Chapter 3: Ring of Fire
The light in the room flickered. With each blink, the burst of light left a trail in my vision. P-R-I-D-E. I was grateful to be alive, in a hospital, in my home state. This day was a blessing but, also, long overdue. Of all the things that were broken, was it really my pride that would do me in?
Yes, because I hated the idea of being a cuck.
I turned to my beautiful, loving wife. I try to focus on her eyes, her smile, everything I had been dreaming about and dreading. But all I could see was Matthew Remy. I had seen his photo during my Facebook stalking. He looked like he could be her cousin. They had the same brown hair, brown eyes. The only difference was his skin color. The guy was dark; Cajun, maybe Italian. But one fact was undeniable; the baby growing inside her would grow up to look like Matthew, haunting me for the rest of my days.
I heard laughter from the corner of the room, a ghostly laughter of a certain teenager. “But you’re not Cece’s biological father,” said Jamie as he played with his long hair. “So what difference does it make?”
‘The words of someone who died in their teens.’ I glared, knowing full well that my wife couldn’t see the smug flower-child guardian angel. ‘Cece was adopted, not a product of my wife’s betrayal.’
“I died without a father,” Jamie said. His face became stern, emotional. “I died a slow, brutal death, because my biological father got sick, and my mother remarried an abusive drug addict. So don’t you dare tell me what I’m too young to understand.”
“I’m sorry,” I said out loud, not even caring who heard.
Jamie blinked tears from his eyes. “My point is, Cece doesn’t look like you. She wasn’t born to love you, she was born thousands of miles away in a foreign country to some stranger, but you loved her from the moment to held her in your arms.” Jamie threw up his hands in a pissed off, defeated manner, and left the way he came- by walking through the wall. “I have to return to your daughter’s side.”
I closed my eyes and laid back in my bed. He was Cece’s guardian angel, there to remind me that my teenage daughter was in a coma just a few doors down. That needed to be my focus, my goal- to get out of this bed and be the father she needed. But my rage would not subside. I tore my hand from my wife’s grasp. “Do you even want to stay with me? Or are you just waiting for the morally appropriate time to leave?”
Marni nodded, gripping her pregnant stomach. It was clear she was trying to choose her response wisely. “Matt asked me to marry him. He said he’d quit his job and take me to California.”
“Fuck…” I muttered, turning away. “I knew it.” If she left me the military would make sure she was taken care of; I could die sick and alone while she reaped the benefits.
“I said no.” Marni wiped her tears on her sleeve before taking a seat by my side. “I don’t want him, I never wanted him.” She placed her hand upon mine, lacing her fingers over my knuckles.
I wanted to pull away again, maybe even hit her. But in my current state, the physical exertion would have caused me to puke all over myself. I had no choice but to hear her out.
“When I said I was lonely, I wasn’t talking out of my ass.”
I chuckled. Marni’s sense of humor was one of the first things i fell in love with. “I just wish you would have gotten a dog, instead of…”
“I got with a dog, alright,” Marni said with a knowing nod. She bit her lip in a way that was meant to coax a smile out of me.
It did. “You’re a fucking bitch,” I said with a genuine laugh.
Marni chuckled through tears. “Yeah, that was all on me. I got lonely, got drunk, I left the bar with a hot guy who wanted to fuck me.” She bit her lip and blinked her eyes. “I let him say nice things to me, spend his money on me.” Looking up at the ceiling she took a soft breath as if in prayer. “I was a whore, and God wanted to make damn sure everyone knew. You didn’t deserve this; the hurt, the humiliation. But I never said I was sorry.”
“I wouldn’t have believed you, anyway. You kept his kid.”
“I know.” Marni gave my hand a squeeze before softly releasing my fingers. “Do you remember when we first met?”
“Feels like a lifetime ago…”
“In high school you were the sexy, baseball player with the amazing body.” She traced her fingers along my wrist, up my bicep.
When I was thirteen, I started weight training. I wanted to gain confidence, gain control. By high school, the result was a body that got the attention of everyone from army recruiters to college scouts, and dozens of hot freshman girls who wanted me to be their fairy tale homecoming prince.
“It was a badge of honor to suck you off behind the bleachers.” Marni’s voice no longer sounded like a woman of her age. This was the voice of a teenage girl; a punk-rock, southern goth princess, whose sexy pierced lips, smeared black lipstick all over my cock.
“And I know I wasn’t the only one.”
“No ma’am you were not.” I took sex from anyone who offered; cheerleaders, teachers, and one brilliant punk girl with a face full of piercing and a tongue that felt so good. Marni-Lynn Brewer was like no other girl. Sweet, smart, and tough, she quickly become my best friend.
“All the popular girls said you looked like a soldier, the all-American hero, the kind of boy who would take care of a woman,” her southern accent slipped in. “But from the moment I looked in to your sky-blue eyes, I saw something more. You needed a friend, an aly: someone just as fucked up as you.”
“You and me against the world?”
“Maybe. Even if you can’t forgive me, I will always be your friend.”
Marni was the first person I ever told about my past. At first, she received the information with a morbid curiosity. The case was well known, but my grandmother kept the information classified. As I grew up, the story became an urban legend; the tale of a sadistic psychopath who worked as a pastor by day and by night he kept his family in a torture chamber that took three years for police to locate.
When Marni was only fifteen when she asked to see the scars on my back. She told me stories she heard; some were actually worse than reality. I had worked through my pain, covering my childhood trauma with muscle but I still told her everything. She knew I had been beaten, burned, starved, and even raped. Marni learned it all, and yet she still married me.
I guess I owed her a little faith. “I have something I need to tell you.”
“Go ahead, I’ll listen as long as you need me to.”
I gave Marni an abridged version of my months of debauchery. From my drug use to my sexual encounters with men. I would like to say I was a victim but that wasn’t completely true. I was an addict. Maybe I was lonely too. “I’m sorry.”
Marni kissed my cheek, I could feel the fresh tears from her eyes. “It’s no worse than what your dad did to you.”
Her words brought about a wave of nausea. It made no sense why I craved what I did. By all logic, I should hate to be touched. I should fear it. “I-I don’t know what I am.”
“You’re Adam, my husband. You’re my partner, and my best friend. If you can swallow your pride, I can too. If you think you’re bi-sexual, that’s fine. I will stand by you. Not because I have to.” Marni placed her hand upon mine in a way that allowed our wedding rings to touch. “Because I want to.”
There was a moment of silence, a mourning for the last few years of our relationship. “Marni?”
“Could you get me a wheelchair?” I knew I couldn’t walk. My legs were still in agony. As I shifted my weight, I could feel a partial brace on my right leg and bandages on my left.
As she attempted to turn towards the door, I grabbed her hand with more strength then I thought possible. There was a moment as we locked eyes. “I love you, Marni.”
My wife smiled through tears. “I love you too.”
Marni left and returned, accompanied by a male nurse who connected my IV and oxygen to respective portable units.
It was a struggle to get out of bed, my body practically collapsing from the pain. The nurse got me in to the chair, allowing me a moment of rest. “Maybe this isn’t a good idea. I know he went into cardiac arrest on the way over.”
“He just needs a moment,” Marni replied, calmly. “Our daughter is only a few doors down.”
“I guess it couldn’t hurt. Lead the way.” The nurse pushed my wheelchair down the hallway, walking behind Marni.
My wife opened the door, holding it for the nurse. “Cece,sweetie,” she said out loud, “Your father is here.”
I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to see. My daughter was comatose, incubated with a breathing tube. Her eyes were closed, and her arms hung limp by her sides. She looked dead.
“She has a fever, from a blood infection,” Marni explained, her voice trembling. “The doctors can’t explain it. Her body just stopped fighting.”
I cupped my hand over my mouth, as I sobbed in to my oxygen mask. With all the strength I could muster, I lifted my arm, reaching out my hand. I knew my oxygen was dropping as I struggled to breathe. But in that moment all that mattered was touching her hand.
“Your husband is hyperventilating,” said the nurse, “we need to get him back to the room.”
The moment I heard those words my mind snapped. I tore off the oxygen mask and threw my body out of the wheelchair. I pulled myself to my daughter’s side. The bed was low enough for me to rest my head near her lap. Face down, my tears soaking the mattress, I said a soft prayer, “Please, I made it here. I did everything you asked. Please, Leo, save my daughter.”
“You have one trial remaining. Will you take on her pain?” The voice was a soft, ghostly breeze.
“Yes, I’ll do anything please just let her wake up.” I know I blacked out but for a moment I could have sworn I felt my daughter Cece’s hand on my shoulder.
Over the next few days I became sicker than I ever thought possible. My energy was so low, I could no longer function on my own. I awoke in a cold sweat, with an unbearable throbbing in my chest. The pain was so severe, I found myself begging for death. After a few dozen scans and tests, it was determined that my leg had to go. The most recent injury wasn’t healing, and the infection was causing a fever.
There was some debate as to wither surgery was even a viable option. My heart was too weak. I had only a twenty percent chance of survival, and that number was dropping lower and lower with every passing hour. As my wife, Marni had medical power of attorney. With my blessing she signed off on the surgery. Either I would die I wouldn’t.
The day of my surgery, my fever was so high I could no longer distinguish reality. The world around me was a blur. And my body was so cold I could feel every painful movement of my heart. As I went under full anesthesia I was unsure if I could even wake up. I hadn’t been able to visit Cece since my initial arrival, a thought that hung heavy on my mind.
“Just relax, sir, count down from ten,” said one voice.
“I don’t think he can even hear you,” said another. All the sounds blended together in to a mass of static.
‘Ten, Nine, Eight…’ In the darkness I could finally sit up. I got off the table, stepping away from my body. “Leo? please tell me it’s almost over.”
Leo was sitting in a corner. “I’ve been through some shit, but you, Man, you have seriously been cursed.”
I was naked, wrapped in a blue hospital blanket. I took a seat by his side. “What were you?”
Leo sighed. “Before I was an angel? I was a fuck-up, just like you. I think that’s why I was assigned to you.”
“So I can’t take the easy way out?”
“Adam Conner has never taken the easy way out.”
“Adam Conner?” The words cut me to my core. That was my father’s name, a name that was erased to history. My strength did not belong to him, my achievements did not belong to him. But above all else, my body and soul did not belong to him. Severgine was my mother’s name, my grandmother’s name. My daughter’s name. “Tell me straight, friend to friend, how difficult is this next part going to be?”
“You have cancer growing within the aortic walls of your heart. You’re probably going to undergo radiation therapy.”
‘Gee, is that all?’ I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. “So, what you’re saying is, my heart is going to race my liver and the winner gets to drag my ass to hell?”
“We’ll see. You have just one more trial.”
“Yup.” Leo nodded with a foreboding sense of dread. “The definition if gluttony is excessive indulgence.”
“I don’t understand.”
Leo ran his fingers through his hair, moving it out of his face. I almost wish he didn’t. The expression in his eye was one of pure dread. “I can’t explain it in words. Just..” Leo pursed his lips. “When someone is fighting gluttony… it rarely ever feel like it.”
“You’d think that gluttony means that you have a spread of stuff; food, opportunity, love, anything you could ever want, and all you have to do it show a little restraint- but that’s not it.”
“I’m not sure what’s about to happen but I have a feeling, you’re going to be given so little, the whole process is going to feel like a punishment. You’ll want to hold on to everything you can, but in order to pass this test you have to be able to let go.”
My mind raced with ideas of what that could mean. “I don’t know if I can do this.” I stood up, approaching the operating table. My physical body was calm, even as my leg was being amputated. Just how much was I going to lose? I touched my body fully prepared to reenter, when I started it flat line. ‘What the fuck? Am I meant to go back or not?’
I feel a hand touch my back, tingly and warm. Leo pressed his lips to my ear. “I promise, I’ll make it worth all the pain.”
I took a step back, away from my body, and as I did, the room filled with light. I was blind, unable to even see my own form, but I could feel everything.
“Ever wonder how angels make love?” The voice was Leo, he was standing directly behind me. I could feel his hands on my shoulders, working their way down my chest. I was no longer wrapped in a blanket. He kissed my neck, sending a shiver down my spine. “I know you want me.”
I could feel the breath catching in my chest. “I think I love you.”
Leo’s energy rippled down my body like liquid. “I love you too, Adam.” He kissed my lips, down my neck to my chest. “Like I said, we’re more alike than you know.”
I could feel the warmth of his touch on my stomach, my hips, my thighs. Raw, beautiful, passionate, sensations were holding me in a loving embrace. “Leo?”
“In this state I can be whatever you want me to be, whatever you need.”
I needed to be touched, to be loved, to know that there was no reason to feel any sense of self-doubt. I feel lips on my cock, an orgasm building in my core.
I can feel my body reclining comfortably on a bed. I blinked my eyes and I was nineteen again, clean shaven, the day of basic training graduation, in a roadside motel somewhere in Texas.
“Do you really have to go?” asks a female voice.
She turned to me, in bed by my side, she was naked except for a thin hotel sheet. “We could run away together. Maybe try for Mexico, or Canada.”
“You mean, like a draft dodger?”
“Exactly!” she said, her eyes lit up with a rebellious energy. “People haven’t been fleeing to Canada since the Vietnam war, right?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. “We don’t know anyone in Canada.”
“Exactly!” Marni giggled, brushing a lock of hair from her face. “We could disappear, just you and me.” She lifted her hand, letting her ring sparkle in the light. I had proposed to her during graduation, wearing the uniform that was now on the floor along with her sundress and heels.
I put my arms around Marni, holding her close. “No, babe, I need to provide for you; save some money, maybe go to college. I’ll make a life for you, for us.”
Marni sighed. “I love you Adam, more than anything in this world.” She softly kissed my chest. “But I fucking hate it when you talk like a grown up.”
I awoke in the ICU, groggy, with fresh bandages where my lower leg once was. My vision was still fuzzy but I no longer felt like I was dying of fever.
Someone was holding my hand. This person has small, delicate fingers that struggled to grip. “Hi, Dad.”