Murder, Romance, and Two Shootings
Todd Smith © 2018
All Rights Reserved
February 7, 2008
Ten years without being shot and then another bullet had pierced my body.
It was surreal. Once again, I was lying on a hospital gurney in a trauma center while emergency personnel were in a flurry of activity around me. I was having trouble concentrating. Focus. I took a deep breath and looked down at my blood-stained clothes, a seeping bandage of thick gauze pads encasing my right hand, and a nurse preparing to wrap a blood pressure cuff around my arm.
What seemed like a moment later, I startled awake.
“David?” I questioned aloud, looking around the bustling room. I needed him, there and now.
Would David be directed to the hospital I was in? Surely someone, the police, would tell him where I was. Not that I even knew the answer to that question. The ambulance ride was a blur of sirens and EMTs checking my vitals.
A nurse in blue scrubs came by and looked over my chart. I raised my left hand to gain her attention. “Excuse me.”
Finally, she looked my direction.
“I have a close friend named David. When he shows up, can you make sure he is allowed to come back? Please? I…I have to see him now!” I must have seemed desperate. I was almost shouting at her.
She narrowed her eyes and nodded as she walked away. All I could hope for was that she would make that happen, even if all the usual “family” protocols were not met.
I lay on the lumpy cold gurney, saying prayers to a god that some said would never hear my calls because I’m a gay man. Yet I wanted divine intervention at the moment, whether it was sanctioned by the Christian Right or not. I kept staring at the large metal clock mounted high on the sage-green wall and thinking, I won’t ask for anything else, God. I really need David to hold my uninjured hand right now, please, with sugar on top. This was a childhood expression, and here I was, an adult, using it.
Miraculously, as if appearing out of nowhere, David was by my side. Maybe it seemed this way due to the mix of the drugs they had given me in the ambulance, but it didn’t matter. He was there, and I could finally find some comfort in the sterile environment of the emergency room.
“It majorly sucks to have this happen to me again.” The first words out of my mouth were a statement of the obvious.
“I’m thankful you’re still alive, Todd.” He glanced around before he pantomimed a kiss and I gave one right back to him. This was all that we could do with nurses staring at us from all sides.
He reached out, took my left hand, holding it tightly, and cradled my fingers in his. The warmth of his skin soothed me. I didn’t look at my right hand. At the moment, I kept my sights focused on him.
An orderly came to wheel me into an examining room. He was muscular and silent as the fluorescent lights whiz by overhead.
“An emergency doctor should be in to see you soon,” he said as he walked away.
A little while later, the door to my room opened and a man in a white lab coat, his tie askew with wire-rimmed glasses that hung on the end of his nose, came into the room.
After introducing himself and making a brief examination, he said, “We’re going to need to have an orthopedic hand specialist in to assess the extent of the damage and what will need to be done to fix it.”
“I’m sure that will be painless, right?” I said.
“Probably not, but we have to know this before we can proceed with treatment. But first you need a tetanus shot.” A nurse arrived with a tray containing a vial and a large needle, the first of many that I would see while in the hospital. I looked away as the needle made contact with my left arm and I felt the small pinch as the needle punctured the skin. Ouch.
The doctor did a quick check of my vitals. “The hand specialist should be here in a bit. He’ll do a thorough check of your hand. In the meantime, try to relax and get some rest.”
I nodded, and with a smile, he left the room.
I put my head back on the pillow and closed my eyes for a moment.David kissed my forehead. He took my left hand tightly and warmth radiated from his grasp.
The sound of paper flapping on a clipboard above my head woke me. A tall man was now checking on me, his dark hair combed to one side and wearing a white lab coat.
“I’m Doctor Carruthers. I’m the orthopedic hand surgeon who was called in to examine your injury.”
He took a moment to check a page on the clipboard, then smiled and said, “So you’ve been shot. That couldn’t have been fun.” I guess he was trying to lighten the mood, but to me, it was a bit of a fail.
“No, not really.”
Reaching into a box of sterile gloves, he took two out and put them on, then carefully took my hand out of the bandages to exam it.
“We’re going to numb your hand to lessen the pain. You’re going to feel some sensation as I figure out how serious the wound is.”
After giving me a small injection in the area of the wound, he probed my hand, touching the hole meticulously and observing my reactions to better understand the damage that had been wrought by the bullet. I cringed and hissed each time he found a nerve, and David attempted to ease my tension as I clutched to him tightly with my uninjured one.
“It looks like we’re going to have to do surgery, but for right now, we’ll wrap it up and give you a chance to rest so you’re ready for the operation tomorrow.” Carruthers took off his gloves.
“Will my hand be back to normal?” This was the question I wanted to be answered right there and then. Yet I knew deep down it couldn’t be, which made this all the worse.
“We hope” was all he said as he cleaned and bandaged my hand.
I didn’t know quite what to think about his response.
“You’ll need to keep your right hand elevated.” He demonstrated by placing my hand on a couple of cushions before once again checking the bandage. Then with a “see you tomorrow,” he left the room.
At this point, I only wanted to fall asleep. I was exhausted from the loss of blood and everything I had gone through that night. Orderlies wheeled me into an elevator. I jostled as we went in and they maneuvered me to the right; making room for David. The aged elevator moved with the dexterity of an old dog on a freezing cold morning. Then once again, the doors came open and the orderlies wheeled me back out. I felt a bit helpless since all I was supposed to do, all I could do, was lay there while others moved me from place to place. Ceiling-mounted fluorescent lights flashed above us as we went down a long hallway before stopping at a small room. There was a plain bed with thin white linens. The two of them helped me onto the bed. I guess this was to be my home away from home for the moment.
I thanked them as they headed off. I assumed they had more people to roll around the hospital that night. David was looking into the small closet for an extra pillow that he knew would make me more comfortable before checking out the bathroom to see the condition of the amenities.
I stared up at the whitewashed ceiling, completely drained.
He brought the pillow, tucked and adjusted it under my head, and then shooed me over in the bed. Once I was settled, he carefully crawled in beside me and pulled me closer.
“Sorry about this.” I felt the need to acknowledge the craziness of the night. This was a lot to put someone through, and I’d had past boyfriends who would never have made it to the emergency room before deciding to cut their losses.
“It happens.” David snuggled in close to the left side of my body. The heat of his body and the warmth of his breath soothed me.
“Not to anybody normal, you know—only me.”
“I love you and your bullet-ridden body,” he quipped.
“Thanks” was all I could muster.
Ten years without being shot.
Then I began to think back to the first shooting. 1997—what I referred to as The Year of Living Dangerously.
July 4, 1997
A display of fireworks went off in the distance, lighting up the midnight-blue sky with a fiery red that sparkled as they drifted back to earth. My enduring fascination with them had me smiling at the sight. On this particular night, the Fourth of July, it seemed to add some monumental significance to leaving my home state of Missouri.
It was late, and I was taking the few belongings that I’d brought with me off the bus in downtown Wilmington, Delaware. The place was alive with activity even at this time at night. Outside the bus station, there was a scent of burning cigarettes as the pent-up passengers were finally able to indulge. Once inside, I was surrounded by babies crying and animated conversations between families. I sat down on a long wooden bench and took a moment to gather my thoughts. I had spent the last forty-eight hours crossing half the United States to reacquaint myself with my best friend from high school. Was this the right thing to do?
I had left a lover back in Missouri and headed across the country to stay with Kevin who thought that moving East and starting over might be a good idea. I was doing the opposite of what most people did; most headed West. But I always had to be different, so moving to Delaware to stay with an old friend seemed right.
The bus was behind schedule, arriving late in Wilmington, due to a breakdown outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I’d called Kevin from a payphone at the bus station there.
“I should be in Delaware in a few hours. The bus had an engine problem. I’m looking forward to seeing you again. Not sure if this was the best idea, but what the hell…right?” I’d explained to an answering machine.
I called a cab at the bus station. I didn’t want to inconvenience Kevin and could make it to his townhouse on my own. I waited inside, trying to beat the heat of this hot July night.
I walked outside when I saw the cab pull up, and he helped me with my things. I told him the address, and we headed off. He was quiet, no doubt due to the lateness of the hour. The cab smelled of evergreen, probably from an air freshener. It added to the cooling sensation of the air-conditioning, much more pleasant than the warm, crowded bus station. I stared out the window looking at the buildings and streets of downtown Delaware. I tried to keep track of the freeway and then the highways, doing my best to create a mental map of the area.
We turned into a driveway, the headlights of the cab illuminating a two-story townhouse with a garage. He helped me take my stuff out of the back, and I thanked him, then gave him a few dollars. He drove off before I turned my attention to the darkened townhouse lit only by a flickering streetlight across the road.
My palms sweated as I stood in front of the door to his townhouse. I was trying to get up the nerve to knock. We had talked numerous times about me moving in with him, but to finally be outside the door… He was one of my closest friends, but we hadn’t seen each other for a long time. It was like we were meeting for the first time again, and I kept thinking, what am I doing here?
I pushed the button, the doorbell rang, and all the reasons for being there suddenly felt right. A light came on, the door opened, and Kevin grinned at finally seeing me.
“Let me help you with those bags,” he said.
At that moment, I knew this was going to be okay. The sound of fireworks was closer—people in the neighborhood—there were crackling noises and small booms as I closed the door, but I was safe inside, away from the last bombardment of the Fourth of July.
I followed him in and down a hallway. A small kitchen to my left was spiffy clean with a few city skyline magnets on the fridge. A door to my right led to a bathroom with a white porcelain sink and a tub/shower combo. The living room included a large black-box television. We both collapsed onto a brown leather couch with a whoosh. I noticed a picture of Philadelphia on the back wall. Kevin and I always shared an interest in cityscapes and travel. He also had framed family photos scattered about. It was more mature than what I’d had in my college apartment, with film posters, a futon, and a twin bed that I had brought with me from my parents’ home.
We didn’t say much for what seemed like the longest time. I stared at Kevin. His blond hair was wavy and short, like the last time I’d seen him. He was still as thin as he’d been in high school.
I had always called him my oldest friend, although that was relative. Kevin was the person I’d known the longest who wasn’t family. My parents had moved around a lot when I was growing up, and we happened to live in Kevin’s town longer than the others.
After high school, I went to a college that was four hours away, and he had gone to a Catholic university near where we had attended high school together. I’d wanted distance from my family. Kevin and I continued to stay close when I came home every summer, back to the little town where I had graduated high school. Now we were back together again, two old friends who had kept in touch through occasional phone calls and summer breaks all those years.
He had moved to the East Coast to take a banking job after college. Wilmington was described as America’s Switzerland, with business laws that were less regulated than other states.
He’d called right after my college graduation. It had been a short conversation.
“My roommate moved out, left town. It’s expensive to live on the East Coast. Would you like to give Delaware a try in your job search after college?”
“Sure, why not? I’m not doing anything at the moment.”
“What about that guy that you were seeing or living with? What was his name?”
I’d paused for a moment. I hadn’t wanted to go into a long explanation about what had gone wrong in my love life. “His name…doesn’t matter. He’s not here anymore, so no worries.”
“Okay, it’s a deal. See you soon.”
“Sounds great to me, Kevin. I can’t wait. It’ll be like our past summers together. I remember them as some of the best of times.”
“Yes, yes, they were.”
The phone call ended with those memories.
Now, I was sitting on his couch. “I’m exhausted after the bus ride. Do you have anything to drink?”
“Sure. Here, let me get you a beer.”
We clinked bottles and laughed to take the silence out of the room.
Then I asked, “How have you been?”
“Job is going well. It’s been too long, hasn’t it, Todd?”
A swig of beer and, suddenly, we were right back where we started from.
“You know those summers in high school were carefree,” I said.
“Even if it only amounted to us driving around town all night, playing pool, and eating out,” he added.
“Simple pleasures, the first taste of freedom and staying out late,” I said. “Most of all, time away from our parents.”
A few beers later, he said, “I have something to share with you. I’ve been uncertain how to tell you this so…um…grab your backpack and follow me upstairs.”
He opened the door to his bedroom. Asleep in the bed was a man. From what I could tell, he had short curly black hair and was thin like Kevin. He closed the door quietly and walked me over to what would be my bedroom.
I dropped my stuff on the floor, and then we sat on the bed and talked.
“I’ve been dating him for the last few weeks since my roommate moved out,” Kevin said. “His name is Roger, and it seems we’re getting serious. He’s spent more time here than at his place lately. I know I should have said something before you moved in, but you never know how these things go.”
I was stunned. This was not what I’d expected. All I could muster was, “It’s great to hear you have someone.”
“Roger does travel a lot with his job, so he won’t be here every night. I was at the airport in Philadelphia picking him up when you called from Harrisburg. Are you okay with this?”
“I hope it works out for you. I’ve always wanted the best for you.” It might be a little more awkward with three people in the apartment, but I kept that to myself. I honestly wanted his relationship to succeed.
Kevin hugged me and headed to bed. I went back downstairs to bring the rest of my things to my room.
I lay on the bed, staring up at the ceiling and reminiscing about Aaron. We had shared an apartment in college together. It had been small, but I’d loved being close to him like that. He had olive-brown skin and aquamarine eyes that I could feel stare at my body and undress me with a thought. He always seemed to smile with a smirk, and he’d laughed as though everyone would get the joke, whether or not it was funny. Which, in all honesty, should have warned me of the storm that he would make in my life.
The day after I graduated, he’d asked me to sit down because he had something important to tell me. In a pair of casual green Adidas shorts and a ripped yellow T-shirt that gave a tantalizing view of his bicep, he was sweating like he had been working out and completely focused on me.
“So…uh…great graduation ceremony?” he said. “What’s next?”
“I guess I’ll work at the hotel for a while until I find a newspaper job.” I had been working as a bartender while I sent out resumes for future writing positions.
Aaron kept looking at me like he was having trouble articulating what he wanted to say. My answer seemed to give him the resolve to continue, though I wasn’t sure why.
“First…I want to say, this is too fucking hard for me!” Aaron huffed.
“What is? What are you trying to tell me?” I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to know, but I had to ask.
“I have to go, Todd. You can have the apartment for however long you need it. I’m leaving tomorrow. It’s over for me. Ron is helping me move out. I’ve already paid the rent for June and July. See? I’m not a complete jerk.”
He laid it out for me.
“I’m not in love with you anymore. When was the last time we had sex? Do you even remember? You had to realize that this was over.”
Tears streamed down my face.
“This is what I hate most about you,” Aaron said. “You have these dreamy ideas about how life is going to be. That things would never change between us, but life is change and I’ve had enough.”
I could barely see through my tears. He stared at me. Silence.
Finally, he jumped up. “I have to go. I’ll be back in the morning for my stuff. I really… I wish… This dream of our lives together, Todd…was never mine.”
He went to kiss me, but I turned away. I couldn’t bear it. He walked out without looking back.
I went to bed alone that night, still crying. I was angry and hurt. By morning, I was tearing up pictures of us and then ripping them into even smaller pieces. I didn’t want images of him staring back at me in the apartment. They belonged in the trash heap now.
Rick, my closest friend from college who I could turn to for guidance, was starting a new life and a new job as a dining manager at a hotel in Kansas City. He’d never thought Aaron was the right one for me. I called him up.
“Aaron has left me,” I’d said.
“I knew he was trouble, Turtle.” That was the pet name Rick had given me. “When you introduced me to him in college, I noticed he had a roaming eye. If we all went out together, he would check out the room for hot guys. You were way too good for him. So what happened?”
“You know my friend Ron, right? The one in the architectural program with Aaron? They worked on a lot of projects for classes together.”
“The muscular guy with the tats?”
“That’s the one.”
“Ah. You see, I told you he wasn’t good enough for you,” Rick said.
“You were right. I’ve decided I need some time away from the Midwest.”
“You’re moving away?”
“Yep, I think a fresh start will do me some good.”
“Okay. I can understand that. But know this, Todd. If whatever or wherever you decide on doesn’t work out, I’m here for you.” He paused for a moment. “Damn, I almost forgot. I have to go into work tonight. You stay strong, Turtle.”
As luck would have it, Kevin called a few days later. By then, I was ready to take a chance, move East, and stand on my own without Aaron. I would show him that I didn’t need him. I had all my dreams ahead of me, a writing career, and eventually, with hope, a new love.
It was time to leave the past in the dumpster behind the apartment.
Remembering these things helped me relax as I fell asleep that night, my first night in Delaware.
Morning, and I smelled bacon and eggs cooking. Kevin and Roger were both in the kitchen. I had slipped down the stairs without their notice.
Before I made my presence known, a man I assumed was Roger asked, “So how long will he be staying?”
I hung back for a moment, within earshot but out of view.
“Only a short while until he finds a job…maybe a few months. It will be like when we were kids. We’ll live near each other again,” Kevin said with a hint of excitement.
I moved closer, still out of view, but I could see them now.
“You know, Kevin, high school was a long time ago,” Roger said. He put eggs and bacon on two plates, mumbled a curse, and then grabbed another plate from the cupboard. He cracked two more eggs in the skillet. It seemed I had taken him out of his breakfast routine.
Kevin took him in his arms. “This will be all right, Roger. He won’t be here long. He will find a job and all will be well.”
“I hope you’re right.”
I walked in.
Kevin looked at me and immediately went into introductions. “Roger, this is Todd.”
We did a brotherly hug, all wide-open arms followed by a tight collapse on each other like we’d known each other for years. I looked at him closely. He had dark blue eyes, like Aaron. He was about my height. His gaze was piercing, like he was trying to warn me off.
“Bacon and eggs sound good?” Kevin said, smiling, as if their private conversation had not taken place.
“Sure, sounds fantastic. Thanks for making breakfast,” I said.
“Did you line up any job prospects prior to coming out here?” Roger asked.
“I’m going to look at the Sunday paper today and start going through what looks promising. I’m sure something will turn up.”
“How were you thinking of getting around?” Roger asked.
“At first, I’ll use the bus and trains in the area. I have some savings that will go toward buying a car.”
“You know, that’s one thing I have never done, taken the bus or the train here.”
Roger’s voice had taken on a snide tone that had Kevin interrupting. “Let’s eat!”
We ate without talking. The bacon was crisp, the eggs scrambled. They both headed out to meet friends later that morning. I stayed behind to look through the want ads, circling any possible opportunities with a yellow highlighter.
That night, Kevin suggested going to a bar. We all piled into Kevin’s car; I sat in the back.
“So what do you think of the city so far?” Kevin asked.
“I like the skyline.”
“Yes, I work in one of those buildings,” Roger pointed out.
To change the subject, Kevin said, “The bar we’re going to is a local hangout. I thought it might be good for you to meet people that live in the area.”
We parked in front of an older three-story brick building. The bar was up a long flight of wooden stairs.
Kevin was at his best in a crowd. People tended to gravitate to him, and it wasn’t long before he was introducing me to his friends. “Hi, nice to meet you,” became my mantra as we meandered through the bar. After a while, Kevin and Roger wandered off to speak to someone privately, and I pulled up a barstool to wait.
Aaron and I had gone out to bars together before to see his friends. But I didn’t really become close to any of them. They weren’t friends I would have chosen for myself, and in the end, they were easy to leave.
My college friends were moving on with their lives. One was to be married, another was moving to the West Coast for graduate school, and a couple I had been close to were having their first child. My friends’ lives had become very different than mine. I wanted a chance to strike out on my own and thought Kevin was the person to turn to for that.
I drank three beers and relaxed. I sat alone at the bar while Kevin and Roger continued to mingle.
I was taking off the label of the beer bottle when an older guy came up and said, “Do you mind if I sit here next to you?”
“Sure. No Problem.”
He gave me a once-over. He was built, and his tight white T-shirt clung to his muscular frame. I could tell he had dyed his hair blond, making it hard to tell the original color. It made me feel uncomfortable to see an obviously older man trying to look so much younger. Evading the man’s gaze, I glanced around and noticed Kevin and Roger dancing. I decided to head out to the dance floor to give it a whirl. The music was loud and reverberating and gave the place an upbeat feel as I made my way toward Kevin and Roger. I danced with Kevin like we used to when we were kids. Back then, there had always been a girl with us. This time, it was Roger.
In high school, we hadn’t known we were gay, or I guess neither of us had wanted to face that we might be. It had been a small high school surrounded by cornfields, not exactly a tolerant place if someone was gay.
I laughed a little and then shouted over the music. “It would have been nice to do this in high school, Kev.”
“Yeah…it would have been,” he agreed.
I was having fun for the first time since entering the bar. A moment later, Roger seemed to lose his balance and “accidentally” stepped on my foot. Given the look I received, I decided to step away from Kevin and head back to the bar.
I sat back down as they danced. I had to face the fact that Roger would be a major part of the household.
A short time later, Roger said something to Kevin, then they both left the dance floor and came over to me.
“We have to go,” Kevin said.
“Why? I thought you were having a good time.” I asked.
“Roger is ready to go.”
I spent all of Monday searching for jobs. Once I found some interesting prospects, I used Kevin’s computer to write cover letters, address envelopes, which I then stuffed with copies of my resume and set aside ready for mailing. By the time Kevin and Roger arrived back from their jobs, I had a stack of them ready to go out to prospective employers.
“How was your day?” Kevin asked.
“I went through the newspaper searching for future jobs here and have resumes ready to mail out, just needing stamps,” I answered.
“What do you think about Philly cheesesteaks for dinner?” Roger asked.
“Sounds appropriate considering how close we are to Philly,” I said.
Dinner was a quiet affair. They both seemed to be dragging from their day at the office.
Afterward, we all sat down in the living room to watch some television. Kevin and Roger argued about whether to watch a repeat of Roseanne or Seinfeld. They asked me, and I said I had no opinion. So the argument continued.
I soon realized I wanted to be out of the house and away from the both of them. That was the one thing Aaron and I hadn’t done: fight. Arguing would have meant we shared our deepest thoughts with each other. Most of the time, the conversation had been light.
As an architectural design major, Aaron spent most of his time silently scanning his blueprints for imperfections. I enjoyed wandering around the place looking at them. His ability to create was what I loved most about him.
Quiet contemplation was not what I was finding with Kevin and Roger. So instead of hanging around listening to them fight, I decided to explore the neighborhood and learn my new surroundings.
“Kev, I’m taking a walk. I’ll be back in a bit.”
He turned and nodded and went back to his heated discussion with Roger.
I headed out of the