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  1. Dabeagle

    Chapter 4

    Thank you! 4 down, 4 to go.
  2. This comes from five different POV's. As it happens, my husband and I are foster parents and we're still looking for our Colin, though we did adopt our first son last year from the foster care system.
  3. Dabeagle

    Chapter 1

    Jethro Tull plays a background role through the series as you will see, but most prominently in Nick's chapters.
  4. Dabeagle

    Chapter 1

    Thanks, Gary! I got the original idea from someone elses premise, but I went a totally different way. I hope you continue to enjoy it!
  5. Dabeagle

    Chapter 3

    There are a lot of both out there - but more Mike's are needed for the hurting Colins.
  6. “Look, I just want my money back, pal. Don't give me a hard time about this.” “I understand your position, sir. Unfortunately, the part is electronic and it's been installed so I can't take it back. I really am sorry.” No, I'm not. This guy is a twat waffle and has already wasted fifteen minutes of my day over something he already knew he couldn't return. “But it wasn't the problem, there's nothing wrong with it – and it cost a hundred and thirty bucks!” the customer protests. “Yes sir, I understand your aggravation. Unfortunately, we can't resell this item and I can't take it back.” Fuck puddle. I also know it's store policy that we explain this to every customer before they buy the item. Double fuck puddle. “I want to speak to the manger!” I am tempted to agree with him, spin around three times and introduce myself, but that would be juvenile and I have to save that for Colin. “I am the manager sir, but I'd be glad to provide you with my district manager's name and contact information.” Oh, he'd love me for that. “Yeah, do that! Everyone has a boss,” the man mutters. True enough. I could have told him my DM would say the same thing, but I didn't want to ruin his fantasy that he could take delicate items, put them in his car and then return them. It's along the same lines as people who buy fancy clothes and then wear them out to a gala or something, only to return them after. I hand the man a business card with the contact info and he huffs out. Well, now he'll go make someone else's day harder. I head into the counter stock aisles, where we keep the stuff we really don't want folks stealing, and resume taking inventory. When I was in high school, I was a motor head. I took auto shop and thought I was a real bad ass the first time I changed my own oil. When I got the job here at Kingdom Car, I was in hog heaven – ten percent discount on parts and I got paid to help other motor heads. Except that wasn't really how it went. I realized that being a motor head went way beyond oil changes and spark plug replacement. It was about foot pounds and torque, it was about calipers – both the measuring kind and the ones used for brakes. I quickly realized that my previous experience was no more than a mere drop in the automotive bucket. So the people that come here for a case of oil are not changing it for the first time and not as a stepping stone to larger work. Middle aged guys who wanted to save a buck was who they were. Then there were the ones whose mechanics had, likely, told them their time was worth money – as was their advice -and now they wanted you to diagnose their car for them. That was a game I learned not to play because there is a reason a mechanic gets paid to repair the car. I liken it to the medical profession – if you can put a band aid on it doesn't qualify you for major surgery, ergo changing your oil doesn't mean you can change your own clutch. If someone has a car with starting problems, we'll test his battery and alternator for free – two likely culprits. But to bring in battery after battery just to see if any of them were any good aggravated me. I don't know if I'm right or being reasonable or not - maybe it was just one of the things I didn't like about my job. Then there were the kids who were just looking to get some lipstick for their pig. Plastic rims with a shiny coating, furry steering wheel covers and some smelly fake tree to hang from their rear view. They were usually cute in an awkward teenage way, with clean hands and likely to sneer at the grease in the grooves of my skin from my latest project. I used to be indignant but, as I slowly realized that it wasn't going to change, I got over it. Now, I mentally call them names. I try to come up with new ones just for entertainment value. I suppose if I were 16 again with my first car, I might buy some lipstick for it too... I guess my problem was I wanted to be a mechanic but I lacked the knowledge. Kind of like an English teacher versus the gym coach. The old saying 'Those who can, teach. Those who can't, teach gym'. In my case, it was 'those who can't sell auto parts'. I went to pull my drawer to count when the phone rang. I picked it up, but continued to log out the drawer and total it. “Thank you for calling Kingdom Car, where your car is king. This is Ian, how can I help you?” “Ian Bostock? This is Amanda Tillman from social services. Do you have time to talk?” “Oh, yeah, sure. Let me change phones, though.” So saying I put her on hold and carried my cash drawer in back and picked up the phone there for the relative privacy it provided. “Okay, do you have a placement for me?” “As it happens,” she laughed, “I do have one for you to consider. He's nine and his name is Roberto, he prefers to be called Robby. He's had a rough time of it – he's been in care before; this is his fourth trip. He was originally taken from his mother when he was five. She duct taped him to a chair and beat him.” “Holy shit,” I said softly. “He does have several meds, and he also deals with enuresis which one of his meds is supposed to help prevent. He's very eager to please but suffers from a lack of trust in adults, and he compensates by asking questions in order to feel comfortable. He was removed this time because his mother wasn't giving him his medication. He should only be with you for about six weeks, if you choose to take him, because we are planning to transition him to a foster home he was in previously where he found great success.” “Why doesn't he go there now?” I asked. “The lady is in Europe visiting relatives, and we'd like to limit his moves during the school year. It will provide him more stability if he can stay in one place until the end of the school year.” “Oh, okay, I understand. If he's going to another foster home, does that mean he hasn't been freed?” “That is correct, he is not freed for adoption. The current plan is for him to return to his mother.” Her tone of voice told me all I needed to know about what she thought of that. “Robby is diagnosed with ADHD and General Anxiety Disorder and the majority of his meds are for those conditions.” “Okay. Are those typical diagnosis for foster kids?” “Actually, yes. The unfortunate fact is that kids need a diagnosis to get services, but those diagnosis don't always fit. In this case, I think the documentation is pretty clear that the diagnoses do fit.” “All right. So, when would this happen?” “This evening, if possible. Say about six thirty?” “Okay, yeah that will work. I have to get a few things for the room,” I said. Like a mattress. “See you then.” A placement! I hurriedly counted out the rest of my drawer, filled out the paperwork and stopped to harass my assistant manager for a minute, just to aggravate her, before I left. She never put up with my crap, though, and gave it back to me in spades with a grin. Admitting defeat, but promising to get even later I headed out. I called Mike from the car and was supremely disappointed to get his voice mail. When he'd gotten Colin I'd nearly come out of my skin waiting to meet him. Mike told me about all the hesitancy, the slow thaw and the outright fear the kid probably thought he'd hidden so well. Once I met him, I couldn't get enough of playing house with them. Being honest with myself, I had to admit, I'd been insanely jealous on top of it. Colin was a great kid and I was hoping for a really good experience with the child that would be placed with me now. I headed over to the warehouse club I belonged to and bought a mattress for the bed and a leak proof cover. It looked a little funny tied to my car with twine, but everyone expects to see a '68 Dodge Coronet 440 with primer and a mattress on top. Right? I kept telling myself this as my car growled the whole way home, likely from irritation with being reduced to this. I got the mattress in place, swept out the room and then tried to get the apartment spiffed up a little bit. I wandered aimlessly afterward, discovering one more thing that could be set right before Amanda's arrival with Roberto. I decided to lay out some coffee and cookies, and then limited it to coffee when I saw the expiration date on the cookies. Oh man, I had to get rid of these things! Then the doorbell rang. Amanda stood on my stoop and was pulling an enormous vintage suitcase – one that had been made before wheels were common on luggage. I should be thankful it wasn't a garbage bag. “Ian, I'd like you to meet Roberto,” Amanda said while placing a hand on the boy's shoulder. “Hi,” I said to him with a smile. He was tall for his age and slim, with short curls on the top of his head and a complexion that hinted at his mixed-race parentage. “Hi,” he said loudly and, I thought, a little aggressively – if it's possible to greet someone aggressively. “Is this where you live?” “Yes, yes it is,” I replied with a smile. “Do you have a dog?” “No,” I said as Amanda maneuvered him into the living room. “They don't allow pets in the complex.” “My mom says I'm allergic,” he stated. Amanda made a line in the air with her hand, indicating this may not be entirely true. “Can I use the bathroom?” “Yes, sure. Right down the hall on your right. I mean left, left!” I said while holding a hand to my head. My phone buzzed and I glanced at the text; it was from Mike – they were on the way with a pizza. Oh, that was a good idea considering I didn't cook. “I'll stay a bit and get you up to speed, and get him as comfortable as we can.” Amanda said as she lay her bag on the dinette. “I'm sure you have some questions and I need to cover these medications with you. This sheet is your medicinal log, you'll be required to record each med you administer to him.” “Yeah,” I said as I took a chair across from her. “You mentioned something about that on the phone. How many medicines are we talking about here?” “Well...” she shuffled through her bag and pulled out a metal box that rattled. Unlocking it revealed pill containers – a lot of them. “Her mom made a cheat sheet. Looks like the morning is the heaviest time with Methlyphenidate, Ritalin, Risperidone – but a small dose...” She set each container down as she named it and then she must have noticed my jaw hanging agape. “Relax. Get a pill organizer, set it up for a week at a time.” “I'm just....” I counted the containers before speaking again. “That little boy is on eight pills? And what is this thing?” “My inhaler. Look,” Robby said as he re-entered the room and took the bullet shaped chunk of plastic from my hands. He removed the cap, which looked much like a tube of lipstick, and twisted the bottom twice. He did this with the skill of much practice. The tube clicked once with each twist and he placed his lips to the tip, shaped like the mouthpiece of a clarinet, and he inhaled. After repeating the process, he capped the tube and returned it to me with an air of nonchalance. “Did you find the bathroom?” Amanda asked Robby while replacing the medications and cheat sheet in the metal box. After locking it she looked at him expectantly for an answer. “Is that red room yours?” he replied instead, facing me. “Uh, yeah. Please don't go in there, that's my private space.” “But you can go in mine, because you're a parent, right?” he said brightly. "Well, yes. But I'll try to respect your privacy.” “What's that?” “Well,” I replied, “It's having some space to yourself, a place where you can go to think and not be disturbed.” “Think about what?” “Anything you like. If you go back down the hall, your room is across from the red room,” I said to him, hoping to send him off so I could try and get a handle on the meds. “Is there a light? It's too dark by the red room.” “But...you were just there. Why would you be afraid to go back?” “It's dark, duh,” he said rolling his eyes and then laughing at me. I glanced at Amanda and she was grinning as if to say 'you set yourself up for that one'. He did, however, head back down the hallway and found the light and proceeded to his room. “So, as I said, the plan at this time is to return to parent. His law guardian and Unified Health, his mental health counselors, don't think he should have been removed and are fighting us on this. Here,” she said, dragging the word out as she dug in her bag again, “are his appointments for next week – feel free to schedule subsequent visits for times that are more convenient for you. Can you make all of those? We can help transport the first week, since these were made without your knowledge.” “Oh. Okay,” I replied as I studied the paper. “I'll have to do some schedule swapping to make this work, but I'll keep you posted.” A knock at the door and the smell of pizza interrupted me as Mike and Colin arrived. Robby came down the hall and attached right to Colin. “I'm Robby. Want to see my room?” “Oh, uh, sure. I've seen it before though.” Colin replied uncertainly and glancing at me to see if this was all right – or perhaps looking for an excuse not to go. I was assuming this was a manifestation of the shyness Mike had told me about. He hadn't displayed much of it with me, but then I'd come bearing a cell phone. In this case he had an enthusiastic child, a strange child, looking to drag him down the hall. “Not like it is now. Now it's mine,” Robby stated confidently and turned away under the assumption that Colin would follow. Colin raised his eyebrows at Mike and turned to follow Robby. “Hi, a pleasure,” Mike said, introducing himself to Amanda as he placed the box on the table. “I remember you from class It's nice to see you again,” Amanda smiled as she shook his hand. “Here to offer moral support?” “That and pizza,” he laughed. “Ian was so excited when I got my first placement, and he's been so looking forward to getting a call himself – it's kind of funny to watch.” “Enthusiastic parents are always good to see,” Amanda smiled and began to gather more papers from her bag. “Let me just get through these forms so you can get on with dinner and the rest of your evening. “His school is transporting him, even though he's out of district now,” she said while organizing papers. “They have been great and they are well aware of his ongoing issues. The bus should be here by 7:45, and it will drop him off here at 2:50.” Mike must have seen me frown because he jumped in, “I'll meet him here tomorrow, if you can't make it, Ian. You'll have to arrange some after - school care, though.” Amanda picked up as if Mike hadn't said anything. “We do cover that, and here is a list of places nearby that we have accounts with already. It does take a few weeks to get set up and your check comes once a month, so you may have to put some out-of-pocket costs into that before your check arrives – usually they are pretty good about working with you when kids are in care.” “Wow, I hadn't even thought about child care,” I muttered. “Well, we encourage you to see what kind of resources are available, just to be prepared since you never know what kind of a placement you'll be offered – or accept.” Amanda replied. She then began placing forms in front of me and telling me what each one was for, but I wasn't listening anymore, just signing. Once done she gathered all the forms - leaving me with one for inventorying his clothes – and went down the hall to say goodbye to him and see his sleeping arrangement first hand. “Overwhelmed?” Mike asked with a grin. “A little. Look at this list of medications!” I said, handing the sheet to Mike. He ran his eyes over it and let out a breath. “That's a lot. Don't worry, I'll help you out,” he said with a smile and handed the sheet back to me. “I'll get some plates. Do you want to pick him up from my house tomorrow? I want to get back before Colin gets home. Oh, what time are you getting out?” “Not until six, but I'll have to try and move the schedule around. These appointments next week might be a little tough. Hey, don't you have to work tomorrow?” “Yeah, but I'm taking advantage of a work-from-home program, makes some things easier. I like being home when Colin gets back. You know,” Mike said from the kitchen where he was pulling plates out from a cupboard, “this would be so much easier if we lived together.” “What?” “Yeah,” Mike said with a sly smile, returning to the room with a stack of plates. “Scheduling, child care, appointments...kissing. The kids even go to the same school district, so literally everything is easier if we were together under one roof.” “I...” It wasn't that I hadn't thought about it; I certainly had. His place was bigger, my lease renewal was coming in the next few weeks – maybe a month away or so – and they had hiked the rent up. Not an ungodly amount, but there was nothing improved about the place to justify any increases. There wasn't even a pool here. Mike continued. “I know, we haven't really talked about it but...I don't – no, yes I do know – I think it's a good idea. I want to see more of you and it would be easier on both of us to have a relationship and take care of these kids if we were together.” “I don't know what to say,” I replied. To tell the truth I was scared and not least because this was moving a little fast. Actually, no, it wasn't really – it was more that I hadn't seen it coming, at least not tonight. I had fantasized about it a few times. Mike was easy to be with and I could see myself being with him for a long time, even though we'd only been dating about five months at this point. So, yes, it was a little fast. Would we gain anything if I stayed here for another year? “Don't say anything, just give it some thought. It has to be right for you, too,” Mike said. “Okay,” Amanda said as she appeared in the hallway, two kids trailing behind her. “If you don't have any more questions for me tonight I'm going to head home.” “We have food; there's plenty,” I said. “Pizza!” Robby screamed and rushed to the table. “Oh, thank you,” Amanda said with a smile. “Tonight is my boyfriend's night off and he has to cook those nights. I'm not missing that for anything,” she said with a wink. “Okay then, let me walk you out,” I said as I stood up from the table. “Daddy, can I eat pizza now? Can Colin stay overnight?” “What? Whoa!” Colin exclaimed. “Who – uh, yes you can eat, no Colin won't be staying tonight.” I headed towards my door but got no more than a few steps before Amanda held up a hand. “I can manage, and you have your hands full,” she said with a smile. “Call me when you have time and we'll set up a schedule for me to come visit. Bye Robby!” Robby waved, his mouth full of a slice. Colin was accepting a plate from Mike and I just froze for a moment, wondering if this is what a family felt like. It was odd, not unpleasant but not all warm and fuzzy either – maybe a little scary, a little out of control. It brought to mind the first time I'd been on a roller coaster, that moment when your stomach was suspended before the car went barreling down the rails. But scary good, undeniably good. I took a seat at the table with everyone and Mike put a slice in front of me. The room was filled with the small sounds of eating and drinking, only broken by Robby. “I've learned,” he said suddenly. “You learned what?” Colin asked after a few beats. Robby looked at him with a frown. “What? Why would you say that?” “Well,” Mike replied, “You just said 'I've learned'. What did you learn?” “I don't know.” I sat silently, concerned about the conversation. Robby had said something and seemed at a loss to know why. Was this a manifestation of the ADHD? Or was it a symptom of all those medications? I woke up and glanced at my clock, which read 3:05. There was too much light in my room and I glanced around in confusion. My bedroom had a door directly to the bathroom, and light flooded in around the edges of the door. I got up and shut off the blinding light, only to realize the hall light was on too. Hitting that switch I noticed the light also on in Robby's room so I opened the door to find him fast asleep. I hit the light and, as I closed the door, realized that the lights were also on in the living room and kitchen. I made a circuit of the apartment, shutting off lights and making sure the doors were locked. I was tired and feeling a little cranky, but resolved to go to bed and try to get some more rest even though I was concerned about Robby wandering my apartment unsupervised. I woke at 5:56 to the sounds of clinking. As opposed to clanking, which is deeper and has a more mechanical tone to it. Clinking is higher and could be from glasses touching to metal on glass or...why was there a clinking in my house? I pulled my head from the pillow, my mind filled with a pre-coffee fog, and I sat up. Getting to my feet I found I was wobbly, another side effect of not really being awake. I stumbled into the bathroom and was nearly rendered blind by the bright bulbs that had been left on. My hand reached out and slapped the switch and spots danced in front of my eyes as I made my way to the toilet. Shuffling to the kitchen I discovered not only the clinking but a larger mess than has ever been in my apartment – except for that time I rebuilt the carburetor on the table; that was legendary. The TV was on and there was cereal all over the floor. The milk jug was open and upright on the carpet and Robby was planted in front of the TV with a bowl that had slopped over onto the carpet in a few places. How did he get the milk all over? I voiced my question in a scratchy voice and Robby turned and replied in a voice that was far, far too loud. “It got wet when it spilled, so I moved. But then it spilled again so I had to move again. And then...” “Right, got it, spilled. Okay, Robby, eat at the table and pick this mess up.” I said with more than a trace of irritation in my voice. “Okay!” He said brightly. Loudly, as well - can't forget the volume. Speaking of volume... “Robby, please turn the TV down. The neighbors don't want to watch...what is that, anyway?” “The 700 Club. I don't think I want to join, it's just old people talking,” he said as he picked up individual bits of cereal and popped them into his mouth. “You're up kind of early,” I said as I assembled the ingredients for my morning coffee. “No, I always get up so I can watch TV. Oops!” I sighed, not wanting to know, but equally sure I'd better investigate an 'Oops'. Poking my head out of the kitchen I took in the sight of Robby wiping down the sides of the milk, sans cap, and the large, new wet spot now on the carpet. Christ. Coffee first, then deal with spilled milk and any other disasters after, I decided. “Robby, why don't you go get dressed?” Even though it was far too early, I felt that at least I could get enough quiet time to make my coffee and then deal with the milk in the carpet. “Okay.” I walked to the garbage to put the old coffee grounds in and, when I popped the top, I was hit with the smell of urine and noted with dismay the sheets wadded up in the can. “Robby! Are these your sheets?” I asked. Well, of course they are his sheets you idiot! Did you think the sheet fairy put them here and then pissed on them as a gift? “What?” “Why are your sheets in the trash?” I called, revising my question. “I don't know,” he called back. I smoldered and walked down the hall to his room. Pointing at his bed I asked, “Where are your sheets?” “I don't know,” he said in a voice that sounded honestly confused. “I had them here last night.” I couldn't tell if he was lying. Did Amanda say anything about sleepwalking? I couldn't think! I grumbled to myself as I realized I was wandering about in my underpants. After I pulled on sweats and grabbed a laundry basket I pulled out the pissy sheets and took them to the apartment sized washer and dryer, one stacked on top of the other. Great start to the day, no doubt. I made my coffee and Robby was unfocused, coming out of his room still in his pajamas and asking if he could go play outside. I told him no, and to get dressed but that ended up taking nearly forty minutes. I nursed my coffee and focused on modulating my tone as he was frustrating the hell out of me. Once my coffee was down I put towels over the milk and stepped on them to soak some up from the carpet. I wondered if Mike had a steam cleaner? At last it was time to put Robby on the bus and as he pulled away I realized I hadn't given him his morning medicine. Shit! I called Mike as I headed to Robby's school with his meds. His tone of voice upon answering indicated his morning was going much better than mine. “Good morning,” he said, sounding positively chipper. “How is your first morning of parenting?” “I'm a mess, Mike,” I said to him with a forced laugh. I described the broken sleep, the mess and the sheets and finished with the reason I was in the car now, heading to his school. “Whoa,” Mike said and sighed deeply. “That's far different than my experience.” “I know,” I said with a sigh. “I was kind of hoping for someone similar to Colin.” “Well, our classes kind of 'shotgun' you with information and you never know what will apply to your placement and what won't. It doesn't cover every situation, either,” he paused before continuing. “Take a deep breath – he's probably nervous about a new place, even if he didn't really show it, and that's probably what you're seeing. Call that lady – Alice was it?” “Amanda,” I said. “Right, Amanda. Call her up and fill her in on the behaviors. I'm sure she didn't tell you everything, so she might be able to help you with some tips to manage some of it.” “I just...I felt so out of control this morning. I was so tired from being woken up in the middle of the night and...” “Deep breath, babe,” Mike said soothingly. “You need some rules to help out, some structure. Last night was kind of a whirlwind so let's figure out some rules to help. Kids actually like rules, they can avoid getting in trouble that way – no matter what they say!” “Mike...what if I stink at this?” I said, voicing the doubt in my mind. “Ian,” he said with a chuckle, “it's the first night! Everything he does is new and you have to give yourselves time to adapt. I'll help you, don't panic.” I brooded on this at work for most of the day. I was used to doing things a certain way – getting up with enough time to get myself ready for work and having that quiet time with a hot cup of coffee, for instance. Now I needed to adjust to include time to get him ready, and with my schedule not being set in stone I would have to be more flexible. I kicked myself mentally for not thinking of this earlier. I called Amanda on my lunch break, but got her voice mail. I left her a short message describing Robby's first night and morning. My tone was much different, softer and more reasonable, than it might have been had I not had Mike to reign me back in. I saw I'd need to make some adjustments and I felt a little bad about my level of aggravation this morning. We had dinner with Mike and Colin, and I noted Colin was looking at me with some guilt. I don't know what he could possibly think of that would connect to that emotion – especially towards me – but I let it go. I realized that as fond as I was of Colin, I needed to try and focus on Robby. He was my responsibility, now. “Buckled up?” I asked him as we settled into the car for the short ride home. “Yep!” he replied with enthusiasm. “I'm riding shotgun!” “Yes, you are,” I smiled at him. “Let's burn rubber!” I made the tires chirp as we pulled out onto the main street and Robby hooted his enthusiasm. As we drove with the windows down I switched the radio off and decided I should talk a bit about the new rules I'd come up with. “Robby, I'd like to talk to you for a minute.” “Am I in trouble? I had a good day at school!” “No, no trouble,” I assured him. “We just need a few rules to make things easier.” “Okay,” Robby replied. “First rule, no wandering the house while I'm asleep. Wait for me to get you up, okay?” “Okay, Daddy,” he replied. I felt very weird right then, the second time he'd called me that. I'd need to talk to Amanda about that as well. “Second is all food is eaten at the table, nothing in the living room.” “Okay,” he nodded. “Can I watch TV when we get home?” “Sure,” I replied. I was slightly annoyed at the sudden change in the direction of the conversation, which made me wonder if he'd been paying attention, but I think that was the ADHD manifesting itself. The rest of the week was little better, except that I got child care in place and that made my schedule easier. Robby largely obeyed the rule to stay in his room until I got up, and he was usually standing in his doorway when I opened my door, offering a loud greeting. The nightly lighting event began to taper off mid-week. By the end of the week I had turned into my father, constantly grousing at Robby to turn the lights off, to quiet down, and I was getting awful tired of washing his sheets every morning. On the bright side, I was sleeping through the night which made my mornings more manageable. Amanda called me on Friday to check in and I filled her in on the events, in detail. “His mother didn't say anything about him turning on lights, but she has said he gets into things. I'm not surprised he has started calling you 'daddy'. He has a habit of giving people titles like that – his last placement was with an older woman he calls 'grandma'.” She sighed and continued. “His mother remarried, but the step father is more interested in his natural children with his wife than he is with Robby. Mind you,” she said while snorting into the phone, “that isn't saying much. Do you know she still can't admit that taping him to a chair was wrong?” she sighed into the phone. “She just keeps saying 'He wouldn't hold still' like that explains the whole thing away.” “I...I just don't know what to say. That's so incredibly wrong it simply boggles my mind.” “I know, and the court wants to send him back to her.” “Beautiful,” I said with a heavy sigh. “Oh, by the way, I changed my schedule for next week and the appointments aren't a problem,” I said while counting parts on the shelf. “Oh, I'm glad you mentioned that. I'm going to email you his mom's contact information, she likes to go to all of his appointments.” “Wait, I'm going to meet his mother?” “Yeah,” she said, dragging out the word. “Things should go smoothly. The one thing I can say is that she really does care about him and she wants him back. She won't make any trouble.” “Okay,” I replied. In truth I felt pretty uncomfortable but didn't see a way around it. “Also there has been a change in plans. We had court yesterday morning and it looks like they are going to want to send him home, maybe in about three weeks. We're going to start once-a-week family visits next Wednesday and the county will transport him for you.” “Uh, okay. What time is that supposed to happen?” I asked while heading to my desk to write things down. “Should get to the after - school care about 3:30 and should get back about 6:30; the visit is two hours and there is a half an hour of transport time factored in.” After we hung up I brooded for a moment, thinking that children that were freed came with less strings attached than kids in care. Mike had to take Colin to counseling but he had no dealings with the parents or former family and there was no birth family to speak of. Now I had to navigate waters in the best interests of this child even though I was biased against his mother coupled with the difficulties I was having adjusting to him – not to mention I'd have to deal with the parent directly. This, I thought to myself, is not going to be easy.
  7. When I returned from my run my parents had already left for work. I let myself in, my body slicked with sweat and feeling completely gross, and showered before having a protein shake. A completely dissatisfying protein shake. It had a taste, I couldn't say it didn't, but I could tell you it wasn't a good one. Dressing in jeans and a polo, I snagged my running gear for practice later and started the walk to school. The bus came out my way, but through a quirk of the school district map, I didn't qualify for a bus ride. I was used to it and simply plugged my headphones in and tuned out of the world. The beat through my headphones set the tone for my feet, a steady march that got me right where I needed to be. I arrived with time to spare, enjoying the fact that I'd been able to apply order to my morning, order where chaos was the norm of my daily life. Order was something I understood and something I found calming and very few things were as calming and regular as a steady pace over the earth. I breezed through my Monday, my homework having been done Friday night, and was feeling pretty much in control of things – which should have been a warning sign. Chaos looms in everything and we all spend untold hours of our lives applying order to it. Rules, laws, routines – all fed into the same basic desire to create order and sense from chaos. Really cute guys were definitely chaotic. I'd had no problem accepting how I felt – in fact I felt triumphant about it since I'd managed to identify what I was interested in and left out all that annoying uncertainty. The problem was the objects of my affection were a little less certain, other than making me perpetually horny. It was no use explaining that horny wasn't the same as sexuality. So I'd spent the time since my awakening waiting for potential guys to mature into creatures that could have a relationship. Ideally, a relationship with me. I had to admit to myself, though, I was getting tired of waiting. My list of candidates kept falling all over each other, both sexes, like animals in heat. There was no organization...and then chaos. I'd been told it was a learning process, learning what you liked and wanted but I was lucky since I already knew. I wanted respect, balance between us and a like mind in a package that was...stimulating. To paraphrase Robin Williams, I wanted mind as well as head. My timing always seemed to be off, though, as to when that magical moment would be achieved. Matt Baxter was at the top of my list – and still is, in some ways – after he did some maturing. Peter 'The Horny Pimple' August showed him what he didn't want, and after a few misfires I thought he was prime for a strong relationship. We had one, to be sure, being decent friends the last few years but just when I was ready to try and take things up a few notches with him this other guy, Nick, swooped in and now Matt is all blissful and shit. I was happy for him, or tried to be, but I certainly felt like it was a lost opportunity. I think, in the end, I was too coy and that's what doomed me. Since I'd never come out publicly, Matt hadn't known I was available. I honestly don't know if it would have changed things - maybe I wasn't on his radar in terms of that - but I'd like to think it could have. I still had Matt as a friend, and he did tell me about the GSA meetings which, unbeknownst to him, kept me up on all the new folks that came out or were questioning. It let me keep my feelers out while minimizing my own risk. I was able to think about this rationally until chaos came into my careful construct, and that happened on Monday in the form of Colin McIlduff. Cute guys are, by their very nature, chaotic. They break up my plan of waiting for someone to reach where I am, to realize that chasing every cute face isn't productive. The problem is it changes everything when a new one comes into play. One that is undefined and unknown. Chaos. ~TU~ I don't know what really held me about this new guy. He wasn't over the top in his appearance; in a way he was kind of slacker-like with his hoodie – skater-ish even. Not really my type, but as he made his way down the aisle to take a desk, his hand strayed up and pushed the hood down to reveal brownish-red hair that was styled nicely, as though he took the time and then, oddly, covered it up. He ended up in the seat next to me and I decided to test him. “Hey, do you have an extra pen?” I asked. “Uh, yeah, hang on,” he said and reached into his messenger bag and handed me a blue pen. “Thanks,” I replied with a smile. He was prepared by having a spare, he was organized because he could reach right in and grab the pen with no searching, and he was generous, having given a stranger something of his. He'd already moved high on my list when he smiled at me briefly, to tell me I was welcome, before facing the front of the room. But in the smile he'd revealed, for a moment, dimples. His physical attraction for me climbed much higher and, while I was excited about the possibility he presented, I was also in turmoil due to the chaos he represented. I had my top choices, painstakingly achieved through careful measurement of my classmates. Unfortunately one of the critical criteria, that being they were interested in guys, was almost always one of the last things to be discovered. I could measure kindness, practicality and maturity to some degree just by watching them or through some interaction. I was waiting for those I found attractive to mature and be ready for an actual relationship. But now my list was disjointed as I wondered where – or if – this fellow belonged on it. I was distressed to find that he filled my thoughts at inconvenient times. I noted throughout the day that I had to mark reading material down that I'd have to cover again at home because he'd intruded on my thoughts, unbidden. I lifted weights in gym, my last class, and did so mechanically as my mind kept - annoyingly – returning to this new puzzle. I mused about him as I ran that afternoon, staying with the pack but not speaking. I say I mused, but more than anything else I speculated. Was what I'd seen any indication that he could be the guy was hoping for? In frustration I realized that I was spinning my mental wheels because I lacked information, so I turned my mind to figuring out how to get data. I knew he wouldn't be in the school registry since he was new, so that night I did a Facebook search, then Twitter and other services. I even tried a Google search, all to no avail. He remained a mystery to me, an unknown, and I hate that. I observed him the following day, when possible, and came up short on details. He didn't know anyone and didn't seek out contact. I returned his pen to him in class and he thanked me, returning it to his bag. He flashed the dimples again as he thanked me, and I blanked for a moment on what I was supposed to be doing. He was interfering with my routine, I needed to quantify him and fast. As it was he was causing a lot more chaos to my equilibrium than any other guy I can think of. Of course, none of them had those dimples. At least Tuesday night I could focus more on my schoolwork, since I'd already tried seeking him out online. I was confident that, had he been online I'd have found him and I told myself that repeatedly until I believed myself. Sort of. I did recall that the GSA was meeting tomorrow and decided to make sure I spoke to Matt to see if Colin attended. I was annoyingly antsy all day Wednesday. I was frustrated at my inability to focus, except upon the outcome of my little test. Of course, the flaw was that he may not show up which could mean several things. He wasn't gay, he wasn't out, he didn't want to out himself so soon after coming to a new school...the list was very nearly endless and the mere speculation was driving me insane. For what, I wonder? It couldn't all be the dimples, could it? I'd have to think on that. “Wyatt, what's up?” Matt asked as I sat down for lunch. The table was populated with his boyfriend, Nick, and some of their friends from the GSA that I didn't know well. There was the perpetually chatty one, the one whose boyfriend had passed earlier this year and one who, I thought, was a lesbian. “Not much, history test sixth period – are you ready?” I said as I sat and picked over my lunch. “I don't think it will be too bad,” Matt replied absently. Matt was never focused on his schoolwork and, though he seemed smart, I wondered what kind of grades he got. “You're on the track team, aren't you?” the chatty girl asked. “I thought I saw you at wrestling, too, is that right? Matt plays basketball - you'd probably be good there. Oh, Emily, babbling!” she said miserably while putting a hand to her forehead. “Yes, wrestling and track. I don't have the height for basketball, I don't think,” I replied. She had a bad habit of running off at the mouth, it wasn't very attractive – oh hell. Was she attracted to me? “Guards can be short and play,” Matt said, nudging me. I smiled at him. “Matt, you should be recruiting your boyfriend,” I said while nodding towards Nick. “Nope, I've no coordination. Completely lost cause here,” Nick replied with a smile and a shake of his head. Kind of humble - I could see why that would be attractive aside from the fact that he actually was attractive, of course. “Meeting today, Matt?” I asked. I hoped to steer things away from Emily and avoid any potential discussion of her – real or imagined – interest in me. “Oh yeah, every Wednesday,” He said while forming a smile on his face that could only be described as sly. “Peter has been asking after you.” “Will you stop trying to pawn your leftovers on me?” I snapped. Matt didn't know I was gay, as I hadn't told anyone, but the insinuation hit too close to home. “Hey, don't talk to him like that!” Nick replied sharply. “He needs to stop with the 'Peter' bullshit, he knows I don't like it,” I said while fixing my gaze on Matt. “Okay, chill, it was just a joke. I'm sorry.” “You should come to a meeting,” Emily piped up. “Excuse me?” I asked and, mentally, felt my jaw drop. “Well, unless you're just asking about something Matt cares about to be polite, you should come to a meeting. After all, Peter aside, you are an ally to gays. Right?” Asked the one that I thought was a lesbian. “Of course. I mean, yes, I'm in favor of equality. Who wouldn't be? I'm not sure about a meeting, though.” “Put up or shut up,” she replied. “Well, I have a meet today but - perhaps - next week,” I stammered. “I'll be looking for you,” she smiled. I decided then that lesbians are evil and must be watched as agents of chaos. “You want to tell me what the hell that was?” My father demanded. Obviously, my performance at the meet was to be critiqued. “I had an off day,” I replied weakly. Even I didn't buy into that and I knew it wasn't going to stop anything that was to follow. “An off day? No. You let your team down and they were depending on you today,” he said calmly. “Men have to compartmentalize and get the job done and you didn't do that today. When it's time to go to work, school, girls and movies – none of that matters.” I noted, to myself, that he hadn't mentioned boys so perhaps that was okay, as a distraction. “What was weighing so heavy on your mind?” I blanked and my mouth went without me, dumping me into chaos. “A friend wanted me to go to the GSA meeting at school, today. I told them I had a meet, but they kind of made me feel...like I was intolerant.” “Well, you know that isn't true. Why does it bother you?” he asked as we stopped for a light. “She kind of challenged me to show up next week.” “So? You go, what's the big deal?” “If I go...” I trailed off and looked out the window. “If you go, people will think you're gay?” I turned back to look at him, my disciplined, masculine, man's man father. He was flicking his attention from the road to me, waiting. I knew what I had to do, I knew I had to be a man – like he'd expect. I took a deep breath. “Yeah, it's what they'd think,” I said and paused before plunging forward, “And it's true.” “So? What's the problem then?” “Well...” “No, no hesitation. This isn't a hard decision,” he said while holding his hand up. “You own who you are, no matter what it is. Don't act like you're ashamed or something stupid like that.” “It's not that,” I said, slightly dazed. This was not the way I thought this would happen. Then again, my parents were practical and took things as they were. “So? What is it then?” “Because then it's a mess!” I said in frustration. “I keep all that stuff private, waiting for someone to be mature enough to have a relationship without acting like a raging bag of hormones and this new guy comes in and – I don't even know him – but I feel totally out of control! My routine is broken, my concentration sucks!” I threw my hands up, then slapped them uselessly on my thighs. “Wyatt,” my dad said with a sigh, “Son, I know I've hammered it into you about control and routine, but you have to remember that you're human. I know,” he said raising a hand again to my open mouth. “I know I've told you – not less than thirty seconds ago – that you have to compartmentalize and I stand by that. Even if you're crushing on some boy, you have set priorities to get the job done whether it be homework or on the field. “But let's be real, here. The level of maturity you say you're after? Two words, son – high school. Those raging hormones you mentioned? It's why you can't concentrate. Maybe you need to masturbate more.” “Dad!” I covered my face. “It's a fact, it'll take the edge off and it's healthy. Now,” he continued as if I hadn't spoken, “assuming this kid shows, you go to that meeting and you talk to this boy. See if you have things in common, see what he's like. You can't tell by pining at a distance.” “But...” “But nothing! Look, the worst thing that happens is he says he isn't interested! We all get rejected, son, and you have to deal with that too.” “How can I stay in control if I don't know ahead of time if he's even gay?” I asked. “Control is a flexible thing, son. Control doesn't mean you set everything up so you can't possibly fail – nothing is perfect. Control is how you handle things, how you manage yourself. If he says 'sorry, I like girls', then that's no reflection on you – just that he isn't attracted to your gender. Yes, you'll feel sad and you need to do that so you can learn from it. Everything teaches us something and it adds to our control of ourselves and our understanding of things around us. Never be afraid to be who you are and never be ashamed. If someone doesn't like who you are, it's on them. If they didn't like what you did or said, then you can think about whether you did something wrong.” If that was the case, I thought, I had misunderstood some of the lessons on control and organization. “Shouldn't I do my homework on him first?” “It doesn't hurt, if you want to increase your chances. I think you should talk to him before you ask him out, try and get to know him. That's what dating is for, but on a deeper level than just hanging out.” He pulled into our driveway and turned the car off. Looking at the steering wheel he said, “Don't pass up on a possible good thing just because you're afraid. Then, you only get left with regrets.” “What if it doesn't work out?” I asked softly. “Doesn't matter. Knowing is always better than wondering 'what if?'” I showered and then joined my parents for dinner. I was quiet, contemplating his words, but I wasn't going to be left to my ruminations. “Dad said you had a rough day at the meet,” my mom said as she filled my plate. “Yeah, I was distracted,” I admitted. “What about?” she asked idly. I glanced at my father who gave me the slightest nod. “A boy.” “Oh? Is someone giving you a hard time? You didn't have to fight, I hope.” “No, nothing like that. I like him and...I'm hoping he will like me too.” She handed me my plate and proceeded to fill her own. “What's his name?” She didn't even raise an eyebrow, no knowing smirk – it was almost as if we'd had this conversation before and it wasn't worth commenting on the fact that we actually hadn't. Like I said before, pragmatic parents. “Colin. Colin McIlduff.” “Is he new or someone you've had your eye on for a while?” “New, he started the other day.” I said before filling my mouth with food. “What do you like about him?” she asked before forking a spear of broccoli. “So far,” I said with some nervousness, “the way he looks, that he's organized and generous enough to share with others.” I recounted my story about borrowing the pen, but I couldn't bring myself to speak of the dimples. She asked what I was going to do about it and, satisfied with the plan to visit the meeting the following week, she moved on to other subjects. I felt a little queasy and elated as well for the ease of coming out. I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I'd been worried about my father's reaction since he seemed so macho. But they were both great, not fussing and not disappointed and not over the top happy for me. It just was and, I thought, that's as it should be. So I had a pretty good attitude going into the weekend. I went with my parents and cousins to a water park, and that's where I started sweating my decision. Colin was there – with two older guys. Did this mean he had dads? Or was this something else? Something sinister? He seemed happy enough and, holy crap, he looked hot. In fact that was all I could think of that night and the following day. His skin wet and glistening in the sunshine coupled with his smile and laughter that brought forth the all-important dimples just sent my imagination into overdrive. The difference was, I'd tried to restrict my natural urges before. I'd erroneously thought I was mastering myself when, all along it seems, I was just being foolish. Now, the floodgates – so to speak – were open and I felt that Wednesday couldn't come fast enough. I couldn't take my eyes off him on Monday. Everything seemed special – his walk, the way he held his pen, the scrawls on the front of his notebook. Of course, chiefly, there was his shy smile and the mighty dimples. In the end, it was the dimples I blame, not myself. Clearly I suffered some form of temporary insanity when I took his phone. Now, to be clear, I didn't accost him and steal it nor did I pick his pocket. Instead, as we sat in class, it tumbled from the pocket of his hoodie and fell on top of his back pack before taking a slide, near noiselessly, in my direction. With the quickest glance to be sure no one noticed, I slid my foot out and dragged the phone under me, but dared not retrieve it until after the class had ended. I don't know what I was thinking, I had no clear plan, other than the thrill of having possession of one of his possessions. After the bell rang I pocketed the phone and headed to my next class. It was burning a hole through my pocket and searing my skin. I felt guilty for taking it and thrilled to have an item that belonged to him. Now that I had it, what to do with it? I obviously couldn't keep it. I turned it over in my head, realizing at last that this could turn out very badly. In a moment of stupidity I'd become a thief and perpetrated that on someone I wanted to get to know. My cheeks burned with shame and I mentally cursed my hormones, which surely must have been responsible. But then, an idea. I could salvage this and, possibly, make something positive come from it. Was I smart enough? Could I pull it off? I asked for a hall pass to the bathroom and headed out, making a conscious effort not to run. Once safely ensconced in a stall I pulled out the phone with sweaty hands. This was Colin's. Stupid! The plan! I shook myself and woke the device, swiping the screen and was intensely relieved to see it had no password. I opened the texting app and sent a message to my number, ensuring that I could get in touch with him now. I then deleted the evidence and switched it back off. Now, all I had to do was return it and then text him later as a secret admirer. I felt exceedingly smug as I strolled back to class, very pleased with my salvaging of the situation. My confidence only grew when I saw him sitting with Matt at lunch. He looked a tad distraught, but then I knew I could make his day much better in a flash. “They just gave it to me, though! They're going to be so pissed,” Colin said as he put his hands on his forehead. “They'll never trust me if I can't take care of stuff!” I saw my opening and pounced. Gracefully, I might add. “Hi guys.” Then I turned to Colin. “Hey, you dropped this in first period today. I was going to turn it into the office -” “My phone!” Colin exclaimed as he reached out. I dropped it in his hand and he switched it on, verifying that it worked and there was no damage. “Thank you! Holy shit I was freaking out!” The shitty feeling I had about causing this to begin with was overwhelmed by enjoying his relief and gratitude. Now that I thought on that, it was kind of perverse. “No problem,” I replied. “I saw it drop out of your pocket, but by the time I picked it up and looked for you, you were gone.” “First period...oh, yeah, English class,” he smiled, hitting me squarely with the dimples. “I remember, you asked for a pen my first day.” It was impossible to miss Matt's eyebrow going up. Shit! He knew damn well I'd never show up to class sans pen and a spare any more than I'd show up for school sans pants. “Yes, the pen. It was a screwy day – one leaked in my bag and the second must have been old as it just wouldn't write. You saved my bacon!” I said with a chuckle as I sat down. It dawned on me I was sitting next to Colin and I felt my palms grow sweaty again while my eyes checked Matt to see if I'd gotten away with it. Hormones are a terrible curse - just today they've turned me into a thief and a liar. “I'll carry an extra for you from now on, just in case!” Colin said while examining his phone. “I'd have been in so much trouble...I don't even want to think what could have...” He trailed off and I went back to wondering about his home life and if those were his dads or something less savory – or if he simply had a shitty home life. I speculated on that throughout lunch, limiting myself to listening to the conversation. Colin had reached his peak animation with the return of the phone and was quite taciturn for the rest of the period. I listened to the chatter and kept an eye on the evil lesbian, but everything else was normal. Except Matt, I'd caught him more than once giving me a thoughtful look. Perhaps he was smarter than I'd given him credit for and this would be a lousy time to find that out. I walked the rest of the day with a spring in my step and smile on my lips, and felt exceptionally good at practice. There was some grumbling that I should have run the meet as well as I had run today, but today I was...what? Optimistic I guess. I'd never fallen in love before, never allowed myself. Could this be the beginning of that? I lay in bed after dinner listening to music. Of course my homework was done already, but now my full attention was on the phone and the text I'd sent myself. What could I say? I couldn't say that I'd gotten his number from a mutual friend. It was bad enough, after all, that I'd stolen his phone and panicked him, but to start conversing with a lie? I thought about it and thought about it until I decided to go with playful, something to lower his defenses and yet let him know he was being flirted with. I worked up the courage and started entering text. 'Hey...there's 21 letters in the alphabet, right?' I waited, keeping my screen alive and tapping my foot to the music. I wiggled restlessly, suddenly unable to get comfortable. I got up and padded down to the kitchen to get a drink and a snack. As I started the microwave for popcorn my phone buzzed. 'No. There's 26, but I had to stop and count in my head.' I smiled and leaned back on the counter. He hadn't asked who this was and he'd said it was a new phone, so chances were he'd given his number to a few people and this would go on for a bit before I had to go all 'secret admirer' on him. I keyed in a response. 'Oh, I forgot U, R, A, Q, T.' I rolled my eyes, the line being far too cheesy. I also felt my cheeks heating up and my heart rate increase. I was flirting! With Colin, he of the dimples! I snagged my popcorn and went back to my room and lay back down to wait for the phone to vibrate. It did, moments later. 'Cute, Matt. Keep it up and I'll tell Nick on you :-)' He thought I was Matt! I chuckled and debated if it were smart to not disabuse him of his notion that he was talking to Matt. I could spring the whole mystery thing now, but was there an advantage? Or was there more opportunity to learn about him if I let the charade go on? My phone vibrated. 'I hope Nick didn't fall for that, you never did mention how you got him.' I frowned as Colin had known Matt less than a week, it seemed unlikely but possible that he'd already covered the 'how we met' story. On the other hand, if he hadn't I could be walking into a trap. I decided to avoid answering the question and change the course of the conversation. 'Did you mention you lost your phone today?' Of course there was no earthly reason why he should have; I certainly couldn't see anything to be gained by that bit of honesty. Still, it changed the subject. 'No, I'd be too afraid.' I crunched some of my snack and left him to wait and my patience was rewarded seconds later. 'Matt, I haven't told you but I'm a foster child.' I sat up. Oh, this wasn't good. I felt an emotion I recognized as guilt wrapped in fear. I wanted to get to know him, but I didn't want him to spill his secrets, especially since he thought he was talking to someone he clearly thought was a friend. I stated tapping quickly, but my phone buzzed again. 'My foster dad wants to adopt me. I'm not sure, but I think I want that too and don't want to upset him. I'm afraid if I'd lost the phone he'd think I was irresponsible and not want me.' Oh. Fuck. I felt my body flush and sweat forming on my skin. This was terrible, horrible! Why had I ever thought this was a good idea? I should turn this off now – but no! I can't! He'd go to Matt tomorrow in confusion and I couldn't do that to him. I decided to worry about the 'Matt' part later and address his fears now. 'I don't think that would happen; people lose stuff all the time. Hell, they have a cell commercial out now that shows people dropping their phones in food, toilets...' I waited, knowing I needed to tell him and yet, a part of me was excited and overwhelmed all at once to get this glimpse into his world, his life and his thinking. Why was he up for adoption? Where were his birth parents and why didn't they want him? Or did they die? Holy shit, what if that was the case? Poor Colin! 'Yeah, maybe. I didn't want to be adopted, before. Now, I don't know...I just know I don't want to leave. Kind of scares me.' I responded quickly. 'They'd be nuts to not want you.' 'Matt, are you flirting again? I was serious about telling Nick.' Moment of truth time. I pressed the keys, hovered over the icon to send my message and, exhaling, pressed it. 'I'm not Matt. You have a secret admirer, Colin.' I finished my popcorn. Then my drink. My play list ended and there was still no response from Colin. Had I just cocked it all up? Shit. Do I dare to text again? Should I wait? Maybe I just came across like a creep, which made sense in reflection. I smacked my forehead: stupid, stupid, stupid!
  8. Dabeagle

    Chapter 3

    Oh my, all the way back to Breaking Masks? We tried so hard to get that published - had a contract and everything and the company went under. I'm glad you enjoyed the story, it was fun to write.
  9. Dabeagle

    Chapter 3

    Foster kids frequently feel that things are their fault, even when they aren't and even if they don't appear to think so. Self blame is rampant and that was something I anted to make sure I got right. Thanks, and enjoy the rest!
  10. As a foster parent my husband and I are familiar with some aspects of the system. I hope you continue to enjoy the story.
  11. I glanced around the office, one I'd disliked from the first time I'd set foot in it. It was a converted attic and, as a result, had a sharply sloped ceiling that began about a foot and a half into the room and ended when it met the floor. One large window rose in a sheltered cutout that only served to increase the uncomfortable temperature that was always present. There was a desk off to the right covered with papers that I'd noticed the first time I'd come in that seemed to be just as messy now, and a circular table fit for the vertically challenged filled the center of the room. The left hand wall was dominated by a slip-shod bookcase that always appeared on the verge of collapse. I allowed my eyes to wander across the surface of the circular table, examining the scattered items. There were stacks of forms, files and boxed 'therapeutic games' covering half the table. I hoped, with all the energy I could muster, that she didn't want to play 'The Emotion Game' again. In fact, I didn't know why I'd been called to her office since this wasn't my regularly scheduled time with her. It was a break in my routine and it made me vaguely uneasy. 'She' was the therapist, Mrs. Gulakowski. She was short, pudgy, applied too much lipstick and was warm as a cactus in January. Her hair was teased wildly to hide the balding areas and her fifties-looking glasses seemed more old than retro. She was like a few others I'd met in my relatively short stay in the system - closing in on retirement and had stopped listening. She worked for Bishop's Foundation a religious charity and had spent a lot of time trying to talk me out of being who I was. She'd even said my parents might take me back if I just would stop being so obstinate. She might be right that I was obstinate. I'd never let her know that because the thought of agreeing with her about anything went against my grain in a very, very primal way. But the facts were that I'd ruined my home with who and what I was and that there wasn't any changing that. Even if I took it back and somehow convinced them – lied to them – that I wasn't gay, my life there was over. In many ways, it just felt like my life, all of it, was over. Isaac and I had been circling each other for a month or more, never quite daring to make too much of a move. But then, after a Sunday School class, we'd been assigned clean up because the little ones were messy with their snack. So we'd snuck looks, glances filled with lust. Yes, lust in my heart while in the bowels of the church; I'd burn in hell. It was fast. Fast, and not at all satisfying and not worth it in any way. He stepped up to me and forced his lips on me quickly, but painfully. His teeth scraped my lips and then the doors opened, my parents and his – the pastor – and the Sunday School teacher coming in for us for some unknown reason. Then it all got worse. “Colin? Colin, sit up. Mrs. DeJesus is here.” Mrs Gulakowski's voice pulled me from my mental review of my not-so-greatest hits. I stood, shaking Gloria DeJesus's hand briefly and resuming my seat. So I was here to meet with my social worker. “Colin, I have a lot to talk to you about today. Would you like to go get an ice cream? I know I'm craving one!” Gloria asked. I shrugged, but stood to go with her. “Why don't you go get your sweat shirt and I'll meet you downstairs, all right?” she said. I nodded and left the room. No doubt they'd be whispering about all the things I did wrong and the progress I wasn't making. Mrs. Gulakowski felt that I was too young to really understand my sexuality and was 'just confused'. She spent a lot of her time telling me how I was making a big mistake labeling myself and that I was throwing away my whole life. I knew I'd thrown it away. I knew it the moment Isaac jumped back and accused me of kissing him. I knew it as I saw the condemnation on the pastor's face as well as my parents'. I'd heard the whispers about how my parents had done their best but that I wasn't really theirs - being adopted and all. My protests went unheard, and the damning statements got worse. Gulakowski didn't get it – Isaac's kiss had doomed me and there wasn't squat I could do about it. I often felt out of control and considering my birth parents had dumped me – something I only found out about around a year ago – and now the adoptive ones had dumped me too, everything felt like the normal chaos of my life had been magnified by a hundred. No one cared about my protests and I didn't care about Gulakowski's opinions. I should have told her I could save my breath and she could save hers. No one was listening to either of us. I got my sweat shirt complete with a hood to protect me from the drizzle we were getting and waited in the front hall. School would start soon and I dreaded going to the nearby high school with its lack of books, abundance of drugs and metal detectors at the front doors. It was quite different from the private parochial school my parents had sent me to before. I pictured Gulakowski telling Gloria how I wasn't putting any effort into our sessions – which was true – and how we might need to scale back my goals and work on more of my social integration skills at the group home. I knew all this because I'd heard it all before. Gloria came clomping down the wooden steps and smiled at me. “Okay, let's go!” We walked out and to the sidewalk, she under her umbrella and me with my hood up. We strolled in companionable silence. I liked that about her, she didn't always feel the need to talk. Talk from adults meant you had to share everything; who wants to tell everyone how screwed up you are? Not me. “So, it's been a few weeks since your last court date. Have you had any thoughts?” she asked. I shrugged. Of course I'd had thoughts and I had no doubt she'd know that. My last court date was where my adoptive parents followed through on the legal term for dumping me, which was a 'Disruption of Adoption' and which came down to voluntarily surrendering their parental rights. I'd known it was coming, I hadn't had a doubt. My parents hadn't spoken to me since I'd left in the custody of the child welfare people and they didn't change that in court. I promised myself I wouldn't cry; but when I did, I told myself it didn't matter. After all, what was a promise from me really worth? When she saw the shrug was the only answer coming from me, she supplied the answer herself. “Well, I've had a lot of thoughts. Right now, I'm thinking Rocky Road. What will you have?” “That sounds fine,” I replied. “I'm starting to think you copy me!” she chuckled. “Whatever I get, you get!” “You want me to pick something else?” I asked. “Honey, I want you to get what you want.” Her heels clacked on the sidewalk, a steady sound that was accompanied by a small squelch as the water clung to our shoes. “What if I want what you want?” I asked. “Then that's what you get!” she smiled. She put an arm on my shoulder, a sign that there was 'something serious' to discuss. “So, as you know, you are now legally freed for adoption.” “I don't want to be adopted,” I said firmly. It was about the only thing I did know for sure anymore and the only thing I had any control over. “Oh, sweetie, I can understand that. It's far too early to start talking about adoption, but you know...” she stopped and turned me to face her. “I don't want you in this group home. You don't like it, you don't like the school and I don't like that you're so unhappy here.” I waited. She was building up to something; there was no way she wasn't with all the eye contact and chatter. This was almost the same way she'd talked to me about the court date and the official end of my home. What could she possibly be building to, considering I'd said 'no' to adoption? She turned and pulled me with her to the small convenience store and we lined up at their ice cream counter. The staff were busy, one running behind the counter for purchases and the second filling orders for milkshakes and cones. We waited our turn, not speaking, but my mind was turning. She must have a place she wanted me to go live; it was the only explanation. It would mean a new school, possibly, and a new house. I wondered if there would be siblings to contend with or if I'd have my own room. Would the people want me to go to church? Would they be told ahead of time about my deviancy? How I'd wrecked my home? It was our turn and Gloria glanced at me before telling the clerk she'd like a rocky road milkshake. I didn't really want a milkshake; I always managed to make my hands sticky with them. I considered ordering something different, but I decided I didn't want to rock the boat and just ordered the same thing. Gloria placed a hand on my shoulder again. “I thought you wanted an ice cream?” I shrugged. We took our drinks to a table and she sipped. Once she had, I decided I could as well. “Well, I have some news,” she said, swiping a hand over one of mine. I moved my hand under the table and onto my lap. “I have someone I'd like you to meet, someone I think you'll like.” Did that matter? I sat still and watched her enjoy her moment of suspense. “His name is Mike. He has a very nice house with a dog and he's very interested in you.” That must mean she hadn't shared my details with him. Once he knew, he'd dump me too. It would be nice to have a dog for a while, though. My old parents didn't believe in them - said they were filthy disease carriers. “He's looking forward to meeting you, and if you're open to the idea, we can have you start to spend some time together. See how things go?” She placed her free hand flat on the table while her other hand curled around the cup. She sipped and waited for me. Moments ago, literally, I hadn't cared. Now I felt stressed. She would have said nice things about me, to get me placed. But I couldn't live up to these promises – and really, why should I have to? I'd already proven I could take a home and completely wreck it and she knew this. What did she want me to say? What was the right answer? I shrugged. “Oh, come on!” she laughed and pretended to swipe at me. “How about some enthusiasm? A smile? Is that too much to ask?” A nervous grimace was all I could manage. She was setting me up to fail. Even though I didn't like the group home or the school, no one else was going to keep me. No one was going to love me – I'd already had that and ruined it. I didn't even love me, so what was the point? “Really, Colin? You're going to be compliant every day except when you meet this potential placement?” I shrugged. Shanae Williams meant well, I thought. She was a full time staff member in the group home who claimed to care for all the kids that came through her doors. How much could you really care for people that were pretty much transient? I didn't understand. What I did understand is I wasn't eating that. “I don't like beets,” I said quietly. “It's the vegetable tonight, suck it up, Buttercup.” “No, thank you,” I said firmly. “Won't be no snack later if'n you don't eat now,” she warned. “I understand.” All week, despite myself, I'd been wondering about this Mike guy. It didn't take me long in the group home to realize that, of the kids that could be adopted, your chances slowed significantly once you got past your second year. The kids that were here were either going to finish what was left of their childhood here or get bounced to one of two places – a home or a lock-up-style facility. Sandy, a boy with Down syndrome and a habit of swearing for no apparent reason, had already asked me to let Mike know he'd like to be adopted, too. I could understand why he'd want that, why everyone wanted to be adopted. But I knew adoptions didn't always stick and I knew that, at our age, the chances of either of us finding a home were extremely unlikely. In his case, the disabilities – not to mention his violent episodes – made his chances even worse than mine; not that I cared. I really wasn't looking forward to the meeting. I was nervous, yes, and I'd come to an uncomfortable and confusing conclusion about that: I was afraid he'd reject me. After all I knew about myself, why would I carry that fear around? Maybe it was just the inevitability of it all, like watching the train come down the tracks with black smoke pouring out of its stack. The squeaks of metal as the wheels pulled along its great bulk on the rails. Then there would be me, standing in front of it – close enough to see the rivets and the number '97' on the nose in raised gold letters with a red background – and know it was going to smash me into pulp – I'd know it with all my heart and still be worried. Yes, something like that. The house emptied out after dinner. There were appointments, outings with various workers from different agencies and shopping that had to be done. I remained behind with Shanae to wait for Mike, my personal train engine, about to grind me to a pulp, and then go back to his life. I sat on the ratty couch with the TV displaying whatever show the last person had been watching. My jeans were a touch too warm for the weather and if that wasn't sure to make me sweat, I'd put on a long sleeved tee as well. My foot was bouncing on the floor and I was debating if I'd have time to go upstairs and change when the door rattled. The screen door wasn't attached well, so if you knocked on it, it rattled in the frame as opposed to sounding like a proper knock. Opening the screen door made an alarming squeal, which my imagination told me might be what a rat sounded like on a rack. Made for rodents. A rat rack. For medieval-inquisition type rodents to torture their fellow rodents. “Colin! Hello?” Shanae waved her hand in front of my face and I jumped, realizing I'd just blocked out the whole 'meeting Mike at the door' thing. “Sorry,” I mumbled. I stood and there he was, standing in the foyer of the house. The building had been donated by its previous owners and hadn't been updated to reflect current room set-ups. 'Foyer' sounded way too pretentious for this place, but it was the only word we had to describe it. Mike looked young-ish, only a few strands of gray hair showing around the temples. He had on jeans and a button up shirt and seemed unsure of himself, moving slightly from one foot to another. “Why don't you sit down and get to know each other for a minute? I'll just grab some forms downstairs and then, if you feel comfortable, maybe you can go out for a bit?” Shanae said to Mike, chattering as she led him to the love seat and I resumed my seat on the couch. Mike waited for Shanae to retreat before he rubbed his hands on his thighs and addressed me. “So, I'm a little nervous, I hope you'll take it easy on me.” Mike said with a smile. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well, I don't have much experience with kids and Gloria spent a lot of time telling me how awesome you are, so...” He spread his hands, “I'm a little intimidated.” “Gloria just says that to get people interested,” I muttered. If Mike had half a brain, he already knew this. “Well, it worked.” He smiled and shrugged, “But hey, you and I already had something in common. We met before, do you remember?” I glanced up and studied his face with some curiosity. He didn't really look familiar to me, and in fact I could have passed him in a hallway and never known he'd passed. I shook my head in reply to his question. “I was going to the doctor, so were you. You're a Tull fan.” “Oh? That was you?” I grunted, the unusual conversation we'd had coming back to mind. “That's an unusual band for a kid your age to get into; where'd you hear about them?” “I don't know,” I replied uncomfortably. “I understand, sometimes things we get into, we don't really have a single moment that stands out for us.” His palms dropped down to his knees and I sat quietly, waiting. “So...” Mike stopped speaking as Shanae came back into the room, smiling and carrying some paperwork. “So... Colin has already had dinner,” she said as she sat next to me. “I told him he couldn't have snack on account of him not eating his beets. But beets are pretty nasty, so I guess I could let it slide on his big night.” “I'm not hungry,” I muttered. “Keep your options open, Buttercup,” she said while turning to look at Mike. “Everything is set here.” She waved the papers in her hand in Mike's direction. “The county sent everything – which is a first, trust me!” “I'm sorry, the county sent what, exactly?” Mike asked. “Oh! See for yourself.” She handed the papers to Mike. “Permission to take Colin out and – you can ignore that one, he has no medications – and that one; he has no allergies. Just general stuff, but if we don't have the releases we can't let him go or talk about him.” “What do you mean, talk about me?” I asked with suspicion. “Don't get your panties in a knot, Buttercup. Anyone who might be your caregiver has to be able to work with us and so we have to be able to talk. Legally, these papers let us do that.” She said all this dismissively and turned back towards Mike. “I see. Okay, well, Colin how about we go for a walk or hit the mall or something?” “If you want,” I said without any real enthusiasm. “Come on, muster up some energy!” Shanae said while shoving me in the shoulder and then standing. “He's a little moody tonight, I think he's nervous. Just tell him what I do.” She turned to me and said firmly, “Suck it up, Buttercup!” “Stop calling me that!” I yelled. I don't know where that came from, but suddenly I was angry and her constant dismissive attitude had gotten to me. “Whoa! Slow your roll, little man.” “Stop calling me names! My name is Colin!” “Colin, right now you need to get a hold on yourself. You are not acting safely and I can't let you go out until I know you can be safe. You hear me?” She had lowered her voice and brought her face even with mine, staring me down. Daring me. I felt myself teetering on the edge, ready to unload on her for all the little bullshit ways she messed with me. Then she smiled, that satisfied 'I win, you lose' smarmy, full-of-herself look – and I went over the edge. “Fuck you!” I screamed full on into her surprised face. Instead of feeling good, feeling like I had released some of my tension, it only ratcheted up another level and I began a litany of screams and clenching my fists and stomping my feet like I was fucking six or something. I was so mad, so white hot, out-of-the-blue angry – and it felt good. I'd been dead inside for what felt like forever and now, suddenly, I was alive. Shanae was speaking, trying to regain control. She wanted me to go to my room and chill out but I couldn't, wouldn't listen. I kept up the verbal onslaught for a few minutes, slowly starting to run out of cuss words and my throat was getting a little raw. Tears were running down my face, but I didn't know when that had started. Or why. I finally stopped, breathing heavily and clenching my fists, feeling the fingernails press into the skin of my palm. Then I saw Mike's face. Surprise? Shock? Fear? I felt bad, realizing what I'd just done. I felt bad for Gloria, as she'd be disappointed and wouldn't say so. But her silent reproach would hurt, a lot. I felt bad for Mike, blowing away his illusions of a happy kid coming to live with him in his happy home. I wasn't happy, and I'd just yanked the rug out from under him. I also felt bad for me. I knew I didn't deserve – or want! - a family again, but I realized that maybe that was why I'd finally snapped on Shanae. Maybe my unconscious was putting the brakes on this before I really did get wrecked worse than I already was. I turned and went to my room and refused to talk when asked to later. Fuck Shanae, fuck them all. Mona, the director of the group home, told me the next morning I was on level zero, which basically meant grounded. No TV, no electronics and an early bedtime. I just nodded, the white hot anger having left me the night before. I endured her lecture about making choices and there being consequences for things we do or say in the heat of the moment and tried to nod like I was being respectful and listening. They all want us to listen, but they never listen back. When I got off the bus that afternoon I wasn't surprised to see Gloria's car. In some ways I felt like I was her pet project, and that made me angry and sad all at once. I don't know why. I walked in and put my things away in the hall closet and sat down with the other inmates for snack. It's such a kid word, snack. I'm pretty sure it isn't proper English, like people that say they 'went to Wal-Marts' like they went to more than one or something. The kids here all say it, though; 'Can I have snack?' I was ready when Mona called to me, asking me downstairs where her office was. She'd already lectured me...of course Gloria had to do it too, now, except hers would be mostly silent. She'd give me the long face, the disappointed eyes and, eventually, the soft voice. In some ways it was worse than being yelled at. I stepped into the office and took in Gloria and Mike seated already, and did a double take. What was Mike doing here? “Hi, Colin,” Gloria said with a smile. I was instantly suspicious. I should have been getting 'the look' right about then, since telling adults to screw themselves was frowned upon in this establishment. I glanced at Mike, who smiled wanly. “Hi,” I said quietly to them both. “Have a seat, Colin,” Mona said while patting my shoulder. I sat, feeling anxious and not sure why. Adults have two phases when they are angry or have bad news. Raised voices, screaming, cursing and waving arms or hitting things, all those I was used to. But the really bad things – like when they were ready to tell you to drop your pants and bend over while they snapped the belt in their hand or when they passed on news of some death or other tragedy – for this, they got very quiet. “So, sweetie, I was just wondering if you could talk to me a little bit about what happened last night?” Gloria smiled, but not her sad 'tell me how you were wrong' smile. This was different, but I couldn't put my finger on how, exactly. “I already got punished,” I replied and slumped down in my chair. “I know, sweetie, but I just wanted to hear about it from your perspective.” She kept up the small, kind of...maybe an encouraging... smile? I glanced at Mike who looked grim and I wondered what he was doing here. Why would they want to gang up three on one? I'd already admitted what I'd done and been punished...well, maybe I just hadn't denied what I'd done. “Shanae calls me names. I don't like it,” I muttered, finally. “What kind of names, Colin?” Mona asked while her pencil scritched across her legal pad. “'Little man',” I muttered and I could feel the heat in my cheeks knowing everyone would think 'that wasn't so bad'. I pressed on, “'Buttercup' and...” I glanced at Mike and then stared at his face, defiantly perhaps – don't ask me why. “'Sister-boy'.” “How long has this been going on?” Mona asked without pause. I ignored her for a moment, taking in the crease on Mike's forehead and wondering what it meant. Probably he'd just realized that Shanae was making fun of me being gay and realizing how close he'd come to having a gay kid under his roof. Fucker. “Since the first weekend.” I looked at Mona. “She said she'd read my file.” “Was she saying that last night?” Gloria asked. I suddenly felt tired of this. Was this a show for Gloria? Nothing would change and then Shanae would just be a bitch to me. I stayed silent, looking down at my hands. “She was. Did. I heard it,” Mike said. I stayed quiet. “Which comments did she make?” Mona asked. “I heard 'little man' and 'Buttercup'.” Mona sighed. “I will definitely speak to Shanae; we do want our staff to speak to the residents respectfully and that should include using their names. I don't think that those two terms warrant the use of such abusive language as was used last night, however.” “Mrs...” Mike said and I glanced up to see him looking at Mona questioningly. “Roberts, but please call me Mona.” “Mona, as a gay man,” Mike said and my head snapped up, “my masculinity has been called into question by a lot of people. As a kid the more obvious ones were 'queer' and 'fag' but there are a lot of ways to demean someone. Trying to put it in gentler tones while still implying that you are something 'lesser' can be very difficult to accept and the longer it goes on... “I agree about the effect of words and tone,” Mike said and looked over at me. “I would never allow for that kind of language. However I think that Shanae is in a position of power and has been using that to imbue her words with put-downs and belittle a kid who just lost everything. In some ways, I think you're lucky it was only verbal. I feel angry about it and it wasn't even aimed at me.” Mona folded her hands and squared her shoulders as she addressed Mike. “I understand what you're saying, and she will be spoken to. However, that kind of display is unsafe and we are responsible for the well-being of our clients, no matter what a prospective foster parent may think.” “If I may,” Gloria interjected as Mike opened his mouth. “Mona, we all agree discipline must be maintained. But in this case, it sounds a lot like your employee was baiting one of the residents she was supposed to be being responsible for, and in front of an impartial third party as well. While I don't condone Colin's language, I do think there is a breaking point for everyone. In this case, it was one Colin shouldn't have been forced to reach.” “There will be training to correct that, of course,” Mona replied coolly. “I'm glad to hear it,” Gloria said firmly. “Now, Mike did you have something to add?” “Sure do.” Mike looked at me and said, “So, Colin. What do you like on your pizza?” I was kind of, sort of, dying to ask him about being gay. But I couldn't. I mean, I physically couldn't get the words out of my mouth no matter how hard they battered the inside of my lips. Those weren't the only things I had trouble verbalizing, though. Why did he want me? Why did he want any kid, I had to wonder after seeing his house. It didn't look like that much from the outside, just your average raised ranch. But he totally shattered the stereotype of gay guys that love landscaping. His grass was long, the shrubs needed trimming and it all looked kind of...I don't know...not run down but more like...what's a term like lived in, but for your lawn? Inside it was really nice. He invited me to kick off my shoes and we walked through his house in socks. I met his lazy dog who just rolled over and let me rub his belly and it seemed like he'd be thrilled to just let me do that forever. He had hardwood floors that had shag rugs that were really ugly and ragged to look at, but really soft to walk or sit on. Jasper, the dog, went as far as the first carpet with me and then just sat there, waiting for his belly rubs to commence. He showed me the house with a nice TV, comfortable couch and the computer set up downstairs. Then he showed me my room – or the one that could be mine, maybe. It was a room - I don't want to over state things - but the wall was done with a texture he said was called 'Venetian Plaster' and I have to say it looked very cool. It was done with two shades of yellow that gave the room a very mellow feel. We made personal pizzas and then lounged on the couch with some tube before playing some games. The time seemed to fly by and he didn't pressure me to talk and I couldn't force myself to ask questions...kind of awkward but also really, really cool. However, even though I thought our time had gone really well, I was sure it would be the last I'd see of him - after all he'd been the good guy and stood up for me when I was the picked-on kid; I'll bet Gloria thinks he's the best guy ever, and now she can introduce him to a kid that might actually work out for him. I thought about that in bed that night, while Sandy snored a few feet away from me. I decided that I was a test of some sort for Mike, to see how he'd react with a hopeless case. I definitely thought he'd come through with flying colors and would make a great dad for someone, but since I didn't want a dad – or a family – Gloria could work on finding him something better. In a way I felt good about that, like I was useful. I was such a wreck that I could be used to see how far down in the barrel a prospective parent would go to have a kid. But when I got off the bus the next day, he was there. I went to his house and did my homework and had a snack. He showed me a Jethro Tull concert on DVD, which was kind of cool. I was a Tull fan, true, but there was a reason I hadn't told him why. Of course, it was about a boy; the first boy. The one that made me realize that I liked boys. I didn't think this was an uplifting story, and it definitely was not one for sharing. Still, making dinner with Mike and rubbing Jasper's belly filled me with emotions so mixed it was hard to single them out. Sadness, or self pity maybe. Fear that it would all be taken away. Caution so I didn't get too used to it. Longing. Disappointment at having to leave for the group home at the end of the night. Wondering what it would be like to sleep in that mellow, yellow room. Wondering if anything...out of the ordinary would happen if or when I did sleep over. After all, he was gay too. That brought a wave of fear and nausea that only intensified when the first sleep over was planned. Mike asked me once or twice what was wrong, but I couldn't say it. Not that. We watched a western, 'Tombstone', and even though I whined about watching a western it was pretty good. Then, it was time. “Okay, why don't you get changed for bed and brush your teeth,” Mike said as he gathered our popcorn bowl and empty glasses to bring to the kitchen. “Okay,” I replied. Inside I was quaking, wondering if this was it. But Mike seemed like a nice guy and, even though my parents had thrown me away they had never lied to me – as far as I knew. Gay's went after kids, recruited them. Touched boys. Would Mike want to...touch me? Did I want him to? I changed into shorts and a tee before brushing. I walked back out to the kitchen where Mike was just starting the dishwasher. “Uh. Thanks - movie was pretty cool.” “I'm glad you liked it, seriously. It's one of my all-time favorites,” he said with a smile as he leaned back against the counter. “I was really happy to share it with you.” “Well,” I shifted on my feet as I felt confusion. Should I hug him? I was too old to be tucked in, and that would be inviting him in the bedroom; would that be wise? Would it seem...perverse? I decided that I had to do something, and so I closed the distance and gave him a weak, quick hug. “Good night, Mike.” “Uh, good night, Colin.” He said through a cough. “Uh, do I have to have my door closed or open?” I asked, glancing back. “Whatever works for you,” Mike said. I nodded and went to my room, quietly closing the door. I cracked the window before turning off the light and stretching out under the sheet and light blanket. In the darkness I waited, hearing Mike move around in the living room. Hearing him urge Jasper out, and then yelling to try and get him back in a short time later. I heard them come up the hall, and the snuffle of Jasper's nose at the bottom of my door. The bathroom light came on and I heard Jasper jumping into Mike's bed. Water running, the toothbrush being hit against the side of the sink. The bathroom light went out and disappeared from the bottom of my door. I tensed, waiting. Then Mike's door closed and, faintly, I heard him settle onto his bed. My tension slowly melted as a feeling of disappointment washed through me, and then immense relief followed by a sudden onset of tears. I don't know why. Maybe it was family, and maybe it wasn't. I wasn't going to jinx it and I'd been there, done that already. But maybe... The high school was much nicer than the old one. It was brighter, cleaner and didn't have metal detectors at the doors. The kids clothes were the same, but different. There were more 'preppy' type kids and the ones that dressed like the kids at my old school wore far nicer clothes. Like better quality. Like Bloomingdale's versus Wal-Mart. Mike got me all registered and got copies of my bus schedule, classes and a bunch of other stuff. He seemed like he really had his shit together and was waiting for me when I got off the bus. “So? How was your first day?” “Okay,” I replied. “Whoa, whoa. I did not take two weeks of vacation time to hear 'okay',” he said while dropping a hand on my shoulder. I hid a smile, feeling a little silly but also oddly good at his interest. “It was high school,” I replied. “There were kids there and teachers and lunch was terrible. Can I bring a lunch from home?” “You going to make it? I can guarantee I won't.” Mike said as we walked up the block to his house. “Come on, that's a parent kind of job!” I said, again hiding my smile. “Nope, you're at the perfect age – you can make your lunch but can't ask to borrow the car.” “Lame,” I replied. “Yep. Cool kids have been calling me that for years. Anyone get in trouble today?” “Not that I saw. Honestly, I was just trying to get to classes. The map they give you isn't the greatest and no one seems to know the room numbers, it's like they stop thinking of those and name them after the teacher. I think two or three times I'd ask someone where room whatever was and they'd ask who the teacher was and then they'd know.” “Well, at least you found a way to get there. I never asked, did you want to play sports or join any clubs?” “I'm not big on playing anything, I'm kind of clumsy,” and then Mike deftly pushed me into the side of the house. “What was that for?” I asked. “What are you looking at me for?” He asked with the falsest sincerity ever. “You're the clumsy one!” We walked in and I met Jasper on the carpet before going to start my homework. Mike put a bowl of chips on the table before disappearing. I worked for an hour and a half or so. The material at my previous school was similar to what I had now, except my new classes were further along. I had to make some intuitive leaps to figure out how to get things done, but some things I'd have to ask about the next day as I just couldn't see the connective tissue between what I'd been taught before and what they were working on now. Mike came back in and was flipping through the journal the school provided. Inside was a planner for writing down homework and other due dates, a section for teacher comments and a sleeve for flyers or sealed envelopes. The lady in the office had included a bunch of papers – ads for sport team sign ups, PTA, the school play and various clubs. I'd only skimmed them as I had been kind of on the go all day. I helped with dinner and, after we ate, I started to put my stuff away. As I went through the papers and set the sign ups into a recycle pile and the parent stuff into another, I came across one that froze me. 'Gay – Straight Alliance' was framed on either end with pink triangles and a short note underneath said they welcomed all people each Wednesday. “Any of this for me?” Mike asked as he approached. “Uh,” I muttered as I jumped. “Yeah, here,” I said while handing him the 'parent' pile. I slipped the Alliance sheet under the recycle stuff. His eyebrow went up and I realized I'd been too slow. I was more than a little surprised that he seemed to let it go. “PTA. Bake sale. I see you saved the really cool stuff for me,” he said. “Yeah...the rest is just sports sign ups, clubs...stuff like that,” I replied. He watched me for a moment and then nodded before tossing the sheets in his hand on my pile. “Looks like they are all for recycling, then.” After he walked away I pulled the Alliance flyer out and stared at it. They met in two days. I worried about it all that night, the desire to ask Mike about being gay pushing my emotions all over the place. I was a tiny bit afraid that, if I asked him, he'd recruit me like my parents had said. Was that how it worked? You had to ask or somehow invite them in? Like vampires? I know, in church, we were always asked to invite Jesus in. Did gays work the same way? Or did that make no sense since I felt like I was gay anyway? It took me another night to work up to it, and then it was because I felt I had to. I was bursting with questions and a question echoing in your head gains a lot more power than one that is just asked. So, after dinner, I asked Mike if we could talk. “What's up?” he asked while collapsing onto the couch. I took a seat on the opposite end. “I wanted to ask you...you read my whole file...right?” “It wasn't all that thick, to be honest. There was a psych eval, grades from school. Some notes from that horrible counselor woman at the group home. Mostly, Gloria filled me in.” “Well,” I said while shifting on the couch, “what did she tell you?” “That your parents threw you out for being gay.” Ouch. It was so matter of fact, so...unimpressive. Devoid of emotion that I couldn't tell what he thought of that. I froze, wondering which direction to jump next. He knew, had known from the start, then. But I also knew he'd called himself gay before, in the meeting at the group home. So where did that leave me? Mike must have noticed my discomfiture because he spoke up. “Look, I never asked about it because...well, it's your business, isn't it? I didn't want to make you uncomfortable and, I thought, maybe things would be easier for you knowing I was gay too.” “Easier for what?” I wheezed. “For you to ask questions, to know that there was no judgment in your being who you are. Being gay is a piece of who you are, but that's all it is. I won't lie, it's a big piece because there are a lot of people who make it more than it is. It's big because there are fewer people who share that attraction than straights. But, in the end, it's really the same thing straights want. “You want to find love, you'll fall in lust and think it's love. You'll notice guys all the time and put them in your spank bank. Sometimes you'll see a pretty face and build that up in your head, only to find out that no one could live up to the person you made up in your mind. We all make these mistakes; they're human. But,” he said with a sigh, “some people want to say that if you're gay you're also evil or perverse or cause natural disasters.” “Why don't you have a boyfriend?” I blurted, and then cringed. I had not intended to go down that road in quite that way. “Well, it happens I do.” “You do?” “You don't have to look so shocked,” he growled. “Well...where is he?” I asked. “We've been waiting. We didn't want to overwhelm you. We thought we should go slow,” Mike said with a smile. “He's a foster parent, too. He was in the same class I was in.” “What class?” “Foster parent class.” “You have to take classes?” I asked incredulously. “Yeah, you do. We especially need some training to take on kids as tough as you!” Mike said with a laugh. “Can I meet him?” I asked, ignoring Mike's verbal jab. “Sure. We'll have him over for dinner or something. I know he's looking forward to meeting you.” “Why?” “Well, we both feel like gay kids are at a double disadvantage in the system. Some people won't take them, no matter what, so I wanted to help out a gay kid specifically. Ian has come around to my way of thinking, though he's happy just to get a placement.” “Oh.” My head was spinning – Mike had a boyfriend? So all my worries that he was going to try and 'convert me' or something were totally stupid. Not only that, I kept forgetting, I was already gay so there wasn't much 'converting' to do. I was worried about sex, about what my parents had said. I admit, a little bit of me was worried about this new guy, the boyfriend. But I felt like I trusted Mike a lot more right now and was more curious than worried. “So was there something that prompted you to ask about this now?” I considered lying, treating it as random curiosity. But the whole point of this conversation was to talk about this Alliance thing. I'd just gotten more info than I'd planned. So I pulled out the worn sheet of paper – nearly in tatters from me taking it out to look at it and refolding it, and handed it to Mike. “Oh, this is cool. I wish I'd had one of these when I was a kid. You want my blessing?” “Well...it's after school, so I'd have to take the late bus home,” I said quietly. “Okay.” “I could still get my homework done when I got home,” I said quickly before his response registered. “Okay?” “Yeah, okay. Have fun. Hey, Colin,” Mike smiled warmly, “you've had people treat you like shit for liking another boy. You should meet people who think those first people are assholes.” “Hi, I'm Peter and welcome to the meeting,” a boy with stylish glasses and a smattering of pimples on his forehead said as he greeted me at the door. “Thanks. Um, Colin,” I said while shaking his hand and moving past him. I glanced around the room of maybe fifteen people who were milling in twos and threes. One group of four, two guys and two girls, was a little loud. One boy, tall with dark curls and pale skin, was talking and making the girls laugh while the other boy was covering his face. His fine brown hair came down straight over his ears and moved as he shook with embarrassed giggles. The girls, one a brunette whose long hair seemed to shimmer and the other who had hair a violent, unnatural shade of red, were both laughing at the other boy's expense. I took a seat and remained quiet as a few more people filtered in and met up with friends and took seats as well. The meeting was short and I can't recall any details, mostly because I was nervous and felt entirely too hot. But I stuck it out, trying to remember I was among friends. I'd imagine that I looked uncomfortable to anyone here, though. I escaped afterward, only having Peter wave to me as I left. I noticed some of the Alliance members through the next few days, recognizing them from being in the room but not, obviously, from interacting with them. Later that week as I sat down for lunch I was slightly disturbed to find Peter joining me. “Hi, hope you don't mind some company but it's crowded today,” Peter said. I glanced around quickly, confirming the usual number of open seats before simply nodding at Peter. I guess he wanted to sit with me...oh, shit. He might be...interested? “So, Colin, you're new to the GSA but I don't remember seeing you at school before, and I'm sure I would have. Are you new here?” “Yeah...” I said while coughing. “Uh, yes I am. New. Here.” “Oh, well, welcome then,” Peter smiled and took a bite. “Thanks,” I mumbled. “You're really cute, you know. Did you hook up with anyone from the meeting yet?” “What? No!” I said in shock. “Relax!” Peter smiled, “I was just trying to find out if you were taken, that's all.” He leaned in and said, quietly, “I didn't get a chance to talk to you and I assumed you'd be snapped up by someone, fast. You know, you should try wearing a polo? Unbuttoned, of course. I'll bet you're a medium, right?” I took a bite of my sandwich, and then another to try to cover up my discomfort and unwillingness to answer. It wasn't like my shirt size was a state secret, but this just seemed...invasive. Was this how gay guys...met? Was I supposed to critique his clothing as well? “Um, yeah. Medium. Maybe you should try a tee shirt. Comfortable, you know.” “Oh, no, I couldn't.” Peter said with a smile, “Not in public. Button up shirts and polo's are the minimum, really. Tee shirts are fine under your clothes as long as they are white so they don't show or draw attention to themselves. You should wear khakis, too, they make your butt look better.” He was looking at my butt? I suddenly felt self conscious in my jeans and tee shirt with protective hoodie. Was I dressed all wrong for being gay? Was he here to...fix me? “You...think so?” I asked tentatively. “Definitely. You should lose the sneakers, too and maybe get a haircut.” I suddenly felt very uncomfortable; something here just wasn't right. Was he seriously trying to tell me all gay guys dressed alike? Mike wore button up shirts and khaki pants, but at home he wore jeans and a tee. He'd never said anything to me about changing my clothes. Was he trying to ease me along? I resolved to ask him – and to escape Peter as he just made me feel weird. I endured him for the remaining time in lunch, but then actively avoided him. After the last bell I headed to my locker. I hadn't been able to shake off the unpleasant feel of my encounter with Peter and wondered if that was what I had to look forward to with gay guys. Are all relationships like that? Was Mike the boss in his relationship, or was it the other guy I had yet to meet? My thoughts were scattered to the winds by the appearance of a very perky girl at my side. “Hi. Colin, right? I'm Emily, I saw you at the meeting. The GSA meeting?” This girl, Emily, needed to take a breath. “Oh, yeah. Uh, hi, Emily.” I stammered. Her awkwardness seemed to have moved to me. “Hi!” she said brightly. “Have you made any friends yet? You looked new.” she said while walking down the hall with me. “No, not really.” I replied, deciding that my discomfort with Peter had ruled that out. “Oh, well, now you have! You should come meet my friends, after school. They're all really nice and the boys are so cute! You'd fit right in!” She said, babbling. At this last she stopped, placing a hand over her mouth and she dropping her fingertips on my forearms. “Oh, oh I didn't mean that to sound like I was hitting on you. Oh, dammit, Emily!” “Uh,” I laughed in embarrassment for her. “It's okay. Not even the first time today, I think.” “Really? You're not offended? Oh, thank goodness. I'm not surprised someone hit on you, already. I hope it wasn't Peter. Was it Peter?” she resumed her babble, only to put the heel of her hand on her forehead and moan to herself again. “Not your business, Emily!” “Uh, yeah, actually. You...know Peter?” She peeked at me and lowered her hand, seemingly relieved to have not overstepped – or been called out on it. In a way, her awkwardness was endearing and it comforted me to know someone else felt weird. “Peter has a reputation for trying to hit on new guys as soon as they walk in the door. He also is kind of a control freak,” she said as we walked down the hall. “Controlling how?” “What kind of movies you can see, music to listen to, how you dress...” “Oh.” So his fashion tips were to make me more desirable to him? Or was critiquing clothes something gays did? If what Emily was saying was true, this was just so Peter could have control. Did I want that? “He'd totally want to make you over, no matter what you had on. Change your hair, shoes, maybe the way you walk...I really should stop talking so much, everyone tells me so!” She said while covering her eyes with a hand. “That kind of matches up with the conversation I had...uh, Emily?” I spoke to her uncertainly as I stopped and she turned her unsure gaze to me. “This might sound weird but...are you a lesbian?” “Me? Oh, no!” she said brightly while waving her hand at me, “my best friend is, though. That's why I joined the GSA and I discovered that people had shit on so many of the members there that they kind of understood me being so awkward. They kind of put up with me talking. Did you notice I talk a lot?” I smiled at her and she returned it. “I have to catch my bus, Emily, but it was nice to meet you.” “You too! Oh, oh wait! I should give you my number!” “I don't have a cell, yet. I'll get it from you when I do,” I said with a smile. “Okay! Bye!” She could dial down on the caffeine, but otherwise I think I actually did meet my first friend. Friday night I met Ian. Mike had taken me out to the mall to get a cell phone added to his account for me and it felt good to have something physical that tied me down to Mike and his life. To him it might have been a way to get in touch with me or find me, but to me it meant he wanted to do those things, that I mattered to him. Then we met Ian for dinner. He was pretty cool and included me in the conversation. I spent a lot of dinner watching them interact. They both had dressed casually for dinner in the mall and I smiled to myself thinking Peter would have had something to say about that. More than anything I was struck with how boringly normal they were. My adoptive parents had talked about finances and insurance with a side dish of piety. Mike and Ian talked cars, bills and me. I wasn't used to being part of the conversation, but it was pretty cool and it made me think even more that Peter's comments about my appearance weren't benign but rather a first step toward getting me to do things his way. Ian gave me a gift card for music and Mike promised to set me up with an account later on. We went to the movies and then home. I was kind of shocked - after all my parents had led me to believe - at how ordinary we were. Except for the fact that it was okay for me to be me. We spent most of the weekend with Ian. We went to a water park Saturday and he stayed over that night. I felt anxiety clutch my chest again at the idea, but is was for naught as it had been before. Instead of church Sunday Ian cooked breakfast and took us to play basketball for a bit. We were all pretty terrible, but it felt like we were our own little club and for a few minutes I felt safe and in control. Then, Monday happened.
  12. I'm glad to see that people seem to be enjoying the story. It's complete and in 8 parts, again with multiple points of view, something I'd never done before. I wanted to try posting this here and see what happened if all goes well, I'll post more stuff. Thanks guys!
  13. The waiting room was small and about half full. After checking in I glanced around to find a place to sit that wasn't too close to anyone else. Doctors waiting rooms were like elevators, in my opinion - what else is there to do besides not talk to the other person? I sat across from a lady who appeared to be Latino and a kid who was of indeterminate age - or species. A large hat covered its tilted-forward head and white wires snaked up underneath, undoubtedly blocking out all interaction with the outside world. In a way, I envied it. One thing I liked about going home was blocking out the rest of the world. Of course, then I invited it in by getting online or watching TV. I glanced at the magazines and began to sift through them. Woman's Day. Good Housekeeping. Bellybutton Lint Collectors Monthly. Oh well, maybe I could nap. A man behind me burst into a coughing fit and I sighed, giving up the stupid idea of napping. “Colin.” The Latina was looking at the lump, who apparently was male. “Colin,” she touched his arm and he lifted up his arm and dragged one white wire away from his head. “Why don't you do some of your reading homework?” “I forgot it at school,” came the mumbled response. “Well, why don't you read a magazine? Here, let's find one.” She stood up and made her way to the table next to me. I pulled out my phone and checked my email, a tad embarrassed to have overheard her; it was a breach of waiting room etiquette, after all. The lady moved the magazines around and the lump put the wire back up the the side of his head. “For the love of Pete, don't they have anything besides gardening and home improvement?” she muttered. “Not on that table,” I replied. Another breach - I was a regular social rebel today. “Oh great.” She put her hands on her hips and smiled. “I'd let him look at the swimsuit issue if I thought he'd actually hold paper in his hands.” He's a big reader, huh?” “He is, actually. He must not like the assignment, I guess.” She frowned at him. “Leaving the work at school is his way of rebelling.” The lump moved and dislodged the other wire in the process. His black tee shirt was too large and the bud at the end of the wire was eluding his grasp, hiding within the folds. He sat up and grunted in exasperation when the second wire dropped from his other ear. He sat forward in frustration as he let the music player dangle in order to get a grip on the headphones and I could see the name of the band: Jethro Tull. “Fan of seventeenth century agriculture, are you? You don't look the type, but plenty of gardening magazines over here if you are.” I commented. He glanced up and, with a start, realized I was talking to him. “Gardening? Um, no.” He struggled for a moment and then asked, “Why did you ask that?” I pointed at his shirt. “Jethro Tull was a seventeenth century agriculturist.” He glanced down and rolled his eyes. “It's a band.” “Yes, but...” I leaned forward, “the band used to play in London when they were trying to get discovered. They used to change the name of the band every night.” “Why'd they do that?” he asked, the player forgotten in his hands. “When they first got together they were having trouble getting more than one booking on the club circuit. New bands will go play at different places in the hope they get invited back. So they kept changing their band name so that people wouldn't realize that they had already played there before. The night they were invited back – which was also the night they were signed to a record label - they were playing under the name 'Jethro Tull'.” “That's cool.” He grabbed the ends of his headphones and plugged back in signaling the end of the conversation. “Colin?” the nurse called. No response. “Colin!” the Latina repeated, but he was gone again. She walked over and nudged him and he glanced up, once more removing an ear bud. “They're ready for you.” He glanced at the nurse and nodded, got up and went into the back. The lady sat down and smiled at me. “You have kids?” “Me? Oh, no. Not really a kid person, I guess.” I leaned back and pretended to look at my phone. She sat down next to me and I half glanced her way. "I find that hard to believe,” she said. “This is very unusual, but have you ever considered foster care?” she asked. “No. I live alone, have a dog but other than that...I have freedom. Kids would be a huge life change.” I put my phone away and wondered when I'd get called to the exam room. “Oh yes, a huge change is the truth! But, i'd imagine you work, that must get you out of the house? You come home and what? Feed the dog, watch the TV?” she pressed. “Hey now,” I said defensively, “My dog and my TV aren't really your business now, are they?” “Uh huh,” she said and leaned back in her chair, regarding me. “But you do work, so you contribute to society. Have a home. Pay bills.” “Who doesn't?” I was uncertain now instead of indignant. Who was this lady, IRS? She made me feel like I was sitting in the vice-principal's office while she fished around and probed to find out whatever I was doing wrong – whether I was doing it or not. “Oh, lots of people. But you know, not everyone can just get a kid to respond to him, to engage in conversation.” She leaned back a bit and took off her glasses, allowing them to dangle from one arm. “No sir, you strike me as a man in search of a challenge.” “I get that every night; you obviously haven't met my dog,” I snorted. “Besides, a kid is a far cry from that.” “Oh, you are right about that!” She chuckled, “A kid has infinite possibilities and infinite complexities. But the benefits for you, and he, can be tremendous!” “Yeah but...” “But yes, they take more time – as you said, a huge life change. But when you make a difference, and believe me you can, there is no feeling like it in the world.” She allowed her smile to fade. “The problem is people. They like to complain about kids – how they have no respect and no appreciation, but where do the kids learn these things?” “Uh...” “Right! They need adults! The worst part is that the kids who need the adults the most are the ones that are hardest to reach.” She looked away and then gave me a sad look. “It breaks my heart to see these kids in the news everyday – the ones that never got any help - the ones nobody could talk to.” I sat in silence with such a bummer of a conversation. This was like the appeals I got to adopt animals; I just couldn't care for more than the one spoiled, demanding dog I had. I had a hard time taking care of myself. How could I even think of looking after someone else? I mentally ran down the litany of faults I had, ticking them off a mental list. I didn't cook regularly; in fact my specialty was microwave dinners. Except that I had to zap a piece of chicken and cut it for the dog each night, but I still used the microwave. I wasn't even sure my stove worked. I was a horrible housekeeper. I barely remembered to pay my bills on time unless harassed. Laundry piled up and was done in fits and starts and always at the last minute. Were those traits I really wanted to pass on to some random kid? “I can see your wheels turning - you're thinking you could never be a good role model, am I right? Well, what would you say is better – an unsure role model or none at all?” She leaned forward and pushed her hand out to me and I reflexively reached to meet her hand. She passed a card to me and said quietly, “I can help you answer those questions.” I glanced down at the card. Gloria DeJesus, Case Worker for the New York State Department of Child Welfare. I wasn't sure what to make of this, it all made no sense. I wasn't sure what I was supposed to say at this point, but then I'd felt this way since she started talking. All of a sudden I wished I had a music player to block out all conversation - and thought, in fact I made a mental note, to download music today. “Think about it, honey; you could do great things.” She patted my hand and got up to resume her seat across from me. I sat in uncomfortable silence, wishing they would come out and call me in for my appointment. I pretended to look on my phone for new mail again and was finally allowed some relief when the nurse called me in. “Okay.” The nurse smiled as he took me behind the door. “Let's get a urine sample first -” he glanced at the clipboard and back at me, “-then we can get your blood drawn. The doctor will see you after that.” He gave me a small cup and pointed me to the bathroom. “When you're done put the cup on the metal shelf and close the door.” I closed the door and unzipped. One thing that always worried me about these urine samples was getting it in the cup. I mean, I've seen my own bathroom floor and I'm always surprised at how much escapes the bowl. Also it takes some precision to not overflow the cup and whiz on your hand. I stopped and suddenly wondered how women accomplished this. I mean, they can't see so, what - do they hand women little mirrors to help them aim? Or do they just squat and hope for the best? Small wonder I wasn't going to Harvard, I thought. After filling the cup I opened the little door in the wall, but lost my grip on the handle and the door slapped shut on it's little metal hinge. I tried to open it again, but it was stuck. I heard the door on the other side swing shut and my little door popped open so fast it surprised me and I lost my grip on it, letting it pop closed again. I heard the door on the other side scrape open and I stood there, feeling like an idiot. Obviously the door had an interlocking mechanism that only allowed one door to be open at a time. I heard a little mutter and the other door closed. I opened mine carefully and placed my sample on the shelf and let the door close. I exited the bathroom and the nurse appeared a minute later from the room next door, a lab. He waved me in and as I entered he directed me to sit in the chair for drawing blood. Taking a seat I saw the little door and groaned to myself, knowing I'd just been annoying this guy who was about to stab me with a needle. He took what seemed like twenty seven vials of blood. Aren't I supposed to get a cookie or something for that? He dumped me off in the room and told me to put on the backward dress that never stayed closed. He left and I stripped down to my underclothes and put the flimsy garment on, hopped up on the table and waited while listening to the crinkle of the paper under me when I moved. A knock at the door and the PA was in to see me, a young lady. “So, how are we?” She took a seat and scanned my record she held open in front of me. “Good; just here for my three year annual check up.” “Mmm hmm,” she nodded and fixed me with a friendly stare. “So why so long?” I shrugged. “My neighbor smells funny and I heard if you inhale around rats you can get sick.” She let her glasses slide down her nose and looked at me. “Really?” “Actually, I was wondering something. How do women give urine samples? I mean, how do you aim?” She burst out laughing and closed my folder, “We just do. Let's listen to your lungs, heart and then do a hernia check.” So she put the icicle on my back and I inhaled and exhaled on command, then lifted up my reverse dress and lowered my undies. When she grabbed hold I coughed involuntarily; there is just nothing nice about being grabbed like that. She removed her hand and snapped off the rubber glove, opened my folder and began to write. “So what made you ask about women giving urine samples?” I explained my thought process and she shook her head, trying to keep giggles in. I then related the weirdness with the little door you put the urine sample into, which resulted in another round of laughter. “Well, why does the door close? It's not like I'm standing on the the other side with my drawers down to flash the nurse. Wait, do people do that?” “Your mind works in very interesting ways.” She glanced at my folder and then back at me. “I'll call you when the blood tests are back. Otherwise, we'll see you in a year, yes?” “Yes dear.” She rolled her eyes and left the room. I got dressed and made my way to the front, took care of my co-pay and headed out of the building. Back in the bright sunshine I put the magnetic clips on my glasses to block out some of the early spring glare. I headed out to my vehicle and, glancing at my watch, decided there was no point in going back to work. Instead I went to the local burger joint and snagged one for me and a plain one for the dog. I can't enter my home with a burger and not get attacked if I don't give him one too. We ate and then sat on the couch in silence. I glanced down and ruffled his ears. “Jasper, what do you think about kids?” He made no response. “I met this weird lady today, you think it means something?” He farted. I wasn't sure if it was in response to me or the burger. “We're comfortable bachelors, right Jasper?” I rubbed his side and he rolled to get his belly rubbed. I started digging my fingers into his sides and he wagged, quickly rolling over and barking. He dashed off the couch and got his toy with which we played tug 'o war for a few minutes until he got the whole thing slobbery and I let go. I kicked my shoes off and turned on the TV, which put me to sleep in mere minutes. I awoke stiff on the couch early in the morning, far too early, but I found I was wide awake and there was an infomercial on. I shut off the TV and set up the coffee pot before showering and going about the rest of my morning routine. By the time I poured my first cup the sun was thinking about making an appearance and in the light of that early day I glanced around my house and realized that it seemed kind of empty. Jasper wandered in and began drinking from his dish, noisily making the sound echo off the walls, reinforcing the emptiness of the house. This was maudlin, I decided, and I headed out the door. I stopped for a little breakfast and then went in to the office. I sat behind my desk and began looking at the overnight emails and things I may have missed by being out the previous afternoon. As I began typing a response to an email my screen suddenly went dark. “What the hell?” I muttered. The flat panel had no sides to hit; it gave me a pang for my old CRT monitor. I glanced down at my tower tucked away under my desk and noted a foul odor. Egads, what the holy hell was that? I started to pull the tower out and, the farther out it got, the worse the smell was. What, in a computer, could smell so bad? I leaned back and appraised the little box and decided I recognized a job for the IT department when I saw one. I got up and walked back to where their department was located and leaned on the cubicle wall of Tech 2, Tricia Repecki. “Trish, my computer stinks,” I complained. “Get over it, they all do,” she said without looking at me. “No, I mean...literally.” She rolled one eye to look at me and groaned. “Mike, it's too early for this.” “Tricia, have I ever lied to you?” I asked while taking a seat next to her desk. “And how do you roll just one eye? That's just creepy.” “Mike, do we really want to go there?” She laughed then said, “I need a few minutes - the email server just puked.” “Okay, I can wait.” I bounced a bit in the chair. “And I can do it right here.” “You're still going to have to wait,” she growled. I remained silent while she began tapping keys and looking at whatever the hell she sees when she looks at that scrolling line of gobbledy gook. I glanced around her cube and took in all the knicknacks, the tacked up memos and family photos. I studied one photo she had of a building in Romania where she'd adopted her daughter. There it was again, kids. What the hell was going on that all of a sudden I was seeing kids everywhere? It was the same phenomenon that happened when you bought a car – all of a sudden you saw your car everywhere. Was this some kind of cosmic 'screw your bachelor ways'? I glanced around and looked at the pictures of her daughter and grew curious in spite of myself. “Hey Tricia, did you think you were...I don't know, ready for kids?” She turned her head and looked at me as if I were a moron. “Do you have any idea how expensive overseas adoption is?” she asked. “No, not really.” “Well,” she leaned back in her chair and swiveled a bit to look at me, “it's huge. Babies are hard to get, and doing so overseas makes it really tough. We were really lucky to get Michelle, it was right around the time the Romanian government was shutting down foreign adoptions.” “Wow, why'd they do that?” “People were taking the kids and putting them into human trafficking. Heartless bastards whose balls should have rotted off if there were any justice.” She grimaced and glanced at her screen before returning her attention to me. “But yeah, it was expensive as hell.” “Would you say it was worth it?” I asked tentatively, realizing it could sound a little offensive. “Oh yeah. She drives me crazy, but I wouldn't want it any other way.” She grinned. “Why all the questions?” “Oh, well...” I hesitated and decided I might as well tell her. “This lady in the doctors office, she kind of accosted me about being a foster parent.” “Foster parenting is tough. My sister did it and the office really jerked her around. Like-” she glanced at her screen again and held up a finger. “Hold on, I need to get a new diagnostic running.” She tapped a few keys and moved her mouse around. Meanwhile, I glanced at the family pictures again. I didn't have any of those, at least not hanging. Maybe they were in the boxes in the attic - a leftover from moving day. “Yeah so, Lisa did the foster parent thing and the local office lied to her. It was terrible.” She'd swiveled back to face me. “How?” “Well, she lost a son when he was really young and she's always had a hole in her from that, you know? So she told the foster people she wanted a kid whose parental rights had been terminated because she was looking at adoption.” “Wow, that's pretty specific I guess.” I leaned back in the uncomfortable chair. “I know, right? So the kid she ended up with wasn't anything like that. The mom was a druggie and the grandmother was almost worse, but she was fighting for custody and the DCW was bending over backwards to force family visits and stuff, keeping that whole unhealthy and confusing situation going.” She put a hand on her forehead. “But after about a year and a half the courts finally terminated the parental rights and paved the way for her to get adopted. I mean, she's happy now to have her but it was a real struggle.” “Wow, I had no idea,” I said in shock. “I mean, the whole conversation was surreal to start with but now that you say this...” “So, wait, tell me the whole thing?” she asked. So I related the conversation, all of the three sentences I'd had with the little Tull fan and then let the silence spool out between us while she was alternatively thinking about what I'd experienced and glancing at her screen. “That's really unusual that she was selling you on foster care like that. Usually they sit in booths at public events, things like that. Either she's just a hardcore recruiter or you did something special without realizing it. Maybe that kid usually doesn't take the headphones out for anything.” “Weirder still, now I'm seeing kids everywhere and feeling like my house is empty or something.” I groaned. Tricia just smiled. “Listen, I know Jasper is your baby but you two could use a change of pace. I think this is something you should at least get more information on.” She glanced at her screen and gave it a grim smile and flipped her middle finger at the screen. “Damn right. Okay, let's go look at your computer.” We entered my cubicle and, in my absence, the smell had multiplied. I stopped, again reminding myself this had to be handled by the experts. I raised an eyebrow at Tricia. “Oh, please no.” She fluttered her hands with indecision then stuck her head into the hallway for a few deep breaths before she dove under my desk to disconnect the tower and put it on my desk. With the side open the culprit was readily visible: one dead mouse. Kentucky fried. “Okay, that's just...I hate my job.” She waved her hand in front of her face. “I'll figure out if anything is toast and reorder, we'll get a temporary PC in as soon as we can. Any questions?” “Yeah...how do women give urine samples?” “Mike...” She fixed me with a stare, “Any questions about the computer?” “Oh. No, thanks.” I smiled and she rolled her eyes. She headed down the hallway with my suicidal mouse and dead computer and I walked across the hall to my boss's office and tapped on the half closed door. “Come in.” “Hey Sandy, my computer is down and I was wondering...” I glanced at the card I pulled out from my wallet which was far too worn after being in my possession for less than 24 hours. “Can I head out? I can't do much anyway and I was going to head over to the state Children's Services building...” “Children's Services?” She leaned back in her chair. “You don't have kids, Mike. What's going on?” I edited the story a bit but ended with telling her that I wanted to look into the foster care idea. She took off her glasses and considered me for a few minutes. “You know, that seems like a good idea. Sure, not like you can work now anyway. Hey,” she wrinkled her nose, “what is that smell?” “A mouse committed suicide in my tower.” “Seriously?” “Tricia has both corpses.” “Both...oh, right.” she smiled and shook her head, “Only you. Let me know how you make out.” So that's how I found myself at the front of the New York State Office of of Children and Family Services building, or NYSOCFS. It seemed kind of plain, and I was thinking this must be newer construction. I liked the old public buildings with the marble floors and the decorations over the windows. This was a box, a square box with no character and not a single bit of color, nothing to break up the gray. I walked up, all the while wondering if I was doing the right thing. The smart thing. Was I being an idiot? Was I ready for this? No, of course I wasn't. Then why was I opening the door? “Help you?” the security guard asked. “Um, I'm here to see-” I pulled the card out again, “-Gloria DeJesus?” “Have some ID?” “Yes.” “Well? “Well what?” “Give it here! This is a government building, you have to show ID!” the guard huffed. “Oh, sorry. First time here.” I pulled out my ID and he signed me in, directing me to the third floor. The stairs were open in the lobby, no fire door blocking them, so I went up to the third floor and began hunting around. The space was largely open, no walls except for a few offices set along the perimeters of the room, probably hemmed in by the outer wall of the building. I turned around and tried to spot the office where Gloria would be, but the guard had given me directions based on the elevator so now I had no landmark to work from. “Came to get some answers, did you?” I turned and there was Gloria DeJesus, smiling like she'd won something. “Uh, no, just delivered a pizza. How are you?” She laughed and put a hand on my upper arm, steering me to her office. Oh, there was the elevator; it all made sense now. Her office was cramped, one small chair in front of a very small desk. Files were stacked precariously and boxes lined the floor and were stacked three and four high. She moved past them, causing one stack to sway a bit before settling back in. She took a seat and waved me to the other chair. “So, let's get started, shall we?” “Okay, so look...” I said while running my hands over my pants restlessly. “I moved into my house about a month ago, I have a dog, I'm single and gay.” “None of those disqualifies you. Your dog does need to be up to date on his shots and we need a note that says as much from your vet. Go on.” “Really? Being gay and single isn't a 'get out of kids free' card?” “Not a chance,” she said with a smile. “We have kids that need good people. I've had straight folks that can't hack kids and I've had gay folks that couldn't either. I've also had singles and couples from each persuasion succeed splendidly!” She leaned forward and put her elbows on her desk, supporting her chin with her hands. “Some single folks choose to do weekend respite and some go full time foster – same thing with couples. It all depends on the person and the child.” “So...if I wanted to...I could just be, like, a weekend babysitter or I could go as far as...what?” “Adoption, go big!” She said with a laugh. “We need both kinds of foster parents. Respite families, for a weekend? Priceless. When a family has a foster child, I won't kid you, it can be tough. Our families need breaks, and getting a weekend to yourself is a huge thing to a family that is working hard to connect with their foster kids and help them. Kids can be exhausting.” “One weekend a month? Like National Guard duty? You're not painting a pretty picture here, Gloria.” “Our kids can be very damaged, Mike. They can be neglected, abused, some were molested or any other of a hundred things under the sun. I won't sugar coat it – but the thing to remember is that you have support and the rewards can be unending.” “Do you...get to choose a child?” “There are lots of factors that go into a placement, and your preferences are a big part of that. If they are really narrow, it may be very hard to meet those preferences, but we will call you and let you make that choice. You don't have to take a child simply because there is one available. We've had African-American families who had to send kids back because the foster child was raised in a violently racist household. We've had others that managed to break through that learned hatred and changed a life.” “Why would you send a racist kid into a house...” “Well, we don't always know these things. Children can come into foster care for a variety of reasons – neglect, abuse, family issues – but we don't often know if the child is racist, or was raised that way. We don't know if they are gay or of they have other personality traits. We learn about them after they come into the system and, frequently, the removal process is very quick. Ten minutes, tossing their clothes into garbage bags because it's fast and getting that child out of a bad situation is often urgent. Would you like some coffee?” “Uh, yes, please.” “Give me a second,” she said while smiling and stepping out of the office. I thought of my own childhood, of how there were no other gay kids – or gay people – and wondered how my life would have been different if I'd had someone to compare myself to. Talk to. Moments later Gloria was back with two Styrofoam cups and pulled creamers and sugar packets from her pockets. “To continue down that line of questioning,” she said while settling back behind her desk and opening a sugar packet, “we also try to place kids with similar families from a cultural point of view as well – African-American with African-American, Caucasian with Caucasian, so on and so forth. We aren't limited to that, but it's usually a starting point to make children comfortable with their caregiver. Oh, drink this coffee quickly, before it eats through the cup. It's strong!” I wasn't sure how to respond to that, so I idly stirred my coffee. “Do you have any idea what kind of child may interest you?” “Uh. I'm just now giving it a little thought. It might be premature to, you know...” “I understand. There are many papers to fill out, clearances to be submitted and forms to be filed and I have to do a home visit to write up the benefits of your home and let you know what changes would be required to have a foster youth. What do you think? Shall I give you some forms and call you in a week or so? See how you feel about things?” I turned it over in my head. What if I could help a gay kid? Maybe just on weekends? Could I actually be any help? To anyone? After all, I was used to living alone... “I'll take the forms and get back to you,” I finally replied. She smiled and handed over a stack of paperwork. “Call me if you have questions.” I sat on the couch that night going over the paperwork. Fingerprints cleared through the FBI and the State Central Registry on Child Abuse. Physical, doctor's statement of being healthy enough to care for children. Thirty hours of classes spread out over ten weeks. Home inspection. List of items required. I almost joked with myself that they asked for everything but a urine sample, but that happened at my physical. I continued down the list. Smoke detectors in every bedroom. Okay, I'd need three of those. Carbon monoxide detector on every floor. Fire extinguisher in the kitchen. Maybe if I told them I only order out I could pass on that one? Bed for the child, dresser or closet for their things. If you got a bunk bed the child had to be able to sit up completely and not have their head touch the ceiling. Would they come in and measure for such a thing? I looked down at Jasper. “This is going to be a lot of work. Are you going to help me?” Many people will claim dogs can't understand you, which is false. There was no mistaking, however, his pretending to have no idea what I was talking about and proceeding to randomly scratching himself. A few weeks later the first class started. In a very real, literal sense, it was the first day of school. It also made me self-conscious, like the first day always had. There were six-foot tables set up end to end in a large U-shape and there were already a lot of people there. I made my way to an empty seat, not near anyone else. Naturally a couple came by and asked if I'd move down so they could sit together – so much for my taking control of the situation. My classmates were a varied bunch. We started the first class with thirty-two people and we were asked to go around and introduce ourselves as well as let people know what attracted us to foster care. The answers were wildly different from the amusing - like the two men that pointed at their female companions and declared 'because they said so', to the sober – that they had been in foster care themselves. As the classes went by, the number of applicants dwindled – we rarely knew why, just that they had 'selected out' Then there was Ian. He was one of four or five single people who was an original member of the class. He managed a local auto parts store and almost always got to class just in the nick of time, still wearing his work shirt. He was cute, about five foot ten with fine brown hair that he seemed to like to make a semi-spike out of in the front. Made me think of a comic book or manga-style character. He looked younger than I'd expect someone to be in this class, and I wished I'd heard him when he said why he'd gotten involved. The classes were a mix of learning interesting stuff and complete boredom, trying to memorize the meanings of acronyms and diagnoses and symptoms of these diagnoses. They did a lot of what they termed 'modeling' which had nothing to do with swimsuits and cameras. Thinking of the classmates I had, that was a relief – I'm sure they'd say they felt the same way, if asked. Modeling consisted of acting out predefined roles and then trying to use that to teach us about situations – how a family can get into the situation of having a child 'in care' and how we shouldn't judge. One couple bothered me from the start. The man had an injured leg and walked with a cane. He was young, younger than I was, but when he explained that before his accident he'd been a 'hard worker, tough worker' it stuck in my memory. Who was he trying to impress? His wife was the true wreck of their relationship, however. She repeatedly argued with our instructors, calling the system rigged and judges crooked. In the fifth class, everything came to a head. Gloria was teaching that night and, rather than hand out a packet for that night's subject, she took a stool at the head of the class and started talking. “We all have unexpected challenges in life, and we all have to learn how to handle them as best we can. So I'm going to tell you a personal story, something I struggled with in the beginning, to show you what I mean.” She adjusted in her chair and scanned the room before continuing. “When my son was fifteen he came to me and he was struggling with the relationship he had with his girlfriend, a really sweet thing named Sarah. They had been dating since they were thirteen and were just adorable together and my husband and I really liked them as a couple. One thing I can say about my son, in all honesty, is that he's very considerate and it was that consideration that brought him to me that night. “He said, 'Mom, I'm having a hard time figuring out how to handle this, the best way to handle this'. And I said, 'Joe, what's the problem?' He said, “Mom, I have to break up with Sarah.' “You can imagine my shock. I, of course, asked him why – had she said something or had he? What changed? He told me that she wanted to move things forward in their relationship, get more intimate. Well! Immediately I thought I needed to have the talk with my son about condoms and, as uncomfortable as it felt to think of my son as a sexual creature, I had to make sure that he was educated and safe.” Some of the self-identified Christians shifted in their seats, but the majority of the room was paying silent attention. “He told me, 'No, mom, Sarah is great. But what she wants from me, I can't give her. I'm gay, Mom.” My eyes widened. I glanced around to see the reactions in the room – some of the religious folks were acting in a way I'd expected, frowning or looking uncomfortable. Others, in fact one couple that I taken to be hard core were rapt with attention. Ian was smiling, and that made me smile. He was so cute, but he also had a healthy mix of handsome in there and I was really starting to think it would be nice to know him better. “I have to admit, I didn't react well at first! My husband and I argued about whose fault it was, what we did wrong...my husband said it had to be me, he could trace his history back to something silly like the 13th century and all his ancestors were straight!” Gloria laughed and waved her hands in the air, brushing away the memory. “But, after we had our initial shock and it started to wear off, we realized – look, we have this great kid who is still a great kid. In fact, he's such a great kid he's more worried about Sarah's feelings than what will happen to him for coming out. To be honest, when we realized that, that was the beginning of us supporting our son and who he was.” “But, there must have been signs,” the train wreck lady said. “I mean, a mother knows, right? There are always little things they all do – tea parties and trying on your dresses? Maybe if he'd had more G.I. Joe figures or Tonka trucks, things would have been different.” I couldn't help myself - I interjected, “I played with GI Joes and I had more than a few Tonka trucks. I like football and baseball and I still turned out gay.” “It is worth mentioning that G.I Joe action figures are just dolls for boys. We gave them a new name to make them socially acceptable,” Ian said and then looked at me, “And I like football too.” The class broke out in discussion and Gloria rode it out, but it was like herding cats to some extent. Mrs. train wreck was getting more shrill and Gloria called a break to class. I needed some air so I got up and walked outside where the smokers usually went but stayed on the other side of the doors – upwind. Mr. and Mrs. train wreck came out - maybe he was a fiance or a boyfriend I wasn't really sure - and she pulled out a cigarette, then spotted me and made her way over. I, uncharitably, dubbed them Smokey and The Gimp. Mentally, of course. “So, what happened?” she asked while blowing out a plume of smoke. “Did someone do something to you?” “Excuse me?” “To make you gay. Was it an uncle or your father? I was molested by my cousin.” More smoke. “Considering you aren't a lesbian, I think you just blew your own theory out of the water. Excuse me,” I brushed past her and back into the building. I made a beeline for Gloria and told her what Smokey had just said to me. She shook her head in disbelief and asked if I was serious. I nearly did cartwheels when she and her husband were apparently told they weren't ready to be foster parents. In the sixth class we were in a smaller room, which made sense as we had lost so many people. I ended up sitting with Ian as all the other chairs were taken. It was awkward for me since I found him attractive and he was younger than I was – he looked a lot younger, at least. He lifted his hand for a short wave and grinned. “So, what did happen to you to make you gay?” My face must have frozen and he burst out laughing. “I'm sorry, I overheard her say it and I was just kind of stunned.” “So was I,” I admitted as I took my seat. “I hear they were 'selected out', though. I was talking to our instructor and I guess they tell the story of her son so that they can watch the reactions in the room. You never know what kind of kid you'll get and lots of times they don't know if a kid is gay until they get comfortable and come out.” “Makes sense. I was laughing when you said that, about playing with Tonkas? Hell, I play with full size cars – if size is any measure, I should be a real ladies man.” “Size is always a measure,” I said while trying to hide a smile. “Oh, hah. Right, you know what I mean.” He grinned, dimples showing up – which kind of surprised me as I always think of dimples as belonging to boys, not men. “I can tell you what turned me gay, though – Roman Anderson in fifth grade gym.” By the end of the class I asked him out for coffee and decided I could worry about the age difference if things seemed like they might get serious. Then, after class ten, we graduated to making dinner plans, and so I was cleaning house since Ian was picking me up. Of course, to make the night extra interesting, he was picking me up after Gloria did my home study. I think he just wanted to see how things went. I cleaned house and then cleaned it again. It was still kind of embarrassing so I cleaned a third time. I rented a steam cleaner and realized I had to buy plates – all mine were paper. Jasper was no help, treating this as if it were a game Every time I filled a bag with junk I dared not turn my back on it or he'd tear a hole in it and drag it all over the carpet, which he did twice before I learned my lesson. I'd repainted the back room, gotten a second-hand bed and spruced up a dresser that had been sitting in the garage since I'd moved in. Gloria pulled in a few minutes behind schedule while I was running garbage bags down to the garage to hide them. I had to run back up the stairs a little out of breath to open the door. “Mike, you're breathing heavy and sweating!” She grinned and I laughed at her. “Cleaning a ton. Is Ian helping you?” “I had to clean up this mess; I told you I lived like a bachelor! And how do you know about Ian?” I asked in astonishment. “I'm sure it's fine, and let's just say there's a rumor going around,” she said, taking the stairs to the second level. “Let's do the walk around part first and then we can get to the ream of papers I have for you to sign, and of course you have questions.” “Yeah, I have a few,” I replied as she put her bags down and pulled out a folder. We walked through the house, pointing out the items that were required, including the new lockable medicine cabinet. “I love what you did with that room.” She smiled as we took seats at the kitchen table, saying, “I wish all our kids could get a chance to have a nice room like that. Now, I'm going to approve you for three kids...” “What? Whoa, wait, hold on!” “Relax, it's just a technicality. In a pinch you could probably, physically, do that. I know you only want to go with one.” She smiled as she answered my question before I asked it. “Now with all the classes you've had and the time to think since you started this path, do you have any idea what kind of child you'd be interested in?” “Well, yeah...” I hunched forward in my chair and pushed my palms together. I glanced away from her and let my gaze slowly drift back. “I don't quite know how to phrase this, and I hope that it's appropriate...I think I would do best with a Caucasian child. I...” I twisted my hands together. “You don't have to be nervous, we all have our preferences, Mike.” She smiled at me, but I felt the need to explain myself further. “Gloria...It's just that I think, culturally, it would be easier for me to bond with a kid of my own, or similar, race.” I felt like a heel, this wasn't coming out right. “Of course you would,” she smiled again and patted my restless hands. “We frequently try to place African American children with families who are also African-American, but that isn't always possible – and for the reason you just mentioned which is culture. Being in the Latin culture, I know there are things from my culture that a child will recognize if they were raised in the same culture, and those differences – or lack of them being in evidence - can make it more difficult for the child, and yourself, to bond. “Honestly, it's a much better answer than 'I don't care, any child will do' because it's not the honest truth. Now if a good fit comes up that happens to be something other than Caucasian, we will still call you and let you make that decision.” “That's...” I slumped in my chair, “That's a relief. I mean,” I licked my lips, “I feel guilty because it seems like there is no real way to talk about race without implying that I have a problem with people who are different from myself.” “Mike, I've been around you for four months, and I know that is the furthest thing from the truth. We all bond better with different people. Sometimes it's personality or background, and culture is a big thing. Stop beating yourself up!” she laughed. “I'm good at beating myself up, though!” I smiled back. “So primarily you'd like a Caucasian child - sex preference?” “Being a male I think I'd do better with a boy – although I don't think I know much about either anymore.” “Girls can be a handful, especially teenage girls, oh my,” she grinned as she made a mark on her sheet. “I can say that, while boys can be rough as teens, I find that they tend to be more sullen or aggressive – but it's straightforward behavior. Don't get me wrong, they have things underneath – sometimes complex things – causing their behavior, but it's normally less...sneaky. They do tend to make a march over fool's hill from about ten to fifteen, but by sixteen they can be your best friend.” “Coffee?” I asked getting up, and she nodded in response. “Please. Now girls, on the other hand, I find frequently the girls can be just nasty. Little girls are sweet, delicate flowers but the teens are...” she crossed her hands demurely on the table before taking a polite tone. “Girls can be much more complex and challenging.” “Was that your experience at home?” I asked as I poured. “To a degree, but keep in mind my children – two daughters and a son for those of you scoring at home – didn't go through the situations that children in foster care experienced.” She took her glasses off and pointed one of the arms at me, “No matter what they say.” We both laughed while I put the creamer and sugar on the table. “So what else has occurred to you?” “Well, I know you told me that you don't often know if a child is gay or not until they have been in care, but I think I'd be most interested in helping a child that has come out.” Gloria pulled the cream pitcher to her and poured into her cup, and then stirred in the sugar. She glanced up at me and then returned her eyes to her cup, a smile spreading slowly on her face. “You know, it's always harder to place older children. People always want the babies and they don't want to deal with the behaviors or background of a bigger kid,” Gloria opined. “A lot of times when we get older kids there is... a lack of willing homes. They usually go right to group homes.” “That's...” “There is a lot of fear about teens. They're bigger, louder...they stink,” she laughed. “But as I'm sure you've picked up from class, these kids haven't learned the tools to express themselves and handle their emotions – fears, anxiety, whatever the emotion might be – and so out of frustration they act out.” “I know. I mean, in an academic sense, I know.” I frowned into my coffee and then met her steady gaze. “Why are you saying this again, though? Is this a...” “Warning? No, hardly. But if you were hoping for a younger child, then it makes it near impossible to attain your desire to foster a child that has identified as gay. Most young children aren't self aware enough to know so...depending on the age, comfort level, other factors...they could be in a difficult spot that may make them more confused, more...volatile.” “I can appreciate some of that, and... I guess it makes sense that they'd be older. I mean, of course it makes sense – even if they have an idea, they may not have words for it when they are younger.” “Is there any specific reason you'd like to work with a gay boy?” “Yes. I started thinking about how my life was growing up – not knowing anyone that was...like I was. There was no 'Glee' then, no representation at all. No marriage equality...I just keep thinking that if I knew someone I could have talked to about what I was feeling, what was going on in my head – that seemed to not be happening to anyone else in the world – well, who knows what it would have done for me?” I sighed, “There are also the kids in the news. The ones that didn't find someone to talk to. I know it might seem weird, a single gay man asking for a gay teenage boy...but, where does that leave us?” “There you go, beating yourself up again!” She smiled at me. “If you're worried that I think you might have some sort of underhanded plot going about a teenage boy – if I had any questions at all about your type, which I didn't! - they sure would have been laid to rest the way you and Ian have been smoldering for the last four weeks. Now, as for where that leaves us...funny you should mention that...tell me,” she said, leaning back into her chair and sipping from her cup, “do you remember how we met?” “There was a serious breach of waiting room protocol,” I replied with a grin. “Breach of...what are you talking about?” she laughed. “Everyone knows you don't talk to other people on the elevator or in the waiting room. It's a public rule!” “If that's the case, I think you broke the rules first.” “I don't remember it that way...” I trailed off as Gloria put her cup down and reached into her bag. Her hand emerged with a file in hand which she lay on the table. “I do my best recruiting on a spur of the moment,” she said with a smile. “Do you remember the boy I had with me?” “The Tull fan,” I smiled. “I'm not one to believe in, well, cosmic things. But I do find it interesting that a fellow named Mike Tulley meets a boy that happens to be gay, happens to need out of a group home and who happens to be a fan of an obscure alternative rock band.” “They weren't obscure!” I retorted. The corner of her mouth turned up as she slid the file towards me and then resumed drinking her coffee. I took a sip from my own cup and then reached for the file. The tab on the side read McIlduff, Colin. The file was confusing, a photocopied mess of school reports and evaluations in doctor language. I studied the pages, trying to get a grasp of this kid from the dry, clinical terms. He was diagnosed with PTSD and an anxiety disorder and had been tried on a range of medications. He was, currently, med free and living in a group home, judging by the dates of the reports – which were not in chronological order. There were at least four different school systems in the reports, so that told me he's moved around a lot. I closed the folder and eyed Gloria. “Tell me about him.” Jasper scratched at the back door to come in and I rose quickly to do that, and then brought the coffee pot out to refill the cups. I figured I'd get the most out of her then, Gloria likes a good cup of coffee. She raised an eyebrow and began fixing her coffee to suit her taste. I waited while Jasper sniffed us both with interest before wandering over and taking his accustomed spot on the couch. “He's thirteen, originally from down by New York City. His mother was a prostitute and the story is very sad. The woman is very low functioning and easily led. She has had so many children, and she seems to give birth every nine months like clockwork. CPS is right on hand to remove the babies, court order doesn't allow her to have children because she's proven she can't keep them safe. “He was adopted when he was a year and a half old and was with his family until about a year ago. They were very religious,” she said with a frown and met my eyes, “and when he came out at 12 as gay, they kicked him out and disrupted the adoption.” “They....they what?” “I know.” She shook her head and put a hand up to massage a temple. “People like that give humanity a bad name. So he's been in the system for about a year. The meds you see listed are mostly for depression – they did hospitalize him in a crisis ward initially when he was deemed a risk to self. He went to a group home three months ago and, though they say he follows rules and is respectful, his depression is building again. “I say that not to warn you off, Mike, but you need to know this boy is fragile. He has counseling that you will need to participate in. If you want to pursue this, you'll have to meet with the group home staff first to set up a visitation plan. They will be flexible on when or if he moves in with you, but they will want you to visit with him over a period of time to make sure he feels comfortable with you. I'm guessing that they'll want the first few visitsto be just you two – and since Ian and yourself aren't living together, I think you should wait to introduce him, just for consistency's sake. “Um. What...what about his father?” “His father was never located – his DNA wasn't in the system. So he was never incarcerated, at least not since the late eighties when we started taking prisoner DNA.” “Poor kid. Jesus. You mentioned he's in a group home?” “He was abused in his first foster home, physically. People didn't want to invest in him because at the time we were performing our due diligence to find his father, so there was no possibility of adoption. There are homes that go long term with no possibility of adoption, but they aren't as common as one might think. I am concerned about his ability to attach, to bond, frankly.” “So, what? You think this kid is a lost cause?” “No, I don't. I never believe any child is a lost cause. But,” she leaned forward on her elbows, “he does need someone that can give him time, and who is ready to understand that he is who he is. He is in counseling and is currently un-medicated. Most of all, he needs someone to love him. Are you up for trying?” “Okay, I'll be right back with your drinks.” The waitress left the table and Ian was waiting for me to answer. Of course, the question was exactly how nuts I really was, and I think it was debatable. “You know,” I said as I tried to choose my words carefully. “A lot of people want babies – in fact even though we have more people in the world than we really need, people keep having their own kids instead of adopting or taking care of these kids that so badly need homes.” “I agree, but you also realize that people also want to feel that connection, knowing a child is their own.” Ian pointed out. “Yes, I've heard that. But here's the thing – family isn't just blood. Look at marriage? The single biggest thing we do that makes for 'family'. Not to mention,” I held up a hand and extended a finger, “People that have been in combat together or through seriously stressful situations. Doctors and nurses, teammates frequently form family-like bonds. Kids are no different.” “That...is a good answer, mister.” He smiled but I still felt a tad on the defensive. “We also know that, because of this obsession with babies and having their own biological kids, there are a lot of kids that grow up feeling like no one wants them, and how do you think that affects society as a whole?” I shook my head as Ian opened his mouth to reply, and I continued to speak. “The same thing that happens to all ostracized members of a society happens to them. It's even worse with kids questioning their sexuality. In fact I read an article that says kids like that just get sent to group homes with no opportunity, except to hope someone spots their picture online or something, and likes what they see.” “Hold on,” Ian said while chuckling at me, “I'm convinced! I was just wondering what your reasons were and if you'd thought it through. Teenagers are a different breed, you know?” The waitress returned with our drinks and took our order before departing. “I do. Except, I already met the kid, once.” “You have a placement?” Ian's eyes opened, “Well, come on! Tell me!” For the briefest moment I felt the elation that new parents must feel, telling someone about their new addition. I first related the situation under which I'd met Colin, complete with my description of not being sure of the gender, initially, and the resulting conversation with Gloria. “So, a classic rock fan?” Ian leaned back as the appetizers hit the table and refills were offered. “Well, Tull anyway. I have no idea outside of that.” I reached into the basket and snagged a fried whatever that he'd ordered. “I can't believe they are already looking at a placement for you! That's great. I haven't heard anything yet.” He emptied his glass and glanced around for our waitress. “Can I meet him?” “I'd like you to meet him,” I said. “I'm not sure how fast things will work. I guess, once the group home gets notified, then I'll meet him.” “Just, like, sit in a room or go out for pizza or what?” “I wish I knew,” I shrugged. Our entree's arrived and talk died down as we ate. My head was filled with the possible things Colin and I could do – road trips, music concerts, teaching him how to be safe and a good citizen. I wondered if he liked horror movies. I hoped so, there were so many movies I wanted to share that I had enjoyed – not just the horror genre. I shared this observation with Ian. “Oh, better be careful. I bet you're thinking, like, 'Grumpy Old Men', right?” “Oh yeah! That movie was great!” I enthused. “You'd be surprised about how many of those jokes are about sex and how much language is in there.” He smiled. “I watched the disk the other night, first time in years, and was kind of surprised.” “It's funny, you know.” I sighed and looked at him across the table, “You know, it's so weird. The idea of watching movies with an eye towards what this will mean to kids as opposed to just enjoying them.” “Welcome to parenthood.” “Yeah, so...Gloria told me I should have a few visits with him before he meets you.” Ian gave me a quizzical look. “Well,” I explained, “she said, 'after all, you aren't living together at this point' or something like that.” Ian burst out laughing, “We thought we were playing it so cool.” “Yeah. But why? Why were we playing it cool? We both want to help kids, maybe have them as our own. We're dating and finding we have common interests like music and movies and we even agree on a lot of politics.” “You know, I've been wondering about that, too. Best thing I can come up with is we're still conditioned to be afraid of exposing who we are in a group like that.” He said took a sip and cleared his throat. “You have to agree, if we'd been a couple before the class started, I think we'd have been more open. But as it was, why did we need to tell folks we were gay? There were two other gay couples, you saw John and Eric and of course Pam and...what was her name?” “Debbie.” “Deb! Why can I never remember her name?” he said with a scowl. “But still, the other single people never stood up to say what their sexuality was before they bailed on the class – or were told they weren't ready.” “No, you're right,” I said and nodded my head. “But we kind of came out to each other in week six...” “Technically, you outed yourself in week five.” “Yeah, Smokey pissed me off. But, still, since class six we've been hanging out and spending a lot of time together. We even did something as mundane as grocery shopping.” “Can I just say, I hate grocery shopping at the store you go to?” “What? What's wrong with it?” I asked with a smile. “They are expensive! Did you see how much coffee cost?” “That's why I don't buy coffee there,” I said while smiling at him. “I like that,” he said with a smile – some color moved into his cheeks. “When you smile it changes your face from handsome to...I don't know, handsomer?” “Is that a word?” I replied, while being sure my own cheeks were turning red from the compliment. “So, uh, since you mentioned it a few minutes ago...are we officially a couple then?” “Officially? Don't we have to, I don't know, announce it in a gay bar or ride down main street on a unicorn?” “How about a kiss in public, will that satisfy you?” “You mean... “Yeah. Right now.”
  14. Dabeagle

    Chapter 1

    Lug, you're everywhere.
  15. Dabeagle

    Chapter 1

    It is. A reader told me to try posting here, to let more folks see the stories. So here I am!
  16. Dabeagle

    Chapter 1

    Thank you! I hope you enjoy the rest at least as much.
  17. Dabeagle

    Chapter 1

    I'm glad you're enjoying it! Just keep in mind that this is a rotating POV story, and not just between Matt and Nick - there are people we haven't met yet.
  18. Just got here :-) A reader was telling me to try things out here and I'm giving it a shot with this series.
  19. “So, listen,” he said. “I read that little leaflet they give people that have to watch someone die - you know, what to expect.” “You're in a creepy mood today. Can we talk about something other than this?” I sighed. I hated when his determination flagged and I was ready to bolster him again. It's a friend's job, isn't it? “Nick...” His pale hand landed on my forearm bringing me to a stop. “Nick, look at me.” I didn't like looking at him like this, it just wasn't him. I mean it was, but it wasn't. It wasn't normal, having a hospital bed in a side room of his house with a teenager in it. With my friend in it. “You're being stubborn today,” I remarked. “Why don't you put that to good use instead of being morose?” “Nick, I want us to talk today. I want to tell you things and I want to talk because after today...” He hesitated and made sure I was looking at him. “I don't want you to come back.” A coldness spread through me and my hand wandered up to my throat, “You can't mean that; what've I done?” “You've spent almost every day with me since I got stuck in this bed, your social life has to be about zero...” “Hey, I'm not keeping score here.” “I'm dying, Nick, not you.” He looked away and said quietly, “I don't want you to remember me this way.” “I'll remind you of this when we're old and terrorizing the nursing home staff.” I rolled my eyes and pushed his hand off. He gave me a weak smile as he adjusted himself in the bed, waving off my attempt to help. Then he turned his face back to me. “Do you think there's a God, Nick?” “No,” I replied. “At least not the one they talk about on TV. No compassionate being would let things like leukemia exist.” “Our pastor says that everything that comes our way is a test from God.” “So what's he testing then?” I leaned back in my chair and tucked a leg under me, pleased he seemed to have forgotten about sending me away. “Maybe he's testing my parents to see how they cope. Maybe he's testing me to see if I'll be a 'good boy' till the end. Maybe he's testing you, to see if you'll be a good friend. I don't know, it's God isn't it? How are we supposed to know the mind of God?” He shrugged. “Number one, no one should be tested with something like this, it isn't decent. Secondly. you aren't a good boy - can't remember when you were.” He stuck his tongue out at me and I smiled as I continued. “And, well that's just dumb. If he's God, he already knows how it's going to go, doesn't he? I mean if he can't see the future what kind of God is he?” “Not the kind you have to wind up on Sunday?” Charlie grinned at me. “Good one,” I smiled back. “That's another thing right there - how can God take away the only other Jethro Tull fan in town? Doesn't seem very godlike to me.” “Yeah, well, maybe he's not a fan?” He looked away and settled his head back onto the pillow. “Not much of a God then,” I sniffed. “Nick...what do you think happens when we die? If there's no God...then what?” he asked softly. “I don't know,” I said, matching his tone. “I suppose we're all just energy in the end, maybe we don't need God; some of us just think we do.” “But you always hear about people saying how someone they loved gave them a message...you know, after they died.” “Are you back on that again?” I scowled. “I'm not saying me, I'm just saying, you know, in general.” He shifted and looked at me with a glimmer of mischief in his eyes. “I read a story recently. This lady is sitting at home, watching TV or whatever, and there is a knock at her door. So she opens the door and her father is standing there with his favorite sweater on and a gentle smile. He doesn't say anything to her, just walks past her and up a flight of stairs to her second floor. She follows him up, only to find that he's vanished. She is very put off by the encounter because her father had been sick, and then the phone rings.” He looked at me with his eyes sparkling, “It's the hospital saying her father just passed. How do you explain that, then?” “Ecstasy? Bad acid trip? I don't know, and just because I can't explain something doesn't mean it's God!” “I'm not saying it was God, but what if the man managed to get his daughter a message when he died? What if we can do something when we go from this...” he pinched and held out the front of his shirt... “to like, energy or ghosts or something? Maybe we can send, like, a message?” “What was he saying? I mean really, what does going upstairs signify?” I rolled my eyes. “Well, he did smile at her,” Charlie said thoughtfully, “And maybe going upstairs was a...what do you call it? An allegory? Like he was going upstairs for rest, climbing a stairway to heaven, something like that?” I snorted, “Seems like a waste of an opportunity, Led Zepplin Reference aside. She got the phone call minutes later, right?” “You know what? When I die, I'm going to send you a message!” Charlie said firmly. “Will you stop saying that?” I said angrily. “I will, and you know what? You're going to know it! I bet you'll realize when it happens it was me, and you'd better say thank you!” “Sure, sure. But it'll be hard to remember 'cause we'll both be eighty when you die. You'll be more worn down because you'll have a bunch of kids and had to work all your life to send them to school and buy graduation presents and then babysit your grand kids.” “Don't you want kids and grand kids someday, Nick?” Charlie said earnestly. I glanced at him and then away nervously. “C'mon Nick, your secret can't get much safer than telling me, can they?” “What makes you think I have a secret?” I whispered. “We all do, of course. Like...well, when I told everyone I played with Allison Barnett's tits? I didn't. She'd slapped me and called me a pervert, but I told everyone I did anyway.” He grinned at me and I chuckled. “Really? She slapped you?” “Yeah. I kind of feel bad about that. I should probably apologize to her.” He bit his lower lip. “So Nick, what's your secret?” “I...” I swallowed and brushed my hands on my thighs and glanced around the room. “Nick, come on... I promise I am not about to post this to YouTube.” He smiled at me and I relaxed just a touch. “I may want kids later, I guess, I hadn't thought much about it. But,” I licked my lips and burst out, “I'm not sure...I mean, it's biologically impossible considering...well, guys can't have babies. With other guys.” He lay his head back and smiled at me. “Thanks Nick, that must have been hard for you. You're still my truest friend though, just so we're straight. I mean clear.” He grinned. “Asshole,” I smirked at him. I still felt butterflies in my stomach, but it had felt good to finally tell someone. “It's too bad in a way, I was going to ask you to feel Allison's tits for me and let me know what it felt like.” “You just want me to get slapped too. Well, not on your...” I choked off my joke. “See? You know it too. We have to talk about it, it's going to happen.” His hand reached out and landed on my arm again. “Nick, I need to know you'll be all right. You know, after.” “Nothing will be all right again.” I sniffed and looked at him, “But I won't have to worry about that.” “Nothing is easy,” he replied and grinned. “That's not fair; you're cheating!” I smiled weakly. “You keep bringing up sad, maudlin things and getting extra points!” “Well, I am still behind, aren't I? It's not easy to weave a song title or lyric into common speech, especially a Tull song.” He grinned. “And Tull songs are especially hard, their language is like a mix of Victorian with Punk Rock and some Classical just to throw you for a loop.” “Fine, you get two points then.” I grunted and moved my leg out from under me, where it had fallen asleep. “My mom was rooting around in the basement and found an old photo of you,” he said, grinning widely. “I'm not sure you knew she took it and it was a little damaged. She had a hard time giving up on cameras that used film.” “Oh, seriously? Did she ever retire that old thing?” I laughed at the memory, “We went to the beach and she was going all over trying to find 110 film somewhere! Remember?” I started belly laughing and trying to get the event out so he could join me. “Remember when she asked the guy for film and he pointed to the discontinued rack? It was all something like ninety-nine percent off? I think she bought a hundred rolls!” “She did, and at least half of the film was bad,” he giggled. “Anyway, this was a decent shot of you. Sorry that the picture looks a little wonky but...I like this one. You should hang onto it, someone else may like it.” I glanced down at the picture in his hand. It showed my face looking down. Who knows what I was interested in? My feet probably. I had on my trusty gray hoodie and there was a book in my hand, though the title wasn't in the frame. I think the picture might have been taken inside the shop where the film had been bought, even. A light clicked in my head. “I think your mom was arguing with the fellow about if her camera still worked. Wasn't he trying to sell her some digital crap? I think she took this by accident.” He flipped the image back to study it and smiled. “I think you're right.” He held it back out to me. “I'll collect it from you when we're old and gray,” I muttered. A short silence intervened, but when he broke it I almost wished he hadn't. “So...do you have your eye on anyone at school?” he asked, slyly I thought. “Charlie...” I covered my face as I blushed. “Come on, now's not the time to get embarrassed!” he laughed, though quietly. “It's kind of hard to talk about, I mean, I only just told you, didn't I? I've never told anyone,” I replied from the cover of my hand, still unable to face him. “Look, we can talk about how I'm going to die or...” “Fine, fine.” I pulled my hand away and locked eyes with him. “I'm gay and I have a few crushes at school.” “Was that so hard?” He smiled reassuringly. “Well, considering you had to talk about dying to get me to say it, I'd say yes.” I snorted. I did feel a little better about it, though. “You know what I liked about Allison?” he said while leaning his head back and looking at the ceiling. “Her tits?” I laughed. “Well, yeah, duh! But I liked a lot of other things once I got to know her. She was smart, she had a sense of humor. She was also very pretty, that long hair of hers the way it kind of...I don't know, shimmered? I kind of wanted to run my fingers through it whenever I saw her.” He sighed. “I did do that a few times, at least. It was as soft as I thought it would be.” I remained silent. I was completely unused to this level of intimate talk between us. Normally these things were alluded to and we both understood them without going any farther. We'd built our friendship upon our unspoken understanding - castle walls built on the foundation of our mutual faith in each other. “So tell me, Nick, what sort of guy interests you?” I exhaled, a heavy sigh if ever there was one. I glanced at Charlie and then fixed my eyes on the floor. “I like a lot of things. I like how Keith makes me laugh, I like how loyal you are. I like how smart Alex is and I like...I like Matt's long legs.” I said the last part in a whisper before soldiering on, “And his smile. And his soft hands.” “Matt Baxter?” He quirked an eyebrow at me and I felt myself flushing and nodding. “Really? He's a nice guy; have you met him?” “No and yes, I kind of...get awkward when he's around.” I admitted. “Well, that's okay, that's pretty natural for you!” He chuckled and I stuck my tongue out at him. Punching his arm as in days past was no longer something I could do; the bruising alone was enough to make me guilty for weeks. “So is Matt like, your kind of guy?” “I guess, looks wise.” I nodded. “And a few other things...wise.” “Tell me,” he said softly. I glanced up and he had a strange look on his face, not something I could really place. I licked my lips and tried to put my swirl of thoughts together into something cohesive. “Matt is really hot,” I blushed again but forced myself to go on. “I like his dark curly hair and his pale skin. They go really nice with his pale-blue eyes and that kind of upturned nose he has.” “Go on.” “He's always nice to me, even in gym when I look like a dork. You know, by tripping or otherwise injuring myself. He always helps me up instead of laughing and pointing, gives me a dust off and pushes me back into play.” I smiled a bit and looked away and out the window to the trees in the front yard. “He makes me laugh, too, more than Keith ever did. He might even be as smart as you.” I felt a tear trickle down my cheek and I looked back at Charlie. “It's okay, Nick. I'll miss you too.” “It's not...” I shut my mouth. Was I really going to say it wasn't fair? Was I that selfish? “No, it isn't. For either of us.” I looked up, embarrassed to meet his eyes, but I did it. “It's okay, you know, to think that. I've talked to my parents, they felt that too. Still do. I know it isn't fair, God or no – not to me, not to them and not to you. Nick, don't cry, please. Not today.” I nodded and sniffed, getting myself under control. With one last giant exhale I leaned back in my seat and regarded my stoic friend. “So, why haven't you told him?” he asked with a playful smile. “Who? Matt? I'd be mortified,” I laughed. “Even if he was gay, he's way out of my league.” He grinned and rolled his head again so he was looking at the ceiling. “I thought that before I actually asked Allison out.” “Yeah, but you're Charlie Hampton. Athlete, scholar and giver of wet panties to high school girls!” I laughed and he grinned, his cheeks burning with his amusement. “Now you're trying to embarrass me!” “Not really.” I grinned, “Well maybe a little. But really, Charlie, I don't think any girl could say no to you.” “You going to compare me to Matt Baxter now?” He laughed at my stricken expression. “No, except to say you'd both be out of my league!” I leaned back in my chair a little less comfortably. “You know,” he said as he returned his gaze to the ceiling, “someone once told me they couldn't ask you out. Said you were way out of their reach.” “Liar!” I just had to call him on this obvious line. “No, really. It's funny,” he smiled as he returned his gaze to me. “Allison opened my eyes to this little fact about us weird humans. We always diet or try to bulk up or walk off extra weight, get muscle or something to impress someone else. People who may be damn near perfect always see someone else as better looking, more powerful, richer. An endless race to nowhere.” “That's cheerful.” “No, no, dummy,” he sighed theatrically. “Like this thing with you believing Matt is out of your reach. Hey, he only is if you think so. Otherwise you never know how he'd react, now do you?” “Well, he could hit me?” “Really? Matt Baxter? You think he'd hit you?” “Well, all right, maybe not hit me. But...” “Nick! You and I both know he's a pretty decent guy. It's not like you don't aim high. Besides you know how it goes, if he's handsome, smart and nice he has to be gay!” Charlie chuckled and I rolled my eyes. “So which one do you fail to qualify for then?” I snorted. “You tell me.” “Charlie, if that was any kind of a real measure, you'd be the gayest person I know.” “Thanks, Nick.” He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. “If you don't take that picture I may mail it to Matt Baxter; never know what'll happen from there. But for now, I'm really tired, Nick, so I am going to rest. But don't you forget what I said, and you'd better say thank you.” True to his word, Charlie told me at the end of the day that I couldn't come back. I fought with him, got really angry but he was firm and when his parents came in to see what the ruckus was they supported him! I was furious, in tears and begging him not to give up but his resolve held, even with tears in his eyes. His mother tried to tell me, privately, that he wanted to spare me. I told her I didn't want to be spared, he was my friend! Not that casual term one tossed about, but a true friend. She nodded, also more than a bit misty, and she said she did understand – and more importantly, so did he. He passed a few days later. He hadn't looked that weak to me, and I told my father so when he tried to console me. “Sometimes, Nick...when people are in so much pain...sometimes a person will turn the morphine up just a little too much. You know, to try and stop the pain - make it go away.” I looked at him in stunned silence and he gripped my arm and pulled me to him. “You think someone killed him?” I whispered through my tears. “No, not exactly. More along the lines of mercy.” He sat me down and left an arm around my shoulders. “When your grandpa was near the end, he didn't want to be in pain anymore. There was no hope and he knew it. He told me he wasn't living anymore, just existing. And that night he turned up his drip and when we came in the morning to check on him, he was gone.” “But...” “Sometimes, we know what is going to happen. I can understand people sparing themselves that pain, Nick. I wouldn't want to live like that.” “But he wasn't that bad!” I turned to look at my father with a plea in my face. My father's look of misery told the truth. “He was a lot worse than I thought. Wasn't he?” “Yes,” he nodded. “I talked to his mom. They knew there was no hope a while before that, but they kept trying to hold out and give a miracle a chance to show up.” He touched my hand, slowly placing his over mine. “Sometimes we actually let people we love suffer longer in the hope, no matter how vain, that something...divine...will spare them. We pray that something in the universe will see how special and how precious they are and restore them. “But really, it's a selfish act, after a point. I don't know if his drip was turned up or if his tired body just had had enough. Either way, son, we have to take some comfort in knowing he isn't in pain anymore. He's not just existing.” He held me loosely as I cried, and I continued to be selfish by wanting my friend back. The funeral was positively unreal. When my aunt Rose used to whisper about bad trips she'd taken in college, the detached way she'd felt and the complete lack of reality of the whole scene that would play out for her...well, that was all I could think of. Charlie's parents had a wake and there were lots of people; people from school, adults I'd never met and a few I had from his various family events that I'd been a part of. There were girls crying on the steps of the funeral home, and people inside talking quietly, respectfully. And then there were people laughing, catching up and making jokes while Charlie lay at the other end of the room. No, not really Charlie, I guess, just what was left of him. I retreated from the jokers in back, the ones who were already healing. Looking down on him, in a suit he'd never worn before and a tie that would have made his brown eyes shine with mischief, I felt the wound of his loss throb in my chest. I couldn't bring myself to touch the hand - I knew it would be cold and sterile – with nothing of his fire inside. I knelt instead and spoke softly to his shell, hoping that if we do simply become energy or if he could hear... “I loved you, Charlie. Cheerio.” I could have sworn I'd heard Charlie's laugh, and his awarding me a point for the Tull reference. I glanced around the room, wondering if that's how someone knows they've lost their marbles. Glancing back at Charlie, for just a second, he smiled. I wanted to scream. My parents got me out of there, started talking about grief counseling. I wasn't fucked in the head, I told them, I was missing my friend. I can't believe I said the 'f' word to them. I guess, more than anything, that made me realize that I wasn't all right. I mean, I already knew I wasn't, not since he'd sent me away. And then, it had all gotten ten times worse when he died. But if I was so deep that I'd say that to my parents... “Hey, Nick, right?” I glanced behind me. A girl in my grade I didn't know was smiling tentatively. I nodded slightly, “Yes, that's me.” “I'm Emily; Allison Barnett is my best friend. She was dating Charlie and, well, you were his best friend. Right?” “Uh, yeah. Right.” I turned my back to her and moved forward in the lunch line. “I don't mean to be nosy, I just...I know Allison is pretty broken up about it and...I don't know, this is coming out all wrong, but you...you look so sad. I wanted to just ask...I don't know if anyone asked if you're...I mean, how you're doing. I'm sorry, this is coming out really awkward...” I put some food on my tray and glanced at Emily. “Yeah, I understand why it's awkward though. I'm fine, thanks for asking.” “You're not, though. I mean...Jesus, Emily-” She put a hand on her forehead and took a deep breath. I moved on to select another item and she moved up again. “Look, I know I'm butchering this, but I can see that you're not really, like, okay. I was just...the school offered some counselors, you know?” “Already taken care of. Thanks, really.” I gave her a tight smile and moved to the register where I entered a PIN to pay for my lunch. “Some of us are going to Ridley's after school...if you're not busy,” Emily said shyly as she passed me at the register. I nodded, not committing and wondering if she were hitting on me. If so, it was the creepiest conversation starter since forever. Ridley's was a place Charlie and I used to hang out, a retro kind of spot where they had old stand-up video games that my dad calls classics along with pinball, air hockey and food. Music too; sometimes they'd even have open mic night and some local bands or wanna-be bands would give it a go. Usually wasn't pretty. I sat down at my normal table, which paused long enough to recognize that I was there, then resumed whatever was the topic of the moment. I dwelled on the meaning of the invite. I half wanted to go, the part of me the therapist was encouraging to get back into life. There was a hefty chunk that felt it would hurt, though. Too many memories of Charlie and all the times we'd gone there. It would be different now. Everything was. “Hey, Nick.” I glanced up at Allison, Charlie's last girlfriend. I smiled and said hello. She sat next to me on the stone bench in front of the school, watching our classmates stream to their buses, bikes, cars and skateboards. Some were even walking home, the rebels. “How are you holding up?” I asked her. I decided to go first, since this was what people always asked me these days. “I miss him,” she said while pushing some of her long hair out of her eyes. “Even though he told everyone he felt me up.” She gave me a rueful smile that failed to mask the sadness in her eyes. “Yeah, uh...about that. I saw Charlie a few days...before...” I glanced away in discomfort. I exhaled and turned back to her and saw a gentle question on her face. “He brought that up. He asked me to apologize for him, he knew it was a dick thing to say.” “That was Charlie for you. He knew if he stepped in shit it would smell and stick to his shoe, but I'll be fucked if he wouldn't step in it anyway and apologize after. Do you know,” she wiped at her eyes and broke into a hesitant chuckle, “he told me once they should put 'It's easier to seek forgiveness than permission' on his tombstone'?” I smiled, “That sounds like Charlie.” “I could have killed him when he said that!” she laughed, then said, “The tit hing, I mean. And then he told Sam Wilson that one boob sat higher than the other! So fucking Sam is staring at my chest one day, and I'm like...what the fuck is your problem?” We both laughed, it was so Charlie. “Allison, why did you let him get away with the shit he pulled?” “Oh, I wouldn't say he got away with it. In a way it was like some bizarre game, Charlie could only be serious for so long and then he'd get some dumb idea and blurt it out – like the tit thing – and I'd be furious. But then he'd come to make it up to me and...” She wiped at her nose, glancing away for a moment. “I think Charlie set things up to take advantage of what he was good at. He was really good at making up.” “He always said he was good at making out.” “That too,” she laughed. “Were you ever jealous? That he didn't make out with you? Or did he?” “Charlie? Make out with me? Go on!” I waved at her. “Why would he make out with me?” “Well, you're gay, aren't you? Don't tell me you're the last to know?” She smiled brightly. “Charlie always used to talk about outing you by making out somewhere publicly, the sneaky bastard.” “He...” I recalled the tender conversation we'd had where I came out to him. “That sneaky little shit. He knew. Wait,” I slapped a hand to my face, “are you saying....everyone thinks I'm gay?” “Well, not everyone. But I'd say most do. The sick bastards thought we had some three-way love fest going on.” she shook her head and smiled, “Of course if anyone could pull it off...” “Yeah, it'd be Charlie.” I thought for a moment, my melancholy over losing Charlie acting as an emotional counterweight to, if Allison could be believed, the school thinking I was in a three-way relationship with my best friend and his girlfriend. Jesus, how boring their lives must be to resort to speculating on my non-existent sex life. “Your hair,” I said suddenly, reaching out and lightly touching it. “He said it was his favorite thing about you. He said,” - I thought carefully, wanting to get this right - “He said that it shimmered and every time he saw it he wanted to run his fingers through it. He was glad he'd gotten to do that.” She wiped her eyes again and glanced away, before looking at me again. “We'd watch a movie and he'd run his fingers through my hair over and over again. For all the perverse, silly things he would say he always treated me like...like I mattered.” “Then he'd open his mouth and ruin it.” “Exactly,” she laughed. “He always did.” “Hey, Allison, coming to Ridley's?” We both turned to see who'd spoken, a boy with glasses whom I thought was called Peter. He was accompanied by Emily and Matt Baxter. Allison turned to me. “How about it? Imagine the trouble we could cause! Fuel old Charlie's three-way rumor, the little shit would just love that, wouldn't he?” Allison held her hand out to me as she stood. “For Charlie?” I took her hand and stood, looking down slightly into her laughing eyes. “For Charlie.” As we walked there was light discussion, and I mostly listened. Matt and Peter were talking animatedly about some club function or other – or rather Peter was and Matt seemed to be listening. Allison was walking arm in arm with Emily, heads together and giggling. I was with them and yet not, but it suited me. I was a tad bit taller than many of my peers and I spent that short walk looking at the back of Matt's neck. His dark hair was neat in the back, a fresh haircut perhaps, and... “So...” Allison pulled me up between her and Emily. “Did Charlie ever lay one on you?” “No,” shook my head. I'd have welcomed it, true enough, but I didn't need to share that with her. I wouldn't say I was in love with Charlie, even though I did love him. I was envious of his ability to make friends and maintain good relations with near everyone, in spite of his foot-in-mouth disease. Sometimes that flaw made him slightly more likeable, stupid as it sounds. “I think he wanted to, just for shock factor. He probably would have waited till, like, graduation so he'd have an audience.” “That sounds...disturbingly like Charlie.” “How do you suppose it is that someone so devious was so popular?” she mused. “Because the human race is doomed?” I shrugged. We entered Ridley's and found a table. Everyone chipped in and we got some cheese fries and ranch dip and Peter ended up sitting on my right with Allison on my left. Matt sat across from me with his pale blue eyes. He smiled and said something to Emily which caused her to laugh. I wish he'd talk that way to me. Sweet Dream, I thought to Charlie. He laughed in my head again, something that didn't freak me out like it had at the funeral. I listened to the idle chatter, minimally participated, and tried not to get caught staring at Matt. Speaking of which, he got up to go use the bathroom and Peter got my attention. “So Nick, did you ever consider coming to one of our meetings?” “Sorry? What meeting?” “We have a GSA, everyone is welcome. I'm the vice president and we're always looking to recruit!” He smiled broadly. His forehead was broken out with acne, probably like my own, and his eyes were focused behind his lenses on mine, fixing me to the spot. “Oh, I guess I never really thought about it.” I had, actually. It was kind of terrifying, since going meant everyone would assume you were gay. Why did it have to be such a big deal? “Well, it would be great if you'd think about it. I could give you more information, maybe this weekend if that's all right?” “Uh.” Was he hitting on me or asking me out or something? Or was I reading that into everyone today? Mayhem, Maybe came Charlie's voice from somewhere in my addled brain. “Guys! Guys! They're setting up karaoke in the next room! Come on!” I cringed, then saw Peter waiting for my answer and suddenly joined the rest of them in going into the meeting room where they had the open mic nights. A small stage was on one end, but I was still sweating what to say to Peter and what he might take from that answer. The group was crowded around the book of selections, picking out a group song. I wouldn't have gone up, but I thought I had to or risk being left with Peter, who wasn't pushing the question verbally but I could feel it crawling on my neck, a sweaty prickly feeling that was completely in my head – but also totally real. We did some song I'd heard on the radio, maybe, but it was forgettable then and perfectly silly now. It was a group sing along with lots of laughing and mistakes. I had Emily drop her arm around my waist from one side and Peter from the other and felt distinctly uncomfortable. As soon as we cleared the stage I begged off and made my way home, thoroughly confused and wondering what I'd just walked into. My escape was nearly clean, but Peter called out to me, and I stopped so as not to be rude. “So, listen. I don't want to pressure you, but a group of like-minded people can be really handy right now and in the future. Might help you deal with stuff, you know.” “Thanks,” I said with a tight smile. “I'll get back to you.” It's no use you playing doctor to my disease, I thought. Charlie didn't laugh from the corner in my mind he inhabited, but I still felt like I got my points. I spent several days just out walking, talking to Charlie in my head. I kept up our little game, our Tull game, by spotting things and then saying them to him, even if only in my mind. I really challenged myself and our silly love of all things Tull to come up with a lyric, at least one a day. They weren't always charitable either, but he and I would have laughed. One day Melissa Chambers came in and she'd dressed very slutty, so much so that she was sent to the office and from there sent home to change. I mentally called Cross Eyed Mary to Charlie and heard his laugh in my head, and the affirmation that I'd gotten a point. Another day, when Brent Simons came in wearing whatever had been on the bottom of his clothes hamper for a week, wrinkled and thoroughly unkempt I told Charlie Aqualung and he laughed again, giving me my point. Mr. Dempsey, the drunkard Math teacher, breathed on me one day while leaning over my desk to help with a problem, and I thought Locomotive Breath at Charlie. Another laugh and another point. I passed his old house now and again to try and catch his leftover energy, if such a thing did exist. I felt sadness, mostly, and that only got worse when the 'for sale' sign went up. I even watched, for a bit, when the moving truck whisked away all the Hampton's things. Someone moved in shortly after and I thought he looked like a tool. One of those slaves to a desk who just punches in at nine, goes home at five and gets henpecked by his overbearing wife and two-point-five kids. Part of the Machine. Charlie was silent. The oddest exchange came on the cusp of spring, though, while in gym class. We were playing basketball and the coach had us play shirts and skins. Matt was on shirts, something that disappointed me mightily and did nothing to stop me checking him out. There was a pause in the game and I let my eyes drift over to Matt, who was looking down at his feet. His head suddenly came up and he was looking at me intently, eye to eye. I froze and then nearly gave myself whiplash as I turned my head and felt my cheeks set themselves on fire. Watching me, watching you. Shut up Charlie, you asshole. I milled around away from Matt, waiting for the delay to be cleared up and the game to resume. A hand on my arm tugged me around and I was face to face with him. “Meet me at Ridley's after school. We should talk.” He turned and my heart dropped as I watched him go. No, Charlie, he didn't hit me. Not physically, but the verbal one was coming. After gym I showered quickly and went on to my next class. Most of the lesson was lost on me as I could only obsess over what Matt would say. Obviously he'd caught me checking him out which begged the question – when did he notice? It must have been recent, like today, otherwise he'd have confronted me before. Right? But what if he's been letting me go, trying to let me – I don't know – get over him? Maybe he thought I'd stop? Maybe he'd let me down easy? Or totally trash me? Or maybe he wants a date? My whole brain was occupied with what he could say, equal parts hope and terror. Charlie, I... I was so obsessed with my meeting with Matt that, for a few moments, I'd forgotten to hurt about Charlie. I dropped my head into my hands; I was hopeless. Completely smitten with Matt. Roots to Branches, Charlie agreed. Shut up, Charlie. I dawdled a bit as I gathered my things to leave at the end of the day. I was still divided, veering wildly between a man going to be shot and one going on his first date. Vacillating between these extremes. I made my way to Ridley's and found Matt there, waiting. I took the seat opposite him and he cocked his head just a bit to one side and regarded me. “You know, you are a huge pain in the ass.” Okay, not an opening line I'd considered. “Sorry?” “Look, we're going to have to seriously discuss all this, and we need to be sort of quick. Peter will be here soon and we need to have this sorted out before that.” “Peter?” I wrinkled my brow, “What does Peter have to do with...why we're here?” “You did meet him, right? Guy that wanted you to come to the GSA? Let me guess: he fed you the recruiting line? Comes off all innocent because of his geeky outside? You do know he was hitting on you, right?” Matt leaned back and drummed his fingers on the table. This was not going anything like I’d assumed it would; like I’d preparted for; he had me thoroughly off balance. I floundered, answering him the best I could.“Well, I thought he might have been. But, that day was kind of weird. I think I thought Emily was hitting on me too.” Where was this going? It totally was not matching up with his attitude from the gym. Where I was perving on him. “Emily hits on all gay guys. She thinks she's practicing for the real thing, but she's so bad at it,” Matt said, and starting laughing. “I mean, if some guy takes pity that she's so awkward about flirting it might work. Stranger things have happened.” “Yes, some people find things like that endearing,” I agreed. “And she was definitely awkward. Although she was talking to me a lot about how I was feeling since...you know.” “Charlie Hampton.” “Yeah.” “So...was there any truth about you, him and Allison?” “Uh, no. Not a shred. I just found out about that one, actually.” “Did you hear that you and I are an item?” I began coughing violently as I swallowed my own spit down the wrong way. I covered my mouth and turned away from Matt, coughing violently into my hand. I caught a moment, swallowed repeatedly, but my throat had a sensitive spot and when air passed over it my throat would become irritated all over again and I'd break down in another coughing fit. “Here, drink.” Matt handed me a cup and I sipped the water, and coughed a little more. I drank heavily, trying to sooth the twitchy spot. At last I felt as though I could look at him without coughing, though I was wiping my copiously leaking eyes. “So I guess this is news to you, then?” He was smiling at me. “Uh, yeah. Definitely.” “So you haven't been checking me out?” “Well.” I glanced away. Matt chuckled and reached into his bag and produced his iPod. He tossed the ear buds to me and gestured for me to put them in. I did so, hesitantly, and thoroughly confused. “Do you think there's a god, Nick?” Charlie's voice came from the buds and I ripped them from my ears in horror. I looked at Matt whose eyes were wide and then I realized what all this meant. Sneaking, conniving Charlie had tried to hook me up from beyond the grave – by spilling our last conversation to my crush. Matt had obviously heard it all, and had known for...since a few days before Charlie died. “This is so wrong,” I said just above a whisper as I stood and grabbed my bag. “Nick, wait.” Matt was on his feet too and had a hold on my arm before I could turn and flee. I tugged, but halfheartedly. Charlie, you ever loving asshole, even after you die you set me up for one of your epic jokes. Rainbow Blues. Fuck. You. Charlie. Why don't you just fuck off, now? Get out of my head! “Nick, can you just sit back down? Please?” I turned stiffly and sat, not facing Matt. Tears of embarrassment filled my eyes and I ignored them as they fell in large, wet splashes. My arms crossed my chest, then dropped down to grip my middle and I felt my back curve as my muscles tightened. Charlie, how could you... “I'm sorry, I didn't handle this well.” Matt stammered, “I thought you might not believe me if I told you, and that if I had you listen that...well...we could save some time. Kind of know what was what.” I rocked in my chair, my face felt puffy with pressure. The sense of betrayal was bitter on my tongue, and sat sourly in my gut. My stomach muscles were clenching as if my body was sobbing, but there was no torrent. Just lazy, fat tears. “Look, I've been trying to find a time to talk to you. It just never seemed the right time; you were so upset after Charlie died that...well, it just never seemed like a good time.” “You weren't supposed to hear that,” I replied sotto voce, unable to meet his face. “I know. It was a really private conversation and I'd be pretty mad if my best friend did that to me.” “It's what Charlie did.” I threw a hand in the air, fresh tears falling, “Charlie fucking Hampton could always work his way back into your good graces, only to fart in church all over again.” “I guess people always felt it was in good fun, you know? Even though Charlie pulled some epic pranks, people couldn't stay mad at him. Well, most people.” Matt moved his chair to my side and sat with his head near my own, still hanging and refusing to make eye contact. “This isn't fun.” I muttered. “It should have been up to me to...tell.” I sniffed, then finished with,“You.” “But, now I know. So.” I exhaled deeply, my chest constricting in a nervous shiver as my breath left me. “So,” I nodded. “I agree with a lot of what you guys said. I mean, it was surprising to find out Charlie was more of a believer than just about anyone I know – but then he was pretty heavy into being forgiven.” Matt smiled and I returned it weakly. “He's not here to ask for it this time. I'm not sure I'd let him have it this time, either.” I wiped my still damp eyes. My vision was slightly blurry from the water on my eyelashes, and they required several swipes to get my vision to clear sufficiently. “I understand that. But, Charlie was the man with the plan, you know?” “He always had a few going,” I admitted. “He started emailing me last spring, just after he let people know he had something major wrong with him. As much as he kind of screwed this up, he was also trying to work a plan along before he ran out of time. I admit, I was not making it easy on him.” I glanced up at Matt, whose cheeks had turned slightly red and he gave me a wan smile, exposing dimples that always made my heart flutter. “See, Peter and I were dating, sort of. But I think, even then, Charlie kind of thought you had a thing for me. I always felt a little weird about talking to him about it. I mean, he was kind of blunt and more than once I told him to just go away. But I was always curious about what he'd say next, and it was kind of liberating to have that almost anonymous vent to talk about that kind of stuff. The GSA is good for some stuff, but it's easier to write things than say them sometimes. Things with Peter were never really good, you know? We're different, maybe too different. Peter – never Pete,” Matt held his hands up in surrender, “he was into all kinds of stuff I wasn't. He liked chick flicks and going for frozen yogurt.” “I like those things,” I said quietly. “I know,” Matt said with a smile. “But Peter wouldn't do anything he didn't specifically like. For instance, I like being outside and playing sports. I like to swim and ride my bike and get dirty playing football or whatever. Peter not only wasn't into that, he kind of didn't want me doing those things either.” “That's kind of...” I closed my mouth, not wanting to offend by offering my opinion on someone else's relationship. “Bossy? Pushy? Selfish? Yeah, it was. I put up with it because he was my boyfriend and he was out and I only sort of was.” Matt sighed deeply. “But those weren't good reasons to stay with someone, not long term.” “So, wait...” My brain had suddenly been slapped into gear and had processed some of what Matt was saying, instead of letting it slide over me like water off a duck's back – never absorbing any of it. “You're gay?” “Yeah.” He held out his hands, “Surprise!” “Uh. Wow.” “That's it? Uh, wow? No cartwheels?” Matt held his arms wide and smiled. I felt my mouth crack into a crooked, nervous smile. As if my mouth weren't sure it had permission to smile, but that one half had decided to anyway. “I don't have the balance for cartwheels.” “Oh, all right then.” Matt sat up a bit and allowed a serious expression to cover his face. “So, we should talk about Peter first.” “Uh.” “Peter is interested in you. Remember I said he was hitting on you?” Matt motioned with his hand, like trying to draw a slow student along a thought path. “Oh, right. The flirting. I think he tried to ask me out, but I felt kind of...” “He came on strong without being all macho, right? Just kind of insistent?” “Sort of, I guess. I never really answered him, just kind of let it go.” “I don't think he will let you off the hook so easily. You haven't officially come out yet. He likes to date guys in that stage, puts him in charge, sort of. He tries to mold guys to be the way he wants them to be. He did that with Steve before me, and then with Tyson after we broke up.” “So...” I said slowly, gathering the courage to say what I wanted. “So I don't want you to make a mistake with him like I did, but of course I can't stop you. Charlie told me a lot about you, kind of tried to get me to dump Peter for you,” he said, shaking his head at the memory. “You know...” I threw my hands up, “I can't put anything past Charlie. I'm so sorry. You and I don't even know each other and Charlie just...I don't even know how he knew.” “The, uh, looks.” Matt smiled, “One of the guys in the GSA last year said he liked to go dancing at the 18-and-over night at the club. He said some guys will just try to look without getting caught and he'd kind of let them look, then catch them. Kinda like I did to you. Don't think you got away with all those glances, Mister Nick.” “I am so embarrassed,” I covered my face. “So, I have a plan.” “Please tell me Charlie had nothing to do with it?” “Not really. See, if you want to try things with Peter, I'm okay with that. But if you're interested in trying to see how things go with me...” I opened two fingers and looked at him with a single eye. “You have my attention.” “Well, here's the thing. I've gotten a chance to kind of watch you, and you seem really nice. I don't want to commit to, like, being boyfriends. But I thought maybe a few dates? See if we have anything in common? Charlie said you had a Nobel prize in your room, so I have to see that of course.” “Fucking Charlie,” I covered my face. “So here comes Peter. You think about it some, and let me know.” I decided that, while my initial reaction to Matt's offer was 'Hell yeah!' that I should probably at least try to be mature and pretend to seriously consider the situation. I agreed to attend a GSA meeting, but turned Peter down in terms of trying to convince me on a weekend. Alone. I didn't know much about Peter, really, but his personality turned me off, so there was never any real competition there. I don't know if I was getting better or worse, but Charlie had stopped chiming in with lyrics or song titles. I heard an echo when I kept my end up, but that was all. My parents decided that the yard needed new greenery and that it was somehow to my benefit to go with them to the nursery. I rolled my eyes to Charlie and told him this was my Rock Island. He didn't laugh, but I still got my point. We climbed in the car and my dad turned on the radio, some song my parents knew, and they both started to wiggle about and sing together. I laughed and told Charlie, Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too young to Die. I stopped laughing - I didn't want the point. We got to the nursery and my parents began to stroll about with no plan whatsoever for their purchases. I sidled away from them, looking at the miniature forest of trees for sale. 'Look, Charlie' I said in my head, Songs From the Wood. He didn't laugh and didn't award me a point. At that point I begun to be scared that I'd really lost him. “Hey, Nick, what are you doing here?” I looked up in surprise to see Matt in a sweaty V-neck tee shirt and shorts and sporting a grin. His curly hair was matted down and his pale-blue eyes were flashing; if Charlie could see him now he'd understand why Matt Baxter was more interesting to me than Keith or Alex, or even both rolled up together. “Matt! Oh, hi. I, um, my parents wanted some green for the yard,” I said while nodding at him, trying to remain cool. Charlie laughed and I was a tad relieved to hear it. I supposed I should have been more concerned that he was laughing in my head, but I honestly wasn't; but this meeting was true happenstance, I could tell Matt I was willing and I could still look like I had thought about it. “This early?” He waved at the little forest I'd just been glancing at. “Even they don't have any green yet. Well,” he took a closer look at some tiny green buds, “maybe a little.” I heard a flute. No, I swear, I heard it. I glanced around for it as I tried to run the tune against my mental Jethro Tull data base. It sounded familiar and yet I couldn't quite put my finger on it; it was maddening. “The rowan, the oak and the holly tree are all the charges left for him to groom.” “What?” My head snapped around nearly spinning it off. “What did you say?” “Easy, Nick,” he smiled. “It's a line from a band my dad likes. See, I was talking to my dad this morning, kind of fighting with him to not work today. He claimed we needed to work now because Jack in the Green had done his work already.” He took my stunned expression for lack of knowledge. “He's from England,” he said sheepishly. “He says Jacks in the Greens are these little...” “Woodland sprites. They look after all things that grow in the winter months,” I replied as if in a dream. “Yeah, exactly,” he said with a smile. My eyes darted around, looking for a safe place besides getting caught staring into Matt's pale blue eyes. A flash of color between evergreens told me there was a street on the other side of them with cars whipping by, and the tumblers in my mind began to fall into place. Motorways. I looked up and saw the power lines and, crazy as it sounds, I heard the flute coming from in front of me. I looked at Matt, maybe noticing for the first time the smile that had yet to leave his face since saying hello to me. I looked down his front to his long legs, so very nicely shaped as they disappeared into his nearly not there socks and trainers. Then I saw it, between his feet which were on the paved path between the rows. Grass. More specifically, grass growing through the pavement. I grinned as I saw it and the tune finally revealed itself in my head. I glanced at Matt and started to chuckle and his grin became a wide smile. I couldn't help myself, I began laughing and wondering to myself if Charlie had been working on this for a long time. Matt looked at me in amusement, probably thinking I was crazy; who knows, maybe I was a little? But one thing was for damn sure – Charlie had won the game, sent his message and it was received loud and clear. “So, Matt,” I asked, “You have heard of Jethro Tull?” “Yeah, my dad has some records of theirs. Do you like them?” He smiled a bit more. “I do, I have some of their music at home. I was going to go over to the Blue Note, a used record store, this afternoon. Would you like to come? With me, I mean?” “Would I? Yeah, sure!” His grin, if possible, got wider. We exchanged cell numbers and he tried to linger, but his father began grousing at him to get back to it. I watched him go, long legs and all and thought 'Charlie, he stole the handle and the train it won't stop going no way to slow down'. I pictured his face and smiled. 'Cheerio, Charlie'. And thanks. Jack in the GreenHave you seen Jack-In-The-Green? With his long tail hanging down. He sits quietly under every tree --- in the folds of his velvet gown. He drinks from the empty acorn cup the dew that dawn sweetly bestows. And taps his cane upon the ground --- signals the snowdrops it's time to grow. It's no fun being Jack-In-The-Green --- no place to dance, no time for song. He wears the colours of the summer soldier --- carries the green flag all the winter long. Jack, do you never sleep --- does the green still run deep in your heart? Or will these changing times, motorways, powerlines, keep us apart? Well, I don't think so --- I saw some grass growing through the pavements today. The rowan, the oak and the holly tree are the charges left for you to groom. Each blade of grass whispers Jack-In-The-Green. Oh Jack, please help me through my winter's night. And we are the berries on the holly tree. Oh, the mistlethrush is coming. Jack, put out the light. Music copyright by Jethro Tull or whomever.
  20. This story follows teens as they navigate friends, the foster care system and finding out who they are. There may or may not be a supernatural element at play. The series does feature references to the band Jethro Tull, a recurring theme.
  21. Hmm, not quite Zombie. I'm notoriously bad about going to message boards but, with teh kind comments SS was getting, I decided to look about and see if it had spread anywhere else. You know, making sure I'm not forgotten
  22. Benji - As a heads up, to address that very problem, I am only posting complete works. Serial novels will be completed offline before posting begins, punctuated with 'short' stories. Zombie - All of those stories are available on my site, not Awesomedude. SWHouston - I'm glad you enjoyed the story :-)
  23. Dabeagle


    It was December of 1992 when he died, just a few days before Christmas. We were wracked with a huge snowstorm that year, this little town, biggest we'd ever had they said at the time. Snow was piled on the streets; plows had enough to make entire mountains of snow. A light drizzle afterward to make things slick is all it takes for a car to lose its traction and go sliding into someone. Into a teenager walking over to his friend's house to go sledding, for instance. Knocks them out of this world, yellow ski jacket and Detroit Lions knit cap and all, yes sir, that's about all it takes. I guess as deaths go it was more hurtful than most just 'cause of the time of year, but I think just because he was my own was enough reason for all of the gloom. I was at sea when he was born, Cold War was still very powerful and Watergate had eroded our trust in government just about five years before. I read the message when we got a transmission from shore; Margaret said he was a beauty. He was like a blessing for us, the doctor said we'd never have kids, but he was wrong that time. He was dead right when he said he was gone for good. There had been a newspaper headline not so long before he died; I remembered it at the time. Funny what you remember when bad things happen, things that have no business even being in your head when you should be grieving. All manner of strange memories and it's all jumbled with the routine and mundane, like the groceries you know you need from the market, and the stop at the butcher for that special cut he makes for you while he puts his thumb on the scale. The headline said God is Dead, and right then I believed them. Some may say that isn't right, some may say that God works in mysterious ways. I say any God that allows little boys to die, isn't much of a god. As Gods go, if there was one, he should have been thrown out on his all-powerful ass a long time ago, and now maybe he was gone, just like my Alexander He was fifteen that year, 1992, and he was well on his way to discovering life and the wonderful things that can happen to a body. He wanted to play second base, be like the guys that flew those space ships on Star Trek, and ruler of the free world if he got the time. He flipped his lid when he saw the Space Shuttle, his eyes would light up, and after he brushed that too long blond hair out of the way you could see those green eyes sparkling like small gemstones, and he'd talk about aliens and death rays till your ears bled. He was special, my boy. Named him Alexander after his grandfather, we did, just before he passed, Lex for short. Many times later on I wondered if that had been bad luck. I wonder a lot of stupid things, wonder if there was any way Margaret or I could have made a difference, to stop what had happened. But most of all I think about the death rays and aliens, so that maybe somewhere Lex can hear me and know that his Pop remembers him. Always. My wife and I divorced less than a year after Lex died; things just weren't the same anymore between us. We squabbled and fought over petty things, things we wouldn't have thought of twice before. I admit I was responsible sometimes, these things are never one-sided. Eventually we cried and mourned for so many lost things. I think we didn't know what to do with each other anymore without Lex around to take to practice, to check his homework, or listen to stories about aliens and death rays. Margaret wanted to go back to school, and I took a job at the Post Office. It was easier for me to get in due to my prior military service, and I didn't have to think too much while I was there, just walking around bringing mail to people. My route kept me clear of schools, seeing them hurt sometimes. I would often wonder if Lex could have made it to the moon and back, or if he might have been a second baseman. Maybe he'd have been a submariner like his old man. Heh, old is how I feel these days. Winter is coming on and my little Jeep rocks on its springs as the wind hits it. I climb out and shoulder my bag as I begin my first block of the afternoon. "Rollie! Got my check in there today?" Mrs. Bester calls out from her stoop as she makes her way down to meet me at the mailbox. She knows damn well her check comes the first and fifteenth of the month, why would she think I had it on the tenth? "No, Ginnie, a few more days and it'll be here," I reply instead of voicing my sarcastic thoughts. "I wish it would hurry, my arthritis is paining me something fierce!" she grumbled. "Well, you probably shouldn't be out in the cold wind either, you know," I remarked, which drew a sour sniff from her. Always willing to talk as long as it's her way, the second you mention she might have a fault or two, look out! "Rollie, when you get old you'll understand, these government people..." her words were lost to the wind, and she huddled in her housecoat and trundled back into her house, slamming the faded door. I chuckled and shook my head as I continued down the street. I delivered to the Andersens, the Coulsons, the O'Donnells, and the Meads. I stopped at the Pharmacy on the end of the block and delivered the mail to Frank, an aging pharmacist with failing eyesight and more grandkids than should be humanly possible. He was a passable chess player though, so we tended to hang about together one night a week and play a game after closing. "Game tonight, Rollie?" he asked as I handed him his bundle of correspondence. "No, the heating company is coming to fill the tank tonight, I have an appointment, tomorrow's better if it works for you," I replied, resettling my bag on my shoulder. "All right, I'll make sure Eleanor hasn't scheduled me for anything else, you'd think after forty years she could give me some notice on upcoming events she has committed me to," he grumped. "After forty years you'd think you'd know better than to say such things!" I laughed. And so the day went, as they did each day for the past ten years since Lex died. I think of him a little each day, and I miss him a little each day. And, I guess, I get a little closer to him each day, in a morbid way. The face of old man winter had installed itself before I could finish my route that day, blustering with cold and dropping snow by the bucketful. My old Jeep trundled through the drifts that were already forming, white swirls obscuring the view, and I continued on my rounds, albeit slower as the wind slowly turned the whole town into a whiteout situation. I was the last to reach the Post Office that evening. Paul, the head mechanic, was waiting for me. "Good thing I put those snow tires on, eh, Rollie?" he chuckled, cigarette dangling from his mouth. His sons, Michael and Simon, were away at school in California on scholarships. I don't know where their brains came from, Paul wasn't exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, and how smart could the woman be that married him? I guess I have to take that back, mechanically he was sound but morally he was reprehensible. "Yes, Paul, very glad you did, it's getting deep out there and I have to stop at the store on the way home tonight," I replied as I stomped the snow off my boots. "There will be accidents tonight! Bet you some morons like the Rathsteins didn't get their snows on yet, old bastard! They didn't prepare, they'll be people-cicles come morning!" He laughed uproariously at his own joke. I smiled wanly and headed back towards the door. The Rathsteins were a favorite target of Paul's, since they were Jewish. Tonight was mild, thankfully, and I made my way out to the parking lot to unearth my Land Rover, or at least make it possible to see from the windows. I started the vehicle, switching on the fan to warm it while I worked, and then set to clearing it off, using efficient practiced strokes to remove the powder. At least I had a chance here, in the street the plow always seemed to come by after you had cleared your car, buried the bastard lickety-split. Lex used to think that was funny, until once I told him if it was so damn funny he could go shovel it out again. My feet grew colder, and some snow spilled into the inside of my boot. Damn! If my feet were warm before, they were getting cold in a big hurry now, I grumbled to myself. A lone figure trudged through the snow outside the hurricane fence, almost invisible in the snow. Damn fool, should be inside instead of fooling about in the snow like that, it's dangerous. Who would be out on a night like this anyway? No one, unless it was an emergency, that's for sure! I climbed into my vehicle, thinking I would never have sent Lex out in this mess when it occurred to me that the person probably hadn't wanted to go out in this mess either. I resolved to help them, but as I turned on the windshield wipers the figure was lost to view. Damn! Might have turned the corner on State, mayhap even turned into a house. Maybe some kid going to a friend's house for the night. I put the vehicle in four wheel drive mode and backed up out of my designated parking slot, and headed for the gate slowly, snow swirling about and making the end of the parking lot difficult to see, and the headlamps seemed to make things worse as they reflected off the swirling snow. The accumulation could be heard crunching under the big tires, surefooted in their tread. I edged forward and slowly made my way to the gate, the arc lamps twenty feet in the air my only beacons in this white nightmare. I edged ever closer and out of nowhere the figure stood, dead in front of my bumper and as I hit the brake I knew there was not enough time, that the incline that led down to the street would not let me stop as I slid on the soft white powder. The head turned, the eyes widened in shock and for a brief moment I saw bright green eyes set in a pale face, and then the vehicle lurched to a stop. The figure stood in front of the vehicle, breath pluming out of his mouth and hands on the hood, almost like Superman if he was trying to not get run over. For a moment I just sat there, and he looked at me through the glass, each hardly daring to believe our good fortune. I waved him towards me, my hand shaking a bit, and he moved towards the driver's side door, cautiously choosing his footing on the rapidly slickening surface. I powered the window down as he drew even with the door. "You ok? That was too damn close!" I exclaimed, "What are you doing out in this mess?" I asked. "Um, just passing through, looking for work," he mumbled before coughing and turning to spit a large wad of phlegm. "You'll not find much work, or travel much in this weather," I commented, eyeing the young face, the soft features and large green eyes. His cheeks were reddened by the wind and his nose was red from the cold and running as well. He shrugged, a defeated sag to his shoulders. "I'll hafta find work somewhere, maybe shoveling tomorrow," he stated before turning from me. "Wait! Where will you go?" I asked, not sure why, but feeling a tugging at the back of my memory. Some call it conscience, but I think it's Lex, reminding me of what's right. I often think that way, that the really good things I think to do must be powered by Lex, wherever he is. The kid shrugged and I sighed. "I'll trade you a hot meal and a soft bed for some snow shoveling tomorrow, how's that sound?" I asked. He bit his lower lip as he looked at me anxiously, almost suspiciously. Finally, after another vicious wind kicked up, he nodded and walked to the passenger side front door. I powered up my window as he climbed in, closing the door and placing his bare hands in front of the heater vent. "Seatbelt, please," I said as I put the Land Rover back into first and once more nosed towards the street. The wipers beat a steady rhythm as I drove slowly through the deserted streets, snow accumulating at a ridiculous pace. This was easily the worst snowstorm the region had ever seen. I headed down to the intersection and turned right. This road ran between open fields on either side, and the wind whistled and moaned as it swept over the road, unimpeded, and rocked the Land Rover on its springs. I decided to forgo the stop at the store, they were probably closed anyway. After almost forty minutes to make what was normally a fifteen-minute trip, I pulled in front of my home, a small Tudor style dwelling with attached garage. I pressed the button for the garage door opener and slowly glided into the garage. I headed for the door that led into my kitchen, pausing to hit the button that would close the garage door and pulled my boots off. "You can leave your boots here..." I trailed off as I saw he was wearing old sneakers, broken in the front and laden with snow. He sat down silently and removed the tattered shoes, no more than a bit of plastic and sole at this point, and placed them neatly next to mine. We entered the house, moving to the closet in the hallway where I hung my coat, hat, and scarf. He too hung his coat, worn in many places and dingy beyond words. The scarf was no more than a rag, tossed aside by its original owner, surely. This boy had obviously been living rough, and I think I may have actually saved his life since he most likely had nowhere to go tonight. The bigger towns, they have homeless shelters, places runaways can heal for a few days and whatnot, but not here. "You'll want to clean up, but first let's have a look at those feet, they could be frostbitten," I stated. He nodded silently again and I sat in the kitchen while he pulled off his socks. "I wear tube socks, bunched up at the toes since my shoes aren't the best," he said quietly. Indeed, he seemed to be right. His grubby feet showed none of the telltale signs of white, almost dead looking skin or blistering, instead a nice rosy red glow from just being cold was on them. "Ok, well, you'll want to clean up as I said, feet look ok," I commented. I headed for the bedroom to grab some sweats and nearly walked into him standing in the hallway. His green eyes like emerald pools, almost big enough to swim in. He regarded me for a minute, a ragged boy if there ever was one, hooded sweatshirt clinging tightly to the edges of his face as the drawstring was snuggled tight at the bottom of his chin. "Ah, here is some clothes for you to put on after your shower," I said. He nodded mutely and followed me to the bathroom. "This cupboard has towels and washcloths, there is a new toothbrush in the medicine cabinet. We can eat dinner when you're done," I said briskly, "Put your dirty clothes down the laundry chute, we'll get them cleaned up." I left him in the bathroom, closing the door and heading to the spare bedroom. When I bought this house my sensible self argued for the extra bedroom in case I had visitors, but I had none for many years, and now this room would at last have an occupant. This might sound crazy, but I always thought if Lex had lived, maybe this would have been his room if he came home from college for the holidays or something like that. Of course that was nonsense, if Lex were still alive, Margaret and I wouldn't have come apart at the seams, this house would not be mine. I pulled new sheets from the linen closet and spread them over the bed, tucking them in firmly, then placing a light blanket and then a down comforter over the top. Lastly I added two fresh pillowcases to the never used pillows at the head of the bed. Satisfied, I headed for the kitchen and took out the chicken I had left to marinate in the fridge. Canned mixed vegetables were selected from the cans at hand and a bag of egg noodles set aside for starch. After placing the chicken in the oven I began to cook the veggies and noodles and found myself humming quietly while the pots gurgled. I felt a presence in the kitchen and turned to find my guest. Too long blond hair, large green eyes sparkling like small gemstones. "Lex?" I breathed. "What?" he asked. I reached slowly towards him before the absurdity swept over me and I dropped my hand. "Ah, have a seat, we'll double check those feet, ok?" How could I have thought he was Lex? The very idea was fantastic, too fantastic to even lend a moment's credence to. He sat uncertainly in one of the chairs from the old dinette set I keep in the kitchen. It was a yard sale job, one of those fifties tube metal and plastic seat jobbers that any older party might have. I sat across from him and beckoned for him to give me his foot, which he did again, hesitantly. I was struck again by the similarity, and had to stave it off as I had an unbidden image of Lex, ankle swollen and sweat standing on his brow as I checked the swelling in the ankle, deciding we should go see the doc to be sure it wasn't more than a sprain. Lex kept off of skateboards after that. "Mister? You ok?" This nervous voice reached my ears, pulling me from the past. "Yes, yes, sorry about that. I was gathering wool," I responded before bending down to take a look at the foot in my hand. The nails were clean, though in need of a trim, and I have a feeling the nails had special attention paid them while cleaning. The toes were red, but other than that the initial assessment stood up just fine. I released his foot and checked the other just to be sure. "Ok, well, they seem fine. In the back bedroom there is some wool socks in the upper left hand drawer, and on top of the dresser is a pair of nail clippers," I said while standing and twisting my back to ease the kinks in it. He stood and headed back in the house and I turned back to the food, trying to clear my head of his resemblance to Lex, but it was hard. It was uncanny in some ways, but of course he was not Lex, not really that close at all. It was the light, the hair and eye color. Lex had been taller, smiled often and laughed a rich sound to make rooms light. The chicken was just about done and I poured the pasta into the colander to drain off the water, and then poured the pasta into a bowl, adding a half stick of margarine. Margaret had always chided me when I did that, but it was one of my few vices, and besides she wasn't here to bitch at me now, was she? I rinsed the colander and poured the vegetables in as well, shaking the colander to remove the excess water. After pouring the vegetables in a bowl and setting them out on the counter I stirred the melting margarine into the noodles. I heard the whisper of stockinged feet enter the room, that small swishing sound audible on the linoleum. "That drawer there has silverware, would you please set the table for us?" I asked without looking. "Sure," he replied and opened the drawer while I finished stirring the pasta. He stood outside the kitchen for a moment, then spotted the dining room, and struck off in that direction. I picked up some hot pads and removed the chicken from the oven, placing it on the stove. "Smells good," he said on his return as he grasped napkins from the small dinette. "Well, frankly, it smells good to me too, but I am starved!" I said exuberantly. I felt bad for saying that, but he seemed to not notice. Or maybe he wasn't used to having anyone pay attention to what he thought. Glancing at the chicken, I realized it was not quite done, and replaced it in the oven. I then placed lids over the pasta and vegetables as my visitor re-entered the room. "Chicken needs a few more minutes, ah, you want to see where you'll sleep? Then you can wander in there whenever you feel like it," I asked by way of conversation. "Yeah, we can get it over with if you want," he said huskily, large tears standing out in his eyes, "Mister, could I just please work this off? I really don't want to ..." he trailed off, "I was just really cold, if you could please not hurt me," he said while holding his hands out plaintively. "Hurt you?" I questioned, stopped dead in my tracks mentally and physically. "No one is going to hurt you, I was just going to show you where your room is." "You ... you mean you're not going to...sleep with me?" he asked, relief and hope held in that voice. So soft it was painful to hear. "Sleep with you? You look a little old to have someone sleep with you," I commented before the full meaning of his words hit me, "Oh my god, you thought I was bringing you here for sex?" I whispered. He nodded slowly, large drops standing in his eyes, making the green shimmer. My jaw snapped shut and I felt outraged that someone could judge me like that, and then doubly outraged at the fact that this must have happened before in order for him to have thought that was the arrangement. "Sit down," I commanded as I fell into a chair. He sat hesitantly across from me, arms clenched about his chest. "I am not going to sleep with you, I merely felt as though you shouldn't be out of doors on a night like tonight. We have an arrangement, a soft bed and a hot meal in exchange for some shoveling, yes?" I raised my eyebrows at him. He nodded at me slightly, almost unbelieving. "Instead of your room, how about I show you where the laundry is? We should start your clothes," I stated as I stood quickly and trusted him to follow me. We went down the hall to the front of the house and to the basement door, down the flight to the concrete floor and to the corner where his ragged clothes sat in a forlorn heap under the bottom of the laundry chute. "Do you know how to wash clothes in the machine?" I asked. "Yes, I know all about it," he replied in his eerily hollow voice. "Detergent is over there, go ahead and get your stuff going in there then," I replied as I watched him, so like Lex in his lithe movements, as he picked up the rags and placed them in the washer, a two year old Whirlpool, and poured a capful of detergent on top before closing the lid and starting the machine. Before he turned back to me I headed up the stairs to take the chicken out, surely it was done now. I set the chicken back on the stove and used a fork to place the portions on a platter, hearing the sounds of stockinged feet whisper behind me again. "Would you please take two plates out of that cupboard and place them on the table as well?" I asked, and he murmured assent as he removed the plates and moved to place them on the table. I grabbed the veggies and the pasta and carried one in each hand out to the table. He followed me back into the kitchen where I asked him to bring the chicken into the dining room, and asked what he wanted to drink, and then I set the coffee pot to brewing. Finally seated at the table, and hearing his stomach gurgle loudly, we dug in. The poor boy must not have eaten in days; Lex ate a lot as a teen, but never like this. Although obviously hungry, he still ate with some manners and didn't simply shovel the food in, which was nice. "So," I began, full and a hot cup of coffee in front of me and having adjourned to the living room, "What's your name? Or shall I call you mystery boy?" "Mystery boy has a nice ring to it," he said softly from the overstuffed chair across from me. "Well, I think I'd rather work with something a little more personal, bub," I stated with a smirk. He smiled back, tentatively and regarded me. "Tyler," he offered, "my name is Tyler Marshall." He bit his lower lip, almost as if he should not have spoken, and then his eyes met mine again. "I'm Rollie," I said, shaking his hand. I must be losing my mind, I'd swear Lex was sitting across from me, shaking my hand and smiling that sly little grin that meant he was either up to something or was formulating a real whopper in that twisted little mind of his and, god help me, my heart leapt at the sight of it. "Who's Lex?" The question startled me; it was no longer Lex in front of me, just this scraggly boy with the too long blond hair that had framed another face, and green eyes that were as like chips of emeralds. Lex's eyes, but the boy wasn't Lex. "Lex?" I said, shifting a bit in my chair. "Yeah, that's the second time you called me that tonight," he said. "Oh, I see, well," I hesitated. Had I just spoken? "Lex was my son. He died many years ago, ten as a matter of fact. Ten years ago today," I said, hollow sounding even to myself. "I'm sorry," he hesitated," I guess you must miss him a lot, huh?" he asked, probably making conversation. I smiled softly. "I miss him a little every day," I replied. "What was he like?" came a gentle voice from this poor, ragged kid in front of me. "Lex? Well, he was a good boy, athletic. He had a great sense of humor and a big heart," I commented, vision suddenly a bit blurred, "Christmas was always his favorite time of year, I never really understood why. 'It's a season of giving, Dad', he always used to say to me. He made all kinds of gifts in December; he made a birdhouse one time. One year he took a model of a '67 VW Bus and wired it to have headlights and glowing taillights. "He was always about giving in December, it hit him like some strange syndrome where you feel like you have to give. He did it almost like he wasn't going to have that many Christmases, almost like he knew." I trailed off, "He said he wished it could be December forever" "I'm sorry I asked," he said softly. "It's ok, Tyler. Those are good memories, the Lex Margaret and I loved," I replied. "Is she your wife?" he asked. "She was, we went our separate ways a long time ago. We just couldn't pull it off without Lex anymore. He was our glue, and we never knew it," I finished in a near whisper. "So, ah, where are you from?" I asked, not really expecting an answer, or at least not an honest one. "Camden Falls," he replied. "Why, that's well over 800 miles away," I replied, "How long you been on the road?" "A month, walking mostly, stopping in small hick towns so I could get work," he replied easily, his previous unease with me forgotten, in fact it almost seemed as though I had passed some unknown test and been allowed into his confidence. "Why are you on the road, son?" I asked, settling my forearms on the armrests, coffee cup on the end table and my gaze fixed on him. "My family doesn't want me," he replied as if discussing the weather. "How is that?" I ask. "Because," he paused, inhaling and then seeming to steel himself from within, "I'm gay." Now, I'm not stupid. I know he didn't mean happy, and I wasn't going to make a joke about it and say just that thing. What do you say to a kid that tells you that? So I did the sensible thing, and took a swig of my coffee. "How do you know? You're what, fourteen?" I asked. "Fifteen, and I know," he said. "But how? Did you just wake up one day and crave the boy next door?" I asked, a bit frustrated. "How did you know you were straight?" he countered, more than a trace of nerves in his voice. Damn! The boy just dropped the bomb here that got him tossed out of his house, now why did he do that? I think if I had done that, not that it was smart to do, but I think I'd have been making brown spots in my trousers about now. I sighed, "Well, I won't judge you," I said. "I knew you wouldn't," he said hesitantly as he drew his knees up to his chest. "Oh, you did? What makes you say that?" I asked as I reclined into my chair. He squirmed a bit before replying. "This is going to sound stupid," he said as he looked at the floor and his cheeks burned, but he started his story. "I was in Beacon tonight about four o'clock when this guy stopped and gave me a ride. He had his own wife and son in the front of his pickup, but he told me I could ride in the back for a spell, so I hopped in. There was this other guy in the back, lying down with a yellow ski jacket on. "He was real nice, talked to me for a while. He said he was giving his daddy a Christmas gift, only he couldn't do it in person on account of he was running out of time. I think he said something about expecting me sooner, but that was crazy talk so's I must not have heard him right." I sat stock still as he recited his tale thus far, thinking of another boy who long ago wore a yellow ski jacket, I used to tease him and say he looked like a great big bumble bee with it on. He just laughed at me, and said it was warm. "So he starts telling me how he is going to surprise his daddy 'cause he hasn't seen him in a long time, said he couldn't find his way back home anymore. I asked him how that was, how you forgot where home was. He tole me that home isn't a building or a place, he says to me it's a feeling and he can't find it no place any more. So I ast him how he was gonna give his daddy a gift if he couldn't find home anymore, and he said someone was going to help him. "I must a heard things wrong again right then 'cause I thought he said that I was supposed to help him, but that couldn't have been right, plus the way the wind was whipping about in the back there was something fierce. He tole me he knew I was running, and he knew what I was running from. I don't know how he knew that, or why he said that. Maybe the cold had got to his head, I dunno how though, he had on this knit cap had Detroit on it, I think, only it was hard to tell 'cause there was something kinda messing up the writing, like maybe grease or oil." Or blood I thought. What are you, crazy? You think that was Lex? You're losing your mind! Pretty soon you'll need a shrink, someone to tell you how unhealthy it is to remember and love your son so vividly and then charge you sixty dollars an hour to boot! "So then he tells me about this town, says I need to find his daddy, that he'd help me out. Mister Rollie, he got out same place I did but I swear he was gone in seconds flat an' I couldn't see where he went 'cause the snow was flying. To be honest, I was kinda worried about this loco running around looking for his daddy in the snowstorm. He told me to go by the post office on State street to find him, so I asked directions at a convenience store and headed over there to see if I could find him. "Instead I almost ran into you. I wasn't going to get in the truck cause I was still looking for him, but, mister, he was gone and I never did see him in the whole walk I made over there." I was breathing heavily, yellow ski jacket? Detroit knit cap, Lions part obscured by blood? I saw it myself, Margaret couldn't go identify Lex. I stood, shaking on my legs and wobbled into the kitchen and poured a cup of coffee and promptly sloshed it on myself. I dropped the cup, hissing in pain as the burning sensation covered my hand. I stood leaning against the counter, sweat standing on my forehead, was I losing my mind? Mourning your child is one thing, but this was surely something worse? "Rollie, this is him! The guy from the truck!" came out from the living room. Now what? I headed back to the living room, and there above the cold fireplace was a picture of Lex, and Tyler's hand pointing at it. I carried Tyler to bed at ten thirty, he had passed out and I was finally coming to grips with what I had learned, what my mind fought but my heart knew to be true. The house wasn't a home, only because I wasn't letting it be. Without my boy, to watch him grow and love and make his own life, I had lost that ability. I felt warmth in the house that hadn't previously been there, a feeling as though some wrong had been nudged back in the right direction. I stood in the doorway looking down at Tyler, Tyler Marshall, and suddenly I knew what he was. He was a gift from Lex, someone who needed me as much as I needed him. He was Lex's ultimate gift, showing me that my son was remembering me and loving me just like I did him each and every day. Tyler's too long blond hair lay gently shimmering in the moonlight shining through the window, the snow having stopped about an hour before. I knew beneath those lids there were green eyes that would sparkle in the light. I walked to the window to draw the drapes so the early sun didn't wake Tyler and I saw a lone figure in the snow, a yellow ski jacket on and a Detroit Lions knit cap on his head. He smiled at me, and I knew he'd found his way home at last. I placed my fingers on the glass, drinking in Lex as he stood, smiling. He said 'I love you, Dad' and I heard it as if he were standing next to me, then he was smirking that grin like he was up to something and said 'Now love him, love Tyler'. "I love you too, Lex. And I will," I replied to the glass, through my tears, to Lex out in front of the house. He nodded, and then I saw him scoop snow and pack it into a snowball. 'Goodnight, Dad. Merry Christmas' Then he threw the snowball into the snow-laden branches of the tree in front of the house. The snow came down to obscure my view, torrents of white falling in front of my eyes, and when the snow finished falling from the branches he was gone. I looked at Tyler once more. No, he's not really gone. He's home.
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