Castle Roland

Forever 2 - Changes

by Jack Schaeffer

In Progress

Chapter 10

Posted: 29 Jun 15

FOREVER 2 - Changes
By Jack Schaeffer
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved.

"Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation." - Robert F. Kennedy, Senator and U.S. Attorney General

From the previous chapter:

Arnold Turner was dead. I killed him. According to Andrew, who actually tried to save him after making sure I was not seriously injured, the metal stirrup hit him in just the right spot in his temple area to shatter his skull and cause it to implode into his brain. He was essentially dead before he hit the floor. My twisting as I swung the stirrup was the difference between a scratch, as Sam called it, and a life threatening injury.

When the gun had gone off, Ben immediately broke through the door, with Sam right behind him. Andrew was the one who had rolled me onto my back to check me out, but Sam apparently had shoved him aside, screaming, seeing blood and thinking I was dead. Michael told me Sam never left my side. He was the one who carried me to the other examination room so Michael could repair my wound, the whole time holding me still so Michael could work.

Thankfully the head investigator deemed my actions self-defense, especially after Andrew independently corroborated my story. I was free to leave, as long as I made myself available, if needed, at a later date. When we left the clinic, the county coroner was putting Turner's body, now in a large, black plastic bag, into his van. For some reason, it reminded me of Turner's comment about taking out the trash.

I woke up in a strange place. Different sounds. Different smells. The only thing familiar was the warm hairy chest rubbing up against my back. That and the muscular arm draped over me. I stroked it lightly, enjoying being wrapped up in Sam's embrace. I carefully rolled over, keeping his arm around me, and looked at my partner in the dim light of early morning. He was still sleeping peacefully.

What was he thinking as he slept? Was he dreaming? About us? About our future together? I hoped they were good dreams. After enduring our past week of turmoil, I would not blame him if he asked for a one-way return ticket to Hawaii. Of course, I would want to go with him. He was my home, my hope, my life. Plus the sex was amazing.

I smiled, thinking about how Sam had glued himself to my side since we left the clinic yesterday. His mood had brightened a bit as the evening wore on, and he was so gentle and careful when he cleaned the wound in my side and re-bandaged it before we went to sleep in Andrew and Michael's spare bedroom. We were lying on a full size mattress sitting on a metal bed frame, no headboard, in an unused room in the back corner of the house. There was nothing else in the room. Andrew was shocked he even found a set of sheets for it.

I had no idea what time it was. I could hear faint noises coming from other parts of the house, but their source was a mystery. I didn't want to wake Sam. He had been restless all night. He needed to sleep. So I contented myself with watching him. He was beautiful, even with his hair slightly tousled and a temporary crease across his cheek from the wrinkled bed sheet under us. His long, dark eyelashes were more pronounced when his eyes were closed. Sexy. I wanted to kiss him. I was rock hard.

As the sun climbed higher outside and the light through the single window slowly glowed brighter, Sam finally started to stir. He opened his eyes, focused on me, then closed them again, a smile lighting up his face. I think he was happy to see me.

"Morning, Sam," I whispered.

"Mmmmm...morning," he replied, then rolled away from me onto his back, taking his arm with him. I suddenly felt cold, even though it had to be nearing 80 degrees in the room.

"How'd you sleep?" I asked.

"Ummmm...okay, I guess." His eyes were still closed. Greeting a new day was a process for Sam. I reached over and put my hand on the middle of his chest, playing softly with the thick brown hair under my palm. I wanted to "accidentally" graze a nipple and gauge his reaction, but I restrained myself.

"Jack?" he asked.

"Yes, Sam?"

"Are you pervin' on my body?"

"Yes," I said, grinning, though he couldn't see it. His eyes were still closed.

"Cool," he said, his smile getting bigger. He grabbed my hand on his chest with one of his and pushed it down to his own rigid cock. It was hot to the touch. My breathing ratcheted up a notch, adrenaline and who knows what other hormones racing through my veins. Sam moaned quietly as I gently stroked his dick, letting my thumb slide very slowly across the head. There was wetness at the tip. I smeared it gently all around as his moaning grew more pronounced.

I bent over and kissed the nipple closest to me, his gasp and arched back my signals to continue. I licked and stroked with my tongue, and in seconds Sam's hand reached out and found my own hard cock, flowing now with pre-cum. We matched one another, stroke for stroke, our breathing more labored and irregular by the minute. Sam's skin across his chest, neck and face became flushed as he approached his release, increasing the sexual heat between us.

My own skin felt hot and sticky in the humid room. Sam squeezed me a little tighter and I was suddenly over the peak and exploding all over my abs and pubes, my hips bucking in a failed attempt to escape his still stroking hand, my breath stifled in a silent scream of physical ecstasy. Sam's body suddenly went rigid in orgasm, shaking with blissful tremors, as he added to the mess all over me. A very happy mess.

When his breathing returned to normal, Sam finally opened his eyes. "Mornin', Jack."

"Mornin', Sam," I giggled.

"Whadda ya want to do today?" he asked.

"Well, a shower to start. I'm a mess."

"No can do, Jack. Michael said you can't get your stitches wet for two days."

"What am I supposed to do?" I exclaimed, suddenly horrified. "I'm covered in cum. And I'm sweaty and sticky."

Sam rolled over onto his side and quickly kissed my lips. "I've got ya." He rolled off the bed, stood up, and walked naked to the bedroom door, cracking it open and peeking out into the hallway.

"Coast is clear. Grab your shorts and follow me." I rolled off the bed slowly, my side a little sore. I'd ignored the increasing pain during our play time, but now the throbbing was more pronounced. I must have winced, because Sam was at my side in a heartbeat.

"You okay? Does it hurt? Here, lean on me." I put my arm around his neck and across his shoulders, not because I really needed a human crutch but just because he needed to be needed, and I enjoyed the physical contact. Sam grabbed a pair of shorts for each of us, and after checking once again that the hallway was vacant, we scurried naked across the hall and into the only bathroom.

We took turns using the toilet, then Sam sat on the edge of the tub and turned the water on. He took a hand towel from the stack Andrew or Michael must have laid out for their guests and wet it with warm water, then began gently washing me all over. He took his time around my wound, being careful not to get the bandages wet. He grinned up at me as he paid very close attention to my abs and groin, thoroughly cleaning up our mess. I was hard again by the time he finished.

"Be careful with that thing. You'll poke somebody's eye out," said Sam, chuckling, gently pushing my hard cock aside to keep washing me. I laughed, too, amazed at how comfortable I was around him now. He finished cleaning me up, and while he showered, I washed my hair in the sink. I was drying Sam off with a towel when someone banged on the door.

"Come on, you two. Shake it off and let someone else have a turn. I gotta go, man," pleaded Todd from the other side of the door.

"One minute. Almost done," I replied. Sam and I pulled up our shorts and hung up our wet towels on a hook behind the door. Sam opened the door and Todd practically fell into the bathroom.

"Thank God. Ten more seconds and I'da been standing in a puddle," he said as he pushed past us. "And why does it smell like sex in here? Ugh!"

"Wasn't us, Bean Counter," said Sam, as he closed the door to give Todd privacy. Just then, Michael, overhearing Todd's comment, walked past us down the hall toward the kitchen in just a pair of khaki shorts, scratching his naked chest covered in dark red hair and freckles, a funny smile on his face.

"Wonder who it could have been?" he mused out loud as he walked past. Sam and I looked at each other and smiled, watching him turn the corner into the kitchen and hearing him shout, "I'm in love with Andrew Munroe!" No more secrets, indeed. We followed him to the kitchen.

"Mike...stop that! You want the neighbors to know our business?" said a slightly worried Andrew, fussing with the coffee machine. "You know how nosy Adeline Massey is. She'll have half the town beating down our door by noon."

"I can't help it, Andy. I love you, and I don't care who knows any more. You stared death in the face yesterday and didn't back down. That's hot, man. And besides, you said no more secrets, right?" He had scooted up to Andrew and hugged him from behind.

Andrew sighed, leaning back on Michael. "Yes...yes, I did. You're right. No more secrets. I'm sorry, I'll get over it. Ugh! Why do I think it was easier to face a homicidal maniac than it's going to be dealing with Dr. Ambrose and the Board? Not to mention Mariana. Did you see the way she was looking at us yesterday? If she doesn't give notice by day's end, I'll be shocked. You know how tight she is with her church."

"Andy, relax. It's going to be okay. People will either accept us and the work we do here, or they won't. Hopefully they will. We love it here, and we do good work. Who else is gonna put up with Juanita Lopez and her incessant hypochondria? Or Marvin's mysterious traveling itch?" Andrew laughed, the two of them sharing an inside doctor-patient joke.

"Why are you guys standing in the hallway?" asked Todd, coming up behind us.

"Oh...sorry, Todd," I said, moving aside to let him pass. Andrew and Michael looked over and smiled at us, making no move to separate. I was glad they didn't. Their newfound openness seemed like a bigger victory than defeating Arnold Turner.

"Who's hungry?" asked Andrew. We all raised our hands, including Andrew.

"What can we fix, babe?" asked Michael.

"Coffee. And one slice of cold, leftover pizza from last night. That's it. We even ran out of milk."

"Let's hit Angie's. We might be able to get there before the church lets out if we hurry." Andrew didn't look like he was in favor of the idea.

"Andy...come on. We have to leave the house sometime. People are gonna talk whether we hide out or not. And tomorrow morning you and I will be walking to the clinic like every other Monday, and you know it. So let's go. Please..." pleaded Michael.

Andrew smiled. "Okay...I guess we can't hide forever. But one ugly remark, and we're out of there, agreed?"

"Yes. But I don't think it will happen. You'll see." I so hoped Michael was right.

We all dispersed to get dressed, Sam and I opting for shorts and t-shirts again. Michael checked my wound and changed out the bandages, and said it was healing nicely. It itched like crazy, which he said was normal, swatting my hand away when I went to scratch.

Todd phoned Hector to let him know where we were headed. He and the rest of the guys had bedded down at the Ft. Hancock Motel near the expressway, as there was no extra space and only the one bathroom here in the house. Sam and I had discussed it, and we agreed we didn't need round-the-clock protection here in Ft. Hancock any more. Arnold Turner was dead, and no one else knew we were here, so Hector reluctantly agreed to stand down and relocate for the night. Todd had slept on the couch, I think.

Andrew and Michael shared an old, rusty Nissan Sentra car which would only hold the two of them. The backseat threatened grievous injury with broken springs poking through the dilapidated fabric. Mariana had been the last person to ever attempt it, and the short ride from the doctors' home to the clinic had indeed resulted in scratches on her backside. She vowed never again.

They agreed to ride with us in the SUVs. Our security team arrived in a cloud of dust and pulled right up to the front porch again. We split up between the two vehicles, and Sam held my hand for the short drive while Ben drove us to the restaurant.

If you could call it that. A total hole-in-the-wall dive, it was essentially cinderblock walls covered in dirty white stucco plaster, sharing the parking lot with the Shell gas station next door and across the main drag from the motel. The only way you would know it was actually a restaurant was because it said so in big white letters across the slanted red eaves framing the flat roof. I guess you had to live there to know Angie owned it. She didn't advertise that fact on the roof.

As we exited the vehicles, Michael gave us fair warning. "This place is not fine dining. It's old and it's dirty, but it's a favorite of the locals. The service is usually good, and the food tastes great. So...look past the decor and see it for its charms. And if nothing else, it's cheap."

Ben volunteered to stay outside and keep an eye on things. He apparently had come across the street from the motel earlier and consumed his breakfast from the various selections on the shelves at the Shell station. I think he just didn't want to take his chances on Angie's cooking. A Twinkie and a bag of chips sounded good enough for me, too.

I did my best not to frown or outright grimace as we pushed several metal tables with cracked Formica tops together to make one longer one. I pulled a few napkins from the dispenser on the table and wiped down the tabletop as best I could. The napkins did not come away clean from my efforts. I was trusting Michael no one in our little group would need their stomach pumped later.

As we sat down, I noticed two young boys staring at our party. They didn't appear to be in the restaurant to eat. They were sitting in a corner looking at some kind of electronic gaming device. The older of the two recognized someone in our party. He poked the shoulder of his friend, whispering and pointing toward our table. They jumped up and ran out the front door, pedaling away furiously on very old bicycles nearly devoid of paint. I sighed. So much for social acceptance. I hoped Andrew and Michael didn't notice.

The waitress was friendly enough, and she brought two pots of hot, black coffee and a pile of standard mugs to the table. We helped ourselves. Well...those who drank coffee did. I asked for a bottle of cold water. It came in a large, dark brown plastic cup with very little ice. It tasted okay but a bit flat. I'm fairly sure it was not poured from a bottle, either.

A large, sweaty woman wearing a hair net, clad in a filthy white apron crossing her expansive chest, came out from the kitchen behind the long counter and approached. "Well, well. If it's not the celebrated heroes of Hudspeth County. Welcome, docs...and friends. What can I get you this morning?" She was smiling and seemed quite genuine in her pleasure to see us in her establishment. I assumed this was the owner, Angie.

"Uh...well...uh...can you give us a minute, Angie?" said Andrew, uncertain and obviously taken aback by her enthusiastic greeting. I don't think he expected to be called a hero. Homo maybe...definitely not hero.

"Sure thing, honey. Just so y'all know," she said, looking at the rest of us. "Most folks order the loco breakfast burrito, but we have a few other things on the menu. I'll be back in a few minutes." She departed, the smell of stale grease lingering in her wake.

There was a lively discussion about the menu options, but we all settled on the recommended breakfast burrito. Todd wanted to ask if his came with a side of tetanus, having scraped his hand on the rusty table edge. Michael laughed and assured him he would be okay. Todd didn't look convinced. Our food, however, was actually very tasty, and Sam ordered a second burrito, having virtually inhaled the first. My man could eat. I was hoping mine stayed down.

As we were finishing up our breakfast, I noticed through the dirty front windows the parking lot was filling up with cars and a large number of people were gathering outside. A minute later the bell over the door jangled and Mariana Jimenez came bouncing in, all smiles, with what had to be a local church pastor in tow. His white collar and solid black shirt over jeans and cowboy boots, not to mention the large cross hanging around his neck, were a dead giveaway. His face weathered by years in the desert sun, I guessed his age to be around 60.

"There they are!" Mariana said loudly, dragging the pastor across the room to our table. Uh oh...this looked like trouble. Andrew gasped.

"Dr. Andy...Dr. know Father Saul from St. Theresa's," said Mariana. The doctors nodded nervously. "Father Saul, this is Sam...Todd...and this handsome young man is Jack, the one who helped Andy at the clinic yesterday. These other gentlemen are the ones who helped our patients to safety." I looked at Sam, my nerves on edge, and he smiled at me as he grabbed my hand under the table.

"Dr. Munroe, Dr. Branson, it's good to see you both again," said the Reverend in a deep voice. "When I heard Angie's boys down at the church telling folks you were here, I asked Mariana to accompany me. I want to thank you both personally for what you have done for our community, and for your bravery yesterday.

"Several parishioners made a point of cornering me before mass this morning and telling me what happened at the clinic. There is no doubt they were impressed with your commitment to your patients in the face of known danger, and your refusal to shrink back from your responsibilities. I, too, am impressed by your character and honorable actions, gentlemen. You both have stood as pillars in our community for some time now, and I have been remiss in saying so. I hope I made up for my oversight in my message during our services this morning." He nodded to both doctors with obvious respect.

Andrew looked at Michael with clear apprehension. "Father Saul," said Michael. "I'm sure we don't deserve any special recognition. Andrew and I love this community - the people here are like our family - and it's our privilege to serve in whatever small way we can, same as you."

Father Saul nodded. "I understand. They're my family, too. I know how you feel, and I'm happy to hear you say that."

Andrew spoke up. "Father...if I may ask. What...exactly...did you say about us this morning?" He looked extremely uncomfortable with the idea of being talked about in church.

"Our text for this morning's mass was from the Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter 13. It speaks to the power of unconditional love. When I learned of your love and sacrifice for your patients, it seemed appropriate to use your commitment and service as a living example of that passage in action."

"Oh...I see," said Andrew, wide-eyed. "Um...thank you. I guess I'm just a little surprised, is all."

"Why, may I ask?" said Father Saul.

"Well...because...well, surely you've heard by now about Mike and me. I mean...our relationship."

"Ah...I see," said the Reverend. He paused a moment to collect his thoughts while the rest of us waited silently for his response. Father Saul's brown eyes revealed nothing but love and understanding. He said, "You think because you're in a relationship with another man, you can't possibly be seen as an example of God's love? That you are somehow disqualified from His service?" Andrew and Michael both looked at each other, then Andrew nodded.

Father Saul sighed. "I see. I understand there are those, who for the sake of their own faith, would discredit you for living in sin. But who among us is without sin? My own church may take issue with my speaking out on your behalf, but our text this morning ends with 'now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.' How can I, a man who is tasked with leading and teaching others about faith and righteous living, put the pursuit of faith in God above acting in love? God IS love. How can I ignore real love in our midst, while those claiming to have faith, act in unloving ways?

"The passage also tells us to be ever ready to believe the best of every person. My challenge to my church, and to this community, is to remember that while our faith is vital, it only works by love. And you men have shown more love to this community than most, whether or not you have faith in God. You are not the enemy. I pray the good people of this town see you not for who you love, but how you love. May they all live up to your example."

There was silence in the restaurant. Mariana teared up, and Sam kept squeezing my hand. I was in shock. Todd sat there wide-eyed, looking from Sam to me then back to Father Saul. Angie had come out of the kitchen and stood by the counter, spatula in hand, spellbound. The few other patrons sitting around us had all stopped eating, listening to the Reverend's statement.

His chair scraped the floor loudly as Michael stood up slowly from his seat, and Andrew stood beside him. Michael reached across the table and shook Father Saul's hand. Andrew did the same. "Thank you, sir, for believing in us. I have no words," said Andrew.

"Thank you both, again. Now...I'll leave you all to your meal and not take up any more of your time. Hopefully I will not soon be in need of your medical services, but if I am, I hope I can find you at your clinic as always. And should you ever need me in any way, I am at your service." He smiled at the rest of us, nodding politely. Mariana walked him to the door and said goodbye, then returned to our table.

Andrew and Michael returned to their seats, stunned. No one said a word. This was not the outcome we had all feared after yesterday's revelations. Quite the opposite.

"Mariana," Michael said. "What just happened?"

"It was unbelievable, Dr. Mike. Father Saul did just like he said. He praised you both in his homily, calling you a living example of how love is the greatest force for good in the world, and then said the entire community should be proud to have the two of you serving here. I'm telling you, there wasn't a dry eye in the church this morning, no sir. Even the men...glory be to God," she said, crossing herself.

"But..." said Andrew. "The church doesn't recognize gay couples or gay marriage or..."

"Yes, but it recognized real love when it was right in front of its eyes," said Mariana. "You'd have to be blind not to see it. There is no other reason you both would sacrifice and put up with the long hours, the funding battles and the poor conditions, if you didn't love your work and love the people. You guys are making a difference in this community, and it's high time people knew."

"Does this mean you'll stay on with us?" asked Andrew.

"What? Of course. Why would you even ask such a thing? I don't understand," said Mariana, clearly confused.

"We thought maybe...since you now know wouldn't want to work with us any more," said Michael.

Mariana laughed loudly. "You think I didn't know about you two? Now that's funny. You guys are the worst kept secret in this town. Everybody knows the doctors at the free clinic are sweet on each other. And if they don't, it's cuz they just don't care."

" knew all this time?" asked Andrew.

"Sure. Anybody who spent half a day working alongside you would see the way you two look at each other. Come on are obviously in love with each other. You spend every minute together. You live together, eat together, work together. You belong together. I think it's beautiful," she said with a sweet smile.

Andrew sat back in his chair, astonished that his carefully kept secret was in reality not a secret at all. Michael just smiled from ear to ear. He winked at Mariana, then leaned over and kissed a startled Andrew on the cheek.

"I love you, Andy," he whispered. Andrew smiled tentatively, looking at the rest of us. We were all smiling back at him. Even the security guys seemed taken in by the moment.

"I love you, too, Mike," said Andrew, sounding slightly more confident.

"No more secrets?" asked Michael.

"No more secrets," said Andrew, nodding.

Relaxed chit-chat continued as we waited for Todd to pay the bill. Apparently Angie only took cash, so he and Ben walked over to an ATM at the Shell Station. Ben told me later Todd grumbled the whole way over and back about being dragged to the outermost parts of the earth, totally devoid of civilization's basic functions. The big baby.

Todd paid the bill, giving Angie and her server a generous tip. I know on the inside, he's a big softie like me. We all stood up, separated our tables and chairs for the waiting patrons standing by the door, and made our way out into the blazing sunshine. I'm fairly sure I could feel the asphalt pavement under my shoes give way slightly, softened in the intense heat of midday.

There were at least 30 people milling about in the parking lot, none making a move for the restaurant door. When we came out, their many conversations quickly ceased, and all eyes were upon us. I felt a cold chill run down my spine despite the near 100 degree heat. Sam stepped up behind me and put his hand on my back. Everyone just stood and looked at each other.

An older Hispanic gentleman, slightly hunched over, his face and skin weathered from years of work in the elements, shuffled slowly over to us and stood before Andrew.

"Gracias, SeƱor Munroe. Thank you for the clinic. Without you, my Juanita would not be with me still," he said, pointing to both of the doctors. "You got her heart goin' again, and we both thank you." He put a dirty brown hand in Andrew's, and I could tell when he pulled away he had left something in Andrew's palm. I saw the man's wife, who must have been Juanita, nod her head and smile from where she was standing a few feet behind her husband. There were seven children standing with her, all of them smiling.

After this initial conversation, one by one the other patrons in the parking lot came forward and personally thanked the doctors for all that they had done. As the rest of our group stood off to one side, Mariana quietly told us how Dr. Mike and Dr. Andy had come to the aid of Juanita Juarez where she lay in the middle of the street after suffering a heart attack while carrying vegetables home from the open market. Two of her children had run full speed to the clinic and crashed through the front door, screaming for help. Together Andrew and Michael had performed CPR until paramedics from the volunteer fire department arrived and stabilized her for transport to a trauma center in south El Paso.

As the crowd began to disperse, I noticed there was now a small but growing pile of bags and containers on the pavement at the doctors' feet. Angie's two boys, still straddling their bicycles, gazed in awe upon the doctors, like they were some kind of super heroes. I agreed. They were super heroes.

Suddenly there was a screeching of tires out on the main road, and a large van with the logo for KTSM News Channel 9 swerved into the Shell Station next door. The large satellite antenna, currently folded down on the roof of the van, barely fit under the structure covering the gas pump area. The driver hopped out and moved to the pump to fill up the van at the same time the side door slid open and a young, very professionally dressed blond woman stepped down to the pavement in her four inch red heels and dark blue pencil skirt. She had a wireless microphone in one hand, while the other hand absentmindedly adjusted her off-white blouse, and even from a distance, I imagined she was searching for her big break, the story that would catapult her to the anchor chair on the evening news. She turned and started staring at the gathering in Angie's parking lot.

Hector's eyes never left the news van. Seeing the reporter looking over in our direction he said, "Uh oh. There goes the neighborhood. Ben...get Sam, Jack and Todd out of here. Unless they want to be the lead story on tonight's newscast." Sam and I shook our heads vigorously. Ben didn't hesitate, just turned and started walking quickly toward one of the SUVs, the three of us in tow. As we got in, Andrew and Michael were at the door, having followed right behind us.

"Guys...thank you for everything," said Michael.

"Yeah, I was hoping we could talk some more, but you'd better go," said Andrew. "Mike and I will stall the reporter. Jack...I didn't really get a chance to thank you for yesterday in all the excitement. If it wasn't for you..."

"Don't," I said. "We took him together...all of us. The only thanks I want is for you guys to keep doin' what you're doin' down here. These people need you, and we'll do anything we can to help. We believe in you. And if your supporters give you any grief, call us. We'll figure something out."

"Try to keep Jack and Sam outta the news, if you can," said Todd. Michael nodded.

"Guys...we gotta go," said Ben, cutting our goodbyes short. Before Sam even had the door fully closed, Ben had the SUV moving toward the main street as we waved to the doctors standing together, holding hands. In less than a minute we were on the expressway headed back toward El Paso.

Ben called Hector to let him know we had made our escape, and Hector asked what we wanted the rest of the team to do. I looked at Sam, and he just stared at me like he does. He nodded once, to what I have no idea, but then the idea popped into my head that Hector and the rest of the team should stay in Ft. Hancock to watch over the doctors until they were convinced there wouldn't be any negative fallout coming their way. Ben conveyed my idea and surprisingly Hector readily agreed.

"Good call, Jack," said Ben, hanging up his phone as he smoothly switched lanes to pass a large truck. "Hector and the rest of the team are hurtin' some from that Turner guy getting past their perimeter. They'll make sure nobody gets to the doctors again, you can count on it." I just nodded into the rearview mirror and said nothing.

I was okay with Ben sticking up for his team, but honestly, after missing Turner not once but twice, I knew we had a very uncomfortable conversation about security to face soon. For now, I was just glad I wouldn't have to stand before some news camera with a microphone in my face, reliving the nightmare of Arnold Turner.

The trip back to the airport was without incident. After another conversation, this time directly with Hector, he and I agreed that the security team, minus Ben, would stay in Texas for a few days and then I would send the plane down to bring the team back to Denver. In the meantime, Ben would be assigned to protect Sam and me, and he would be in charge of security at Phillip's Mountain.

Todd had spent the short trip north to El Paso bringing the rest of the business team up to speed, letting them know it was okay for them to return to their homes. We would reconvene at the bank in the morning. He called Ron and Justin and informed them we were on our way back and would like to get up to Denver as quickly as they could manage it. I think Todd just wanted to get home to Margie. He had some wild stories to tell her. At least he was going back to her without injury. I'm the one who took the bullet for the team this time.

Sam was quiet. He spent the entire ride back to the plane staring out the SUV window at the endless, dry desert. I couldn't read his mood. Nothing was obviously wrong, but he didn't seem quite the same cheerful Sam I was used to. I gave him his space, figuring he'd talk to me when he was ready.

He perked up a little once we were on the plane. Sam really enjoyed flying on our jet. He even busied himself making turkey and roast beef sandwiches for all of us in the galley kitchen, though I wasn't particularly hungry. Angie's loco burrito was still rumbling around in my stomach. Ugh!

Back on our home turf at Centennial Airport in Denver, Ron and Justin landed the plane smoothly and taxied to the hangar. We said a quick goodbye with a promise to get together with them soon. I had an idea I wanted to discuss with Sam about a party, but he was back to being sort of withdrawn, now that we were off the plane. I looked at Todd, who just shrugged. He'd noticed Sam's change in mood, too.

Todd asked if he could ride with us back to the house so he could retrieve his car. Ben had arranged transportation - part of his new responsibilities as temporary head of security. This time we had a very nice black Range Rover SUV, to which Todd claimed "shotgun" as we put our luggage in the back. In the backseat, I scooted close to Sam and put my head on his shoulder and reached for his hand. He took mine, but it didn't feel the same for some reason. At least he didn't push me off his shoulder.

At home, Maggie and Charles were waiting at the front door, wanting to hear all about our trip. Sam excused himself to lay down - said he wasn't feeling well - and Todd said a quick hello and goodbye, reminding me we were meeting at the bank the next morning. Then he was off. Ben said he was going to check in with the security guys still monitoring the property.

We dropped the bags in the foyer and I followed Charles and Maggie to the kitchen, where I gave them all the details of our sad adventure south. Maggie held a fist to her mouth as I replayed the tense moments when Turner held Andrew and me in the examination room with a gun. When I told them I'd gotten grazed by a bullet, she immediately went into "mother" mode, wanting to see the wound and asking me if I was taking care of myself properly. I assured her I was. I wanted to say Sam was taking good care of me, but suddenly I wasn't sure about him. Something was off. Hopefully it was just bad burrito backlash and nothing more.

"Well...I know it might not be a nice thing to say, but I'm sure as hell glad that son of a bitch is dead," said Charles.

"Charles!" said Maggie.

"I know, I know. I said it wasn't nice to say...but if you'd seen his eyes, Magpie..."

"I'm with Charles on this one. I looked into those dead eyes twice too many times, myself," I said.

"Fine. Enough about him. Are you hungry, Jack? I can make you something to eat," said Maggie.

"No, thank you. I'm hot and tired and not really hungry. Oh...before I forget...thanks for taking care of the guys while we were away. I hope they weren't too much of a bother."

"Nonsense. They're sweet boys, every one of 'em. Mostly they stayed downstairs and worked, from what I could tell. Every time I brought something down to them, they were on a computer or a cell phone, talking to who only knows. But they were real polite and kind, and it was a pleasure to help out. I'll start cleaning up the bedrooms tomorrow morning, if that's okay with you."

"Uh...yeah...that'd be fine," I said. Charles just smiled at me and winked.

"Come on, Magpie. Let's leave the boys in peace. They've had a rough weekend," he said, putting his arm around her shoulder. She smiled warmly at me, then they turned and left to go to their apartment. I suddenly felt all alone.

I've been alone for most of my life, and generally I don't mind it. It can be a welcome respite from the pressures of everyday life. But now I felt lonely, not just alone. There's a big difference, and I didn't like it. Something was up with Sam, and I could physically feel the separation. I thought about going to him, but what would I say? Until he was ready to talk about whatever was bothering him, I'd have to wait it out.

I sighed heavily as I pulled a cold water bottle out of the refrigerator. I stepped out on the back deck and laid down on a brown wicker couch with orange cushions. I realized as I rested my head on a pillow that home didn't feel like home without Sam's smiling face and his arms around me. I was probably being too sensitive, and the last thing I wanted to do was smother the guy with my emotional needs. I was acutely aware I could easily do that. Despite my recent aggressive actions in the face of real danger, inside I was still the unsure, tentative guy I'd always been. Well...maybe not as tentative.

I was more confident in my work. I was making decisions faster with less doubting and second guessing. Todd said I had the makings of a good leader for our team, and I was grateful my team was willing to follow my lead. But I also knew Sam was a huge part of my being able to take the reins and make the decisions. He's the one who convinced me I could do it, that I had a significant part to play on the team.

Sam's presence in my life had changed me in many ways. Including sex. I smiled as I thought about how sexually confident I was now around him. He made me feel safe, especially in our physical relationship. That was his gift to me - he made me feel safe in everything, from business dealings to dinner choices. But now he was distant, and despite a private security force patrolling the grounds, I no longer felt safe.

I was also restless and uncomfortable. My face and neck felt hot. I had gotten burned standing in the blazing sun in the restaurant parking lot earlier. Even the cool breeze blowing across the deck wasn't bringing any relief. I stood up and paced up and down the deck, wondering what to do about Sam. This was a new place for us, and I hated it.

I saw the sparkling waters of the pool down below and decided a swim might cool me off. I went down the deck stairs to the lower level, shucking my shoes and t-shirt. I dropped my shorts and pulled off my underwear and naked as the day I was born, I stepped down into the cool water.

I lost track of time as I slowly moved around in the pool. The pain in my face and neck dissipated into the background, while the pain in my heart intensified. I missed Sam. I missed his smile, his laugh, his touch. I no longer liked doing anything without him, even something as simple as swimming in our pool. I needed him in a thousand ways but he'd taken himself away from me, and I didn't know why.

I was in danger of turning my little pool party into a pity party, something I'd vowed to never do. Self-pity was boring and useless. Sam and I would figure it out. Whatever was going on, he and I would talk about it and we'd find a solution. We loved each other, and just like Father Saul had told us that morning, love always finds a way.

I dragged my tired body out of the pool, dripping across the flagstone patio. I had no towel, of course, so I dried myself as best I could with my t-shirt. I didn't bother to dress. If a security guy saw me naked, it was his treat. I couldn't care less.

Up in the kitchen I grabbed a cookie from the tin by the stove and another cold water bottle, then headed for the bedroom. Inside it was dark and quiet. Sam was lying on the bed under just a sheet, his back to the door, his face toward the bay windows. He appeared to be asleep. Not wanting to disturb him in case he really wasn't feeling well, I tip toed to the bathroom and finished drying myself with a towel, then quickly got ready for bed.

Sam never moved. I could hear him softly snoring, a sound that was somehow reassuring to me in the moment. His back was to me, so I snuggled up close to him, stealing a quick look at his glorious naked ass under the sheet, but didn't touch him. I wanted to put my arm around him, but in the end, decided not to. The pillow under my cheek was wet. He'd been crying.

I tried not to cry myself. There had been too many tears and too much chaos around us since we had arrived in Denver. I felt bad for Sam. Ours was a life he was not used to, and I was afraid in the clear light of day...he wouldn't want it any more. I couldn't blame him. I didn't want it either.

I slept fitfully. My neck hurt, but I didn't know what to do about it, so I suffered the pain and tossed and turned, trying to find a way to sleep without irritating it further. Sam still snored quietly, never moving. I had hoped at some point he would wake up, find me in bed, and put his big muscular arms around me and pull me close. It never happened. And in the morning...he was gone.

I woke up with the alarm at 7 and I was instantly aware Sam's body wasn't touching mine. I jumped out of bed hoping to find him in the shower, but he wasn't in either bathroom, or the closet, or out on the deck. I threw on my shorts from the day before and went to find him.

Maggie looked up from chopping a fresh pineapple at the kitchen island. "Good morning, Jack," she said. "Oh my, you got some serious sun yesterday. Your face is bright red and so's your neck. You have some aloe to cool it off?"

I shook my head. "No...but, have you seen Sam? I can't find him."

"I didn't, but Charles said he saw Sam headed up into the woods early this morning when Charles was having his coffee out on our deck. That boy sure loves it out there in the forest, doesn't he."

I nodded, suddenly feeling lost. Sure, Sam loved the outdoors. But did he still love me? I turned without a word and headed back to the bedroom to get ready for work. I wanted to go find Sam, but my team was expecting me. I tried to tell myself if Sam wanted to be in the woods by himself, he must have a good reason. I showered alone, I dried off alone, and I dressed alone. As I drove away from the house, I realized I had never felt more alone in my life.

The bank was barely organized chaos. Everyone was talking about Arnold Turner being terminated on Friday and his untimely death. Apparently the El Paso news team managed to sensationalize the story just enough that the Denver stations picked up on it and each ran a segment highlighting the Denver connection to the sordid affair in Ft. Hancock, Texas.

"At least they kept the bank and you and Sam out of the story," said Todd as he finished telling me all he had heard since arriving at his desk at 6 am. "Oh...Margie said to tell you thanks for returning me in one piece. She showed her gratitude in more ways than one last night," he said, grinning ear to ear. I smiled weakly.

"Oh, come on. Not even a grin? What's eating you?" said Todd. I shrugged my shoulders, not sure what to say.

"It's Sam, isn't it?" said Todd. I nodded, feeling the tears well up but I managed to hold them back. Barely.

"What was his problem yesterday, anyway? He barely spoke to me."

"To you? He didn't talk to me, either. He went to bed before you left the house. He was gone this morning before I woke up. I haven't said two words to him since yesterday."

"Where'd he go?" asked Todd.

"Charles said he saw him head up the mountain into the woods early this morning. I know he likes it up there. I guess he's got something on his mind and he needs some space and time to work it out."

"And in the meantime you're going nuts, aren't you?" said Todd. I just nodded again.

"You know what? It's gonna be fine. I'd bet my life on Sam's love for you, Jack. He's not a flake. He won't bail on you just because life got a little hectic. You need to trust him and not panic."

I sighed. "I'm trying to. I know he loves me, Todd. And I know he knows I love him. But what if it's not enough? What if it's all...too much for him?"

"Love's always enough, Jack. Always. If it's true, and strong, and yours certainly fits the bill, then it's enough. You'll see. Sam'll come back down his mountain and everything will be right as rain again."

"I hope so," I said. Todd's phone rang and he reached to answer it. I was left to my private thoughts again. Something Todd had said about Sam and the mountain had my mind spinning. I just wasn't sure what to do with what I was thinking, so I let it go for now.

Todd ended his phone call and motioned toward his office door. "Come on, the guys are waiting for us in the conference room. We've got a lot to cover this morning." I followed him out and down the hall, still thinking about Sam. I hoped he was alright. What if he got hurt up there with no one to help him? Ugh!

After giving the guys a few private details of the events in Ft. Hancock, the morning passed by in a virtual blur as I was bombarded with ideas and proposals and discussions about everything from company logos to real estate options. I got totally lost when the conversation turned to high end data network security and packet loss prevention and I don't know what all else. I did my best to pay attention and learn, but my thoughts kept dragging me back to Sam.

We ploughed through a working lunch and managed to whittle down the office building choices to three which Simon felt were the best opportunities for us. I agreed to go with Todd and Simon later in the week to do site visits if Simon could get them scheduled.

Will had put together a list of legal issues we needed to discuss with Clyde Watson. I promised to call him later to arrange an interview and initial discussion. That was the bright spot of my day - I was excited to see Sharon Adams again. I really could have used one of her amazing hugs right about then.

Todd took mercy on me around 2 pm and said I was done for the day. The other guys groused a little, but Todd gave them a look, and they said "Later, boss" in unison as I took my leave. My ass was dragging. The only thing lower was my mood.

I was moving from sad and downcast to upset and angry. It wasn't right that Sam was leaving me hanging in the dark, not knowing what was wrong. How could I help him if he didn't tell me what was bothering him? I nearly wrecked the car going around a curve much too fast on the way home. The only thing that saved me was the performance tires on the BMW which held me on the road.

I parked in the garage and walked quickly to the kitchen, hoping to find Sam. I suddenly had plenty to say, though I probably would just burst into tears when I saw him. But I didn't. He was nowhere to be found. Not in the bedroom, not downstairs, not on the deck, not in the pool.

I saw Charles working on a flower bed out back, spreading new mulch around some flowers he just planted. They were pretty, unlike my sour mood.

"Charles, have you seen Sam?" I asked, walking up behind him, causing him to jump and throw a shovel full of mulch into the yard.

"Damn, Jack! You startled me. Guess my ears ain't so good any more. No...I haven't seen him all day. You could ask Maggie. She's out back of our place reading, I think." I thanked him and went to find her.

She was sitting on a wrought iron chair next to a matching table, shaded by a large, brightly colored umbrella overhead. She put her book down as I approached and took a drink of her iced tea.

"How was work today, Jack?" she asked.

"Fine. Tiring. I'm looking for Sam. You seen him?"

" I haven't. Not even for lunch. I guess he's still up on the mountain. Probably saw another bear family and set to watching 'em and lost all track o' time." Great...more bears. Like I wasn't worried enough about him as it was.

"Okay. I'm going up to find him. Will you let Charles know? I'll have him back down by dinner time." She nodded, and I couldn't be sure, but she looked a little skeptical of my abilities to not only find Sam but get him back home for dinner.

I went straight to our bedroom and changed into shorts and a t-shirt. I put on socks and tennis shoes, the best thing I had for climbing a mountain. I grabbed two water bottles from the fridge and set off.

The first 20 minutes were not too bad. There was sort of a path cutting through the thick trees and the slope wasn't steep. It was cooler in the forest, and I was wishing I could see the sun better to know what direction I was moving. It was also much darker under the pine canopy overhead. At some point the terrain became a lot more rocky and uneven and my pace slowed as I had to work harder, skirting fallen logs and climbing past clusters of gray rocks jutting out of the ground in all directions.

I lost track of time. I'd left my watch on the nightstand, afraid of damaging it in the dirty woods. I assumed I would find Sam near the pseudo-trail, but he was not to be found. I kept climbing higher. After about an hour of hiking, I pulled myself up past the trunks of two large trees and was suddenly standing in a clearing of sorts. Off in the distance I could see water shimmering in the late afternoon sun. It must have been the lake Sam told me about. I headed towards it, leaving whatever trail I had been following and aiming for the lake.

I only tripped once on a tree root, and I skinned my right shin on a rock, but otherwise I made it to the lake in one piece. The land along the shore was surprisingly devoid of tall trees, so I could see roughly all around the water. There was still no sign of Sam. What I did see, or rather heard, was a loud shuffling of tall weeds off to my left a short distance away. I turned in the hopes it was Sam coming to meet me. What I saw instead made my knees nearly collapse.

It was a horse. Or was it a large cow? No, that wasn't right. The horns were too big. The whole thing was too big! Then it dawned on me - it was a huge, hungry bull moose headed for a large patch of lily pads near the lake shore. I didn't think they ate people, but I wasn't going to stick around to test my theory. I turned and ran.

I ran non-stop for five minutes, until my breathing was coming in great, painful heaves of exhaustion. Sweat was pouring off my forehead into my eyes. I stopped to stretch and rest my sore legs, figuring I had given the great beast the slip. I looked around to get my bearings...and realized I was lost. Crap!

I did what you are never supposed to do, I guess. I kept moving, wandering around, most likely in circles, though to be honest I didn't recognize one tree or rock clump from another. I kept thinking I saw the lake through the distant trees, so I'd set off in that direction, only to realize I was wrong.

It was now getting darker. It had to be well past dinner time, as my stomach was grumbling loudly. I only hoped there wasn't a bear nearby with an equally large appetite. The mosquitos certainly had a taste for me. I was swarmed several times. I kept swatting the nasty creatures as fast as I could, and by the time I found the lake again, I'm sure I'd donated more than a pint of blood to their cause.

I plunged into the water with no thought as to what might be lurking on the bottom. Anything to get away from the biting insects. It worked. For a while. Then I got cold.

With teeth chattering, water dripping from my clothes, and my feet squishing in my shoes as I walked, I slowly walked around the lake in the growing darkness, trying desperately to find the place where I had first come upon the shoreline. I kept thinking I could maybe find my way home from there. I never found it.

Exhausted and more than a little scared, I sat on a fallen log, one half submerged in the lake and the other half sticking up slightly from the ground. I sat near the one end by the water. The other end was a good four feet in the air, the ground underneath it largely devoid of vegetation.

As dire as my situation probably was, my own safety was not uppermost in my mind. I was extremely worried about Sam. This was so out of character for him - at least I thought so. Honestly, I didn't really know him all that well. I mean, I knew he loved me, and I knew he was a great guy. But I didn't know how he handled real pressure, or setbacks, or difficult situations. Walking off into the woods seemed to me like a dumb way of dealing with things. Look where it got me.

Before long it was completely dark, and the only light was from the half moon and the stars. The sky was filled with millions of them. At least it wasn't cloudy - that would have meant rain. I was wet enough as it was, having not had a chance to dry out before the sun went down completely. My damp clothing clinging to my skin felt clammy and uncomfortable.

The mosquitoes seemed to have gone to bed, or maybe they found a richer blood supply somewhere else. I wasn't being bitten any more. I hopped down off the log and walked over to some high weeds and drained my bladder. Thankfully that was all I needed to do for now. I turned to look at the lake water. If I got thirsty enough I would have to drink from it. I wasn't there yet.

My wet clothes were making me colder as the breeze blew across them, so I took them all off. I was standing in the dark, next to a lake, under the stars, totally naked. I spread the wet clothes on the ground under the giant limb and sat down on them, hoping I wasn't inviting a new round of insects to dine on my exposed flesh. But I felt warmer to be out of the wet clothes.

I laid down on my back, trying to stay on top of my clothes, and looked up at the brilliant stars. I tried to identify common constellations, but truthfully I had no idea what I was looking at. They were just a bunch of white dots. But staring up at them took my mind off the fact I was surrounded by a forest filled with man eating creatures. I could only hope they wouldn't find me in the dark.

As the night wore on, my thoughts got darker and darker to match my surroundings. I tried to be mad at Sam, but really I was just mad at myself. It was my own fault I was lost in the woods. It had been supremely foolish to go running off into the forest alone like I had, with no idea where I was going or what I was doing. If a bear ate me for breakfast, it was my own damned stupidity that set the table.

I didn't cry, which surprised me greatly. It's the little things. As I drifted off to sleep, I imagined Sam's strong arms holding me tightly to his warm chest, and I dreamed of happier times.

Visions of Hawaii and Sam on the beach, holding me and kissing me, morphed into the image of a filthy bum with dead eyes taunting me and calling me vile names, waving a gun in my face. I woke up with a start, my breath coming in short gasps. For several seconds I couldn't figure out where I was or why I was naked and cold and sitting in mud. Then I heard the most awful screeching sound.

I jumped up, adrenaline pumping, trying to see into the darkness all around me. I could hear the small waves of the lake lapping the shoreline. Frogs were croaking, crickets were chirping, and my nerves were on edge. If there was ever a place that was not my element, I was trapped in it now, for sure. My mind started playing tricks on me. Every moving tree branch was a long finger reaching out to grab me. Every unfamiliar noise was another creature licking its lips.

Off to my right I heard new noises, slowly growing louder. Something was coming for me. I turned and grabbed my clothes off the ground. I didn't bother dressing - who was going to see me - but I did jam my feet into my soggy tennis shoes. Strange, the things you think of before dying. I could hear the reporters now: He died naked and alone in the woods, eaten by a wild beast - but tell us, did he have his shoes on?

I didn't want to attract any attention, so I crept as silently as I could back around behind the large tree stump that had once supported the fallen trunk I'd been sleeping under. I crouched down and tried to breathe as quietly as possible. The noises got louder, as whatever was coming for me crunched through the underbrush, headed for the lake. I tried to figure out if I was upwind or downwind, but gave up realizing it wouldn't matter in about 30 seconds anyway. I closed my eyes and cursed myself for ever leaving the house. I hate the fucking woods.

The creature stopped at the lake's edge about 100 yards away. It had one large eye swaying back and forth, alternating between looking out across the water and then in each direction along the shoreline. I heard a small gasp escape my lips as the lumbering eye started slowly moving in my direction. I could feel the fine hairs on the back of my neck stand straight up while my balls withdrew completely inside my body. I was toast. Crap!

I closed my eyes, waiting for the end. I heard the shuffling of its feet moving through the weeds, and I sensed a light flash over me through my tightly shut eyes. Then I heard it.

"Jack? Is that you? Jack!" it yelled. It sounded vaguely like Sam. Was I dreaming? Was this how it ends? You get to see the one you love the most in the whole world one last time and then...nothing?

Suddenly it was upon me, and I fought back with my eyes still tightly closed. I could feel its breath on my face as it wrapped me tightly in its clutches, my arms immobilized. Realizing it was futile to struggle, I collapsed, the long held tears flowing freely. My last thought was, "Great, I seasoned myself with salt for the great beast's man meal. I can't even die right."

But he didn't eat me. He held me up in his big strong arms and kissed my neck and my face and my hair. He was crying and kissing me, hugging me so tightly I could barely breathe. He was so warm and comfortable, and I now knew what heaven really was. It was being back in Sam's arms where I belonged.

He held me until I stopped shaking. We said nothing. He pulled out a blanket from a large backpack he had set down on the ground and wrapped me up in it. It was nice, but I wanted his arms back around me. I literally reached behind me to grab them and pull them around my shoulders. He got the clue and together we sat down, Sam up close against my back, his arms holding me tightly to his chest. Just like the first time on the beach in Hawaii.

We were silent in the noisy forest.

To be continued...

Author's Notes:

Andrew and Michael are heroes. Sam and Jack are finally back in Denver, but all is not a bed of roses. Something has upset Sam deeply, and he and Jack have a lot to resolve. Will Jack ever make it out of the forest alive? Will Sam stick around or is this the beginning of the end? And most importantly, which building will Jack choose for his new offices? Stay tuned for much more to come...

My usual but never-to-be-overlooked thanks to my intrepid editors - Mark, Harry, Josh, and Darryl - for finding all the little mistakes and poor word choices and giving us a better story. Without these guys, I'd be lost.

Thank you to all the readers who have been with me from the beginning, and for the new folks who join the ride after every new chapter posts. I never imagined hundreds of people from all over the world would write me and let me know they are enjoying my story. If you've never written, or if you're still enjoying the story and just want to say hi and share your thoughts, I'd love to hear from you at:

Special Note:

This chapter attempts to address a common challenge that many gay people face - ignorance, opposition and persecution from church leaders of various faiths. No one denies such persecution is real and it happens, and in this author's opinion, it is largely without cause. However, this is a work of fiction, and any comments made by characters in this story are not intended to reflect the opinions or formal positions on any issue for any institution, faith-based or not. I will continue to address this issue from varying perspectives as the story of "Forever" unfolds. I am in favor of an open and respectful dialog on these issues, and I hope in some small way my story can spark reasonable and thoughtful conversations.

As much as I love to hear from readers, I will not participate in overtly anti-Christian diatribes or hateful communication aimed at any party or persuasion. At the end of the day, I firmly believe LOVE is what will show all of us the right way to move into the future.

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