A/N: Presenting my first multi-chapter story. The speed of updates/if I update at all will be dependent upon the feedback I receive.


Chapter 1: The Hospital

Tyler had survived.

I kept repeating that thought to myself, over and over as Michael and I raced to the hospital in his new, shiny red Viper. He was the rich one of our little posse—his parents had bought him the Viper for his seventeenth birthday just last week, and we were all impressed that he hadn't crashed it yet. The new car smell had already been overtaken by the smell of him and whatever girl he had used to break it in—but I wasn't thinking all of that right then. Not when Tyler was in critical care.

"Cummon!" Michael rushed, cutting the engine and practically catapulting from the car. He'd opened the door so fast that it almost clipped the side of the car next to us.

I hurried inside the hospital after him, thinking that it was strange for him to be so strung out. After all, Tyler was okay, he was out of the danger zone. Michael was always laid back—I was the worry-wart of the group.

We practically mowed Jay down when we entered the lobby. He'd been pacing, worrying at the cuffs of his dark red hoodie with his teeth—something that he did when he was nervous, which was often.

Freddie jumped up from the plastic seat he'd been restless-leg-syndrome-ing away in when we burst into the waiting room, and was the first to speak, "Doc Wilks only said that he doesn't know what happened."

"Where's Tom?" Michael replied, which I thought was weird when he'd just been presented with important information.

"He couldn't get outta work," Jay supplied, taking the edge of his sleeve out of his teeth long enough to say it.

"Did somebody call him?" Michael demanded, putting his hand on his hips and leaning forward.

"Well—" I started, but Freddie cut me off.

"I did. Soon as we heard back that he was okay."

"Okay…okay…" Michael was pacing then, though more sedately than Jay had been a moment before.

He stopped after a moment when I asked, "When are we allowed in to see him?"

"His parents are in there right now," Freddie replied, mussing his tawny hair nervously with one hand as he spoke, "The doctor said we can go in after—if he wants us."

My heart fluttered unpleasantly at the thought of Tyler not wanting to see us. I didn't think I'd be able to make it all night without some first-hand confirmation that he was going to be okay.

"Did the doctor say what happened….?" Michael asked slowly.

"No," Jay grumbled, "Doctor patient confidentiality or some shit like 'at."

I felt myself flopping into a seat out of reflex, covering my face and exhaling shakily. How could something like this have happened? I couldn't take it in. Everyone got along with Tyler—he was charming.

"Andy," Michael said, sitting down next to me and leaning over, "You okay?"

"No," someone croaked. It took me a minute to realize it was me.

"It'll be okay," Michael assured me, patting me on the back. It was supposed to be a sympathetic gesture, but I didn't feel the sympathy at all.

If anyone has been in a hospital lobby waiting for something, then they would know that saying 'the minutes crawled by' is a huge understatement. I looked at the clock every thirty seconds, expecting the hour hand to have advanced—but not at all.

Freddie's clod-hopper heal tapped a rapid staccato against the linoleum floor until I thought I'd go crazy. Jay's pacing made my eye tick; his old converse squeaked each time he wheeled around to go back the way he had come from. I could practically hear the threads in his sleeve popping as his teeth raked through them. Michael snapped his lighter over and over—

Open—snap. Shut—snap. Open—snap. Shut—snap. Flick—flame. Snap—shut again. Over and over until I contemplated snatching it from his hand and tossing it across the waiting room to see if it shattered against the window or cracked the glass—or just bounced off. I was willing to bet it shattered and sent lighter fluid all over the shoe-scuffed floor.

I was inching my hand from my knee and toward the lighter when Dr. Wilks—a nice old man with white wispy hair like a cloud—came out into the lobby.

"Andy?" he said, looking around the waiting room before spotting me, and giving me his kind, doctor-like smile, "Tyler's asking for you."

I was on my feet and hurrying to him before I realized it, when I heard Michael's lighter snap shut for the last time as he asked lightly, "What about the rest of us?"

"No, no I'm sorry," Dr. Wilks said with a sympathetic head-shake, "He only asked for Andy."

The news shouldn't have sent the jolt through me like it did—but I felt like I'd been shocked on one of those electric fences that the ranchers use to keep the cattle inside. Tyler wanted to see me. He wanted only me. Just me, no one else. Not Michael, or Freddie, or Jay—or Tom, though that wouldn't have made much difference, since Tom was still at the video rental store, checking out customers at the register, or shelving movies; I wasn't sure exactly what he did, because he didn't like us to visit him at work.

I followed Dr. Wilks to the Post-Op rooms, vaguely aware that he was asking me about school, about my sports, if he'd see me and my parents at church on Sunday. I think I grunted a confirmation or two, but I was too caught up in the hospital smell, and the sound of my sneakers thumping on the floor tiles. His voice sounded a lot like it was coming up to me from underwater.

And then—there was the room. The temporary nametag stuck inside the holder by the door read in fine white and black print: Doyle, Tyler. I felt my ears burning and the back of my head going fuzzy, like I did when I'd been caught doing something I wasn't supposed to do—or when I felt like something terrible were about to happen.

The doctor pushed open the door silently and I steeled myself, momentarily unable to force my legs to move forward. But soon I was drifting, soundlessness pounding into my eardrums as Tyler's parents stood, and smiled at me.

Their lips read: "Andy, he's okay. We'll leave you two alone now, but try not to tire him out."

But in my head I could hear them screaming what their eyes gave away—"You're supposed to be his best friend! How could you let this happen to him?! He could've died! Where were you and the other boys?!"

Mr. Doyle had his arm around his wife's blue-sweatered shoulders, and they staggered out as one, like a lumbering beast unaware of itself in the blinding, sweltering sunlight.

"I'll send a nurse in to let you know when your time's up, alright?" Dr. Wilks said, but I didn't respond. I barely registered the door slip shut as he left.

My eyes were only for the paler-than-pale form of whatever lay in the hospital bed amongst the wires and beeping apparatuses. It couldn't be my Tyler, could it? Not that bruised, battered face. It wasn't possible, not with all that purple and blue laced over his face. His nose had tape over it, from where it had broken under someone's knuckles. The doctors must have set it.

"Damn…." I breathed, sinking into the chair set beside the bed. It was still warm—where his ma or dad had just been sitting.

The creature in the hospital bed shifted, sheets rustling like dead leaves, and it croaked from a purplish, wet maw, "Andrew…..Skeener….."

And then an eye opened. Pale, and powder blue—only one, because the other one was still swollen shut—and I knew with a sinking heart that the battered animal in the bed was Tyler, because he was the only person I ever knew who had eyes that pretty.

He wheezed a hacking sound, and it took me a minute to realize he was laughing around the broken ribs—that was him, completely cavalier when he was stuck in a hospital bed after just having the doctors stitch him straight.

"I never….guh….thought about it before," he mumbled, eyelid sinking shut, "your name…."

"What about it?" I asked, gripping the edge of the hospital bed tightly enough that my knuckles went white. I had to keep the tremors out of my voice somehow, so that he couldn't tell how worried I'd been—how broken up I'd have been if I'd lost him. If I'd lost my Tyler.

"Sounds….like a fuckin' serial killer name…..or somethin'…."

I was laughing before I fully knew what he had said, because those words, I could tell, those words meant he'd be okay. One of his long, white fingers roughly poked at my cheek, at the tears coming out of my eyes and he grunted, "Hey….what's 'at….?"

I dug my fingers against my eyes to get all the tears out, sniffing heavily and managing hoarsely, "Nothing. It's nothin'. What's….what's the diagnosis, chief?"

"Now you don't want to be depressin' do ya?" he challenged, the eye creaking open again to stare at me defiantly.

"No, no I don't," I admitted, letting out a nervous laugh.

"Good," he muttered, swallowing with a dry gulp that made me wince.

A silence passed, and I don't think Tyler was lucid enough to understand that it was awkward—but I was. More than one awkward silence had passed between us since we had gotten older, gotten different. I was the track runner, baseball player; Tyler liked horror flicks and video games and music no one had ever heard of. We were friends since elementary school—hell, in a small southern town like ours where everybody knew everybody, how could we not still be?—but about the only thing we had in common was our love for dirty magazines, and that was coming to a decline as well, since I'd finally started coming to terms with the fact that I was more into guys than gals. I hadn't told him, and I didn't plan to, not ever. Sometimes people will want to tell loved ones things that they'd never had the chance to tell them, you know, if they've had a near-death experience. Tyler's near-brush with death only served to ensure my resolve not to let him find out that I had feelings for him. If he'd been brought into that light, then he'd take the knowledge with him to the grave, and imagine how terrible that would be? God judging him for what little bad he's done, and him saying, 'Oh, and my best friend was a fag. That isn't my fault, is it?'

I mean, if he didn't know, then he couldn't be held accountable, right?

"Do you want to see the other guys?" I asked after I'd been with my own thoughts long enough to understand what a disturbed bastard I was.

"They actually came?" he sounded surprised.

"Of course they came!" I replied, "Why wouldn't they?"

He knew why, I could tell, but he didn't say anything, just shook his head in a gesture that was supposed to mean he didn't know.

"I'll go get 'em," I said, standing at once, "They're really worried. Then when we're all here, you can tell us what happened."

I heard him call my name as I beat a hasty retreat. It was bad, I knew, but I just couldn't take the horrible sterility of the room without backup—and by backup, I meant Michael's self-assured swagger. It was impossible to be thrown off with him at your back.

I practically skidded into the waiting lobby, and Jay stopped pacing, raising his head as Freddie and Michael leapt out of their chairs.

"He wants to see you guys, too," I lied breathlessly, and it was as if the floodgates had been unleashed, because the three of them surged forward at once, and I led them back to the room with the beeping monitors and Tyler sprawled in the bed like a broken china doll.

His white teeth flashed in his swollen mouth, the lips drawing back over them like dark curtains to reveal a show—but instead of a show, a row of recently retainer-less teeth and pulpy pink tongue lay beyond.

"How d'you feel?" Jay asked; the first to speak, even if it was spoken through his sleeve.

"Shitty," was the obvious reply.

"So what happened?" Michael inquired coolly. There was no sign of his lighter then.

"Yeah. Give us the gory details, man," Freddie added.

"I don't know," Tyler replied with a toss of his hand, as if he were throwing something loose from himself, "Doctor Wilks said it's temporary amnesia or some….shit like 'at. Post-traumatic stress, blah blah blah, right?"

Jay, Freddie, and Michael all exchanged looks, but didn't spare one for me.

"Did they….tell you? Who found me?" he added, and when we said no, they hadn't told us anything, he cackled, "Old Mrs. Tinders. I was in the ditch by her mailbox."

Old Mrs. Tinders was the meanest old lady anyone ever set eyes on. She was bitter and sour, and had got even worse—if it were possible—ever since old Mr. Tinders had finally gotten sick of her harping and had a fatal stroke, leaving her with his pension and the neighborhood full of us rambunctious younguns, as she liked to call us when we were out in the neighborhood.

Freddie choked on a laugh, "Dude, you think she tried to beat you to death on your way back from that party at Tom's?"

"Wouldn't put it past her," Michael added, and Tyler snorted, rolling his eyes.

"I don't think so," he said after a moment, "I've got, like, a knife wound somewhere on me. Well, a couple places, actually, but it hurts to move, so…."

"A knife wound?!" I cried, grabbing the edge of the bed, "Why would—"

My mind raced through all the possible reasons why anyone would pull a knife on a drunk Tyler—he was a sweet, loving—if not a little slutty—drunk. I doubted beyond all reason that he would pick a fight with anyone—much less someone with a knife.

"Well, that's….ng…." he shifted, it looked painful, "that's the question. Ain't it?"

But, the nurse that Dr. Wilks had promised to send came and were forced to leave Tyler, filled with more questions than answers. Who had attacked him after the party? Why? And, the thought sent a chill of sheer terror down my spine—would they be after him again? Or, maybe, after us?