“Prince Marcos, how did you feel when you learned of the loss of your great-grandfather?” one reporter called out.
“Prince Marcos, will you be traveling to Saudi Arabia for the king’s funeral?”
“Prince Marcos, what do you say to those who claim you are not the rightful heir to the throne?”
Marcos ignored the questions and spoke with authority. “It is with regret that I announce the passing of my great-grandfather, King Sayid of Mada’in Saleh. He led our kingdom for many years and will be missed by all who knew him. Upon coming of age, my son inherited the rights to the crown and I therefore turn the microphone to my son, Crown Prince Aaron Sayid of Mada’in Saleh.”
There were gasps of confusion as the oldest of the young princes stepped forward. Now twenty-one years old, he’d finally matured to a man who looked the part of a crown prince.
Prior to this moment, Aaron had been more like a playmate, a goofy kid who played pranks on his younger brothers, partied with them, instigated misdeeds, stood by their sides when they needed a big brother.
Today he looked like a prince.
“Good afternoon,” Aaron said with confidence into the microphone. “I was sorrowed to learn of the passing of my great, great-grandfather. As his rightful heir it is my duty to recognize the leader he was and honor him. However, I will not draw my people into a civil war by challenging my cousin. I therefore choose to abdicate my rights to the throne of Mada’in Saleh. I turn the microphone to my brother, Prince Owen Sayid.”
When Aaron stepped back, Owen’s jaw dropped, and his eyes widened, betrayal masking his fear. Hayden gave him a little shove and Owen stepped to the microphone, cleared his throat and announced in a scratchy, timid voice, “I choose to abdicate my rights to the throne to my brother, Prince Hayden Sayid.”
When Hayden stepped up to the microphone, Gus realized what was about to happen. He was next. He was given the chance, once, here, now or never, to make the choice. Tears slipped down his cheeks as he listened to Hayden say the words, “I choose to abdicate my rights to the throne to my brother, Prince Augustus Sayid.”
Cameras flashed from all around him, capturing this moment of vulnerability. His mind raced. His heart pounded. His kingdom and monarchy crumbled in his mind’s eye and he knew the right thing to do. His announcement was different than that of his father’s and brothers’.
“It is with deep regret that I do hereby choose to abdicate my rights to the throne of Mada’in Saleh. May the king rest in peace.”
Gus stepped back and took his place in line beside his older brothers and father, then was escorted from behind the microphone and the royal family retired to their estate to mourn the loss of their patriarch.
“Press conference?” Alex asked. “Why?”
Gus felt numb. He stared straight ahead with slacked jaw and a blank expression. This was more than just losing his great, great-grandfather. He’d never met the man. This meant a decision had to be made about his successor. As long as King Sayid had been alive no one had to address the inevitable. Gus answered his best friend, “Because of the contested throne.”
“No cell phones in the classroom, gentlemen,” Mr. Avery called out. “You know the rules. Hand ‘em over.”
“Sir, we’ve had a death in the family,” Alex said.
“Oh really? Who?” Mr. Avery folded his arms across his chest.
“Gus’s great, great-grandfather,” Alex said quietly.
Phoebe’s quick intake of breath told Gus she knew exactly who had died.
Gus rose from his seat and walked to the front of the classroom where he did something very few people did anymore. He unrolled one of the ancient paper maps that still hung from the ceiling like a movie screen. Google Maps provided all the geography research anyone needed in the modern world, but the country he wanted to see didn’t exist on any modern map.
By some divine intervention, their geography teacher, Mr. Avery had yet to retire even though he was beyond the age when the school system should have kicked him out, and by some divine intervention, Mr. Avery refused to let the school remove the ancient map scrolls that had been installed sometime in the sixties. Gus had come to this location many times in his three and a half years at the high school, privately, hiding his obsession from everyone, even his brothers and his best friend. He knew exactly which scroll to unroll.
His eyes didn’t need to search, and his hand moved as if on its own accord until it rested over the place where his father’s father’s father would soon be interred. Tucked in the furthest reaches of what had become Saudi Arabia, near the once-contested Jordanian border, lay the tiny desert oasis known as Madain Saleh.
“Arabia’s hidden treasure,” Gus whispered, then reverently he pronounced his ancestor’s homeland in its ancient pronunciation, “Mada’in Saleh.”
The classroom was silent. If there had been anyone in the room who hadn’t figured out who died, they knew it now. His lineage was not unknown among his peers but was mostly used as a derogatory way of making fun of him. All his life people had jeered and rolled their eyes, looking down on him while simultaneously lifting him on a pedestal.
Everyone wanted to be his friend, or lover, just to get close to him, to be in the presence of royalty. But only few truly understood the richness to his bloodline.
Press conference. What would his father say? Aaron was the crown prince. Would he leave America and challenge their cousins for the throne? Would they travel to the Middle East for the funeral? Did he really want to go there? Or would he rather allow this kingdom to exist only within his imagination.
What if reality didn’t meet his expectations? What if the beautiful desert oasis he’d always envisioned turned out to be merely ancient palaces carved from the rocks, windblown and eroded until the hieroglyphics were barely visible and only translatable by a chosen few?
Gus traced the ancient trade route that ran through the center of his kingdom then bowed his head and closed his eyes.
“Goodbye, grandfather,” Gus whispered. He allowed one tear to fall, then pulled the cord to release the map and allow the scroll to capture the land of his inheritance once again.
He turned to face his classmates and held his chin high. Without meeting anyone’s curious gaze, Gus spoke with authority.
“I am Prince Augustus Sayid of Mada’in Saleh, son of Prince Marcos Sayid, grandson of Prince Benjamin Sayid, great-grandson of Prince Marcos Sayid, great, great-grandson of the late King Sayid of Mada’in Saleh, and brother of Crown Prince Aaron Sayid of Mada’in Saleh.” He paused and met the eyes of his best friend, Alex, then took a deep, shaky breath, and continued. “I go now to a press conference at which my brother will either announce his intention to challenge our cousin for the throne… or abdicate.”
“Welcome back, Mr. Stephenson,” Mrs. Bush said to Alex as he wheeled his chair in the classroom door. “How are you feeling?”
“Um… fine, I guess.” Alex entered his calculus classroom to twenty-five sets of eyes gawking at him. He knew this would get easier eventually, and even as the day wore on. But coming back to school after being in the hospital most of Christmas break was surreal. The world had kept revolving without him.
Alex glanced around at the tiny desks and narrow aisles and panicked. He could barely move the lower half of his body, and even with strength training his arms weren’t strong enough yet to lift himself out of his chair and onto one of those tiny seats.
“Alex, right over here,” Gus said from his left. “We set up a table for you so you can wheel right up to your very own VIP seating.”
“Giving me the royal treatment, eh?” Alex said with a grin and shifted his trajectory with gratitude.
“Nothing but the best for our honorary prince.”
“If only I could wear your crown as well.” Alex wheeled himself up to the desk, which was the perfect height.
All around him were his friends. Gus, of course, Ellen, Logan, Phoebe, even Zach and a couple of his friends. The last semester of high school would fall into place. His body would heal gradually, and he’d graduate and figure out what to do with the rest of his life.
Every one of his classrooms had been similarly arranged to accommodate his new disability. He was humbled that the school administrators had gone out of their way to make his life a little bit easier.
Near the end of the day, Alex and Gus both received a text simultaneously, as if they were included in some group text sent by one of their family members. Sure enough, the identical messages were from Gus’ older brother, Owen. Four little words.
King Sayid has died.
Followed almost immediately by another text.
Dad and Aaron are holding a press conference in one hour. Come home.
“At least I made it home for Christmas, right?” Alex sighed and wheeled his chair up the sidewalk to his parent’s lake house on Grand Island. Although just a few miles north of Buffalo, the island was worlds away in status.
Alex was reminded of what he’d told Ellen about his vision of having all things in common, with no physical riches, only inherent riches. And how the love that we all felt for one another was what made us rich.
Wheeling himself through the main entrance into the grand foyer, Alex was greeted by the elegant Christmas tree that had been trimmed for display in the two-story open living room. Staged presents were carefully placed beneath the tree. None of them were real. The family had planned a trip to Cancun for Christmas break. That trip had been postponed indefinitely because of the accident.
The two curved staircases on either side of the living room led to the upstairs bedrooms and Alex wheeled near the base of the stairs on the side of the home where his suite of rooms was located.
“Don’t worry,” his mom said. “We’ve moved you to the lower level master bedroom suite and you’ll have twenty-four-hour care.” Krystina Stephenson had grown up a simple girl with a normal job in the county courthouse when she’d met his dad. They’d fallen in love as they tried to solve a government corruption scandal. She hadn’t experienced wealth and privilege until she’d married Alexander Stephenson, Sr. and they moved from one of the condos his father had designed to buy this million-dollar home on the island.
“Where will you and dad sleep?” Alex asked, turning his chair in the opposite direction.
“We’ve moved up to your room until you’re able to walk again,” she said.
“What if I never walk again?” Alex wheeled himself into his parent’s old suite which had been redecorated with his belongings from upstairs. They all seemed so juvenile after the spiritual experience he’d had while supposedly in a coma. His signed baseball collection, his computer and video game consoles, his widescreen television.
All his furniture had been moved down here and he paused near his bedside table. His cheeks warmed with shame thinking of some of the things he had hidden in there. He wondered how his mom had felt when she found his stash of pot, or the large box of prophylactics he kept in his bedside table drawer. Yeah, he was a complete idiot back then.
“You’re turning eighteen next month,” his mom said in a soft voice. “I left them in there.”
“Oh my gosh, mom, please don’t talk to me about this,” Alex choked out. “It’s embarrassing enough knowing you found them.”
“I just hope”—her voice hitched. “That you regain feeling in your lower half again so that you’ll have a healthy relationship someday.”
“If I had a healthy relationship, I wouldn’t need them because I would be married first.” Alex turned his wheelchair around and faced his mother, registering the pity in her eyes.
He imagined the hopes and dreams she’d had for him prior to the accident, which probably included seeing him dancing at his wedding and grandbabies. He fought back tears and realized that’s what he had envisioned as well.
“Momma,” Alex said. “I hope I have that someday too.”
She placed her hand on his shoulder, then chuckled. “I threw away the drugs, though.”
“Hey, that stuff’s legal in some states now,” Alex reasoned playfully, moving on toward the adjoining bathroom.
“Not for seventeen-year-olds it’s not,” his mom scolded.
“Like you said, I’m about to turn eighteen.” He continued forward where a door was propped open at the back of his parent’s walk-in closet. “I never realized your bathroom opens right up to the hot tub. Totally cool.”
“It’s your bathroom now,” she said, following him onto the patio where they had set up a physical therapy table in place of the patio furniture. They’d long ago installed a retractable glass enclosure so that the patio could be used year-round. “We thought this would come in handy for when your physical therapist comes over.”
“Yeah, and if he brings his daughter, Ellen and I can hang out in the hot tub afterward.” He wheeled right up to the Jacuzzi and splashed his hand into the hot water then turned and grinned at his mom. “With her father chaperoning of course.”
“Of course,” she teased. “And probably your father as well since it’s going to take both of them to lift you into the tub.”
“Yeah, that’s gonna suck,” Alex grumbled. “Can’t do anything for myself anymore.”
“At least you’re alive, son.” She glared at him pointedly. “You’re lucky to have lived through that accident.”
“Yeah, I know.” Alex sighed. “Keep reminding me of that on the tough days, okay?”
“God must have a pretty important purpose for you on this earth to have brought you back to us,” his mom whispered.
“Yeah… guess I’d better keep my eyes and ears open to figure out what that is,” Alex said, gazing out at the Niagara River that flowed past their home.
“I’m going to get dinner started,” his mom said quietly. “You enjoy the view as long as you’d like and holler if you need any help later.”
She leaned down and kissed the top of his head, then walked away, leaving him contemplating his purpose in life.
The police officer rushed forward and grabbed Gus’s hands, pulling them behind him and slapping cuffs around his wrists.
Gus couldn’t believe this was happening. He made it through a drunk driving accident that almost killed his best friend without getting arrested and now he was being arrested for defending his girlfriend and her mom.
“Please, officer, Gus didn’t do anything wrong.” Phoebe rushed forward.
“Miss, stay back,” the officer said, stepping in between them.
Phoebe halted in her tracks, gaping helplessly at Gus with tears streaming down her face.
“Excuse me, officer,” Zach called from the next-door porch. “I saw the whole thing. I’d like to testify.”
Could this get any worse? Zach hurried down his porch steps. Gus hadn’t realized Zach lived next door to Phoebe. This was possibly the worst-case scenario. The boy who hated him, was jealous of him, and held a grudge against him, was going to testify against him.
The officers allowed Zach to approach the scene with his hands held high where they could be seen. “Gus was just defending Phoebe and Mrs. Harris.”
Huh? He’s speaking on my behalf?
“Mr. Harris attacked his daughter and Gus, and slashed Mrs. Harris with a knife,” Zach said, pointing off toward where Phoebe’s mom had a towel wrapped around her arm. “He’s drunk all the time and beats Mrs. Harris and their son a lot. Ask any of the neighbors all around us. We all saw what happened. It’s Mr. Harris who needs to be arrested, not Gus. I don’t particularly like him, and he stole the girl I’ve had a crush on my whole life, but he doesn’t deserve to be arrested.”
Gus couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Zach had stuck up for him. They regarded one another and Gus mouthed the words, “Thank you.”
Zach shrugged and looked away. Gus owed him one, big time. He’d find a way to thank him for doing this. The whole neighborhood could have easily watched what happened and never spoken up. Gus was an outsider. Mr. Harris was a member of their community. Not a highly respected member, but still one of them.
“Is that true?” the officer asked Phoebe’s mom.
Mrs. Harris glanced nervously at her husband, who was slumped on the ground, defeated physically but maintaining an angry scowl.
The police officer stepped in between Mitchel and Paige Harris, blocking him from intimidating his wife.
Paige raised her chin and spoke with a hint of confidence. “Yes, that’s true.”
“Would you like to press charges against your husband,” the officer asked with sympathy in his voice.
“Is he gonna have a chance to come home and hurt me again?”
“No ma’am, you can file a personal protection order preventing him from coming near you.”
“Okay, then I’ll press charges,” she said quietly.
“We’ll need you to come down to the station to make your statement,” the officer said.
“I’ll come with you, mamma,” Phoebe said. “I’d like to add my testimony to the charges. And I think Mike should come too. Dad hits Mike more than any of the rest of us.”
“Officer?” Gus asked. “Am I under arrest? Because these cuffs are hurting my wrists.”
“Yes, I mean, no, you’re not under arrest,” the officer said. “I’ll get the handcuffs off you.”
Just as the officer reached behind Gus, Aaron’s Mercedes came screeching to a halt at the curb and Aaron flung open his door. Scrambling from the car, he called out, “What are you doing to my little brother?”
“Don’t worry, Aaron, it was just a misunderstanding,” Gus called out to him. The officer was still fumbling to get the handcuffs off and Aaron hurried forward.
“Do you have any idea who you are arresting?” Aaron demanded. “That is Prince Augustus of Madain Saleh.”
“Aaron, stop. It was a misunderstanding.” Just then the cuffs were released, and Gus shook out his wrists. “See, I’m fine.”
“I don’t understand,” Aaron said.
“Will you drive me down to the police station?” Gus asked. “I need to make a statement about the… uh… incident.” Gus glanced at Phoebe, who bit her lower lip, her eyes straying nervously toward Aaron.
“Phoebe, come here, I want to introduce you to my brother,” Gus said, reaching out his hand for her to join him. “Don’t worry, he won’t bite.”
She hesitantly moved toward him and Gus wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her close.
“Phoebe, this is my older brother, Aaron,” Gus said softly. “Aaron, this is… my girlfriend, Phoebe.” Gus raised his eyebrows, requesting permission to call her that.
Phoebe lifted her chin and stuck out her hand. “It’s good to meet you, Your Highness.”
“Please, just call me Aaron.” Aaron leaned closer and stage whispered. “I’m pretty sure you’re the first girl Gus has referred to as his girlfriend, so I’ll just take the opportunity to welcome you to the family.”
“Yeah, as much as I hate him, he probably should have asked me first if I even wanted to be his girlfriend,” Phoebe replied with a smirk.
“He’s cocky like that.” Aaron nodded.
While this little exchange took place, the police officers placed handcuffs around Mitchel Harris’ wrists and led him to the car, reading him his rights.
Paige walked over to meet Gus and Aaron, before heading inside to get her arm cleaned and bandaged.
Gus held Phoebe’s waist as they made their way over to Aaron’s car. Aaron climbed in the driver’s side, leaving Gus and Phoebe almost alone. He pulled her into his arms and held her briefly.
“Thank you for protecting me,” Phoebe whispered, her head resting on Gus’s chest. “That’s twice in one day.”
Gus pulled away slightly and brushed Phoebe’s hair away from her face. The vulnerability in her eyes was endearing. He had a strong desire to tell her that he’d fallen in love with her but wanted to save that moment for a more appropriate time and place. Instead he leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers very softly. All his thoughts and feelings would need to be wrapped in that tiny kiss. For now.
Phoebe’s dad was plastered drunk. He stumbled down the porch steps and weaved along the sidewalk toward the front gate. Gus tucked Phoebe protectively behind him and stood his ground. Almost a head taller than Mitchel Harris, Gus had the added advantage of being sober and built like a seventeen-year-old athlete.
Mitchel apparently didn’t have the mental faculty to take that into consideration before he threw a punch at Gus, who blocked him and pulled Phoebe safely out of the way.
“I will not let you get away with this,” Mitchel slurred.
“Get away with what?” Gus asked. “Kissing your daughter?”
“You hooligans ‘er all th’same. First, it’s kissing, then you wanna git her into y’er bed.”
“Daddy, I have never even had a boyfriend. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“And you, ya little whore, y’er just as bad as th’other girls in this town.” Mitchel pointed at Phoebe, who now had tears running down her face. “You deserved every beatin’ I ever give ya.”
They’d now drawn a crowd of people who’d come out of their houses and stood on the front porch watching the fight. No one came out to help, but Gus had the situation under control. Until Mitchel pulled out a knife.
Phoebe’s mom came rushing down the porch steps to stop her husband from hurting their daughter, but Mitchel slashed at Paige Harris with his knife and created a surface gash along her arm. Paige shrunk back in pain and cried out.
Gus took advantage of the distraction and grabbed Mitchel’s arm, pulling it behind his back. “Drop the knife.”
“Git yer hands off me.” Mitchel struggled and almost managed to stab Gus with his knife, but Gus fought him off, punching Mitchel in the face and grabbing him in a headlock. Gus twisted Mitchel’s right arm behind his back again and growled at the man.
“I said, drop the knife!”
Finally, Mitchel slumped in defeat and the knife clanked to the concrete sidewalk but Gus held him a second longer to make sure he wasn’t faking surrender.
And that’s how the police found them as they screeched around the corner. Gus released Mitchel from his choke hold and the man slumped to the ground spouting obscenities.
“Son step away from the man and put your hands in the air,” a police officer shouted with his gun raised toward Gus.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Gus mumbled as he took a step back and raised his hands obediently.
When they finally decided they’d tempted themselves enough for one day, Gus pulled out his phone and sent a text to his brother, Aaron, informing him that they were running a little late and that he’d be walking Phoebe home. He texted Aaron the address and the approximate time they’d be done, then got back to work.
Side by side, they hosed down the cages, settled all the dogs back into their clean cages and provided them with food, water, and a bed to sleep on for the night.
“Thanks for staying late to help finish the cleaning,” Phoebe said as she pulled the entrance door shut and locked it with her key.
“Do you ever feel like you run this place?” Gus asked as she tucked her keys into her pockets.
“Sometimes,” she said, draping her arm through his and snuggling close to avoid the wind. “Thanks for walking me home. I don’t like walking in the dark by myself.”
“Anytime,” He said. “Although I should have just had Aaron pick us up and he could have driven you home.”
“I’m a little bit intimidated by your brother,” Phoebe admitted. “He throws his title around like he actually rules your country.”
“Sometimes I think he wishes he did,” Gus said. “He comes across really haughty though.”
“Who does rule your country?”
“The president of the United States,” Gus said. “I was born here, remember?”
“Right, but I mean the place where your ancestors rule?”
“I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard it’s a beautiful oasis in the middle of a vast desert where my great, great grandfather, King Sayid of Madain Saleh, clings to life at the age of one hundred and six.”
“Dang, that’s seriously old.”
“His throne is contested, but no one really wants it anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
“My great grandfather was born second in line to the crown prince, Jared Sayid.”
“Does everyone in your family inherit the middle name of the king?” she interrupted.
“I’m sure you and I can name our children anything we want,” Gus teased her.
“Anyway… finish telling me the story.”
“The crown prince, Jared, died very young, causing the crown to be in limbo. My great grandfather, Marcos thought he should be the new crown prince, but Jared’s widow thought the crown should go to her son, who was a five-year-old at the time. She convinced the king that as long as Marcos doesn’t have an heir, the line should continue through Jared’s blood. Because the king thought Marcos would remain a bachelor forever, he chose to go with the safe route and bestowed the title to Marcos’ five-year-old nephew in order to ensure the bloodline would continue.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Phoebe said. “Who’s to say the nephew will ever have any children?”
“Exactly,” Gus said.
“So, what happened to Marcos?” Phoebe seemed completely engrossed in the story now.
“He called up this chick he met at his best friend’s wedding and asked her to marry him so he could quickly produce an heir before his father died.”
“But his father still hasn’t died.” She shook her head in confirmation.
“Correct,” Gus said. “Which is why the crown is still contested.”
“But how did you end up being born in America?”
“Marcos got tired of dealing with his brother’s widow and moved to Cancun.”
“Okay…” Phoebe creased her brow. “That takes your family closer to the United States.”
“My father came to the U.S. to go to North Carolina State University, met my mother, and started popping out little princes.”
“Very funny,” Phoebe said.
“I came up with it all on my own,” Gus said.
“This is my house.” Phoebe stopped outside a wrought iron fence that enclosed a tiny yard surrounding a tiny house that looked like it needed a new roof, new shutters, a paint job, and who knows how many other repairs.
Gus felt terrible leaving her there when he’d be travelling in his brother’s Mercedes home to his mansion.
“Thanks for everything,” Phoebe said. “I owe you one.”
“How about if we owe each other a date?”
“A date, huh?” She took a step closer and laced her fingers through his. He pulled her close and didn’t hesitate to press his lips to hers again, as he’d done a few hours ago.
That was the moment her dad came barreling out of the tiny house. “Get yer hands off my daughter!”
After stalling for a few minutes, Gus decided to sneak back out to finish the job he’d started, not wanting to leave the dog cages half-cleaned. Besides, he wasn’t done with his service hours for the week.
When passing near the office behind the breakroom, Gus heard Phoebe sobbing quietly and found her slumped in a chair with her face in her hands. He didn’t hesitate but dropped to his knees in front of her and pulled her into his arms, where she continued crying with her head on his shoulder.
Gus pulled her close, sitting down hard onto the floor with her in his arms. The strong woman who usually held her head high standing up to bullies and thugs and disrespectful jerks, like he’d once been, crumpled in his arms, surrendering completely to the need to be vulnerable for one moment of her life.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Gus whispered, kissing her forehead. “I’ve got you. I’m here.”
“I can’t”—she faltered through her sobs— “Can’t have you… f-fighting.”
“Fighting?” Gus pulled away slightly and creased his brow, looking down at her. “He was touching you inappropriately. I couldn’t allow him to do that. Would you rather me stand down and let that happen?”
“It’s too much like my dad,” Phoebe said through her tears.
“Your dad touches you inappropriately?” Gus gulped, wondering how he could help her out of that situation.
“No, you jerk.” Phoebe pushed his shoulder. “He fights. He drinks too much and then he fights with people. He fights with my mom. He fights with me. He fights with my little brother. Why do you think I spend so much time here at the animal shelter? I don’t want to go home.”
She broke into sobs again, clinging to Gus like he was a lifeline. He wanted to be a lifeline. He wanted to wrap her in a soft blanket and protect her like she was the little girl she hid beneath the surface. He wanted to take care of her. He wanted to love her. The notion took him by surprise and he almost pushed away to gaze down at her but instead pulled her just a little bit closer.
After a few more minutes of crying, Phoebe leaned her head back, letting it rest on his arm. “I can’t be with you, Gus?”
“Why?” He gulped.
“You’re too much like him. You drank enough alcohol that night to make you stupid enough to get behind the wheel of a car, then wrapped it around a tree.”
“Telephone pole,” he corrected her.
“What?” Her jaw gaped.
He cleared his throat. “I wrapped my car around a telephone pole.”
“Then you got arrested.”
“I did not get arrested.”
“Only because your daddy’s a prince.”
“Maybe.” Gus had to admit there was probably some truth to her statement. “But that’s behind me now.”
“Is it?” Phoebe asked, sitting all the way up so that she was on his lap rather than in his arms. “Because you still come here every Saturday and spend all day cleaning dog kennels and will be for five years. Five years! Do you know how long that is?”
“How many years have you been coming here?” Gus asked.
“That’s beside the point.” Phoebe wiped a piece of lint off her jeans, avoiding his gaze. “I don’t have to be here; I want to be here.”
“If I get to see you every Saturday for five years, the sentencing will feel like dating the girl of my dreams doing something she loves and serving alongside her.”
“You’re such a player.” She reached up and caressed his face then whispered, “Augustus Sayid of Madain Saleh.”
“I’m not playing,” Gus said, impressed she knew his full name. Most people didn’t take the initiative to dig quite that deep. “I’m totally falling for you, Phoebe Marie Harris.”
She giggled and they gazed into one another’s eyes for a moment.
Gus pulled her closer and touched his lips to hers softly, cautiously, letting her set their pace. He started to pull away, respecting her decision to not deepen the kiss, but she laced her hands into his hair and closed the distance between them, climbing further into his arms, wrapping herself around him, clinging to him, and kissing him with abandon, holding nothing back.
Had this been six weeks ago, Gus wouldn’t have hesitated to kick the door shut and flick off the lights, pulling her clothes off as fast as he knew she’d remove his. But that wasn’t who he was anymore.
He held Phoebe close, rubbing his hands on her back and allowing them to stray into her hair, releasing the loose ponytail and letting her hair drape all around him. But he didn’t allow his hands to stray anywhere else.
When he had made the decision to respect her, that included respecting all parts of her; mind, body, and soul. And right that moment, with her wrapping herself around him like a monkey, he fought every primal physical need she invoked from him and chose to respect her body.
That was the most difficult and emotionally satisfying kiss he’d ever endured. When they finally pulled away, and he pressed his forehead against hers, closing his eyes and breathing heavily, he was proud of himself for denying physical gratification and allowing their hearts to connect instead of their bodies.
Nothing had ever felt like this. Gus knew in that moment, holding her in his arms on the dirty floor in the office of the animal shelter, that he had fallen in love with Phoebe Harris.
Note to readers: I have chosen to NOT share with you the next chapter in my Young Princes story because Chapter Sixteen is too violent to share on the Sabbath. Tomorrow, I promise. Instead, I'm sharing another mystery chapter. Those of you who have been following my Young Princes story will figure out pretty quickly who three of these main characters are. Anyway, enjoy! -Julie
The insistent vibration on his bedside table poked at the corners of Mark’s dream, the same dream he’d had all this life, and the reason he was studying geospatial analytics at North Carolina State University.
He was flying a drove above a strange land that was only familiar because he’d seen it in his dreams so many times. Except instead of holding the controller for his drone, like he would in real life, he was in the sky as if he were riding on the drone. The dream never really ended; something always woke him up.
A soft but firm object hit him in the head, and Mark startled awake to find a Teddy bear staring at him. What the heck?
“Answer your dang phone, Mark,” Alexander growled from the next bed over. “It’s been vibrating off and on for five minutes. Somebody’s obviously trying to reach you.”
Mark sat up and turned on the lamp beside his bed before grabbing his phone. Alexander cringed away, pulling his blanket over his head.
“Shut off that light,” Noah grumbled from across their dorm room, and Andrew grunted something and turned over to block the intrusive light.
“It’s my dad,” Mark said, glancing down at the caller ID. He noted the time. Three o’clock in the morning. No one called in the middle of the night to share good news. There were no voicemails, just ten missed calls. With trepidation, he touched the green button to answer his father.
“Son, thank goodness,” Benjamin answered without preamble. “Your grandfather is very sick and has requested the family gather. I already have a private jet on route to retrieve you.”
“A private jet? Grandfather? What?” Mark tried to shake the fog from his brain. His three college roommates slowly emerged from their cocoons and sat up, concern and shock on their faces. “What’s wrong with Grandfather?”
“He’s not going to live much longer, son. He’s been sick for a long time. You’ve known that.”
“If you would just bring him to the United States like I’ve been begging you for years, the modern medicines here could save him.”
“You know he will not leave Mexico,” Benjamin said. “You must come here. Today.”
“You want me to just climb on your private jet and fly to Cancun today?”
“Yes, immediately! He insists.”
“He insists? Or you insist?” Mark grumbled.
“You will not speak to me that way, my son.”
Mark knew he had crossed a line and fell back to the ways of his childhood, lowering his tone in respect. “My apologies, your Highness.”
“Son, I have never asked you to do anything I have not been willing to do myself.”
“I know, father. I’m sorry.”
“Now we must honor your grandfather’s request. Come to his side.”
“As you wish, Your Highness,” Mark said. “I will make haste.”
“Thank you, my son.”
Mark ended his call and was met with three very confused and suddenly wide-awake roommates. Their gaping jaws hung open. Mark set his phone aside and tossed Alexander’s Teddy bear over to him.
“Get dressed,” Mark said to his friends. “We’re flying to Cancun.”
“Why do you keep slumming it, Your Highness?” Zach slurred, leaning against the doorway that led from the breakroom to the hall where the dog cages were locked a little more securely than they’d been a few days prior. “Ain’t you got no place to do yo’ community service on yo’ side a town?”
Gus sighed and ignored Zach, scooping another hunk of waste from the inside of one of the cages, no longer gagging every time he smelled dog poop.
“Hey, I’m talkin’ to you, mister high and mighty.” Zach pushed away from the doorframe and sauntered forward. “You here cause the courts say you gotta be here? Or because you banging Phoebe?”
“Don’t talk about her that way,” Gus said, emptying the shovel into the waiting trash can. “She deserves your respect, and mine.”
“You ain’t never shown her no respect since the day you met her,” Zach pointed out.
Gus wanted to correct Zach but there was some truth to his statement. “I’ve learned to show her respect. I’d suggest you learn that as well.”
“I ain’t learnin’ nothin’ from you, pretty boy,” Zach said.
“You might want to learn to stay sober while you’re at it,” Gus grumbled, heading into the next stall.
“Like you did? Almost killin’ yer own best friend?”
Gus held perfectly still, his shovel mid-air, trying to calm down the anger and guilt that crept up his spine. “Yeah, exactly like that.”
“Since I ain’t got no fancy car, that shouldn’t be a problem,” Zach said. “But let’s get back to our discussion about you screwin’ Phoebe.”
“Look, dude, I am not sleeping with Phoebe.” Gus stood to his full height, glaring down at Zach.
“I didn’t say nothin’ about sleepin’ with her,” Zach said. “Not the same thing.”
“I am not involved in a physical relationship with Phoebe,” Gus said. “I respect her.”
“Only because she ain’t givin’ it up,” Zach said. “Admit it, you would if she’d let you.”
Gus didn’t know how to answer that. It was true the night he’d met Phoebe that was exactly his intention. But things had changed. he’d learned to respect women, people in general. He’d learned to respect himself.
Turning away from him, Gus headed into the next stall. Scooping another hunk of waste, he came out to find Phoebe standing there with her arms folded across her chest, a scowl on her face.
“Aren’t you going to answer him, Gus?” Phoebe asked.
“I…” —Gus cleared his throat, suddenly nervous. “I respect you.”
“Why do I find that hard to believe?” Phoebe flipped her ponytail over her shoulder and stomped away, back toward the breakroom. Zach followed her.
Something about Zach’s demeaner had Gus nervous and he quietly set aside his shovel and crept toward the door, not wanting to intrude on a private conversation, but knowing Phoebe didn’t welcome his advances.
“Hey babe,” Zach slurred. “Now that we got you away from yer little prince, maybe you and I can finally get down ta business.”
“Get your hands off me, Zach,” Phoebe said, sounding more terrified than Gus had ever heard her.
Gus chose not to wait around for her to fight off Zach; he stepped into the break room. “I believe the lady has made it clear she does not want you to touch her.”
Zach stumbled back a little. “Why don’t you get over here and make me stop touching her.”
“If you insist.” Gus didn’t hesitate. He crossed the room and popped Zach in the nose, causing him to double over in pain. Within a few seconds Zach came back at Gus with a vengeance and again Gus pushed him back. Before either of them could throw any more punches, Phoebe stepped in between them.
“Stop it!” Phoebe held out her arms as if to stop traffic. “Get out of here! Both of you! Leave. Now.”
“Fine.” Zach took a step back. “You ain’t worth it anyway.”
When Zach stumbled toward the front door, Gus didn’t really think Phoebe meant for him to leave as well.
“I said get out!” Phoebe demanded.
Gus raised his hands in surrender and backed toward the front door. He didn’t have anywhere to go since his brother wouldn’t be picking him up for several hours. He ducked into the guys bathroom to clean the blood off his face and hands, frustrated that he’d reduced himself to violence. That wasn’t like him.
“Besides the carnage of the accident, most everything else about that night, and those next few days, were indescribable.” Alex leaned his head back against his pillow and gazed at the ceiling, so white and plain, and clinical. “I have nothing earthly to compare it to.”
He was ready to go home to his own bed in his own room with his staff catering to his every need, and no more hospital food.
Ellen was quiet, listening, allowing him the pauses he needed, and barely prompting him. Alex appreciated that. This was hard enough to put into words. For some reason, describing what he witnessed at the scene of the accident was easy compared to trying to explain something otherworldly as what happened after.
“There were people. A lot of people. I can’t describe a single one of them to you right now, but somehow, I knew them while I was talking to them. There was unconditional love flowing all around me and I had the desire to share that love, and all that I owned, with everyone I knew. Like nothing I had on this earth was truly mine.”
“That’s pretty intense,” Ellen whispered.
“I wandered through the streets of our community, up one street and down another, feeling love for everyone I saw but also those I couldn’t see, like everyone in each of the homes I passed. It was like I had no enemies, and all of us had everything in common.”
“Gee, would we all be as rich as you?” Ellen chuckled nervously. “Or would you be as poor as the rest of us?”
“Kinda somewhere in between.” Alex raised his head and gazed over at Ellen. “Like there were no physical riches, only inherent riches. Like the love that we all felt for one another was what made us rich.”
“Wow.” Ellen’s voice was more of a breath.
“Will you go out with me sometime?” Alex asked suddenly. Where the heck did that come from? He hadn’t meant to say that. Too late now. This was only the second time they’d met and all they’d done while together was her listen to him talk and take notes. Alex had a strong desire to learn more about Ellen.
“Like… on a date?” He face scrunched up in a combination of skepticism and disgust, like the idea was repulsive.
“Never mind, forget I said that. I just got caught up in the moment. I can understand why you’d be averse to the idea. I’m talking like a lunatic and have a really seedy past. Let’s just keep writing.”
“I’d love to,” Ellen interrupted.
“You’ve changed, Alex,” she said. “You’re not the same cocky jerk you were a few weeks ago.”
“I can’t picture the man you are now doing the things you used to do.”
“Thanks,” Alex choked out. “I feel… changed.”
“Yeah, so, anyway,” she stammered. “Let me get these notes typed up and next time we meet maybe we can go over the things you told me and correct anything I got wrong, and add to the story, until we capture as much as we can about how you’ve changed.”
“I’d like that,” Alex said softly. “Thanks for helping me with this. For what it’s worth, I think you’re the perfect person for the job.”
“I wish I knew these guys’ names,” Gus called out to Monroe. “They don’t exactly answer to the temporary nick names we’ve bestowed upon them.”
“You talk like a prep school snob, you know that?” Monroe answered. They had been on opposite sides of the street, each calling for the scattered animals. There wasn’t a dog in sight.
“Whatever,” Gus grumbled, frustrated to be chasing a bunch of mutts around the neighborhood, some of whom were probably heading home to the people who had abandoned them in the first place.
He trudged across the street toward Monroe as another service worker named Henry ran up to them with several strong leashes.
“Here, we’re going to need these,” Henry said, handing one leash to Monroe and one to Gus.
“If we ever catch any of them,” Gus said.
“We’d better or Phoebe’s gonna skin us alive,” Monroe said, wrapping the handle around his wrist and whipping the leather leash in front of him like he was giving an imaginary enemy a flogging.
“Or worse,” Henry added. “She might call our probation officers.”
Both guys faked a shudder and gave each other fist bumps.
“What are you guys in for, anyway?” Gus asked.
“Sellin’ drugs.” Henry’s statement almost had an implied ‘duh’ at the end.
“There ain’t nothin’ else to do in this neighborhood ‘cept selling drugs,” Monroe said.
Gus regarded the neighborhood around him, noting the peeling paint on the houses, roofs badly in need of replacing, fences needing to be repaired, lawns that needed mowing.
He thought back to his comment on the first day he was here for his service work when he’d flippantly wanted to just pay to clean the dog cages. He wished there was a way to pay to get this neighborhood fixed up.
The houses looked as if they’d once been beautiful, maybe a middle-class neighborhood, teachers, doctors, lawyers. Not millionaire and billionaires like him and his family, but definitely not the type of place where the only way to make money was to sell drugs.
While he was finishing his thoughts, one of the dogs ran up to them and sat in front of Monroe, his tongue lolling from his mouth and almost a smile on his muzzle, if it were possible for a dog to smile.
“One down, eight more to go,” Gus said. “He looks thirsty. Maybe they’ll all come back when they get thirsty.”
“Good point,” Monroe said, clipping the leash to the dog’s collar. “Let’s start walkin’ back and maybe the others will follow.”
“There’s one,” Henry said as he pointed across the street. He crouched near the ground and called out, “C’mere boy!”
The dog picked up his gait and bounded across the street, running right up to someone who had been feeding him and cleaning up after him and taking him for walks. The little guy practically gave Henry a hug while Henry clicked his leash onto his collar.
By the time the sun was setting they had recovered eight of the nine missing dogs and figured the other would either hunker down, be taken in by a local resident, or come back to the shelter when he got hungry.
Having worked up a hunger themselves, Gus pulled out his cell phone and ordered a bunch of homemade burritos and tacos from the local authentic Mexican restaurant, requesting they be delivered to the shelter.
Donating food to hungry service workers was one way he could use his money to solve a problem, and they all appreciated it. Sitting around the break room greedily munching on tacos, the guys turned the questioning back onto Gus. They all knew why he was serving, but thus far they’d learned very little about Gus as a person.
“So, you really are a prince?” Henry asked. “I thought Phoebe was joking.”
“That don’t make no sense, man,” Monroe said. “You don’t got no country.”
“My family escaped the civil war that destroyed our country,” Gus said. “But we are the rightful heirs to the throne in the kingdom of Madain Saleh.”
“But that land don’t exist no more,” Monroe said.
“Just because the current world doesn’t recognize the political boundaries of a kingdom doesn’t mean it never existed. If I had a map of that region, I could draw those boundaries for you and tell you the history of my people. Not sure if world history is the topic you want to study in college.” Gus chuckled.
“I ain’t going to no college.” Henry picked at the frayed edges of his jacket. “I ain’t smart enough and ain’t got no money. You may be a billionaire prince, but the rest of us is just a buncha losers born on the wrong side of the tracks.”
Other kids around the lunchroom nodded their heads in assent and Gus’s heart thudded into the pit of his stomach.
“I tend to disagree with you on that. I’ve never seen such hard-working people. You just need an opportunity to break free of the poverty cycle. I’d hire you in a second if I owned a business.”
“Well you don’t, Your Highness.” Monroe sneered at Gus. “There ain’t no jobs around here, and there ain’t never gonna be no jobs around here.”
“But there’s so much work that needs to be done.” Gus looked around the lunchroom of the animal shelter at the peeling paint and stained ceiling caused by the roof he knew still leaked every time it rained. “Heck, every house and building in this neighborhood needs a new roof and a fresh coat of paint. Some houses need a complete remodel, or even to be torn down and rebuilt.”
“Nobody got no money to pay for all that,” Henry said. “If we had money, we’d have fixed ‘em by now.”
“If someone would pay for the new paint and construction supplies, would you be willing to do the work?” Gus asked, a plan slowly materializing in his thoughts.
“Heck yeah, I’d do just about anything to get a paycheck,” a guy named Jerome said.
“Especially if it didn’t involve sellin’ drugs or goin’ back ta jail,” another kid said.
“What if I were to pay for all that?” Gus leaned forward, meeting each of their skeptical gazes. “You said it yourself; I’m a billionaire. What else am I gonna spend my money on? Another mansion? I’ve already got one of those. Another island off the coast of Cancun? Got one of those too.”
Around the room he saw a mixture of confusion and awe combined with disbelief that Gus would actually follow through with something like this.
“My dad’s best friend is a real estate developer. I bet he could help us find some good contractors that would be willing to teach you guys as paid apprentices. You said it yourself; people would do just about anything for an honest paycheck.”
He met their gazes and saw hope in their eyes for the first time since he’d met them.
“I’ll talk to my dad. Maybe we could even start our own company and run it as entrepreneurs,” Gus thought out loud. “I could be the investor and each of you could own stock. Eventually the company would be self-sustaining. We could really do this.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Monroe said. “Put your money where your mouth is, mister billionaire prince.”
“I think that’s exactly what I’m about to do.” Gus couldn’t pull the grin from his face as he looked around at the kids who he’d very recently thought of as thugs and now saw as friends… and future business partners.
“Hello, Phoebe,” Zach said, sidling up to her where she was laying out paper plates and napkins to go along with the pizza they’d ordered for lunch. He and his gang had come to the animal shelter several times before, always trying to get Phoebe to go out with him.
From what Gus had heard, Phoebe was not interested and calmly refused Zach every time he came by. This was his first visit since Gus had started his service assignment.
Zach must not have heard Gus was here, and Gus was just out of his line of sight. He paused with his hand lifting a leash back onto a hook on the wall just outside the breakroom, then tucked himself further into the shadows, listening to their conversation.
“Pleasure to see you as always, Zach,” Phoebe said in a bored, monotone voice. “Could you make yourself useful and grab that bag of ice from the freezer and a two-liter of Coke from the fridge?”
“Anything for you, babe.”
Gus heard the freezer door open and then the refrigerator and then a crunching thud as Zach placed the bag of ice on the table.
“Wanna knock off early and come to my house for the afternoon?” Zach asked, a nauseating suggestiveness to his tone.
“No thank you,” Phoebe said with a surprisingly casual tone. “I’m working.”
“How about after work?”
“How about you get your hands off me?” she snarled at him.
That was Gus’s cue. Zach didn’t notice Gus coming around the corner into the room and he leaned against the wall just inside the door frame. Zach had removed his hands from where they’d been resting on Phoebe’s hips, but he was still uncomfortably close to her.
“Come on, babe, you know you’ve always wanted to get with this.” Zach took a step back and held out his arms as if displaying his hot bod to her in all its glory. Gus almost snickered but waited to see how Phoebe would handle this on her own. She wasn’t the type to act the part of damsel in distress and Gus wanted to give her the chance to put Zach in his place.
“I prefer men a little larger in stature than… that.” Phoebe looked him up and down in disgust. Gus wanted to laugh out loud but one of Zach’s gang members beat him to it.
“Slam. She got you.”
“Whatever,” Zach said. “We’ll hook up eventually and you’ll be glad we did.”
“Not likely,” Phoebe mumbled, then glanced up and realized Gus was in the room. In a move he was sure was strategically designed to call off Zach and his advances, Phoebe strolled right up to Gus and reached her arms around his shoulders, saying in a fake, husky voice. “I’m so glad you’re here, Gus.”
“What’re you doing slumming it on our side of the tracks?” Zach asked. “Don’t you got enough land and chicks of your own? You gotta come down here and try to steal ours?”
Gus took full advantage of having Phoebe in his arms and pulled her close, running his hands down the length of her silky mane and looking into her eyes. Gus knew she was just pretending to like him to get rid of Zach, but he raised his eyebrows subtly, having the strong desire to lower his face to hers and kiss her until she forgot they were standing in a stinky kennel surrounded by dog crap and gang members.
A vision ran through Gus’s mind’s eye of him and Phoebe lying on the beach near his great-grandfather’s home in Cancun, taking a much-needed break from days of lovemaking, holed up in their honeymoon suite.
Her eyes strayed to his lips and Gus fought the need to kiss her. No longer a conquest as she’d been when they’d first met, she had Gus wrapped around her fingers. He couldn’t have pushed her away if he’d wanted to, which he definitely did not.
“Dang, you guys need to get a room,” Zach said, grabbing a slice of pizza. “That’s disgusting.”
“Disgusting was not the word I was thinking,” Gus whispered.
“Me neither.” She gulped.
Gus refused to allow their first kiss—well, their first kiss now that they were speaking to each other again after the way he’d offended her the night they’d met—to be in response to a derogatory comment made by a thug like Zach. Still Gus didn’t pull away, and neither did she.
“Anyway, nice of you to stop by, Your Highness,” Zach said, then brushed past them and down the hall toward the dog cages. His gang members followed with insulting grumbles, until Phoebe and Gus were alone in the breakroom.
She started to pull away, but Gus held her firmly against him, insisting, “I’m not making the same mistake twice. You’re not getting away this time.”
After a few seconds of futile resistance, Phoebe settled into his arms and lifted her gaze. She gulped and glanced at Gus’s lips again.
There was barking and chaos down the hall as dogs began leaving their cages, escaping their confinements and running toward the now-open door at the end of the hall, Zach and his friends laughing as they scattered the charges.
Phoebe and Gus ran after them, their moment ruined again.
“Knock, knock. You decent?” Malik peeked his head in the door to Alex’s hospital room.
“In thought or action?” Alex asked playfully.
“Better be both if I’m gonna introduce you to my only daughter,” Malik said, trailing a wispy blond angel by the hand.
If anyone knew what an angel looked like, it would be Alex. His breath caught. He straightened his hospital gown, hoping all the important parts were covered, like his pounding heart.
“Alex, I’d like to introduce my daughter, Ellen,” Malik said.
“Daddy, we already know each other,” Ellen said. “He’s in my biology class.”
“I am? I mean, we do? Of course, we do. We’ve known each other for years.” Alex stammered, trying to pull anything from his memory that resembled this beautiful girl standing before him.
Ellen lifted her hand up to her face and straightened her delicate glasses then brushed a stray hair from her face and lowered her arm so that both hands clasped a leather-bound notebook. “It’s okay that you don’t remember me, Alex. We don’t exactly run in the same circles.”
“We don’t? Of course, we don’t. Because I think I’d remember you if I’d met you.” Alex knew he was making a fool of himself.
“Let’s just say, I’ve never gone out of my way to get to know you either.” Ellen shifted from one foot to the other. “You’re not my type, like, at all.”
“Well good,” Malik said. “I won’t have to worry about chaperoning you two.”
“Dad, I’m turning eighteen in three weeks. I don’t exactly need a chaperone.”
“Okay then, I’m going to get some paperwork done at the nurses’ station down the hall. I’ll let you get to know one another, and I’ll be back for our physical therapy appointment in about forty-five minutes.” Malik glanced at his watch ceremoniously and ducked out of Alex’s room.
“Mind if I sit down?” Ellen asked, pulling up a chair before Alex had a chance to answer. “So, my dad tells me you had a near-death experience and he’d like me to help you tell your story.” Ellen opened her notebook and pulled a pen from her wispy blond bun.
“Can I ask you a question first?” Alex stopped her. “Why am I not your type?”
Ellen rolled her eyes. “I don’t go out with guys who drink or sleep around.”
“Maybe that’s the wrong way to describe your… extracurricular activities.” Ellen tapped the pen against her pursed lips. “I’m not sure you ever actually made it to a bed. More like behind the bleachers, in the guys’ locker room, on that little balcony backstage in the auditorium.”
“Okay, I get it. Stop.” Alex pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut.
“Don’t worry, Alex. You don’t have the worst reputation in the school.” Ellen stopped talking and Alex finally opened one eye to glance at her, sensing what was coming. “That would be Gus.”
“Grrreat…” Alex squeezed his eyes shut again.
“Of course, his older brothers were way worse,” Ellen said.
“Okay, can we talk about something else now?” Alex opened his eyes and gripped the sides of his head, messing up his already too-long hair. His stylist usually kept his thick locks at just the right length to make him look like a cocky rock star. Now they just looked shaggy and unkept.
“You asked.” Ellen held up her hand to examine her stubby fingernails.
“I’m sorry I did,” Alex grumbled.
“Back to my original question, then.” Ellen positioned her pen above the blank sheet of her notebook. “Tell me about your near-death experience.”
“What do you wanna know exactly?” Alex folded his arms across his chest, no longer in the mood to talk about something so sacred when he’d just had his past life thrown in his face. The remembrance of all his wrongdoings came flooding into his mind and all the peace he’d experienced since coming out of his coma dissipated.
“Did you see a bright light?” Ellen’s sarcasm was grating on Alex’s nerves.
“How did you know you were dead?”
“I wasn’t dead,” Alex said.
“I’m sorry ‘near dead’. Is that what you’d call it?”
“No. I was walking and talking just like I do now.”
“Well, technically, you’re not walking right now because you’re sorta paralyzed. Isn’t that right?”
“Are you mocking me?” Alex asked. This chick had no idea what it was like to have very little feeling in his legs or to be completely helpless and relying on others for everything, including trips to the bathroom.
“I’m sorry.” Ellen made a show of wiping the smirk from her face and sitting up straight and prim. “Shall we continue?”
“What I experienced was very spiritual, and unless you can cut the crap and act like a grown up, I really don’t think you’re the right reporter for this job.”
“Job?” Ellen raised her eyebrows. “You’re paying me? I thought I was just doing this as a favor to my dad. Oh, and the fame and fortune of selling your story.”
“Ellen, please leave.” Alex turned away and faced the opposite wall hoping his traitorous eyes wouldn’t betray him and make him look like even more of a fool.
Ellen’s chair scratched across the tile floor and Alex thought she was leaving without even saying goodbye or apologizing. Instead she stepped into his line of sight and her countenance had shifted. “Can we start over?”
“I don’t have anything to say to you.” Alex refused to look her in the eye.
“Hi, I’m Ellen.” She stuck her hand out as if to shake. “My dad wanted me to meet you because he said you’re a really cool guy. I actually already know you because you’re in my biology class. You may not remember me because I’m the geeky one in the back of the room who’s always reading and writing. But I remember you because you’re super popular and hot and completely out of my league, so I never thought I’d ever actually have a conversation with you.”
Alex glanced down at her outstretched hand and then lifted his gaze to her turquoise eyes, so clear they were almost crystalline. His own feelings of vulnerability were reflected in them. “You’re not as shy as you think you are if you were able to say all that in one breath.”
“Are you gonna leave me hanging here, bud, because this is embarrassing enough as it is.”
“Sorry.” Alex gulped and then lifted his hand to hers. “It’s nice to finally talk to you, Ellen. I’m glad we didn’t meet a few months ago because I might have said something really inappropriate at this moment and you would have slapped me in the face and I’d never have a chance to get to know the real you.”
She didn’t pull her hand from his but glanced to the side, shielding guilty eyes behind studious glasses and hooded lids. “That, or I would have followed you wherever you led and then hated myself afterward when you didn’t call me the next day.”
“I’m sorry,” Alex practically whispered. “I’m sorry for… everything.”
“I’m pretty sure the girls were using you just as much as you were using them.”
“That doesn’t make it right,” Alex said.
Ellen shrugged then turned her gaze back to him, piercing him with those icy blue eyes. “That was so last year.”
“Not quite. We have ten days until New Year’s Eve. Then it will be last year.” He tried to smile playfully; glad they’d gotten back on track.
“If I ask nicely, will you tell me about your accident?” Ellen’s voice was soft and sweet, all sarcasm gone.
“I’ll tell you anything you want to know.” Alex’s voice was husky. “Even the really spiritual stuff if you think you can handle it.”
“I’ll try,” Ellen said.
“Would you like to pull up a chair and stay a few minutes?”
“Sure.” She didn’t bother walking back around the other side of the bed, just pulled up the chair closest to where she now stood. She opened her notebook and lifted her gaze to meet his. Her near whisper was reverent and caring. “Let me help you tell your story…”
“You’re doing it wrong,” Phoebe said with zero patience in her voice.
“Forgive me, I’ve never cleaned up dog poop before.” Gus tried to keep the sarcasm from his words but knew he failed.
“Didn’t your mommy ever let you have a puppy?” Phoebe teased.
“Of course, I had a puppy,” Gus said. “But our servants cleaned up after him, not me.” That got the attention of the other service workers. If they hadn’t already suspected he was a privileged kid, they knew now. Gus gulped.
“You need to use the shovel first.” Phoebe’s statement was derogatory. “Get the solid waste out of the way, then use the hose.”
“Wouldn’t you save a step by just blasting it with water until it rinses down the drain?”
“That’s a lot of extra water, and water is expensive,” Phoebe said.
“Can’t I just write a check and you can hire someone to do this?” Again, that got everyone’s attention. He realized he needed to be a little more careful about how he spoke so flippantly around these kids who had nothing. He would be a prime target for getting mugged.
“Must be nice to have enough money that you can snap your fingers and make all your problems go away, Your Highness,” Phoebe said. “The idea is for you to do service. You can’t buy your way out of this using your daddy’s money. You did the crime; you do the time.”
“You drank almost as much as I did that night,” Gus said.
“Not even close.” She laughed, “Besides, I wasn’t stupid enough to get behind the wheel of a car.”
“I wasn’t stupid enough either.” Gus realized he and Phoebe had moved closer to one another so that they were right up in each other’s faces. “But I was too drunk to realize what a stupid choice I was making. And my best friend almost died because of it.”
“How is Alex, by the way,” Phoebe asked, her voice a little softer.
“He has very little feeling in his legs,” Gus said. “Oh, and he thinks he spoke to God.”
“He had a near-death experience?” Phoebe took a step back and raised her eyebrows.
All the other workers had stopped what they were doing, and he had a captive audience. “He says he was awake the whole three days he was in a coma and described details at the scene of the accident in frighteningly accurate detail.”
“Is it true you stayed by his side that whole time?” Phoebe asked.
Gus shrugged. “He’s my best friend. And I felt responsible. I still do. That’s why no amount of shoveling dog crap will ever be enough of a punishment.” Gus creased his eyebrows, grabbed his shovel, and lowered his head with a scowl. He pushed past several other hooligan bystanders and entered the next kennel. No one bothered him for several hours.
“Good morning, Alex,” a friendly-looking man in blue scrubs said as he stepped up next to Alex’s hospital bed. He held a metal clipboard box against his left hip and reached out his right hand. “I’m Malik. I’ll be your physical therapist for the next eight weeks or so.”
“Do you think I’ll be able to walk again?” It was the first time Alex had dared utter the words out loud. Everyone was so glad he was alive that they were avoiding the discussion about the lack of feeling in his legs. Damage to the spinal cord. That was the official diagnosis. Telephone pole – one, Alex – zero.
“Well, I’ve touched exactly one part of your body so far, and from what I understand, your hand wasn’t damaged. Even if it had been, that wouldn’t hinder your ability to walk.”
“Thanks,” Malik said, pulling up a chair. “I pride myself on my humor. If I can keep my patients laughing, they won’t realize how much I’m torturing them.”
“Well since I have very little feeling in my legs, I won’t notice you torturing me either.”
“It is my job to work those muscles and tendons and nerves until they repair themselves and you can swear at me and wish you remembered about the humor thing.”
“I will never swear again.” Alex shook his head and felt a tiny pang of guilt in his heart for the multitude of times he’d sworn in his lifetime.
“Why not?” Malik cocked his head to the side.
“Because God doesn’t like it.” Alex thought it should be so obvious. “He told me.”
“He told you?” Malik raised his eyebrows. “The big guy?”
“Well no,” Alex admitted, and Malik relaxed. “It was actually an angel who told me, but he was referring to the Father.”
“An angel said not to swear?”
“I’m not sure they ever actually used those exact words. It was more that I knew what they were thinking,” Alex said.
“All the angels. There were, like, thousands of them.”
“Th—thousands?” Malik stammered. “What else do you remember?”
Alex shrugged. “I dunno. Everything.”
“Yeah, it was beautiful. I didn’t want to come back.” Alex averted his eyes.
“Huh…” Malik wrote something on his clipboard then stood from his chair and walked to the foot of the bed. He exposed Alex’s legs and conducted a visual examination. “Sorry if you’re cold. I’ll try not to take too long.”
“I’m okay,” Alex said. “I can’t feel much down there.”
“Your skin developed goosebumps right after I uncovered your legs,” Malik said. “I’m going to poke you in a lot of places and see where you react to stimulation.”
“You’re propped up a little and I’m going to lower your head in a minute so you can’t see what I’m doing, but I want you to see what I plan to do, so you can make a determination about how that feels. Then when you feel similar reactions, you’ll know.”
“Sounds logical,” Alex said.
“See how I’m pressing on your thigh? Can you feel that?”
Malik pressed harder, and harder, and finally Alex felt pressure, but almost thought the pressure was more that his leg was being pressed into the bed, not like he was actually feeling any pain.
“Okay, now I’m going to poke you with this metal rod, and I want you to tell me when you feel anything.”
“Okay.” Alex could see Malik pressing his rod into Alex’s leg but never really felt pain from the action.
“Now, these needles are a little larger than acupuncture needles and I’m going to press them into your skin. Have you ever experienced acupuncture?”
“That’s okay. I just want you to be aware that these are safe and sterile and I’m using a new one each time,” Malik said. “I’m going to lower the head of your bed and start moving your legs around. I want you to tell me every time you feel even the slightest physical reaction and try to describe it to me.”
“Is that a permanent marker?” Alex asked.
“Yep, I’m going to sign my autograph to your leg, so you’ll think I’m a rock star.”
“If you can get me to walk again, you are a rock star in my book.”
“I’m going to make some notes and markings on the places where you react, or don’t react, so they’ll be readily obvious when I come back tomorrow.” Malik pressed the button to lower the head of the bed.
“That’s genius,” Alex said.
“Thanks, I think so too.” Malik smiled then disappeared from view. He was quiet and Alex wasn’t sure when he’d get started.
After several minutes, Alex lifted his head to try to see what Malik was waiting for. He was hunched over, writing something on Alex’s leg.
“Keep your head down,” Malik grumbled.
Alex laid his head back onto his pillow and felt tears prick the corners of his eyes. The lack of feeling as Malik worked was a testament to the severity of his injury. He was never going to walk again.
“Please don’t tell me this is the correct place.” Gus stared out the window of Aaron’s car as he pulled up to the animal shelter for his first day of community service. “This is the worst part of town I have ever driven through.”
“Ridden through,” Aaron corrected him. “You won’t be driving for a very long time.”
“Thank you for reminding me,” Gus grumbled.
“And this is actually not the worst part of town,” Aaron said. He pointed east. “If you walk about ten blocks that way, you might want to carry pepper spray.”
“I don’t want to do this.” Gus knew he sounded like a spoiled little rich brat, but he didn’t care. “Why weren’t you punished? You had just as much to drink as I did.”
“Because I didn’t get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.”
“Thanks to me driving you home,” Gus said.
“Technically, you didn’t drive me home. You drove me into a telephone pole.”
“Hmpf. How many hours do I have to stay in this retched place again?”
“Eight,” Aaron said.
“It’s better than jail,” Aaron pointed out.
“It’s like jail for stray dogs,” Gus said.
“And kitties. Don’t forget the kitties.”
“That part might be fun.” Gus perked up a little. “I like kittens.”
“Just treat them all as if they were little princes and princesses, and give them lots of love and affection, and the day will fly by.”
“Who are you?” Gus turned to his oldest brother.
“Here’s the lunch that mommy made for you—okay one of our kitchen staff made for you—and here are your work gloves, try not to get them too covered in dog poop, and I’ll see you in eight hours.”
“I hate you,” Gus grumbled.
“Love you too.” Aaron patted him on the head.
Gus exited his brother’s Mercedes, slamming the door, and trudged up to the concrete building that would be his prison for the next eight hours.
The smell hit him before he even opened the front door and Gus gagged. He stepped back a few feet and took in several gulps of fresh air.
“Quit being a baby,” he grumbled under his breath. “I can do this.”
He strode with purpose and flung open the door. He forced himself not to gag and tried to breathe as little as possible, knowing that wasn’t a sustainable option but it was all he could think of for now.
The man behind the counter looked up from his computer when the bell chimed above the door. He looked Gus up and down and shook his head with a disgusted grunt.
“I’m here to volunteer,” Gus said with as few breaths as possible.
“Is that what you want to call it?” The man raised his eyebrows. His receding hairline was accentuated by an unnaturally large forehead and half spectacles that sat on the end of his nose.
“Look, Ms. Harris is a volunteer. The rest of you hooligans are here because you’re forced by a court of law. Don’t diminish her role as your supervisor by lifting yourself to her level. Until you’ve served your time, you’re just worthy enough to clean the kennels and not much else.”
Gus gulped but nodded his head once slowly. “Yes, sir.”
“You’re late. Get back there.” The man pointed to the door on his left.
“Is there someplace I can refrigerate my lunch?” Gus held up the brownbag his brother had given him.
“You’re having your planning meeting in the lunchroom. Ms. Harris can show you where the refrigerator is located.”
Gus opened the door the man indicated and was assaulted by even stronger blast of dog waste. He was glad he was holding lunch in a bag because if it had been in his stomach, it would now be on the floor. If this was the lunchroom, he wouldn’t be eating until dinner.
All eyes turned to see who had walked in the door, and the guy at the front desk had been right. This group of guys, and two girls, were hooligans. Gang symbols were tattooed on various locations on their faces, arms, and knuckles. They had black and red bandanas tied as armbands or around their foreheads. And Gus swore one of the guys moved his jacket across his hip as if to send the message that he had a gun hidden in his waistband. They wore grubby jeans and had greasy hair.
Without looking down, Gus took inventory of his own clothes, all name brand and freshly pressed. His new work boots, purchased yesterday by one of his servants, had never seen pavement, and his stylist had recently touched up his subtle highlights. He gulped but stepped all the way into the breakroom and allowed the heavy door to slam behind him.
Ms. Harris looked up from her clipboard and narrowed her eyes.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Gus muttered under his breath. He almost turned and ran from the room, preferring jail to this.
“Well, good morning, Your Highness,” she said in the sweetest, most sadistic, I’m-going-to-torture-you-for-the-next-eight-hours voice Gus had ever heard. “What a pleasure it will be to have you serving us.”
He caught the subtle emphasis that he would be serving them rather than he’d be serving with them. Gus raised his chin with confidence, not letting her get under his skin.
“Good morning… Phoebe.”
“Mr. Madain Saleh, do you understand the charges against you?” the judge asked.
“Yes, sir, your honor,” Gus lowered his eyes respectfully in a gesture that was almost a bow, an automatic response from having lived under his father’s and grandfather’s rule. He was flanked by his father and the finest defense attorney in the greater Buffalo area.
Reporters were in the courtroom and camera crews were outside waiting to get a shot of the youngest prince being escorted into a waiting limousine with dark tinted windows. Gus was determined to maintain a stoic face; the same one he’d been trained to use all his life.
“Operating under the influence resulting in injury is a felony punishable by up to five years in jail.” The judge seemed to be waiting for Gus’s response.
“I understand, your honor.” Gus looked him in the eye, his chin held high, trying to keep his lip from quivering.
The judge took a deep breath and glanced at their powerful attorney standing beside him and the Prince Marcos of Madain Saleh, the courtroom full of reporters, and back to Gus, who was holding his breath.
“You’re very lucky your friend didn’t die,” the judge said. “We’d be having a much different conversation.”
Gus couldn’t speak. He knew the judge was right, but not for any legal reasons. Alex was his brother, in every way other than by blood. If Gus’s choice to get behind the wheel of that car after drinking alcohol had resulted in Alex’s death, no jail sentence would be punishment enough.
“Locking you up would benefit nothing,” the judge said. “If I sentence you to community service, do you think you could serve out your sentence with honor, and turn your life around?”
“Yes, sir, your honor.” Gus’s heart felt a prick of hope.
“I’m sentencing you to five years in jail.”
Gus’s stomach dropped through the floor.
“Suspended unless the terms of your probation are violated. Your time served will be doing community service. Your driver’s license is suspended for five years. You are to undergo substance abuse counseling, and you are not to drink any alcohol or use any drugs within that five years. Do you understand this sentencing?”
“Yes?” I think. “Thank you, your honor.”
“This court is dismissed.” The judge rapped his gavel on his desk.
“All rise,” the bailiff called out.
Gus was already standing, and rooted to his spot, shaking. What just happened?
The judge rose from his bench and left the room.
A gasp emitted from his chest and the room erupted in subdued chatter. Gus could hear his mother sobbing quietly from the front row of benches, her arms locked in an embrace with Alex’s mom.
“Come, my son,”
“Yes, Your Highness.” Gus felt his father’s arm around his shoulder, leading him from the courtroom. He was vaguely aware of stumbling down the stairs and out to the waiting car.
When he was inside the protective darkness of the blackened windows, Gus allowed his emotions to swallow him in racking sobs, feeling as if he’d dodged a bullet and might soon get his life back.
No, you cannot send me back. What do you mean I have no choice? Work to do? No, I want to stay. Not my time? This doesn’t make any sense.
Alex, wake up.
Please, I want to stay. Don’t make me go back.
Alex, can you hear me?
No, I cannot hear you. Leave me alone. I’m staying. It’s peaceful here.
Please, Alex, you’ve got to come back to me. You’re my best friend. So many people are worried about you. Your mom and dad have been here. Thankfully they didn’t force me to leave. They’re all mad at me though. My Audi was totaled. Heck, I might go to jail if you don’t wake up. I might go to jail even if you do.
Whatever. I don’t care. I just want you to wake up. I can endure any punishment as long as you wake up. That’s all I care about. Do you know how many cards and flowers are in this room? Maybe you can smell them.
I don’t know. Can I smell them?
News of our accident has blown up social media. Oh, and I had a concussion. I’m better now. Sorta. I mean, I can’t sleep, and I can’t eat and I’m shaking, like a lot. Can you hear me, man?
They have you hooked up to so many tubes and monitors. They’ve pumped like a million bags of fluid through your IV. You almost died a couple times.
I did? That’s weird because I’ve been walking and talking and exploring and meeting new people and it’s really beautiful here. I can’t wait to tell you about it.
You really scared me, man.
Are you crying?
You can’t leave me like this.
I’m right here, what are you talking about?
Hey, man, I learned how to pray, I think. I don’t know if anyone can hear me.
Maybe you see angels and ghosts, I don’t know. I figured if God does exist, it wouldn’t hurt to talk to him.
Can you even hear me?
Hey, are you still there? Are you crying again?
Alex squeezed his fingers just a little to see if he could still feel whatever had been resting in his hand for hours.
“Alex? Can you hear me?”
“Alex, squeeze my hand again, man.”
No, it hurts.
“Please, wake up, man, squeeze my hand again.”
Gus? Is that you?
“Wake up, Alex. Squeeze my hand again.”
Okay, okay, already. You don’t have to get all huffy.
“NURSE!!!” Gus yelled. “He squeezed my hand!”
That’s so loud! Alex cringed away from the sound.
“I’m sorry, oh my gosh, where’s that damn nurse’s button, there it is!”
Alex was jostled around for a few seconds, then Gus’s voice was talking to him again.
“Alex, wake up, man. It’s Gus.”
Duh, I’d know your voice anywhere, man. I can hear you. You can stop talking so loudly. I’m right here.
“Alex, squeeze my hand again. Please.”
“How can I help you?”
A woman? Who’s the woman? Why’s she here?
“He squeezed my hand!”
And we’re back to yelling.
“Twice! And then I saw his forehead move.”
Weird. Why would I move my forehead? That seems like a strange thing to do.
“Alex, wake up. Squeeze my hand again.”
Why do you keep saying that?
“The doctor’s here.”
Gus? Where’d your hand go? Gus? You still there?
“Alex, it’s Doctor Herman. Can you hear me?”
Who the heck are you? Our family’s doctor is Doctor Cathcart. He has a place somewhere down in Buffalo, but he usually just comes to our home on the island. Am I home? No, this doesn’t smell like home. Hey! I can smell again. yuck… what the heck is that smell? Ugh!
“His pupils are reactive,” Doctor Herman said.
What the heck! What on earth makes you think I want you to shine an incredibly bright light into my eye? And then the other eye? Get the heck out of my face!
“Mrs. Stephenson, he squeezed my hand!”
Hey, there’s Gus again. Good. He’s further away. Come back and hold my hand again, Gus. Wait, Mrs. Stephenson? Is he talking to my mom? Where’s my mom? Mom!
“He’s showing multiple reactions. He can probably hear us. Where’s that kid? Get him back over here.”
Kid? What kid? Who can hear you?
“Gus, honey, come talk to Alex,” the woman said.
Gus! Yeah, bring Gus back. Oh, good, there’s your hand. Thank you. Don’t leave me again, okay?
“Talk to him, honey. He can probably hear you.”
“Alex, buddy. Can you hear me?”
“He squeezed my hand again!”
You keep yellin’ in my ear and I’m gonna stop squeezing. I’m joking. You can yell all you want, just don’t leave me again.
“Alex, can you open your eyes, man?”
Why would I want to open my eyes? For someone to shine bright lights in them again? Ah, man, did my eyes just move? I am not opening them. I refuse.
“His eyes are moving!” Gus said. “Alex, can you hear me? Open your eyes and look at me.”
Too bright. What the heck did you do to your face? It’s all scratched up. Man, you’re crying again. Stop.
“You’re alive! Oh my God, you’re alive!”
Please don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, you idiot. Don’t you know he hears every word you say? And he really doesn’t like that. Also, when was I ever not alive? I’ve been walking all over this place. There were a lot more people before. But whatever.
“Alex, can you say something? Can you talk to me?”
“Did Phoebe agree to go out with you again?” Alex asked, his voice scratchy.
“You idiot! I wouldn’t know! I haven’t left your side!” Gus pressed his face into Alex’s white blanket and sobbed, gripping the blanket like he’d never let go. His words were muffled through the thick blanket. “Alex, God, Alex, I thought you were gonna die. Don’t you leave me like that again. I’m so sorry. I’ll never drink alcohol again as long as I live. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please forgive me.”
Alex lifted his heavy hand and rested it on Gus’s head. Gus leaned toward his hand and Alex patted his head. He cleared his throat and tried talking again. “Quit being such a baby.”
“Alex, do you know where you are?” Doctor Herman asked. So that’s what you look like.
“Do you know why you’re in the hospital?”
“Cause this idiot prince got shot down by a hot chick, drank himself into a stupor, and killed a perfectly good Audi, and I happened to be sitting next to him at the time?”
Gus started crying again.
“Shut up, man, you blubber like a baby.”
“Do you know what day of the week it is?” Doctor Herman asked.
“Darnit, I missed my geography test. Probably woulda failed it anyway.”
“I’m sure they’ll let you make it up.” Doctor Herman chuckled.
“I’ll still fail it. My teacher won’t believe me that there’s this country in northern Saudi Arabia near the Jordanian border where these four cocky princes think their ancestors cry to them from the dust.”
Gus gripped Alex’s hand again and pressed his forehead against Alex’s and then they were both crying. “Don’t you leave me again.”
“Only if you promise not to wrap any more cars around telephone poles.”
“I promise,” Gus said, pulling his head back. “Hey, how did you know about the telephone pole?”
“I saw it,” Alex said. “Your car was trashed, man.”
“You were unconscious when they pulled you from the car.”
“Nah, I was standing right there, man. Two idiot princes puking, you bein’ hauled outta yer mangled wreck of an Audi by yer shoulders, and mister crown prince himself throwin’ around his title like it was gonna git him outta gettin’ a ticket or somethin’. I never realized how haughty he sounds when he does that.”
The room had gone quiet and Alex looked around at everyone staring at him. That annoying Doctor Herman with his flashlight ready to blind him again, the older woman who called Gus ‘honey’ and another woman. Oh, and Gus. His best friend. Alex smiled at his best friend.
“Do you know where my mom is?” Alex asked. Everyone continued to stare at him with gaping jaws.
“She’s on her way, honey.” The older woman stepped forward.
I’m not honey. Gus’s honey. “I want my mom.”
“She’ll be here soon,” Gus said.
Alex reached out to grip Gus’s hand again, squeezing as hard as his limited strength would allow. “I’m really tired, Gus. Will you stay with me until my mom gets here?”
“Yeah, man, I’ll stay right here.” Gus held onto Alex’s hand with both of his and gripped like he’d never let go.
“Wake me up… when she gets… here.” Alex closed his eyes and slept for what felt like the first time in days.
Gus wouldn’t leave Alex’s side or let go of his hand, unless the nurses and doctors forced him from the room for whatever reason. He knew there’d eventually be legal ramifications for what he’d done, but he was relieved that no one had yet shown up to arrest him. Maybe they’d wait to see whether or not Alex lived.
Alex had been moved from ICU after his vital signs had normalized and the only thing technically wrong with him was minimal brain activity.
Gus was surprised they let him sit with Alex at all. He was underage and not technically family. Maybe their fathers had so much political clout that an exception had been made. Maybe they knew that no one would pay closer attention to every flicker of movement, should Alex awake from the coma, than the person who loved him and was most racked with guilt over what had happened. For whatever reason, Gus was thankful to be allowed in that room.
For thirty-six hours Gus only slept when he laid his head down on the blanket next to their adjoined hands, and only for a few minutes. He had no desire to eat or drink, although he sipped on some water the nurses brought him.
A few times Aaron tried to get him to come home but he refused. Someone forced him to eat a Snickers bar at some point, but he couldn’t remember who.
Alex’s mom and dad came and went, insisting they sit with Alex and implying that Gus should leave them alone to grieve. It seemed none of them wanted to talk to Gus, probably because he was driving the car that almost killed their son, but Gus refused to leave. For whatever reason, they didn’t force him to leave. For that he was grateful.
Gus learned to pray that night, even though he wasn’t sure he believed in a God. He didn’t want to take any chances. If some supreme being was listening from the sky, he decided he’d better at least ask for help. It wouldn’t hurt anything.
He talked to Alex a little, sometimes telling him thoughts that mulled around in his head, sometimes crying and begging him to wake up, sometimes angrily demanding that he wake up. Most of the time he just sat there, numb.
Sometime during the night on the third day, Gus felt a tiny movement in Alex’s hand.
“Alex? Can you hear me?” Gus squeezed Alex’s hand but got no further response. He didn’t call for a nurse because he wondered if he’d imagined the movement.
He talked to Alex almost continually from that time forward, telling him everything that had happened in the past few days, how many cards and flowers were waiting for him, how many years of jail Gus might get if Alex didn’t wake up, how totaled his Audi was, how worried his mom and dad were, how many people had been to visit him, how many bags of fluid they’d pumped into him. He cried even more. He demanded that Alex wake up. He told him about how he’d learned to pray and wondered if Alex had seen any angels or ghosts while he’d been asleep.
Hours later, another movement, this time much more pronounced and obvious. Gus sat up and talked to Alex, squeezing his hand repeatedly, begging him to squeeze his hand back. Finally, he did.
Gus called out to the nurse’s station as loud as his scratchy voice would allow, and Alex’s forehead creased as if Gus’s yelling had bothered him.
He quieted and pushed the nurse’s call button, still begging in a softer voice for Alex to respond.
When the nurse walked casually into the room, asking, “How can I help you?” Gus forgot to be quiet again.
“He squeezed my hand!” Gus practically yelled. “Twice! And then I saw his forehead move.”
The nurse rushed from the room and came back with several other people including the on-call doctor. Gus stepped back to let them work and took his cell phone from his pocket. Ignoring the hundreds of texts and missed calls and notifications on social media, he scrolled for a moment and found Alex’s mom’s phone number.
“Mrs. Stephenson, he squeezed my hand!”
When Gus finally awoke, he was hooked up to an IV and the room around him was dark. Where was everyone? He had been tucked into a private room somewhere in the hospital, but he couldn’t see anyone from his vantage point.
He fumbled around and found a nurse call button and waited. A handsome older woman stepped into the room and held her hand to Gus’s wrist, then to his forehead.
“How are you feeling?” the nurse asked in a quiet, comforting voice.
“Is Alex gonna be okay?” Gus’s mouth was dry and his throat scratchy.
“It speaks volumes that the first words out of your mouth upon waking was to ask about your friend.” She pursed her lips and glanced at the machines, noted the amount of fluid left in the IV bag, and then looked back at him. “Your mom’s just out in the waiting room on a phone call. I’ll go tell her you’re awake.”
The nurse left and Gus’s mom hurried in, completing her phone call and tucking her phone in her purse.
“Hi honey,” his mom said.
“Is Alex gonna be okay?” Gus asked.
“He’s in a coma, and the doctors aren’t sure when—or if—he’ll come out of the coma. But his vitals are good, and all signs point to an eventual recovery. It was touch and go for a while.”
“Can I see him?”
“No, honey, he’s in the Intensive Care Unit and won’t be able to receive visitors until he’s no longer in the ICU.”
“What happened to me? Why am I still here? I thought I was being discharged.” And going to jail, he added in his head.
“You had a mild nervous breakdown, that’s all. It’s a common thing to happen after a traumatic event like that.”
“Can I go home soon?” Gus asked. “I want a shower.”
“We brought you some clean clothes,” his mom said, then looked to the nurse and raised her eyebrows.
“Why don’t I get this IV out of your arm and you can take a shower while you’re waiting to be discharged,” the nurse suggested.
“Can I get some water too?”
“Of course,” she answered. “Let me go get that for you and I’ll tell the doctor you’re ready to be discharged. He’ll want to look you over just a little to make sure you’re clear to leave.”
She left for a few minutes and Gus took the opportunity to allow a few tears to flow down his face. Then he took his mom’s advice.
Hey God, if you even exist, please don’t punish Alex for my stupid choices. Please let him live.
Gus didn’t see his parents until he had been lying on a hospital bed in a busy emergency room for some time. He’d heard frightening phrases like, “multiple injuries, “life support,” “critical condition,” “stable,” “pupils are fixed and dilated,” “blood alcohol level of point-one-two,” “the youngest one was driving.”
“Gus!” Finally, a voice he recognized, and he lost control, tears flowing from his eyes as his mother’s face came into view.
“I’m here, baby, I’m right here.” Hazel Madain Saleh was the most beautiful woman in the world, and Gus had the honor of being her youngest son. “Are you hurt, baby?”
“My head hurts,” Gus said, then repeated the question he’d asked anyone within earshot. “Is Alex gonna be okay.”
Gus’s mom looked away and straightened the blanket. “I’m sure they’re doing all they can for him.”
“Where are my brothers?”
“Aaron is having a talk with your father, and Hayden and Owen are in beds near the end of the room over there, basically sleeping off what will soon become a nasty hangover.” Her tone grew more and more irritated.
“I’m sorry, mamma,” Gus said.
“I want you to concentrate on getting yourself healed,” she said. Her expression shifted and her lip quivered. “And I’d suggest you pray—hard—that Alex lives… because you will be tried as an adult.”
With that, his mom covered her face to hide her tears and hurried away, leaving Gus alone with the guilt of knowing he possibly killed his best friend.
* * * * * * * * *
“Son?” Prince Marcos of Madain Saleh came into view and Gus’s heart leapt and sank in one powerful wave of guilt.
“Your Highness?” Gus’s voice wavered and tears once again ran down the sides of his face. He wished he could sit up and look his father in the eye. Or not. He wished he could sink through the floor and never have to look his father in the eye.
“I’m not here to chastise you, son. You’ll be facing enough of that from law enforcement.”
“Wh—what do you mean?” Gus asked.
“They’re releasing you from the hospital into your parent’s care, because you’re a minor. You’ll likely be charged with operating a motor vehicle while under the influence, resulting in injury.”
Injury? Gus didn’t know what to say. He fumbled with words for a moment and then said the same thing he’d been saying for the past six or seven hours. “Is Alex gonna be okay?”
“You’d better hope so, son. Or the word ‘injury’ will be ‘death,’ which is fifteen years in jail instead of five.”
“Father, I don’t care about the damn charges!” Gus yelled. He realized he was causing a scene in the emergency room but didn’t stop. “They can lock me up and throw away the key for all I care. I just want my best friend to live!”
Sobs racked through Gus’s whole body as his father held him, and he cried, and cried, and cried, and cried, and cried, and cried, and cried.
“Who’s drivin’?” Gus held up the keys to his sporty little Audi RS 5. They usually fought over who got to drive. Tonight no one stepped forward. They were all stumbling and laughing, just as plastered as he was. He resigned himself to be the scapegoat. If anyone was going to crash his car, it might as well be him. Then he couldn’t blame someone else when he had to pay for a new paint job. “All right, pile in.”
Alex sat in front and Gus’s older brothers crammed into the tiny backseat. None of them considered seatbelts a priority anyway so it didn’t matter that they were practically sitting on each other’s laps.
“Drive fast,” Hayden said. “Cause I’m gonna need to puke eventually and I’d really prefer not to do that in the back seat of yer pretty car.”
“You’ll be payin’ to git it detailed if ya do,” Gus said. “But gest in case, I’ll put the peddle ta tha medal.”
“We all appreciate that, l’ill brother,” Owen said.
They rolled down the windows and let the night air flood them with wind in their hair, whooping and laughing and singing along to Bohemian Rhapsody as if they were staring in their very own Wayne’s World video. When it came time to do the headbanging, they gave it all they got, complete with air guitars.
Complete with flipping cars.
And broken guardrails.
Fallen telephone poles.
Gus awoke to a loud hissing, smoke and dust choking him, broken glass, chaos, lights, sirens, Hayden puking loudly somewhere nearby, hanging half his body out the side door from how it sounded. Owen moaned from the backseat, and Aaron kept calling Alex’s name over and over, presumably trying to get him to respond to the sound of his voice.
Trying to disentangle himself from the airbags, Gus attempted to push his door open, but it was locked in a mangled twist of metal and fiberglass. His head hurt too bad for him to think about what to do next. He decided to wait until someone else thought for him. His eyes wanted to close, but he forced himself to keep them open.
Someone called to him from outside his window and a bright flashlight blinded him. Strong arms pulled an unconscious Hayden over his own vomit and laid him down on the road beside the car. The words jaws-of-life made some sense, but the words didn’t fully register until there was a gaping hole in the side of his Audi. That didn’t make as much sense for some reason.
Until he felt strong arms pulling him and a voice. “Sir, are you hurt?”
Sir? Who are they talking to? Me? Am I sir? Gus wanted to correct him. We’re just a bunch of kids.
“No,” Gus managed to choke out. At least he didn’t think he was hurt. Then the strong arms were tugging him again, up and over and around the gaping hole and away from the bucket seats, and out the door.
Gus almost hurled when they dragged him hear Hayden’s puddle of putrid beer and partially digested Doritos. At least that’s how it smelled. The strong arms rested Gus next to his older brother, who was still passed out.
“He won’t wake up,” Aaron said. “Git him to wake up.” Was Aaron crying?
“Sir take a step back. We’re doing everything we can for your friend. I need a gurney over here. Get his neck stabilized. On my count. Three, two, one. Sir, step back. I need you to move out of the way.”
“Alex, wake up!” Aaron cried. “Wake up, dammit! Wake up!”
“Sir come this way, please. Can you tell me your name?”
“Prince Aaron of Madain Saleh,” Aaron choked out through tears. His standard answer whenever asked. As crown prince he’d always been determined to carry on their name and monarchy even if they never had their homeland again. Now it just sounded haughty.
“What?” a police officer questioned.
“Aaron,” he cried. “Just call me Aaron. Where are you taking Alex?”
“He’s going to the hospital, sir. Can you tell me Alex’s last name?”
“Stephenson,” Aaron managed to tell the man.
“Is he related to the real estate developer, Alex Stephenson?”
“Yes, Alex’s his son.”
“And did you claim to be a prince?” the officer asked.
“Yes, our father is Prince Marcos of Madain Saleh. Alex Stephenson is our father’s best friend.”
“The other three men in the car are your brothers?”
“Yes.” Aaron’s sobs had lessoned to heavy breathing.
“How old are you, son?”
“And can you give me your brother’s names and ages?”
“Gus was driving. This is his car. He’s seventeen. And Hayden, the one who was puking a few minutes ago, he’s eighteen. And Owen, he’s still in the car,” —the interrogation was halted by heaving in the backseat— “I guess he’s puking now too. He’s nineteen.”
“How much have you had to drink tonight?”
“Uh… a lot?”
“Yeah, that sounds about accurate.”
“Is Alex gonna be okay?”
“I’m sure the paramedics are doing all they can. What is your father’s phone number?”
Aaron gave the man their father’s phone number.
“And do you know Alex’s father’s phone number?”
“No,” —Aaron glanced over at Gus. “Do you know?”
“No,” Gus managed. His head was pounding, and the lights were too bright, but he focused on this important conversation happening above him as he lay on the pavement beside his mangled car and his unconscious brother.
“Okay, we’ve got ambulances on the way for each of you so sit tight.”
“I don’t need an ambulance,” Aaron said. The officer shone his flashlight into Aaron’s eyes, and he cringed away.
“Hmm, you’re probably right. But your brothers do,” the man said.
Gus didn’t have the capacity to argue. Did he need an ambulance? Maybe. He decided to lie still until someone came to take him away. Eventually Aaron came to sit beside him, and they held each other’s hands, waiting.
“Is Alex gonna be okay?” Gus looked up at his brother, pleading with his eyes.
“I dunno, buddy.” Aaron squeezed Gus’s hand. “I hope so.”
Great news! Strike Three, You’re Mine: All’s Fair in Love and Sports is now available on Amazon! Happy reading! -Julie
Also, have you read the other books in the All's Fair in Love and Sports Series?
They seem to be really lacking on reviews! If you've loved them, would you be willing to leave a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads?
Here are the links:
Running to You
Meet Me at Half Court
Pass Me the Ball
Basketballs and Mistletoe (Only has three reviews! I'm gonna cry!)
All's Fair in Love and Sports Series Page