Tony Albion sighed as he threw the last of the pallets on the pile and brushed his hands together. He stalked out of the storeroom and headed to the break room, where he opened his locker and grabbed his bag. He slammed the locker door shut and made a beeline for the exit.
“Hey, Tony.” A male voice stopped him in his tracks and he turned.
“What is it, John? I just want to get out of here,” Tony sighed.
“Nigel called off again for tomorrow,” John said. “That’s three days now. Says he’s sick.”
“It’s not my business if the boss calls in sick,” Tony said. “Why are you telling me?”
“No, of course not,” John said. “Just thought you might want to… you know, go check on him.”
“Oh, give it a damn rest,” Tony said. “How many times do I have to tell you–”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever,” John said. “I just figured I would let you know. He’s had a ten year perfect record for attendance and then he calls off three days in a row? It just seems strange to me. I figured I’d tell you since you’re the only one who knows where he lives.”
“Maybe he just wants a break,” Tony said. “He’s earned one, don’t you think?”
“Sure, maybe that’s it,” John said. “Or perhaps he’s really sick.”
“You just want me to go check up on him just to satisfy your curiosity?” Tony said.
“I’m not the one that’s curious,” John said. “Look, I was just letting you know. That’s all.” He shrugged. “See you tomorrow.”
Tony walked away, ignoring John’s barb as he punched out. I’m not the one that’s curious. What would you know, you asshole?
Tony left the grocery store and unlocked his car door. It was a blazing hot summer day and he sweltered in his uniform as he drove through town. Maybe I should check in on Nigel. What if he’s really sick? He could need medical help. He ramped the air conditioning up in his car and relaxed as the cool air washed over him. No, I should stay away. There have been enough rumors about us to last a lifetime. I don’t need to add fuel to the fire. Especially if he is actually sick.
As he made his way through town he found himself turning onto the road where Nigel’s house was despite himself. I’ll just drive past. I’ll just see if his car is there, check there’s no waiting ambulance outside… He felt his stomach drop at the thought and was relieved to see no activity at the house.
Maybe I should stop. Just knock on the door and ask how he’s doing. That’s all. Just to see if he’s okay. He pulled his car into an empty parking spot and brushed his hands through his muddy blond hair. He took the sunglasses he used for driving off and left them on the dashboard, then put them on again, then looked in the mirror and reconsidered, putting them back in the glasses holder above his rearview mirror.
I’m just going to see a sick coworker. I don’t need to worry about how I look. He got out of the car and opened the little gate that led to Nigel’s house. Grass that had once been neatly mowed now grew wildly, and the house was in need of some repairs. Rumor has it that this was once his family home, that he lived here with his wife and daughter before he was caught with a male prostitute. Rumor says a lot of things. Who’s to say what is true and what is just bored housewives’ chatter?
Tony looked for a doorbell but found none and simply knocked on the door three times. Standing on the step, he felt awkward and out of place as an old woman gawked at him from two houses over. I shouldn’t be here, he thought. People will talk. It’s a small town.
He was about to walk away when the door opened and Nigel stood there, looking disheveled in a torn t-shirt and jeans. He was in his forties but attractive for an older man, with black hair and a beard that was peppered with grey. He looked more like a writer then a grocery store manager and Tony had always wondered how he had fallen to such a position in the world, but there was no proof that he had ever held a higher job. His dress didn’t seem to indicate otherwise as tired blue eyes ringed with red looked at him.
“Oh, Tony,” Nigel said. “Came to check on me? Let me guess, the others are curious and they sent you to get information?”
“They’re nosing in as usual, but that’s not why I came,” Tony said, suddenly feeling young and awkward. “I just wanted to see if you were okay.”
“I guess you’d better come in,” Nigel said, brushing his hand back through his hair awkwardly, as if suddenly aware of his messy state and attempting to rectify it in a hurry.
Tony stepped into the hallway, an old dark carpet covered with an even older rug. Paintings adorned the walls, but few photos, Tony noticed, as he was led to the living room.
“Have a seat,” Nigel said. “You want a beer?”
“I’d rather a soda, if you have one,” Tony said. The heat was giving him a raging thirst and the air conditioning unit in Nigel’s living room was struggling to keep pace.
“Yeah, of course,” Nigel said. He disappeared into the kitchen and came back with an ice cold can that he gently placed on the table. He was holding a beer and sat down in an aged recliner, opening it and drinking slowly.
They sat that way in silence for a few moments, Tony sipping at his soda in the absence of something to say and Nigel drawing on his beer as if to gather his words. It was Tony who eventually broke the silence.
“Are you okay?” Tony asked.
“Depends what you mean by okay,” Nigel said. “Okay to come back to work, sure, for a while at least.”
“For a while?” Tony was suddenly aware of the cold cola snaking its way down his throat to his stomach as if it was made of liquid nitrogen. “What do you mean?”
“I mean don’t worry about me,” Nigel said. “It’s nothing for you to worry about.”
“Is that your way of saying it’s none of my business?” Tony asked.
“It’s my way of saying it’s better off if you don’t know,” Nigel said. “We’ll go back to work, you can keep making doe eyes at me and I’ll pretend not to notice, because it would be a huge breach of everything I’ve been taught to date an employee.”
Tony wanted to say something, but Nigel’s words sank in and he flapped his mouth wordlessly, all conscious thought cut off at the root. He forgot all about Nigel’s illness and fought to regain control of his lost poker face.
“You thought I didn’t know. I’m not an idiot, you know. I know when somebody likes me.” Nigel smiled, the warmest emotion Tony had seen since he had stepped in the door.
“Am I that obvious?” Tony asked.
“Yeah, pretty much,” Nigel said. “Don’t worry about it, Tony. I’m not offended. I’m flattered. It’s sweet. But it’s also not possible for us to ever have a relationship. I’m your boss. Besides, you don’t really know me. Everything the rumors say? I’ve done all that and worse. A guy in his twenties like you should be out having fun, not hanging onto a twisted fuck twice your age.”
“Having fun? Do we live in the same town?” Tony asked.
“Sure we do. What, you want me to show you a good time, is that it? If you want, I can take you to a gay bar. I know a couple around here.”
“Really?” Tony looked away. “But you’re my boss…”
“It’s not against the rules to have some fun, to take a friend out on the town. Otherwise, nobody would work anywhere, ever.” Nigel put his beer can down. “Besides, I could use a good time. Get out of this skin for a while, have a few drinks and a good laugh.” He looked sadly into space, carefully not looking at Tony as he composed his thoughts.
“Tomorrow, then?” Tony asked. “It’s Friday, after all.”
“Sure, sounds good,” Nigel said. “I won’t be at work tomorrow, though.”
“I know,” Tony said. “John told me. That’s why I came over here. To see if you were okay. Only you still haven’t answered that question.” Tony looked directly at him. “In fact, you’ve approached every subject but that since we started talking.”
Nigel swallowed, stood up, as if to escape. Tony stood up and walked over to him, grabbing his arm before he could make a getaway into the kitchen.
“Whatever it is, you can tell me,” Tony said. “I won’t tell anybody at work. I swear it.”
“I know you won’t,” Nigel said. He sighed, acutely aware of the heat coming from Tony’s hand that was resting on his forearm. Tony’s eyes looked into his, desperate, searching, and Nigel knew that he had to give him the answer.
“I have cancer.” Tony’s hand let go of his arm as if he was stung, his eyes widening.
“What?” The cola in his gut seemed to freeze solid and melt again in a heartbeat, the pain of fear coiling in his gut. “Where?”
“Lungs.” Nigel’s voice was tight. “Stage 3.”
“What does that mean?” Tony knew he shouldn’t ask, that Nigel was still processing it himself but the terror within him demanded answers.
“It means I’m going to die.” Nigel slumped into the recliner, defeated, the reality setting in as he spoke the words. He suddenly looked old and tired beyond his years, his face crumpling as he struggled to hold back the tears.
Should I stay or should I go? Part of Tony wanted to flee the scene, to run away from the fact that Nigel was going to die and pretend he had never heard, but there was another, stronger part of him that held tender feelings for his boss and that side won out as he stepped up to the recliner and put his hand on Nigel’s arm.
“I’m sorry,” Tony said, in a choked whisper. “I didn’t mean to push–”
“Perhaps I needed to be pushed,” Nigel said. “You’re the first person I’ve told. I haven’t said a word to anybody else. I’ve been too scared.”
“Scared of what?” Tony asked.
“Scared they won’t care,” Nigel said. “Scared they’ll be glad. I haven’t been good to the people in my life, Tony. My ex-wife doesn’t talk to me, and I never fought to see my daughter. She must be grown up now, but I wouldn’t know her if I saw her in the street.”
“Nobody’s going to be glad,” Tony said.
“You’re a good guy. Of course you think that,” Nigel said. He sighed and reached for a pack of cigarettes that were sitting on a side table.
“That’s not a good idea,” Tony said.
“It’s a little late to be worrying about that,” Nigel said. He lit up and inhaled, the smoke filling his lungs. He let it out in a sharp cough that seemed to rack his whole body. Tony snatched the cigarette from him in a bold move and snuffed it out in the ashtray.
“What are you, my mother?” Nigel said. “Don’t be an idiot, Tony. Don’t let yourself get emotionally invested in my fate. If you want to hang out at a bar and help me enjoy a few good times, okay, but don’t get wrapped up in this. You’re too young to watch somebody die.”
“I’m already emotionally invested,” Tony said. “I’ve been working with you for two years, hanging on every word you say. I’ve enjoyed every joke you told me, appreciated every piece of advice you’ve given me, been grateful for every time you got those asshole coworkers off my back–”
“Now you’ve got to let go,” Nigel said. “If I quit work tomorrow, you’d never see me again, and you’d get on with your life, right? So think of it like that. I won’t come back to work if it will make it easier on you. I might not be well enough to anyway, once I start treatment.”
“You’re dying,” Tony said. “I can’t just abandon you. I won’t let you die alone.”
“I won’t accept your pity,” Nigel said. “I’ve made peace with my life, Tony. Yeah, I’m scared to go. Who isn’t? But I’m not going to drag you down with me when you could be out enjoying your life. Forget about me. I’m okay here by myself.”
“It’s not pity,” Tony said, “and no, you’re not okay here by yourself. I can see the fear in your eyes. You could have told me to get off your doorstep, that it was none of my business, but you let me in and you let me coax it out of you because you were desperate to tell somebody who would listen. Well, I’m listening. I want to help you with this. I want to be here for you.”
Nigel smiled wanly. He took Tony’s hand and squeezed it, looking into Tony’s wide eyes. He saw tenderness and affection there and turned away. It’s too much. I can’t bear to look into those eyes. Just me me die alone, Tony. I’ve hurt a lot of people. It’s what I deserve.
Tony’s hand was soft against his cheek, caressing his beard in a ghostly whisper of a touch as he drew closer. Nigel drew in a soft gasp as he realized how long it had been since he had felt somebody else touch him that way. There have been drunks and male prostitutes, bar rats and young, desperate virgins, but they never looked into my eyes this way. They never touched me right down to my soul. I feel naked, but I want to be naked. I want to show him everything in one final act of love and trust before this soul withers away into dust.
Nigel let his hands touch Tony’s soft, clean-shaven face and drew him into a deep kiss. Tony was eager as his eyes closed and he let himself be consumed in the kiss as it grew deeper. Nigel could feel Tony pressing him down into the recliner with a thousand nights of fantasy on his mind and he couldn’t help but indulge his own sinful nature as he ground his hips up against Tony’s.
The kiss ended as Tony pulled back with a gasp for breath. He came back to himself and realized where he was with frightened eyes. Nigel reached for the bulge in his crotch and fondled. Tony gasped, losing the fight to keep his senses about him as his conscious mind was flooded with desire.
I could have him here and now, Nigel realized. A few more touches and he’ll do anything I ask, but I sense fear and hesitation. I can’t take anything I want just because I’m dying. He’s a boy with a crush, nothing more, and I’m asking too much. He stopped touching Tony and Tony backed away, standing up with a frightened look in his eyes. Like a rabbit about to bolt, Nigel realized, and sure enough Tony was heading for the door, rushing outside and to his car. Nigel let him go with a sense of sadness.
He laid his heart out for you and you pushed it too far. Good job, Nigel. Now you’ll get exactly what you deserve. Now you’ll die alone. He closed his eyes as he lie back in the recliner, desire throbbing through his body with nobody to receive it.