My alarm woke me at eight in the morning, as it had every day since I’d gone back on my medication. I groaned and shut it off, not ready to get out of bed yet.
I was tired. I hadn’t slept well since I’d come to Cape Canaveral with Howie. The new bed he’d bought was comfortable, but I couldn’t seem to shut down my brain whenever I was in it. It had been especially bad the last two nights, ever since the rocket launch. Afterward, I’d lain awake for hours, wondering what it meant that I had felt something for Howie when we kissed. I hadn’t wanted to; I was hoping the kiss would reinforce the belief I’d been clinging to ever since the cruise, that what had happened between us was just the result of too much alcohol and not any real attraction. But my plan had backfired spectacularly - with sparks.
I had done my best to avoid Howie all the previous day, so we wouldn’t have to talk about it. I’d gone to the gym by myself in the morning, worked out for an hour or so, and spent the rest of the day driving aimlessly down the A1A. For a while, I had actually considered going all the way to Key West, but decided it would have been a dick move to leave Howie without any warning, like Leigh had. If I were going to leave, I would at least have the decency to tell him first... but now I wasn’t sure I even wanted to anymore. The kiss had made things so much more complicated - as if they weren’t complicated enough already.
With a sigh, I rolled over onto my back and lay there for a few minutes, looking around Holden’s old room. Leigh had taken the letters off the wall before she left, but the paint was slightly less faded where they had hung, so I could still see his name. It was like the Blackfoot Indian tattoos I’d tried to have removed from my chest: barely visible, but still there. For some reason, that bothered me. I guess it was because it was like this constant reminder of everything that had gone wrong in Howie’s life - and, by extension, mine, too. Had none of it happened, his baby would still be sleeping in this room, and I would be home in bed with my wife.
A lump rose in my throat as I held up my left hand, looking bitterly at my bare ring finger. I should have been wearing a wedding band around it by now. I wondered if Lauren was still wearing her engagement ring, like she had been in Tennessee. I hoped not. As much as it hurt, I hoped the fact that she hadn’t called or texted since then was a sign that she was moving on without me.
It’s for the best, I told myself, turning my hand around. On the inside of my wrist, I could see the tattoo of a skull with the words “Old habits die hard” hiding Paris Hilton’s name. I could have removed the original tattoo, instead of covering it up, but aside from the fact that laser removal hurts like hell (as I’d learned from my Blackfoot Indian ink), I kept it as a reminder that everything happens for a reason and mistakes help us learn. I’d sure made enough of them in my life to know.
I thought back to what Howie had said about Paris in the car after I’d kissed him. Was fooling around with him a worse mistake than dating her? On one hand, it was... because if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have gotten infected with HIV. But on the other hand, at least Howie loved me, whereas Paris had just used me. Deep down, I knew he had my best interests at heart and had never meant to hurt me. I had been struggling with my feelings about the whole situation for so long, I hadn’t stopped to think that maybe there was a reason this had happened to us. Maybe, somehow, it was meant to bring us together.
Swallowing hard, I sat up and, pushing back the blankets, swung my legs over the side of the bed. It was time to get up... and time to talk to Howie. I couldn’t keep avoiding him forever. Sooner or later, we would have to have another conversation about what had happened. Might as well get it over with today, I thought, pulling on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt.
“Hey, Howie, you up?” I called on my way to the kitchen. It didn’t surprise me to find him sitting at the breakfast bar, since he usually got up before me. “Oh good, you are. I thought maybe we could-” I stopped mid-sentence, realizing he was on the phone. He had his back to me, but I could see his hand holding it up to his ear. “Oops... sorry,” I mouthed, as I tiptoed around him to get a glass of water.
Howie didn’t even look up. He had his forehead propped against the palm of his hand and appeared to be deep in concentration, listening hard to whoever was on the other end of the line. Judging by the frown on his face, they were saying something serious.
I pushed my glass to the water dispenser in the fridge with just enough pressure to get a trickle of water, filling it as slowly as possible so I could eavesdrop on Howie without looking like I was listening.
“Yeah, if you could do that, that’d be great,” he was saying. “Yeah, this number’s good... Okay... Thanks so much. ‘Bye.” I heard him sigh as he set down the phone. “Morning, Nick.”
“Hey, what’s up, man?” I turned around, my glass still half empty. When I caught sight of his face without his arm in front of it, the glass slipped from my fingers and fell to the floor. “Holy shit!” I cried. “What the hell happened to you?”
His cheeks were covered with a bright, red rash. It looked like a bad sunburn, but I knew it couldn’t be; Howie’s naturally tan skin rarely burned, and besides, he hadn’t looked like that the night before.
“Watch the glass,” he warned quickly, holding up a hand to stop me as I started to hurry over to him.
“Oh, shit,” I said, looking down at the shattered remnants of the glass. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay; just don’t cut yourself.”
I stepped carefully around the shards of glass, uncomfortably aware of the fact that I was barefoot and my blood was contaminated. But at least I didn’t have to worry about infecting Howie. “Seriously, dude, what is that on your face?” I asked, as I sat down next to him to get a closer look, scooting my stool a safe distance away in case it was something contagious.
“I don’t know, but it’s all over,” he said, his voice shaking slightly as he showed me his splotchy arms and legs. “My temp’s up to 100.5, so I called the emergency number at the transplant center. Dr. Parker’s not there this early in the morning, but the nurse on call said she’d page him. She said he should call me back within fifteen minutes.” He checked the time on his phone and sighed again.
“Well, did the nurse say what it could be?” I asked, wondering if we should be worried. I knew Howie hadn’t felt well the night before and that a high fever was one of the warning signs we were supposed to watch for right after his transplant, but I didn’t remember hearing anything about rashes.
He shook his head. “She didn’t say much, just listened to my symptoms and said she’d page Dr. Parker right away. But, I mean, it must’ve sounded serious to her if she would wake him up at home...”
I swallowed hard. “Yeah... but you know, it kinda just looks like hives. Maybe you’re having an allergic reaction to something. Did you eat anything weird yesterday? Or wash your sheets with a different detergent?”
Howie shook his head again. “Thank you for your fine diagnostic work, Dr. Carter, but no, and that wouldn’t explain the fever or the fact that I feel like I got hit by a truck.”
“Oh... true. You didn’t tell me the part about the truck, though.”
He chuckled. “Touché.”
I busied myself with cleaning up the broken glass on the floor while Howie waited for his doctor to call. “Did you take your meds yet?” I asked him, as I filled a new glass with water to take mine.
“No, not yet. I thought I’d better wait and ask the doctor, in case it’s a reaction to one of the drugs or something.”
“Oh.” I hadn’t considered that, but it fit with what I’d been thinking earlier about an allergic reaction. “I bet that’s all it is! That happened to me with my meds - well, not the fever and rash, just a lot of puking and diarrhea - and the doctor just prescribed this other pill I take to help with that stuff,” I said, holding up the little Compazine tablet I was about to swallow, “and it’s been a lot better since then.”
“Yeah... maybe,” Howie muttered. He was staring at his phone, and I could tell he’d hardly heard a word of my babbling.
I didn’t know what else to say, except what I had wanted to talk to him about in the first place, but since it obviously wasn’t the best time for that, I decided to shut up. I took my pills, poured myself a bowl of cereal, and sat back down at the breakfast bar. “Want some?” I offered, pushing the box of Cookie Crisp toward him.
Giving me a sidelong glance, Howie shook his head. “I can’t believe you like the same cereal as my five-year-old.”
“Dude, who doesn’t like Cookie Crisp?” I replied incredulously. Finding an unopened box of it in Howie’s cupboard had been the best thing that had happened to me in Cape Canaveral. Who cared if it belonged to his kids and had probably been bought last November? It had been a long time since Lauren had let me eat sugary cereal like this, but I’d decided I was done sticking to her list of immune-boosting superfoods. I’d tried to eat healthy in Franklin, and a lot of good that had done, seeing as how I’d still ended up in the hospital. Life was too short to deprive myself of delicious treats like Cookie Crisp. I knew that better than anyone now - or anyone who wasn’t Howie.
“I don’t,” he said shortly and went back to staring at his phone.
For the next few minutes, we both sat there in silence, waiting. Well, it wasn’t totally silent; even though we weren’t talking anymore, I was uncomfortably aware of how loudly I was eating my cereal. Every clink of the spoon, every slurp of milk, and every crunch of Cookie Crisp seemed strangely amplified in the quiet kitchen. Howie kept side-eyeing me, obviously irritated. That was nothing new, though; as Howie had said, there was a time when my number one goal in life had been to annoy him as much as possible. I was just fulfilling my duty - and hopefully finding a way to distract him at the same time.
When his phone finally went off, we both jumped. “Hello?” Howie answered. “Hi, Dr. Parker...”
I took my empty bowl over to the sink and stood there, shamelessly eavesdropping again on Howie’s end of the conversation. I listened to him explain his symptoms and describe the rash that erupted on his skin overnight. Then he was silent for a few seconds, while the doctor was talking. “Okay... okay...” Howie kept saying in response, and then, finally, “I will. Thank you, Dr. Parker.”
“What’d he say?” I asked, as soon as Howie hung up.
Howie heaved another sigh. “He wants me to go to the hospital to have some tests done.”
“What, in L.A.??”
He gave me a look, the kind of look that meant I’d said something stupid. I used to get that a lot from him. “No, dumbass, the hospital here. Well, in Orlando, actually.”
“Why Orlando? That’s, like, an hour away.”
Howie shrugged. “None of the hospitals here have a hepatology department. Liver specialists,” he added, at my blank look.
“Oh. So... does that mean he thinks this has something to do with your transplant?” I asked hesitantly, almost afraid to hear his answer.
“He said my symptoms could be signs of rejection or just an infection, but since I’m immunosuppressed, that could be serious, too. He’s gonna call ahead to Florida Hospital and tell them we’re coming. Do you mind driving me?”
"Not if you don’t mind letting me borrow your car,” I replied. “My rental’s about outta gas.” I suddenly regretted driving all those miles for no reason the day before.
He shrugged. “Sure, whatever. I’m gonna get dressed. Brush your teeth before we go, would ya? You’ve got fake chocolate chips stuck between your teeth.”
I ran my tongue over my teeth self-consciously, as he turned to leave the kitchen.
We left as soon as we were both ready. The ride to Orlando was long and tense. We listened to the radio without really talking, like we had the night of the rocket launch, but this time, there was no singing along. I couldn’t even concentrate on the music. I just kept thinking about the last time Howie had ended up in the hospital and how close he’d come to dying. Far from finding ways to avoid him or tell him how I felt, all I wanted right then was for Howie to be okay.