by Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ)
illustrated by fightfair
Omar had sighed the moment he unzipped the body bag and saw the young man’s pale, placid face. You became very inured to the realities of death and mortality very quickly in this job (or you did not keep this job for very long), but it always gave him a little twinge to lay a body on the slab that had been younger than him. Although, what was the line you heard from men in nasty mid-life crises? You got older, but the corpses stayed the same age. Something like that.
He thought things like that, but what he said into the recorder as he began the examination was, “Colin Stafford, white male, age twenty-seven, height sixty-nine inches, weight one hundred ninety-two pounds.” The name and the age had been retrieved from the driver licence that had been in the wallet that was now in a plastic bag in a locker waiting for whenever they found this poor kid’s next of kin. The driver’s license had also said he was 5’10, but Omar had proper measuring instruments. Sometimes bodies shifted a little in size immediately post-mortem, but Omar had seen enough to know that 5’9 was exactly the height where men put on a slightly taller pair of shoes and lied at the DMV. The shoes he’d taken off of the former Mr. Stafford’s feet and put into a locker had just enough of a heel to them.
“Police report indicates time of death at around 11:30 AM. Current time is 3:17 PM. Subject was found collapsed in a grocery store and was unable to be revived by paramedics. Concern that COD is infectious disease.” Everyone liked to get The Stand ideas in their heads every time a seemingly healthy young person keeled over, all thoughts that swine bird cat flu was coming to fell us all in the produce aisle. Omar had protective gear covering his face, as he always did, but he didn’t think he was dealing with patient zero, here. People died. Unexpectedly. Even young handsome ones.
Omar felt along the late Mr. Stafford’s limbs, which were stiff from rigor starting to settle in. The body had yet to develop significant blood pooling along his back and his eyes remained fairly unsunk; some people decayed slower than others. Omar was not in the habit of noting the attractiveness of his subjects, of course, but sometimes he couldn’t help but get his heart tugged at by what had to have been a pretty face. They hadn’t been able to locate a next of kin or contact for Mr. Stafford yet, but there had to be someone out there who was going to get their heart broken today.
“External examination shows no immediate or recent injuries,” Omar continued as he looked the body over. His skin was cool beneath the latex of his gloves (the rest of the hospital had switched to vinyl due to the number of latex allergies, and the surplus of old gloves ended up in the morgue with Omar; allergic reactions were not on his list of worries), but warmer than he would usually expect after some time in a cabinet. “One scar on left hand, diagonal, two inches across back of palm.” No one had taken a ring off that finger, so at least maybe no one had been widowed with this one. “Large scar down center of chest over sternum, six inches, possible indicator of previous heart surgery.” He took Mr. Stafford’s arms and turned them outward. “No obvious needle marks or signs of intravenous drug abuse.”
Omar came close to examine the face. “No discharge around eyes, nose, or mouth.” He picked up his pen flashlight and opened one eyelid and then the other, shining light into them. “No conjunctival irregularities.” He put his thumb against the body’s lips to open its mouth, but met with resistance. “Jaw is currently clenched shut.” You could sometimes loosen rigor up a bit with the right kind of rubbing; Omar tried not to let any boyfriends know why he gave such good backrubs. He put his flashlight down and took hold of the former Mr. Stafford’s jaw, but then he paused. There was a noise coming from the body.
It sounded like a leak in a tire, or the hiss of an old radiator. Corpses weren’t silent things, not with all manner of decaying gases trapped inside the body, but Omar hadn’t heard this one before. It was coming from the mouth, and when he looked closer, he could see that Mr. Stafford’s top teeth were pressing into his lower lip, and some release of gas was causing a long “ffff” sound. It would stop, eventually, like the end of a belch, and Omar would continue.
The noise did not stop. It got louder. And it changed.
“FfffffffffffuuuuuUUUUCK!” came the most vehement swear Omar had ever heard out of a dead man before. He staggered back away from the autopsy table as he tried not to echo the word himself. “Ffffuck! Fffuck! FFFUCK!” The word came hissing out of the late Mr. Stafford’s clenched jaw again and again, eventually starting to spray spittle into the air. “FUCK!” he shouted again, this time able to move his mouth from its locked position to truly exhale the expletive. The late Mr. Stafford’s eyes were open and they were looking directly at him, angry and afraid and very alive.
“Subject is not deceased,” he said in the direction of his recorder.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck fuck fuck fuck FUCK!” Mr. Stafford continued to swear, but it seemed to be having a positive overall effect on him. Flush was returning to his skin and Omar could now see a rise in his chest from breath that he hadn’t felt before. He hadn’t felt it before, he was sure of it, but he also hadn’t checked with the greatest diligence. When someone ended up on your slab, you presumed several people had bothered to check for a pulse first.
“It’s okay!” he said, and put his hands on Mr. Stafford’s shoulders. He was looking at him now, and the pupils that had been nonresponsive when Omar shone a light in them minutes before were now starting to twitch and dilate again. “You are in a hospital. I am a doctor. We will take care of this. You are going to be okay.” The pulse he could feel under his fingers was sluggish but gradually quickening.
Mr. Stafford continued to swear as Omar went with instinct and worked on rubbing circulation back into his limbs. You heard stories about things like this in medical school, and in ghoul training in particular, urban legends about the guy who woke up on the slab. He knew it had to happen, but he didn’t think it happened here, where medicine was methodical and modern and there was a system in process to make sure that only actually dead people showed up on his table. There had to have been a lot of fuckups. He was just glad he hadn’t made one more, one more very serious fuckup.
Mr. Stafford was coming back to life quite well. Color was in his face and he’d stopped swearing to focus on grimacing and slackening his expressions to shake out the stiffness that had taken over him. Some kind of catalepsy and catatonia, it had to have been. Some kind of completely idiotic police and paramedics, it absolutely had to have been. “Fuck,” he said, sounding defeated instead of enraged this time. “I’m not dead, I am not dead, I can’t believe this happened fucking again, I am not dead, I am going to murder my doctor, I am not dead.”
“You aren’t dead,” Omar said, even though what he wanted to say was Again?!, but even though his chosen line of work didn’t require him to have a bedside manner, he kept one in his back pocket for special situations. “You aren’t dead, Mr. Stafford. I’ll get you admitted to the hospital as soon as possible so we can figure out what happened.”
“Am I not in the hospital? How am I not already in the hospital?” He had enough vigor in his limbs now to ball up his hands in frustration. “Why does no one take me to the fucking hospital when this happens?!”
“You’re in Frankford Hospital. You collapsed and were brought here when paramedics couldn’t revive you, though–” Omar had left his recorder on, but he didn’t feel bad going on record with this. “–they were clearly very shitty paramedics.”
Mr. Stafford brought his arms up slowly and shakily to cover his face, groaning into his hands. “I’m going to get ‘I’M NOT FUCKING DEAD’ tattooed on my chest.”
“That will become inaccurate at some point,” Omar pointed out, and then regretted immediately. He was having some amount of difficulty adapting to the evolving situation. He was not trained for this.
“Then it will be ironic and hilarious,” Mr. Stafford said, and brought his hands down. “Can you help me sit up?” Omar did so, guiding him gently upward and bringing his legs over the edge of the table. No one had ever sat on his autopsy table like that before, bottom resting right in one of the fluid catch grooves. “Did you cut off my clothes? Please don’t tell me you cut those clothes off. I loved those fucking jeans.”
“I cut your jeans off,” Omar said. “I’m sorry.”
“Damn it!” Mr. Stafford growled, and Omar stepped away from him a moment to find a clean sheet. Even if Mr. Stafford himself did not yet seem concerned about his nudity, Omar felt at least some decorum in this situation might help. Also, he had to be cold. He wrapped the sheet around his shoulders when offered, still moving stiffly. “I loved those jeans,” he said, and then sighed. “Hello, I’m Colin, and I sometimes have a medication reaction that makes me look fucking dead.”
Omar wasn’t sure if this was a situation one shook hands in, so he abstained. “I’m Dr. Omar Lewis, and I can assure you I would have noticed you weren’t before I did anything unfortunate.”
Colin shrugged down at the scar on his chest. “You’d be better than the last guy.” So, no on the heart surgery, then, Omar thought, followed by, Jesus Christ. “They figured it out when I started bleeding profusely. I wasn’t as good at swearing back then.”
Omar had seen this attitude, this mindset before, in the critically ill, the terminally ill. You laughed and you joked and you rolled your eyes at the pains and torments thrown at you; if Colin was anything like what Omar had seen before, though, he’d be having some very rough nights once the furor died down, the lights went off, and the doors were closed. But if it helped him to keep light, he’d keep light. He needed medical attention other than what Omar could give, but he also needed to be handled with care after a traumatic situation. “You did a very excellent job of it today.”
“Thank you,” Colin said, and pulled the sheet around his shoulders. “Thank you for not cutting me open.”
“Thank you for waking up,” Omar said, with all sincerity.
Colin smiled a little. “Well, hey, if I had a nickel for every time I woke up naked with a big black guy over me…”
Omar kept his eyebrow from raising. “You’d have a nickel?”
Colin put his hand over his eyes. “Hard to say. You have my wallet, right?”
“It’s in a locker with your other belongings,” Omar said, pointing off out the door where he’d find that.
“And my phone?”
“That’s there, as well.”
“Could I have my phone, please?” he said, his voice small. He seemed to be going in waves, sliding through desperation and sadness and anger and dark humor. Omar hoped he could keep him from going under.
“I’ll be right back,” he said, and broke records on how fast he retrieved it. He put it into Colin’s hands and he let out a more relaxed sigh.
“You better still have battery life, you little– oh, good.” He shook his head, looking at the time and date display on the screen. “God, barely any time at all. Felt like forever.”
“Do you have someone you can call?” Omar asked. “Family, significant other?”
Colin shook his head. “More important call. My psychiatrist,” he said, flipping his finger through his contacts screen. He picked a number and brought the phone to his ear. “Yes, can I speak to Dr. Nachamie? Oh, yes, that is right, he isn’t in today, because he only sees patients on Wednesdays and Thursdays, because hey, if you can see twenty people a day two days a week and spend the rest of the time working on your sailboat with your thumb up your ass, why not? Send me to his voicemail!”
Omar stepped away slightly as Colin continued to yell into his phone; he needed to make a call himself, to the doctors who handled living people upstairs, to get this poor young man checked out. “Did you even look? Did you even fucking look at my paperwork, at the years and years and years of paperwork I had established with Dr. Warren, where it said over and over again, ONE TIME WE GAVE COLIN THIS MEDICINE AND HE FAKE DIED? Clearly you didn’t look! Because that new shit you gave me? Oh, sure, I felt very nice and settled and evened out and very sane and there were no adverse reactions or anything and that’s why I’m calling you from a morgue!”
Hospital staff were on their way down, so Omar returned to Colin. His voice was breaking now as he yelled into his phone. “So you just have fun on your fucking boat, because I’m going to sue you so hard you’ll be scraping fish shit off the bottom just for something to eat.” He hung up with a dramatic thumb press, and then curled in on himself, hand in his face. Omar put an arm around his shoulders. “I don’t think he even has a boat. Fuck it, he can eat boat shit anyway.”
“Someone’s coming down now to take you to up to the hospital,” he said. “They’re going to figure out what happened and make sure you’re okay.”
“I’m okay,” he said. “I’m always okay. I’m alive, after all.”
Omar rubbed his back, between shoulder blades that felt warm now, under the sheet, under the latex. “You are.”
Omar naturally had to do some talking with hospital officials after Colin was admitted, but the general agreement was that whatever chain of fuckups had put Mr. Stafford in a body bag, it had been broken by Dr. Lewis. Omar wasn’t entirely assured he wouldn’t get sued, somehow, but he still felt relieved. He thought of the scar down the center of Colin’s chest and shivered. It could have gone much worse.
He had a colleague within the hospital who was able to inform him that Colin had been admitted for overnight observation. Thank God, he said to her, and she could only nod with widened eyes after hearing the story. Omar thought of how they’d found no emergency contact for him, no hint of next of kin; how the first person he called was a doctor he could scream at. He asked, if she could, to let him know when he was being discharged.
He ate dinner listening to the radio with the dogs begging for scraps (which he gave them, of course, but judiciously and only for the most pathetic facial expressions), and before he went to sleep, found a pair of sweatpants and a well-worn hoodie and tucked them into his bag for tomorrow. Just in case. He had very thoroughly cut off those jeans.
Working with the dead meant Omar got to live a slightly more nine-to-five existence than most of his colleagues, save for any exciting late night calls, which did not come even half as often as television crime shows would make you think. Not every death required an examination, and they did not particularly get too impatient about having to wait until morning. As he worked through the next day, though, he was glad he hadn’t received Colin in any later in the day than he had.
He was fairly wrapped up with his work for the day when he got a call from his colleague in the land of the still-living to let him know that Mr. Stafford was being released from the hospital. Omar knew he had to tread carefully here; it would be easy to step out of bounds, but he felt a professional and personal responsibility with this case.
Omar tapped on the door that was already faintly open. “Mr. Stafford?” he said, and upon hearing no objection, pushed it open further. Colin was propped up in bed and looking fully awake and alive, now wearing a pair of what even fairly un-hip Omar could recognize as very trendy glasses. He was glowering at his phone. “I wanted to check in and see how you were doing?”
Colin looked up and seemed surprised. “Oh, uh…” He frowned again. “I forgot your name.”
Omar came in further to the room to his bedside. “Understandable. It was a stressful situation.” He extended his hand. This, he was fairly sure, was an appropriate time for a handshake. “Dr. Omar Lewis, but please just call me Omar. I don’t want to see you under my care again any time soon.”
Colin shook his hand. He had strength back in it now, steady and warm and alive. “If I end up in the morgue again, I hope it’s you who unzips the bag. You’ll at least know to hold a mirror up or something.”
“How are you doing?” Omar said, and then continued before Colin could answer. “I’m not here in any official capacity, you should know. I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Colin’s brow furrowed for moment and his mouth opened and then closed. He huffed in a little breath before he spoke. “Well, they’ve said I’m alive and stable enough that I can stop taking up one of their beds, and they got me a shrink who didn’t get her certifications out of a cereal box to jigger my medications so I can be stable and also not be dead, so… I’m okay enough.” He looked at his phone, which had a low battery light blinking and a dark screen. “I don’t have any pants, though, and I’m not really sure how I’m going to get home. I can only assume my car is still in the parking lot of the Trader Joe’s.”
“They could send you out of here in scrubs,” Omar said, and opened up his bag. “But… it’s not exactly a replacement for your jeans, but at least as a temporary measure…” He placed the clothing he’d brought on the bed.
Colin picked them up with his fingertips and smiled. “Ah, sweatpants in public. So many indignities this week.” He turned that smile up to Omar, though, and he could feel the real gratitude beneath the sarcasm. “Thank you. Although I am going to have to do all kinds of rolling and cuffing and cinching on these. You’re a big guy.”
“I eat my vegetables,” he said. “I can call you a cab, or if you’re comfortable with it, I’d be happy to drive you wherever you need.”
Colin was brushing the fabric of the hoodie between his fingers. Omar had had that one for probably ten years, washed dozens of times until it might fall apart on too high of a dryer cycle. “Maybe this is weird, but could you? Drive me home, please.” He shook his head a little. “I’m feeling okay, but maybe not okay enough that I think I should be behind the wheel, and right now, as weird as it is, you are a familiar face and I would rather deal with you than a cab driver.” He squinted a little at the table beside the bed, where his wallet lay. “Also I’ve only got like ten bucks on me and those guys can get so shirty about credit cards.”
“I’d be glad to,” Omar said, and gave the guard on the side of the bed a little pat. “I’ll be waiting when you’re ready to leave.”
Omar’s old sweatpants were rolled up significantly over a pair of very handsome, slightly heeled shoes. Those, at least, had been spared the shears. It was a little strange to see Colin clothed and walking around, like a very gentle zombie movie (a genre for which Omar had so little patience), and although he was moving a little slowly, he settled easily into the passenger side of Omar’s car, bag of his wounded clothing, other essential belongings, and assortment of pill bottles in his lap.
Omar buckled his seat, checked his rear view mirror, and glanced sideways at Colin. This fine young man did seem to have a sense of humor about the world, so… “Where to, Miss Daisy?” Of course, he was nearly fifteen years younger than Omar, so that reference probably went sailing over his head.
Colin rolled his eyes, though. “Do not me started on that movie,” he said, and took Omar’s GPS unit off of the dashboard and efficiently instructed it where to take him. He didn’t live very far from Omar himself, out in one of the little hiccups of townships that mostly served as reasons for SEPTA to stop. It wasn’t much out of Omar’s way, not at all. They probably shopped the same Trader Joe’s.
Colin started himself on that movie without any of Omar’s help, though. Omar had received an entire lecture on the self-congratulatory, masturbatory, and fundamentally racist nature of the Academy Awards by the time the gentle female voice on his GPS told him he’d reached his destination.
He had one of those apartments that had the shape of a house, but was actually split into four units. Colin unbuckled his seatbelt and Omar got out of the car, just out of instinct opening the door and offering a hand to him. Colin looked at it and then up at him, smiling crookedly. “I appreciate it,” he said, and took Omar’s hand, teetering up while holding his bag to his chest with the other arm. “I don’t know how necessary it is, but I appreciate it.”
“Just want to make sure you make it home safe.” He glanced toward the apartment; it was down a bit of a hill, with some steps down to the door that seemed steep. “Here, let me,” he said, and took the bag from Colin’s arms and offered one of his own for steadying purposes. It was somewhere between escorting a prom date and when he’d used to help his Nana get up the church steps.
Colin sighed, but took his arm, holding on to the railing of the steps with the other. “Fine, deny me the ironic actual death of falling down the stairs three steps from my apartment.” They made it safely to the door and Colin took the bag back, digging in it to find his keys. “You can come in, if you’d like.” Omar hesitated for a moment, pondering questions of propriety, but decided in the end that if he had any option to sit this poor bastard down on something soft and make him a cup of cocoa he was going to take it.
When he walked into Colin’s apartment, though, he had a feeling he was not going to find much of anything soft, and definitely not any cocoa. Colin had one stand-up lamp in the living room that he switched on, showing a room that was mostly boxes, with the only furnishings an IKEA sofa and TV stand with a very large and impressive television sitting on it. One box had been pulled by the couch, with a paper plate that had telltale pizza grease stains on it and an empty can of Diet Coke resting atop it.
Colin put his bag down on one of the boxes and turned back to Omar. He frowned a little and glanced around him; Omar must not have kept the concern he was feeling off of his face. “I, uh, just moved in.” He reached down for the paper plate and folded it over, hiding the crumbs, at least. “Well, a month ago. You know how it is.”
Down the hall Omar could see a dark bedroom, the shapes of more IKEA in there. “Do you have any family nearby?”
Colin’s laugh was not a bright one. “No, I do not.” He leaned on the arm of the sofa. Omar saw the instructions for constructing it peeking out from beneath it, edges slightly shredded. “I’ve got an aunt in Atlanta, but we don’t really talk.”
Colin laughed more at that, sharp. “No, definitely not.” Omar knew if he asked about any friends, he’d get a similar answer. If there were anyone Colin could call, he’d have called them by now.
Omar swallowed. He wouldn’t sleep well tonight if he didn’t at least make the offer. “I live about ten minutes from here and I have a fridge full of food that’s waiting for me to cook it, so if you’d like to get some real dinner in you and have some company tonight, I would be happy to have you.”
Colin looked at him for a long while, and then the quirked eyebrow, the smirking lip all faded to something soft and sad and tired as he slipped from the arm of the couch onto a cushion itself. “I’d really, really like that.”
“I’ve got a spare bedroom, too, if you’d rather not sleep in an empty house tonight.” He was toeing the line of being creepy with that one, but he had a feeling in his gut. He’d never been in a situation like Colin’s — he hoped very, very few people ever had — but he’d been in times where he’d felt so deeply alone he’d have gone anywhere just to know there was another heart beating nearby.
Colin took off his glasses and rubbed a hand over his face. “I don’t want to impose on you, but if you’re going to let me impose, then yes, please.”
Colin disappeared into the back darkness of his apartment, and emerged a few minutes later dressed in his own clothes, wearing what presumably had to be a far inferior pair of jeans. He had a backpack over his shoulder and gave Omar a nod. He took his arm again as he led him up the steps to his car.
A few minutes into the short drive, Omar slapped his hand lightly on the steering wheel. “Hell, I forgot to ask… you’re not allergic to dogs, are you?”
“No,” Colin said, but his voice was tense. “Animals don’t like me, though, I’m going to warn you.”
“My girls are harmless, don’t worry,” Omar said. “Old dummies. World’s worst guard dogs.”
Colin shook his head. “No one ever believes me. Really, you’ll see. I think I just smell off or something.”
“Well, if you all don’t get along, I’ll just shut them up in the bedroom.”
“And let me say, ‘I told you so?'” Colin said.
Omar had inherited the house when Edward died, and in the eleven years since then, he’d shaken out all the old ghosts and made it his own. It was small, and it was far from perfect, but it was home like no other had ever been. Colin gave it an appraising look as he stepped out of the car and then nodded to Omar in politely muted approval.
When he opened the door he was greeted as always by the skitter of claws on hardwood floors. His girls weren’t as fast as they used to be, not the golden fuzzy rockets they’d been in their younger days, but they still came to greet him just like puppies at the end of every day. Colin recognized the sound, too, for all of any of his claimed inexperience with animals, and lingered behind Omar, protecting himself between his body and the door.
The dogs came into the foyer and marched right up to sniff all over Omar’s pants, getting the day’s story right up their snouts. Omar pet his hands over sleek yellow ears and under fluffy chins, and stepped aside a little to expose Colin. “This one is Toni, and this one is Trouble.” He tilted up both of their heads. “Toni’s got the blue collar, Trouble’s got the red one.”
Colin was coiled up behind him, clearly ready to spring out of the way in event of the turn of canine opinion, but both of the girls were just smiling at him, looking up at Omar with big brown imploring eyes, asking please, please, let us smell the new thing. “Girls, this is Colin, and you be real nice to him, okay?” Omar didn’t fully step aside, but he leaned away enough to let the dogs have access to his guest. Trouble bound up first, sniffing whatever of Colin she could get her nose on, before her sister nudged Omar more out of the way to get her share. Both of their tails were going like an over-excited conductor guiding a very fast orchestra.
Colin let out the nervous breath he’d been holding after a minute, when it’d become clear the dogs weren’t going to turn on him. He held out a hand timidly, knuckles up, and the girls snuffled it eagerly. Toni gave it a little lick and Colin let out a small breath. “This is a first,” he said, voice somewhere between awed and incredulous. “Seriously, usually there’s barking. Growling. Biting and scratching.” He continued to let Omar’s dummies slobber over his right hand while he held up his left, showing off the scar that Omar had noted in his examination. “This is what an ex’s cat gave me.”
He gave the girls a tug by the back of their collars and nodded to indicate Colin follow him back into the house. “Must have been quite a cat,” he said.
“It was very fat, and very pissy,” Colin said, putting his bag down beside the couch. “In the end, it was me or the cat.” He sat down on the sofa with a soft sigh, and when Trouble sat herself down right next to him and looked at him with dumb, loving puppy eyes, he pet her head. “You can guess which one he chose.”
Omar’s eyebrows may have lifted at that, but Colin was focused on animal attention and didn’t notice. “Looks about a year old, that scar.”
“No, it’s older than that,” Colin said. “My scars just don’t fade.” He laughed and brought up his other hand to scratch under Trouble’s chin, and Omar could see a tension fading in him, a new warmth rising in his body. He laughed a little and glanced up at Omar. “That sounds like a really shitty pop-punk lyric.”
“Maybe just a little,” Omar said, and comfortable in the feeling that the girls weren’t going to cause Colin any problems, moved into the kitchen, which was open to the living room. The physical space made him a little more comfortable to talk about some things than he’d felt in the car. “Glad I didn’t get to the point of giving you a new one?”
Colin sighed deeply, and in that moment of letting his guard down, Toni clambered up onto the couch to nearly sit atop him. “You probably want to hear that story, don’t you?”
“If you don’t mind telling it,” Omar said before pulling some things out of the fridge. “Do you eat beef?”
“Voraciously,” Colin said, and Omar glanced over to see that now both of his hands were occupied in providing the girls with ample pets. “I don’t mind at all, really. It’s one that I’ve told a lot. I’ve used the ‘I almost got autopsied’ story as a first-date icebreaker so many times, you don’t even know.”
Omar laughed as he started slicing vegetables. “Does that work?”
Toni had gotten completely in his face, and Colin had figured out how much she liked being scratched behind the ears. “I can’t say it’s gotten me laid, but it’s gotten me a few phone numbers.” He laughed a little, then sighed. “But, yeah. As you might have gathered from all the prescription bottles and the what-not, I’ve got some problems. In short, I am crazy as fuck, and I take a lot of pills to function in society, and once ten years ago a combo of those made me seem dead, and a doctor much, much dumber than you only noticed I wasn’t when he cut into me and I bled.” Colin looked over at him and grinned hugely, leaving his hands off the dogs for a moment to give him jazz hands. “Super fun times, hooray!”
Omar had only had a glance at the medications Colin came with, but he had recognized them all as psychiatric. Lithium, Depakote, Zyprexa, Klonopin, Ambien… his experience with those sort of things was limited to tox screenings in Heath Ledger sort of situations, so he wasn’t sure exactly what kind of “crazy” they might indicate. “That sounds really awful,” he said. “I’m very sorry you had to go through that.”
Colin ran his hand back through his hair before returning it to the important task of dog-petting. “It sucked, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “But, you know, I really had kind of gotten over it. A million years of therapy and my mom suing the pants off of everyone involved helped a lot.” He looked over at Omar and raised an eyebrow. “Your pants are safe this round, by the way.”
Omar let out a breath through pursed lips. “I’m also not going to lie; I was definitely worried about that.”
“You’re safe,” Colin said. “Everyone else, though…” He lifted up his hand and made it into a gun shape. “Pew pew, going down to fuck-you town.” Omar laughed a little as Colin blew imaginary smoke off of the tip of his finger. “Especially my fucking shrink, fuck.”
Omar would not soon forget the blaze of invective that had been directed at that shrink over the phone in his mortuary. He set aside his nice little pile of peppers and onions and directed his attention to beef. “Feelings on spicy food?”
Colin let out a soft moan and let his head drop back against the back of the sofa. “Give it to me hard,” he said, then laughed. “Okay, maybe not too hard. I guess I am still a bit delicate; don’t need me keeling over again from hot pepper overload.” He lifted his head up a little to peer at Omar. “What are you even making? Sorry, you’re making me dinner and I’m just here being an asshole.”
“Not being an asshole,” Omar said. “Not even slightly. I’m just making some stir-fry.”
Colin moaned a little again. “God, that sounds good,” he said. “I’ve been living on pizza and shitty Chinese take-out, so…” He made a soft sound. “I was actually out grocery shopping yesterday so I could advance to getting food out of the freezer instead of brought to the door.”
Omar had a thing of Trader Joe’s tikka masala in his freezer himself, for nights he couldn’t muster the effort. “Was there something you think that triggered this current incident?”
Toni had worked her way entirely across Colin’s lap and was asleep. Trouble was working on finding a good position to settle on his feet. “Low, low prices!” he said, and then put his hand underneath his glasses, covering his eyes, and sighed. “I’ve had a really shitty year. I may have had, actually, the shittiest year.”
Omar watched him quietly for a moment, then asked. “You want to talk about it?”
Colin opened his mouth and then closed it again. “Maybe after I eat. Delicate, after all.”
“Food is good for you,” Omar said as he started a pot of rice.
Colin laughed. “That a medical opinion?”
“Medical fact,” Omar said.
Toni had flopped over enough that Colin could rub her chest and stomach. She was a hussy and a charmer. “What gets you into your gig, anyway? The dead guy beat.”
“Honestly?” Omar said. “It pays well, the hours are good, and it’s not very high-stress.”
“The drama’s pretty much over by the time it gets to you, huh?” Colin said, and then pointed his fingers inward to himself. “Present company excluded, of course.” Omar just laughed and nodded. “Is it weird, though? I guess it must not be, if you do it. Was it weird?”
“It’s weird for everyone at first,” Omar said, and started cooking, speaking up over the sizzle as the smell of garlic and searing meat filled the air. “But that’s part of becoming a doctor. The body is the body, and you take care of what it needs, and the person is the person, and you do your damndest to take care of what he or she needs, and eventually the body stops also being the person, and that’s when you need someone to do what I do.” Maybe it wasn’t the most appetizing conversation. Omar looked up to see Colin looking at him, eyes soft.
“Is it hard?”
“Sometimes,” Omar said, and if Colin had any more questions in that direction, he’d make them wait until after supper.
Colin spent a while playing with Toni’s ear, though, flopping it between his fingers while the old girl just huffed and sighed on his lap. “So, how’s that one go over as a first-date icebreaker?”
“It has definitely scared some guys off,” Omar said. Colin had his eyes closed and his head resting on the back of the couch, but Omar caught the rise of his eyebrows at that detail. It was only fair, Omar figured. “Very much a, oh, well, I had a very nice night, I’ll call you, please don’t touch me any more with your corpse hands.”
“Aww, come on,” Colin said, cracking open his eyes. “If you were a surgeon they’d be totally impressed, and the only difference there is a stupid little pulse!”
Omar had to lean his head back and laugh. “Exactly! Just one piddling little difference.” He tossed vegetables and beef around in the hot pan, letting his nose and ears guide him more than his eyes to let him know when it was almost done. “Nice to talk to someone who isn’t put off.”
“Goes both ways,” Colin said.
Omar smiled and let the companionable silence settle as he finished cooking, glancing up now and then to see Colin resting his eyes again. It remained a little unnerving with the memory of him on the slab so recent, but his hands kept moving over the blanket of lazy dog on his lap. Good and alive. “There, it’s dinner.”
Colin lifted his head up and then looked down at himself. “I’m trapped.”
“Right,” Omar said, and filled a bowl partway with rice. “I’ll come to you.” He supplied him with food and fork, and Colin let out a very gratifying sigh as he took a deep whiff, the steam of it fogging up his glasses.
“God, I need this,” he said, and put a hearty forkful in his mouth. “Sorry, being rude, but…”
Omar laughed, already on the way back to the kitchen for his own dinner. “No, understandable, go to,” he said. “You don’t have to tell me how bad hospital food is.”
“Weirdly they did not have a standard menu plan prepared for ‘came back from the dead,'” Colin said, between mouthfuls. “This is so good, thank you.”
“A pleasure,” he said. “Something to drink? …Need a beer?” Omar wasn’t much of a drinker himself, but he had a couple of bottles hanging out in his fridge.
“I so desperately need a beer,” Colin said, “but I think I’m going to be extra careful about the recreational personality modifiers I put in me for a bit while my brain sorts its shit out.”
Omar managed to transport two glasses and a full bowl from the kitchen, and set one glass of water down on the coffee table in front of Colin and found some space on the couch that wasn’t occupied by dog. “Cheers to that, then,” he said, raising his own glass. Colin and returned the gesture.
Omar had managed to get one bite of his dinner into his mouth before Toni raised her head, nose twitching, and started shuffling along the couch like a furry special ops agent. Trouble, as always, was right behind, rousing herself from Colin’s feet to come rest her chin on Omar’s knee, leaving him under assault from four pleading brown eyes. He looked down at them and shook his head. “Uh-huh, I see how it is. You’re all polite to the guest, letting him eat right over you and you don’t say a thing, but the minute I’ve got the fork out, you’re gonna give me the eyes?” He heard Colin stifling a laugh, but the girls were unmoved. “I raised you wrong,” Omar said, and fished a strip of beef from his bowl to feed each of them.
“Seems like they just know to work the angle they know will pay out,” Colin said. “They could beg me all they want, but I’m not putting my delicate little fingers anywhere near snapping teeth.”
Omar gave the little beggars pieces of pepper. “That’s all you get,” he said, and while they were still giving him the eyes, they settled down again, Toni with her haunches on Colin’s lap, and Trouble flopping down between both of their feet. “They’ve had a very long time to learn how to manipulate me.”
Colin was already nearing the bottom of his bowl, but set the fork down to pet the dog butt planted in his lap. He was rewarded with a slap on the chest of a lazily wagging tail. “They’re really sweet,” he said. “I wasn’t kidding before. Animals hate me. I always figured I gave off some sort of weird smell or they could just… tell something about me.”
He probably hadn’t had any chance to wash up after his adventure through the morgue; if Colin smelled like anything, he’d smell like Omar after a day at work. Hey, whatever worked. “They don’t have a mean bone in their bodies or a bad thought in their empty heads. If a burglar came in in the night they’d just beg him for treats.”
Colin found the spot on Toni’s rump where if you scratched it, her tail would really start going. He was a natural. “Well, at least they’re good company.”
“They’ll probably come and sleep on you tonight, if you let them,” Omar said, and laughed. “As an exciting change of pace from sleeping on me.” There had been one guy for whom the regular corpse handling hadn’t been an issue at all, but the dogs had been just too much to even consider. “Or you can shut the door on them and they’ll leave you alone.”
Omar could hear the tines of Colin’s fork scraping against the bottom of the empty bowl. “No, might be nice.” He tried to lean forward to set his empty bowl on the coffee table, but there was too much dog in his lap to get far. Omar took it from him, going to dish out a second serving without being asked. “You should rent them out.”
“Thought about it,” Omar said. “Therapy dogs. They were a little too old and too dumb for it by the time I thought of it, though. Just didn’t work out.”
Colin put his hand deep into Toni’s fur and flexed his fingers through it. The expression on his face was soft, and Omar thought of being four and being allowed to play with his uncle’s old Scottish Terrier for the first time, his little hands working through his wiry fur. “Don’t listen to what he says,” Colin said, voice low. “You make useful contributions to society.” Toni let out a deep whuff and flopped onto her side, sitting on Colin’s hand. He let out a laugh and freed himself.
Omar had plenty he wanted to talk about with Colin, more than enough questions that he wanted to ask, but he could see the weariness ringing his eyes, which looked more hooded now than they had when he was on the table. Across the few feet of couch and dog between them he could sense the muted tension in him, like superheated water in a microwave waiting for just one jostle to explode. He’d take it easy. “Care to watch a movie or something?”
Colin ended up with a strand of sauteed onion hanging out from his mouth as he tried to answer. “Oh, man,” he said, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “If you have any of those channels that just shows old movies all day, that would be so awesome.”
“I’ve probably got them in there somewhere,” Omar said. He did, in fact, and found one that was only about ten minutes into Singin’ in the Rain. Colin ended up with arms full of Golden Retreiver as he provided a quiet line of running commentary, small notes of film and actor trivia timed in the lulls in the movie. Omar usually wasn’t much of one for talking during movies, but, hell if Colin didn’t know interesting things. Who knew the TV premiere had originally been scheduled for the day of the Kennedy assassination?
The movie ended and Colin looked melted, half into the sofa and half into dog. But as soon as Omar sat up to take the remote off the table and switch the TV off, the girls were up, huffing around his ankles in a way he knew very well. “Okay, let me let these ladies out to do their business.” There was a fine dusting of yellow hair over Colin’s front. He looked bereft, suddenly without dog after so many hours. “You look ready to fall over. I’ll get the bed set up for you.”
Colin pushed his glasses up from his face to rub his hand over his eyes. “Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.” He stood up, wavering a little, but more likely from sleeping feet than any lingering death hangover. “Do you have any Benadryl or anything? I usually have some more serious shit to put me to sleep when things are fucked up, but…”
There might have been a bottle of Ambien in Colin’s bag, but Omar could understand his reluctance to go with the heavy pharmaceutical hitters tonight. “Probably somewhere. I’ll look.”
Omar let the girls in the yard to spend a while sniffing and sniffing until finding the exact right spot to pee; while they kept himself occupied, he retrieved a clean towel from the linen closet and set it on the chest at the foot of the guest bed. He met Colin in the doorway with a little bottle of pink pills, and put them into his hand. “My room’s right down the hall, and I’ll leave the door open a bit. In case the dogs want in, or if you need anything.”
“Thanks,” Colin said, and then sighed, looking down at the bottle in his hand. “Seriously, thanks. You just have no idea… yeah. All of this has sucked, but it would have really sucked if not for you.”
“I’m just glad I can help,” Omar said, and put a hand on Colin’s shoulder, giving him a small squeeze. His body was warm now, and he could feel his heat through the fabric of his shirt just as he hadn’t felt it through a latex glove just a day ago. “Anything you need, okay? Just make yourself comfortable, and… anything at all.”
Colin closed his eyes for just a second and leaned into Omar’s hand, pushing into the touch. For a moment Omar thought of how the dogs would be if he’d stayed out later than usual, how they’d pile on to him the minute he got home, putting their whole bodies up against him to relieve themselves of the fear that he might have never come back. But this wasn’t like that, not at all; this was human, and Omar was starting to see that this was the edge of something, a loneliness that might span for miles. He squeezed Colin’s shoulder until he heard the sound of claws at the back door.
In the middle of the night Omar woke up needing to pee. Instead of using the bathroom connected to his bedroom, though, he went to the one in the hall, just to check. Every light in the guest room was on, but Colin was asleep, curled up into a tight ball. The dogs had him flanked, two blankets of yellow fur sprawled out on either side of him, snoring and whuffling quietly.
Good girls, Omar thought, and went back to sleep.
In the morning Omar found Colin sitting at his kitchen table with his hair shower-wet and Trouble staring up at him with pure doggy adoration as he scratched her under her chin. He looked tired, still, but better for the world in the light of a new morning. “Hey,” Omar said. “How are you doing? Sleep okay?”
“I woke up freaking out about every hour, but… actually, yeah, I kind of did.” Trouble started gnawing on his hand gently; clearly their bond had advanced over the past twelve hours if Colin was now comfortable enough to allow her to do that. “Woke up for real when the sun came up, and then these guys wanted attention.” Toni, Omar noticed, was hanging out under the chair. “I let them out into the backyard. I hope that was okay.”
“Well, you got them back in afterwards, so definitely.” Colin wiped his slobbery hand on Trouble’s head, which she seemed to enjoy. “How about some breakfast, and then I’ll take you to your car.”
“That’d be great.” He sighed. “Seriously. You don’t even know.”
Omar didn’t, that was certain. But he had an idea. He got some toast and fried eggs and coffee into Colin, and that had him perked up quite a bit. His car, a well-loved thing that had to be at least ten years old, was still waiting in the parking lot of the nearby Trader Joe’s. Colin stood in front of it, finding his keys in his bag. He held them in his hand, and looked at Omar.
“Can I have your phone number?” he said, and Omar must have looked surprised, because he pursed his lips. “Not as, uh… look, I just have really, seriously fucking appreciated everything you’ve done for me, and you’re a really cool guy, and I even like your dogs. So let me get my shit together a bit more, and I’d like to get you dinner. To say thank you.”
“You really don’t have to do anything…”
Colin shrugged one shoulder. “Yeah, I guess I don’t, really. But I’m going to anyway.” He pulled out his phone, poked the screen for a while, and handed it to Omar. “Put in your number. And give me yours.”
Omar laughed a little and complied. His phone was older and not as fancy as Colin’s, but he still managed to get his number in there. “You expected anywhere today?” Omar was running a little late himself, but, again, his patients were best with patience.
Colin shook his head. “I told my boss the story. She’s not expecting me for a while, but I might go in just to…” He waved his hand a little in the air. Omar got it.
Omar reached out to give Colin that squeeze again, spanning over his shoulder with his broad hand. After a moment’s thought, he did it with the other side, too. “Take care of yourself. Take it easy.”
Colin’s eyes were closed and Omar felt that lean again. “I will seriously try my hardest.” He laughed a little and stepped back. “Tell your dogs not to miss me too much.”
Omar grinned. “They’re going to be heartbroken.” And when Omar got home that night, after an entirely normal day with dead bodies that were very dead, the girls actually kind of were.
Omar got to the end of what was a surprisingly busy day in the dead body business and got back to his phone for the first time since the morning to find a series of missed texts, all from Colin.
12:17 PM: I’m actually at work today like a real living boy.
12:18 PM: I actually don’t work far from the hospital, I realized. You want to get lunch? My treat.
12:46 PM: Or, uh, not!
“Shit,” Omar said to his phone, and started to write back. It took him a few tries to get it worded right; he wasn’t a technological dinosaur or a luddite, but the text message would never be his natural language.
5:23 PM: Sorry, didn’t see these until now. Seriously busy day. Free for dinner?
Omar didn’t know the etiquette for these things, so he didn’t send a follow-up. The dogs were absolutely not allowed any tikka masala, and Omar half dozed-off on the couch watching Gigi, but then his phone chirped its text-message chime at him.
11:42 PM: TEXT MESSAGES!!!!!
11:42 PM: Remember when we used to actually call people and not do this weird ping-pong shit? I don’t. You might!
11:43 PM: Sorry, I’ve been crazy busy all day getting shit together.
11:43 PM: The upside of this is now I have some shit together.
11:43 PM: Come over for dinner tomorrow? Let me return the favor with my togethered shit.
11:44 PM: (note: not literal shit)
11:46 PM: uh, sorry if I woke you up
11:46 PM: another favor returned!!
Omar just had to laugh as his phone kept buzzing and buzzing in his hand before he could even manage to start a response.
11:49 PM: I’d love to.
Omar arrived around seven. He’d debated with himself (and the dogs, who offered little good advice) for quite some time over whether to take over a bottle from his small stash of decent wines, and in the end decided to do it. Even if Colin wasn’t yet comfortable having a drink again, it would certainly keep, and it was a nice gesture. He just knew he wouldn’t dare show up empty handed, and though the thought of flowers — specifically lilies, of the sad funereal sort that would be inappropriate but likely just attuned to Colin’s humor — crossed his mind, he was even less certain of the appropriateness of that. Dinner was dinner, and not necessarily anything more.
“Hi!” Colin said, opening the door a half second before Omar even knocked. “Sorry, I heard you coming. Come on in.”
Omar stepped in to Colin’s apartment and stopped dead again two steps later. It had made a remarkable transformation in the few days since he’d last been inside it. The moving boxes were gone (or, well, on closer examination, had been unpacked, broken down, and were stacked leaning against a wall in the front hall), the lonely sofa and television now had bookshelves, a table, and chairs to be friends with, and even a framed print of Bauhaus art had been hung on the wall. It was still a work in progress, clearly, but unlike Omar’s first glimpse of Colin’s home, it now looked like someone lived there.
“Damn,” Omar said, and Colin broke into a huge grin.
“Yeah, I still haven’t been sleeping well, so I decided to put the energy to good use. Got the rest of the IKEA shit out of flat pack and went crazy with the allen wrenches.” He jerked his head back towards the back of the apartment. “The bedroom is still a mess, but hey, it’s like a living boy lives here now.”
“One definitely does,” Omar said, and Colin’s smile got warmer. He seemed to be vibrating a little now, but not in the tense, frightened way he’d been the other night. More like an engine just starting to whirr. He noticed the bottle in Omar’s hands and his eyebrows went up.
“Oh! Oh, hey, you didn’t have to bring anything,” he said, while still holding out his hands for the bottle.
“Of course I did,” Omar said. “My mama raised me right.”
Colin pushed his glasses up on his nose and eyed the bottle. “Oh, very nice, very nice,” he said. “I actually was snooping around your kitchen before you woke up and went poking around your wine rack. This one looked very good.”
“Are you interested in wine?” Omar said. He wasn’t an expert or even a snob himself, but he was a man with a decent salary and very few debts and obligations, so he indulged some luxuries. He drove a very nice car, and he kept some rather nice wines.
Colin was still studying the label. “Mm, well,” he said, and his mouth curved up a little at the corner. “I’d actually say I like knowing a lot about it more than I like drinking it.” He looked back up at Omar. “But I just like knowing stuff.” He set the bottle down on the little counter space separating the kitchen and the living room. “I could stand here and tell you shit about the history of that grape varietal and the weather patterns in the Loire valley where it’s grown, but when you pour me a glass and I drink it I’m not going to be thinking, like, oh, it’s got gentle hints of pear and summer rain, I’m going to be thinking, ‘hey, this tastes like wine.”‘
Omar laughed. “Well, that’s not untrue.”
Colin spun the bottle around a little on the counter. “I also do know that it’ll go well with dinner tonight.”
“Oh?” Omar said, and pulled out one of the chairs at the table, having a seat. “What’s on the menu?”
Colin reached past the kitchen counter and came back with a hand full of pamphlets — no, of takeout menus. “Well, we have sushi, or Thai, or Chinese…” He flared them out to Omar like a magician asking him to pick a card. “I did have the intention of getting real food and making it, but I drove to the grocery store and, yeah, you know, not just yet.”
“I can understand that,” Omar said, and picked the sushi menu out from the deck. He ordered from that place himself, sometimes, and knew it to be good. “I mean, to say nothing of how surprised anyone on staff who was there that day might be…”
Colin laughed at that. “Oh, shit, I hadn’t thought of that. That actually is encouraging.” He tapped his fingers on the menu in Omar’s hand. “Tell me what you want and I’ll make it happen. But I will just say if you want to let me live my dream of ordering one of those sushi boat for two things, I will be very happy.”
Omar looked at that part of the menu. That was a lot of sushi. “I think I can help you with that dream.”
Colin pumped his fist a little and let out a little ‘yesss’ before pulling out his phone. “You want anything else?”
“No, I think that will cover it!”
Colin nodded, and instead of calling the restaurant, spent a while tapping the screen of his phone before declaring, “Done!” An app for that, of course. Generation gaps took less years to form every day. “I have come so close to ordering one of those just for myself so many times. It would be hubris, I know, but…” He shook his head and put his phone back in his pocket. “I kept trying to get my ex to go for it, but I could barely get him to eat any stuff that wasn’t technically cooked.”
“I have no compunctions about eating entirely raw things,” Omar said.
Colin grinned at him. “Yeah, I’m guessing it takes something special to make you squeamish,” he said, then picked up the bottle of wine and headed for the kitchen. “I’ll pop this in the fridge. Should be nice and chilly by the time the food’s here.” Omar thrummed his fingers on the table as he listened to Colin bump and thump in the kitchen, and scanned his eyes over the room. It could use some more lights, but it was looking nice. Something near the wall across from him caught his eye, though. “So, everything been going okay in the dead people business?”
There was a pile of something on the floor, settled in the middle of a dark stain on the wood. “It’s been alright,” Omar said as he got out of the chair to go look closer. “Nothing exciting.”
Colin laughed. “Yeah, sorry for making it so your job’s going to be super-boring all the time in comparison.”
The pile on the floor was of shattered ceramic, pieces of what had once been a mug of some type. It had been there on the floor for long enough that there was a light coating of dust on the shards. The stain beneath it had the stickiness of something sweet but long-dried. Omar felt for a second like the detective people who watched a lot of TV thought he was when he told them his job, and wanted to pick up the largest shard by the handle with the end of a pencil, searching for clues.
“Hey, you want some water or… hmm,” Colin said, and Omar looked over his shoulder to see him knelt by the mess on the floor. “Hmm.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to…” Omar wasn’t sure what he didn’t mean to be doing. Disrupting an art installment, perhaps? He stood up again.
“It’s okay, I just forgot that was there,” Colin said, brow knitted, staring at the shattered mug. “Hmm,” he said again. The ebullient cheeriness that had been radiating from him was muted now, like a candle put behind smoked glass.
Omar looked down at it again. It looked like it’d had a college logo on it once, but he’d need time and glue to piece together which one. “No broom?”
“No, broom,” Colin said. He sighed heavily and came out of the kitchen with two glasses of water. He handed one to Omar and then sat down at one of the chairs around his table. “It’s just that when I threw that at the wall a couple of weeks ago, it got the demon I was seeing to go away, so I decided to leave it there.” He took a drink of water. “And then I really did just forget.”
Omar sat down across from him and had a sip of water himself. “So, shitty year, huh?”
“So the shittiest,” Colin said, and leaned back a little. “Yeah, let me tell you about it.”
Colin traced his finger around in the condensation forming on his water glass. “So, crazy,” he began. “I’m crazy, and I have been since I was a little kid. I’m really, really bipolar, the kind where when shit gets really high or really low, well…” He gestured to the broken mug. “I get kind of psychotic. Seeing stuff, hearing stuff, destroying stuff…” He laughed a little. “When I was a kid I was big biter. That aunt I have in Atlanta has still never forgiven me.”
“You don’t seem crazy,” Omar said, and he meant it. Colin may have been frantic and fast-talking, but he was also funny, intelligent, and for all Omar could tell, a functioning member of society. But Omar was probably a jerk for thinking that being crazy meant you couldn’t be those things, too.
“Exactly!” Colin said. “Because of years and years of lots of medication and psychiatric care. So, you know, most of the time I’m pretty good. Little wobbles here and there,” he moved his hand in front of him in a slow wave, “but I haven’t been a danger to myself or others much since I was like twelve. But!” His wavering hand became a finger pointed upwards. “The crazy brain is a stupid asshole place and sometimes it decides it doesn’t like the medicine it liked before. Or sometimes the outside forces of life are a stupid asshole place and they make it hard for crazy brain to keep it together.” He put his hand down on the table. “My dad died in a car accident when I was seventeen, and things were not so fun in the aftermath of that, and the stress of the experience and the medical cocktail I was on to make me not go apeshit from it is what landed me in the morgue the first time.”
“I’m really sorry,” Omar said. “About all of that. That must have been awful.”
Colin sighed. “Well, like I said, I’d managed to get a sense of humor about it since then. I mean, it sucked hard for a while. A long while. But time and therapy make better men of us all.” His fingers went up to his chest, absently moving over where Omar knew his scar to be. “I went to college, I made friends, I got a job, I got dates, I saw doctors regularly. Things were going pretty good, and a lot of time I didn’t even feel crazy. I mean, I take a handful of pills every night, but I have been since I was ten, so that’s not even a thing.” He smiled a little. “I dated a guy once who took more stuff every day than I did, and he just had allergies.”
Omar smiled a little and waited for Colin to continue. “And then, this shitty year,” Colin said, and drank some more water. “It’s so shitty you might laugh, I’m going to warn you. It sounds like the setup to a joke.”
“I won’t laugh,” Omar said.
“So you say now, but I won’t blame you if you do,” Colin said. “So, first thing that happens is that mom gets diagnosed with cancer.” Omar sucked in a little breath. He’d lost his own mother to cancer some five years ago, and it had been long, and ugly, and awful. Even being on the other side of the hospital bed professionally didn’t make that go any easier. “And it’s bad, but maybe not terminal, so she needs a lot of treatment and someone to take care of her while she goes through it, and of course that’s going to be me.” He did sort of have the jovial manner of someone telling the setup to a joke, but with a dark line painted straight down the middle of it. “She spent nearly thirty years taking care of my stupid crazy awful fat face, so you’re damn right I dropped everything to take care of her.
“And then,” Colin said, spreading one hand in front of him, “my boyfriend dumps me.”
Omar’s lip curled up. “Because your mom got sick?”
“Technically, no, he said that had nothing to do with it,” Colin said. “Growing apart, different life goals, the usual things. But, yeah, we’d been dating a year and were talking about moving in together, but suddenly someone else is taking up all of my attention and he’s had better places to be.”
“Bastard,” Omar said. “You deserve better than anyone who’d do that.”
“Arguably,” Colin said, and sighed. “So, I get dumped. This leaves me plenty of time to focus on mom. But, well…” He looked downward and held out his empty palm again, letting out a breath.
“I’m sorry,” Omar said.
“I am, too,” Colin said. “We got to say good goodbyes to each other, though, and then it was over, at least.” His mouth turned up a little again. “Ah, but then, but then… I get laid off.” Colin looked up at him as Omar’s brow furrowed in distress. “Okay, usually that’s where people laugh, because they can’t fucking believe it.”
“I can believe it,” Omar said. “And it’s terrible. I’m so sorry.”
Colin pushed his hair back from his face and closed his eyes. “So, I’ve got no family, no job, no boyfriend, am down a lot of friends because they were attached to the boyfriend…” He knocked on his skull with his fist. “Suddenly the meds aren’t quite cutting the mustard so well.”
“Understandably,” Omar said.
“And also in all of this shit, my regular shrink, the guy I’ve gone to for years and years and knows all of my crap, he retires, and I get this new guy, who is a fuckhead.” A fuckhead whose boat ownership was not solidly determinable, Omar recalled. “So he’s throwing this and that at me and forgetting everything from when I saw him two weeks beforehand every appointment. But! I am mostly keeping it together, and I get a new job out here, and find a new place, right here, and move there, and maybe things can settle out and I can just have my normal life again.”
Colin looked over at the broken mug. “Yeah, not so much,” he said. “It was like one of those things, where you endure and you push the bad shit off and you keep the monsters at bay for a long while because there is shit you need to get done, but then once the shit is done, well, there’s been a line of monsters forming outside.” He shook his head and wiggled his fingers in the air. “Figuratively or literally, monsters. It’d been a long time since I’d seen anything that wasn’t there, so when my fuckhead doctor offered for me to try this newly approved antipsychotic — that I realized, in retrospect, he had like nine hundred pens and mugs and paperweights from the company that makes it in his office — I went for it.”
“And then you met me,” Omar said.
“And then I did,” Colin said. “So, you know, upside to everything.” He stretched out his legs in front of him, and for the first time Omar noticed he was barefoot. He had seemed a little shorter. “What’s funny is, no matter how crazy or dark things have gotten in my head, I’ve never, ever wanted to die or kill myself. When I’m in a hole I just want to turn all that badness outward against the world. I want to survive.”
“You have,” Omar said, and didn’t really think long on it before holding out his hand, stretching it across the table. Colin looked at it for a moment, blinking rapidly, and then reached out to take it. Omar squeezed it hard, brushing his thumb over the back of Colin’s palm, over that old cat scratch. Colin let out a sigh and squeezed back.
“That’s what I do,” Colin said. “I survive, no matter what terrible sense of humor the universe has.”
“It has to be hard,” Omar said.
“It is,” Colin said. “But the alternative really sucks.” He squeezed Omar’s hand a little tighter. His fingers were thin and long and his skin was warm. “So I’m going to stay alive out of pure spite, if nothing else.” He let out a small chuckled. “And I’m going to get that tattoo, no joke.”
“Hey, if you want company, I’ll come,” Omar said.
Colin smiled. “I’ll take you up on that,” he said. “Although probably not for a while. I’m not exactly feeling eager to have someone leaning over me putting something sharp in my chest for a while.”
“Understandable,” Omar said. “I’m sorry all of this has happened to you. Especially so fast.” He smiled at him. Colin had moss green eyes, soft now in the dim light. “I’m sorry for how it all came about, but I’m glad I got to meet you.”
“Yeah,” Colin said, still holding on to Omar’s hand. “I’m glad I–” His doorbell rang, harsh and shrill, causing both of them to jump. “I’m glad I have someone to eat this boat of sushi with!”
Omar laughed, and Colin didn’t let go of his hand until he was walking past him to go to the door. He returned with a large number of bags and held them over his head. “I come with the bounty of the sea!” He set them down and let Omar pull out the many, many plastic containers of sushi as he retrieved the wine from the fridge.
“Cheers,” Colin said, lifting his glass when it was full.
Omar clinked his. “To not being fucking dead?”
Colin grinned crookedly and hoisted his glass a little higher. “Absolutely, to that,” he said, and took a healthy sip. “Oh man. That so tastes like wine.”
Omar leaned his head back to laugh, then drank himself. It absolutely did.
Colin ended up eating more of the boatload of sushi than Omar could put away, though in the end both of them were groaning slightly as rice expanded in their bellies. They found a little extra room for the rest of the wine, though, as they talked about lighter matters. Colin told him how he had grown up in Philadelphia proper, gone to school in Boston to study art history, and then ended up right back in Philly with a job that had nothing to do with anything he’d gotten a degree in. A common enough story for people of his generation, Omar knew. He’d moved out of the city when he found something close enough to his dream job, assisting and coordinating at a small museum nearby.
“I make a very charming tour guide,” he said, and Omar had no doubt about that. “I’ve been working there less than a month. So the really funny thing is, my insurance hasn’t kicked in yet.” Omar winced a little, but Colin just laughed. “But, you know, I have a feeling there isn’t a billing code for ‘morgue use and discharge.'” If there was, Omar would go yell at someone until they put that bill in the shredder. “At least my boss is understanding.”
“Small favors,” Omar said, and topped up Colin’s glass.
Omar had too much sushi in his stomach to get too tipsy from the wine, but it only exacerbated the fact that he was an old, decrepit man who had to have restless, abandoned dogs at home. No good to overstay his welcome.
“This was nice,” he said, as he was bidding Colin farewell at his door. He put a hand on Colin’s bicep briefly, a fond little touch. Colin was attractive, absolutely, and a pleasure to spend time with, but Omar didn’t want to make any assumptions about what this could be. He was too old to think that being two men who shared the common interest in other men meant anything certain other than you were both just that. Still, his dance card hadn’t been too full lately, and just spending an evening or two with a charming young man was a fine treat.
“It was,” Colin said, smiling up at him. “I’ve really needed, uh, a friend. If you don’t mind me calling you that.”
“Damn right, I don’t mind,” he said, and when he touched Colin’s arm it was a little lower, below the hem of his sleeve, actual warm skin. Colin’s eyelids dipped for just a moment. “Call me any time.”
“Call,” Colin said. “I’ll call, and not text.”
Omar let go of his arm and pointed a finger at him. “Next time I see you, ask me about the time I found a pager in a body.”
Omar smiled at him and started back up the steps to his car. “Next time!” He saw the light in Colin’s windows in his rear view mirror as he drove away, something a little warmer lighting behind the silhouette that stood there.
Colin did text, and not call, terrible member of youth culture that he was, but it didn’t matter, because it made Omar smile to watch as his phone buzzed and buzzed in his hand as Colin texted as fast as he spoke. He could manage one text for every seven of Colin’s, but they were both happy with that ratio. They managed lunch together once in the week, and the waitress glared daggers at Omar for telling the pager story perhaps a little too loudly in a place that served food. He was used to it, when it came to talking about his work, and the important thing was that it made Colin laugh until his face was red.
Sunday found Omar running some errands that took him out of his usual routes and roads, and he realized on his way home that he was not far from the museum where Colin worked. Even if he wasn’t working today, it’d be nice to stop in and see where he plied his trade. He paid the small admission fee to the young man at the front desk and started wandering aimlessly through the exhibits. He didn’t know much about art, himself, but at lunch Colin had managed to convince him of the startling cultural importance of Pennsylvania textile crafts. He had to admit, they were nice quilts.
As he walked into a room that had more of what he usually considered as art — paintings — he heard a familiar low voice coming from just the next room over. He entered that one to see Colin standing before a small group of people, and also standing next to a painting of a pig. When he had sufficiently explained the pig to the museum patrons, Omar assumed, they moved on, and Colin’s eyes scanned over to see him standing at the room’s entrance.
“Oh,” he said. “Hey!” He looked surprised, but a smile dawned on his face.
“Hey,” Omar said when he came close to him. “Didn’t know you’d be working today. I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop in to see the business.”
“It’s not one of my usual days, no,” Colin said. “But I’ve been coming in a little extra. Makes me feel better just to get out and be doing stuff, you know?”
“Makes sense,” Omar said, and then looked at a painting. “So, that’s a pig.”
“It is a pig,” Colin said, glancing back at the painting. “A painting of a pig, if you want to split hairs.”
“It’s a very nice painting of a pig,” Omar said. Art criticism was not his field.
“It is indeed a very nice painting of a pig,” Colin said. He gave a glance around. The museum was thinly attended today. “Would you like to hear about this painting of a pig, and perhaps some of the other paintings here, including ones that aren’t pigs?”
Omar grinned. “I’d like nothing more.”
Colin gave Omar the full tour, after which he’d learned so much about Wyeth paintings that he had a strong chance of actually retaining some of it. Now and then another person or group would come to stand by him as Colin spoke, but the whole time, Colin really was speaking just to him. Omar had gotten glimpses of this part of Colin, when he talked about movies or wine or any of the number of subjects he seemed to have a deep knowledge of, but it was different to see him here. He was vibrant and excited, eyes flashing as he was able to answer someone’s question or go into some vein of knowledge that made someone nod and look enlightened. Omar hoped he’d been as good of an audience.
He was seeming more and more alive every time Omar saw him, now. Looking at him now, smiling and flushed and even looking a little well rested, it was hard to think of how Omar had first seen him. Whatever troubles stirred in his head didn’t do anything to hold him back or hamper him; he rose above it. He fought his way up, out of the grave. Omar may have stopped listening for a while as he just watched him, the way he moved his hands when he got passionate about lighting techniques, and he smiled.
“You feeling educated now?” Colin said when he’d shown Omar all he could.
“I’m… brimming with knowledge,” Omar said, a little dazed.
“Don’t make me quiz you tomorrow,” Colin said, grinning. “I’ll quiz you.”
“If I fail, are you going to tutor me until I pass?” Omar said.
Colin’s lips pursed up in a crooked smile. “I could probably do something like that.”
The sunlight outside was getting golden, hitting into the ‘magic hour’ that Colin had ended up explaining to him in a discussion about a movie that Omar had already forgotten the name of. “Your day almost done here?” Omar asked. “We could go grab a bite.”
“It is, and we could,” Colin said. He looked down at his feet for a moment, and then up at Omar, head tilted a little and his brows slightly drawn. “Could it be a date?”
Omar’s own eyebrows went for his hairline. “Do you want it to be?”
“Well, I just asked, so yes,” Colin said. He pushed a hand back through his hair. Every time he did that, it just fell right back into the same spot. “I don’t want you to think this is some sort of reverse Florence Nightingale transference thing, or some weird expression of gratitude. It’s just that you’re smart, and handsome, and funny, and seriously the nicest guy ever, and a doctor, with a nice car, and freakin’ perfect beautiful dogs who don’t hate me, and you can cook, and oh yeah, you’re also gay, too? If my mother were still alive she’d kick my ass if I didn’t ask you out.” He let out a nervous laugh, some of his bluster faltering. “I mean, I get it if you don’t really want to go for a guy who you met at work, but…”
“I’d love to,” Omar said, and Colin stopped his babbling to look up, small smile turning hopeful. “I’d really, really love to.”
Colin started grinning, though Omar could see from the flush in his cheeks that there was some relief there. “Excellent. Awesome,” he said, and then his grin got bigger. “Although to be perfectly accurate my mom would’ve prefered it if you were a lawyer.”
“Well, mine would’ve prefered it if you were black,” Omar said.
Colin let out a sigh. “None of us are perfect, I suppose.”
Omar laughed softly and put a hand on Colin’s back, between his shoulder blades. “Come on, get in my nice car.”
Dinner on something that was now officially a date wasn’t much different than dinner when they’d just been operating in friendship. They leaned a little closer, voices were a little lower, eye contact was a little longer, and smiles were just a bit more like smirks. He let Colin show off ordering the wine, and then made him spill fat burgundy droplets on it on the tablecloth as he made him laugh when he talked about the classmate he’d had in medical school who’d tried to connect the stages of decomposition to knowing how to cook a steak to preferred doneness. Not only did Colin laugh, but he took a bite of medium-rare meat right off Omar’s plate. He had to appreciate a guy with an unflappable appetite.
Omar snatched the bill away when the waiter brought it before Colin could even think about it, and just shook his head while he pouted. If he was going to date a man born in the eighties, he was going to do it properly and treat him to dinner. It was worth every penny and then some, for the flush in Colin’s cheeks and the little hints of red-wine stain at the inside of his lips.
It was dark out by the time they left the restaurant. They were far off enough from Philadelphia that the light pollution wasn’t so harsh, and stars could pinprick through the dark sky. Omar got caught up for a moment looking at it, so when Colin came close to him and said, “Hey,” he was a little surprised.
“Hey,” he said back, looking down at him. Colin just laughed and hooked two fingers under the collar of Omar’s shirt.
“C’mere,” he said, and pulled him down to close the height difference between them and kiss him. Omar wrapped an arm around his waist right away, pulling him closer as he kissed his mouth, his soft, warm mouth.
He pulled back before too long — they were in public, after all. He looked thoughtful for a moment, and then said, “Definitely tastes like wine.”
Colin laughed, curling his own arms around Omar’s waist and leaning in to rest his forehead against his shoulder. He stayed like that for a while, just breathing softly against Omar’s neck, radiating warmth. Omar could feel his heart beating where his hand rest against his back, and could smell morning-faded soap on his skin.
Colin tilted his head up. “Take me home?”
“To… your car for you to go to your home, or…?”
Colin laughed. “You and me in your car, to my home,” he said, and then shook his head. “I want you to know that I have really never been the put-out-on-the-first-date kind of guy, but after my shitty year — which involved zero getting laid, just so you know — and being dead, I’m really, really feeling interested in having some very life-affirming sex. With you. If you’re into that.”
Omar dropped his head down to press a kiss into Colin’s hair. “It’s not my usual thing either, but yeah, I’m into that.” He rubbed his hand up and down Colin’s spine, letting him melt against him as he held him close. “Life-affirming, though, that’s a pretty big expectation to live up to.”
Colin pressed a kiss against his neck and suddenly Omar felt acutely aware of how long it’d been since he’d gotten laid; not as long as Colin, but still too long. “I think you’ll do pretty well.”
“I’ll do my damnedest,” he said, and unwrapped Colin from around him. “Uh, my place or yours?”
“My place,” Colin said. “I’ve got the bedroom all fixed up and it’s just waiting to be shown off.” He laughed and looked downward. “And it’s where all my medication is. Anyway, I don’t want to scandalize your dogs.”
“They’ve been well-scandalized already,” Omar said.
Colin grinned and his hand slid down from Omar’s waist to get a good cup of one of his ass cheeks. “We’ll do that later, then,” he said, punctuating with a healthy squeeze. “My place.”
Omar took the drive to Colin’s place faster than might have been safe. He rolled the windows down and turned the radio on, and Colin reached over the space between the seats to stroke the back of his neck. He’d end up wrecking the car and some other poor medical examiner would get to tell his friends he finally got to see one of those legendary cadavers with an erection. He took Colin’s hand away from his neck and kissed his knuckles. No angel lust in his obituary, he had to make sure.
Colin had bought a second lamp for his living room, Omar noticed in the split second he was inside his apartment before Colin started kissing him, tugging at the shoulders of his shirt to get him closer. He was breathing hard, huffing and nearly growling, as he kissed him hard. He left Omar breathless; he had the kind of mouth built for kissing. And probably not bad at other things, too.
“You smell good,” Colin said, against his chin, scraping teeth over the stubble that had grown there since his morning shave. “Seriously, you just smell good.”
“I smell like morgue,” Omar said, honestly. Colin just laughed and caught his earlobe in his teeth, making Omar’s knees buckle a little.
“More proof of my fucking crossed wires, then,” he said, and he grabbed a fistful of Omar’s shirt to pull him back to the bedroom. “Whatever. You smell good. Get it on me.”
“Jesus,” Omar said, though he really should not have been surprised that there were going to be things coming out of Colin’s mouth, possibly obscene things. He’d love hearing them, but he found himself too distracted by keeping Colin’s mouth occupied with his own, even as they staggered closer to his bed. IKEA, of course.
Colin stroked his cheek with his palm and Omar followed it to kiss it. He might have smelled good, but Colin tasted good. He wanted more of him in his mouth. “Mm, hey, bright side about you already seeing me naked, I don’t have to worry about shocking you with my pale flabby fatness.”
Omar got his hands on Colin, one of them getting a good hold on Colin’s ass — and he had quite an ass; it was no wonder he’d been so upset about the loss of those jeans — and the other brushing over the rise of his belly. “You’re hot,” Omar said. A little extra meat on a boy’s bones had never been in the cons column for him. “Which I wasn’t thinking the last time I saw you naked, mind.”
Colin laughed, something that felt so good when Omar had his hands all over him, when they were twined up close enough together that he could feel the stutter of breath against his neck. “Good! Great,” he said, and then wriggled back a little to start pulling his clothes off. “Time to replace that image in your head.”
When Colin shimmied out of his pants, Omar didn’t wait to get a long, good, look. He kissed him again, pushing his fingers back through the fine strands of his hair to tilt his head back, and cupped his erection through his shorts with his other hand. Colin gasped and jerked against him, but Omar held him still, kept kissing him. He was going to damn well be life-affirming.
Colin started pulling at his own clothes, hands under his shirt, long fingers moving along his abdomen and over his chest. He felt Colin make a satisfied noise as he skimmed his fingers over the coils of his chest hair. He bit Omar’s lip a little, enough to pull back and say, “Naked now.”
Omar let go of him and obeyed, getting out of his clothing quick and dropping it to wrinkle on the floor. Colin gave him a long, long look, head to toe and back again, grinning the whole while like a kid on Christmas morning. “Oh, hell yes, I am alive.” He put a hand on the center of Omar’s chest and pushed him gently back, indicating he should sit on the bed. That put Omar at an excellent vantage point to grope at his cock again, feeling it pulsing hot in his hand through fabric. He’d had more than enough of layers between them. He hooked his thumbs under the waist of Colin’s underpants and tugged them down.
“That’s nice,” he said, his voice rumbling low. Colin’s cock wasn’t remarkably sized when it came to length, but it was thick, ending in a wide, ruddy head. Omar wrapped his hand around it and Colin gasped, swaying on his feet a little.
“Looking much better now, I bet, huh?” he said, breathlessly.
“Much,” he said, and that was about the last he wanted to think of Colin like he’d first seen him. He wrapped an arm around Colin’s waist and pulled him forward, grabbing hold of his hip as he took his cock in his mouth, sucking him all the way in to the root.
“Fffffuuuuck,” Colin groaned, and Omar couldn’t help but laugh a little. That sounded much better now. He squeezed Colin’s ass as he sucked him, just holding him deep in his mouth, tonguing all the way around that thick shaft of his while his forehead brushed his soft stomach. He kept his lips tight as he finally slowly started to draw back, ending up pulling his lips from Colin’s cock with a wet pop. “Fuuuuuuck,” Colin said again. He put a hand on Omar’s shoulder before he started to go back to it, though. “Wait, wait, lie back.”
Omar had no problem being directed. He settled back on the bed, his own cock standing up eagerly. Colin took a moment, looking him up and down again, and then settled on top of him, kissing him so hard his head was pushed into the mattress. Colin’s cock, still slick from his mouth, nudged against his own, and he moaned into Colin’s mouth.
Colin’s cheeks were flushed. His whole body was flushed, actually, pink and red in blotches. “Okay,” he said against Omar’s mouth. “I’m going to blow you, and you’re going to blow me. That sound good?”
“Sounds fantastic,” Omar said, and Colin was smiling when he kissed him again.
“You’re so smart,” he said, and changed his position so he could get his mouth on Omar while Omar got his mouth on him. Omar had to take a moment when he felt the first touch of Colin’s mouth on his cock. He grabbed hold of one of Colin’s thighs and breathed out shakily against it. He was good with his tongue, already doing clever things with it to his foreskin, things that made Omar want to come right away. Wouldn’t that be life-affirming, to get a guy you liked off so hard, so fast?
Nothing worked better to divide attention and prolong stamina like having something to occupy you, and there was Colin’s dick, the reddest part of him, just right there waiting. He sucked at the end of him, teasing the taste of him out of the slit with his tongue. He wondered if Colin would want to fuck him, or be fucked, or any number of things. Omar smelled his skin, felt him moan around his own cock as he sucked him deeper, and wanted them all.
Omar gripped Colin’s flank hard as he worked him with his mouth, the little red fingerprints he was leaving in his pale flesh the only thing holding him back from entirely losing it. It was stubbornness and nothing else, but of all the things he had done for Colin so far, it seemed most important that he get him off first. He stroked his fingers up along the inside of one of Colin’s thighs, and when Colin pulled his mouth from his cock to gasp he knew he was on the right track. His fingers teased over Colin’s balls, and he let his cock nudge the back of his throat.
“FUCK!” Colin shouted, the loudest one yet, and came hard, pawing at Omar’s lower back as he spilled into his mouth. He swallowed and let him go soft in his mouth, stroking the gooseflesh that was rising along his thighs.
“Fuck,” Colin said again, a rough, low groan, and pushed Omar’s hips back until he was flat on the bed. Omar couldn’t see his face as he sucked him now, but he could at least touch him, get hands all over his body. He let off heat like a furnace, bright and blazing. He could do such things with that mouth, such amazing things. Omar came hard with a long groan instead of any rough vocabulary.
Colin huffed and puffed and flopped himself over until he was facing Omar again. Omar wanted to kiss him, very deeply wanted to kiss him, maybe kiss him for a very, very long time to come, but for now he needed to catch his breath.
Colin curled an arm around Omar’s waist. “I feel so fucking affirmed right now,” he said, and Omar laughed.
“How about…” he said between heavy breaths. “Affirmed fucking?”
Colin grinned against Omar’s shoulder. “Yeah, that goes on the agenda.” He was quiet for a long while, the both of them settling their breathing. Omar only knew he was awake from the occasional kisses he’d drop against his skin. “I needed this,” he said. “I needed someone like you.”
Omar put his arm around Colin and pulled him close, hugging him to his chest. “You’ve got me,” he said. After a few minutes of feeling the steady rhythm of his pulse, he realized something. “…Shit, I can’t stay the night, though.”
Colin made a discontented noise. “You can’t?”
“The dogs,” he said.
Colin sighed theatrically. “Bitches,” he said into Omar’s armpit. Omar laughed and ruffled Colin’s hair.
“Next time, I promise we can scandalize the hell out of them,” he said. “They like you, anyway.”
“They do,” Colin said. “I like them, too.” He put his hand over Omar’s heart, and they dozed like that for a while, until Omar could feel himself being pulled by desperate, guilt-provoking dog love from across the miles.
He dressed again, and Colin put himself into pajamas to see Omar out. He could make it about six feet before stopping Omar to kiss him some more, which hindered his exit even more. The dogs would forgive him for being home late, he was sure.
The last kiss caught him halfway through the living room, and before he finally turned to leave, that same bit of white by the floor caught his eye again. That shattered mug was still there, in its even older sticky stain. He kept his arms around Colin as he looked at it.
“Hey,” he said, soft against Colin’s hair. “You want me to pick that up for you?”
Colin looked over at it, resting his head against Omar’s chest. He took in one long breath and let it out again. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, you can.”
“It’s going to be okay?” Omar said.
Colin pulled back to look at him. The tiredness that had hung in his eyes since they met was finally starting to fade. “You know, it might not be,” he said. “There’s always going to be a possibility that it’s not going to be okay.”
Omar pushed Colin’s hair back away from his face, looking him in his soft green eyes. “There is,” he said. “But you know what? When it’s not okay next time? You just sit back and I’ll throw whatever needs throwing my own damn self.”
Colin laughed, quiet and awed, and hugged himself to Omar’s chest again. “That sounds like a plan. A really, really good plan.”
Omar took the dustpan and broom that Colin gave him and swept the shards of the broken mug up. Colin held open the trash while he threw them away.