Unexpected Consequences, page 2
“Are you Zeke Reed?” A syrupy sweet voice asks as a petite woman’s hand settles on my arm. My words fail me as I choke back tears, so I simply nod. I feel like a fucking pussy, but I’ll be damned if I can stop myself from blubbering like an idiot. I look up and see a Madison police officer with long blonde hair and doe eyes looking up at me. There was a time when I would have been rock hard thanks to her curves that can’t be concealed, even by a bulletproof vest, and thoughts of what she could do to me with her handcuffs, but tonight, she does nothing for me. “I was asked to give you a ride to University Hospital.”
Listlessly, I follow her to an unmarked squad car. I don’t balk when she tells me I’ll have to ride in the backseat. The molded plastic digging into my back is a welcome relief from the thoughts racing through my head. Right now, I’m so numb I’d probably walk into the still frigid waters of Lake Monona if someone told me it was what I needed to do to get to Mary.
After fighting my way into the back of the ambulance, I’m doing my damnedest to stay out of the way so the paramedics can assess and treat Mary’s wounds. She’s been drifting in and out of consciousness since the accident and I’m trying to remind myself that as long as she has times when she’s somewhat alert, it’s a sign that things could be much, much worse.
I stare out the back windows as the ambulance lurches forward and see Zeke standing in the middle of the road looking like a lost child. The only thing I can do now is hope he’ll forgive me for a series of snap judgment calls that may or may not have been the right ones. Had I hesitated before climbing into the ambulance, they would have taken off without me. That means I really had no choice other than to ask the officer closest to me to find him and get him to the hospital.
Rationally, I know it’s only about a five minute ride to UW Hospital at this hour, but the part of me that can’t fathom anything happening to Mary wants to scream at the driver to go faster. She’s lost a lot of blood, her left leg is bent at an odd angle and she probably has a head injury from when she was thrown into the opposite lane of traffic. I don’t even want to think about what internal injuries she might have.
“Sir, you need to sit back,” warns the younger of the men attending to Mary’s injuries. I swear, the kid looks like he’s barely out of high school and I have no choice but to obey his orders. It’s not a situation I find myself in often and right now, I’m tempted to lash out at him. The only thing holding me back is the knowledge that he’s right and he has much more important things he could be doing than scolding me.
“Sorry,” I mumble, slouching in the jump seat, pissed off at my inability to take care of her.
With shaking hands and sweaty palms, I pull out my cell phone to send Zeke a quick text message. He’s likely pissed at me for leaving him behind, but our situation is unique and there’s no way we could have both ridden with her anyway.
Did the officer find you? We’ll talk when you get here.
“Sir, do you know if Ms. Brunner has been drinking or might be under the influence of any drugs right now?”
I can feel my blood pressure rise as I struggle to maintain the split-hair hold I have on my temper. I have never in my life seen red but I’m pretty close to it right now. It’s as if he’s implying her own negligence is to blame for what happened. If anything, the asshole who hit her is the one who was on something, not Mary. She rarely drinks and has never touched an illegal drug, to the best of my knowledge.
“Other than the 8-ball I heard the ladies talking about picking up as they were walking out the door?” I ask sarcastically. I can’t help it. Years of trying to keep from showing anger have turned me into a master of sarcasm. “No, no drugs, no alcohol,” I say with a huff.
“I know this must be hard for you, but we have to advise the hospital.” As he speaks, his eyes dart from Mary to my clenched fists as I sit there cracking one knuckle at a time. The poor kid looks flinches with each pop as if he’s waiting for me to take a swing at him. How he’s lasted however long he’s had this job is beyond me if one sarcastic comment has him ready to wet himself. I’m sure they encounter much worse on a daily basis.
Before Skippy can ask any further questions, I see the hospital come into view. The radio chatter continues, first the hospital dispatcher collecting information on Mary’s condition and then a transmission from the other ambulance. I breathe a sigh of relief when I hear that Tasha is also on her way to the emergency room but she’s alert and doesn’t have any life-threatening injuries.
I sit back while the paramedics wheel Mary out of the ambulance. Looking out to the waiting doctors, I see that Jonathon Maxwell, one of the first physicians to make me feel welcome when I moved to town, standing at Mary’s feet. Even though I know the residents are more than capable of treating her, it’s comforting to know she will be under the care of someone with more experience.
The gravity of the situation hits me as directives are barked out. When Jonathon sees me walking behind the gurney, he falls out of line to greet me. His posture tells me I’m rightfully concerned about her condition, but his facial expression is a well-rehearsed one of hope.
“Jeff, we’re going to take good care of her.” It’s one of those things doctors say all the time, as if they would ever not take good care of a patient. The words are hollow and automatic, meant as a feeble attempt to quell the fears of family members. “Is she a friend of yours?”
“Girlfriend,” I choke out, realization hitting me that the first time I said the word out loud is while she’s unconscious, fighting for her life. It was all supposed to be a casual setup, a way for all of us to let off some steam, but the truth is, this feels like something more. It might simply be heightened emotions from dealing with tonight’s trauma, but the thought of calling her ‘friend’ is unsettling. She has become something more than that to me.
Jonathon nods toward where they’re wheeling Mary into an exam room and I follow. It’s crowded with the paramedics and nurses bustling to get her vital signs and begin triage, so I lean against the wall, trying to stay out of their way. It takes everything in me to not try to read the situation based on the staff’s faces. I know damn well they’re just as skilled as I am at not giving anything away so all it will do is send my mind swirling with all the possibilities. Unfortunately, there’s not much else for me to do.
A few minutes later, I hear commotion in the hall. As I poke my head around the curtain to Mary’s room, I see a very determined Zeke clenching the top of the nurse’s station counter, demanding answers even though no one is currently behind the desk.
“Zeke!” I say sternly. When he makes eye contact, I half expect him to lunge at me, pummeling me to the floor. If he did, I couldn’t blame him. Instead, he simply glares at me, shaking his head. The look of disdain in my normally carefree lover’s eyes is one I never want to see again. Other than that single glance, he doesn’t acknowledge my presence, turning his attention back to the still empty nurse’s station.
“Sir, can I help you?” A nurse asks as she sits behind a computer at the work station. Unlike the paramedic, she’s obviously accustomed to dealing with panicked family members and shows no sign of being intimidated by the distraught man in front of her.
“My girlfriend was just brought in. Mary Brunner.” He turns his head back to me as he says the words, the emotion on his face morphing from anger to hurt that he was left literally standing out in the cold with no clue if she was alive or dead.
“And you are?” The nurse asks as she taps at the keyboard. She looks between the two of us, confused. Doctor Maxwell told her the first time she tried pushing me out of the room that I am her boyfriend, so I can only imagine what scandalous scenarios are running through her head right now.
Knowing that things are about to get complicated, I close the distance between us in four long strides. “Zeke, can I speak with you?” I keep my voice low and forceful. “Alone.”
I pull him into an empty room, drawing the curtain behind us. He turns away from me, cro
“Zeke,” I say firmly. “You need to calm down. They’re running some tests right now. As soon as I know anything, I’ll come out and let you know what’s going on.”
He starts pacing the room, fingers laced behind his neck as he mutters something incoherent. Realization dawns on him that I’m not going to let him in the room and he gets in my face, our chests pressed together as he challenges my command. “You’ll come out and let me know? Gee, that’s mighty white of you. Should I go grab you some coffee while I wait? I thought we were all equals in this shit, but now that she’s hurt, you’re stepping up, giving everyone the impression that you’re with her?”
Turning my gaze to the ceiling, I take a few deep breaths, reminding myself that this is not the Zeke I know, this is a man who is frustrated by the fact that he can’t see Mary while I can. It’s one of the many concerns that has kept me from pursuing anything meaningful with either of them. Most of the world doesn’t understand relationships like ours, which means we’ll likely always be living a white lie if we take any steps to make this arrangement anything serious.
“Stop!” I demand, control of my emotions slipping further out of my grasp. I close my eyes, breathing deeply through my nose to calm myself. It works, just barely. “This is what’s best for all of us. I’m friends with the attending physician and he’s letting me stay by her side. Please, do as I ask. If not for me, do it for Mary.”
Before Zeke can storm out of the room, I grab him by the shoulder, turning him to face me. He doesn’t realize it what he does to me, what I need him to do for me. There’s something about this man that calms and centers me and I need that right now. Part of me would give anything to be the one sitting in the waiting room, wondering what’s going on. Instead, I am in the room with her, my mind running through everything I learned while working in the emergency room in Charleston, jumping to the worst case scenario. I doubt I’ll be able to close my eyes for a long time without seeing Mary’s beautiful body, battered and bloody, lying nearly lifeless in the road.
I allow my hands to slide down his arms, wishing we weren’t standing in the emergency room with Mary in the room next to us. My arms circle his waist as I bury my face in his neck, inhaling the heady combination of body wash and Zeke’s natural scent. With one hand still holding his body close to mine, I slide the other to the nape of his neck, squeezing until he looks up so he can see the sincerity on my face. “I’m sorry it has to be this way. I need you to do this. I need you to be strong.”
“Then let me see her.” His voice cracks. If there’s one thing I have learned about the Reed family over the past few months, it’s that they wear every emotion on their sleeve and it changes frequently in times like these. He drops his head to my chest, fighting back the tears welling in his chocolate brown eyes. “Jeff, I need to see her. Please.”
I rest my chin on the top of his head, still holding him close to me. “As soon as Doctor Maxwell says it’s okay, I’ll come and get you,” I promise him. “For now, let’s both go get some coffee. I have a feeling it’s going to be a long night.”
The stubble on Zeke’s chin is rough against my fingers as I tip his head to mine. I lean down slightly, brushing my lips against his. When he resists, I hold the back of his neck tighter, not allowing him to escape as I nip at his lower lip. This time, he doesn’t hesitate, instead opening for me. When my tongue breaches his lips, I’m rewarded with the taste of cinnamon. His body relaxes beneath my grip, slouching into my body, allowing me this moment of intimacy. The kiss isn’t nearly long enough, but it will have to be for now. When we get home, I plan to give him a proper apology for my actions tonight.
Breaking the kiss, I lean forward so our foreheads are touching. “You have to trust me. Can you do that?”
I feel Zeke nod against my head at the same time as we’re showered in light as the curtain is pulled back. “What the fuck?” The rumbling bass voice is hard to mistake. I look over to see Dylan glaring at us, his attention momentarily on the scene he has just witnessed rather than his girlfriend, who is crying in pain while her body is restrained to the backboard.
Zeke and I separate about three seconds too late for our secret to be kept. We’re now bathed in light as we try to get out of the way as Tasha is rolled into the room that was supposed to be empty.
“Dylan, what’s wrong?” Tasha sobs, likely assuming his outburst and change in mood has something to do with her. Her eyes are flitting back and forth as she tries to see what she’s missing, her forehead straining against the strap across her forehead.
“Nothing, Precious,” he bites out, staring at the two of us, standing there looking like teenagers who’ve just been caught in the broom closet at school. He leans over, placing a tender kiss on the tip of her nose. “Just try to relax. The doctors have to check you out and then hopefully we’ll be able to go home.”
I watch as Dylan lets go of Tasha’s hand, coming over to stand in front of Zeke. The size difference between the two of them is considerable and I worry that Dylan’s hair-trigger temper is going to get the best of him. He’s been on edge all night, and eventually, something inside of him is going to snap. “What the fuck, Z? Is this why you’ve been acting weird lately?”
“Do we have to do this here?” Zeke responds, still unwilling to have the conversation I’ve been encouraging him to have for weeks. Even if he and I are nothing more than a recurring good time that will come to an end sooner or later, those closest to him deserve to know this truth about him. There will come a time when he’s going to need their support and they won’t be able to give it if they don’t know all of who he is.
“Well, you certainly had no problem doing that right here,” Dylan chides. The doctors are rushing around the room, bumping into the three of us acting like a group of inconsiderate asses.
“Later, Dylan,” I warn him before leaving the room to let Doctor Maxwell know where I’m going. It’s as good a time as any since they’re running a CAT scan to determine the extent of Mary’s injuries.
Dylan pushes past Zeke, knocking him off balance and into the wall. I’m almost certain the move is deliberate but we all have more important things to worry about right now than the fact that he caught Zeke and me in an intimate moment.
“Want to talk about it?” Jeff asks as we walk through the corridors, trying to find an elevator that will take us up to Mary’s room. I hate it when he does this. He goes into therapist mode, thinking that talking is the way to resolve any problem. Right now, I want to tell him where he can shove his talking, but I know he’s just as concerned as I am, so I bite my tongue.
“Nope,” I respond curtly, continuing to count the floor tiles. It’s a habit I formed when I was younger; find something to count to force my brain to shut off. The problem is, it’s not working this time. Between worrying about Mary, not knowing what’s going on with Tasha or Holly, and the fact that Dylan wouldn’t look at me when we passed one another in the hall, there’s far too much shit bouncing off my gray matter to find any peace.
We ride up to the fourth floor in silence. For as much as I hate the absence of conversation, I can’t think of a damn thing to say right now. We turn down the offensively bright hallway and I see the nurses wheeling Mary’s bed into a room at the end of the hall. How her injuries weren’t more serious I have no clue. As it is, she’ll be here a few days for observation, but unless something goes wrong, she might be home by the middle of next week.
“Tasha is headed home tonight,” Jeff says, filling the void between us.
“That’s good,” I respond, not sure what else to say. The immature, selfish part of me wants to get pissed th
“No clue. Why don’t you go in and I’ll give them a call?” Jeff’s hand rests on the small of my back when I stop abruptly. I’m torn because I want to be the one to call my cousin, but if Holly is half as fucked up as she was when I left, I have a feeling she’s going to need to talk to Jeff.
“You sure? They all still think you’re the boyfriend,” I grumble. It’s absurd how pissy I’m being about the label and yet I’m hanging on for dear life, wishing I was the one lucky enough to be the pseudo-boyfriend right now. “Maybe you should be the one in there with her.”
Jeff’s fingertips dig into the side of my waist, pulling me tight against his body. “Knock it off,” he warns. “Childish isn’t a good look on you. Now, go in there in case she wakes up. I’ll be in in a minute.”
He’s right, of course, but that doesn’t do a damn thing to make me feel better. I fucking hate that I’ve been put in this tidy little box of being Jeff’s best friend while we’re up here.
Stop being selfish. Jeff can get a hell of a lot more out of the doctors than you can. And as far as you know, she doesn’t see either of you as her boyfriend.
The nurse is finishing making a few notes on Mary’s chart when I enter the room. It’s going to be a long few days if I have to plant my ass on one of the folding chairs hanging on the wall, but I don’t see any other options. I wrestle a chair off the hooks, grumbling about how hospitals used to at least have comfortable seating for visitors when the nurse finally notices me in the room.
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