Block and Strike(5)

By: Kelly Jensen


God, why did he have a girlfriend? Of all the stupid, stupid—

“Okay, what’s her number?”

“Ah….” He didn’t know it. What sort of freak didn’t know his girlfriend’s number?

The sort of freak who shouldn’t even have a girlfriend.

Let’s not go there right now, eh?

“Mr. Wilson?”

“Huh?”

“You okay there?”

“Her number was in my cell.” Which had conveniently disappeared along with his wallet. At least this time he’d been beaten up for a reason he could explain… and share.

“Maybe we can look her up?”

Ugh. Max put his hands to his head and instantly regretted it. His head was a massive bruise and every movement sent pain radiating toward his broken nose. He shut his eyes and willed away the flashes of feet and fists, the sound of knuckles smacking his jaw, his skull hitting the wall. The grunts, the groans, the stink of their breath. The harshly whispered threats. The world tilted. Groaning, Max dropped his hands to the bed in an effort to steady himself, despite the fact he was already lying down. Slitting his one eye open, he sought a focal point.

The nurse swam into view, her eyes wide with alarm. “Here, let me help you.”

Her hands were warm on his shoulders. The back of his eyes burned. Max sucked in a breath, then another, the sharp edge of air hurting his chest. Pain surged through his temples and down his nose. Maybe he should reconsider the tests. No, he’d been hurt this badly before and survived. He allowed the nurse to push him back against the pillows and lay there, eyes closed, hoping she’d go away. He didn’t want her to be nice to him—she’d make him cry. The sound of the hospital pulsed through him for a while before fading. Max followed it down the rabbit hole, only sort of hoping he’d wake up again.

He did wake sometime later, aware he was alone. Someone—the nurse, probably—had dimmed the light and pulled the door closed. Gingerly, Max rolled his head to the side. A curtain separated his bed from the next. He could see lumps under the blanket at the end of the other bed. A neighbor in hell. Had his roommate had the stuffing kicked out of him as well? Were they in the beaten-to-a-pulp ward, otherwise known as Stupid City?

Even sighing hurt. When could he go home? Alone?

Max hated his apartment. It was a hole. But he also loved the cramped space, because it was his and his alone. He didn’t have to listen to the guy next door doing his girlfriend three or four times a night, bedsprings groaning rhythmically until the headboard knocked against the wall.

Mutinously, his memory served up the night he’d taken Melanie up to his room for a bit of privacy. He’d been sharing a house with three other guys and two of them often entertained downstairs. He and Melanie had sat side by side on his bed, hands joined like naïve teenagers, and watched each other’s eyes widen as the rhythm of the springs next door raced toward a crescendo. It might have been all right if they could have laughed about it. But they hadn’t. They’d stared at one another in morbid fascination. They’d blushed at the same time.

What Melanie saw in him, Max couldn’t guess. She professed to like the fact he wasn’t handsy. Little did she know.

Max pushed up out of the nest of thin, bleachy pillows and edged his legs toward the side of the bed. He wanted to go home—go hide in his cave until he had to work. He had a shift tonight and a thorough beating wouldn’t keep him from doing his job. If he was ever going to make something of himself, prove he was a man—tall and proud—he needed to do his job.

The floor refused to stay flat beneath his feet and someone had taken to whacking him on the side of the head with a cast-iron skillet. One, two, three. The room pulsed in time to the clanging in his skull. Slowly, he picked his way across the floor. His pants were in an open closet opposite the bed. They didn’t smell too good. His shirt had disappeared. Could he put the stupid hospital gown back on, right side around, with the closure at the front instead of the back? They’d probably all been looking at his ass in the ER.

The world dipped and swayed as he pulled his pants over trembling legs. Max caught himself against a wall and waited for his head to stop ringing and the vision out of his one eye to clear. The door to the room cracked open and a shaft of light thrust across the floor.