Jason Davis can handle a breakup. And an overwhelming mortgage. And a struggling business. And the excruciating pain that keeps him up at night thanks to a shoulder injury. But all of it at once? Not so much. When his shoulder finally pushes him to a breaking point, Jason takes a friend’s advice and gives acupuncture a try.
Acupuncturist Michael Whitman is a single dad struggling to make ends meet. When a mutual friend refers Jason as a patient, and Jason suggests a roommate arrangement to alleviate their respective financial strains, Michael jumps at the opportunity.
But Jason soon finds himself regretting it—he’s too damn attracted to Michael, and living with him is harder than he thought it’d be. In fact, the temptation to act on his feelings would almost be too much if not for the fact that Michael is straight. Or at least, that’s what their mutual friend claims.
One night without pain didn’t seem like too much to ask. Just eight goddamned hours of uninterrupted unconsciousness. No scalding hot showers at three fifteen. No forcing back nausea long enough to throw down a few pills. No waking up convinced I’d been run over by a truck.
Either it really was too much to ask, or I was asking the wrong deity, because I was awake again. And tonight, the pain was excruciating.
It had jarred me out of a semisound sleep in the form of a white-hot blade extending from my left collarbone to the back of my shoulder. It didn’t matter how many times this happened, it always startled me, and it always made my eyes water.
Biting back curses, I carefully freed myself from Kyle’s—Kevin’s?—arms and gingerly sat up. Once I was upright, I took a few slow, deep breaths until the pain subsided enough for me to focus my eyes.
The alarm clock said a little past five, which meant I’d been asleep for less than an hour. Now that was just cruel, damn it.
I needed a hot shower. I got up, moving carefully and quietly so I wouldn’t wake up . . . whatever his name was.
In the shower, I closed my eyes and breathed while the water—turned as hot as I could stand—beat on my shoulder. My doctor insisted on ice instead of heat, but fuck that. Ice made the spasms worse.
After ten solid minutes under the hot water, the pain receded a little. I tried to find comfort in that minor relief, but I knew better. As soon as I was out of the shower, the pain would come right back, sinking unseen teeth into my left shoulder.
Slowly releasing my breath, I focused on my game plan. Once the water stopped, I’d have less than five minutes to get downstairs, eat something, and take a painkiller. Any longer than that, and the spasms would have a chance to move back in before I could head them off at the pass with a bit of chemical intervention. As long as I could do it in that time, I stood a small chance of getting some sleep.
In theory, anyway.
Toweling off was never a pleasant procedure with a fucked-up shoulder. I dried myself enough to keep from dripping all over the hardwood floors—slipping and busting my ass wouldn’t help matters.
I just hoped to God I could get to the bottle of painkillers before the spasms came back, especially since it sometimes hurt bad enough to nauseate me. That, in turn, complicated the whole “eat a few bites and take a pill” part of the equation.
I wrapped the towel around my waist and headed downstairs. In the kitchen, I flicked on the light above the stove. I wasn’t big on convenience food, but I kept things like bagels around specifically for when I needed to take a pain pill. Something quick that wouldn’t aggravate the nausea that showed up on the worst nights. Nights like this.
I’d have kept it all upstairs, along with the painkillers, but I’d convinced myself that if I had to wake up completely and come all the way down to the kitchen instead of popping a pill while I was half-asleep, then I’d only take them when I absolutely needed to.
In theory, anyway.
I settled on half a bagel, and while I slowly, carefully ate that, I stared down the bottle of pills the same way I did every time this happened.
Is it really bad enough tonight, Jason?
Can you suck it up and sleep on it?
Do you really need this?
I rolled my shoulder, and the motion carved bright red lines along my collarbone and through the muscles. My eyes stung, and for a couple of seconds, I couldn’t even draw a breath. Yeah, I needed the pill.
I swallowed it. In a few minutes, I’d go back to bed, and with any luck the drug would kick in before sunrise. Hopefully it would at least take the edge off; I’d been using this shit so long, I was building up a tolerance, and it helped less and less every time. My doctor had suggested a higher dose or a stronger narcotic, but I’d balked. I was dependent enough already.
Sighing, I rested my hands on the counter and slowly tilted my head, trying to stretch the muscles across my shoulder blade. Not that it ever helped, but that didn’t stop me from trying.
Something had to change besides my painkiller dosage. I had a business to run, a life to live. Lack of sleep and an abundance of pain interfered with every goddamned thing from driving my car to enjoying my sad excuse for a sex life.
Pursing my lips, I glanced at the stairs leading up to my bedroom where Kevin—no, I was pretty sure his name was Kyle—was still asleep. Just once, it would be nice to have sex with someone without having to modify everything we did to keep from aggravating my shoulder. Nothing killed the mood or took the luster off an orgasm quite like fierce, unrelenting pain. I couldn’t even enjoy rough sex anymore because I spent the whole time worrying that our pursuit of good pain would trigger the not-so-good pain. Sex wasn’t very appealing when this was the end result.
But Kyle had given me that look while I was getting ready to close the club last night, and it hadn’t taken me long to decide, Oh, what the hell? He was cute, he was aggressive, and he was a damned good kisser. When I could hear him over the music, he’d whispered the filthiest things in my ear. One flirty hand over the front of my pants, and I’d stopped trying to talk myself out of it.
I rubbed my shoulder, silently begging the spasms not to spread up my neck or down my back before the drugs kicked in.
This had to stop. I couldn’t live like this.
“You know,” my friend Seth’s voice echoed in my head, “I keep telling you—”
“I’ll pass on the acupuncture. If I’m going to spend money, I’d rather spend it on something that actually helps, you know?”
“Suit yourself,” he’d said with a shrug and gone back to working on my tattoo. “But if you change your mind, give me a buzz, and I’ll hook you up with a guy who can help.”
In the silence of my kitchen, I closed my eyes and kneaded the back of my neck as the stiffness crept upward. For the first time, I was truly tempted to get that number from Seth.
But then there was money. All the worsening financial problems that kept me awake when my shoulder didn’t. Things had been spiraling out of control since I’d lost my business partner last year, and it hadn’t gotten any better when Wes moved out, taking his half of the mortgage payment with him. Ironically, my relentless pain had been one of the catalysts for our breakup, and the breakup had created more problems, which had stressed me out enough to make my shoulder worse. If irony were a painkiller, I wouldn’t have this damned ongoing Percocet prescription.
The muscles knotted tighter. The tension climbed higher, inching toward my hairline and clawing its way around to the other side of my neck. Stiffness coiled around my spine, descending toward the middle of my back. The more I worried, the more it hurt. The more it hurt, the more I worried.
To hell with it. Tomorrow, I’d get that number from Seth. I really couldn’t afford it, but oh fucking well. Maybe the acupuncture would help.
I prayed to anyone who’d listen that it would.
By the grace of God and coffee, I was able to drive safely the next morning. Cameron, as his name turned out to be, lived on the other side of town, and since I was headed that way anyway, I took him home.
As my car idled in front of his apartment building, he grinned and said, “Give me a call if you ever want a rematch.”
I returned the grin. “Bet on it.”
He made no move to kiss me, just winked and got out of the car. I hadn’t decided yet if I’d call him. Probably not. He certainly wasn’t lacking in bed, but I wasn’t interested in much beyond a one-night stand right now. Maintaining a relationship was a bitch when someone started equating “my shoulder hurts too much” with “I have a headache.” Casual sex with men whose names I barely knew was less stressful these days.
After I’d left Cameron’s apartment, I pulled into another parking lot and dialed Seth’s cell phone. Surprise, surprise, it went straight to voice mail. That meant he was either working on someone or fucking someone. Probably the former, since Saturdays were the shop’s busiest days.
I set my phone on the passenger seat, turned on to the main road, and headed over to the Light District. This was the town’s unofficial gay neighborhood. Seattle had Capitol Hill. San Francisco had the Castro District. Tucker Springs had the Light District.
At ten o’clock on a Saturday morning, the streets weren’t that busy. Once more shops and the breweries opened around the cobblestone town square and along the narrow side streets, the place would be crawling with locals and tourists alike. For now, it was mostly deserted.
It was here, half a block from the tourist magnet town square and not far from my nightclub, that Seth had set up his tattoo shop. Sitting under a couple of loft apartments, Ink Springs fit in surprisingly well with the old-style brick storefronts of the New Age shop and the used bookstore on either side. It was a far cry from one of those shady, grungy shops in the more questionable parts of town, and Seth had gone for a tasteful sign that didn’t stick out like a rock-band T-shirt at a black-tie gathering.
The “open” sign in the window was dim, but the shop lights were on. I parked between Seth’s beat-up red Chevy S10 and a gray sedan, then went to the door.
It was locked, but Seth looked up from working on the back of a guy lying facedown on one of the black leather tables. Seth gave a sharp nod and set his tattoo gun aside. He said something to his client, then came across the shop, peeling off his rubber gloves as he walked.
He turned the dead bolt and let me in. “Hey Jason. I wasn’t expecting you.”
“Yeah, sorry to bug you at work,” I said as he locked the door behind me. “I, um, I wanted to ask you about that acupuncturist friend of yours.”
Seth’s eyes widened. “You’re actually going to call him?”
“I . . . maybe.”
He grimaced. “Bad night?”
“Real bad.” I chewed my lip. “You really believe in the stuff he does?”
“Absolutely,” he said without hesitation. “Hand to God, it’s—”
“Oh, that’s meaningful coming from an atheist heathen.”
He laughed. “What can I say? But I swear, the shit works like a damned charm. It drives me fucking crazy too. It shouldn’t work. It doesn’t make a bit of sense, but”—he shrugged with one shoulder—“it does.”
“Really? It seems so . . .”
Seth smirked. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of needles.”
“I wouldn’t get that past you, would I?”
“Not a chance.” He had, after all, been the one I’d trusted to carve a much more bearable variety of pain into my upper arm.
“Okay, it’s not the needles. I just don’t get how it’s supposed to work.”
“I guess it, I don’t know, gets the Qi moving the right way or . . . yeah, something like that.”
“The Qi? Seriously? You of all people buy into that?”
“I don’t know if I buy the Qi part, but something works.”
“I can’t believe anyone talked you into even trying it.”
“It took him a while, believe me. I’ve known Michael since before he went to Hokey Pokey school, and he still had to twist my arm for two years after I had my car accident.” Seth gestured at his neck. “Made all the difference in the world. That shit’s amazing.”
“So what finally changed your mind? Did he bring you a stack of peer-reviewed studies or what?”
“Honestly?” Seth glanced at his waiting client, then turned to me again. “I was in so fucking much pain after that wreck, and nothing was helping. Michael sat me down and told me he couldn’t deal with seeing me like that when he had a shot at helping me. And then he said the worst-case scenario was that it would do nothing, and the best-case scenario was that I’d be able to sleep again.”
Sleep. God. Sleep.
“All right. Sold.” I gestured at Seth’s client. “Don’t let me keep you from your work. I can get the number when you’re done.”
“The hell you can.” He nodded toward the desk behind the counter. “My cell is next to the computer. It’s an awfully technical phone, but I’m sure you—”
“Shut up.” I chuckled.
Seth returned to his client and put on a pair of fresh gloves. As the tattoo gun buzzed to life again, I took the phone off Seth’s desk and turned it on.
“It’s listed as Tucker Springs Acupuncture,” he said without looking up from his work.
“Got it.” I found the listing and sent it from his phone to mine. “Thanks, man.”
“Anytime. Good luck.”