"My head is killing me," he says, trying to hold the smashed pieces of his skull together.
"God, Jamie," Sam says, trying not to throw up. "That's disgusting."
"What?" Jamie says, looking up at him. There's blood dripping down into his eyes, but he doesn't seem to notice. Or blink, really.
"You — you're — we need to get you to the hospital!" Sam's frantic, trying not to gag. He fumbles his phone out of his pocket, looking anywhere but at the dark spill on the curb.
"I'm fine," Jamie tells him, despite the fact his mind is looking out around his fingers. "Don't worry."
"Don't worry?" Sam says, pitched a little too high. "We've got to get you help before you die!"
"Okay, okay," Jamie says, and winces when he tries to sit up. "Don't freak out."
"Quick, I'll call a taxi," Sam says, flipping open his phone and stepping away from the curb. There's nothing around but parked cars and puddles. It was Jamie's idea to go this way, but Sam hadn't had a problem following him down the alley, not with the promise of getting having sex in the dark.
"Don't go anywhere," Sam tells Jamie over his shoulder, like an afterthought.
"Okay," Jamie says, rolling his eyes. "I'll try not to."
Sam gives him a dirty look, and turns his attention to the call to 911, telling the operator that he has no idea what type of emergency it is, but his boyfriend's been shot. They finally seem to pay attention, and Sam kneels next to Jamie when he finishes the call. "The ambulance will be here soon."
"Thanks a lot," Jamie says, sarcasm escaping like the ooze down his face. Right now, they're not really getting along.
Sam huffs and presses the backs of his fingers to Jamie's cheek, stung when Jamie pulls back, and wipes the blood and — wipes the blood on his shirt.
It feels like forever before the ambulance arrives, pulling to a stop just in front of Jamie's worn sneakers. The back of the ambulance flies open, two paramedics jumping from the back with their gear to assess the situation. Sam gets to his feet, stumbling back against the trunk of a car as the paramedics brush past him.
There's a bunch of them, two beside Jamie, flashing lights into his eyes and checking his pulse, Sam doesn't know. With them distracted, he inches away from what he can see of Jamie's feet, flopping against the wet pavement. He gets as far as the open back of the ambulance and backs right into the third paramedic, the one driving.
He's tall and clean shaven, maybe blond, maybe brunette, and when he frowns he looks a lot like Jamie. He catches Sam by his arms, chewing cinnamon flavoured gum and frowning as he looks at him.
"You all right?" He asks. The name stitched above his heart is Aarron, and Sam has just enough time to remember it before Aarron's pushing him back against the side of the ambulance.
Sam nods, licking his lips and wondering at his suddenly dry mouth.
"Fine," Sam says, and looks to where Jamie's probably still out on the pavement. One of the other paramedics is talking to the cops that have come out of nowhere, and Sam flinches back from the flashing lights on top of the patrol car.
"You're Sam? The one who called 911?" Aarron asks, putting his hand on Sam's jaw to bring his attention back over.
"Yeah," Sam says. "That's Jamie. Jamie Peterson. He's my boyfriend. He was shot, he's going to be okay, right?"
"Everything's going to be fine," Aarron says. "All right? What's your name, sweetheart."
"Sam," Sam says, and winces when Aarron presses his thumb into a bruise on the side of his throat.
"All right, Sam, my name's Aarron," Aarron says. "You feeling okay, anything hurt?"
"No," Sam says, shaking his head. Aarron's hand follows along with the movement. His fingers are a little rough, and he switches his gum from one side of his mouth to the other. He looks over at one of the other paramedics, nods, and focuses back on Sam.
"We're going to get you to sit down, okay," Aarron says, and takes his hand away from Sam's face. Sam tries not to miss it, but the evening air is cold against his face.
"Okay," Sam parrots, and lets Aarron push him down to sit at the end of the ambulance.
"Good," Aarron says. "So how old are you, Sam?"
"Twenty-two," Sam says, and obediently takes the white tablet that Aarron drops into his hand. "How old are you?"
"Twenty-eight," Aarron says, and taps the underside of Sam's hand. "Eat that, all right? You feeling light headed at all?"
Sam frowns when he thinks about it, chewing the orange-flavoured tablet. It's chalky, and it makes it hard to swallow. "No."
"Okay. You eat that, and I'm going to ask you about what happened," Aarron says. He's holding a tiny flashlight like the one they were using on Jamie.
"Jamie," Sam says, and goes to get up. Aarron holds him there with one hand on his shoulder, and rests the fingers of his other hand right above Sam's eyebrow.
"We're taking care of him," Aarron says. Sam can't see past Aarron, but the other paramedics aren't rushing around, so they must not be worried about Jamie.
Sam relaxes a little, and Aarron lightens up on the pressure.
"Okay, Sam, so you're walking around with your friend, Jamie, right?" Aarron prompts, and switches the flashlight to look in Sam's other eye.
"Yeah, it was late, we were taking a — short cut," Sam says, and licks his lips. He's pretty sure there's white powder all over his mouth, but Aarron doesn't seem to notice it.
"A short cut, hey," Aarron says. "Where do you live?"
"Jamie lives right up the hill," Sam says. "Well, we do. I live with him. We live in Dex Mills."
"Dex Mills," Aarron says. "My friend lived near there in college. It's nice."
"Yeah, we want to get a dog," Sam says, and winces. "No, okay, we don't, but it's a good dog neighbourhood."
"You're right," Aarron says. He clicks off the flashlight and sticks it back in the chest pocket of his shirt. He looks good in blue. "A little far from here, though, isn't it?"
"We went to a party, at the bar. For St. Patrick's Day," Sam explains, and blinks as he watches Aarron pick up one of his hands and press his thumb to the underside of Sam's wrist.
"Was it fun?" Aarron asks, looking at his watch.
"Okay, we weren't having that much fun, Jamie wanted to go," Sam says, and shrugs. It makes Aarron smile, because Sam's pulse jumps when he hears the sound of car door slam.
"So you decided to come through here? It's a bad neighbourhood," Aarron says.
"Jamie said—" Sam stops himself, because Aarron is still holding onto his wrist, leaning into him and smelling like cinnamon and hand sanitizer, and Sam is not going to tell him about how Jamie wanted Sam to blow him in an alley.
"Jamie said?" Aarron prompts, and he looks at Sam, eyes bright blue and honest, and Sam's going to tell him anyway, can feel his cheeks turn pink already, but one of the other paramedics comes up beside them with a cop.
"This is Officer David," the second paramedic says. His name's stitched on his chest too, in silver thread that spells out Joseph.
"Okay," Aarron says, and lets go of Sam's wrist.
Sam shivers, and tries to focus on what they're saying instead of how he's feeling.
"Sam, this is Officer David," Aarron says, taking a seat next to him in the back of the ambulance. "He's going to ask you a few questions."
"Okay," Sam says, and swallows hard. His mouth is still dry, and Officer David is brandishing a notebook. He's carrying a gun in the holster at his waist.
"What's your last name, Sam?" Officer David asks, not looking up from his notebook.
Sam swallows again. "Um, Samuel."
"Sam Samuel?" David repeats doubtfully. He looks to Aarron and talks like Sam isn't there. "He get hit too?"
"Shock," Aarron says, and touches his fingers to the back of Sam's wrist. "Sam, sweetheart, what's your full name? What does it say on your credit card?"
"Jamie Peterson," Sam says, and looks to the officer when he snorts. "How old is he?"
"Sam," Aarron says. "Okay, what does it say on your driver's license?"
"Samuel Peterson," Sam says, because it does. It was Jamie's idea of a joke, but he doesn't drive in this state anyway.
"Got us a couple of —" Officer David cuts himself off when Aarron glares at him. "All right. This domestic?"
"I don't know what happened," Sam says, getting to his feet and ignoring the way Aarron's trying to hold onto his shoulders. "We're walking down the street, some guy starts yelling at Jamie, he has a gun, and then Jamie's screaming, he's on the ground, he's on the ground."
Sam trails off, and lets Aarron pull him back. Officer David had retreated when Sam got to his feet, but Sam just feels empty, kind of ridiculous with the cop watching him like that.
"Okay, sweetheart, we're going to get you to go with Officer David's friend," Aarron says, turning Sam away from where Jamie was lying and towards another cruiser. "She's going to take care of you."
"Um," Sam says, and nods when he meets Officer Sara Thompson, who tells Sam to call her Sara and tells him to sit in the back while they talk. Aarron goes back to the ambulance, and Sara has to keep saying his name so he'll finally look at her.
"What about Jamie," Sam says, and winces when he realizes he's interrupted the question she's asking.
"What about him," Sara says, voice carefully blank. She's hard-looking, hands like a smoker and wrinkles at the corners of her mouth and eyes.
"I want to go with him," Sam says. "I have to tell him he's going to be okay."
"Listen, honey," Sara says, and then she starts mumbling something about dealing with it and acceptance, and Sam shakes his head. He doesn't know why everyone's treating him like he's stupid.
"Listen," Sam says, and shakes off the feeling that they're right, that Jamie's right about him. He's in control right now, and he clears his throat. His mouth is still too dry. "Someone shot my boyfriend in the face. He came out of nowhere, down the alley. I didn't see his face. I don't know what he wanted, but I think Jamie made him mad."
"Okay," Sara says, and scribbles it down fast in her notebook. It's the same kind as the one David had. "Anything else?"
"I'd really like to see him," Sam says. "He has the key to his apartment."
"I don't think you should go home alone," Sara says. "You've been through a lot tonight."
"I'm not alone," Sam lies, and meets her gaze head-on and steady. "He has a roommate. I have to explain what happened."
"You won't be able to go with him," Sara says. "The hospital should make arrangements with when you're allowed to go and see him."
"I'll leave my number," Sam says, and he presses his hands down against his knees when he gives her Jamie's cell.
"I'll go see if I can get that key for you," Sara says, and gently clicks the back door shut so Sam's trapped in the backseat.
He slumps against the seat, closing his eyes and trying not to see Jamie's face, the surprised look in his eyes when the gun had gone off.
The car door opens and Sam flinches, but it's just Aarron's leaning in and tapping his shoulder.
"Sam, hey," Aarron says. He's dangling Jamie's keys from the chain, finger hooked into the ring. "Officer Thompson said you needed this."
"Thank you," Sam says, and reaches up to grab the keys. Aarron curls his finger so the ring doesn't slide off his finger. Sam tugs, but Aarron just smiles.
"You okay?" Aarron asks.
"I'm fine," Sam says. He feels a little cold, but figures it's because he's not wearing a jacket and it's starting to rain again. "I'm going to go home and tell Jamie's roommate what happened."
"In Dex Mills," Aarron says, and smiles as he lets Sam pull the ring from his finger. "You should eat something."
"And I'll eat something," Sam says.
"Good," Aarron says. He's got a strange expression on his face, something Sam doesn't recognize, and shakes his head but doesn't manage to shake it off. "You going to take care of yourself?"
"Yes," Sam says, and holds out his hand. "Nice to meet you."
"Yeah," Aarron says, and huffs out a laugh. "Too bad it wasn't under other circumstances."
"Yes," Sam says, and doesn't even jump when Sara gets back into the car.
Sara drops him off at Dex Mills. Sam waves to her and tries to let himself into the building using Jamie's giant collection of keys. She waits with her car running until he's gotten inside the front doors, and Sam takes a couple of minutes to find the right key on the jumble Jamie keeps.
He finally gets to Jamie's apartment upstairs, and everything's dark and quiet. There's a sticky note still on the fridge that Jamie hasn't noticed yet. Sam put it up, it says I love you with a little heart drawn underneath. Jamie hates them, takes them down and throws them out and Sam just puts more up, like someday Jamie's going to appreciate them.
Sam paces for a while, making sure that all the windows are closed and that everything's clean for when Jamie comes home. It's quiet being here without Jamie, and Sam eventually sits on the couch to wait for the hospital's call, reading A Farewell to Arms. He falls asleep on the couch before he hears anything.
The next day he wakes up, and the apartment's still empty and cold. The heater never came on the night before, and Sam shivers while he puts on Jamie's clothes and walks around with two pairs of socks on his feet. Jamie's dress socks are itchy, and Sam sits down to peel them off when he can't stand it anymore. He has a bath and it helps with the cold and his itchy feet, but they're almost out of towels. He puts up a sticky note on the bathroom mirror to remind Jamie to do laundry.
The laundry's getting full, but Sam doesn't know how to work the machine downstairs so he leaves it, and makes too much macaroni and not enough sauce, and chokes down more than he should because Jamie hates leaving leftovers in the fridge.
The next day Sam turns on the tv to get noise in the apartment, and learns about urban legends and serial killers and how tragedy has struck the midwest in ways that never get into the newspapers in the city. He finishes Hemingway and starts on The Catcher in the Rye and goes to bed at ten pm.
When he wakes up, Jamie's sitting across from him, glaring at how Sam has his feet pushed up against the armrest on the other side. The clock says three pm, and Sam has no idea how he'd felt tired enough to sleep for that long.
Sam immediately sits up, guiltily putting his feet on the floor where Jamie's always said they belong.
"I thought I told you about that," Jamie says. He's wearing the same clothes he was on Saturday night, blood staining the neck of his faded green tee shirt and speckling the shoulders of his leather coat.
"Sorry," Sam says, and folds his hands into his lap. "I thought the hospital was going to call."
"You were asleep, how would you know," Jamie says. His face isn't covered in blood anymore, but Sam can still see it up near his hairline.
Sam frowns, and doesn't think that Jamie and the paramedic really look that much alike. Jamie's still scowling, and he's wearing a knit hat pulled down over his eyebrows. It's one of Sam's, but not one of his favourites.
"I'm sorry," Jamie says, after a minute. "I'm not feeling like myself."
"It's fine," Sam says, even though it isn't. He feels better with the apology, and makes tea for both of them. He tells Jamie he's going to take a bath after the water boils.
The cup is still sitting there when he gets out again, but Jamie's gone. Sam drinks Jamie's lukewarm tea without thinking about it while he picks a book to read. It's by Faulkner. Sam finishes the book before he finishes the tea, and pours it down the drain.
Jamie doesn't come back that day, and Sam goes to bed alone with extra blankets piled on top of him to stay warm because the apartment can't seem to push past sixty-two. He leaves a sticky note on the outside of the bedroom door with instructions for Jamie to get into bed right away.
Sam wakes up alone, and Jamie comes back when Sam's about to eat something, still dressed in the dirty clothes and his face is pale. He doesn't say anything about the note he'd left up on the door, whether he'd read it or not.
"Where were you?" Sam asks, looking up from his toast. He's eating grape jelly on it, and remembers how Jamie used to kiss him for twice as long as normal after breakfast, saying he tasted sweet, good enough to eat.
"Out," Jamie says. He looks tired, and reaches up to scratch his head under the hat he's still wearing, but stops halfway up. "I'm going to bed."
"Sure," Sam says, and looks at his toast. He's not hungry for it anymore, but forces himself to eat as he reads Proust. He has another bath and thinks about the Dostoevsky on the next shelf down. He's on the second-last towel and goes to tell Jamie they're almost out.
"Hi," Sam says, when he opens up the bedroom door. Jamie's not sleeping. He's looking out the bedroom window with an odd expression on his face, one palm pressed flat to the glass.
"What do you want," Jamie asks, turning from the window reluctantly.
"Um, towels," Sam says, and he turns halfway back to the laundry hamper, but Jamie shakes his head.
"I have a headache," Jamie says, and Sam feels terrible for whining about the laundry.
"Lie down," Sam says, and hands over a few aspirin and reads The Cider House Rules quietly in the living room. It's still boring, halfway through, but Sam's determined to finish it.
The apartment's full of books. Jamie's more of a collector than a reader, and the book Sam's reading then hasn't even been cracked open. Sam's been working his way through the entire selection, starting at the books in the top left and going down.
When he finishes the book, Sam collects the laundry and spends the entire next day learning how to do laundry. There's a woman he's never met before who tells him how to separate his clothes by colour and type.
She's nice enough, but Sam still remembers that he's not supposed to talk to anyone in the building. It was one of the rules Jamie set up when Sam first moved in, and he still operates under the feeling that Jamie's going to know if he even says hello to anyone in the building.
Sam brings the clothes back upstairs and folds them the best he can. He's kind of proud of himself, when everything's back in the cupboards and the laundry hamper is empty for the first time in a week, but Jamie doesn't notice.
Instead of feeling upset, Sam has a bath and reads The Snow Goose while he soaks. It's sad and he presses his freshly-laundered towel against his face while the water drains out of the tub.
When he's made it through an entire shelf of books, Jamie takes up permanent residence on one side of the couch. He watches tv without noticing what's on, and Sam changes the channel every so often so he doesn't have to listen to the reruns.
Jamie's gone when Sam makes something new and experimental for lunch, and comes back just in time to push the pasta dinner around on his plate. Sam runs out of bread for toast when he wakes up the next morning, stuck eating the hard crusty ends of the bread, and casually mentions that they need groceries when Jamie turns away from the window.
"Right," Jamie says, like he's realizing that Sam's still there. "My credit card's on the dresser. Just pick up what you need."
"Oh," Sam says, and feels important with the visa in his pocket, and picks up things that Jamie's never bought before, just to try it. He likes the sweet potatoes but the brussel sprouts are disgusting. He buys things that he doesn't like, stores them in the cupboards and doesn't say anything when Jamie doesn't eat them. He throws out a lot of bananas, even after he wrote little notes requesting that they be eaten with smiley faces. The bananas get thrown out along with the post-it notes.
He starts getting groceries once every week, on Monday evenings just like Jamie used to.
Sam asks Jamie once if he wants to come with, but Jamie shakes his head and doesn't turn away from the window. He's been paler than usual, not looking like himself, so Sam doesn't argue, just goes by himself.
It's the time after that, when Sam decides to try being a vegetarian and buys soy milk just once to try it, and he's at the check out when the visa gets declined.
The cashier looks more embarrassed than Sam does, but he doesn't really get it. He goes home and eats one of the soft bananas on the counter, and finds out he still hates the dry way the fruit feels in his mouth.
Sam wonders if he should say something to Jamie about it. Jamie's been letting the mail pile up on his desk, and Sam finally goes through until he sees a bunch of unopened bills from the credit card company, one with a letter marked final notice and another saying they will be turning the account over to collections.
His hands are shaking when he sees that one, and the next time he sees Jamie, looking out the bedroom window and complaining of another headache, he asks about it.
"I must have forgotten," Jamie says, when Sam shows him the final notice. "Find my chequebook? We'll pay it."
"Okay," Sam says, and fills the cheque out for the full amount plus a terrible amount of interest. Sam feels bad for not knowing about it, and marks it on the calendar along with the laundry days and the grocery days, and wonders when Jamie stopped writing his important meetings down. He looks back and it's around the same time that Sam started putting up notes that Jamie had stopped throwing away.
He reads Love in the Time of Cholera, and feels optimistic when he makes it through another entire shelf of books, then marks progress halfway through the entire collection. Jamie never leaves the apartment with Sam anymore, and stops making excuses, even though he's never there when Sam gets back so he obviously has things to do. They're just not with Sam.
One time when Sam gets back, Jamie is standing by the window, and won't turn around when Sam asks him a question about where they keep the garbage tags. He's unresponsive, even when Sam gets close up behind him to touch, and Sam resists the urge to smack Jamie just to get him to say something.
He yells instead, just the once, and Jamie finally turns from the window.
"Maybe this is over," Jamie says softly, and they're not talking about taking out the garbage anymore.
Sam freezes, feeling the cold all of a sudden, and terribly alone even with Jamie standing in front of him. "No, don't."
"Sam," Jamie says, and starts moving towards the kitchen.
"Please, Jamie, please," Sam says, trailing after him. "I didn't mean it, I'm sorry."
Jamie doesn't say anything to that, and doesn't stop on his way to the door.
"Don't go, Jamie, please," Sam begs, and then Jamie's gone, and he doesn't see him for a week.
He feels kind of depressed the entire time Jamie's gone, and does one load of laundry every day, just to have something to do.
There's a woman waiting for a load in the dryer when Sam goes down after Jamie's been gone for five days. She makes conversation and Sam has a feeling this is when Jamie's going to come back and see Sam talking to her. She asks where Jamie's been and Sam lies, says he's been on a business trip and feels paranoid the entire time he waits for his towel in the dryer.
Jamie finally comes back after exactly a week. He comes through the door and tells Sam again, that maybe it's over, and Sam just stares after him and loses his place in The Jungle Book and can't remember which animal is teaching which lesson.
The first time Sam has an accident with one of Jamie's books, he's eating and reading Titus Groan, and spills tomato sauce over the cover. Jamie doesn't notice, and that's when Sam starts taking books in to read in the tub. He starts spending more and more time in the tub, whether it's filled with water or not, because Jamie never comes in to the bathroom.
Jamie tells him to go to the library, once, when Sam's almost done three-quarters of the books. He's sitting on the couch and Jamie's staring out the window, hand pressed up against the glass. It's good that he never leaves a print, otherwise Sam would be cleaning up after him constantly.
Sam doesn't protest, just slips the visa into his pocket and wears one of Jamie's heavy coats, because it gets cold when he has to walk long distances. He wears two or three shirts inside anyway, because the constant chill isn't as welcoming in October as it was in the sweat of summer.
He wanders the non-fiction section of the library before taking a look at the fiction. He doesn't take anything out, because he doesn't have a library card and he wants to finish reading Jamie's books before he moves on to anything else.
He's engrossed in the back of a book that he's seen on the very bottom shelf at the apartment, reading what the critics have to say about this second edition, when someone whispers hello and Sam jumps, dropping the book.
"Oh," Sam says, when he stoops to pick up the book. The guy looks familiar, and he's not sure why. "You started me."
"Sorry," the guy says. He's not whispering anymore, but his voice is still quiet enough that Sam has to lean in to hear him. "You don't remember me, do you?"
"No," Sam says, and sets the book onto an empty space on the shelf. "Should I?"
"Aarron," the guy says. "Paramedic, at, uh. From St. Patrick's?"
"Oh, right," Sam says, although it's all a complete blank. "Are you a friend of Jamie's?"
"Uh, no," Aarron says. "Listen, we should talk sometime. I have some things for you, from the hospital."
Sam takes a step back, and feels a little alarmed when Aarron follows, then a little pleased, because Aarron's looking at him the way Jamie used to. "I'm, uh, I'm not sure that's a good idea."
"It's good to get closure," Aarron says, and Sam shakes his head, because Aarron isn't making any sense.
"Listen, I have to go," Sam says, and turns around and walks right out. He starts running once he's gone down the library steps, and loses Aarron when he ducks down to the underground subway station that he uses to come up on the other side of the street. He takes off and never goes back.
Jamie doesn't ask how it goes, but Sam still feels guilty for feeling good when Aarron looked at him.
When Sam comes back to the apartment he's alone, and takes a long bath after his run home. Jamie's coat got too hot after he'd passed the twenty minute mark, chest heaving and hands trembling when he'd let himself back in.
Sitting in the tub, Sam doesn't think he can stand up anymore, and gets a wet thumbprint on the hundred and eighth page of Hamlet. He doesn't really get the book, and every time he sets it down it's impossible to get back into the language.
Sam doesn't mention what happened at the library, but he takes long walks when Jamie looks at him kind of long, or makes a nasty remark that Sam can't quite shrug off. He gets home from one walk with Jamie gone and Sam's hat lying on the floor.
Sam frowns when he picks it up, and sets it on the kitchen counter. He has a bath because he's cold inside and out, and when he gets out Jamie's standing in the kitchen, Sam's hat back on his head.
"So," Jamie says, and Sam hopes he's going to say something about the heat.
"What?" Sam asks, going for defence, but Jamie just shakes his head and when Sam gets back out of the bedroom Jamie's gone.
It happens again and again, and when Sam fakes Jamie's signature on another cheque to pay off the credit card the bank leaves a message, something about fees for non sufficient funds.
Sam has another bath and brushes his teeth while the water drains out of the tub, holding the towel up around his waist with one hand.
He opens the bathroom door and Jamie's right in front of him. Startled, Sam jumps and nearly loses the towel. He hadn't heard Jamie come back in.
"I think you need to move out," Jamie says, about as cold as the temperature in the apartment.
"What?" Sam actually does drop the towel, but he cares less about being naked than he does about being homeless.
"Let's face it," Jamie says. He won't move back, so Sam can get by. "You're over me."
"I'm not," Sam says. "Come on."
"When was the last time we had sex," Jamie says, and finally backs off, taking a seat on the couch. He's wearing a sweatshirt with the hood pulled up over his head.
"Um," Sam says, and can't immediately bring it to mind. "The day before St. Patrick's day?"
"Exactly," Jamie says. "This isn't a relationship anymore, you're just existing here."
"You're kicking me out," Sam says, and hates the way his hands shake, the way he fumbles with the towel to cover himself back up, suddenly noticing his nakedness.
"You need to live on your own," Jamie says. "I'm not helping."
"You are," Sam says, and comes out into the living room. "I can't do this without you, Jamie."
"Find a way, Sam," Jamie says, and looks almost sad. "I can give you that, at least."
"Jamie," Sam says. His voice sounds lost, and he can feel his hands tremble against their grip on the towel.
"Two weeks," Jamie says, and reaches up to pull the hood over his forehead more. His fingers are dirty, and Sam can't remember a time he's seen Jamie look this tired.
"Two weeks," Sam repeats, miserable, and doesn't have the energy to stand anymore, and touches his head to his knees. He crouches there against the carpet for a long time, and when he straightens up Jamie's gone.
He reads Stephen King and finds a job filing books at a used bookstore that has a cat that lies on books in the sunshine. They only take him because he's not a student, and still look surprised at his lack of experience. They at least like that he knows how to read, and can list five books he's read recently by title and author that weren't published in the last six months.
He reads One Hundred Years of Solitude and finds a place to live. The floors are painted wood, there's a claw foot tub in the bathroom, and it has an unsecured entrance that overlooks a park.
He reads the Picoult two shelves from the bottom while Jamie denies ever having bought them, and packs up all the books he hasn't read in a box. Jamie tells him to take them, and it takes Sam three hours to take them all to the new apartment. Jamie doesn't offer to help.
He reads Beckett and puts his clothes into a duffel bag, turns out the lights, and leaves the key on the counter, next to a post-it that Sam wrote. It says I still love you, but Sam isn't sure he means it.
Jamie doesn't tell him goodbye, and Sam doesn't really notice being alone in the new place. It's not big enough to rattle around in, and once Sam puts the stacks of books around the outskirts of the rooms he feels better, surrounded, and even sleeps on his futon with a book held close to his chest. He doesn't miss Jamie then.
He lies naked on the floor and reads Hemingway and Kafka, and finds a book of e.e cummings that he lies in bed naked and reads. Sam thinks he's doing okay, even if he has to catch himself from calling one of the other guys at the bookstore Jamie.
It's a little hard not to tell everyone what books are okay to read naked and which ones aren't, but when Sam talks about books people actually listen.
He doesn't take walks anymore because he doesn't need the reason to get out of his apartment. He takes books to the park instead, sits on a bench and reads and reads and reads. He leaves Moby Dick on the bench once, and the last book that Jamie had on his shelf, the worn copy of Cat's Cradle with his name written in the front.
The last is what gets him in trouble, because Sam's heading back to the bench with Harry Potter after a long struggle of saying no to his coworkers at the bookstore. The book is small enough to slip into his pocket, and Sam doesn't notice Jamie standing there at the bench with the book in hand until it's too late and Jamie's spotted him, and he's coming over to meet him.
Sam stops short, because Jamie dumped him, after years and years and months of being supportive and understanding and it's worse because Sam doesn't actually dislike him, even after that.
"Sam," Jamie says, and his voice is different and he's tan and taller and he's still frowning, but Sam has no idea who this is.
"Hi," Sam says, and casually tucks Harry Potter into the pocket of his coat. It's the end of October, it's fall, and he's glad he's wearing this one. He's even wearing the scarf that Sandy from the bookstore knit him. It's gray, and his jacket is blue.
"How are you?" Not-Jamie asks, and runs his thumb against the side of the book, making the pages flip by with a soft noise.
"Um, fine," Sam says. He shifts from foot to foot, and wonders if this is the creepy guy who smells books at the bookstore, who both Greg and Sandy say exists but Sam hasn't seen. He's starting to think they're talking about him, but Sam just doesn't want to read a book that smells like cigarettes.
"You disappeared off the face of the earth," Not-Jamie says, and holds out the book. "This is yours."
"It's not," Sam says, but takes the book anyway. Just inside the inside cover is the name Jamie Peterson, and it's quite possibly the first book Jamie bought for himself. Sam doesn't know and won't ever find out.
"Yeah," Not-Jamie says. "I'm really sorry about what happened."
"Thank you," Sam says automatically. "About what?"
"Jamie," Not-Jamie says. "That night."
"Oh," Sam says, and then again, like it means something. "Oh."
"I tried calling you, after I saw you, to give you his things," Not-Jamie says. "The number you gave was disconnected."
"Sorry," Sam says. "I don't like telephones."
"You wouldn't, would you," Not-Jamie says, but it's not mean, like Greg would say it, it's more like he thinks it's awesome, like the way Sandy talks about Sylvia Plath.
"Do you have one?" Sam asks, because it feels polite.
"Yeah, here, this is my number," Not-Jamie says, and scrawls it onto a receipt and tucks it into the middle of Vonnegut.
"Thank you," Sam says carefully, and opens the book to look at it. The number is legible, but the Sam doesn't recognize the name.
"You should call me," Not-Jamie says, and when Sam looks up to tell him he doesn't have a telephone, he remembers Aarron in navy blue with his name on his chest.
"Oh," Sam says, and takes a step back.
"What's wrong?" Aarron asks, Aarron, and holds out a hand.
Sam shakes his head and Aarron freezes, hand inches away from Sam's sleeve. "I have to go."
"Uh, okay," Aarron says, but Sam's already walking away.
Later, Sam tells Sandy over hot chocolate and Truman Capote.
"I think that's sketch," Sandy says, bending the corner down in her copy and ignoring the way that Sam winces. "Like, he was there when you boyfriend gets shot, and then tries to pick you up when you're single?"
"He could've done it there," Sam says defensively, but realizes a little too late that it sounds wrong.
"You wanted to bone him at the crime scene?" Sandy's voice gets impossibly high and she laughs and laughs, even after Sam starts tossing marshmallows after her.
"You should call him," Sandy says, after she's stopped laughing and helped Sam pick up the marshmallows. The store's cat lies on the counter, ignoring everything. She's having kittens, and Sandy's already promised to take all of them.
"I don't have a phone," Sam says.
"That's right, I forgot you were Amish," Sandy says. "Quick, stop reading, you're too English."
"I don't know why you find those books fascinating," Sam says, and lets the store cat lick one of his fingers.
Sandy rolls her eyes and tells him to at least get a prepaid.
Sam doesn't. He goes home and takes a bath, reads the rest of Capote and starts on Trainspotting. The dialogue drives him about as crazy as Greg, and when he returns the book the next day Greg shakes his head like Sam doesn't get it.
Sam gets everything, and when the store cat has kittens - six of them, two orange, two striped and two black - he takes an orange one and names it Telephone, but only when Sandy can hear. Otherwise he calls it Bell, and he reads it The Great Gatsby and Robert Louis Stevenson out loud.
Midway through November, Sam discovers the movie tie-ins, and he's behind the counter reading both The Prestige and the Star Wars adaptation when Aarron comes in, scarf wrapped around his neck and faking surprise at seeing Sam there.
"Oh, hey," Aarron says, and sets a box on the counter. "I heard you guys buy used books?"
"We do," Sam says, and he knows he sounds surprised when he says it. It's not news to him, but Aarron makes him feel all kind of different.
"Well, I have some books that I don't read anymore," Aarron says.
"Really," Sam says, and he's surprised for a different reason. He can't imagine giving away any of his books unless he hated them, but figures maybe Aarron is a more careless reader like Greg is.
"True story," Aarron says, and smiles easily. "Wanted to pick something new up to read, and I didn't have any space."
"I can't promise we'll be able to use everything here," Sam says. He doesn't want to look at the books at all, because he figures Aarron will have comic books and paperback novels about crimes, and they don't take the first and have too much of the later.
"We do offer money for books," Sam says stiffly, because he thinks it's a terrible policy, because they are not a book graveyard, no matter what Greg says. "But you get better credit if you want to exchange for books on our shelves."
"I'll take some books," Aarron says, and taps the edge of the box. His hand is way too close to Sam's fingers, and Sam pulls his hand back like they'd actually made contact.
"Fine," Sam says, and when Aarron moves away to look at books, he finally takes a chance to look inside the box. He's nervous when he picks up the first book, and then takes a look at some of the other titles and starts to get this prickly feeling over his shoulders, and he really, really wants to use his monthly book allowance completely on this box that Aarron's brought in.
"So," Aarron says, when he circles one shelf and comes back to the counter. "Will you take anything?"
Sam looks down at the titles, and sets the book he's holding tightly back on top. "I, uh, sure."
"Awesome," Aarron says. "There's a few things here I'd like to take home with me."
"Me too," Sam says, and he's looking down at the books again so he misses the sharp look Aarron gives him.
Aarron disappears around the corner, into the back room of the bookstore, and Sam opens up the cover of the first book, with a street on the cover and written about grief, which is also the title. Sam's never heard of it, and when he opens up the well-worn copy he flushes, because it's not what he was expecting.
He sets each book on the counter after he reads the back, and ends up with only two he can't take, because the store already has three copies of Watership Down and two of Ragtime. They're both original covers, and Sam hesitates on the dark blue cover before he sets the two books back in the box, and stacks the others on the counter.
"So what do you think?" Aarron asks, putting a couple of books on the counter and tapping on the glass. "Anything salvageable?"
Sam nods, looking down at the books instead of at Aarron. "Did you find something?"
"What? Yeah, a few," Aarron says, and he sets his hand on the top book. The spines are turned to him, so Sam can't judge him by his reading selections.
"I'll be a few minutes," Sam says, and pushes the box over the counter. "You can keep these."
"No love for Doctorow?" Aarron smiles when he says it, and leaves the box there. "Where do you keep your biographies?"
"Go down the stairs in the back," Sam says, and can't help wrinkling his nose.
"What, is that bad?" Aarron says, and starts towards the back.
"Biographies are stories people are too lazy to tell themselves," Sam says, and starts typing in the titles of each book the store's going to buy.
Aarron laughs, and disappears down the stairs.
Sam doesn't like the basement, it smells musty and they don't have a really great light down there, but Sandy claims all the best books are down there. They always debate the accuracy of that statement, but everyone can agree that at least eight of the boxes down there are unsorted, and the claims of being full of biographies are unfounded.
Sam tries to read more of his movie tie-ins and can't concentrate until he hears Aarron coming back up the stairs. Aarron could get about sixty bucks cash, or eighty for in-store credit, and when Sam tells him, Aarron looks curious.
"So with these," Aarron says, and pushes five or six more books over the counter. "Do I owe you, or do I have more credit?"
"About even," Sam says, and then notices that like three of the books are marked down to ten cents and that means Aarron has more to spend again. "Um."
"Can I come back?" Aarron says, once Sam has the books run through and he's about to rerun the transaction for the correct percentage of cash back. "I might want more, you know."
"This isn't a library," Sam says stiffly, and then has to ask whether Aarron wants a bag, and hands over his cash back.
Aarron almost closes his fingers around Sam's and the quarters, and Sam can't tell from the look on Aarron's face, but he'd say it was on purpose.
"I'll see you later," Aarron says, and sets his new books in the box and turns to go. He's barely by the door before Sandy's swooping down to the counter.
Sam covers the new acquisitions protectively, sliding them to his side of the counter and sets his elbow on the top book, terribly casual.
"Oh my gosh," Sandy says, and doesn't even spare a glance to the books. "He was so checking you out, Sam."
"He was not," Sam says. He wants to take a better look at the books, or just take them all home in his backpack.
"Totally was," Sandy repeats. "Checking you out like a new release."
"This is not a library," Sam says irritably, and pretends he's not listening or blushing when Sandy tells Greg about the hot guy that was checking Sam out.
Sam's shift is over at five-thirty, and he has the books he wants to try for this month's allowance in his bag. They're allowed to borrow books, as long as they return them quickly, and that's never been Sam's problem.
"So, man," Greg says, picking up Sam's backpack and setting it on the counter with a loud thunk. "What do you have in here, books?"
Sam stares at him, not sure if Greg's kidding.
"Books about bricks, masonry, the like," Greg says. "Kidding, man, don't look like I just kicked your cat."
"Sorry," Sam says, and reaches for the strap on his bag.
"Not so fast," Greg says. "Sandy says you have a secret admirer?"
"I wish he was secret," Sam mutters, and realizes too late that's he's basically admitted it.
"Knew it," Greg says. "Blond guy, brown eyes, a cop or something?"
"Paramedic," Sam says. He winces, and tries to tug his backpack over the counter but Greg holds on.
"I'll check him out," Greg promises, and finally lets go of the strap.
"Greg," Sam says, and he doesn't know where this is coming from, he and Greg usually argue about books and talk through Sandy when they fight and stay mad.
"Dude, no," Greg says. "We're like family here. You're my, uh, Sandy's our. Okay, so Sandy and you are like brothers and I'm the dude that lives over the garage."
"Brothers," Sam says, and doesn't even think to duck when Greg takes a wild swing at him. It hits Sam in the side of the face. It doesn't hurt, he just blinks as it stings a bit.
"Sorry," Greg says, but he's smiling. "Go on, go home. Talk to your cat, don't ever tell Sandy I just slapped you."
"She wouldn't believe it," Sam says, and heaves his backpack up and heads home. It really is heavy, and he's panting by the time he can hear Bell's noise on the other side of the door.
"Hey," Sam says, while Bell twines around his ankles and meows. By the time Bell gets over it and chases around a stack of books, Sam's ankles are covered in orange cat hair.
He drops his backpack and pulls out the first book, a well-worn copy of A Clockwork Orange. It's not a book he's ever wanted to read before, but Aarron's copy is well worn and when Sam gets through the first chapter, he starts noticing little notes Aarron's left. They try not to take books with writing, and he's into the story shortly after that and decides to keep it.
Bell starts making noise when it gets dark, and Sam finds that he's still sitting in front of his apartment door reading the book, squinting to make it out by the light that's always on in his kitchen. He gets up and stretches, and he's stiff and nearly trips over Bell when he tries to get to the kitchen. He drops the book on the counter and marks his place with the sticky note on the fridge reminding him to return A Hundred Years of Solitude to the bookstore.
He dumps out Aarron's books onto the floor and stacks them by his shoes, and puts the books he's returning in the bottom.
He finishes the Burgess before he's tired, and Sam picks up another one of Aarron's books while he takes a bath to relax, and he's already under the water when he realizes the book's about gay vampires, and Sam's too comfortable to find another. He's not sure what he thinks about gay vampires when he's in the middle of it, but the bath water is hot enough that he gets sweaty and uncomfortable and then just lies on his bed naked and damp to finish the book.
There's a fire at a place three storefronts down from the bookstore, and Sam stays on the street with the crowd to watch the last efforts to put out smouldering coals or sparks.
Sandy finds him after a couple of minutes, linking her arm through his and pulling him away from the crowd but closer to the parked police cruiser in the middle of the street.
"We've decided to stay closed," Sandy says, when they've got a better vantage point. The windows are wrecked and the brick has a dark trail of soot leading up from the windows.
"Oh," Sam says, and looks up at the other windows.
"We would have called you and told you to stay home," Sandy says, and squeezes his arm meaningfully. "But you still haven't made it to the twenty-first century."
"Maybe," Sam says, and he's thinking about what he'd do with a phone if he had one.
Aarron sneaks up on them and then Sandy's turning Sam around to face him.
"Uh, hi," Sam says, and flushes, because he'd gotten a bit of a rise out of Aarron's books the night before, and feels like Aarron can tell just by looking at him.
"Hey," Aarron says. "How's the store?"
"Fine," Sam says, and realizes too late that he has no idea. "Um."
"It's fine," Sandy steps in, and squeezes Sam's arm. "Hey, do you know anything about cell phone plans? Because I don't, I mean, my dad got mine for me, but Sam, he's decided to get a phone."
"I have?" Sam says, at the same time Aarron asks the same thing.
"A bit," Aarron says. He's watching Sam too close, and Sam looks pointedly at Sandy, but Aarron stays focused on him.
"Okay, awesome," Sandy says. "You should take Sam to buy one."
"If you want," Aarron tells him, and Sam feels like a dick so he says yes.
They arrange to meet in front of the bookstore the following day, because Sam's going home to sleep right now or maybe read the second of the gay vampire books, he hasn't decided yet.
"I'm going to walk Sam home," Sandy tells Aarron. "Unless you want to."
"Can't, actually, though I'd love to." Aarron gestures back towards the ambulance. "Have a woman, inhaled some smoke. We're taking her for observation."
"He'll see you tomorrow," Sandy promises, and drags Sam off in the direction of his house.
"So," Sandy says, when they're out of sight of the ambulance and Aarron in his uniform. "Why aren't you going for it?"
"I can't," Sam says, and wishes that Sandy would drop it.
"Greg says he's a good guy," Sandy says. "And you can't honestly tell me it's because of your ex."
"We just broke up," Sam says. "I would feel weird—"
"Honey, you're over him," Sandy says. "He was a giant doucher anyway."
"We were in love," Sam protests, but he says it quietly so Sandy won't laugh at him.
"Sam, that was something, but it wasn't love," Sandy says, and squeezes his arm again before letting go. "Go for it. Aarron clearly wants more than just your bod."
"Ew, Sandy," Sam says, and ducks his head.
"Honey, he reads. He told me about that one book, it was yours, the Gatsby, I think," Sandy says. She looks up to the sky as she thinks, but doesn't miss the way Sam stumbles.
She doesn't ask, and Sam doesn't tell her that he's thinking about how Aarron must have picked through all the books until he'd found one of Sam's old ones, and how it didn't take him very long, and about how Sam was reading Aarron's books and it's really kind of sexy, and then Sam stumbles again.
"I hope you're just exhausted, not drunk," Sandy tells him, and walks him all the way up to his apartment where she comments on how good Bell looks and Sam just collapses into his bed with his clothes on and his shoes hanging over the side.
Sam wakes up the next day and can't remember any life changing decisions, so when he's done work for the day and finds Aarron waiting outside, he's pretty surprised.
"Hey," Aarron says, and squeezes Sam's shoulder. It's affectionate, Sam would say, and only tries to dodge once.
It's enough for Aarron to let go, and Sam tries not to think of ways where Aarron might accidentally touch him again. Aarron talks about what happened for him at work, about saving lives and about one of the biographies he'd bought.
"I tried reading a biography once," Sam says, and just stops, because he can't remember what it was called or who it was about.
"Sounds awesome," Aarron says, and laughs when Sam turns to look at him. "I'm kidding, man. They're not for everyone. I like that you always know how it turns out, though."
"Only if the person's dead," Sam says, and it makes Aarron laugh again.
They walk to the mall, and Sam's uncomfortable even before they get inside. He's not really good with crowds of people, and when he tells Aarron that Aarron can't even fake surprise.
"Yeah, I thought so," Aarron says, and kind of hustles up behind Sam and stays close, directing him through clusters of people in the way. Sam's not really comfortable with it, but it doesn't take long to get used to someone standing so close in his space, because he's only trying to help.
"So any particular reason why you suddenly need a phone?" Aarron asks, mouth too close to Sam's ear. Aarron doesn't notice, and Sam just shrugs awkwardly.
"Sandy, mostly," Sam says. "After yesterday, they couldn't call to tell me not to come in."
"And here I thought it was so I can finally ask for your number," Aarron says, and squeezes Sam's shoulder before stepping away, because they're standing in front of the deserted looking phone place, and Sam feels even more uncomfortable when he can't feel Aarron pressed up against his back anymore.
Aarron talks to the sales rep about plans and phones and talking about things like 3g and rollovers while Sam looks at the phones attached to the display by wires. He flips a bunch of them open and looks at the stickers on their screens, and can't imagine actually owning one. Aarron comes over after he's been thoroughly informed by the sales rep, and Sam's pausing on one that's pretty simple, but the fake display shows a picture of palm trees. It flips open, and the display model is still shiny silver even after being handled so frequently.
"So," Aarron says, and Sam drops the phone he's looking at. The wire catches it, and it's plastic anyway. "Find one you like?"
"No," Sam says, and doesn't look at the phone he just dropped, but somehow Aarron figures it out and picks it up.
"I have this one," Aarron says, and flips it open with the ease of practice. "We could be phone buddies."
"Okay," Sam says, and winces, because he hadn't meant to agree.
"Awesome," Aarron says, and that's probably a cue for the sales rep, because he comes over and starts talking about plans. Sam gets a little nervous when the sales rep asks him questions, but Aarron takes on the role of translating.
The rep looks a little disappointed to hear that Sam only needs an emergency phone, and won't need much as far as minutes, but Aarron cheers him up with talk of unlimited texting. Sam has no idea what any of it means, but Aarron explains it as he goes, until Sam's walking out with a bag full of a phone and a month-by-month payment plan.
"That wasn't so hard, was it?" Aarron says, and walks into Sam's back when he stops short, not wanting to walk into the crowds he'd forgotten about.
"This'll be the easy part," Aarron says, and puts both hands on Sam's shoulders, and steers him through people. Sam wants to close his eyes but doesn't dare, and then Aarron's letting go because they're standing just in the doorway of a bookstore.
"Surprise," Aarron says right in Sam's ear, and touches his arm. "There's an exit right outside from here, but I thought you'd want to look at some books."
"Oh," Sam says, and follows Aarron as he heads to a section about travel books. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Aarron says, and stands there, waiting for Sam to do something.
"What?" Sam asks, and Aarron just shrugs.
"You can go ahead and browse, I'm looking for a book on Columbia." Aarron leaves Sam there, but doesn't go far. He starts looking at the titles, and Sam sighs when he looks at the rest of the bookstore. It's a large one, and he can look down one aisle all the way to the outside door.
Sam decides to find the fiction section, up a few steps and overlooking the rest of the store. It's a reassuring feature, because Sam can keep an eye on Aarron no matter where he goes next in the store. The books are alphabetized by author, which is a helpful feature, Sam thinks, and starts at A and works his way down the list. He's read more than a few of those books, but keeps getting thrown off with the new covers on reissues.
There's a few he'd like to read, and Sam carries two around with him, until he turns the corner into the romance section and finds Aarron waiting for him.
"Hey," Aarron says, showing him the cover of one book, of a guy in a suit holding two babies. "Do you ever think having screaming kids around is a romantic atmosphere?"
"No," Sam says, and looks away from the cover. "But I'm not a woman, so."
"You're not," Aarron says, and laughs when he puts the book away. "You find something?"
"I heard these were good," Sam says, and shrugs. One book is bright yellow, the other purple. "I've never seen them in the store."
"Hmm," Aarron says, and takes them to look at the backs. They head to the checkout by the outside exit, and Sam looks at the novelty post-its while Aarron buys his books about Sacramento, and Sam doesn't realize until they're outside that Aarron paid for his books too.
"You didn't have to," Sam says, when Aarron hands over his novels about white tigers and bad monkeys.
"I wanted to," Aarron says. He takes out a pack of gum and cracks out a piece, offering the package to Sam. Sam shakes his head, focusing on his books, but he can tell when Aarron starts chewing his that it's cinnamon flavoured.
"Before I forget," Aarron says, replacing the gum and handing a folded sticky note. "I found this in one of the books I bought from your store. I'm assuming it's a little late, but I hope you remembered anyway."
Sam takes the note, and feels relieved when it's just a note reminding him to buy milk. He's a little embarrassed, but not as much if it was one of the notes he used to write. He's thrown most of those out anyway. He says as much, and Aarron shakes his head.
"Don't worry about it," Aarron says, and points across the street to the park that's nearby Sam's apartment. "You want to sit and read up on your new phone? It's a beautiful day."
"Sure," Sam says, and he's a little surprised that he agrees to it. He and Aarron share a bench in the park, Aarron cracking open his book on travel in the southern states.
"I never started reading until I had my first job," Aarron says. Sam's still trying to get the instruction manual out of the box, and he pauses to look at Aarron.
Aarron's looking at his book, but he's obviously not reading. "In college I hated having assigned reading, but even there I'd say I'd watch the movie before I'd read a book."
"What changed your mind?" Sam asks, and finally gets the inside packaging out of the box and finds the manual.
"Combination of a what and a who," Aarron says, and left vague, it sounds a lot like Sam's reason for reading so much. "There was a book left around at the station, and I honestly couldn't tell you what it was, but we all read it at some point. The who was a co-worker who decided since we'd all read it, we should meet and talk about it."
"Oh," Sam says, and wrinkles his nose. He's never gotten into the idea of book clubs, even if he and Sandy compare notes when they read the same things or Greg says things are either awesome or not awesome.
"Exactly. We work the same hours, we're on call constantly, and I don't like talking about books. But I thought, hey, you know, reading is a private thing, so why am I watching movies and seeing someone else's interpretation?" Aarron shrugs and turns a page in the book Sam knows he's not reading.
"So you started reading?" Sam frowns when he squints at the tiny print in the manual. He finds the section calling getting started and decides it's an obvious place to start.
"Not a lot, not then," Aarron says. He gives up on pretending to read his book and closes it, turning to look at Sam and leaning in too close. Sam doesn't move, but he doesn't relax either."Baby steps, you know? I read a lot of Michael Crichton, Stephen King, Tom Clancy, but it wasn't really a choice, I just picked up books that were on sale. I bought a lot of hardcovers before they came out with the paperback versions, that kind of thing."
"We have a lot of those books," Sam says, and flips to another page in the manual nervously.
"What about you?" Aarron asks. He smells like cinnamon and his knee is pressing into the side of Sam's. "What made you start?"
"Um," Sam says, because he can't exactly remember. "The place I used to live, there was a huge wall full of books. I decided I wanted to read all of them."
He doesn't tell Aarron he read fast because he was always afraid of Jamie telling him to leave before he'd finished, or that he read in the first place because he wasn't allowed to do anything else.
"Thank god you didn't live in a library," Aarron says, and he keeps a straight face until Sam frowns, not sure if he's joking, and then Aarron laughs. Sam smiles, and turns to the manual.
They're quiet for a bit, Sam focused on learning about his phone and making sure there is a charger and service and wonders what the purpose of an sd card is, but plans on asking Sandy later.
It starts getting colder as the sun goes down, and Sam realizes a little late that his phone is showing the time as 8 and his stomach's growling uncomfortable.
Aarron closes his book when he notices that Sam's just sitting there, and hands Sam's books back. Sam shoves them into the bag along with his phone kit, and Aarron takes over the phone.
"I remember when mine was new," Aarron says, and fiddles around with it. "You can lock it, too, so you're the only one who can use it."
"I saw that," Sam says. He feels weird with Aarron playing with the phone, and wonders if that's something that the manual doesn't mention, because it goes away when Aarron hands the phone back.
"You should call me later, so I know it's working," Aarron says. "I put my number in your contacts."
"Oh," Sam says. "I can put you in my speed dial."
"Right," Aarron says, and he looks really pleased with that, and Sam isn't sure why. "Me too."
"Um, sure," Sam says, and looks down at his phone, then back up at Aarron.
They're really sitting too close. Sam meets Aarron's eyes for a second, but when they drop to the spot under Aarron's lip where he missed shaving Sam can't think of anything else but the smell of cinnamon. Aarron's staring at Sam's mouth, mouth open a little when he breathes in and out. Sam licks his lips, and Aarron leans in, enough to breathe cinnamon onto Sam's cheek. They're barely touching, just side to side, but Sam feels warm and solid, next to Aarron on the park bench.
Sam wants to close his eyes, because he knows how this works, he knows this part, but then Aarron sighs and leans back, and puts a bag on Sam's lap.
"From the hospital," Aarron says, and Sam blinks, trying to understand the change in subject when he looks down at the neatly wrapped plastic package.
"Why'd you give this to me?" Sam asks, pulling himself upright and away from Aarron's shoulder.
"It's yours now," Aarron says, and looks over the park, up at the street lights, anywhere but at Sam.
Sam flips the bag over and sees the hospital's name underneath the plastic, distorted by the tape holding the package together. "You should've given this to Jamie. It's his."
"That'd kind of defeat the purpose of hanging on to it for so long," Aarron says, still looking away from Sam.
"I don't know what that means," Sam says, and he shifts to the end of the bench. "Jamie should have this, it's his stuff. I don't want it."
"You don't," Aarron says, and he's focusing on the wrong part.
Sam sighs. "No. I'm just going to give it to him."
"Give it to him," Aarron says, and laughs. It's not the same kind of laugh when he thinks Sam says something funny, it's the sort of laugh that Sam usually gets for being completely oblivious, like when he told Sandy he doesn't have an email address.
"Yes," Sam says, and stands up. He shoves the bag under one arm and hooks his fingers through the bag's handle. "I'll—see you later."
Aarron stands too, but he looks confused. He doesn't know that Sam really wanted to tell him to come along, for moral support or to prove it to him, Sam doesn't care.
"Um, let me know how it goes, I guess," Aarron says, frowning. "You can call me."
"Right," Sam says, and turns around towards Dex Mills.
It takes longer than he remembers to get to Jamie's building, but the inside of the lobby still smells the same. Sam doesn't have to look hard to find the hidden key in the lobby to get inside the front entrance, and he's standing in front of Jamie's apartment door soon enough.
Sam knocks, and doesn't exactly freeze when some woman opens the door, but she doesn't exactly look thrilled to see him.
"Can I help you?" She asks, holding the door with one hand so it doesn't open all the way.
"Um," Sam says, and adjusts his grip on the bag. "Sorry, wrong floor."
"Okay," she says, and doesn't pause before shutting the door and locking it behind her.
Sam stares at the closed door for a minute, loosening his grip on the books and feeling irrationally angry at Jamie, that he'd kick Sam out of his life and then cut him out totally.
He finally steps away from the door and back to the elevator, and his hands are nearly shaking with the shock of Jamie being gone, just leaving, not even bothering to tell Sam goodbye, and has to sit down on the curb when he gets outside. He sits next to a blue recycle bin and a couple of black garbage bags, right on the curb. His shoes are actually on the street, but there isn't a lot of traffic.
Jamie's name was gone from the building directory, like J. Peterson never lived there. He's hidden by the garbage to his left, and Sam sets his bags to the side while he wraps his arms around his knees and sits there for a while.
Sam gets up after maybe fifteen minutes, maybe more, but it's long enough that he starts to feel cold and gets up. He leaves the package with Jamie's things inside it by the garbage, and scuffs the bottoms of his shoes against the sidewalk the entire way home.
Bell is almost frantic when Sam gets in, jumping to the counter so Sam won't miss him again. Sam drops his bag to the counter, runs his hand over Bell's orange fur and picks up a book by Gaiman from on top of the toaster. The bag makes a buzzing noise and Bell jumps to the floor.
Sam ignores it and starts filling the tub for a bath. He can see the counter from here, and every time Bell gets close enough to investigate the bag it buzzes and the cat retreats across the stove.
Stopping the water when it gets full, Sam pulls things out of the bag and gets his charger, plugs his phone in, and can still hear it buzzing when he's reading in the bath.
He and Sandy open up the next morning, and Sam spends the morning unpacking books. He takes the phone with him and leaves it in his backpack, and doesn't think about it until Sandy drops the bag to the counter and tells him to turn it on silent mode.
"I don't know what that means," Sam says, and takes the phone out of the zippered pocket. He shows it to Sandy, who starts laughing at the little orange envelope on the screen.
"You read more books than we're assigned in my grad program, and you don't know how to read a text message," Sandy says, and shakes her head.
"I never had to before," Sam says, and joins Sandy behind the counter to watch what she's doing.
"What are you, Amish," Sandy mutters, and shows him the screen. "Look. Sixteen unread texts from Aarron."
"So that's what that was," Sam says, and feels sorry for Bell, because the buzzing had kept up all night.
"Someone wants to get a hold of you," Sandy says, and shows Sam how to pick up the first text.
"I have unlimited texting," Sam tells her, like it means something.
"Looks like you'll need it," Sandy says, and leaves Sam to read his messages. They're all variations of where are you and call me and Sam rests his fingers on the buttons, tempted to call Aarron but something holds him back. He tries out a text message, mashes his fingers on the keys, and hopes that Aarron will be able to translate everything.
After he sends it, Sandy points out the T9 feature and Sam shoves the phone in his pocket, taking a box of new acquisitions and heading to the back to shelve them. When his phone buzzes, Sam jumps, but at least now he knows it's for a new text.
He flips the phone open clumsily, and sets the copy of another Gordon Ramsey cookbook on top of another stack of books while he reads the text. All it says is where are you and Sam almost answers out loud, and then he hears Aarron somewhere behind him and Sam's trapped in the room with the used cookbooks and outdated medical journals.
Aarron leans in the doorway, hands on either side of the frame, and Sam can't even close his phone.
"Hey," Aarron says. "Sandy said you were back here."
"I just got your text," Sam says, and feels really impossibly modern when he says it, and finally closes his phone. He sets it down on top of Gordon Ramsey's face.
"I just sent it," Aarron says. He comes into the room, taking a look at the spine of a book by Sam's phone. "How's it going?"
"Um," Sam says, and pretends like the back of Aarron's shirt is really interesting. Aarron turns to look at him after a minute, and Sam knows that he's still a terrible actor.
"Come on, you get a lunch break?" Aarron asks, and gives Sam his phone back before taking his wrist and tugging him out of the room and back up to the front. "I'm taking you out."
"I brought a sandwich," Sam protests, but Sandy tells him to go and enjoy himself, and Sam likes Sandy too much to disobey.
"Honestly," Aarron says. He lets go of Sam's wrist when they get outside, and Sam pretends not to miss it, crossing his arms over his chest. "You wait until this morning to get back to me?"
"What?" Sam asks, and follows close behind Aarron. "Sandy had to show me how to get my text messages."
"Sandy," Aarron says, and stops on the sidewalk. He shakes his head. "Of course she did."
"There's a difference between reading about it and doing it," Sam says defensively, and it's enough that Aarron turns around to face him.
"That's true for a lot of things," Aarron says, and raises his eyebrows. He's chewing gum again, cinnamon flavoured.
"The cat, um, the cat thought it was a toy," Sam says. Bell hadn't stopped investigating, even when he got scared at the noise the bag made when he touched it.
"And you?" Aarron asks. "What'd you think it was?"
Sam shrugs and doesn't answer.
"Okay," Aarron says, and pulls out his own phone. "I'm going to show you how to pick up your voice mail, just so you know."
"I can do that on a real phone," Sam says, but takes his phone out too.
"This is a real phone," Aarron says patiently, and takes Sam through the process step by step, until Sam's able to hear Aarron telling him how to delete messages while he's listening to a message Aarron left him last night, apologizing for not being there for him in a difficult time.
"How'd you know?" Sam asks, trying to tune out what Aarron was saying to him last night and focus on what Aarron was saying this morning.
"Know what?" Aarron asks, frowning as he looks at his phone.
"What happened," Sam says, and finally just closes his phone and hopes that he didn't break anything.
"Well, nothing specific," Aarron says. "Just that it's a tough time for anyone, moving on."
"He didn't even say goodbye," Sam says, and tries not to think of a strange woman living in Jamie's apartment and answering his intercom.
"Sometimes people don't get a chance," Aarron says. He lifts one hand, pauses with it lifted halfway up, and then puts it around Sam's shoulders, pulling him in for a comforting half-hug. "There isn't always time to say goodbye."
Sam frowns, wondering whether it's happened to Aarron before, if someone's done some passive aggressive to him, like something out of those Sophie Kinsella books that Sandy likes to read secretly.
"I know some counselling groups if you want to talk about it," Aarron says. "They're good, sometimes it's nice to talk about things with someone you're not so close — so familiar with."
Sam blinks, and can't think of what to say. He's not sure what Aarron's trying to say. Sam knows that this kind of stuff happens, Sandy says it's not common, but Sam isn't exactly a regular guy. Sam usually rolls his eyes at that.
"I, um, thank you," Sam says, and frowns. "I don't think I need it?"
"Sam, look." Aarron sighs. "Your boyfriend died, violently. You should talk about it."
Sam opens his mouth to laugh it off, but it's like he's not listening to himself, because he just stands there and stares at Aarron, and he can feel his wrists hurt because he's making fists so tight.
"Sam?" Aarron asks, squeezing Sam's shoulder.
Sam can barely feel it.
"Sam, sweetheart, are you okay?" Aarron repeats, digging his fingers in to Sam's shoulder and using it to twist him around until they're facing each other. "Sam, say something."
"I guess that's why he didn't say goodbye," Sam says, and fakes a smile. "I'm suddenly feeling kind of sick, I'm going to go."
"Sam, wait," Aarron says, but Sam's already slipped out from under his hand and crossing the deserted street. "Sam!"
Sam ignores Aarron calling after him, and doesn't feel upset when Aarron doesn't go chasing after him. Sam sets his phone to silent, changes his mind and turns it off, all before he gets home.
The cat's asleep in the sunshine from the window, and Sam takes as hot a bath as he can stand. When he gets out he feels lightheaded and tired, and sleeps until it's nine-thirty. He waits until eight am before calling in sick to work, and reads the grocery bag full of romance novels that the bookstore was going to throw out. The store isn't a library but Sandy keeps accepting trade-ins until they're stuck with books they can't move because they've been read so many times.
Sandy's a sucker for men in uniform that cry and fall in love with women who have weird taste in underwear, Sam finds out, because there's about twenty books in there that follow a certain formula. The books are kind of depressing, but Sam doesn't mention this around her. In the seventh book since waking up, another woman has sex with some guy who cries and then falls in love with her, and Sam rolls his eyes. After all, he spends most of his time in the bathtub. He has nothing to be arrogant about.
He reads the last of the books in a cold tub full of water, and finishes the second bag before lunch on the second day of being called in sick. Sam feels guilty then, because he has nothing to do, but drops the bags of romance books down by his landlord's door, and hopes that someone thinks that crying is a lot more of a turn on than Sam does.
Sam remembers the books on the counter then, and finds the book about white tigers. It reminds him of Aarron for a couple of minutes, until Sam turns on the clock radio beside his bed to drown out his thoughts and sprawls out on his unmade bed. Bell curls up on the small of Sam's back, and Sam wishes he'd put on a shirt when Bell's orange tail curls around his ribs. It makes him fidget until he gets halfway through the fourth chapter and finds a note from Aarron stuck there, written on the receipt for the books.
Aarron's handwriting is familiar, and more precise than Sam would've thought. The note tells Sam that he's awesome, that Aarron likes spending time with him, and that he hopes that he enjoys the book. Sam smoothes out the receipt, one corner bent up awkwardly, and looks down at it. Aarron must have done it while Sam was reading up on his phone, and Sam can honestly say he's never gotten anything quite like it.
He stays there and finishes the book, mind on something else. Bell eventually moves to his favourite spot on the stove, and Sam stays up too late reading the one about monkeys in hopes that there's another note. There isn't.
At four in the morning, Sam turns on his phone and leaves it on the stove, and falls into bed so tired that he hurts.
The next day is his actual day off, and Sam spends the morning doing laundry. He goes to the laundromat and no one talks to him there. It's next to a Dairy Queen so he has ice cream while he waits for the dryer to finish, and folds his clothes before heading home.
When he's home again he has a bath and doesn't take a book with him, doesn't feel like reading, crouched in the tub with his knees up to his chin and the water getting cold. He's there long enough that his fingers get soft and wrinkle and his feet hurt when he finally gets out and dries them. They feel tender when he walks across his apartment floor, and Sam doesn't get dressed because the thought of clothes makes his skin itch.
Sam falls asleep with Bell curled up on his stomach, bare legs soaking up sunshine and book abandoned by his side. It's a good sleep, better than he's had since he found Jamie was — that he thought he was — that Aarron said — and someone's pounding on the door and waking him up.
Stumbling a bit when he gets to his feet, Sam brushes off the cat hair and almost answers the door before he remembers that he's naked and he pulls on a shirt and his shorts and then he answers.
"Oh," Sam says, when the door's wide and Aarron's looking at him.
"Hi," Aarron says. He doesn't look like he's gotten much sleep either. "You weren't answering your phone."
"My phone," Sam says, and knows that he turned it on.
He turns to check and Aarron follows him into the apartment, closing the door after himself. Sam doesn't mind, the open door was invitation enough.
"Oh," Sam says, when he looks at the display — and it's on, he'd just forgotten to turn it off silent. The display shows he has fifty-seven missed calls and a hundred and nine unread messages. Sam winces, and Aarron's standing almost too close behind him.
"Good thing for unlimited texting," Aarron says, and sighs when Sam turns around. "Listen, I'm sorry. I know it's kind of an asshole thing to do, to just talk about it like that."
"No, it's fine, it's okay," Sam says, and shakes his head. It makes sense, of course it does, and Sam figures he should've realized that Jamie was dead, that he was a ghost or whatever and not still alive and kind of see through. It's like the ending of Fight Club, like Sam should have known it all along.
"So, we're good?" Aarron asks, and tilts his head to the side a little, and Sam never noticed how tiny his kitchen was, for all that it's just stretched along a wall in his apartment.
"Um," Sam says, and leans against the stove. The handle from the oven is digging into his back, and Aarron hasn't moved but Sam feels like he's getting crowded.
"I'm going to go," Aarron says, and takes a step back. "Just wanted to make sure you were okay."
Sam straightens up, and Aarron walks slowly to the door, not looking back but hesitating enough that there's plenty of time to stop him.
"Wait," Sam spits out, and he says it too loud, but at least it's out there before Aarron actually leaves.
Aarron stops, but doesn't turn around.
"I don't know what I'm doing," Sam says, which is true, because he's never really had to do this before, it's always just happened to him.
"You're off to a good start," Aarron says, still facing the door. "Just stop thinking about it."
Sam nods, even though Aarron can see it. He comes up behind him, puts one hand on Aarron's shoulder, light enough that he can barely feel the heat from Aarron's skin under his sweater.
"Sam," Aarron says, soft and short, like he wants to say more but he's cutting himself off.
Swallowing, Sam feels like he's going to throw up, which isn't really the feeling he's looking for, but then Aarron's turning around and Sam lets his hand drop.
"I don't know if this is right," Sam says, mostly to Aarron's stubbly chin. "You didn't shave."
"More important things to do," Aarron says, and doesn't flinch when Sam brushes a thumb against the side of his face. Sam likes the way it feels against his thumb, equal parts rough and soft, and wonders why he'd ever thought Aarron looked like Jamie.
"Um, okay," Sam says, and slides his other hand over the back of Aarron's head, curling his fingers into his hair and something kind of gives him a push and then they're kissing, Sam's kissing Aarron and Aarron's kissing back. He backs Aarron up against the apartment door, slides his other hand underneath Aarron's shirt and squeezing his eyes shut and hoping that this is what he's supposed to be doing.
"Sam," Aarron mutters, when Sam pulls back to breathe. He slides his hands down Sam's sides and lifts him up, and he's strong enough to hold him up until Sam's back hits the wall with a thud, legs wrapped around Aarron's waist and fingers still in Aarron's hair.
"I think you're awesome," Sam says, when Aarron holds him there, up against the wall, and focuses on Aarron's bright blue eyes and this is all he's thinking of, what it's like to have all of Aarron's attention and to know exactly what he wants.
"You too," Aarron says, and Sam can tell he means it.
"No, I mean, like," Sam says, and he doesn't know why he can't think of something better to say, for all the books he reads. "You wrote me notes."
"I'll write you all the notes you want," Aarron says. He shifts and Sam tightens his legs around Aarron's waist.
"I mean, I want to," Sam says, and he just wants, enough to kiss Aarron again, wet and fast and good like it never was with anyone else, and Aarron chases his mouth when he pulls back again.
"I don't get what it is," Aarron says, sliding his hands under Sam's shirt and over his ribs, tugging his shirt over his head. "I mean, I shouldn't like you this much. This should be creepy."
"It is," Sam agrees, and doesn't know what he's saying, focused on unbuttoning Aarron's shirt. Aarron's wearing this necklace, delicate silver against the tanned surface of his chest.
"You're okay with creepy," Aarron says, resting his hand on Sam's face, brushing underneath his eye with a thumb. Sam blinks.
"I'm okay with ghosts," Sam tells him, and kisses Aarron again, squeezing his ankles together behind Aarron's back and pushing up the back of his shirt with one hand.
"Awesome," Aarron mutters, face rough against Sam's.
"My bed's like, right there," Sam tells him, and Aarron takes the hint, grabbing Sam under the knees and carrying him the few feet before dropping him onto the messy sheets.
"Can I, uh," Aarron hesitates, dropping to his knees to straddle Sam's legs. His shirt's hanging open and he has one hand on his belt, using the other for balance.
"If you don't," Sam starts threateningly, one hand already helping Aarron out of his pants, but doesn't have to finish, because Aarron does, and then Sam does, and Sam knows he hasn't had sex in a while, hasn't wanted to, but it's like he's never had sex before.
"I cuddle," Aarron warns, when he's wiped them both off with his shirt, tugging the blankets out from underneath their legs. Sam doesn't care, because Aarron wraps his arms around Sam's waist and he breathes soft and steady in Sam's ear. He doesn't fall asleep for a while, Aarron's jaw prickling on his shoulder and thinking about nothing.
Sam wakes up with a sticky note on his forehead that says good morning and Aarron making breakfast, which really should be clichéd and lame, but all Sam can think about is how romantic it is and about how he finally, finally gets it.