DISCLAIMER: Route 66 is the property of CBS and no copyright infringement is intended with the publication of this piece. The picture used for the cover comes from the Route 66 episode "Like a Motherless Child". ALL ORIGINAL CONTENT OF THIS STORY IS THE SOLE PROPERTY OF BAMBOOZLEPIG AND MAY NOT BE USED WITHOUT PERMISSION. This story may contain graphic language/violence/adult situations, therefore reader discretion is advised. This is an extremely mild slashfic, but there's no sexual content involved. This story is set after the series ended, and I apologize for any errors I've made as far as canon goes.
He doesn't know that I love him.
And now…now maybe he'll never know, because as he sits across from me, I worry that I can never tell him, it's a secret that I will have to take to my grave, because I don't know if he will understand me.
And I don't know if he will forgive me.
We were a very unlikely pair from the start, for I was Buz Murdock, the slum kid who grew up in an orphanage in Hell's Kitchen, never knowing who my real parents were, streetwise and scrappy tough and angry at the lousy hand that fate dealt me by my being born into the wrong station in life, while Tod Stiles was the crème de la crème of upper crust society, the kid who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and who never wanted for anything, who was sent to the best boarding schools and Yale and was given a brand-new Corvette convertible as a gift from his father, who was all set to take over the family shipping empire when his dad retired, and then…
Then he had nothing.
Nothing except the Corvette, a suitcase full of clothes, and me.
Yeah, he had me.
It's funny as hell really, if you stop to think about it, because I hated him when I first met him. I was working on one of the barges his father owned, helping to load freight that would either go down the river to be shipped across the U.S. or across the ocean to a world I'd never seen outside of the battered globe and tattered textbooks in school, to a world he'd known since birth, having spent many a vacation in the beautiful playgrounds of Rome and Paris and London, experiencing first-hand what I could only read about, what I could only dream about, what was too breathtakingly beautiful for me to even imagine. Here he was, the poor little rich boy who had everything, and here I was, the juvenile delinquent who had nothing but his fists and his brains and his pride, and I hated Tod Stiles deeply…hated him and what he had and what he represented to me, the 'have' versus the 'have-not'. When Tod's father decided that Tod would spend his summer breaks from college working on the docks and the barges in order to learn the business from the ground up, he assigned me the job of showing Tod the ropes, a job I deeply resented being asked to do, just out of pride and stubborn-ass principle. I might have been nothing more than a slum kid but I knew how to hold my head high, so I was fully prepared to remind Mr. Richie Rich that while HE might have had the money and the prestige, I had the power over what he learned about the family business from the ground floor up. I'd intended to show the little merchant prince who was boss, let him know that he didn't belong there next to me on the dirty, sweaty docks where the stink of the river never leaves your nose and the screech of the gulls never leaves your ears, let him know that his place was in the suit-and-tie and gladhanding boardroom where the deals are made and the palms are greased and people will knife you in the back while smiling to your face, just so they can get ahead.
At first, I began to needle him with little verbal jabs here and there, insidious but pointed, hoping that the other guys would pick up on it and join in, helping me cut the rich little bastard down to size. After all, we were all working-class joes and Tod was only here because his Daddy had made him…whatever money he earned, he could spend on himself, while the rest of us, our money went to pay bills and buy food for our families and keep a roof over our heads.
And he took it…goddamn it, he took it.
Tod Stiles put up with my verbal abuse with a glib, affable friendliness, always shaking it off with good humor like a duck shaking off water. And the more I searched for reasons to hate him, the less I found, for he was never condescending or self-pretentious or uppity due to the fact his father owned the business. Hell, he willingly worked his ass off and then some, refusing to shirk or relinquish any of the responsibilities I gave him, and he was always ready to put in extra hours if needed, without complaint. The guys on my crew refused to join me in deriding him, for they liked and respected him, and he felt the same about them, always asking about someone's sick family member, or if so-and-so got the money to get the roof fixed, or how their kids were doing. He genuinely cared about those he worked with, a trait he shared with his father, showing interest in the lives of those around him and not self-centering on his own life. He was the exact opposite of the spoiled little rich kid I expected to have on my crew, pampered and whining about the dirt beneath his nails or his sore muscles or the stink of the river…no, Tod Stiles was nothing like that, he was truly a down-to-earth kid who seemed to enjoy putting in a hard day's work, sweating and cursing alongside the rest of us blue collar joes, going to enjoy a beer at the local tavern after work, rather than jaunting off on some fancy black-tie soiree.
Which made me hate him even more.
So I began to needle him harder. I ragged on him for everything from dropping boxes, to making the occasional mistake on an invoice, to accidentally knocking a stack of wooden pallets over when he bumped them with the forklift…hell, I even picked on him for having red hair and freckles. In my eyes, Tod Stiles could do nothing right as I watched him through those glasses colored by rose-tinted hate. It actually surprised me how much I bullied him, for I'd been picked on myself in school, targeted due to my status as an orphan, and I knew how words could injure you even worse than physical abuse does, because bruises fade over time, while words stay etched on your mind and your heart and your soul forever. Tod still put up with it, but beneath the good humor and aw-shucks grin, his green eyes began to take on a darker tint, coloring with anger and irritation and hurt…and I revelled in it, especially the hurt, because I knew then I'd gotten to him, wounding him with words, rather than physical action, although I did occasionally toss that in too, 'bumping' him accidentally or pushing him out of my way when I felt he wasn't moving fast enough. Still, he kept his mouth shut to his father about how I was treating him, enduring it with dignity and grace, taking it and taking it and taking it until one day he couldn't take it anymore and I found myself sitting on my ass on the warehouse floor in surprise, rubbing the yapping jaw of mine that he'd damned near broke with a wicked right cross that came out of nowhere after I'd made the mistake of insulting his mother. Yeah, Buz Murdock is a fast learner, but I didn't learn quite fast enough that there were certain subjects you didn't mention to Tod Stiles, and his deceased mother was one of them, for she had died when Tod was young, and he'd taken her death very hard. I was stupid, made some nasty-ass comment about her, to which he promptly hauled off and decked me, and then the fight was on between us, Tod's goodnaturedness gone in a flash of fury and temper and hot sizzling rage as the two of us lit into each other and pounded the ever-livin' shit outta one another. The poor little rich kid gave as good as he got in the battle against the tough street kid from Hell's Kitchen and in the end, neither of us won. It was more of a ragged, beaten-bloody tie as the two of us stood in his father's office, our clothing torn, our mouths and noses bloodied, our knuckles bruised and scraped raw, Tod's right eye swelling shut, my left eye blackened darkly, both of us dusty and dirty and sweaty and still righteously pissed at one another, shooting evil darting glares at one another out of the corners of our good eyes. His father was absolutely livid and chewed both of us new assholes, telling us that if that ever happened again on his docks, we'd both be fired. And in the hallway outside his father's office, Tod did something that startled me…
He offered me his hand to shake.
"Truce?" he asked solemnly, with as much dignity as the guy could muster with his shirt torn up and his nose and lip bloodied, his eye swelling shut.
I stared at him for a long moment, taking in the sweat and the dirt and the blood on his face, that one good green eye of his staring back at me with gritty admiration and respect…
And then I shook his hand, with grudging admiration and hard-won respect of my own, for I knew then that I'd definitely misjudged Tod, and truth be known, I was ashamed of it and how I'd treated him. "Truce," I said, nodding my head in agreement. And I'd like to say we became fast friends after that, but we didn't. Tod only worked the docks when he was on summer break from college, but the more I was around him and got to know him and what made him tick, the more I grew to…to…
Which surprised me, for he was still the poor little rich boy and I was still the poor little slum kid from Hell's Kitchen. He knew it and I knew it, but after that one fight, it never came up again, at least not then. We were able to set aside the class distinction and our cultural differences and form a good solid friendship between us. Like him, my intelligence ran deep, for I could wax just as eloquent as he could, even without the advantage of as much book learning as he had. Tod never held my lack of formal education or heritage against me, he accepted it without judgement or condemnation, and he willingly listened to me talk about what it was like growing up in the orphanage and then finally getting adopted, only to watch my adoptive father die in my arms from a drug overdose, then joining a street gang and turning to a life of petty thievery and minor crimes in order to survive. He never scorned me for becoming a juvenile delinquent, being saved from life on the streets only by the intervention of social worker Chuck Brennan and Tod's dad, Lee Stiles, who saw enough potential in me to take me under his wing and give me a job. And I couldn't help but feel a kinship for Tod when he admitted that despite all the money and possessions and prestige, he never had what he really wanted…his mother. Her death by tuberculosis when he was only seven years old haunted Tod, who often blamed himself for her dying, and the two of us were brothers in that cruel motherless-child world we shared. And in addition to all that, we found that we both liked jazz, so we'd often hang out in some of the seediest, smokiest dives of New York City, just to listen to Coltrane or Davis or Parker, and it was a sure bet that wherever we went, we had our share of female admirers, chicks drawn in by Tod's boyish handsomeness and my darkly exotic good looks. And it's also a sure bet too, that we bedded our share of those willing females, for nothing is as easy to get in New York as a good lay. Of course, Tod was not aware that as much as I liked women, I also liked men and willingly bedded them too, having known I was bisexual since I was fifteen, and while I didn't think he'd condemn or hate me for it, I preferred to keep it quiet, for it wasn't really something I wanted broadcasted to the world.
It was always known that as soon as Tod graduated from Yale, he was to take over his father's shipping business, for the elder Stiles wasn't in the best of health and wished to retire soon, but he never got that chance, because in Tod's junior year of college, the shipping firm went under, his father having made a series of unfortunate business mistakes, investing money where he shouldn't have, engaging in risky ventures that proved to be financially dangerous. Tod was forced to drop out of Yale, coming home to try and help fix the crisis, but it was no good, for the company his father had built into a multi-million dollar empire began to quickly crumble until it was gone.
And then, even Tod's father was gone, suffering a coronary thrombosis that killed him instantly, taking him away before he could attempt to rebuild his empire, leaving the Stiles name a bitter epithet on the tongues of those he'd dragged down with him in his fall from grace…all of them save for his son, who still loved him, despite knowing that his father had cost him his inheritance, his birthright, his place in the upper crust of society. That silver spoon that Tod had been born with was now nothing but cheap tarnished metal that was absolutely worthless, for in one crushingly huge fell swoop, Tod was reduced to the same circumstances as I was…penniless, orphaned, and all alone in the world…except for me.
He still had me.
I was the one who stood by him when he watched with steely eyes as the creditors stripped the Stiles mansion of all its valuables, leaving behind what they didn't want to wind up going on the auction block to satisfy the remainder of the massive debt left behind by his father's foolishness. I was the one who stood by him when his so-called 'friends' abandoned him when he turned to them for help, ignoring his phone calls one by one, turning their backs on him and closing him out now that he was poor and no longer able to run in their society. I was the one who was there for him when the girl he was engaged to marry gave him back the ring and told him she was oh so sorry, but she couldn't marry a penniless man, choosing money over love, if love was what the two of them ever really shared. And I was the one who stood by him when they finally padlocked the gates to the Stiles mansion before it went up on the auction block too, leaving him alone in the driveway with nothing more than his clothes in a suitcase, a family photo album, and the powder blue Corvette convertible that his father had given him that they couldn't take away, even though they tried. But most of all, Tod still had his pride. Throughout it all, throughout all the crushing heartbreak and the horrible humiliation and the crashing downfall of the little merchant prince's empire, Tod Stiles still had his goddamned pride. And no matter what, you really had to admire that, for he wasn't willing to hang his head in shame because of his father's actions…the sins of the father could not be passed off onto the son, for Tod had nothing to do with what his father had done, he had no idea any of it had transpired until it was too late and it all exploded into Hell and back.
I'd stood there next to him in that curving paved driveway that led to his former home, the two of us staring at the imposing brick structure that was now forever locked away to him from behind black cast-iron gates that wore a thick silver chain and an even thicker padlock. "What now?" I'd asked him, my hands shoved deep into the pockets of my tan coat, the brown plush collar turned up against the November chill, snowflakes flittering listlessly in the air, the overhead sky a gun-metal grey, full of thick clouds that were pregnant with snow.
He'd stood there motionless for a moment, then he strode over to the convertible and undid the latches on his suitcase that sat on the luggage rack of the trunk, removing the dark brown photo album that contained the pictures of his family. He ran his fingers across the gold-embossed cover for a moment, eyes flickering in reverie, then he opened the photo album, flipping through the pages with determination, quickly finding what he wanted. With careful fingers, he gingerly removed a black-and-white picture of him and his parents, taken not long before his mother's death, and he stared at it, the wind rattling it lightly in his hand, then he tucked the photo into the pocket of his coat before slamming the album shut with a grimace of finality. He returned to where I stood, the album clutched tight in his hand. "Gimmie your lighter, Buz," he said, holding a palm out, his eyes studiously avoiding mine.
"Why?" I asked.
He swallowed hard, still avoiding my gaze as he hunched deep into his dark blue duffel coat, a turtle trying to retreat into its shell. "Just…give it to me, please," he said softly, and in his voice there was a pleading desperation, his green eyes filled with such sorrow and hurt and anger at all that had happened to him in just a few short weeks, his face pale and drawn with fatigue and despair and hopelessness. When I handed him the lighter, he turned so that his back was to the stinging wind, kneeling down on the pavement, and then he calmly set fire to the only link, the last link he had to his family…the photo album. The two of us said nothing as we watched the flames lick greedily at the brittle pages, devouring the pictures like a hungry beast, the heat curling them as it ate them, and soon it was like the Stiles family had never even existed, save for that one precious picture tucked away in Tod's coat pocket.
"What'd you do that for?" I finally asked as we stared down at the ashes between us, a little shocked, a little awed that he'd so cavalierly destroy the last vestiges of his heritage in such a brutal manner, for I hadn't realized that gentle and laid-back Tod possessed such a cruel characteristic and it startled me to learn that he did. "That was all you had left of your family, Tod."
His head snapped up then, a resolute look settling across his face, his eyes meeting mine as he jutted his chin in defiance at me, the green depths filled with such a bitterness beyond his young years that it made my heart ache for the goddamned unfairness of it all. "When I burn my bridges," he said acidly, his voice flat and emotionless as he stood up, brushing dirt from his hands as if brushing off what was left of his former life. "I burn 'em clear down to the waterline, until there's nothing left but the ashes." Then he kicked at the pile of ashes with his foot, sending the grey-black cinders flying into the chilly air, and I could see that the tears that welled up in his eyes had nothing to do with the icy stinging wind and everything to do with his bitter anger and his unshed sorrow and his pride…his goddamned pride. He was telling the only world he'd known, the world he would never know again, "fuck you, you're not keeping Tod Stiles down, he's moving on with his life, no matter what." "Let's go," he said, returning to the Corvette and situating our suitcases and bedrolls onto the luggage rack.
"Go where?" I asked as I helped him tie the cases down, because it went without saying that wherever Tod was going, I was going with him, for there was nothing to keep me here either…no job, no lover, no hope for any kind of a future. I knew I didn't owe Tod anything, but he was my brother…not by blood, but by the bond forged in mutual loss and sorrow, and I'd be damned if I let him face the world on his own, not after all that he'd faced so far. He still needed someone by his side, if nothing more than to help him fight when life's battles got tough and dirty, handing him the extra ammo or sharpening the spears or slaying the dragon with him. And as much as I knew he needed me, I also knew I needed him to help ME fight too, when the battles got tough and dirty.
"Out there," he said, without hesitation as he swept his arm in the direction of the city, the wind whipping through his reddish-blonde hair as he shook a fist at the iron sky. "Carpe diem, Buz, seize the day. Let's make the most of what we've got and get out there into the world, see what life has to offer, maybe catch us some stars along the way." He climbed into the driver's seat of the Corvette, slamming the door with a hard finality.
"But where?" I pressed as I climbed into the passenger side. Granted, the idea of adventure excited me immensely, for I found that exploring the unknown and learning new things was always fun, but we had no firm plans, no firm offers of a job anywhere…all we had was the car, our suitcases, our bedrolls, and five hundred dollars between us. And I wasn't sure that was enough.
"Anywhere the road leads us, Buz," he said, grinning at me, the first grin I'd seen on his face since all of this horrific tragedy had happened…and God help me for sounding trite and hackney-clichéd, but it was just like the sun had come out from behind the clouds, that smile of his lighting up his face and making those green eyes sparkle like emeralds. "Anywhere the road leads us," he repeated, laughing gleefully as he started the Corvette up and pulled out of the driveway of his former home, without even looking back once at what he was leaving behind. And I got caught up in the giddiness of it all and began laughing myself and my god, it felt so goddamned good to just…be in the moment, without worrying about the past, without worrying about responsibilities tying us down. Tod Stiles and Buz Murdock owed nothing to no one, they were free to go wherever the hell they damn well pleased, and the future actually started to seem bright with endless possibilities, just as long as the two of us faced it together.
It was then that I realized I loved him.
And it was then that I realized I could never have him.
I knew…I knew I could never let him know how I felt about him, for while Tod cared for me, it was strictly in the friendship/brotherhood vein and nothing else, he was firmly and decidedly straight, and I figured he'd be a little uncomfortable and a LOT freaked out to know that I harbored the secret desire to just…well…screw his brains out. So I kept that little secret to myself as the two of us travelled the country in that fast little car, journeying from town to town, getting into trouble, getting out of trouble, saving people, righting wrongs, rescuing the damsels in distress, falling in love, falling out of love, breaking hearts…we were like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, with a little bit of Jack Kerouac mixed in. Our adventures took us everywhere in the United States, from Louisiana to Nevada to Pennsylvania to Washington state, crisscrossing the country, hunting for the next adventure, the next job, the next big thing. We were searching for ourselves, trying to find our places in the world where we fit, but I knew I'd already found myself and my place in life, even if I could never really have what I truly wanted. My heart, my soul, my happiness was wherever Tod was at, and so I pretended not to care when he flirted with pretty girls, pretended not to care when he pursued those women with avid and single-minded interest, pretended not to care when he would come in in the morning after being out all night, smelling of booze and cigarettes and perfume and sex. I did my own pursuing of whichever man or woman happened to catch my fancy, and it was easy for me to lose myself in that person of the moment, imagining that it was Tod's mouth I was kissing, Tod's body I was caressing, that it was Tod I was possessing and not some empty vessel with an unimportant name and an unimportant life, their only use to me was that they were there when I needed a good lay.
And Tod never knew about it, he never knew that in the nameless fleabag hotels or dingy boardinghouse rooms we shared…always with twin beds, just like Ricky and Lucy Ricardo…I used to watch him from beneath lowered eyelashes as he'd get undressed, wishing that just ONCE I could touch those firm abs and pecs with light fingers, just ONCE I could run my hands through his hair and kiss him hard on the mouth, just ONCE I could feel his arms wrapped tight around me as he whispered "I love you" in my ear. I spent many a sleepless night, tossing and turning in my bed, my body yearning for his, driven nearly crazy with desire for him. Yes, I realize it sounds all giddy schoolgirlish silly, but the heart wants what it wants, and mine wanted Tod Stiles…all of him, his mind, body and soul. And because I knew I could never have him, it hurt me deeply to be around him, but I knew I would be hurting worse if I wasn't around him, so I put up and shut up, grinning and goodnaturing my way through our adventures together, just so I could be with him. And I won't say that I didn't fall in and out of love here and there with other people on occasion, for emotions and circumstances can sweep you away on a powerful tidal wave of rushing-fast thoughts and feelings, but in the end, it was always Tod that I loved first and Tod that I loved best, so I always found my way back to him…even on the few occasions when I hated him, I could never truly bring myself to stop loving him completely, nor could I ever bring myself to give him up.
I only slipped up and nearly spilled my secret to him one time, and that was in Massachusetts, when he fell hard and fast for the shipping heiress who promised him a return to the life he once knew, but wanted to possess his soul in return. He was giddy and happy goofily in love with her, asking her to marry him after just a few dates, and I was helpless to really do anything to warn him about what I saw in her through glasses that weren't as rose-colored as his were. I knew she was no good for him, because despite her fancy pedigree and millions of dollars and love of the finer things, she was nothing more than a controlling bitch, and all I could do was be there for him when she broke his heart, like I knew she would. And sure enough, Tod had made plans to keep the shipyard she owned still operating, looking forward to getting back into the shipping business like he'd been trained to do, and what did she do? She turned around and closed it down behind his back, waiting to tell him at the same time she told all the other employees that they were without a job, and then the rose-colored glasses he was wearing came off awfully damn fast as he realized that little honeybun wanted to turn him into a pampered little pet she could parade around on a leash. She figured her money could buy him, that he'd willingly allow her to put the ring through his nose and lead him around, but she bet on the wrong horse, because Tod Stiles isn't anyone's pampered little pet and no matter how much he might have loved her, he had too much pride to become a little lapdog, so he called their engagement off, the two of us leaving Gloucester that same day that she announced she was shutting down the shipyard. Tod never looked back, not even once, and of course he dealt with his heartbreak like any normal, red-blooded guy would…he got drunk as hell in the local dive in the town we finally stopped to spend the night in, the town far away from the one where he'd left his heart, and it was after I'd helped him back to the motel room we were sharing that I slipped up and let a little of my own heart show to him.
"Ya know, yer a good buddy, Buzsh, ol' pal," he slurred thickly as I drunk-walked him into the dingy grey room that looked like all the other dingy grey hotel rooms we'd stayed in, his arm slung across my shoulders, his weight sagging heavily against me as I guided him to one of the twin beds covered in a faded green chenille bedspread, sitting him down with a hard plunk, the mattress creaking under his dead-weight. He smelled of cigarettes and whiskey and English Leather-tinged sorrow, and my own heart had broken for him and what he was going through, for I knew how deeply wounded he was this time around. What he'd felt for hoity-toity rich bitch Prudence Adams was true enough and real enough to leave scars on his heart and on his soul, at least for a little while, until the next "real" thing came along.
"Yeah, I'm a real peach, Tod," I told him dryly as I knelt down on the faded brown carpeting in front of him. I held my hands out. "Give me your feet so I can take your boots off."
He willingly obeyed, watching blearily as I carefully removed his black leather Chelsea boots, tucking them beneath the bed. "We're even in tha' love depar'ment now," he said, shaking his head, a stray lock of strawberry-blonde hair tumbling across his forehead, and God help me, I wanted so badly to smooth it back, running my fingers through his thick hair, feeling it as it slid and tickled across my palms.
But I kept my desire to myself. "How so?" I asked as I unbuttoned his tan cotton shirt, my fingers lightly grazing his t-shirt covered chest, brushing his biceps as he allowed me to gently slip it off of his shoulders, hanging it the corner bedpost so it wouldn't wrinkle. There was so much more of him that I wanted to touch, and probably in his drunken state, Tod would have been fairly compliant, but I wasn't about to take advantage of my friend that way...if I was ever to have him, it would be when he was sober and willing, not when he was crocked out of his mind on booze and sorrow and self-pity.
He put a heavy hand on my shoulder, leaning into me, his eyes rimmed pink from booze and emotion. "You loved Arline an' losht her, I loved Prudensh and I've losht her," he said solemnly, as if imparting a state secret to me. "Buzsh, ol' buddy, when we fall in love, we fall hard 'n fasht, with nuthin' in-b'tween."
I thought on that for a moment, for he was right, beautiful Broadway star Arline Simms had been the one woman I'd fallen in love with, hard and fast, and wanted to marry, but she had come home to Butte, Montana to die…which she did, in my arms, and I'd felt the same goddamned heartbreak that Tod was feeling over Prudie right then, because my love for her had been true enough and real enough to leave scars on my own heart and soul, at least for a little while. "You got that right, buddy," I said, nodding. I gestured to his brown chinos. "Do you think you can stand up to take your pants off, or do you need me to help you?" And for a moment, I hoped he WOULD ask for help, for it would probably be the only time I'd ever get that chance.
"I can shtand," he giggled, and promptly fell over sideways on the bed, proving that he could not. "Am I shtanding up, Buzsh?" he slurred comically, giving me a downright gleeful look that is so common to the very inebriated. "Hey, the sheiling ish now da floor!" he cackled happily, blinking dazedly up at the waterstained ceiling.
"Yeah, okay buddy," I sighed, shaking my head. Still kneeling next to his bed, I patted his chest gently. "Let's just leave you like you are for now."
His eyes swung away from the staring contest he was having with the ceiling, fixing on me with a startling clarity as he grabbed onto my hand, putting it over his heart, his fingers closing over mine. "Just once," he said in a voice unslurred by the booze, his green eyes bloodshot but clear as they gazed into mine. "Just once, every man should fall in love with the wrong person and experience the heartbreak that ensues. It learns you well what not to do the next time around." He uttered the words with a soberness that surprised even me as I stared back at him in mild shock, slightly stunned that he was able to put together a coherent thought, let alone a coherent sentence.
And as I could feel the beat of his heart beneath the cotton t-shirt he wore, as his eyes bore into mine with such a bitter, aching loneliness, I just couldn't stop myself…I leaned forward, pressing my mouth gently to his, feeling his breath mingle with mine, his lips warm and tasting of whiskey and tears, and for a moment…just for a moment, his hand tightened on mine and his eyes flickered closed and his heartbeat quickened in his chest, then I…I broke the kiss off, pulling back, watching Tod carefully for his reaction to what I'd just done, my breath catching hard in my throat as he slowly opened his eyes, giving me a drowsy smile. "Heh," he chuckled drunkenly. "That wash a shilly thing to do, Buzsh." Then he turned his head into the pillow, his hand slackening around mine, his breathing becoming deep and regular as the whiskey and heartbreak and sleep overtook him. And I turned out the light and crawled into my own bed, knowing that Tod was right, it was a silly thing to do, silently nursing my own bitter, aching loneliness because it was true, every man should fall in love just once with the wrong person and have their heart broken…
Because that's the night that mine broke over Tod.
He didn't mention the kiss when he sobered up, and life moved on beyond what happened in that motel room, but I knew he remembered it, because the friendship between us changed ever-so-slightly, almost indiscernibly, becoming a bit strained, with Tod taking on a careful wariness around me at times, as if he was trying to figure me out. I would worry then that he would say something about the kiss I planted on him when he was drunk, but he never did and I never admitted to doing it, figuring let him wonder if it really did happen or if it was just a figment of his intoxicated imagination that night. We continued on our search for ourselves, roaming all over the United States, footloose and fancy-free, experiencing what life had to offer first-hand from the open road and loving every minute of it. Girls came and went, guys came and went, and I was happy, for being near Tod was what gave me sustenance, what gave me a reason to go on, even though I knew he would never feel the same way about me that I did about him. I loved his courage, his tenacity, his pride, his kindness, his idealism, his wry humor, that world-weariness that shielded an easily-hurt heart, that twinkle in his eyes and the smile that would light up his face when he was happy, that firm belief that everything would always work out in the end. He had an optimistic naïveté that was charming, always searching for the good in someone, no matter how rotten to the core they really were, and he had enough compassion and honesty and integrity to make a saint look like a sinner, always believing in doing the right thing, even if it didn't seem like a wise thing to do at the time. I knew we wouldn't be together forever, but I figured we'd be together at least until he fell in love and was married to someone who truly deserved him, caring for him just as much as I did.
But I figured wrong, for the beginning of the end of our life together came in Los Angeles when I got sick with a virus that took me down like I was nothing more than a wisp of smoke in the wind and I wound up in Pacoima Hospital, flat on my back and staring up at the ceiling, isolated and alone. A one-week stay turned into a month-long stay, turned into a couple of months of slow convalescence, while Tod was the one who worked two jobs to keep us afloat financially. I felt guilty as hell about staying home and resting, for I could see how beat he was, knowing there wasn't a goddamned thing I could do about it. Finally, I recovered enough to begin travelling again, and things seemed to be getting back to normal, but then illness hit me again in Cleveland and I wound up in the hospital once more. Tod stayed on for as long as he could, but this time…this time I knew there was no chance of me recovering enough to ever travel again, so I told him, I FORCED him to go on with his journeys, with the promise I would catch up to him someday, somewhere down the line.
And that day never came.
As Tod reluctantly moved on without me, he used to call or write me, keeping me abreast of where he was at and what he was doing, and naturally, over time and distance, the phone calls and letters became less and less frequent, and then I'd heard from him that he'd found a new travelling partner to share the journey with, a hero fresh from the bloody war in Vietnam, a man named Linc Case. He sent me a snapshot of the two of them from some waterpark in Florida, and Linc seemed like a nice enough guy in the photo, if somewhat eerily resembling me. Yeah, Tod replaced me with a man who looked like me, and I forgave him for that, because even as I loved him, I knew I had to let him go on with his life, for as his was continuing with a brightly lit future in store for him, mine was slowly grinding to a halt, with a viciously swift and startling suddenness that took my breath away when they finally figured out what was making me so sick all the time…
Acute myeloid leukemia.
Three little words…three little words that held so much fear and so much pain and so much uncertainty for the fate of my future. True to my brass-knuckled nature, I fought it hard, taking the chemotherapy treatments with dignity and humor and good grace, even when the chemo left me weak and shaking and puking my guts out, my hair falling out in clumps, my skin dry and cracking and bleeding with sores. I wrote and told Tod of my illness, but only after I'd fought it into remission, for I knew that if he found out about it when I was taking the chemo treatments, he'd drop whatever he was doing and hurry to my side, and I didn't want that, I didn't want him to give up his life in order to get me through mine. Granted, he was understandably upset that I didn't tell him right away after I was first diagnosed, but really, what the hell was I supposed to do? Call him and say "Hey Tod, guess what, I have leukemia and I need you to put your life on hold so you can come take care of me?" No, I made the right choice in not telling him until after the fact, for there was nothing he could have done and he couldn't have taken time off from work to come take care of me anyway, and after some griping and bitching about how friends aren't supposed to keep secrets like that from other friends, Tod finally forgave me. Of course, I wondered if he wasn't obliquely referring to the other secret I was harboring, but he didn't press the issue any further. After the cancer went into remission and it seemed that I had a relatively clean bill of health, I began to think of my own bright future once more, moving from Cleveland to Los Angeles, renting a furnished bungalow for myself, getting a job as a set decorator for one of the studios, and when I wasn't busy working, I was writing, chronicling the travels and amazing adventures I'd shared with Tod as we criss-crossed the United States in that little Corvette, and I'd hoped to maybe someday sell the idea of making the stories of our travels into a show to one of the television studios. But I never got that someday, for life is never so cruel as it is to those who make plans, because on the same day I received a wedding announcement from Tod, saying he'd gotten married in Tampa, Florida the month before, I also received a call from the hospital where I was getting my regular followup checks…
The leukemia had returned.
And I knew…I knew I couldn't face fighting it again, I couldn't go through the torture of chemotherapy, all of the puking and the weakness and the hair loss, the isolation from people so that I didn't pick up some bug that would wreak havoc with my already-weakened immune system, all the fear, the pain, the uncertainty for the future. I just couldn't see fighting it once more, beating it into remission, only to have it return another couple of years down the road. No, I couldn't put myself through that horror again, so I decided against any treatment. Of course, the doctors were pissed that I didn't want to take the chemo again, feeling that as young as I was, I should be willing to battle bravely and valiantly, giving them another success story to brag about to their buddies on the golf course and discuss in the medical journals. Why Buz Murdock isn't a quitter, he's a fighter! they'd said to me. Don't you want to beat this and live a long and productive life? And my answer was a resounding 'no', I did not. For while bravery and courage and fighting valiantly seemed like the right thing to do, I knew one thing…
It wasn't for me, this time around.
I know when I've reached my limit, when to give it up, when to say I fought the good fight and now I'm done, and I'd reached it with this second diagnosis. So, I'd quietly made arrangements and taken care of a few things, but I hadn't taken care of the biggest thing as of yet, for I hadn't told Tod what was going on with me. I wasn't sure how to tell him, to be honest, for that's not something that one can really write in a letter or say in a phone call. I waited one month, then two, then three, then four, then finally God smiled on me or I caught a break or a happy coincidence occurred…whatever stupid little platitude you want to apply here…I'd heard from Tod that he was going to be in Los Angeles for a few days on business and he wanted to see me, have a reunion and reminisce about the good ol' days, even if they weren't that old and even if they weren't always that good. I readily agreed, eager to see my buddy, my former comrade in arms, my old secret love…
Whom I still loved.
Because that was something that neither time nor distance nor illness could take away from me…Tod Stiles has always been my first love and my best love, and now I was going to see him for one last time. I'd already planned to have him take care of the simple funeral arrangements I wanted done, so all that was left was for me to tell him of my prognosis and my decision not to fight it, knowing that while Tod would probably encourage me to wade into battle against the illness once more, he'd at least hopefully understand where I was coming from and accept my decision. I'd also planned to tell him my other secret, that I loved him, that I had loved him ever since that cold winter's day in November of 1960, when he burned the last link…the ONLY link he had with his past, casting the bitter ashes into the wind, the two of us climbing into the baby-blue Corvette, letting that fast little car carry us into the start of our life together. The nuns at the orphanage taught us that confession is good for the soul, and I was fully prepared to offer up my confessions to Tod, because for far too long the burdens of my secrets had weighed too heavy upon me, and I was ready to give them up and enjoy whatever little bit of time I had left, without worrying about the taint of sin on me.
Which brings me to the here and now.
Here sits Tod in the cozy little living room of my bungalow, the two of us enjoying a nightcap after spending the evening over dinner at the Brown Derby, swapping stories and reminiscing, laughing and carrying on as if we'd just seen each other yesterday, instead of over three years ago. And now…now I know I should tell him that I'm dying, that I love him, that I've always loved him, even though I knew he'd never love me back, at least not in the way I wanted him to. Yes, I should look into his eyes and tell him all those things, I should lay my heart bare, I should confess the sins of my soul like I was taught all those years ago, for Tod is a good man, a decent man, he'd never judge me or condemn me, he'd just accept what I tell him with the grace and dignity and goodnaturedness that he has accepted things with in the past, yet when I look deep into those grey-green depths and try to find the words to say what I want to say…
I just can't.
I cannot tell him that I'm dying, I cannot tell him that I've loved him and will continue to do so until I draw my last breath, because…because how do I tell him? "Hey, Tod, guess what? I'm dying of cancer and have only a few months left to live, but that's not the biggest secret I've been keeping from you…no, the biggest secret is that I love you, and not in a brotherly-like way, either. Yes, it's true, all those nights we spent together in different hotel rooms and dumpy apartments and boarding houses, I wanted to push our twin beds together and just screw your brains out 'til the cows came home. I lusted after you like crazy, and I can't begin to count how many times I pretended that someone I was fucking was actually you. Now then, would you like some more beer?"
Yeah, I don't think so.
"So, tell me about this idea of yours," he says, sitting on the couch across from me, bottle of Heineken in his hand, a cigarette dangling from between his fingers. He's as handsome as he ever was, reddish hair a bit longer now and streaked blonde by the Florida sun, his face tanned, making his freckles stand out in bas-relief, and I'm reminded yet again of why I am attracted to his boy-next-door looks, for they are a stark contrast to my own exotic darkness. He wears tan slacks and a light blue polo shirt, and on his left hand ring finger there lies a shiny gold band, so newly placed yet it hasn't had time to get dulled or dinged, for Tod hasn't even been married for a year yet, and this trip to L.A. is the first time he's been apart from his pretty little bride. And I know she's pretty, for I've seen the proud pictures he's shown of her, heard the bright happiness in his voice when he's told me of their future plans together, including how many kids they want. Tod Stiles, the goddamned lucky bastard, has it made. He found his place in life and someone to share it with, whereas I'm going out of my life the same way I came in…alone.
"You mean about the tv series?" I ask, taking a swig of beer from my own bottle.
"Yeah, the tv series," he says, leaning forward and putting the beer bottle on the coaster atop the coffee table in front of him. "I might be interested in backing you financially, if it's any good."
I shrug, launching into a condensed version of the pitch I've made to a couple of studios already. "I thought it would be interesting to tell of our travels together and the things we experienced…you know, kind of like a roving essay on today's society, a sort of an 'On The Road'-style show. It might reach out to today's restless youth, appealing to the younger folks who are in the same boat we were in, trying to find themselves and their places in society, feeling cast-off and lost in the world like we once did."
"Have you pitched it to any studios yet?" he asks, taking a drag on his cigarette, blowing the smoke out through his nose.
"Yeah, a couple," I say, nodding. "CBS seemed the most interested in it. They're thinking of bringing in Stirling Silliphant to help write it."
Tod frowns, stubbing out his cigarette in the clear glass ashtray on the table in front of him, leaving a smudge of ash and flakes of tobacco on the side of the glass. "Who's he?" he asks.
"He wrote the scripts for Naked City," I tell him.
"Why wouldn't they let you write the scripts?" Tod asks, still frowning, rubbing his hands together. "I mean, this is your baby, so why wouldn't they keep you on board for it?"
I hesitate, tapping a finger against the green glass bottle, chewing on my lower lip as I debate how to answer him, while he waits patiently to hear what I have to say. "Because there's some complications, Tod," I finally admit.
"Like what?" he presses.
I fidget nervously, running a hand through my hair, swallowing hard. "Uh…" I cough, refusing to meet his eyes. "It's…um…"
"For God's sake, Buz, spit it out," he demands, sounding slightly irritated. "Whatever it is, it can't be the end of the world."
Oh, but it is, Tod, I think as I clear my throat. Throwing caution to the wind and taking a leap of faith, I decide to go for the blunt revelation, for tact has never been my strong suit. "The leukemia's back, Tod." Four words, four little words that are my death sentence, and I watch him carefully as I announce them.
His eyes widen in shock, his face paling under his tan, making his freckles stand out vividly. "Oh my God, Buz, I'm so sorry," he says, looking stunned and horrified. "When did you find out?"
I rub tiredly at my forehead. "About five months ago," I say.
"And you're just telling me this now, Buz?" he demands sharply, angering quickly at my negligence. "Goddamnit, we're friends, and friends tell friends about crap like this instead of keeping it quiet!"
"You didn't tell me you were getting married until after the fact," I level evenly at him, matching him gripe for gripe.
"I didn't have time to tell you, damn it, it all happened so fast!" he snaps heatedly, his face reddening with anger. "But now you…you've had five months to tell me this kind of news, buddy, and you're pulling the same kind of shit on me that you did the first time you were diagnosed with this, keeping it from me until after you'd gone through the chemo and the cancer was in remission."
"I needed time to wrap my head around it, I guess," I offer as a weak excuse. "And I didn't want to bother you, since you had just gotten married, Tod."
He sees right through my pitifully thin excuse, too. "Yeah, but five fucking months, Buz?" he growls, smacking a fist into his open palm. "You'd should have called me, I would have gotten out here before now, to at least be here with you when you started chemo."
"I'm not taking chemo," I say with a nonchalant wave of my hand.
He frowns sharply, puzzled. "What do you mean you're not taking chemo? You mean you're trying a different kind of therapy this time around?"
I pick at the label on the bottle of beer, my fingernail lifting a corner of it. "I'm not taking any kind of therapy, Tod," I say slowly, quietly. "I've decided not to fight it this time around."
He stares at me, stunned. "What?" he demands, his voice rising sharply again, his eyes narrowing in anger once more. "Whaddaya mean you're not fighting it this time around?" He comes to his feet then, his long legs carrying him back and forth in front of the fireplace in a restless pacing that reminds me of a caged tiger. "Why the hell not?"
I shrug listlessly, setting my beer bottle on a side table. "I just don't want to, Tod. Once was bad enough, I'm not going through it again."
"Goddamnit, Buz, you have to fight!" he snarls in righteous rage, pounding the mantle of the fireplace with a tightly clenched fist, making the knickknacks atop it jump, along with me. "You can't just give up, just like that, you have to fight this, damn it!"
"No, Tod," I tell him gently, shaking my head, refusing to fly into anger myself, for really, what is there to get angry about? I've spent most of my rage when I first found out, spent most of my tears in the nights that I wept over the lousy hand Fate dealt me, spent all of my hope when I was battling this crap the first time around and believing I'd beaten it, so now all that's left inside of me is weary acceptance and tired resignation. "I've made my decision. This is the end of the line for me."
He scrubs a trembling hand across his face, eyes darting frantically about without really seeing as his brain scrambles to come up with a way to make me change my mind. "But have you researched out alternative therapies?" he persists, desperately unwilling to give up. "What if you came to Tampa, talked to some of the doctors at the hospital there? Surely what they're telling you here in Los Angeles isn't the be-all and end-all, right? Surely there's other avenues you can explore, avenues that may not be available or known to you here in L.A. And don't worry, money's no object, I'm willing to pay whatever it takes to get you better, Buz, even if it costs a million bucks. You're my friend and I will spare no expense to save you."
"Thanks, but no," I say resolutely, holding my hand up to forestall any further argument. "I made my mind up, Tod. I'm not fighting this a second time, only to have it come back a third time and a fourth time and a fifth time. I'm letting it end here and now. And even though you don't agree with my decision, I would ask that you please honor it, out of respect for our friendship. At least give me that, Tod." I give him a steady look, refusing to back down.
He turns away from me then, his back to me, his head bowed, his hand resting on the mantlepiece. "I can't believe this," he says dully as he realizes that I've won. "My best friend is dying and he's not willing to do anything to stop it." The silence is heavy between us as he digests the horror of my news, the news I've had five months to digest, while he's only had five minutes to try to wrap his head around it. He looks over his shoulder at me, a lock of hair falling onto his forehead. "You sure about this, Buz?" he asks thickly, his voice harsh with emotion.
"I'm sure," I tell him, and I pretend not to see him swipe surreptitiously at his eyes before he returns to the couch, sagging onto it as if he is drunk, dropping his head into his hands for a moment, sweeping his hands through his hair with a heavy sigh.
"I want you to know, I don't agree with this at all," he says slowly, fingers fiddling nervously with the bright shiny gold of his wedding ring, eyes carefully avoiding mine. "But I'll support you and give you whatever help you need, out of respect for our friendship, out of respect for you." He pauses then, looking over at me uneasily as he tries to figure out how best to broach the next question. "Have you made…uh…arrangements for the…um…end? So that you're kept as comfortable as possible?"
"I haven't gotten that far," I tell him. "But I have made the funeral arrangements and…"
He interrupts me with mild astonishment. "You mean to tell me you haven't made sure that things are in place to ensure you're not suffering towards the end of your…life," he hesitates, swallowing hard, as if the words are rocks in his throat. "But you've already made your funeral plans?"
"Yeah, I decided to do it ass-backwards," I joke, trying to inject some humor into the situation. "You know me, I always have to be different."
"This isn't funny, Buz," he says dourly, giving me a reproachful glare. "You're dying here, not trying to laugh your way out of a bad date."
"Sorry," I say, realizing that he's right, it's not funny, at least not to him. To me it's the biggest goddamned fucking joke God has ever played on me, and what can I do but laugh at the irony of it all?
Tod sighs, wringing his hands together, cracking his knuckles a bit. "Okay, so if you haven't made arrangements for…eh…that part, why don't you come to Tampa to spend the rest of your days out there?" he asks, and I know what he's thinking…if he gets me to Tampa, he might be able to pressure me into fighting the disease anyway. "The doctors can surely transfer your care to the hospital there, and at least you'd be around friends, so you won't die alone out here in L.A. You can stay with Margo and I." He snaps his fingers, pointing to me in sudden inspiration, face brightening slightly, taking on a hopeful tint. "In fact, why don't you come back with me when I go home at the end of the week?" he says excitedly. "I mean, I know it's really short notice, but between the two of us, surely we could get you ready to go, right? You can pack and take what stuff you'd need for right now, living out of a suitcase like we used to do, and we can arrange to have the rest of your stuff shipped out there later on. We can call your doctors here and have them refer your care to the docs in Tampa, and since this bungalow is only a rental, all you have to do is call your landlord and explain…"
"Whoa there, partner," I laugh, holding a hand up to stop him and his fast-moving plans, pleased that he's willing to go so far for me on such short notice. "I'm not going back to Tampa with you."
"Why not?" he asks, jutting his chin at me in a challenge, his eyes narrowing as he prepares to argue with me yet again.
"Because I need time to get my affairs here in order," I tell him. "And besides, I'm not gonna impose on you and Margo. Hell, you guys haven't been married for very long and the last thing a newlywed couple needs is to have some sick friend crashing in their house."
"Yeah, but you're not just a friend, you're family, Buz," Tod presses. "And it's no imposition at all, the house is big enough for three of us…hell, the house is big enough for twenty of us…and we can hire a pretty little nurse or two for you," he pauses, giving me a lascivious wink. "You know, to keep you comfortable?" he chuckles lewdly.
"As nice as it sounds, Tod, I'm gonna say no," I say, smiling, shaking my head at his generosity, which was so like him. "For starters, I'm not at death's door yet, and like I said, I need to get my affairs in order here before I consider coming to Tampa. This is my home now, Tod, I can't just uproot myself in a heartbeat like we used to a few years ago. I have certain responsibilities, ya know, and I need to make sure everything here is taken care of before I come to Tampa."
He studies me for a moment, then shakes his head in defeat. "Okay, fine," he relents, realizing that I'm stubbornly sticking to my guns. "But I want you to promise me that the minute you get things taken care of here, you'll be on your way to Tampa, got it?"
"I promise," I nod, giving him a Cheshire cat grin. "If you'll promise me something."
He holds his hands out wide in a gesture of supplication, ready to give me the world if I'd ask for it, in light of the bombshell of news I have dropped on him. "Name it."
I get up from the chair, retreating into my little study for a moment, returning to the living room a few minutes later, a cardboard box in my hands. "Here," I say, holding it out to him.
"What is it?" he asks, taking the box from me, a look of avid curiosity on his face.
"It's the scripts for the show I'm trying to pitch," I tell him, going back over to the chair and sitting down.
He opens the lid, staring down at the contents within. "Don't you need these yourself?" he asks, picking one of the brown oaktag-bound scripts. "I mean, you're the one pitching this idea to the studio heads, not me."
"Yeah, but I've got copies," I tell him, nodding to the box. "I had those made for you so you'd have an idea of what I wanted the show to be like. You can see for yourself if it's worth backing or not. I happen to think it is, but I'm prejudiced, of course. All writers think their ideas have merit, even the crappy ones."
"Route 66?" he inquires quizzically, running a finger over the black-typed title. "That's your title for it?"
"Yep," I say. "Pretty original, huh?"
"And pretty off the mark, too," he says with a wry grin. "We weren't always on Route 66, remember? We were kind of all over the whole United States, pal."
"It's a matter of semantics," I shrug. "The studio will probably change it if they buy it."
He riffles through the stack of scripts in the box, his eyebrows raised in interest as he lets out a low whistle of admiration. "Man, this is a lot of scripts, Buz. You mean to tell me that each one of these stories is based on one of our adventures?"
"Yep, for the most part anyway, starting from when we left New York City after your father's death, up until I got sick that last time in Cleveland," I tell him. "Of course, they're all from my point of view and I'll admit my memory may be a bit hazy on some of the details, but most of it's all based on what really happened to us as we travelled around. All you need to do is verify the facts, maybe put in your own point of view to balance out mine, and they're ready to go." I gesture to the box on his lap. "Like I said, there's a couple of studios interested in the premise, especially CBS. They were talking about buying the options to it."
"It's hard to imagine we actually had that many experiences, at least enough of 'em to write about," he says, shaking his head with amusement.
"Not really if you stop to think about it, Tod. We were on the road together for two and a half years, often only staying somewhere for a day or two before moving on, so it's really not that hard to imagine we had that many adventures over that span of time," I tell him.
"And some of 'em were good and some of 'em were bad," he says ruminatively, tapping a finger against the top script, his eyes kind with nostalgia. "And some of 'em I'm sure we both could have very well done without." He flashes me a grin. "But at least we got through 'em together, right, old buddy?"
"True that," I nod in agreement. "Whatever life throws your way, it's easier to get through it if you have a good friend by your side, helping you and supporting you throughout it all…"
"Which is why you're coming to Tampa as soon as you get things squared away here," he interrupts. "You don't have to go through this alone, Buz. You did before out of your own goddamned stubbornness and refusal to tell me what was going on with you, and I won't have you go through this on your own again like that."
"We'll see," I tell him in placation. "You know, it's really funny how this all wound up coming about," I muse thoughtfully, rubbing my chin. "I mean, the two of us started off with nothing, really, searching for our places in the world and where we belonged, and now we both finally found our stations in life…you in Tampa and me here in Los Angeles."
"Yeah, who'd of thought that two penniless orphan kids with nothing between them except their clothes in their suitcases and a Corvette convertible would ever get to where we are now?" he asks, a twist of the old bitterness in his tone.
"Somehow it all worked out in the end for us," I say.
"And somehow it gets to be tomorrow," he says, smiling sadly as he replaces the lid on the box. "We've done enough reminiscing for tonight, I think. It's getting late and I should be getting back to my hotel room. I promised Margo I'd call her after I'd visited with you. Besides, I don't want to tire you out." He stands up, tucking the box beneath his arm. "But I'll tell ya what, I'm free all day tomorrow, so why don't I stop by around nine a.m. or so, pick you up and take you out to breakfast, then we can maybe take in some of the sights, do a little more reminiscing over lunch…"
"Tod," I laugh as I stand up myself. "How about we make it eleven or so, and we'll have brunch somewhere, and then go from there, okay? We'll see where the day takes us, just like we used to, remember?"
"Okay," he grins. "Glad I decided to drive the Corvette out here instead of flying out in the plane. We'll cruise around town with the top down and it'll be just like old times, right?"
"Right," I nod. "The two of us out on the open road, the wind blowing through our hair, letting the car take us wherever we want to go." I point to the box beneath his arm. "Promise me you'll follow through on that, Tod, that's my deathbed wish, got it?"
"I promise," he assures me. "And you're not on your deathbed yet, pal, so I think we still have some time to get this idea for the series worked out before making the final pitch to the studios." He starts to turn away and head for the door.
Tell him now, Buz! my mind screams at me. Take that final leap of faith and tell him how you feel about him, that you've been in love with him since that bitterly cold November day when he torched the family photo album and told his former world to go get fucked, that nothing was keeping Tod Stiles down! Tell him before it's too late, damn it! "Uh, Tod," I cough, clearing my throat. "There was something else that I needed to tell you…" My voice trails off in panic as he turns back around, regarding me quizzically, and I turn eighteen shades of scarlet, feeling the heat rush through my body, making a sweat break out on my forehead, and I swipe at it with a shaking hand, running trembling fingers through my hair. I swallow hard, taking in a deep breath, closing my eyes for a brief second before taking that leap of faith, confessing the last of my secrets to him. "There's something I wanted to tell you, but never could because I was afraid to, and of how you'd react if you knew the truth," I say, my words coming out of my mouth in a babbling rush. "But now…now you should know what the biggest secret of all was, the secret that I kept from you for so long…"
He comes over to me and puts a gentle hand on my shoulder, momentarily stopping me. "Buz, I know what you're going to tell me," he says softly, his eyes looking deep into mine. "I've known it all along. I remember the kiss you gave me in that sleazy motel in Nowhere, Massachusetts, when I was drunk off my ass and heartbroken over Prudie Adams." And within his green gaze, I read the truth, that he has known of the love I felt for him, of the love I've kept hidden from him all these years.
I stare at him for a long moment in wide-eyed disbelief. "And…and you were okay with it?" I ask in shock, my voice trembling a bit. "You don't condemn me or hate me?"
"What's to condemn, what's to hate?" he asks simply with a shrug, giving my shoulder an affectionate squeeze. "You are who you are, Buz, you can't change it any more than you can grab the moon in your hands, and yes, I've always been okay with it." Then to my surprise, he sets the box down and pulls me into a hug…a manly hug, to be sure, with a hardy slap on the back, but still, as I hug him back, it's nice to feel his arms around me, if only for a few brief moments, for it's one thing I've always wanted, but never got. "I mean, I love you like a brother, Buz…after all, you're the closest thing I've ever had to one." And his words are a gentle reminder that his love for me is not the same kind of love I feel for him, but then, I didn't expect anything different. He pats me on the back one last time before pulling away from me, bending down to retrieve the box at his feet. Fishing the keys to the little powder blue Corvette from his pocket, he starts towards the door once more. "Look, I'll see you tomorrow, okay?" he asks over his shoulder, his hand on the doorknob. He starts to open the door, but then pauses, turning back around to face me. "Hey, remember what we used to say back then, Buz?" he asks, grinning at me. "Carpe diem, seize the day…"
"And let's catch us some stars along the way," I finish, grinning back at him.
"I'd say we caught our share of stars, wouldn't you?" he says, thumping the box beneath his arm. "Hell, I think we caught the whole freakin' galaxy, old buddy, with everything we've seen and done." He opens the door then, stepping out into the warm night air. "See ya tomorrow, pal," he says, gently shutting the door behind him, and moments later, I hear the engine of the Corvette start up, the headlights sweeping across the living room like searchlights at a movie premiere, and I stand there, staring at the door, remembering what it was like to be out there on the open road, the wind blowing through our hair, no particular place to go as we let that fast little car carry us into all those fantastic adventures we shared.
"Carpe diem, Tod," I say a bit forlornly, picking up my bottle of beer from the end table, holding it in a toast in the direction of the door. "Carpe diem." I finish it off in a single gulp, then I cradle the bottle in my hand, staring at it. "We caught our share of stars all right," I say sadly. "Too bad most of 'em turned out to be nothing but tinfoil and glue." Then with a heavy sigh, I carry Tod's empty bottle and my own into the kitchen, putting them into the trash. I move quickly about the bungalow, pulling the drapes and turning out the lights, making sure the windows and doors are locked, readying the house for the night. The bungalow falls into a spooky shrouded silence, the only light coming from the study, drawing me to it like a moth drawn to the flame. I hesitate there in the doorway for a moment, leaning back against the door frame, my eyes roving over the meager furnishings in the living room, most of them belonging to the landlord, and I realize…I realize…
That this is not my home; it never has been and it never will be, and Tampa will never be my home either, no matter how much Tod wishes it to be. No, my home now is…
Just like it always has been.
Huffing a sigh, I turn and go into the study, taking a seat in the leather chair behind the large wooden desk that holds my battered Smith-Corona typewriter, the same typewriter I used to write most of the Route 66 scripts that Tod now has in his possession. I rest there a moment, the leather cool and creaking beneath me, then I lean forward, reaching inquisitive fingers out to the typewriter keys, the round black and white buttons chilly beneath my fingertips. I stare at the blank sheet of paper that's tucked into the rollers, just waiting for the artistry of words to paint it, and my mind retraces the evening with Tod, the reminisces down those dusty old roads of the past, when we both were nothing but have-nots searching for ourselves. I know I should feel nostalgic for the good old days, I know I should feel relieved that I unburdened the dark secrets of my soul to Tod, I know I should feel glad that I will not be going through any more of this alone, that Tod will be by my side, but instead, I feel…
And oh so alone.
I close my eyes for a moment, bitterness and sorrow washing over me in a tidal wave, and with an anger I didn't think was in me any longer, I lash out, striking the typewriter with a tightly closed fist, growling at the dart of pain that shoots through my hand. "Goddamnit," I snarl, and I wait for the heated wave of rage to overtake me, making me get up and stomp about the room, howling and cursing at the lousy hand that Fate has dealt me…but it doesn't come. Nothing is left inside of me except that awful aching emptiness, and as I stare blindly at the blank sheet of paper in front of me, I realize something else…I'm trapped between two worlds, the here and now and the forever after, only there won't BE a forever after for me, because I'm dying when I should be living, making plans for my funeral instead of making plans for my next birthday, and…
Yes, I think I have the solution to the dilemma of the here and now and the forever after for Buz Murdock. And it's the easiest goddamned solution in the world, and I don't know why in the hell I didn't think of it before now.
Smiling to myself in giddy relief, I begin to type, the platen clacking loudly, the bell dinging softly as my fingers fly over the typewriter keys, trying to keep up with the lightning bolt of words that spill from my mind. When I'm finished, I pull the formerly blank sheet of paper out with a crisp little ziffing sound, my eyes taking in the black letters that march primly across the page, then I take a pen from the holder on my desk, quickly scribbling a postscript to my words, before folding the paper carefully. I open a desk drawer and pull out a creamy white envelope, writing a name on the back of it before tucking the sheet of paper inside, sealing the envelope with a brisk lick of my tongue. I push myself away from the desk and carry the envelope out to the mantlepiece, propping it up between a pair of tarnished pewter candlesticks, stepping back to survey my handiwork, my hands on my hips, and I don't even notice the tears rolling silently down my cheeks as I return to the study, sitting back down in the leather chair once more.
And I weep then, my soul finding one last emotion to throw at me, and I cry…damn it, I bawl like a goddamned baby, tears spilling from my eyes as I let my sorrow wash over me, cleansing me, releasing me, readying me. I weep for all of it; the past, the present, the no-more future, the secrets and the truths and the lies, the hopelessness and despair, the lost me and the found me and the lost me again, the goddamned fucking unfairness of it all…it all comes out of me in a heaving, sobbing torrent, and I cry until I can cry no longer, my tears spent, the emotion fleeing me, being replaced by a steadfast steely resolve. Swiping at the tears on my face, I reach down and pull out the bottom desk drawer, opening the metal box within it, removing the item I purchased awhile ago. I study it, cradling it in my hands, the weight heavy and cool in my palms, then I tighten my fingers around it. "I love you, Tod," I whisper, the words leaving my lips for the first time, for the last time, echoing what I've only always said in my brain. "Please forgive me."
Yes, I hope he can forgive me.
Because I'm doing what I have to do, what needs to be done.
I raise the loaded .38 caliber revolver slowly with a steady hand that doesn't tremble in the slightest, gently putting the barrel into my mouth, my lips curling and closing around the cold metal, the gunsight scraping the roof of my mouth, the taste of iron and gun oil and despair sharp on my tongue, the salt of tears on my lips as I slip the safety off, curling my finger through the guard. And then…
Then I pull the trigger.