Closer by: Shadowscast

"I'm going to die," I said, and slammed the book shut.

"Don't be so dramatic, Eric," Donna said to me, rolling her eyes and smirking just a bit. "It's just one test."

It was a Wednesday evening, and all my friends were hanging out in my basement as usual. Donna was sprawled on the couch, her feet resting casually against Jackie's leg; Jackie was snuggled against Kelso, looking pretty pleased that unlike the rest of us she didn't have a trigonometry test tomorrow. Hyde was off to the side in a chair, doing his silently-judging-you-all Zen thing. Fez was on the floor with me, pouring over his notes from class. I'd been trying to study, but I'd just now come to the terrifying realization that there was no way, no way in hell that I was going to memorize all this crap before tomorrow morning, let alone figure out how to do the proofs.

"No, really, I'm going to die," I insisted. "First, I'll flunk the test. Then Mrs. Hannigan will call my parents. Then, Red'll kill me."

"Have no fear, my friend, there is still time to learn," Fez said. "Look, sine is one over cosecant, so this cancels and...no, wait, that does not work...."

I moaned.

Hyde decided to speak some words of wisdom. "If you don't want to take the test, don't go to class, man."

"Yeah, right. Then I still get killed, when Mrs. Hannigan tells my parents I've been cutting class. She always calls home, remember?" I moaned again, and put my head down on my hands. "I feel sick."

"Dude!" Kelso exclaimed. "If you're sick, your mom'll make you stay home."

"But I'm not actually sick-" I started to point out him, and then I noticed everyone staring at me and waiting for me to get it. "Oh, right!" I grinned, and felt a tidal wave of relief wash over me. "I'll fake sick!"

Donna frowned a bit. "Your mom's a nurse. She'll be hard to fool."

"Nah, don't worry," Jackie said, flipping her hair back. "Just say you've got a stomachache. If she doesn't believe you, you can always lock yourself in the bathroom and stick your fingers down your throat so you throw up." Uh, that was a little graphic. We all stared at her. "What?!" she exclaimed, looking around. "I read about it in a magazine."

It was a simple plan, and it was a good plan - minus the throwing up, of course, except as a desperate last resort. It had to work.

***

The next morning:

I fiddled with my spoon, making patterns in my oatmeal and not eating any. I figured my best bet was to slouch in my chair, acting kind of sick, but not to say anything until Mom brought it up. If she thought she'd figured out for herself that I was sick, she'd believe it easily - at least that was the plan. Of course, first she had to notice that I wasn't eating anything. Right now she was running around the kitchen, packing lunches and getting things set for making supper tonight.

Finally she looked over at me and Hyde. "Oh, you boys are such slowpokes this morning! Better hurry up and finish your breakfast or you'll be late!" She came over to the table and looked down over our shoulders. "You two have hardly touched your food! Is there something wrong with the oatmeal? I didn't put in too much sugar again, did I?"

"No, it's fine, Mrs. Forman," Hyde spoke up before I could. "I'm just not very hungry this morning."

"Uh, me too," I said quickly, shooting a quick glare at Hyde. I hadn't noticed, but he was doing the same thing I was, playing with his breakfast instead of eating it.

Mom frowned. "Two growing boys, not hungry? You aren't getting sick, are you?"

Hyde just shrugged.

"Actually, I'm not feeling too good," I said, trying to sound like I was admitting it reluctantly. I considered saying 'But I don't want to miss school' - but that might be laying it on too thick, even for Mom.

"Oh, dear," Mom said. She pressed her hand to my forehead. "You don't seem to have a fever..." Then she put her hand on Hyde's forehead; he flinched away a bit, like he hadn't been expecting it. "Oh, dear, you do feel a little hot," she said to him. "Just let me run and get a thermometer."

As soon as Mom was out of earshot, I kicked Hyde under the table. "What are you doing?" I hissed at him. "You don't even care about the math test." I was afraid that with both of us acting sick, Mom would get suspicious.

"Fuck off," Hyde muttered, and Mom came back in. I tried to concentrate on looking sickly while she put the thermometer in Hyde's mouth and told him to hold it under his tongue for three minutes. Hyde sat back in his chair with his arms crossed and the thermometer sticking out of his mouth, sniffling a bit, looking kind of annoyed. I bet Edna never did that to him.

I had to step up my symptoms a bit. "Mom, I feel kind of nauseous," I said. "I'd like to go lie down...."

She fluttered her hands. "Oh, dear. Why don't you go back up to your bed. I'll come check on you in a minute."

I felt a slight pang of guilt for making Mom worry, but I ignored it. I went upstairs, moving a bit slower than usual. Then I lay on top of my bed, still wearing my clothes, and waited.

It wasn't long before Mom came in. "Oh, honey," she said, sitting on the side of my bed and ruffling my hair, "I think you'd better stay home today. Steven's running a bit of a temperature, so I told him to stay home, too."

"OK," I said, keeping my voice carefully neutral. Success!

"I wish I could stay and look after you, but I know there's no one who can take over my shift at the hospital today," Mom went on. "Can you boys look after each other?"

"OK, Mom." I tried to sound brave.

"I'll call home and check on you when I can," she promised, and looked at her watch. "Oh dear, I'm going to be late."

I stayed in bed until I was sure she was out of the house. Then I went downstairs. Hyde was lying on the couch, watching TV.

Even though we'd gotten away with it, I was still kind of pissed at him. "Hey! What were you doing stealing my plan?" I said, dumping myself onto the couch at his feet. He was watching Sesame Street. That would make a good story to tell to the gang, except no one would ever believe me.

"I didn't steal anything," Hyde said. "-this time," he added with a slight smirk.

"OK, so it worked and now we both have the day off," I admitted. "But I thought you were going to get us caught! How the hell did you fake her out with the thermometer, anyway?"

Hyde sighed. "I didn't fake anything, you idiot. I feel like crap." And he sneezed.

"Huh? You mean you're actually sick?"

"I guess so," he said, sounding annoyed. "Now will you leave me alone? Grover has something to teach me about love."

"Oh." Now I felt like a dumbass. "Uh, do you want anything? Like, uh, juice or something?"

"I know where the juice is, Forman. Go away and study for the damn test," Hyde said. "You'll have to take it as soon as you get back."

I slunk back upstairs, and opened up my books.

The phone rang around ten thirty. I picked it up in Mom and Dad's room. "Hello?"

"Hi, sweetie," Mom said. "How are you doing? I hope I didn't wake you up."

"No, it's OK, I'm feeling a bit better. I was reading," I said.

"And how's Steven?"

"He's asleep on the couch," I said. For all I knew he'd gone out to buy drugs, but I knew what Mom needed to hear.

"That's good," Mom said, sounding relieved. "You both get lots of rest, now. I'll call again this afternoon."

After I hung up, I went down to see if Hyde was still there. It turned out I hadn't lied to Mom - he'd fallen asleep with the TV on. I turned it off, picturing Red complaining about the power bill. I grabbed a snack, and went back upstairs to my math book.

By the time my stomach's growling let me know it was lunch time, I thought I understood trigonometry. It really wasn't so bad, once you'd spent a few quiet hours slaving over it. I stood up, rubbing my neck, and went downstairs to get some food.

Hyde was still lying on the couch, and the TV was still off. He mumbled something when I walked by.

"Hey, I'm getting some lunch," I said to him. "Want anything?"

He mumbled something else; I could only make out part of it. "...fuck...don't want to suck it...please stop...hurts."

I realized he was talking in his sleep, and man, I didn't want to know what that dream was about. "Hyde, man!" I said, shaking his shoulder. "Wake up!"

"Huh?" He opened his eyes. "Nothing happened, Edna, Stu was just showing me the sleeper cab."

"Stop messing around, Hyde, that's just twisted," I said, suddenly a bit nervous. Edna? No way he thought I was his mother.

"...think I'm on a bad trip, man," Hyde moaned, closing his eyes again.

"What did you take?" I shook his shoulder again.

"Nothing," he said, "Get off me. Tell Edna she can get her own damn groceries."

"Edna's not here," I said, stupidly. It'd been months since she walked out on him. What the hell was going on here? "Wake up! Stop messing with me!" I shook him again, and he opened his eyes again, but he didn't seem to focus on me. I noticed that he looked pretty flushed. "Hyde?" I put my hand on his forehead, like Mom did this morning. He felt hot. "OK, man, if you're trying to screw with my head you'd better stop right now, because you're scaring me and I'm going to call Mom."

Hyde just closed his eyes again, mumbling something that sounded like "fuck off."

I went into the kitchen and dialed Mom's number at the hospital. Another nurse answered. While I waited for Mom to come to the phone, I twisted the cord through my fingers and tried to figure out what I was going to say to her.

"Sweetie," Mom came on the line, "What's wrong? Are you all right?"

"I'm, uh, I'm feeling lots better, Mom," I said. "But Hyde - he's talking in his sleep and I can't get him to wake up. And he feels kind of hot."

"Oh dear," Mom said, but she didn't sound panicked. Just concerned. That made me feel better. "Why don't you see if you can take his temperature? The thermometer's still on the kitchen counter. Call me back when you're done."

OK, that made sense to me. I found the thermometer and went out into the living room again. Hyde looked like he was properly asleep again. I felt awkward, but I went over to him and shook him awake again. "Mom wants me to take your temperature," I said. I hoped he'd take it himself, but he didn't open his eyes. I sighed, and nudged the bulb of the thermometer through his lips. At least he didn't resist. Under the tongue, Mom had said, for three minutes. I got it into what seemed like the right position, and let go. The thermometer drooped; I caught it before it fell. "Help me out here?" I pleaded. He mumbled something. I put it in again and held it, this time, resting my hand against his face. His cheek was rough and hot. God, I hoped no one ever found out I did this.

At three minutes, I took the thermometer out and looked at where the red line reached, then went back to the kitchen to call Mom.

This time, she answered the phone.

"Hi, Mom," I said. "It looks like it's between 105 and 106. Uh, that's high, right?"

"Oh my God," she said. "Eric, sweetie, I'm going to get an ambulance to come to the house, right now. You see if you can find Steven's wallet - find his ID. If you don't find it before the ambulance comes, don't worry about it, just go along with Steven in the ambulance, all right? I'll meet you in the emergency room."

She hung up. I stood there, staring at the phone. Then the phone started beeping, snapping me out of my state of shock. I hung it up and ran downstairs. I started frantically searching through Hyde's space, trying to find his wallet. I still hadn't found it when I heard the siren. I ran back upstairs in time to open the door for the paramedics.

They came through the door carrying a stretcher. "Is this the patient?" one of them said, looking at Hyde.

"Yes," I said, and they brought the stretcher over to beside the couch.

"What's his name?" said the other paramedic.

"Hy-uh, Steven," I said.

"Steven, can you hear me?" said the first paramedic, crouching down close to Hyde. "We need to get you onto a stretcher. Can you help us?" He waited a moment, Hyde sort of shook his head from side to side and said something I couldn't hear. "We'll have to lift him," the paramedic said.

I stood there, watching, feeling like the whole thing was unreal. The paramedics looked like firemen to me, big and burly in their uniforms. One of them took Hyde by the shoulders, and the other one took his legs, and they lifted him onto the stretcher and strapped him in.

"Are you coming with us?" one of the paramedics said to me. I nodded, and followed them out the door.

I'd never been in the back of an ambulance before. It was a cramped place; one of the paramedics went in the front to drive, and the other one stayed in the back with me and Hyde. He took out a clipboard and started asking me questions.

"What's his full name? Age? Address?" He paused long enough each time for me to stammer out an answer. I told them my parents were his legal guardians, even though I wasn't sure that was true. It hadn't come up before.

In between questions, I watched Hyde. I couldn't believe this. He'd been fine this morning. Now he was strapped in a stretcher in the back of an ambulance, moaning softly when we went over bumps.

Suddenly Hyde started shaking. Not just a little, not like shivering, but violently, like he was desperately trying to get out of the straps that held him down.

I thought I heard the paramedic swear under his breath. "He's seizing!" he called out to the driver. He pinned Hyde's arms down, but Hyde was still shaking hard enough to rattle the stretcher in its mount.

I felt like I couldn't breathe, watching. "What's happening to him?" I managed to choke out.

"It's probably the high fever causing convulsions," the paramedic said, sounding a hell of a lot calmer than I thought he should be. "Has Steven taken any drugs in the past 24 hours?"

"No sir," I squeaked.

The paramedic turned his head half around and gave me a wry look. Meanwhile he was still pinning down my best friend, who was still convulsing wildly. "I'm not the police, kid," the paramedic said, "I just need to know what we're dealing with here. Let me put it this way: your friend's clothes smell like pot. Now, has Steven taken any drugs in the past 24 hours?"

"Uh...he might have smoked part of a joint last night," I admitted.

"Anything else? Alcohol? Acid, PCP, angel dust, quaaludes?"

"No sir!" At least I didn't think so.

I felt the ambulance slowing down, then coming to a stop. Hyde was still shaking; it had been at least a minute since the seizure started. The paramedic flung the doors open, and the driver came around and helped the first guy get the stretcher out. They folded out wheels from its bottom and rushed towards the ER's entrance. I followed, almost dizzy with fear.

The hospital was normally a familiar, neutral place for me. It was a place I came to pick up my mother when she needed a ride home from work. Today it was like an alien landscape - the colors were jarring and the shapes were wrong and I didn't recognize anyone's face, and Hyde was being wheeled away from me down a corridor, and one of the paramedics was taking my arm and leading me to the reception desk.

The receptionist wanted me to fill out another form. I had to leave half the spaces blank. I didn't know Hyde's social security number. I couldn't remember his birthday. I didn't know whether to put "Edna Hyde" or "Kitty Forman" on the line where it said "Mother's name."

Then suddenly, someone was hugging me. It took me a moment to realize it was Mom.

"Are you all right, sweetie?" she asked me.

I couldn't even process the question. "Do you know where they took Hyde?"

"They're bringing his fever down," she said. "He stopped seizing. That's all I know - I came straight here to find you. Are you still feeling at all sick, honey?" She put her hand on my forehead, her eyes full of concern.

"I'm really fine, Mom." I knew I had to tell her the truth now; any trouble I might get into didn't seem important next to what was happening to Hyde. "I never was sick. I was faking to get out of a math test."

"Oh." Mom's eyes widened slightly, and she drew away from me. Then she laughed nervously. "Well, it's a good thing you did, isn't it? Otherwise Steven would have been home alone."

An announcement crackled over the PA speaker: "Nurse Forman, please report to the second floor. Repeat, Nurse Forman, please report to the second floor."

Mom smoothed the skirt of her crisp white dress with quick, desperate motions. "I'm sorry, honey, I really have to go, the ward was understaffed to start with today."

"Mom, you can't leave me here alone!" My voice cracked. "I need you!" I didn't know what I needed her for, but it seemed like as long as she was near me, nothing really bad could happen.

Mom wrung her hands, and looked torn, but said "There's nothing I can do down here, sweetie, and there are a lot of very ill people in my ward who need my help right now. You'd better call your father."

Mom left, and I tried to call Red. The store's phone was busy. I tried about ten times, feeding the same dime back into the slot over and over again. It was surprisingly comforting - I felt like I was actually doing something useful. Then a sad-looking old woman tapped me on the shoulder and asked if she could use the phone.

There were chairs in the waiting area, and magazines. I didn't feel like reading, but looking around at the frightened faces of the other people in the waiting room made my stomach hurt for real, so I picked up a 1972 issue of Reader's Digest and started slowly flipping through the pages.

I'd flipped through the entire magazine three times when a doctor in a white lab coat came into the waiting room and said "Eric Forman?"

I followed the doctor into an empty consulting room. He looked about my dad's age, but he was bit shorter and fatter. "I'm Dr. Brown," he greeted me. "Do you know if your vaccinations are up to date, son?"

The question took me off guard, but I knew the answer. "Yessir, I got my booster shot at school two years ago along with everyone else."

The doctor frowned, and glanced at the clipboard he was holding. "Steven is a school friend of yours, correct? Did he receive the vaccination then, too?"

"Well, yeah-" I started to say, but then I remembered: Hyde had cut class that day, so he hadn't been around for the needles. I remembered it because when we all hung out together afterwards, Kelso started punching everyone in the arm where they got their shots because he thought it was funny the way we yelped. It didn't work on Hyde, 'cause he hadn't got the shot. "No. Actually he didn't. Does that have something to do with this?"

Dr. Brown nodded, and adjusted his glasses. "Steven has the measles. I'd appreciate it if you could take a moment to think of everywhere he's been in the past week; the public health nurse may need to arrange some vaccinations."

Measles? I was confused; I hadn't thought they were very serious, unless you were a baby or a sick old person. "Where is he? Is he OK now?"

Meanwhile, Dr. Brown was tilting his head and looking at me. "Good Lord, you're Kitty Forman's boy, aren't you?"

"Uh, yessir."

He chuckled. "I remember you having a temper tantrum at the staff Christmas party when you were, oh, three or four. I was playing Santa Claus, and you didn't want to sit on my lap to have your picture taken. I don't suppose you'd remember me."

I wanted to scream - I didn't care whether Dr. Brown was Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, I wanted to know how Hyde was! "No sir," I said in a tight voice.

"Your friend is resting in Exam Room C right now, while we decide whether to discharge him or move him up into a ward. We're just monitoring him right now to see whether his fever peaks again. Since you've had your vaccinations, there's no reason you can't go in and sit with him. Just don't forget to make that list for me," and he tore a blank sheet of paper off his clipboard, and handed it to me along with a pencil. "You know the way, don't you?"

"No sir," I said, so he took me out into the hallway and pointed.

Hyde was awake. He turned his head when I walked in the door. "Hey, Forman."

"Hey." I pulled up a chair. "How are you feeling?"

"Like I'm coming off a bad acid trip."

"OK, are you just saying that, or do you have actual experience?" I asked. I was kind of just talking through my nervousness, but I was curious, too.

He smiled mysteriously. "Experience, brother."

"Why don't I know about this?"

"You weren't there." He closed his eyes and coughed. "I'm tired."

"You might as well sleep," I said. "It'll probably take them a while to figure out what to do with you."

"Can you turn the damn light off? It's hurting my eyes," he said.

"Your eyes are closed."

"It goes right through my eyelids, man."

I stood up and found the light switch. There were no outside windows in the room, so when I flipped off the light it got pretty dark - though there was still enough light for me to see by, coming in from the hall.

Hyde didn't say anything else. I guessed he'd gone to sleep. He was hooked up to some kind of monitor, and it was making those nice, regular beeping noises, so I figured everything was OK. I settled back into my chair.

They'd made Hyde change into a pale hospital gown at some point; his clothes were folded up on the counter at the side of the room. I figured he'd probably be pissed off about that if he had the energy.

I made up the list for Dr. Brown, and then I sat there and watched Hyde sleep for a while. There was really nothing else to do. My eyes adjusted to the dim light. I watched his chest rise and fall. I realized after a while that four of my breaths matched three of his.

I felt...protective. It was sort of strange. Hyde had always been my protector, from when I first hired him to save me from bullies in kindergarten. Of course that hadn't really been an issue in the last few years - especially once the worst of the bullies became my other best friend - but the feeling was still there somehow, underneath all the layers of hanging out and doing shit and picking on each other. But today I might have saved his life.

I checked my watch. It was weird to see it was just past three in the afternoon - the rest of the gang would be getting out of school soon. Sitting here in the dark watching Hyde sleep, it felt like the middle of the night.

I decided to go through his jeans pockets - partly because I was bored, but I justified it by thinking I'd better see if there was anything in there he wouldn't want Mom or an orderly to find.

His wallet was in there. That's why I hadn't been able to find it. I flipped it open, curious. There was a picture in just one of the pockets - one of me and him and Donna when we were about nine or ten. We were all standing in my driveway, grinning and squinting into the sun. It was kind of funny and sweet - I wondered if my mom had given it to him.

Also in the wallet, besides his school ID card, library card, and social security card, there was a plastic baggie with enough weed in it to roll about half a small joint. Leftovers, I guess. Feeling a bit more justified about my snooping, I quickly stuffed the baggie into my pocket.

There was something heavy in the other pocket, too. It felt like a pocketknife. I took it out and looked at it. I couldn't remember ever seeing it before - I remembered lots of times when we needed a knife for some reason, and Hyde always said he didn't have one. I usually had my old folding Scout knife with me, so no problem. This was a bit heavier than my knife, and the black handle felt like polished wood. There were a couple flat silver knobs on the side - one to push, and one to slide. I pushed the top one, and nothing happened. I slid the other one along to the other end of its track, then pushed the first one again. The blade leapt out with a quiet snick, and I nearly dropped the knife.

It was a switchblade. Fuck. I'd never actually seen one before. I stared at it for a few seconds, mesmerized, then I realized that I was standing in full view of a half-open door. I nearly cut myself in my hurry to close the knife again. I put the safety catch back on, and stuffed it in my pocket along with the pot.

Great. So now I was hiding Hyde's drugs and his switchblade in my pants. I was convinced that they were safer there than in jeans he wasn't wearing, but it made me a bit nervous. Especially the knife. Where the hell did it come from? Why was he carrying it - and how long had he had it with him?

"Hi, honey!" Mom called out behind me. I literally jumped. "Sorry, didn't mean to scare you," she whispered. "Is Steven asleep?"

"Yeah." It looked like she hadn't woken him up. "Here, I found his wallet in his pants. It's got ID and stuff." I handed it over to her - at least now I knew it was clean. And from the way Mom was acting, she hadn't seen me with the knife.

"The doctor's going to discharge him," Mom said to me, taking the wallet. "I got hold of your father at work. He's getting off early and coming right over with the car. As soon as he gets here you can leave."

"OK Mom. Thanks." I hugged her, and she left again.

While I waited for Red I watched Hyde breathe. I thought about the happy-kids photo, and the switchblade, and I wondered when he'd done acid. I wondered what else I didn't know.

***

As soon as we got home from the hospital, I moved Hyde's cot upstairs to my room - Mom had left orders with Red that under no circumstances were we to leave "that poor, sick boy" in the basement. Then Red helped Hyde up the stairs. It was strange to watch; Hyde obviously didn't want help, and Red's usually not so great at giving it, but I could see that Red was supporting a lot of Hyde's weight. I followed behind, playing spotter and feeling kind of useless - me and my skinny arms, don't think I could help Hyde up the stairs. When Hyde lay down on the cot next to my bed, his face was white.

"How about you all leave me alone now?" he said, so we did.

"Your mother told me how you skipped school today," Red said when we got downstairs. "You're grounded for two days."

I stared at him. "Dad, if I hadn't skipped, Hyde would've been screwed."

"Well, you didn't know that when you decided to skip, did you?" He slapped me on the back cheerfully and went to turn on the TV.

Feeling weird and miserable, coming off my three-hour adrenaline rush, I went down to the basement because there was nowhere else to go.

Barely a minute later, the rest of the gang piled through the door.

"That math test was brutal," Donna exclaimed, the first one in. "I wish I'd followed your and Hyde's example."

"Can they send me back to my home country for being too stupid to be in America?" Fez moaned.

"Don't worry, Fez," Kelso said brightly. "There's no such thing as too stupid to be in America."

"Yeah, well, I had a great day," Jackie said. "Mr. Pritchard said I was cute!"

They didn't know.

"You guys!" I shouted, "Wait! Have you all had all your measles vaccinations?"

"What?" Jackie said.

"Hyde has the measles," I told them, so glad to finally have my friends here to talk through my day with. I'd never felt as alone as I had in that emergency room. "He's probably been contagious for three or four days."

"Jesus, you mean he actually got sick on the day you were faking it?" Donna laughed. "That's hilarious."

I glared at her. "I'm serious, have you all had your shots?"

"Sure, they do all the tenth graders every year at school," Donna said.

"Except Hyde skipped out," I reminded her.

"Oh God, yeah! I bet he regrets that now." Donna still looked more amused than worried, and I was starting to get pissed off.

"I never got vaccinated," Fez said.

"Oh no!" I stood up. "You have to talk to my mom, if you get a shot right away you'll probably be OK."

"No, no," Fez grinned, "I had the measles already. When I was five. My mother made me a teddy bear out of old rags to make me feel better. God, I loved that bear." He broke off with a dreamy expression.

"Hey, can we go see him?" Kelso asked. "Is he all covered in spots? Can I get a picture?"

"What the hell is wrong with you!?" I shouted at Kelso. "He's sick, he's not a freak show!"

"Chill out, neighbor-boy," Donna said, sounding bemused. She patted the spot on the couch beside her. "It's just the measles. We can make him a teddy bear out of rags and he'll be fine."

"OK, you weren't there." I didn't sit down; I turned on all of them in self-righteous wrath. "You weren't there when he was delirious. He didn't recognize me, he called me Edna!" Kelso snickered, but I had momentum. "You weren't there when I took his temperature and told it to Mom and she said 'Oh my God I'm calling an ambulance'! You weren't there when he had a fucking SEIZURE in the AMBULANCE!"

I realized I was crying, and Donna wasn't sitting on the couch smirking at me anymore, she was hugging me and rocking me a bit side to side and whispering "I'm sorry, I didn't know."

"He kept shaking and shaking," I went on, quieter, talking into Donna's shoulder. "I thought he was going to die. And they all kept asking me questions and I couldn't even remember his birthday, and I've been to every birthday party he's had since he was six."

"Yeah, and most of them were here, weren't they?" Donna said, and that finally got me to smile a bit. "Sit with me," she went on, and pulled me down onto the couch. "It's OK to cry. You're really scared, aren't you? Where's Hyde now?"

"Sleeping in my room," I said, wiping my nose with my hand. "I think he's OK now. We're supposed to take his temperature every three hours, though."

I looked at Kelso, Fez and Jackie, who were all looking guilty and worried now. "If any of you ever tells Hyde I cried over him," I said, "I'll kill you."

Fez gave a quick nod. "Understood."

The evening was pretty subdued after that. I told the others about going through Hyde's wallet and finding the pot, but I didn't tell them about the switchblade. Everyone went home earlier than usual.

When I went to bed, Hyde was awake because Mom had just taken his temperature.

"How are you?" I asked.

"102. Just fine, man," he said. "I think your mother kind of gets off on this nursing thing. You don't give her enough chances to take care of you these days."

"Shut the hell up," I said automatically. "Uh, I emptied your pockets for you at the hospital before someone else could." I waited; he didn't react, so I went on. "I put the weed under the loose floorboard. Where do you want me to put the knife?"

"Just give it back to me, Forman," Hyde said. "And you never saw it."

"Bullshit. Where are you going to put it now?" I walked over to my dresser. "I'm putting it in the bottom of my underwear drawer." I wanted to ask him what the hell he was doing with the thing in the first place, but he started coughing and I decided this wasn't the best time.

I lay awake for a while, listening to the cot creak as he shifted around. Listening to him cough. Suddenly I realized I was being a jerk.

"Hey, Hyde," I said. I knew he was awake. "Why don't you sleep in my bed? It's more comfortable. I'll take the cot."

He laughed. "The cot sucks, man. I wouldn't make you sleep on it."

"Look, you're sick. You should have the bed," I insisted.

"Your bed's wide enough for both of us."

I felt the mattress shift as Hyde climbed up onto my bed. I shifted to one side to make room for him, but I said "Mom's going to be coming in at 3 am to take your temperature. You want her to catch us in bed together?" I laughed nervously.

"Tell her you'll set an alarm and I'll take it myself."

"She'll come in anyway to check on you. She is a nurse, you know."

"Can you keep a secret, Forman?"

He was lying alongside me now. I could feel the heat radiating off his body.

"You know I can."

"I have nightmares when I'm sick."

I waited for more, but that's all he was saying. "I think everyone does," I said softly. "They're called fever dreams." And then I remembered Hyde talking in his sleep, or his delirium or whatever, in the afternoon - the confusing, disjointed words, and Stu and his sleeper cab. And I felt a dark suspicion that I wasn't even ready to give voice to inside my head, but which lurked at the edges. "Why were you carrying an illegal weapon?" I asked, to kill the other line of thought.

"It's just a fucking knife." Hyde stopped to cough. "Some guys said they were going to cut me, and I thought I'd better get ready. Don't worry, I won't get you involved."

"What?!" Surprisingly, my own skin was not my main concern here. I was really getting into this new protective role. "Jesus, if someone's threatening to hurt you you've got to go to the police."

Hyde laughed softly. "That's what I love about you, Forman. You're so innocent. Now shut the hell up and let me go to sleep."

So I lay still and quiet, trying not to bug him - but I was nowhere near sleep. I was hyperaware of every sound. I was freaking out at the idea that Mom would come in and find us together. I didn't know why I was so worried, either - I mean, it's not like I was in bed with Donna. Mom wouldn't be bothered by us sharing the bed. It's not like we were gay or something.

I didn't want to get off the bed, either. Not after Hyde told me we could share - in his roundabout, carefully-guarded way, I think he meant he felt better with me next to him.

Even though I thought I was wide awake, and I didn't want to fall asleep, my mind started to drift. It drifted back to when we were eleven, just before all that puberty shit started to mess us up. We didn't know anything about sex back then; no adults talk to kids about that stuff. Hyde and I used to hide out in my room and put a chair under the doorknob and play with our dicks together. Each of us with his own dick, I mean - we didn't touch each other. We were just messing around, not knowing what we were doing, though somehow we did know it wasn't something we could talk about, not even to each other. I'm sure most boys go through that phase.

Then one day I decided to kiss him. I don't know why, I just wanted to. I went up to him and put my hands on his shoulders and pressed my lips against his. I'd never kissed anyone before, and I wasn't sure how it worked; I remember my nose bumped into his kind of hard. But it was nice. His lips were really soft. And then he hit me. He punched me in the stomach, and while I was crouched on the floor whimpering he said in a weird flat tone, "Never do that again, Forman," and he walked away. And after that we never messed around with each other again. We never talked about what we'd done. I hadn't even thought about it for years. I wondered why I was remembering it now.

I realized Hyde hadn't moved for a long time, and his breathing was slower; he'd fallen asleep. I crawled onto the cot, and next thing I knew it was morning.

I went back to school. Mom managed to get someone to take over her shift, so she could stay home. Everyone at school asked me how Hyde was. I took the math test at lunch. When I got home, I went upstairs right away to see him. Mom had moved the old TV from the basement up into my room, and Hyde was lying propped up on a couple pillows, watching The Wheel of Fortune. He had his sunglasses on, and he had a blotchy red rash on his face.

"Hi," I greeted him. "You look awful."

He gave me the finger. "Thanks."

"Want company?"

"No."

"Sure?"

"Yep."

So I left him alone.

No one was coming over to my place today; now that I'd convinced them Hyde was really sick, they didn't want to bug him. So I went next door to see if Donna was home. She was.

"Wanna shoot some hoops?" she suggested.

That seemed like a good idea. We played for an hour; she kicked my ass, as usual. Finally we slumped down beside each other on the pavement, with our backs against the car.

"Donna," I said out of nowhere, "Do you remember Edna's boyfriend Stu?" I hadn't known I was going to ask that until it came out of my mouth.

"What?" She looked at me, frowning. "Sure I do - her first trucker. He was around a lot for a while when we were eleven, then he disappeared. Thank God. Why?"

"Why'd you say 'thank God,'?" I asked, evading her question. "He didn't seem any worse than her other boyfriends."

"He gave me the creeps." She paused. "OK, I never told anyone this before, but he kept asking me to come check out the sleeper cab in his truck. He acted like it'd be a treat for me."

"Did you ever go in?"

"Hell no! He probably wanted to rape me or something."

I shivered. "Donna, if someone talks about something in their sleep that doesn't mean it actually happened, does it?"

"Eric?" Donna looked around, and lowered her voice. "Are we talking about Hyde?"

"No! I didn't say anything about Hyde."

"Look, I'm not stupid. You didn't suddenly think of Stu for no reason. What did Hyde say in his sleep?"

"Donna, you have to promise not to tell anyone any of this," I begged her.

"I'm not going to promise that - you haven't even told me anything yet!"

"I don't know anything!" I rested my head on my knees, and decided I could trust Donna as much as anyone in the world - so I told her what I'd heard. "Just - when he was delirious, he thought I was Edna for a second, and he told me Stu was just showing him his sleeper cab. And before that he was mumbling something, I couldn't really make it out, but it sounded...like someone was making him do something he didn't want to do."

"Oh my God," Donna whispered. "Something sexual?"

I shrugged. "Maybe. Something that hurt, anyway."

She turned to me. "We have to talk to Hyde."

"No way!"

"What do you think we should do? Nothing?"

I thought about it for a second. "Well, yeah. I mean, he's never said anything to us; obviously he didn't want us to know. Anyway, he doesn't let things bother him." OK, my words sounded idiotic and lame even to me.

"If it didn't bother him, he wouldn't be having nightmares about it six years later," Donna pointed out.

I ground my fist into the asphalt. "He was having nightmares because he had a fever of a hundred and five. He probably doesn't think about it the rest of the time."

"Well, he could be repressing the memories. My mom's got books about that."

I looked at Donna. "We can't talk to him now, anyway. He's still pretty sick today - he just wants to sleep all the time. Why don't you look in your mom's books and see if you can figure out what we should do?"

"OK." She nodded.

"And you won't tell anyone?"

"I won't tell anyone until we figure out what to do," she said. Good enough.

"Pinky swear?" I said.

"Yeah."

***

Six Days Later:

Hyde and I stood by the bed, looking at each other.

"I guess I should take the cot back down to the basement," he said.

"You can stay for one more night, it's OK," I said. The measles rash was gone, he said he felt fine, and Mom had even said he should go back to school in a day or two - but I didn't really want him to leave.

After the second night, Mom had stopped coming in in the middle of the night to check Hyde's temperature, so I'd started staying on the bed with him. We didn't do anything - just lay there and slept - but I liked it. One morning I'd woken up and found him still asleep with his arm around me, and I'd liked that, too. Not that I'd tell him about it.

There was another thing, too. I needed to talk to him. Donna was freaking out. After she'd read a few of her mom's self-help and psychoanalysis books, she'd become convinced Hyde was going to kill himself. Now I couldn't talk her down. It seemed to me that even if something had happened, he'd coped fine for the six years since, so there was no emergency here. Donna, though, had worked herself into a state of near-panic. Today she'd given me an ultimatum: if I didn't talk to Hyde about it tonight, she was going to go to the school guidance counselor tomorrow.

We turned off the lights, and crawled into bed - careful as usual not to touch each other.

"It's been kind of fun sharing a room," I ventured. "Like the girls' sleepovers."

"No offense, man, but this has not been one of the better weeks of my life," Hyde said.

"Oh. Well. Yeah."

We lay there beside each other for a while, me frantically trying to think of a way to bring up the subject I needed to talk about, him probably just drifting off to sleep.

"Hyde?" I said finally.

"What?" At least he didn't sound like he'd been asleep.

"Do you remember just before we went to the hospital?"

"You mean that morning, when you were pretending to be sick?"

"No, later, right before the ambulance came."

"Not really. Why?"

"You said some...strange...things when you were delirious."

"You've said some strange things while you're high." I could hear a smirk in his voice.

"You talked about Stu."

Silence.

"You remember, Stu?" I repeated.

"Yeah, one of the many assholes who's dated my mother," he said calmly.

"I think maybe...he was worse than the others."

"Hey, Forman-" Hyde rolled onto his side to face me, "he never did anything to you, did he?" He sounded a little worried and a little angry.

"Uh, no. Donna told me, though, that he tried a bunch of times to get her into his truck. Into the sleeper cab."

"What did he do to her?" Hyde asked, sitting up. Now he was definitely angry.

"Nothing, man. She never went in there with him." I took a deep breath, and sat up too. "But you did, didn't you?"

"Don't go there, Forman," Hyde said, his voice tight. "He's an asshole, and if I ever see him again I'll kill him. That's all you need to know."

I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when Hyde said 'I'll kill him.' I had the feeling that it wasn't a figure of speech - he was serious. An image of the switchblade flashed through my mind. "Look, I promised Donna that I'd talk to you about this," I said.

"Donna?" Hyde grabbed the collar of my pajama top. "Have you been talking about this with the whole fucking gang?"

"No," I squeaked. "Just Donna. And she's worried about you."

He let go of me, and flopped back down onto the bed with a sigh. "Nobody's seen Stu in six years. Why worry about it now?"

"Well, that's what I told her," I said. "But she started reading about survivors of sexual abuse in her mom's pop psychology books, and now she thinks we should put you on suicide watch or something. She told me I had to talk to you tonight, or she was going to go to the guidance counselor about this."

"Fuck," Hyde swore. "Who said anything about sexual abuse? What the hell did I say while I was sick?"

Had I completely misinterpreted Hyde's fevered ramblings? I felt my cheeks getting hot. "Something about being in the sleeper cab with Stu. And..." I thought back, "You didn't want to suck something. You said it hurt."

"He took me back into the sleeper cab and he made me suck his dick," Hyde said, dead calm. "It only happened once. The next day he left, and I never saw him again. And yeah, it fucked up my head for a while, and it was a long time before I knew what to think about it, and that's why I hate him."

"Oh." I didn't know what to say to that. I just didn't. It was too far outside my experience.

"I'll talk to Donna tomorrow and calm her down," Hyde said. "So, wanna go down to the basement and smoke a joint?"

"Uh...yeah. Sure."

We crept silently down two flights of stairs, and retrieved the baggie I'd hidden under the loose floorboard last week. It made a pretty small joint, but what the hell, there were only two of us.

We sat on the couch, and passed the little joint back and forth. Hyde found a paperclip to use as a roach clip, and we sucked that baby dry.

"When's the last time the two of us got stoned together without anyone else?" I mused as the high kicked in.

"Never, man." He settled down and slung on arm over the sofa back, behind my shoulders. "Never done it before."

"That's funny, isn't it? Since we live together."

"It's good to have those other idiots around," he said. "Kind of a safety valve."

"Yeah, we get weird together. Remember that time I kissed you?...Damn, I didn't mean to say that." I looked over at him, worried he'd get pissed at me for bringing up the great big Unspoken, but he just sighed.

"We were stupid kids back then," he said. "Sorry I hit you, by the way. That was about Stu, not about you."

"Oh, shit," I breathed. "That was the same time...?"

"Right after." He grimaced. "We're killing the high, Forman. Let's talk about something else. So, hey - why are you thinking about kissing me, anyway? Did sleeping next to me for a week give you ideas?" He smirked. "Truth or dare, Forman."

"You were sick," I said defensively. "I wasn't thinking anything."

"Truth or dare?" he repeated.

I'd had enough of truth already. What the hell. "Dare."

"Kiss me," he said.

I laughed nervously. "You told me never to do it again."

"And I sucker-punched you in the gut, yeah, I remember. Guess you can't kiss me, then." He yawned. "That wasn't much of a joint, was it? Let's go back to bed."

I followed him back upstairs, trying to figure out if I was relieved or disappointed that he'd just let it go like that. We lay down on the bed, side by side and not quite touching, like every night this week.

"Good night, Forman," Hyde said.

I knew: he was going to take his cot back downstairs in the morning. We'd never spend another night together, and we'd never speak again about any of this. We wouldn't talk about kissing, and we definitely wouldn't talk about Stu, or about the switchblade I knew Hyde had hidden somewhere. I had a feeling that I should have said or done something, sometime before now, and things could have been different. I wouldn't be here aching to put my arms around him and kiss him and knowing that I never, ever could. But it was too late now.