Thursday, September 9, 1999

Turnaround

This story originally appeared on the Secret Garden website and is archived here at the request of author Doug Rogers.




-Accident-

Alex Costain woke up. It could have been the clatter of the breakfast trays on the service cart outside his door that did the trick, or it might have been the muffled sound of the voice on the hall PA that roused him from the edges of sleep. More than likely, it was simply that he was tired of sleeping. He had done little else the past four days.
His eyes focused on the TV, still on from the night before. Hanging there from its wall bracket, it oversaw the antiseptic white of the hospital room like a huge, unblinking eye. It was the Today show. The time block in the lower corner of the screen showed December 12th. It was his birthday. Alex fumbled around on the right rail of the bed and pressed the "off" button. The screen and its muted dialogue died.
For the hundredth time in the last four days, Alex looked at his shoulder. The mass of bandages that had greeted him on the first day had given way to a more modest dressing that simply outlined what was left of his arm. He flexed the stub, noticing that it didn't hurt as much to move it today as it had yesterday. "Happy Birthday. What a wonderful present," he thought sourly. "Just fucking wonderful."
The flashback hit him without mercy. He and Clark had been coming home from a day at the beach. It had been one of those bright cloudless California days; the sand had been warm and tan and soft... the surf had been the best of the year. They had spent the day alternately riding the 30 foot waves and cuddled together in the privacy of a little grotto at the end of the rocky point. It had been a great day by any measure. Then came the drive home.

Half a dozen miles from home Alex had seen the dark-haired man driving a BMW weaving in and out of traffic... he had actually cut in front of him trying to pass a car in an adjacent lane. "Damned fool!" Clark had said. "He's going to cause an accident." It had been about two miles further down that they had noticed two cars pulled to the side of the freeway. The drivers were standing between the cars, arguing hotly. One man was the reckless BMW driver, the other was a larger, burly Hispanic man. The Beamer had apparently cut off one too many people. Alex was just about to point it out to Clark when the BMW driver produced a revolver, and obviously threatened the other man with it. The larger man doubled up a ham-like fist and drew back. The smaller man fired, point-blank.
"Dear God," Clark had breathed.
Alex thought for a moment about stopping, but was afraid to do so. Instead he reached for the cell phone, and tossed it to his lover. "Call the Chips," he'd said. Clark was dialing the number when Alex saw the dark-haired man run to his car and jump into it. He started the vehicle, and gunned the engine to merge into the traffic flow. Alex watched in the rear-view mirror as the BMW came weaving toward them at high speed.
The car was pulling past them, and Alex glanced over at the driver. He had a glassy-eyed look on his face and he was looking straight ahead. Alex had turned to tell Clark to get the license plate number as the guy passed when abruptly the Beamer changed lanes, its' rear fender catching the front fender of Alex's car. The blow was just enough to break road contact. Alex's car began to skid, crossing into the adjacent lane, nudging yet another car out of control.
Alex lay in his bed and closed his eyes, trying to make the vision stop. It was all in slow motion now.
He hit the brakes hard and felt the car begin to roll over on its' side. Clark dropped the phone and screamed. He was drowned out by the scream of tortured metal as the car was losing speed sliding along the pavement on the side. Suddenly, Alex realized that just in front of them, looming as large as any wave of the day, was a concrete overpass support. The car, completely out of control, and obeying only the laws of physics, was headed directly for it. In the last moment, Alex had instinctively put his left arm in front of his face to protect it. He had actually felt the impact. In the instant when the airbag had deployed, he realized that something had hit the front of the car and brought it instantly, horribly to a stop. Then it was all black.
"Wake up, Sunshine," a cheerful voice called out.
"Hi Clark." Alex smiled. Yes, it was about time for Clark to show up. It was amazing. He had gone through the same accident in the same car and escaped with only a few cuts and scratches from the glass. Alex couldn't help but look longingly at Clark's sound left arm. Then he noticed that Clark had not come in alone. The doctor was with him. "Now, there's an ill wind that bodes no one good," he thought.
"Guess what?" Clark asked.
"Hell, I don't know... it snowed last night," Alex returned.
"You're going home today!"
Alex looked at the doctor, who nodded. "Just as soon as the nurse gets in here to change your dressing. I've got some prescriptions here for pain control and antibiotics. You ready to get out of here?"
Alex looked at his bandaged stump, then back at the doctor. "I don't know that I'm ever going to be ready."
The doctor nodded. "I understand. And that's one of the reasons I want you to go home. Of course, I'll expect you back here every afternoon for rehab for a while, but you need to get back into familiar surroundings, to get started with the rest of your life. A hospital is for sick people. There's nothing we can do for you here that you can't do for yourself at home."
"Except open a catsup bottle," Alex said sourly.
Clark's face darkened. He looked at the doctor as if to ask "What do I do when he makes those cracks?"
"You don't believe me, but we are going to show you how to do literally everything you used to do. Just give it time. I promise you, there is no way for things to get but better from this point on."
"Right," Alex thought.
The doctor turned to Clark. "I'll get a nurse in here to change the dressings on his arm. Here's the scripts. Get them filled on your way home. And you have the number here at the hospital if you fellows need anything." The two men shook hands, and the doctor left.
"Let's get packed, buddy," Clark said.
Alex grunted. He had to admit that the prospect of escaping from the boredom of the hospital routine was appealing. Of course, there was the question of just what he was going to do at home, but at least it would be out of this place! "I've got jewelry and stuff in this drawer," he told Clark as he gestured toward the night table. The watch and class ring had been returned to him the day after the surgery. A nurse had dropped a plastic bag containing the items on the bedside table without comment. Even the watchband had come through without damage. Too bad human bodies are so much more frail, he though.
After what seemed like hours, the doctor returned with the discharge forms. Alex signed them, and the doctor hurried out the door.
"Ready?" Clark asked.
"Ready as I'm going to be," Alex answered.
He got up and started to carefully walk toward the door. The loss of the majority of the left arm had thrown him out of balance. It was almost like he was carrying something on his right side and he had to mentally make adjustments for the weight distribution. The guy in rehab had said it would go away shortly, and that once he got an artificial arm, he would easily go between with and without and never have to think about it. Well, that was fine. For right now, he still had to think about it, and it pissed him off!
Neither of the men said much in the car during the drive home. Alex was pleased when it was over. The sight of the rambling ranch-style home they had purchased together three years ago was comforting. The yellow stucco walls and cacti garden in the front yard made a bold statement that they were, indeed, part of the southern California culture.
Clark carried Alex's bag into the house and began unpacking it for him. Alex ambled over to the cherry wood sofa table in the foyer and shuffled through the mail that had accumulated for him. There was a rather thick packet there from his lawyer. He reached with his left hand to tear the flap open. He almost laughed bitterly to himself. It was gone. Never mind the fact that he could still feel it... could still feel like he could wiggle his fingers... it was gone!
"Clark?"
"Yeah, Sunshine," Clark answered coming out of the bedroom.
"You better get used to helping a cripple," Alex began, "I can't open this envelope. It's from Mark, and I want to see what he's got to say."
Clark opened the envelope and handed the contents to his lover. This was the part that was breaking his own heart: His pet name for Alex might no longer fit.
Alex read intently for nearly two minutes. Clark went into the kitchen to start lunch. He was smearing chicken salad on sandwiches when Alex leaned up against the refrigerator.
"Have you talked to Logan since the accident?" he asked.
"No. What does he say?"
"Well, the bastard was killed in the accident."
"I knew that. The cops told me when they took my statement."
Alex smiled crookedly. "Well, it seems that we've hit the jackpot, old buddy."
"Jackpot?"
"Seems our man here was an investment banker. With no family. Mark has filed a lawsuit against his estate for ten million dollars! And there's that and more in that estate. He says it's just a matter of time until we get it!"
Clark looked at the abbreviated arm.
Alex followed his gaze. He laughed bitterly. "I wonder what I could get for a leg?"
Clark crossed to Alex and put his arms around him. "God, I'm sorry, baby." He kissed the side of Alex's face. "I wish it had been me."
Alex slid his right hand between them and gently pushed Clark away. "Don't start that shit," he said flatly.
Clark looked at him. "What is it I can say to you, Alex? Ever since the wreck you've been pushing me away. I don't know what to do or say to you. I love you, and this is a nightmare!"
"Nightmare?" Alex said incredulously. "Nightmare? THIS is the fuckin' nightmare!" He stuck the bandaged stump forward. It slid further out of the short sleeve of the shirt. "This is what I've got to stand behind for the rest of my life! Save your sympathy and bullshit! I'm the one who's a freak now! You just get the fuck on with your life and go surfin' or something! Leave me the fuck alone!"
Alex was gone, followed by the slam of the bedroom door. Clark sat down at the table, his head resting in his right hand. The doctor had warned him that Alex would be this way for a time. He would simply have to remain supportive and wait.
Alex didn't come out of the bedroom until around six that evening. When the theme from The Golden Girls started, Clark heard the bedroom door open, and Alex came out and sat down next to him on the couch.
"Hungry?" he asked.
"Not really," Alex answered.
As they sat watching the rerun of the old sitcom, Alex reached over and took Clark's hand. Clark raised it to his lips, and gently kissed it. The separation on grief of the past days had been too much. He turned to Alex and gave him a deep, passionate kiss, which was eagerly returned. He slid off the couch and knelt between Alex's legs.
So much had happened. Alex leaned his head back as Clark lowered the zipper, and tugged at his shorts.

-Search-

Clark Gregor was still turning it over in his mind. He was still trying to decide how to break the news to Alex that he had to leave for a month. Civil Engineering took you where it took you, and his firm had landed a new dam down in Guatemala. The leg work down there would take at least a month. After that, he could come home and do the rest by remote control, with only occasional visits to the site to monitor the progress. Sy had been clear about it: Clark was the man he wanted on the ground.
Clark had never really told Sy that he was gay. It was one of those things that just had never come up. The company was not a close knit "family". It was a monarchy ruled by a petty despot. Sy spoke, others jumped. It was not a situation where Clark could go to his boss and say, "Damn, Sy! I'd love to go... but my partner lost an arm a month ago, and, well, I need to stay with him!"
So, here he was, trying to decide how to break the news to Alex.
In the three weeks since Alex had come home, life had been interesting. They had made love that first night, and Alex had snuggled against him, almost like a baby wanting to be held. Clark had been waking up in panics ever since the accident. It kept rolling over and over in his mind.
Most of what bothered him was the guilt. He had walked away with only scratches. He had even had the clarity of mind to try and free Alex from the wreck. But the car had taken the impact on Alex's side, and his left arm was pinned between the dash and the crushed top of the car. The rescue guys had arrived soon enough with those pincher things... "Jaws" they called them. When they had bent the roof up, Clark had been sickened by the mass of hamburger meat that was Alex's arm halfway down to his elbow. One of the paramedics had said to the other: "We better get him to the center stat so they can get that arm off and stabilize him." He had passed out shortly after that.
The doctor at the ER told him it was shock that had kept him going until he collapsed. When he first woke up, he didn't remember much at all. Just that he was aching all over. Then it all came back, almost in a flood. "How's Alex? Is he all right?" he'd asked.
A few minutes later, the doctor had come back in. "He's fine," he smiled. "The surgery went well. He's resting now."
"Surgery?"
"From the accident..." the doctor said, looking at him dumbly.
"What surgery?"
"I'm sorry. I thought you knew. Your friend was caught in the wreckage; the metal had crushed his left arm. They took him to surgery almost immediately to amputate it and control the bleeding."
"Amputate?" Clark had asked, incredulously. "They cut it off?"
"Yes, I'm afraid so," the young doctor had told him. "There was not much else they could do. He was that badly hurt."
Clark sat there in the ER dumbly, holding his own left hand up before his face, slowly flexing the fingers and rotating the hand. His mind was racing. Alex would never be able to do that again! He had no left hand. Nor forearm. He remembered the scene. His eyes stole up his own arm to the sleeve of his tee shirt. Yes, Alex would be lucky if the stump of his arm stuck out of a tee shirt. Dear God in heaven! What had happened? What were they going to do?
But Doctor Facas had been more than helpful. Alex's surgeon had told Clark what to expect when his partner regained consciousness. Clark had been there. It had not been pretty; in fact, it had been every bit as bad as the doctor had suggested that it might be. Ultimately, Facas had sedated his patient a bit and had begun to, bit by bit, give him information and encouragement. Over the days, the doctor had also worked with Clark, getting him ready for the nearby day when Alex would go home.
Now, at a month out, Alex's wound was well on its way to being healed. He no longer wore a bandage over it. In the place of the gauze, he now wore a flesh-colored sock; a "stump sock" the guy at therapy had called it. And wore it he did. Alex would never remove the thing! He had asked Dr. Facas about that at the last checkup, while they had taken Alex down for range of motion tests. The sawbones said it was normal... it was a layer of protection between Alex and the stares that he was receiving.
"Even from me?" Clark had asked.
"Especially from you," the doctor had answered. "Give him time. He'll adjust."
The big surprise had been last week, when Clark had come home to find Alex in the kitchen, cooking supper. The tricks they were showing him in rehab were paying off. He was, indeed, learning to make one hand do the work of two.
"Let me show you, Clark," he had beamed. He took a catsup bottle, and clamped it under the remains of his left arm. With this right hand, he twisted off the top. "See?" he laughed. "I told you in the hospital you'd be doing that for me from now on! Not so, me bucko!"
Yes, Alex could take care of himself physically. But Clark kept thinking of last night, when his baby had cuddled up in his arms and silently cried himself to sleep. Alex was still emotionally fragile, and Clark worried about leaving him. It was not as simple as taking him along on the trip! Alex had to remain for rehab and therapy! It was a catch-22!
He turned into their driveway and decided that, like all that had happened in the previous month, it was a matter of just facing facts and moving on!
Alex looked like Clark had punched him in the face. "For a goddam MONTH?" he had yelled.
"There's no way around it, Alex. Old man Crocker says, I do." He sat down at the kitchen table. "God, I wish I had my own firm!" He looked up. "But I don't. I have to go Alex. And I'll call you as often as I can get in from the camp! At least every few days!"
Alex threw the dish towel he was holding on the counter. "Fine." He said it flatly, with no emotion.
The three days that remained before his flight were spent in virtual silence. It was irrational for Alex to feel abandoned, but Clark understood. He had even called Facas to ask if there was anything else to be done. The doc had made a note of it, and said he'd pass it on to Alex's shrink. "Other than that," the doctor had concluded, "have a good trip and come home safely."
"What do you want as a souvenir from down south," Clark said, trying to be upbeat.
"Go to hell," Alex said casually, never looking up from the TV.
On the way out to the taxi, Clark wiped the tears from his eyes. It was going to be a long trip.

-Internet-

Alex picked up the remote control and turned the TV off. He sat in the chair, the tears welling up in his eyes. Dammit! He knew it was irrational, but he hated Clark for abandoning him! He knew his partner had no choice, but dammit, he felt so alone!
He got up, wandering aimlessly through the house, trying to find something for his mind to seize on. Absently, he turned on the computer, and brought up the Internet. "Talk about a black hole into which you can drop any conceivable number of hours," he thought. But perhaps that was what he needed at this point... something to soak up the hours.
On a lark, he typed "amputee" into the search engine. An array of pages advertising various prosthetic makers and fitters appeared, along with a few sites that had the word "devotee" in their descriptions.
Talk about mind blowing! Alex sat there clicking his way through the first site. It was amazing, a fair-sized collection of pictures of one-legged and one-armed girls and women! There was apparently someone out there who thought these chicks were hot! In fact, a lot of someones. There was a message board attached to the site that contained nearly a thousand posts! Most were what were tagged "sightings". Reports of girls missing limbs that the posters had observed.
Alex turned the computer off. He got up and walked the short distance to the bar and poured a scotch on the rocks. He had some processing to do. He put the drink down and idly pulled the stump sock off. He walked into the bathroom, turned on the make-up lights. Unbuttoning the shirt he was wearing, he dropped it on the vanity top. For the first time he really took a good look at what he'd been left with. It wasn't as bad as he had thought, aesthetically. The closure wound across the end of
the stump had healed very nicely. The doctor had commented on it when he had removed the bandages, and reported that he was not going to rebandage it. The scar was rapidly losing its angry red color, and was settling into a small pink line running from the outer to inner edges of the rounded end.
He chuckled a bit bitterly to himself. Maybe Clark was a devotee; perhaps that was why he though his partner was always staring at his stump. "I hate those stump socks," he thought. "If I didn't think people were looking at this thing all the time, I'd quit wearing them now!"
He looked at his torso in the mirror again. "I wonder if I could turn some devotee heads?" he mused. He spent a few minutes imitating some of the poses that the girls had given for their boyfriends to take the shots on the site. The last pose was so ridiculous he burst out in genuine laughter. He composed himself and struck the pose again: profile with his missing arm to the mirror, shoulder raised, pouting over it like some vamp!
The sting of not having Clark there was still with him the next day. He spent some time talking about it with his therapist, but there was still an issue there that he couldn't quite resolve. Riding home in the cab, he wondered if there was anything else to be gained from those Internet sites he had begun to explore. What was going on with this culture called devotees?
The search engine had returned something called an ICQ Chat number. He'd used ICQ for years. In fact, it was on ICQ that he had first come out as being gay! He brought the executive up, and entered the amputee chat number.
Alex was really surprised to find several people online. He just watched the chat go by for a few minutes. It was actually pretty dull stuff... the participants were actually taking baseball! As the hour drifted by, several more people joined the group.
One entrant posted, right off, "Any amps here?"
Alex had actually reached for the keyboard to type "yes", when a couple of other people on the list seemed to jump the new arrival, and chide him for being so crass. The poor fellow dropped off the channel in no time, and Alex screwed his courage up.
"Why did everyone jump that guy?" he typed.
Two responses came back almost together: "He was being a jerk," typed one.
"He was being rude to the amputees here," came the other.
"I didn't know that there were other amputees here," Alex typed.
For a moment there was nothing from the computer. Alex's eye actually flicked to the modem icon on the screen to make sure he was still connected.
Two private messages appeared: "Glad to meet you. I'm Al. LAK in Denver." The second was: "Where are you?"
He privated back to Al that he was a LAE. Then without thinking, he typed "I'm in San Jose" on the open channel.
A third private message hit his screen. It was not from anyone he had seen exchanging messages on the screen. It was another "lurker" like himself.
"So am I," it read.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"My name is Donald. What's yours?"
"I'm Alex."
"So you are an amp?" Don questioned.
"Yes. I lost my left arm above the elbow over a month ago. Are you an amputee?"
"No," was the response. There was a pause, then: "Would you like to meet for a drink?"
Alex had met his share of people over the 'net. He knew that some were flakes, but that was how he had ultimately met Clark. He made the snap decision. "Sure," he typed back. "Where?"
"What part of town?" Don asked.
"North," he answered.
Don suggested a chain-owned bar not far away, and asked how long it would take him to get there. "Just long enough to get a cab," Alex typed back.
Don answered, "See ya soon!"
Alex put his sport coat back on as the cab honked. With the left sleeve tucked into the pocket of the coat, one had to look a couple of times to notice the arm was missing. It was one of the first tricks they had taught him at rehab. He walked into the bar a few minutes later, and ordered a scotch on the rocks and sat down. The place was not crowded yet, since it was barely past six. About ten minutes later, he saw a well-dressed man in his early forties come in and scan the place like he was looking for someone.
Alex stood up and turned so he could see the sleeve tucked into the coat pocket. The man smiled, waved, and then walked toward the bar.
"Don," he said with a smile.
"Alex."
"Good to meet you, Alex!" He shook his hand. "Pleased we could meet!"
"Well, I was sure surprised to find someone in ICQ from right here in town!"
"You'd be surprised how it works out that way," Don said with a wave of his hand.
"So why'd you want to meet?" Alex asked.
"Oh, one can never have too many friends," Don said breezily. "I just like meeting people! Getting to know them!"
The small talk proceeded for a few minutes and finally, predictably, Don suggested that they go to his place to continue the conversation is quieter surroundings.
"I need to be up front with you about one thing, Don," Alex stated firmly. "I have a partner. I'm not interested in anything more than conversation."
"Fine, fine..." Don said gregariously.
The twenty minute drive brought them to a middle-range apartment complex nearer to the middle of town. Don opened the door and escorted his guest in. Don took Alex's coat at the door, and hung it in a hall closet.
As they walked into the den, Alex looked around and almost let out a low whistle. The room looked like it was torn from the pages of one of those adventure magazines... what was the big one? Argosy, or something like that? But here was the real thing. Don had elephant guns mounted on the wall, and several stuffed animal heads, the largest of which appeared to be a moose. "You hunt, I see," Alex finally managed to get out.
"I do a lot of things," Don said, handing his guest a drink.
"What do you do for a living?" Alex asked.
"Not much of anything," Don answered. He took s short swig of his drink. "I actually live in New York. I bought a lot of Mickey-soft stock when it was still $.75 a share. These days I pretty well do as I please!"
"That's great," Alex answered. He waited a moment, then thought it odd that Don had not asked him what he did for a living. Don plowed right on.
"So, how'd you lose it, if I may ask?" he said nonchalantly, gesturing at Alex's tucked up sleeve.
Alex reddened a bit, but shook it off. "Car accident... a month and a half ago."
"Ah, so you'd still be healing," Don said with interest.
"Yeah. It's pretty much healed now, but it's still a little sore."
"That'll pass... that'll pass," Don assured him.
"Yeah, well..." Alex started, with some discomfort.
"Got an arm yet?" Don followed.
"A what?"
"An artificial arm. A prosthesis."
"Um, no..." Alex said slowly, "they want me to wait a couple of more weeks." This guy was sure being personal, and Alex was feeling more and more like this had been a major mistake.
"Fine, fine," Don gushed. He sat down next to the man on the sofa. Alex involuntarily moved away a bit.
"So, how do you know this much about amputees?" Alex asked.
Don smiled. "I'm something of an expert. They call me 'the devotee's devotee'! I have the largest collection of male amputee pictures on the net. I've taken a large part of those that are out there myself!"
"You do what?"
"Photography is one of my hobbies. I've taken a lot of the pictures that you see on the male devotee sites out on the Internet!"
Alex stood up. "Well, all of this is very interesting, but I don't think I need to take up any more of your time, Don. If I could just use your phone to call a cab, I won't bother you any more."
Don looked at him open-faced. "Something wrong, Alex? I mean, I don't ask the boys to pose for me for free. I've got money. I can pay. Or would you prefer drugs? Women? Men? The money is no real object. I told you, I'm quite wealthy!"
"This is all a big misunderstanding," Alex said. He saw the phone on the desk at the side of the room and walked to it. It may have been the booze, or it might have been his balance still giving him problems, but he almost stumbled. He made it, and dialed the cab number. "What's the address here?" he demanded.
"There's really no reason for you to call a cab," Don said soothingly. "Where do you live? I can drive you home!"
"No thanks!" Alex returned. There was no way in hell he was going to tell this psychotic son-of-a-bitch where he lived! "I asked for the address!"
"1700 Belmore. Apartment 6. But I'll still be happy to take you home."
"About five minutes," said the tired voice of the dispatcher after Alex had repeated the address and added, "and tell him to step on it!"
Don had never stopped smiling. "Alex, you're just having a bit of trouble absorbing all of this. Before you go, at least let me have a look at your treasure." A bit of saliva was forming at one side of his mouth.
Alex said nothing, but turned and walked toward the door. He calmly opened the door to the closet and retrieved his jacket. He would need the money in the wallet in the breast pocket. Don was prattling on about how much would it take, or some such. Alex had a peculiar mix of fright and anger in his mind; he was not listening to a word the man had been saying.
Finally, he was in the parking lot. Don had followed him, waving a stack of greenbacks in his hand like some crazy man. The cab arrived and Alex simply told the cabbie "Drive off. I'll tell you where later!" He had escaped.
He arrived home and collapsed on the bed, crying. He didn't even undress before he drifted off to sleep.
It was after midnight when he finally did awaken. He fired up his computer, intent on removing the links to those sites he had marked. Before he could get at it, he noticed the email icon in the right hand corner of the screen. He clicked it. It was a note from Al, the LAK who had first chatted with him earlier in the afternoon.
"Dear Alex," it began. "I wish you hadn't dropped off ICQ so quickly this afternoon. I checked to see who all was on the channel and was alarmed that Don143 was in the list. He'll probably try to contact you at some point in time. I think he is in San Jose, at least part of the time."
"This guy is not a devotee," he continued, "he's a pervert. He's tried to get hold of several of the guys in ICQ over the years. He'll tell you all sorts of lies: like he's a photographer, and a rich man, and other things. He's none of them. How do I know? I was in SJ two years ago. He wanted to meet, and I agreed. I almost got raped. Stay away from him. If you need to talk, email me. -Al"
Alex noted that Al had also included his phone number. The guy seemed sincere. He decided to call.
A sleepy voice answered, "Hello?"
"Is Al there?" Alex asked.
"You got him. Who's this?" he returned.
"Alex. From ICQ this afternoon."
The voice on the other end seemed to awaken more fully. "Alex. Good to talk to you. How are you?"
"Scared."
"Why?"
"I didn't get your note about this Don guy until after I got back from meeting him!"
"Dear God.... Are you all right?"
"Yeah. He got freaky the moment we got to his place. Scared the shit out of me. I hauled ass out."
"You did the right thing. He's a nut."
"God! Are ALL of these people crazy, Al?"
Al chuckled dryly. "I guess they are all crazy in that they think we're hot, the devs," he said. "But they are not all crazy like that son-of-a-bitch is."
It took over an hour for Al to explain the devotee culture to Alex. It was a convoluted conversation, but as it wound down, somehow, Alex began to understand.
"They ARE nuts, Alex," he finished. "They are nuts ABOUT US!"
"It's a wild idea," Alex agreed.
"One footnote," Al added. "Since I lost my leg, I found out something else."
"What's that?"
"My lover. He never said a word about it for the ten years we had been together before I lost it. As it turns out, he'd always had the attraction! And for over a year he was too ashamed to tell me. He felt so guilty about it. You might check your partner out. He may need some help there, too."
"Clark. Naw... I don't think..."
"Check him out. Even if he doesn't have any dev in him, the fact that you can talk about it'll make you closer."
"That makes sense," Alex agreed. "I do catch him looking at my stump a lot, but I think it's just because it makes me a freak."
"You never know until you ask," Al said slyly.
"I'll check him out," Alex laughed.
"You call me if there's anything I can do for you, guy," Al said.
"Thanks, Al. Good night."

-Surprise-

Clark stepped out of the covered boarding ramp and fumbled in his pocket, looking for the claim check for his bags. He became aware of a man standing in front of him, and his eyes cut to the face, ready to get out of the way.
"Welcome home!" Alex smiled.
Clark hugged him tight. "What're you doing here?"
"I came to pick you up, doofus!" he said with a huge smile.
Clark noted the addition of a plastic artificial arm with a shiny hook at the end. He nodded to the appliance. "I thought you were going to get one of those myoelectric jobs," he said.
"All things in time, buddy," Alex returned. "I have to learn to use this kind first. But the guys at the center were right... I may get an electric one, but I'll never give this up completely. It's light, and it works a lot better than just Mr. Stumpy alone!" He saw the claim tickets in Clark's hand. He raised the hook, opened the split in it, and took them. "Here," he said, "let's go get your bags."
Clark was amazed by the change in his friend. The angry, petulant child he had left was now the lively man he had remembered. But all of this in just a month? What was he on?
The two talked excitedly all the way home. Clark told about his adventures in the jungles, and Alex told of a whole new culture to which he had received a dramatic introduction. He didn't tell the darker side. That would be pillow talk for a night yet to come. Clark seemed more than just a bit surprised as he listened.
Alex even carried one of Clark's bags in. They both dropped their burdens at the foot of the bed. Clark began to open the buttons of his shirt. Alex reached up with both hook and hand. "Let me do this," he said. "They tell me at the center that I need the practice!"
Clark smiled back and nodded. He began to work on the buttons of Alex's shirt. Soon, both had shed their street clothes. Clark noted that Alex's artificial arm was held on by a harness-like set of straps. It amazed him when Alex removed it with a single over-the-head movement. He reached for the tail of his tee shirt and pulled it over his head, tossing it on the floor.
"Now," said Alex, "something just for you!"
He struck a profile before Clark. Then, he turned his head toward his lover, and raised his shoulder so he could look over it with a smoldering expression. Clark laughed softly. Alex blew him a kiss, and slowly, like a stripper, pulled the stump sock from his shoulder.
Clark stopped laughing. But his smile could have lit the entire house.

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