Chapter One“Damn it!” Bradley exclaimed, as he hit his finger with the hammer for what had to be the umpteenth time. Taking off his heavy work gloves, he glanced down to see the damage he’d caused this time. When he saw that it was just a minor injury, he let out a sigh of relief. As it was, he’d already broken one finger and two others were bruised and swollen. Okay, maybe he was exaggerating a bit about the one being broken, but it was a real pretty shade of purple. At least he hadn’t done too much harm to them that he couldn’t use them. He was behind as it was. The hurricane was about to hit within hours and Bradley had a ton left to do. He still had more than half of the house to finish, too. As such, Bradley needed every bit of his body functional. So, he would have to be more careful with the hammer. The last thing he needed was to hit one of his fingers and really break it. Bradley knew he had to keep moving, hurt or not. Even if he did want to run inside, jump under his blankets and hide for the next day or so. But, as always, that just wasn’t possible. He, fool that he was, had to step forward and be the only responsible one in their large family. So, while they all ran for the hills whenever there was any sign of trouble, they left Bradley behind to clean up the mess. Which at that moment really sucked since a huge-ass hurricane was coming their way and Bradley felt as if he had a giant bull’s-eye stamped on his back. He just knew it was going to hit them hard and there was little he could do to stop it. To add even more crap to the pile, Bradley also was the only one who stood up and took care of their sick grandfather. So, while the rest of the family was going to be nice, dry, and comfy, Bradley had no choice but to ride out the storm. If Bradley didn’t get things prepared he, Gramps, and Snoopy would be flying through the air Dorothy-style. That was something that Bradley didn’t want to happen. Not only was Snoopy too fat to fit into a little basket, but Bradley would never be able to pull off the ruby slippers. Red had never been his color. “We’re getting ready to go to the shelter. You sure you don’t want to go with us?” his neighbor, Trent, asked, as he walked out of his own house. Trent was as white-bread as they came. He was married to a beautiful wife, had two kids: one girl, one boy. They went to church every Sunday. Hell, Trent and his son even threw the baseball to each other in the front yard. They were like a Norman Rockwell picture come to life. Only his neighbors were a bit more annoying, because they were perfection come alive and they talked. If Trent only knew how much that Bradley would love to go to the shelter and ride out the storm there. Not only would it be much safer, but Bradley wouldn’t be alone and have to be in charge of other’s lives. As it stood, he was going to have to face the hurricane in his house that had been built years ago. Plus, he had to take care of his ailing grandfather, who could be as mean as a one-eyed rattlesnake, and Bradley’s dog Snoopy. While Snoopy may be big, fat, and ugly, Bradley loved that thing and he couldn’t bear to leave him behind. If there was any flooding, there was no way Snoopy could swim to safety. He would just sink to the bottom, with that same dumb look that was on his face. The one that was a combination of “feed me” mixed in with “I love my human.” “The shelter said no pets allowed. I don’t want to leave Snoopy,” Bradley said, before he took off his hat and wiped the sweat away with the back of his hand. “It’s stupid to die, just because of a dog,” Trent pointed out. “Not to me. I love that guy too much.” Trent let out a sigh. “He’s a dog, not your lover.” Bradley barely refrained from gasping. How could Trent be so cruel? Didn’t he understand how much somebody could love their pets? Probably not. He was too busy trying to project the image of the perfect husband and father to worry about that. Bradley could just imagine Trent standing in front of the mirror, perfecting his facial expression, to see what would make the best impression. “Well, I’m still staying with Snoopy,” Bradley replied calmly, trying really hard not to let his anger show. “Fine, but you do know that if you run into trouble that police and fire have said that they aren’t sending out anybody until the storm is over? So, you’ll be on your own. Once that hurricane hits us, there’s no changing your mind,” Trent said. Bradley let out a sigh. “It’s just not Snoopy; I can’t move my grandfather, either.” “Why don’t you just toss him in a wheelchair and go?” Trent asked. Yeah, Trent was just a treasure’s trove of compassion. Maybe they weren’t as Norman Rockwell as Bradley had previously thought. The more Trent talked the more he was beginning to sound like a would-be serial killer. All that was missing was Trent wetting the bed and starting fires and then the trifecta would be there. Of course, Trent could be peeing the bed and his wife just hiding the sheets, so nobody ever found out. Bradley ran his hand through his hair as he tried to think of a good answer. One that wouldn’t get him killed and buried in a shallow grave. “I wish I could, but with all the chemo, his immune system is so weak that he can’t be around that many people. If he gets any bug or virus, it could kill him.” “Shit, I guess you are stuck. I’m sorry there, buddy. I’d stay behind and help you, but I’ve got my wife and kids that I have to look out for. The weather station said that this is going to be one hell of a hurricane, so I don’t know how crazy things are going to get.” Bradley was touched by his neighbor’s concern; maybe the guy did have some empathy after all and Bradley had jumped to the wrong conclusion about his neighbor. But Trent was right; he did have his own family to consider. “Go ahead. We’ll be fine. Even if my grandfather wasn’t senile, he would still insist on riding this one out.” “Even though this is supposed to be a category four hurricane? This isn’t your everyday normal storm.” “That would make him all the more eager. He used to always love to do crazy stuff like that. Do you know he bungee jumped and parachuted out of an airplane? For fun. Not because he had to. Hell, he even paid them for the honor. Before he got cancer he was planning on trying to climb Everest.” That made it even harder to see his grandfather in the condition that he was currently in. Nothing was sadder than having to see a loved one fade away and become a shadow of what they used to be. It was a million times harder to handle, watching them die, only the death was stretched out over years. “I wish you luck. I would stay and help you out some, but I have to go and pick up my family,” Trent said. “I hope you make it out of this okay. If you don’t, can I have your car?” Okay, so maybe Trent was a little off after all. Bradley made a note to have a very good security system installed in their home when the hurricane was over. “We’ll be fine. My grandfather is too grumpy to die just yet.” At least Bradley hoped they would be okay. As it was, it was beginning to rain and the winds were picking up. Bradley knew he didn’t have much time to finish prepping the house. Trent drove off, then Bradley got back to work. It seemed to take forever, plus he had push back his fear of heights, but he managed to get all the windows covered. Bradley was climbing down the ladder, when he saw a truck pulling into his driveway. As soon as he saw the familiar red vehicle, Bradley let out a curse. Of course, Mike would have to pick this moment to show up. As if Bradley didn’t have enough on his plate as it was. Now he was going to have to deal with his ex, too. Damn, damn, damn! With the way things were going Bradley wouldn’t be surprised if a zap of lighting came down from the sky and hit his ass. But, then again that may be a good thing, because then he wouldn’t have to deal with Mike. Try as he may, Bradley still had strong emotions for Mike. The pain of Mike turning his back on Bradley was still raw and fresh. So much so that Bradley could barely look at the other man, for fear of breaking down. Even though they had been apart for just over a year. Mike climbed out of truck. Damn it, why did he have to still look so good? It would have been such poetic justice if Mike had gotten fat with a face covered with pimples. But Bradley knew that would never happen and he was right, Mike still looked as good as ever. With a muscular body that just begged to be licked, dark hair, and piercing blue eyes, he still made Bradley’s breath quicken. Even though Bradley wanted to hate Mike, he couldn’t stop himself from getting hard from just looking at the man. “What are you doing here?” Bradley snapped as he went to the garage and put the tools up. Just because his dick could be forgiving didn’t mean the rest of him followed along with that plan. “I wanted to check on you and make sure that you got to a shelter.” “Why would you care?” “Because I’ve heard some crazy rumor that you actually are thinking about trying to ride out this storm.” Bradley whipped off his gloves and instantly winced when pain shot through his injured fingers.Nice move, dumbass. Why don’t you just get the hammer out and have a go at all of them right in front of Mike. That way your humiliation could be complete. Bradley wondered to himself why he was always making himself look like a fool in front of Mike. It had been that way when they’d been dating, too. If there had been a crack in the sidewalk, Bradley would find it and trip over it. If somebody accidentally knocked over their drinking glass while at a restaurant, it was always him. Bradley also had the uncanny ability to call others by the wrong name. He tried as hard as he could, but he couldn’t seem to keep track of all of Mike’s friends. No doubt Mike had been so relieved when they had parted, he’d probably been glad to wash himself clean of Bradley and his clumsy ways. Mike’s gaze honed in on Bradley’s bandaged fingers. “You used a hammer didn’t you?” “Well, I had no choice. Somebody had to cover all the windows. So, if something hit them during the hurricane we didn’t have all kinds of crap flying into our living room.” “How are your grandfather and Snoopy doing?” Funny how it touched Bradley so much that somebody actually showed that they cared a damn about him, even if it was his ex. The ex who had broken Bradley’s heart just a year ago. “Snoopy is great. It’s my grandfather that I’m worried about. He’s so bad that he’s bedridden now and has to have his meds at certain times around the clock. To make matters worse, I think he may be starting to developing Alzheimer’s. He likes to wander at night. It’s gotten to the point to where I have to use restraints, so he doesn’t go outside and get lost. Do you have any idea how hard it is to do that night after night? I can’t get any sleep because I’m afraid that he’ll manage to get free and I can’t sleep during the day, because I have to work and take care of him, because the day nurse just isn’t doing enough.” Bradley realized that he’d just admitted to somebody all that was going on in his life. And that somebody just happened to be his ex whom Bradley hated and was angry with, too. But, it had felt so cathartic to unload on somebody. Bradley even felt some of the weight lift off his shoulders. “Fine, but I’m staying with you,” Mike said. “What?” Bradley was tempted to rattle his head around to make sure that nothing was blocking his ears. “I’m not letting you do this by yourself. You’re going to need all the help you can get, so you better take it, even if it’s from me.” “I’d rather die than spend ten minutes in your company,” Bradley said with a growl. “That’s about how long you’re going to live if you don’t let me stay,” Mike shot back. “Since when have you given two shits about me?” Bradley glanced down at the ground, so Mike wouldn’t see all the emotions that were playing out on his face. Out of all the men…all right, make it a few… men that Bradley had ever dated, none of them had the power to play with Bradley’s feelings like Mike did. “That’s not fair,” Mike countered. “I had my reasons for letting you move on.” “You mean the reasons that you refused to share with me?” Mike kicked at a rock on the ground. “Look, we’re going to have plenty of time to talk about that, later. Let’s just finish getting your house as ready as it can be. As it is, we’ll be lucky if the old thing doesn’t fall down around us as soon as the hurricane hits.” Since Bradley knew that Mike was right, he gave him a curt nod and got back to work. Most of which consisted of Mike redoing the wood that covered the windows. Okay, Bradley wasn’t exactly a carpenter, kill him. Still, Bradley hadn’t done that bad of a job that Mike had to redo it all…had he? Bradley looked down on the ground to see the comically small amount of sandbags he’d surrounded the house with. He had wanted to put up a ton more, but that had been all he’d been able to find. The entire town had been stripped clean of hurricane survival items. As it was, Bradley had to get into a tug-of-war for one bag with an elderly lady. Bradley had eventually won that battle, but not before she’d gave him a good dozen wallops with her purse. They had hurt, too. “How was your last deployment?” Bradley asked. Mike was a Pararescuer for the Air Force, or a PJ as they were more commonly known as. Since they were among the first on the ground after an attack, their job was very dangerous and they suffered both higher losses and injuries in their own ranks. As such, the training was as rigorous as any Green Beret or SEAL. The bad thing is there were only so many PJs to go around, so they were deployed more often than most units. “It sucked. I took a bullet to the leg,” Mike said. A wave of worry went through Bradley. “Oh my God, that must have hurt like a bitch. Are you going to be okay?” “Yeah, they had to reconstruct the whole thing, but at least I didn’t lose it. But it was bad enough to make it so that I’m unfit to ever serve again.” Bradley felt as if somebody had come over then punched him in the gut. Which was odd since he was supposed to hate Mike. “I’m so sorry. I know how much being a PJ meant to you.” “Yeah, I’ll just have to find a new job. Maybe one of the EMT crews needs another man. Hopefully they’ll still take me, even with my leg issue. I only have a small limp from it. It’s at night when it’s a bitch. Then it hurts like hell. My doctor says it’s because I don’t rest it enough, but you know me. I’m not the sit around and watch the world go by kind of guy.” “No, that’s never been you and I don’t think that this wound will ever slow you down,” Bradley said. The entire time Mike was talking he was rubbing at his right leg. He was doing it in such an absent manner that it made Bradley wonder if Mike was aware of the fact that he was doing it at all. It could, also, just be that Mike still had lingering pain there and was rubbing out the hurt. “You’d make a great paramedic. I know that I’d feel a lot better if I knew that you were out there protecting me,” Bradley said. The wind began to pick up more, blowing their hair and bits of debris into their faces. When part of a bush nearly decapitated Bradley, he knew that they had to get inside, quick. He, also, knew that the elderly woman who lived across the street was going to be good and pissed. She’d always babied that thing, pruning it every day. There were times when Bradley swore he even heard her talking to it. “Thanks for the words of reassurance.” Mike looked up and squinted into the light. “I guess it was only a matter of time before they got me. I was on my fifth deployment. If you stop to think about it, I was lucky that I made it out alive. The odds weren’t exactly stacked in my favor.” “Still, I know it’s been your dream since you’ve been a kid.” Mike gave Bradley a jaded look. “I learned a long time ago that we always don’t get what we want out of life.” Another gust of wind blew. This one was so hard that Bradley was almost knocked off his feet. He must have slipped a couple of inches, because Mike reached out and grabbed Bradley’s shoulder to steady him. Great! Not only did Mike have to redo all of Bradley’s work on the windows, but he had to save Bradley from blowing away. Bradley was beginning to think that he was playing the damsel in distress role, which pissed him off. He may be tall and skinny, but he was still a man and he could take care of himself, damn it! “Well, at least it looks like you’re going to get one of your classic order-Bradley-around anyway. There is no way you can drive in these conditions,” Bradley said, having to raise his voice to be heard. “We better get inside and get everything ready there.” They both ran up the stairs of the porch then went inside the house. As soon as he shut the door, the first thing Bradley realized was how quiet it was. Without the wind whirling around him, the inside seemed almost deafening. It had such an eerie effect on Bradley that a shiver ran up his spine. “Brady boy, is that you? I need you to come help me. I need to change the channel off this woman talk show crap and put the game on instead,” his grandpa yelled. “If I have to watch one more commercial about feminine protection, I’m going to throw something at the TV.” Well the silence was over. It had been so nice while it lasted. Bradley let out a sigh. He knew that he was going to have to move his grandfather upstairs soon and the old man was going to be a terror the entire time. If there was one thing his grandpa didn’t like was to be carried. Most likely because it reminded him of how sick he was. “Come with me. You can be a witness to my grandfather’s joy when he finds out that we’re going to have to move him,” Bradley said with a falsely sweet voice. “Why don’t I trust you? This reeks of a setup,” Mike counted as he narrowed his eyes. “Probably because it is.” Bradley decided it would give Mike a little taste of what he’d had put off for the past year. While Mike may have been doing a noble job and fighting for his county, Bradley had been alone had been fighting a battle of his own back home. Both jobs were terrible in different ways and they left scars, be it on the outside or on the inside. “You do have to admit, I owe you one. You broke up with me via text. That was a low blow there.” “I just couldn’t say it to your face,” Mike said as he ducked his head and looked down at his boots. “Yeah, well we’re going to be together for several hours. That will leave you plenty of time to explain everything to me,” Bradley warned. Bradley meant it, too. Before the hurricane was over, he would finally have all the answers that he deserved.
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