When the attack came, there was no warning.
It was almost one-thirty a.m., and Cracker’s Bar was closing. Bodene Eichmann stumbled across the graveled parking lot at the back end of the property, one arm hooked around Nathan Bradford’s neck. His best friend giggled at one of Bo’s preposterous comments. The night sky was clear and crisp; a crescent moon and at least a million stars, winked at the two men as they confirmed plans to meet for lunch the next day. In as much as was possible, Bo was happy in that moment.
“Thanks for listening to me whine tonight.”
Nate’s breath puffed vapor clouds as he chuckled, wiggling into the relative warmth of Bo’s body. “You’re a mess, but a beautiful one. Glad I was here for ya.”
Pausing beside Nate’s Toyota Corolla, Bo trapped his friend against the driver’s door as he leaned in for a friendly, beer-infused kiss. “Night, buddy,” he said, straightening to his full five-foot-eleven height. “See you to–”
Out of nowhere rough hands grabbed Bo’s arms and yanked, sending him sprawling on the graveled lot.
“What the fu–” A metal-tipped boot connected with Bo’s ribs, ending his shocked response and sending blinding pain ricocheting through his body. Eyes watering, breath catching, and stomach pitching, he instinctively curled in on himself, arms protecting his torso. A heartbeat later, he looked up into the hate-filled face of his brother.
“Jude?” Bo pushed to his hands and knees, one arm still clutching his ribs as he watched his brother warily. The fact that Jude was in San Diego and not east Texas, made the encounter chillingly ominous. Had his brother been so intent on revenge he’d spent over a year of his life tracking Bo down? Fourteen months and thirteen hundred miles was a hell of a lot of hate!
“What the **** Bodene?” Jude leaned in close enough that Bo could smell tobacco and hard liquor on his breath. “You think you’re some card-carryin’, ************* ***** now, little brother?” His booted foot connected with Bo’s gut, lifting with enough force to send him sprawling again. Agony wrapped clawed talons around his ribcage and squeezed.
“Stop!” Nate sobbed, his five-foot-seven frame struggling to break free of the men holding him. Bo didn’t recognize either of them, but he wouldn’t. He and Jude had never run in the same circles.
Suddenly, Jude turned his attention on Nate. “Lookee here, boys. The little eunuch thinks he’s got balls.” A hard fist swung, connecting with Nate’s gut, then an uppercut crashed into his jaw. Nate’s scream echoed in the space around them as blood spewed from his nose and mouth, and his slight body crumpled under the assault.
“Leave him the **** alone!” Bo tried to scrabble to his feet and reach Nate, but rough hands grabbed him and slammed him back to the ground.
“I see you like ‘em small an’ pretty.” The loathing in Jude’s voice seeped into every pore. “I hear tell you like **** up your ass, Bodeen. That true?” Jude’s words slurred as he gained momentum, his detestation obviously fueled by alcohol.
****! Why hadn’t he anticipated this? “Please Jude, just let Nate go.” Bo hated that he was forced to beg, but desperation didn’t clothe itself in pride. “This is between you and me. Leave him out of it, man.” Cold, hard laughter met his plea. The total lack of humanity in that sound left Bo chilled to his core. Jesus! Did his brother hate him that much? Just how far would he go to avenge his warped sense of honor?
“Shut the **** up you snivelin’ little *****!” Bits of chew and spittle sputtered from his mouth as Jude’s anger escalated. “A year ago you were a puffed up little soldier, fresh home from playin’ war games. All juiced up on testosterone ‘n ****, braggin’ ‘bout comin’ out.”
“Marine,” Bo snarled, teeth bared. “I’m a ******* Marine, ********, not a Soldier.” The rebuttal was a verbal gauntlet. Bo knew his brother would never let the retort go unchallenged, especially in front of his cronies. Jude’s wrath would most likely play out in a painful beating, but it wouldn’t be the first time. Above all, Bo had to protect Nate. His friend’s small, willowy frame and gentle nature would never survive the brutality his brother was capable of inflicting. The longer Jude’s fury centered on Bo, the greater the chance Nate would make it out of here alive. Surely, someone would hear something? Help them?
More laughter, and a heartbeat later, Bo heard a loud snap-crack. Fire welted down his back and across his right thigh. Crying out, he tried to scramble out of range, but rough hands locked onto his arms and dragged him back; a booted foot pinned his face to the gravel.
Jude paced back and forth, tapping the handle of a black leather whip against the open palm of his left hand. “You filthy piece of **** *******
CRACK! The whip snapped, kicking up dirt near Bo’s head. He squeezed his eyes shut as gravel stung his face.
“You have no idea what you put us through, Bodene.” CRACK! “You jus’ had to come out loud ‘n proud, didn’t ya? Were you thinkin’ we’d all just start huggin’ and singin’ Kumbaya, or what?” CRACK!
There was no point trying to reason with insanity. His family had jumped on the white supremacist **** wagon a long time ago, and they weren’t about to question a doctrine that handed them a carte blanche hate card. Just keep Jude’s anger focused on you.
Knowing what his next words would cost him, Bo spat dirt from his mouth and started singing in a raspy, off-key monotone, “Kumbaya…my Lord…kum ba–”
SNAP! CRACK! Fury lashed out with lightning speed, opening flesh along the edge of Bo’s jaw and cutting into his shoulder and upper arm. He screamed. A dark, coppery-tasting liquid filled his mouth, and Bo coughed, spitting blood. The boot pressing his face into the dirt was gone now, but he couldn’t take advantage of that miniscule scrap of freedom. Curling in on himself, Bo tried to suck oxygen into his lungs, fighting the nausea that pitched and rolled through his gut. He could hear Nate shrieking for help and sobbing, but he didn’t dare look. As long as his friend wasn’t the center of attention he had a chance.
“You ain’t so ********* tough now are you, Marine? You’re jus’ a pathetic little freak boy that’s gonna burn in hell. God ********* hates *******, Bodene! Now, I want to know where you put that little tape you made.”
“**** you, Jude!”
CRACK! Leather sliced into Bo’s forearms as he cradled his head, trying to protect his face. The whip bit into flesh again and again, igniting an inferno along his legs and back. Bo’s body jerked spasmodically, but he was past screaming now. Every breath was a struggle, and his brain floated in a sea of agony with no conscious awareness of where the pain began or ended.
Nate’s hysterical screams mingled with the maniacal laughter of their attackers, weaving in and out of Bo’s head like a distorted death metal song, the perfect backdrop to the sanity-sucking agony consuming his body.
Someone shouted in the distance.
The yelling escalated, coming closer, but Bo was beyond the ability to decipher words or comprehend what was happening around him. His flesh was on fire, every breath torture. This is it, he thought. I’m going to die. Here. Now. He’d survived almost four years in Afghanistan, only to come home and run headlong into the grim reaper, mocking him from behind Jude’s hate-filled eyes. How ******* ironic is that ****?
What about Nathan? Was he dead? Bo craned his neck enough to locate his friend. He was crumpled in a bloody heap, a few feet away.
A motor revving. Tires screeching. Gravel and dirt flying.
Clutching his right arm to his side, Bo tried to ease the agony of breathing as he clawed his way forward, inch by inch. Chaos echoed around him, but tunnel vision took over. He ignored everything but the need to reach his friend. It seemed like hours before he was close enough to grab Nate’s hand.
“Nate,” he croaked.
There was no answer, but he felt the barest squeeze of Nate’s fingers.
“I’m…sorry.” Bo’s words were an agonized rasp of sound, but Nate squeezed his fingers again.
“Not…your…fault.” Nate’s voice sounded strangled, the words barely audible.
It was his fault! Bo should have known Jude would hunt him down. In his brother’s eyes there was family honor at stake, and his need for vengeance was fueled by the belief that among his supremacist brethren, losing face to a *** was indefensible. Bo wanted to beg forgiveness but he could barely suck air into his lungs, and the agony in his body was drowning every thought in fiery molasses.
His flesh had incinerated, but Arctic ice floes began drifting under that inferno. Bo’s extremities felt numb and cold, burning with a different kind of pain. Trembling from the sudden frigid onslaught, he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to focus on breathing, forcing his mind away from the anguish he couldn’t control.
Bo didn’t recognize the voice, but he heard shock and horror in those two words. Help had finally arrived. Thank God!
“Holy ****!” Another voice. Lower pitched. “What the **** happened here?”
“The **** man? Jesus, how bad are they, Ty?”
“Dis be some ****** down baaaad ****, Teag. Ah’ duzn’t know, man, but dis kid’s bout ta bleed out.”
Bo was drowning in a sea of strange voices. He didn’t know any of these people. Please God, let Nate be okay.
“I called 9-1-1, Teag,” the first voice was talking again. “A bus is on the way.”
9-1-1. Bo’s brain wrapped itself around that single thought like a drowning man clutching a life preserver. Please God, let Nate be okay.
“How can I help, Ty?” A new voice. Soft. Deep. The gentle, lilting quality was oddly soothing.
“**** Pree, ****** off yo’ shirt and start cuttin’ strips, bro. We needs t’stop some uh dis bleedin’.”
“On it. I got this one, Ty. You go help the other guy. He’s pretty bad.”
Bo heard fabric tearing and felt gentle hands moving along his extremities. He tried to stop the moans tumbling from his lips, but he couldn’t. It was as if he’d suddenly stepped outside his own body and had to observe, no longer in control of even the slightest reactions.
“Man, if ah’ find whoeva’ dun did dis, I’m gonna make dem kick d’ cud, slow and painful.”
“Word.” Another voice Bo didn’t recognize. Dark and raspy. “I get the first cut.”
“Help me get him on his back, Clint.”
The lilting voice was nice. Bo wanted to get lost in that calm, gentle sound, but suddenly fresh waves of agony overwhelmed him. The inferno was back, devouring his body with renewed ferocity. “****! Nooooooo,” he begged.
A moment later, Bo felt fingers stroking his cheek. “It’s okay, buddy. Help’s on the way,” the lilting voice said close to his ear. “Hang in there for me, okay?”
He tried to nod, then moaned as fire licked over raw, exposed nerve endings. “Help…Nate.” Bo could barely choke the words past swollen, bloody lips as he fought to stay conscious. Please God, let Nate be okay.
As long as Nate survived, Bo didn’t care what happened to him. Not anymore. He’d fought his abnormal urges his entire life. His father and brother hadn’t been able to beat it out of him. Hell, not even the Corps could eradicate that part of Bo’s genetic make-up, and he was pretty sure they’d tried their damnedest. He was still gay. Defective. Loathsome. An atrocity in the eyes of God, or so his father had labeled him when Bo had finally come out with the truth.
Maybe dying was the only way to make things right. But that reckoning was meant for him–not Nate. Bo had to make God understand. Nate was special. One of the truly beautiful people in the world. Kind, sweet-tempered, compassionate, loving, and soft-hearted to a fault. If anyone deserved to live, it was Nathan Bradford. Surely God knew that, didn’t He?
“God,” he whispered, “take…me…not Nate. Pleasssseee.”
He didn’t know if God heard him or not. Bo wasn’t even sure God existed anymore but if He did, there was a decent chance He wasn’t listening to the prayers of *******. That’s what his daddy claimed. That’s what the preacher at the Christian Identity Church believed too, and being a man of God, he would know, wouldn’t he?
“****’s okay.” The soft fingers were back, stroking Bo’s cheek. “I got you now, baby. Stay with me, okay? Can you do that for me?” The lilting voice was nice. It drifted across his awareness like a soft breeze whispering against his skin. Bo felt his hand clasped in a firm, strong grip, and he clung to that anchor, squeezing when the worst of the pain threatened to overwhelm him.
He wanted to hang on, but Bo was sick of the constant fight for survival–mental, physical, and emotional. It was ******* ironic, but Jude might have actually done him a favor tonight. A sea of inky black misery was slamming at his body, sucking at him, trying to pull him under malevolent waves, and Bo was so ******* tired. He didn’t want to hang on anymore. Unconsciously, he loosened his grip on the hand that anchored him.
“NO! You ******* hang on, you hear me? Keep fighting. Help’s coming!”
Peripherally, Bo heard the voice, but he was sliding into cool, pain-free darkness, and it felt ******* good. Easy. Effortless. Satan probably had a nice little niche with a huge bonfire, just waiting for **** like Bo, but how ******* bad could that be? Compared to what he’d lived through in his short life time, death was looking pretty good right now.