touching him. He flinched. It seemed like time had passed, but he didn't know if it was minutes or days. His eyes fluttered.
A short, glowering man was poking him. A doctor in a white coat. Another taller man in white stood nearby, also frowning. "Is the infection clear?"
"It's no longer acute, but keep the antibiotics going. And keep him on the line, too." The doctor made a noise in his throat. "He's young and probably as strong as a horse. These criminals always are. He'll thrive while decent people die."
"Yeah, but you can't pick and chose, Mac. I really didn't think this one would make it this far."
The first doctor shrugged. "We'll patch him up and send him back. But what's the difference in the long run? Did you talk to the guard outside? He's in for murder. They just end up killing each other in prison. And it's no big loss."
"Water?" Brian whispered.
"What did you say?" said the doctor, abruptly. He was glowering again. "If you want something, then ring for the nurse." And then the two men were gone, the door shut tightly behind them.
Brian was alone in the room. He tried to sit up and reach for the cup, but it was too painful. He was starting to feel the pain in his side again. The pill must be wearing off. And his mouth was so dry. He didn't know how to call for the nurse, so he waited. But no one came. He found a button on the side of the bed frame and pressed it. Kept pressing it. But no one came.
He was exhausted. Where was he, really? In California? Or somewhere else? He was certain they had taken him somewhere far away. He remembered traveling a long, long distance, through some mountains. But then he had turned back.
And where was Justin? He must be here, somewhere. He was hurt, too. Brian had heard him crying. Calling out in pain. He MUST be here! Brian kept pressing the little button. But still no one came.
Brian was in a fog again. The light was dimmer outside. Someone was touching him again. Stroking his forehead.
"Brian? Wake up now."
"Water? Please?" He saw Ron frowning down at him. "I'm. So. Thirsty."
He lifted his head slightly and then the straw was in his mouth. He pulled the water eagerly until he finally stopped and licked his lips. "I couldn't reach the water. I... I pressed the button, but no one came." He settled back against the pillow, but the pain surged through him again and he whimpered. What was Ron doing here in California? And why wasn't Justin in the room?
"What is wrong with these people!" Ron fumed. "Where are those goddamn nurses?"
Ron looked around the bare room. The blinds were filthy and the bed was practically falling down. Even the pillowcase was ragged looking. He'd seen the other rooms on this floor of County General and they were nothing like this!
No, poor Brian was shunted away in corner, under guard, like some dangerous outlaw. The doctors had informed Ron days ago that some of the staff refused even to enter the murderer's room -- and Ron had told them that they were fucking idiots! Ever since Brian had left the IC Unit he'd gotten this kind of treatment, but he'd been too out of it to really care. But now Brian was coming around again. There was no excuse for him to be ignored or left without water! He'd sue the bastards who ran this hospital for Brian's pain and suffering!
Only two members of the staff, an older white woman and a young black male nurse -- obviously gay -- had been the least bit helpful. The older woman brought a better pillow for Brian after Ron complained about the one he had, but she was only there early in the mornings. And the male nurse was on the night shift. He usually came on duty just as Ron had to leave. But at other times Ron was afraid that Brian was being neglected. The dangerous convict was being purposely ignored!
Ron worked all day at the Prisoners' Legal Defense and left as early as he was able in order to make the hour-long drive out to the hospital. At first he sat there, hour after hour, staring at an unresponsive figure in the Intensive Care Unit. Then, when the infection set in, it was even worse. The doctors rolled their eyes at him when he asked if Brian was likely to get better. The only one who offered even faint hope was Dr. Caputo, from the prison. Ron had seen the doctor leaving just as he was arriving, and Dr. Caputo told him that he thought Brian had turned a corner. The fever was breaking and the infection under control. That evening Brian seemed to wake up for a while, and he'd been more and more conscious, if not exactly alert, each day since then.
Ron held onto Brian's hand and pressed the call button furiously. Finally, one of the nurses came in. Ron had already had a run-in with this bitch before. She'd come in and seen Ron holding Baby's hand and she had the fucking nerve to question him! Was he family? No, he was Brian's lawyer. Nice client relationship you have, she sniped. Fuck YOU, Ron had replied.
"Is there a problem?" she asked shortly.
"Yes, there's a problem," said Ron, his face red. "Why isn't anyone responding to my client's calls? He needs a pain pill! And he can't reach his water! Is this the way you treat all your patients in this dump?"
"I'm sorry if this hospital isn't to your client's liking, sir," she answered. "It's so much better in... where he's from. And where he belongs."
"You mean prison?" said Ron. "You have no idea what Brian is in for -- or anything else about him. And what he was convicted of is none of your damn business!"
"I'll get his pill," said the bitchy nurse. She left and didn't return for an hour.
Later the male nurse, Andre, came on duty and Ron decided to stay a little longer than usual. Andre got Brian sitting up without hurting him too much and even shaved him. He had done it before, but not in a few days and Brian had been looking pretty scruffy.
"Feel better now?" asked Andre.
"I think so," sighed Brian, thinking it made no difference to him whether he was shaved or not.
"He didn't eat much dinner," Ron told the nurse.
Brian shrugged. The last thing he felt like doing was eating.
"Maybe if you bring him something good from home he'll get hungry?" Andre suggested. It was obvious that the older man in the suit and the handsome prisoner were a couple and Andre was dying to know their story. He had been relating the saga to his boyfriend every day and they both were avid to find out all the juicy details.
"Cookies?" asked Ron. But Brian just shrugged again.
It was quite late and Ron had to go. He'd never hear the end of it from Jane and he'd be dead on his feet at the office tomorrow. But he hated to leave now that Brian was able to communicate with him, even if he didn't have all that much to say.
"Ron? Tell me," Brian asked. "Where have they put Justin?"
Ron stopped. "Justin? What do you mean?"
"Isn't he here? In this hospital?" Brian closed his eyes. "When I woke up I thought I was in California. I thought I'd been taken far away. Funny how you get all turned around in your head."
"We're about 5 miles from Stanton, Bri," said Ron. "And that's where Justin is. He's fine. He was never here in the hospital."
Brian sighed. "That's good. I don't know why I thought he was hurt. I guess I only dreamed it."
Ron patted Brian's face. "I'm working on his case, just like I promised. Julie is filing a motion to have it re-opened. The kid will get out, sooner than he knows. Really."
"Thanks, Ron," Brian whispered. "Thanks."
"It's okay, Baby," Ron answered before he left. "Everything will be okay. I'll see to it. I promise. You can always count on me."
"Justin is going to class tonight," Wesley told Em. He and Jackie had stopped by to walk over to the Administration Building for Miss Carver's Creative Writing class. "Do you mind waiting a couple of minutes while he gets his stuff together?"
Emmy smiled. Justin beginning to go to his classes again was a good sign. It meant that things were slowly but surely going back to normal.
After Dr. Caputo had given Em the word that Brian was alive and in the hospital in town, he didn't waste a second spreading the word throughout the Quad. Some of the inmates, especially Brian's basketball buddies like Ben and Al, were mad that they hadn't been told the truth from the beginning, but most were simply relieved. When Emmy told Michelle the news, she burst into tears and couldn't stop crying for 15 minutes straight.
But Justin had been strangely subdued. Everybody went out of their way to reassure the kid that Brian would be back before he knew it, as good as new. That he'd be playing b-ball and sitting in his office and going to Movie Night and doing all of the things he did before -- maybe even better, because now the bikers wouldn't be breathing down his neck.
But Justin only nodded. Both Wes and Em had been concerned about the way he was reacting. He should be happy, but instead he seemed even more withdrawn than he'd been when everyone thought that Brian was dead.
And often Justin was angry. He had lashed out at Em and Michelle when they tried to cheer him up, and then at Lee when he had made one of his typical wisecracks. That was not like Justin at all. He had always been a peacemaker, especially among the other punks.
And he'd stormed out of another visit with his mother. The warden had arranged for Mrs. Taylor to come and see her son and even set aside one of the offices so they could have some privacy. But after about a half-hour, Justin pounded on the door and asked to be taken back to his cell. And Mrs. Taylor left the prison in tears -- again.
The three waited until Justin emerged from the lonely cell. He never invited anyone into it anymore, not even Wesley. He often sat in there in the evenings alone, instead of going down to the Rec Room to play ping pong or to the TV Room or even to Movie Night. And he avoided the Yard and the Library as if they were Black Holes.
"Hey, dolly," said Em. "You decide to join us tonight?" Emmy had appointed herself as guardian over the boys when they had to move around the Quad in the evenings. Although the low-riders were in retreat at Stanton, it didn't hurt to be wary. And that long, dim passageway between the Quad and the Administration Building could be a scary place after dark.
Justin nodded and walked along quietly as they headed for class. Em let Jackie and Wes walk ahead while he fell into step next to Justin.
"You want to tell me what's bothering you, honey?" asked Em. "You should be a happy little camper. Bri Baby is coming home -- eventually. Maybe even sooner than we think! I heard Dr. Caputo talking to one of the docs over at County General and he seems to be coming along just fine! Doesn't that make you happy, hon?"
"Yeah," Justin sighed. "It makes me happy. I guess."
Em frowned. "Tell Aunt Em what the trouble is. Because I can't figure it out, Justin."
Justin swallowed. "Brian -- he's stopped talking to me."
"You... you mean in your head? Brian talking to you that way?" Em had been glad when Justin quit mentioning the voice in his head and thought that was a sign that he was getting back to normal. But Justin obviously still was NOT back to anything like normal.
"Yes," he whispered. "He won't speak to me anymore. Not even a word. I know that he's THERE. I can feel him. But I can't hear him."
"Maybe... maybe he's too busy to talk, honey," said Em, lightly. "Hospitals are very busy places! Always another test to run or temperatures to take. Nurses going in and out. That sort of thing! You don't have a lot of time for chitchat."
"You think I'm kidding," said Justin, bitterly. "I know you think I'm fucking crazy! But I'm not! This is important! I... I think Brian isn't talking to me anymore because... because he doesn't love me anymore. He doesn't want to be with me anymore."
"You mean he's giving you the cold shoulder?" said Em. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard in my life!"
"That's what I think, Em," Justin said firmly.
"That man loves you so much it should be illegal!" Em replied. "Actually, it IS illegal in a lot of states!"
"Don't joke about this, Em. It isn't funny to me."
"Justin," said Em. "When you thought that Brian was dead you were in despair. That's when you heard that little voice that told you everything was okay. It helped you to get out of that despair! It was YOUR voice, babydoll, not Brian's. YOUR hope and YOUR wish. That's what you heard. And now that you know for certain that Brian is alive and that he's going to be all right, you don't need that little voice anymore. So it went back where it came from -- back into your head. It's as simple as that!"
"No, you're wrong," insisted Justin. "It WAS Brian. I heard him and felt him. I FELT what HE was feeling. We were connected! And now that's over." Justin stopped. He and Emmy were at the beginning of the underground passageway into the Administration Building. Wes and Jackie were already halfway through it.
"But why, hon?"
"I told you. He's decided that he doesn't love me anymore. That he doesn't want me anymore." Justin's face was pale. "My mother told me that... that Ron has been there, in the hospital with Brian, every single day since he went in. Sitting with him. Being with him! They were together for 8 years, Em! Maybe Brian was mad at Ron for a while, but... but not anymore. Brian loves HIM. I was just... just sex. That's what my own mother told me! That Ron explained it to her. That's when I lost it! I started yelling at Mom. Yelling and crying. And she told me I should grow up and realize the truth. That I should stop being a desperate little faggot chasing after some man who no longer wanted me! And... and I knew she was right, Em. Because Brian was silent."
Justin slumped against the wall and wiped some tears away on his sleeve. Emmy put his arm around the boy and patted his shoulder.
"Justin, honey," said Em. "I think you are being a little bit of a drama queen about this. I know Brian and I know Ron. I've seen him with BOTH of you -- and there's no comparison! Brian was willing to put his own life on the line to save YOU. Don't forget that! Never forget that! So give the man a little credit. Your mother doesn't know what the heck she's talking about! She's being fed some cock and bull story -- and Mister R. is the one feeding it to her!"
"No, Em," said Justin in resignation. "I understand that you're trying to comfort me, and I appreciate it. But I know the truth. And until I hear Brian telling me differently -- either in my head or in person, standing right in front of me -- I know it's over. All over."
Justin turned away from Emmett and trudged down the passageway, alone.
Posted November 30, 2004.