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Altimexis

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Altimexis last won the day on January 14 2010

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  1. Henry stopped in front of the great-room table, and I placed my hand on his bare shoulder, giving him a gentle squeeze that I hoped was reassuring, then left my hand there as a sign of support. The girls were no longer present, but both brothers and their parents were at the table, literally shouting at each other. The shouting stopped the moment Henry and I appeared. Henry took advantage of the resulting silence and began speaking. “Mom, Dad, Rob, Sammy, while you’ve all been shouting at each other, J.J. and I have been talking. This isn’t about J.J.; it’s about me. J.J. didn’t go behind your back to conspire against you. He saw a kid in need and tried to help the best way he knew how. He knew there were things I wasn’t telling you, but he didn’t know just how bad it really was. He didn’t know about me drinking beer.” Fran gasped at hearing that. “Sorry, bro, but I like Heineken.” “I didn’t think I drank that much of it,” Rob exclaimed. “I wondered if Sammy might be sneaking some – or maybe Hillary or Camilla. I never dreamt it was you.” “There’s more,” Henry continued. “I’ve experimented with pot.” Again, Fran gasped. “And I’ve seriously thought about suicide,” This time it was Sammy who exclaimed, “Jesus!” “I even got some OxyContin to use for it,” Henry added, much to my own shock. “Is it because you’re gay, honey?” Fran asked. “Hardly,” Henry said with a laugh. “I never really gave much thought to it until J.J. arrived. I knew I was in love with Darren, but the thought of being rejected because of it never even occurred to me. I knew it wouldn’t matter to you guys, nor to my sisters. Most kids at school are fine with gay kids. There are even a few brave souls who are out – mostly eighth graders – and everyone’s cool with it. I doubt it’ll be a problem when I get to high school and certainly not in college. “No, it wasn’t that, at all. To be honest, I didn’t really know why I used pot, drank or thought about suicide. It took J.J. telling me a little bit about his own life and his own struggles that made me realize what it was.” Shit, didn’t he realize his parents were likely to ask me about that? Henry continued, “He made me swear not to tell anyone, ’cause it’s still too painful to talk about it. He only told me ’cause he saw signs of a suicidal kid from his own experience. I know you’ll respect his feelings.” Phew, that was a nice save. “The important thing is that although I was a straight-A student, I just didn’t like school. I didn’t like life. It all seemed so pointless ,” Henry went on. “Nothing I learned in school interested me, and I couldn’t see a way forward.” “But what about family, Henry? What about love? What about Darren?” Fran asked. “I know,” Henry answered, “and the thought of what killing myself would’ve done to Darren – and to all of you – it would’ve been so selfish, so unforgivable.” “Didn’t you realize this was all temporary?” Jerry asked. “Didn’t you realize that eventually, school would come to an end, and then you could make of your life whatever you want it to be? Look at what Rob did.” “He’s not even a teenager, Dad,” Rob interjected. “His attention span isn’t long enough for that.” Even though I was behind Henry, I could picture him rolling his eyes. In his mind he was already a teen, and I wasn’t sure I’d disagree. Sighing, Jerry commanded more than asked us, “Sit down, boys, let’s talk about what we’re going to do now.” “Not until you agree not to send J.J. away, Dad,” Henry said as he stood firm. “Either you agree that J.J. can stay as long as he lives in Omaha, or I’m leaving.” “Is that an ultimatum, Henry?” Jerry asked with a bemused expression. “Yes, Dad, I’m serious. Were it not for J.J., I could’ve taken those OxyContin at any time,” Henry replied. “Can I get you to agree to show me where you kept the pills and let me dispose of them?” Jerry asked. “Only if you agree to let J.J. stay, and if you listen to me,” Henry answered. “You want me to extend an open invitation to J.J. and let him stay indefinitely?” Jerry asked. “I’d like for you to adopt him,” Henry responded. What? “Um, Henry, Jerry, I can’t ask you to do that,” I interrupted. “I’m not sure I even want that. Besides which, it would open a huge can of worms that should be left alone.” “Still, I want J.J. to stay under the same terms as Rob,” Henry suggested. “As far as I’m concerned, J.J. is my brother, even if not by blood.” I squeezed Henry’s shoulder in response to that to let him know how much I appreciated the sentiment. I might not even be two years older than he is in actuality, but he felt very much like a younger brother to me, and, yes, I realized I loved him as if he were my own flesh and blood. How’d that happen in scarcely more than 24 hours? “We only planned on having J.J. stay with us for a few months at most on the recommendation of my brother, just until he could get back on his feet,” Jerry began. “We’re not set up for him to stay long term. It’s one thing for Rob to share his bed with one of his brothers so the other can have an occasional sleepover. It’s not fair to expect him to share his bed permanently with a stranger.” “I don’t mind, Dad,” Rob countered. “J.J.’s a great guy, and I think he’ll be a close friend. I’d like him to stay, too, but knowing what’s been going on with Henry, maybe it should be Henrythat sleeps with me, and then J.J. could sleep with Sammy, where he’d have his own bed.” “I’d love having J.J. room with me,” Sammy chimed in. “I’d like him to stay forever.” “You’re tired of rooming with me?” Henry asked in jest. I could tell he was teasing, but Sammy apparently wasn’t taking any chances on being misunderstood, and said, “God no. I love you, Henry. I’d never be the same if something happened to you. I’d be devastated. It would tear the family apart. I meant that I like Rob’s idea. I like it a lot. I think it might be better for Henry to room with Rob, at least for now, and it would be awesome to have J.J. live here. He’s more than welcome to room with me.” I couldn’t get over how all three brothers wanted me to stay. “We could swap the girls and the boys,” Fran suggested. “That way, J.J. could have the guest room.” All three brothers and I shouted “no” at once. The lower level gave us privacy, distance from the parents and direct pool access. Why would we give that up? Why go through moving bedrooms for what I intended to be a temporary arrangement, anyway? “I suppose we could get some air mattresses to use when you guys have sleepovers,” Fran thought out loud. “You mean like Rob could sleep on an air mattress in the other room so Darren and I could have the bed in Rob’s room to ourselves?” Henry asked. “No, I mean like Darren could sleep on the air mattress in your and Rob’s room, unless you or Rob would be willing to sleep on the air mattress so Darren can have a side of the bed,” Fran countered. “I think maybe I’d rather sleep in the guest room and schlep downstairs to use the bathroom,” Rob decided. “There are some things I just don’t wanna see, and with Henry and Darren being boyfriends, I’m sure they’d like to have some privacy. I’d rather not be their chaperone.” “And here I thought that would be a most excellent idea,” Fran responded to much laughter. Clearing his throat, Jerry said, “Let’s get back to the discussion at hand. Take a seat, boys,” as he motioned us to sit down in a pair of empty chairs. Henry made the first move, and so I followed suit. “The one thing no one seems to be asking is whether or not J.J. wants to stay. He came to Omaha to get on his feet, and he may well prefer to live on his own.” “In a way, I wish I could stay here indefinitely,” I replied. “Already I feel close to all of you. The plan always was to get a job, get a driver’s license, save some money, get a place of my own and then figure out how to get a college education. Ultimately, I’ll probably leave Omaha, as will some of you, I’m sure. It’s a big country and, as you know, a big world. How long I wait to get my own place isn’t entirely up to me. The last thing I want to do is overstay my welcome.” “Son, let me be clear,” Jerry countered, “We want you here. My sons want you here. My daughters adore you and after what happened just happened, Fran and I want you here. Trust us, we’re military. We have experience in being flexible, and we won’t hesitate to tell you if you’ve overstayed your welcome. Otherwise, you’re welcome to stay as long as you’d like.” All three of the boys cheered at that, while I blushed furiously. “Now, I know there are things about your past that you’d rather not comment on,” Jerry continued, “Like the string of bodies back in Indiana,” he quipped, not knowing it was partly true. Still why not joke about it, since it wouldn’t be taken seriously, so I responded, “Just one.” Everyone laughed at that except I noticed that Henry looked nervous. I could only hope that no one else noticed it. “Would it be possible for you to tell us enough about yourself for us to understand how and why you picked up on Henry’s problems?” Jerry asked. Pausing for a bit to contemplate what I was willing to tell them, I replied, “I guess I could tell you about some of that. Obviously, I’m pretty smart. I’m sixteen and already have my GED. Like Henry, I was a top student but bored silly starting in the first grade. Unlike Henry, though, I had an abusive father, so I spent as much time as possible in the library so as to have the least interaction with him as possible. I became a voracious reader and was reading books meant for fifth graders when I was only in the second grade. Once my daddy got me a bicycle, I could get around on my own and spent all my time in the county library, where I read just about everything I could get my hands on. “Most schools, even in rural communities, have programs to help smart kids – so-called gifted-and-talented programs. Obviously, some are better than others, but most of them are intended for kids with above-average intelligence, kids who might go to an Ivy League school if they can afford it, kids who might take advanced placement, college-level courses in high school or maybe even take community-college courses for dual credit where it’s available. These are still kids who will complete a full public-school curriculum and graduate high school when they’re eighteen. “With the exception of a few notable school systems in places like New York, most schools don’t have a clue what to do with a true genius. In New York, there’s a critical mass of genius kids and they actually have schools for kids with an I.Q. at or above 140. Rural schools may not see a kid like that in several years. My fifth-grade teacher, however, took notice of my lack of participation in class in spite of my grades, so he did something rotten. In place of the regular achievement test given to us every year, he gave me the test for kids completing the eighth grade, instead. The test booklets are all different, to keep kids from cheating, and he removed the cover of mine so I wouldn’t see that it wasn’t the fifth-grade version. “When the results came back, he sat down with me and my dad and told us what he’d done, and that I was in the 99th percentile for eighth graders. As a result, I skipped all of middle school and went directly to high school, at the age of eleven.” “Jesus, that musta been rough,” Sammy interjected. “I can imagine how the high-school freshmen treated you.” “You hit a bullseye,” I replied. “I went from hell at home to hell at school, but I was used to putting up and shutting up. Still the emotional toll was high, and I even started to make plans, both to run away and for suicide. I didn’t see how I could get through four years of high school, but then one of the librarians took an interest in me. She tried to get me to open up, but when she saw me shutting down instead, she went off in a different direction and acted as a personal mentor, guiding me on what to read to satisfy my interests. She showed me online sites designed specifically for kids like me, and I quickly got through a math, science and engineering curriculum, even as I participated in my usual classes. I suppose now I might try to go back and get college credit for some of that and even work toward my degree, but at the time, I didn’t have any money of my own. “Which brings up the next phase of my education, tutoring. As I approached my twelfth birthday, my librarian mentor asked me if I’d be interested in tutoring middle-school students. I had no idea how much I would enjoy it, and I managed to save some money of my own. God knows, my father didn’t give me an allowance even though I worked for him full time in his painting business in the summers at no pay.” “That’s illegal!” Sammy exclaimed. “Tell me something I didn’t know,” I responded, “which was why I accelerated my plans to leave home when I turned sixteen, but things got so bad that I couldn’t wait even that long, which is how I ended up here.” “Why didn’t you simply use your tutoring funds to get your college degree?” Sammy asked. “Because you need a high school diploma to apply to an online university, and I couldn’t even get a GED until I was sixteen with a waiver from my high school and signature from my dad, a signature I’d have never gotten. Besides, I needed all my money to run away and survive. I used it to buy a good bike since I couldn’t drive and to provide for food, shelter and clothing. Unfortunately, everything I owned was stolen when I got to Missouri, which is how I landed in Kansas City, penniless.” “Did you ever have to resort to…” Sammy asked but then hesitated to complete his question. He didn’t have to. “No, I never resorted to selling my body,” I replied. “I didn’t steal or otherwise break the law, but I did get picked up and put in juvie for a time until I figured out they were violating my rights in holding me without filing charges. There were no charges to file, and they didn’t want to hafta deal with CPS ’cause I was from out of state. Someday I’ll hafta tell you the story of how I got out of juvie, but the bottom line is I got very lucky and was taken in by the Rodriguez family. I worked for them for room and board and saved a small amount of money, too.” “That’s quite a story, J.J.” Fran said. “The question is, how does it relate to Henry’s situation?” Jerry asked. “He has a loving home with a supportive family and a loving boyfriend. I still don’t understand why that isn’t enough or why he’d try pot and alcohol or even think of suicide.” “Then maybe you should ask me, Dad.” Henry interjected. “Talk directly to me. You’re not the deputy director of this family. You’re not a major general here, Dad, you’re my father, and I hope you realize there’s a difference.” Jerry seemed visibly shaken by Henry’s words. Finally, he responded, “You’re right, Henry. I do tend to think as an officer more than a father most of the time, and I’ll try to change that. There’s one thing that’s similar, though, and I think we should try it. “In the military there’s something called the wink-out factor. We know a certain percentage of our soldiers won’t be able to handle the stress of battle and will kill themselves rather than seek help. We account for this, but we also try to identify those young men and women and get them help before they break. We already know you’re at risk, Henry, so I think we need to look into counseling. Maybe even a shrink.” “I think counseling’s an excellent idea,” I interrupted, “but it has to involve the family. One-on-one sessions with Henry, group sessions with Henry, his parents and anyone else he feels should be there, and a few sessions involving the whole family.” Then sheepishly I added, “I’ve read a lot of stuff and some of it had to do with psychology.” “That sounds like a good plan,” Fran chimed in. “Perhaps the school can give us some names.” “How do you feel about that, Henry?” Jerry asked, addressing his son for the first time. “Do you need professional help dealing with the alcohol and drugs? Do you still feel like killing yourself?” “I’m not gonna kill myself,” Henry replied. “So long as you guys listen to me and address my problems, there’ll be no need to. Besides which, I now have way too much to lose to give up on life. It would be selfish of me. As promised, I’ll show you where I’ve been keeping my Oxy and I’ll let you dispose of it. I don’t keep any pot or other drugs in the house, and you have my word I won’t touch it again. As I told J.J., I think it’s highly overrated. I do like beer. So’s Daren, and he’ll soon be fourteen, but my thirteenth birthday is still months away. I have no desire to get drunk or anything like that. There’s no way I need professional help. What I propose is that we won’t drink beer until we have your okay and then only in your presence.” “That sounds fair,” Jerry agreed. “What about counseling?” Shrugging his shoulders, he replied, “Personally, I think all we need is better communication like we’re having now, but I’m game for personal counseling as long as there’s also family counseling.” Turning to me, Jerry asked, “J.J., what do you think we should do about Henry’s academics?” “I don’t want to see him go through anything like what I went through,” I replied. “He needs socialization with kids his own age and, of course, with his boyfriend, every bit as much as education.” “Which was why I wanted to keep him in his regular grade level,” Jerry countered. “The only way to do that,” I replied, “would be to send him to a top private school or maybe even a renowned boarding school like Phillips Academy back East. Maybe he could get a scholarship. Otherwise, the tuition is like that at a private university and with six other kids to get through college, I doubt you can afford it.” Jerry’s nodding head confirmed it. “There are those who would say he should start college next year,” I continued, “But that would be like what happened to me when I skipped middle school, and although college kids are supposedly better than high-school kids when it comes to bullying, he wouldn’t be in with kids his own age. From what I’ve read, you can’t skip stages of adolescent development. You can bypass them, but at some point, the adolescent behavior that hasn’t been mastered will surface. The last thing you want is for it to happen as an adult. That’s kinda what happened to Edward Snowden. “Henry has already mastered the entire high-school math curriculum and then some. He’s already solving problems involving complex differential equations. With a little more study, he’ll be ready for quantum physics. At the least, he can challenge all of his high-school math and science courses. If he passes the final exams, he’ll get credit without having to sit through them. Better still, you and Henry should meet with the chair of the math department at the University of Nebraska. Let Henry show him what he can do. Chances are he or she would be willing to devise an exam for Henry put together from past final exams and award actual college credit for the ones he passes. You’ll only need to pay to enroll Henry at the university and possibly a small recording fee. With a college transcript in hand, you can ask the high school to award dual credit, which should more than satisfy the math requirements for graduation.” “There’s a hell of a lot more to school than math, J.J.,” Jerry pointed out. “Yes, and I have a plan to address that, as well as the socialization issues,” I replied. “You could go to his guidance counselor and demand that Henry be tested, but chances are he’ll end up being placed with high-school juniors and that would be just about the worst thing that could happen to him. I have personal experience with that sort of thing. What I recommend is that Henry challenge the entire eighth-grade curriculum. I’ll tutor him to make sure he’s ready to pass all the tests. We can do it over the summer so it doesn’t interfere with the current school year. Then we’ll enroll him as a high-school freshman next year. He could easily pass for one and should have no trouble fitting in. He’ll probably have to complete a regular freshman year, but we’ll sign him up for all the most advanced courses available. “Starting in his sophomore year, we’ll sign him up for college courses for dual credit. He can do that for two or three years and then either start college as a college sophomore when he’s turning sixteen or as a college junior when he’s turning seventeen. Either way, he’ll have the credits to get a high-school diploma, and his first undergraduate degree when he’s nineteen. The advantage of doin’ it that way is he’ll be in with kids nearly his own age, at least until he’s close to sixteen or, if you prefer, seventeen. And he’ll be in Darren’s grade level for at least three years – or maybe four.” Jerry was just about to turn to Fran to discuss it but seemed to realize there was someone more important to talk to first. Turning to face his youngest son, he asked, “What do youthink, Henry?” “I like it,” he replied. “I think it’s the right compromise between academics and social skills.” “Fran?” Jerry asked. “I agree,” she answered, then looked at me and said, “Thanks, J.J., for everything.” “Good,” Jerry responded. “I’ll look into setting up a meeting with the chair of math at the U. of N., and into arranging for Henry to challenge his eighth-grade classes.” Then turning to me, he said, “J.J., you have an interview in the morning at Applazon. You’ll go there with Rob, of course, but there are a lot of other things we need to do, not the least of which is getting you enrolled in the high school so we can enroll you in driver’s ed this summer. As a C.O., my schedule’s flexible and I’ll pick you up from your interview, take you to the post office to establish your residence and then to the high school to sign you up, with me standing in for your parent or guardian. With my rank, no one will question it.” “Sounds like a plan,” Rob responded, “but we have a lot to do tonight if we’re gonna move Henry into my bedroom and J.J. into Sammy’s. Also, there’s a major snowstorm coming, and we should probably get ready for it.” Shit, I had no idea what needed to be done for a snowstorm. “At least I don’t have that much to move,” I noted. “Most of the stuff I bought today is still in the wash, which reminds me. I need to get back to that, too.” “I’ll take care of washing your stuff, J.J.,” Fran interjected, but then I turned beet red on thinking of the double entendre she’d accidentally used. “I know you’re teenagers, but you boys need to get your heads out of the gutter,” she added. “You just take care of moving all of Henry’s things and rearranging your bedrooms, and I’ll take care of the rest.”
  2. “What’s gotten into Henry?” Rob asked as he drove up Harvell Drive. “I’ve never seen him so excited about anything in his life – besides sex, anyways.” We were on our way to Joseph A. Bank to buy me a new suit and dress clothes. The men’s store was located on the west side of town but about as far from where we lived as one could get in Omaha, yet it would only take a little over a half hour to get there. “Speaking of sex, I actually had to remind him that Darren was coming over.” Laughing, I explained, “Henry’s a bright kid.” “Yeah, I know,” Rob interrupted. “He gets straight A’s, but what does that have to do with anything?” “I used to tutor kids in middle school when I was in high school,” I went on to explain, “so I offered to help Henry with his homework. He had stuff to do in Spanish; at least someone in your family is learning the language of his ancestors,” I could almost feel Rob roll his eyes, “as well as English and math. He didn’t need any help with Spanish, and he certainly speaks it better than I do…” “Which wouldn’t take much,” Rob interrupted, to which I responded with my middle finger. “In English, he was reading Great Expectations, one of my least-favorite Dickens books. He didn’t really need my help with that, either. He didn’t exactly need my help with math, but it was obvious the math he’s taking was beneath him, so I introduced him to a little differential calculus as an alternative way to solve the problems he was doing.” “Wouldn’t that be too hard for him?” Rob asked. “I barely got through it as a high school senior. He’s only in the fuckin’ seventh grade and just starting to take algebra, I think.” “He took to it like a fish takes to water,” I countered. “He derived the expression for the derivative of a polynomial in a matter of seconds. Even I couldn’t do that.” “You seem to think rather highly of yourself, don’t you?” Rob chided me. “You know I have my GED at sixteen,” I countered. “I’m just joshing with you, J.J.,” Rob interjected. “I’m sure you know that.” “Yeah, I do,” I replied. “I was just rubbing it in.” Rob responded to that with his middle finger. “Anyway, Henry’s a math genius. I gave him some links, including some sites that are designed for what you might call math whizzes. He was already solving trig problems when Darren arrived.” “Shit, I didn’t take that until I was a junior,” Rob exclaimed. “That was like, two years ago. How the hell did Henry manage that?” “To be honest, he skipped over a fair bit of material the school curriculum considers essential,” I explained. “He’ll have to go back and learn more geometry, for example, but he’ll be in a much better position to get though all the theorems by the time he has advanced math under his belt. Trig is a special case, though. The way you learned it, the way it’s taught in high school, you start with a unit circle, plop a right triangle down in it and define the trig functions in terms of the lengths of the sides of the triangle. That makes it easy to solve problems involving right triangles, which is great if you want to be an architect, but you then have to prove all those relationships and identities that don’t make much sense.” “Yeah, I hated that,” Rob interrupted. “The thing is, if you’re an engineer or a scientist or a physicist, that’s not how you use trigonometry,” I explained. “In just about any other field besides architecture, the trig functions are the fundamental basis of waves. Anything that’s periodic or otherwise behaves as a wave can be written in terms of the trig functions. If you start with logarithms and exponential functions and then throw in imaginary numbers as arguments, the trig functions fall right out. Alternatively, if you start with infinite series based on the ratios of power expressions to factorials, the exponential and the trig functions drop right out. All of the stuff that seemed so cryptic to you becomes trivial, and you can still apply the trig functions to right triangles.” “Everything you just said sounds cryptic to me,” Rob replied, “but if Henry gets it, more power to him. How is it gonna help him with school though?” Rob asked. “It’s not like he can skip through the middle- and high-school curriculum at his own pace.” “Actually, he can,” I replied. “There are two ways he can do that. He can either challenge the final exams in all of the courses he would have taken – I don’t doubt he could do that by the end of the summer – or he can pay a fee and test out of college-level math courses for college credit. The fee depends on the awarding institution, which doesn’t matter much so long as he goes on to college. We’re gonna talk to your dad about it this evening,” I concluded. “But if he tests out of all his math, what will he do with all that time in school?” Rob asked. “Take more electives? Take extra study halls? Get out early?” “He could do any of those,” I replied, “but he’s capable of much more. Like I said, he’s a math genius, but he’s very smart overall. I hate to do it to him and to all of you in a sense, but I think he should start high school next year and finish it in three years, so he’ll graduate when he’s sixteen and be ready to start college.” “Jesus!” Rob exclaimed. “What would that do to his relationship with Darren?” “Hopefully, save it,” I replied. “I don’t know how smart Darren is, but at least by keeping Henry in high school until the age of sixteen, we can keep the two boys together. If Henry then commutes to the University of Nebraska, Omaha campus, they can still be together until Darren graduates. Henry’s capable of going to college next year, but it wouldn’t be fair to thrust him into the adult world when he’s still a kid, particularly when he has a boyfriend.” “What if Henry stays where he is right now and doesn’t do any of those things?” Rob asked. “He’ll become increasingly bored, drop out and become an Applazon stock boy,” I replied. “Jerk!” Rob answered me as he used his middle finger. “And here we are,” he added as he pulled into a parking space. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I’d never in my life bought a suit before. The closest thing I ever had to one was the school uniform at the Hill Top School, outside of Kansas City. I figured it wasn’t like going to Target and picking stuff off of a rack, but I didn’t think it would be like things I’d read, where a team of professionals descends around you with samples of fabrics and hand-makes a suit from scratch. No sooner did we enter the store than a gentleman, in every sense of the word, came up to us and asked if he could help us. Rob explained that I needed a new suit and dress clothes, and that I needed them for an interview tomorrow. I half expected the man to either tell us it was impossible to have something ready by then or to go into a tizzy trying to sell me something no matter how well if fit. Fortunately, neither of those things happened. The gentleman took it all in stride, saying, “Of course, we can do that. You appear to be a rapidly growing young man, so we wouldn’t want to spend a lot on a tailored suit you’d probably outgrow in a matter of months. If you prefer, I could sell you a suit that’s too long for you that could be let out later, but having it ready in time would be a challenge, and it wouldn’t look good on you now when your need it most. That’s not the way we like to do things.” He proceeded to take extensive measurements of just about every body part – well, not thatone, although he did get up close and personal when measuring my inseam length, which he did on both sides. “Did you know you’re six feet tall, young man? A half-inch more than that, actually, and you’re clearly not done growing.” “I had no idea,” I answered earnestly. “Last time I checked, I was five-foot nine.” “Well congratulations, you’ve crossed the six-foot milestone.” Next, he took us to a rack of suit separates and showed us a variety of different styles in different fabrics. A jacket fit me perfectly. According to the gentleman, the sleeves were a quarter inch too long on one side and a quarter inch too short on the other, but it wasn’t enough for me to notice. He recommended a navy fabric with a subtle gold stripe to complement my blond buzzcut. When I looked in the mirror, I had to admit that it looked fantastic on me. We found matching slacks in a trim fit that were perfect on me. We needed a dress shirt to go with the suit, and they had a wrinkle-free dress shirt on sale at three for the price of one. They still seemed pretty expensive to me, but they looked a lot nicer than any shirts I’d ever owned. The clerk even took one out of the package and had me try it on. I thought that once you opened the package, you’d essentially bought it, but that wasn’t the case here, as he put it back when the trim fit was too tight in the chest. An athletic-fit shirt fit me perfectly. Indeed, the shirt was free of any wrinkles and looked freshly ironed, even though it had been folded up in a package. I bought two white shirts and a light-blue shirt, even though I might only wear one of them before I outgrew them all. I needed a tie and bought two that were on sale, two for the price of one. I bought a red tie and a navy one, both with a subtle stripe. I needed dress socks and ended up with a package of three thin, wool socks that cost more than all my other socks combined. Finally, I needed a belt and shoes. The gentleman explained that the two should always match and that my suit would go well with either a brown belt and shoes or a black belt and shoes. Apparently, dress belts and shoes didn’t come in navy. He recommended black for an interview, and so I went with the black. I would’ve never thought of it had he not pointed it out, but I needed a dress coat that was at least as long as the suit jacket, which my winter coat was not. He showed me a tan cashmere coat with sleeves that were five inches too long. Jeez, even on sale, it cost hundreds of dollars, but he offered to shorten the sleeves on the spot at no charge and to lengthen them up to six inches in the future to accommodate my growth. I took the man’s card ’cause he was the nicest store clerk I’d ever met. He probably ended up with a much bigger sale than all the high-pressure salespeople I’d ever met before combined. He earned my trust, and I’d reward him in the future by buying new dress clothes from him as I needed them and as I grew. I was ready to check out, but Rob suggested that we first look at the casual clothes on sale, which he said were often a better deal than what I’d find at Target or Walmart. He was right, I picked up two pair of khakis to replace the worn, smallish ones hanging in my closet and several polo shirts that, even on sale, were more expensive than what I’d usually pay, but way nicer. Finally, Rob suggested I buy a sweater, ’cause it gets chilly in the evenings in Omaha, even in the summer sometimes, and it’s good to have something dressy to wear out to a restaurant and the like. I was surprised that some of the sweaters were as expensive as the suit. Cashmere was softest, but out of my league. Even some of the fancier wool sweaters were over two hundred dollars, though. I ended up getting a red, merino, V-neck pullover that looked good on me and was on sale. Even with the sale prices and the military discount, the total came to well over a thousand dollars, which was a major chunk of what I’d saved from working for Papi, and we weren’t done shopping by a longshot. After shopping for dress clothes, we stopped at Scheels, which was a sporting goods store in the same mall as Joseph A. Bank, Target, Walmart, and a discount store I’d never heard of called Menards. In between shopping at the different stores, we stopped at Panera Bread for lunch. By the time we finished, I had an entirely new wardrobe and had spent over two-and-a-half grand of my precious savings. Unfortunately, I’d probably have to repeat the whole endeavor in a matter of months as I started to outgrow some of those things. Still, in spite of what Henry said that morning, I couldn’t exactly go around the house in the nude. On the way home, I mentioned to Rob that I needed to temporarily change my address for everything from Social Security to my bank. I also mentioned that I needed to open a local checking account at my nearest bank branch, but Rob suggested I wait to see if I got the job at Applazon first. If so, I could open an account at their credit union, which not only paid better rates – their checking accounts actually paid interest – but counted savings accounts toward building credit. That way, I could qualify for a loan with the credit union when I wanted to buy a car or eventually take out a mortgage. When we got home, we spent the rest of the afternoon entering my personal data, preparing my résumé and uploading my birth certificate and Social Security card. By the time we finished, I was starved. Fortunately, Fran had supper ready in no time. Actually, they called it dinner. We had sloppy joes made with ground turkey on hamburger buns, with mashed potatoes, green beans and lemon cake for dessert. It was a simple meal, but way better than the food I used to get back home in Indiana. While we were eating, Jerry asked, “When I went to tell Sammy and Henry to get ready for dinner, I found my youngest son was busy plotting the trajectory for a manned mission to Mars. What’s up with that?” “It’s not that difficult, Dad,” Henry countered. “It’s just an application of Newton’s Second Law, which is an ordinary differential equation. Of course, you do have to correct for earth’s rotation, earth’s velocity and the relative positions of earth, Mars and the sun, and the changing mass of the ship. Also, you have to account for the solar wind. Mostly, it’s just plain algebra.” Rob leaned over and whispered into my ear, “You’re right.” In the meantime, Jerry countered, “You can’t tell me they teach that in seventh grade, and you can’t tell me they teach differential equations, either. That’s rocket science. Kids go to Colorado Springs to learn that stuff.” Colorado Springs, I knew, was the location of the Air Force Academy. “This morning, J.J. showed me how to use differential calculus to solve my math homework problems more easily,” Henry explained. “Afterwards, he showed me some links to websites for self-study in math. They were pretty easy, and I think I can finish them up in a few days. The mission to Mars is one of the advanced problems to solve on one of the websites, but frankly, to me it’s one of the easier problems.” “Rocket science is easy?” Jerry asked in surprise. “Actually, yeah,” I replied. “It’s just a matter of force and velocity and linear and angular momentum. Solving Maxwell’s Equations is far more difficult.” “Not really,” Henry interrupted. Jeez, I’d created a monster. “So, my youngest son, who’s in the seventh grade is doing college-level math?” Jerry asked. “He’s more than ready for it,” I explained. “He’s been sitting in class this year bored to tears, and the only reason he’s getting A’s is because of the good study habits you instilled in him. He’s a true math genius, yet he’s as likely to drop out of high school before he graduates as he is to go on to college. That’s what happened to Edward Snowden, by the way, and then the CIA took advantage of his genius.” “Edward Snowden is a traitor who sold out his country,” Jerry interjected. “According to the New York Times, he’s a patriot,” I countered. “Personally, I think he’s a little of both; he had the right idea but the wrong solution, and he should’ve faced the music rather than seek asylum in a country that violates everything this country stands for – or at least used to. The bottom line, pardon my language, is that he’s one fucked-up genius, and he didn’t have to be.” “So, you took it upon yourself to teach Henry math outside the school curriculum?” Jerry responded with obvious anger in his voice. “What would you have done, held him back and watched him become another Edward Snowden?” I asked incredulously. “I would have spoken to his teachers at school,” Jerry countered. “So why didn’t you?” I asked. “Henry didn’t realize there were alternatives. It wasn’t up to him to tell you. The only way I knew he was a genius was my suspicion in watching him do his homework, my recognition of his hidden talent and the willingness to explore it. I used to tutor middle-school students and was good at it, but it shouldn’t have even been my responsibility to figure it out. The school has been testing Henry since he was in kindergarten. They should have come to you, those teachers you wanted to speak to, but they didn’t. Schools don’t like kids like Henry. They don’t fit their neat little categories.” Even as I spoke, I saw Jerry getting redder and redder in the face, but he needed to hear the truth. As a commander, he probably wasn’t used to anyone talking back to him. In going behind his back, I’d violated the chain of command. “J.J., go to your room!” Jerry shouted at me. “We have a lot to talk about. You too, Henry.” Henry and I headed down the stairs to the lower level, and he headed into his room and I into mine. I didn’t bother to close the door, hoping to catch bits and pieces of whatever was said. Regardless, I fully expected to be sent away. Maybe I should take my advice I’d given to Jerry about Edward Snowden and face the music. Maybe I should go back to Indiana and turn myself in. The shouting began almost as soon as we left the great room, but there was so much speaking over each other that it was difficult to hear a word of what was being said. At one point I did hear Rob say, “Let Henry decide!”, which made me smile. At least there was one voice of sanity. After perhaps five minutes, Henry knocked on my open door and asked, “Can I come in?” “Of course, you can, Henry,” I replied. He entered the room and plopped down on the bed next to me, where I was lying back with my knees bent and up in the air and my feet flat on the bed. Henry assumed the same position, but whereas I was still wearing a t-shirt and shorts, he was wearing only a pair of boxers. Out of curiosity, I asked, “Why did you take your clothes off?” “When I get nervous, I take all my clothes off and jerk off,” he replied. “So, the correct question is why I’m wearing boxers, and the answer is that after what happened in the bathroom this morning, I didn’t want you to freak out.” “What happened was nothing compared to what Sammy did to me in the bathroom,” I responded. “What did he do?” Henry asked. “He grabbed my dick and recited a line from a nursery rhyme,” I answered. “I think it was ‘this little piggy went home’. He tried to convince me it was a game of dick tag you all played and that I had to grab someone’s dick and recite a verse of my own.” “Yeah, we’ve been playin’ that game for years,” Henry replied. Then he pulled out his dick through the fly in his boxers and said, “Now’s your chance. Now you can tag me and be done with it until the next time.” Laughing, I responded, “Rob did just about the same thing when I told him about it this morning. What’s with you guys trying to embarrass the new guy. I think you just want me to grab your dick.” “The thought did cross my mind,” Henry replied. “I do have some stuff to talk to you about though,” he added. “about my relationship and sex with Darren.” “You can put that thing away, you know,” I pointed out. Shrugging his shoulders, he asked, “Why? It doesn’t embarrass you having my dick sticking out? Does it?” “Not enough there to be embarrassed by,” I responded. Actually, he was bigger than me, but it was all the spirit of the boys’ trash-talking. Henry answered me by flipping himself on top of me, his outstretched arms and hands on my shoulders and his legs straddling my thighs, with his dick still sticking out of his fly. “Are you accusing me of not being big enough for you, runt?” he asked. “Who are you calling a runt?” I replied as I tried unsuccessfully to displace his hands from my shoulders. When that didn’t work, I tried lifting my hips off the bed, but that only pushed my groin into his, causing our dicks to collide. As I kept bucking my hips, we both became hard, so I stopped. “Why’d you stop?” Henry asked. “Because if I kept it up, we’d have cum,” I replied. “Don’t get me wrong; you’re cute and you’re sexy, but you have a loving boyfriend, and I’m not about to do something when he’s not here.” “Are you saying you’re up for a three-way with Darren and me?” Henry teased, I think. Rather than answer that I wasn’t at all – group sex didn’t interest me in the least – I turned it around and asked, “Are you?” “Well, no,” Henry answered. “Don’t get me wrong, ’cause you’re sexy, too, but I love Darren. I mean, I’m hard, I’m lyin’ right on top of you, but I’ve no desire to do anything further.” “I think it’s sweet that you love him so much that you’ve lost all interest in sex with anyone else,” I responded. “Not sex with anyone else,” Henry chided, “sex with you.” “Jerk,” I replied, and then noticing his guard was down, I reached up with my hands and started tickling him under the arms. I was merciless, but he deserved it. Finally, when he couldn’t seem to take it anymore, he flipped himself over, flopping back on the bed. “Oh god, I haven’t had a good tickling like that for ages. Ever since Sammy peed himself, we’ve kinda had an unofficial truce. That was fun!” “Well, if you enjoyed it so much, maybe we could have another go at it,” I suggested as I climbed on top of him. “That’s okay,” he replied. “I’d frankly rather not pee my pants, either.” I climbed back off of him and resumed my previous posture, lying on my back with my knees in the air and my feet flat on the bed. “J.J., could I talk to you about sex?” Henry asked. “You mean about sex between you and Darren?” I asked for clarification. He nodded his head, and I continued, “What exactly have you guys done?” “Well, we’ve been foolin’ around since I was nine, almost ten,” Henry explained. “But we never went any farther than that before today.” “What exactly do you mean by ‘foolin around’?” I asked. “To a lot of guys, it means jerking off together or maybe jerking each other off.” “Well, of course we do that,” Henry answered, “and more. We trade blowjobs; we do the numbers, all that stuff.” Jeez, maybe I should be going to him for advice on sex. Out of curiosity, I asked, “Can I ask if you swallow?” “Are you kidding?” Henry responded. “Is the sky blue? Of course, we swallow, but it’s also fun to cover each other with our spunk, you know?” I was almost afraid to ask about fetishes or kinky stuff. “Are you sure you guys are only twelve?” I exclaimed more than asked. “Darren’s thirteen, almost fourteen,” Henry corrected me. That sure changed the dynamics of their relationship. “Really! I thought you guys were in the same grade.” I responded. “If anything, he looks like he’s twelve and you look fourteen.” “I know, but that’s kinda how we met,” Henry explained. “In Europe, I played a lot of soccer; they call it football over there. We all played. It’s way more popular over there, even professionally – the World Cup and all that.” “I know about the World Cup and about soccer,” I replied. “It’s the world’s most popular sport. I never played it outside of gym class, but I always enjoyed it. I’m not that athletic, but even a klutz can handle soccer.” “Not the way they play it in Europe,” Henry countered. “It’s more like Little League over there. World Series; serious stuff. Anyway, we moved here in the spring at the end of fourth grade. I was nine and Darren was eleven and in fifth grade and ready to begin middle school in the fall. Of course, I wanted to join a soccer league right away, but it was the end of the season and the best I could do was to join a new league in the summer. I was still nine, but I looked more like ten or eleven and played above my age level. Darren, however, was eleven and very small for his age, so they put us both on the team with the ten-year-olds. We hit it off right away and by the end of the summer, we were foolin’ around all the time. “Anyway, I always figured I’m more of a top, and it seems Darren’s a total bottom.” I couldn’t help but smile at that, causing Henry to ask, “What? Did I say something?” “No, it’s just that I’m a total bottom, too, but an aggressive one. I like to dominate, but definitely prefer taking it up the ass.” “You like to ride your partner?” Henry asked, and I nodded my head and grinned. “That is totally hot,” Henry replied, but his enthusiasm was born out when his dick got hard as a flagpole. For some reason, it was still sticking out the fly in his boxers. “You said you tried ass play this morning?” I asked. “Yeah, and it was fun,” Henry answered. “We didn’t have any lube, which is something we wanted to ask you about.” “You’d like me to get you some?” I asked. “Definitely,” Henry responded. “Actually, we were hoping you already had some, but I didn’t find any in the medicine cabinet or in the night table or in any of your drawers.” “You searched my things for lube?” I asked. “Of course, we did,” Henry replied, “and I’m not gonna apologize for it, either. We were two horny teens.” “You’re not a teen yet,” I replied. “I look more like a teen than you do!” he countered. “You may have the start of a mustache,” I challenged, “but I’m over six feet tall. Just don’t go rummaging through my things again. I can’t have you finding my stash of crystal meth.” “Well, if I do, you’ve gotta share it,” Henry replied. “You do know I was joking, don’t you?” I responded. “I’ve never even smoked pot, let alone used anything stronger.” “I’ve used pot,” Henry announced, much to my surprise. “I think it’s overrated, but it’s easier to come by than booze in this household. If you’d like some, I can get it for you.” “No, thanks,” I responded. “I’ve never had the desire to try it. Before I came here, I’d never even tried beer. I’ll admit that Coors is nice, but I’ve no desire for more than an occasional one at that.” “I prefer to sneak one of Rob’s Heinekens,” Henry replied. At first, I thought he was joshing, but it soon became apparent he was entirely serious. “Do you do that very often?” I asked, then I had another thought. “Does Darren use anything?” “I can’t sneak a Heineken – or Coors or Bud, for that matter – without someone noticing,” Henry answered, “so no, I don’t do it very often, and then I share it with Darren. Darren doesn’t like drugs at all, but he likes sharing a beer.” Taking a deep breath, I said, “You really need to talk to your dad about this, Henry. You need to do it soon. You need to tell him about your beer drinking and even the pot. Right now he’s upstairs, talking about your future. He wants to fit you into his idea of what a perfect kid should be. He doesn’t mind that you’re gay, but he needs to know that you’re not one of his subordinates. He needs to know what he’s up against, and that includes alcohol and drugs. He’s probably gonna send me away because of you, but that’s okay. I’ve been through worse, and I’ll come out okay in the end. I know you don’t believe in god, but I can’t help but feel there’s a reason I’m here in this house at this time. “Tell me I’m wrong to worry, Henry,” I continued. “Tell me you haven’t thought about killing yourself.” The look of shock on Henry’s face was impossible to miss. “No one knows about that. How’d you know?” “Because I’ve been there, Henry. I’ve been much closer than you could ever imagine.” Taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly, I continued, “I’m fourteen, not sixteen. You can’t tell anyone because I went to a lot of trouble to get this ID. And there’s worse. I killed my father. He was a mean SOB who abused me physically, emotionally and sexually ever since I can remember, but even that was no excuse. The night I left, it came either to him or me. He literally had his hands around my throat, and I kicked him in the nuts and ran for his gun.” “Are you serious, J.J.?” Henry asked. “Dead serious,” I replied. “Why are you telling me this?” Henry asked. “You must know you’re taking a hell of a risk in telling me.” “I wouldn’t have gotten this far without being a good judge of character,” I replied, “but it’s much more than that. I know you won’t tell anyone, but even if you do, it will be worth it if telling you ends up saving your life.” It started with a single tear running down Henry’s cheek and then another and another, and soon he was crying his eyes out. I scooped him up into my arms and held him tightly. His sobs continued for the longest time until he’d cried his eyes out. Finally, he pulled away from me and looked right into my eyes. “You know what killing yourself would do to Darren, don’t you?” I reminded Henry. “I might as well kill him myself,” Henry acknowledged. “It would be incredibly selfish to do that to him.” “Are you ready to go upstairs?” I asked. “You might want to put your dick away, though,” I added. Laughing, he stuffed it back into his boxers. “Did you want to get dressed first?” I asked. “Nah,” he replied, “they’ve all seen me this way before.” “Why don’t you wash your face first, though?” I suggested. “Good idea,” Henry agreed as he detoured to the bathroom. When he came out, I motioned for him to go first and followed him upstairs.
  3. Space was at a premium, so the bathroom couldn’t be expanded much beyond the footprint of the original half-bath that had occupied the spot next to the stairs off the garage. In spite of that, the Gonzales family managed to fit a two-headed shower stall into a space slightly larger than that of a standard bathtub and to fit a vanity with a double sink into a spot only slightly larger than the original sink. The toilet was hung on the wall, saving nearly the foot of space usually needed for the toilet tank. In theory all of us could use the bathroom at the same time, but from a practical sense, it was adequate for two or three of us at maximum. Modesty simply wasn’t possible, and the bathroom door didn’t even have a lock. According to Rob, initially it did, but then Henry failed to realize what would happen when Sammy couldn’t get to the toilet in time in the midst of having the stomach flu. The ultimate result wasn’t pretty. Hence the ability to lock one’s brothers out of the bathroom was simply removed. I saw what that meant when, in the midst of brushing my teeth, Sammy waltzed right in and took a dump. Rob showed me where he’d cleared out some space in his closet, chest and dresser for my things. I didn’t have that much, however. I hung my coat, a spring jacket and my two pairs of khakis into the closet along with my four polo shirts for the lack of anything better to hang there, and unloaded everything else into a single dresser drawer. “Is that all you have?” Rob asked me. “That’s it,” I replied. “You don’t have a suit or tie, do you?” he asked, not in an accusatory tone, but one that sounded sympathetic. “Haven’t had a need for one,” I replied. “Well, you’re gonna need one for your interview on Monday,” Rob explained, and my heart sank. My money was gonna go all too fast, so I was gonna hafta stay a lot longer with the Gonzalez family to get on my feet. “Dad has an account with Joseph A. Bank, and he gets a sizable military discount. We’ll go there tomorrow and get you some stuff. There won’t be time for alterations, so we’ll get you suit separates. That should be good enough. You’ll probably outgrow your clothes by the summer, anyway. If there’s anything else you need right away, we can get it at Target or Walmart, and then we’ll order you a full wardrobe from Applazon, where I get a substantial discount. “Do you have a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant or anything else like a shaving kit you need to keep in the bathroom?” he asked. Laughing, I replied, “Yes to all but the shaving kit. I think it’ll be a few years before I need one of those, if ever.” “You’re damn lucky that way,” Rob responded. “Shaving’s a pain in the ass. Sammy and I both need to shave every day, and you probably noticed that Henry already has the start of a mustache, and he’s only twelve. If he’s like the rest of us, he’ll be shaving before he’s out of middle school.” “But he won’t be fourteen until September, a year and a half from now,” I interjected. “You heard right,” Rob responded. “He’ll probably need his first shave by next winter and have to shave regularly by the spring.” “Damn,” I replied. “What fuckin’ freak of a sixteen-year-old still hasn’t had his voice change or have any pubes?” I asked of no one in particular. “One who already has their GED,” Rob responded with a grin. “You’re miles ahead of us academically, so don’t go around complaining.” I began to appreciate that night that sleeping in a bed with someone else was gonna take some getting used to as well. I’d done it only very occasionally after sex, but never before on a regular basis and only for sleep. Sharing a bed with a friend rather than a lover was gonna involve a lot of give and take. That point was driven home, when Rob walked into the bedroom and said, “I sleep on that side. Would you mind scooting over?” What could I say? It was his bed, and he had every right to sleep on his usual side, so I slid over to the other side. He then dropped his boxers on the floor, pulled back the covers and simply announced, “By the way, I sleep in the nude,” and got under the covers. He didn’t ask if it was okay with me or tell me he was sorry if it bothered me. He just got naked and got in bed. Logically I could understand why he didn’t ask; it was his bed, after all, and he had every right to sleep in the nude. Obviously, sleeping in the nude with a gay boy didn’t bother him, but what was I supposed to do? I always slept naked, too, ’cause Dad didn’t bother to buy me pajamas, but that was when I was sleeping in my own bed by myself. Should I wear something because we were sharing a bed? Should I wear something because I was gay? Was it more polite to leave my boxers on or take them off? Well, I was coming to appreciate that communication is never inappropriate, as was driven home by the lack thereof between Henry and Darren and the ridiculous consequences of that, so I mentioned, “I usually sleep in the nude, too. Would you mind if I do so with you?” Rob replied, “I’d be offended if you didn’t now that I know.” Communication was absolutely essential. Although a queen-size mattress isn’t as wide as two twins, I rarely used the full width of my bed anyway, so I figured that there’d be more than enough room for both of us. What I didn’t realize was that when one person moves, the whole mattress moves. I could feel every little movement Rob made, and when he turned over in his sleep, it felt like we were having an earthquake. He also tended to swing his elbows when he turned over, sometimes smacking me in the face or shoulder in the process. That hurt, but he went right on sleeping. Rob was a very restless sleeper to say the least. Sooner or later, I was gonna get a black eye. I couldn’t help but wonder how Sammy handled it during Darren’s sleepovers with Henry. I’d seen pictures in books of pull-down partitions that were used in pioneer days so boys and girls could share a bed. Somehow, I doubted Rob would be willing to go for that. Deciding a good defense was a good offense, I snuggled up with Rob and draped my arm over his torso. He actually pulled my arm around himself more tightly without waking up. It worked. The smacking with elbows ceased and I slept soundly. In the morning, however, I awoke to find our positions reversed, with Rob’s arm draped over me. How’d that happen? I really needed to pee, though, so I extricated myself from under Rob’s arm and got out of bed. Rob didn’t even stir. Pulling my boxers on, I padded across the hall and opened the bathroom door, expecting to find it empty. Instead, I found Henry in the shower and Sammy at the sink, shaving. “Hey, J.J.,” Sammy greeted me. “You’re up pretty early for a Sunday morning,” I commented. My bladder was ready to explode, so I dropped my boxers, lifted the lid on the toilet and let loose. When I finished, I asked, “Do I need to warn you when I flush?” Sammy responded. “No worries there, ’cause the toilet’s on a separate line. Besides, the shower valves are temperature-regulated. And the reason I’m up so early, as you seem to think it is, is that we go to church.” “Oh, hey, J.J.,” Henry called out as he opened the shower door and grabbed a towel. As I flushed, I asked, “Why are you up so early, Henry? I didn’t think you went to church. “ “I don’t,” he replied, “but if you sleep in, you’re on your own for breakfast. Besides which, I have a shitload of homework, and Darren and I have plans. “ “Those sound like good reasons,” I replied as I pulled up my boxers and started to wash my hands. “Why bother with boxers?” Henry asked as he got outta the shower. “It’s just us.” “Isn’t the downstairs hallway visible from the great room?” I asked. “And what if someone needs to access the garage?” “What if?” Sammy asked. “We grew up seeing each other naked. We’ve lived all over the world, and military-base housing doesn’t often allow for modesty.” “In Germany, people sunbathe in the nude in the public parks, right in front of everyone,” Henry added. “You’re kidding,” I responded. “He kids you not,” Sammy chimed in as he got into the shower and Henry took his place at the sink. “I used to go around naked outside around the woods behind our house,” I admitted. “It was isolated, so no one could see me. I wasn’t supposed to go back there alone because there were caves and it was dangerous, but so long as Dad didn’t know about it, that made it that much more fun. I liked being naked outdoors. It felt sexy.” “Being naked outdoors does feel sexy,” Henry agreed, “but gay or straight, there’s nothing sexy about being naked in the house with your sisters.” “I suppose not, but I was an only child,” I replied. “Regarding being naked around here, you guys are the only ones to see me in the nude, and I’d like to keep it that way. I’m not family, after all.” “But you are family,” Henry countered. “We’re both gay.” “That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” I responded. “You might as well get used to it while you’re here,” Sammy interjected, “’cause you’re gonna see all of us in the nude at one time or another, including Mom and Dad.” “That sounds weird,” I replied as I dropped my boxers, intending to get into the shower myself. Then not seeing a hamper or anything that might be a hamper, I asked Henry, “Is there a place to throw these?” “On the floor for now,” he answered. “There’s a hamper in your bedroom. Each room does its own laundry.” “Wow, that’s convenient,” I replied in jest. “It must be nice to have the room do all your laundry for you.” It was a lame joke at best, but Sammy broke into hysterics. Looking at Henry, I shrugged my shoulders and he responded, “That was a good one, but Sammy can get a bit weird when he thinks something’s funny.” “What’s weird about laughing at a good joke?” Sammy asked as he shut off the water. “Nothing if you have a normal laugh,” Henry countered, “but your laugh sounds like that of a dying hyena.” Before Sammy could come back with a rejoinder, however, Henry said, “Later, guys,” and exited the bathroom. In the meantime, Sammy grabbed a towel and dried himself off. Looking around, I asked Sammy, “Is there a towel I can use?” Pointing to one of the towel bars, he responded, “That’s your towel.” “Thanks,” I added as I passed by Sammy in the narrow space of the bathroom to enter the shower, but as I passed him, chest to chest, so to speak, he grabbed my dick and said, “This little piggy went home.” Shocked, I asked, “What the fuck was that about?” With a frown, he answered, “I’m sorry, J.J. Me and the boys have a kind of game we play. It’s sort of like dick tag, but you have to hold onto it while you say a verse of rhyme that kinda goes with the last one. Rob got me a couple of days ago and said, ‘I’ll blow your house down.’ Since that was from the Three Little Pigs, I had to come up with something either related to pigs or a wolf.” “So, what happens if you don’t find another target?” I asked. “It’s harder than you think,” he explained, “’cause if your target escapes before you finish the rhyme, you have the rest of the day to catch them and finish, or you have to be their slave for a day. It’s a really good incentive for the tagger to hold on tight and for the taggee to get away.” “What happens if you succeed in completing the rhyme?” I asked. “Then your target has a week to tag someone else,” he explained. “So, what I have to do, then, within the next week, is to grab someone’s dick like this,” I said as I grabbed Sammy’s dick, “and say something like, ‘Home is where the heart is.’” “That’s good,” Sammy responded, “except that you can’t tag the same boy who tagged you. By the way, you can let go now,” he added with a grin. I actually was holding on and sheepishly let go. Then I had a strange thought. “How do I know you didn’t just make this up as an excuse to grab my dick?” “Actually, it was so I could get you to embarrass yourself,” Sammy confirmed. “Me and my brothers play practical jokes on each other all the time, especially sexual ones. Grabbing your dick and having you grab mine was just a bonus,” he added with another grin. Sammy was a good-looking boy and rather sexy. I wasn’t sure what got into me, but I countered with, “Well, you’re welcome to grab my dick anytime. That felt nice.” “I’m not gay,” he replied. “I know, and you have a girlfriend,” I replied, “but that doesn’t mean she’s putting out, and when you’re horny, a hand is a hand, and a mouth is a mouth.” Frowning again, he replied, “Lynn’s a good Catholic girl and she wants to wait until she’s married. Henry and I used to mess around, but he told me last night that he doesn’t want to do it anymore now that he has a boyfriend. Now that he knows his love is requited, he only wants to make love. I guess that’s kind of why I grabbed you.” “Like I said, I enjoyed it,” I countered, then added, “it could be a while before I get a boyfriend, so if you ever want to mess around, I’m game, for sure.” “Yeah, that would be cool,” he replied with a lusty grin. When I grabbed him once more, though, he responded with, “Not here. Anyone could walk in… even Mom. Maybe later.” “Fair enough,” I replied. It was a good thing I let go before either of us got hard, as Rob chose that moment to walk in. I greeted him, “Hey, Rob.” “Morning, J.J.” he responded sleepily. “By the way, guys, breakfast is already on the table.” “Shit!” Sammy responded and then ran out of the room. In the meantime, Rob got out his shaving kit and lathered up. It certainly changed the dynamic of the morning rituals to have a couple of boys in the household who needed to shave. I was glad I didn’t need to just yet and perhaps wouldn’t need to for a number of years. I got into the shower and turned on the water. Noting that there were three dispensers mounted on the wall and no other shampoos or soaps, I gathered that the dispensers took up less room, and left no argument as to which shampoo to buy. “What’s in the dispensers?” I asked Rob. “The left one’s shower gel,” he answered. “You use it for both soap and shampoo. The middle one’s a generic Head and Shoulders, for dandruff if you need it, and the one on the right is a conditioner to make your hair look beautiful.” With my buzzcut, I doubted that I needed conditioner, and I’d never had trouble with dandruff, so I simply used the shower gel on my hair and body and then rinsed off and shut off the water. I grabbed the towel Sammy had indicated and dried myself off. Rob was still shaving, so I stepped up to the other sink and applied my deodorant. I noticed that my hair could use a touch-up, but that would hafta wait until after breakfast. Grabbing my toothbrush and toothpaste, I brushed my teeth and then started to open the door, when Rob said, “Don’t bother with clothes. Breakfast is clothing optional unless we’re eating outside this morning.” “Why do I get the impression you’re trying to embarrass me?” I asked Rob, remembering how Sammy had tried to get me to go around grabbing dicks. “Probably because I am,” Rob replied. “Did Sammy get you, too?” “Yeah, he did, and I caught him at it right away, too,” I related. “Grabbing dicks to nursery rhymes…” “Yeah, we definitely do that,” Rob responded. “It’s a game we’ve all been playing for years.” “Sure, it is,” I replied with a middle-finger salute. Rob countered with a salute of his own and then added, “Seriously, we usually eat in shorts plus or minus a t-shirt for the boys and shorts and a t-shirt for the girls. We’re not modest, though, and naked bodies do occasionally streak by. We did live many years in Europe, you know.” “As has been explained to me,” I replied. I bent down and grabbed my dirty boxers off the floor while Rob got in the shower, and then I closed the bathroom door behind me and walked across the hall to our bedroom. Only later did I realize anyone could have seen my retreating naked ass from the great room. Once in the bedroom, I quickly spotted the hamper and dropped my boxers into it, then rummaged around my one and only drawer for something to wear. A shopping trip was definitely gonna be in order, as I needed a lot more clothes. Selecting boxers, a plain, red t-shirt and navy-blue shorts, I got dressed and headed up the short flight of steps to the great room. Fran called out, “Morning, J.J. Today, it’s a make-your-own omelet day.” “I have no idea how to make an omelet,” I commented. “Then let me show you how,” she said as she got up from where she was sitting and led me back into the house and toward the kitchen. For the first time, I got a good look at the layout as she led me straight to a large island with a black glass rectangle in the middle of it with outlines of six circles. Instinctively, I knew it must be a cooktop, but I’d never seen anything like it before. “This is our first induction cooktop,” she continued. “We’ve always used gas before, but there are no gas lines in this neighborhood. Even our heat uses an electric heat pump, which is actually a lot more efficient than gas as it turns out. Our contractor recommended induction in place of a conventional electric cooktop because it reacts almost exactly the way gas does, and it’s much safer, too. The cooktop itself stays cool. It uses induction to heat the cookware, but you can only use metal cookware: aluminum, stainless or copper. “It must use the Hall effect,” I commented. “Perhaps an alternating magnetic field to induce an electric current, which generates heat through Ohm’s Law.” Then looking at Fran, I added, “Sorry. Sometimes I just can’t help myself when it comes to spouting stuff I know.” “You’re a delightful young man, J.J.,” Fran responded, “You’re sixteen but look like you’re only twelve, and you have the intelligence of a graduate student with Ph.D. degrees in several fields. Don’t you ever stop doing what you’re doing.” I couldn’t help but blush. “Now if you’re like my other boys and men, you’ll want to take three eggs,” she went on. “Breaking an eggshell can be tricky though. You take an egg, hold it firmly like so and bring it down swiftly on the edge of this glass bowl.” She did so and the shell split cleanly in two, with the egg sliding into the bowl without even the yolk breaking. It was perfect. “Most people, when they first try it, bring the egg down too hard and end up with half the egg on the outside of the bowl. You just want to bring the egg down swiftly, but to stop just as it hits the edge of the bowl and cracks the egg, then use your hand to separate the two halves over the bowl. Why don’t you try it?” Shrugging my shoulders, I grabbed an egg from the carton, lifted it into the air and did exactly as I thought she had. I was certain I’d mess up, but the egg landed perfectly in the bowl. Cool. I repeated the procedure again with a third egg and again, it landed perfectly in the bowl. “Are you sure you’ve never done this before?” Fran asked. “Other than a box of mac and cheese or a can of soup, I’ve never cooked anything in my life,” I replied. “If you’re going to live on your own, unless you plan to eat out or live on frozen dinners, you need to learn how to cook,” she responded. “I like to add a little milk to give the eggs a creamier consistency. Now, let’s whisk your eggs.” Fran showed me how to use a simple spring-like metal tool with loops on the end of it to mix the yolks, whites and milk to an even consistency. “Now, what would you like in your omelet, J.J.?” she asked. “We have a package of frozen peppers and onions. Usually we use fresh, but there isn’t time in the morning, not when we’re all making our own omelets and have to get to church. We also have sliced mushrooms, ham, turkey, bacon and cheddar and swiss cheese.” With what I was sure was a devilish look in my eyes, I asked, “Can I have all of those?” “Or course, you can,” Fran responded. “Let’s start by frying up some bacon, since that needs to be drained. Let’s use three strips of bacon. You just lay them in a skillet and cook them on medium heat.” The bacon started sizzling immediately. “As soon as the bacon’s bubbling up and wrinkly like it is now, turn each of the strips over like so, and when they start to rise out of the pan, fork them over onto a paper towel to drain them. Then add a layer of the frozen peppers and onions and the mushrooms to the remaining bacon fat and heat them until the peppers are still crisp but thoroughly thawed and free of ice crystals.” She showed me how to do that, then said, “Now, we’ll add the eggs,” as she poured the whisked eggs over the veggies. “We stir everything up thoroughly and wait for the eggs to set, which should only take a minute.” After what I’m sure was less than a minute, actually, I could see that the eggs were nearly cooked and she continued, “Okay, now it’s time to add the meat and cheese. We’ll lay a slice of ham on one half the eggs, a slice of turkey on the other half, a slice of swiss cheese on top of the turkey and a slice of cheddar on top of the ham. I think cheddar goes better with ham and swiss with turkey, but some would probably say the opposite. Finally, we lay the three strips of bacon on one side of the omelet like so, let the cheese thoroughly melt, then fold the omelet over so that the cheese and meat are sandwiched by the eggs. “Why don’t you grab me a plate and we’ll slide the omelet onto your plate,” she concluded as she did so. “Would you like some hash browns to go with that?” she asked. “Need you ask,” I replied. She spooned a mix of hash-brown potatoes with peppers and onions from a covered saucepan onto my plate. Everything smelled wonderful. “And lastly, we add a little fresh-ground black pepper on top,” Fran announced as she grabbed a wooden cylinder of sorts, held it over my plate and twisted the top part of the cylinder, dispensing a sprinkling of black dots all over the eggs and potatoes. “There, now it’s perfect.” I thanked Fran profusely and started to carry my plate to the table, but was intercepted by Rob, who asked me, “What’s for breakie?” “Breakie?” I laughed. Rather than answer, Rob just flipped me, so I answered, “Make-your-own omelets.” “Oh, I love those,” Rob replied, but I didn’t wait for him as I sat down at the table and grabbed some silverware. Noticing a carton of orange juice and a carafe of coffee, I grabbed a glass and a mug and poured myself a serving of both. On a hunch I took a sip of the coffee with it still black and was pleasantly surprised that it needed neither sugar nor cream. “This is by far the best coffee I’ve ever tasted,” I exclaimed. Laughing, Jerry said, “We first tasted it on one of our vacations and fell in love with it, as I guess you have. It’s called Deadman’s Reach, and we buy it from a small coffee roaster in Washington State. Apparently, there is a place in Alaska named Deadman’s Reach, which is where the coffee got its name. They have a logo – you can get it on a t-shirt – ah, here it is,” he added as he handed me his phone. The logo was of a skeleton reaching for a mug of coffee; it was fantastic. “When I have the money, I’m gonna hafta get one of those t-shirts,” I exclaimed. I sliced off a corner of my omelet and popped it in my mouth. Damn, it was good. “Do you guys eat like this every day?” I asked. “Sure, we do,” Henry responded. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, after all,” he continued. “Every now and then, we order out for breakfast from some of the finest restaurants in Omaha.” “Okay, what do you guys really do for breakfast?” I responded. “I see you’ve figured our boys’ shenanigans out,” Fran replied. “We only eat like this on Sundays before going to church. Mornings are hectic enough as it is, so during the week it’s usually toast and cereal, although I do make an effort to make sure there’s fresh fruit on the table to go with it. In the winter I usually serve hot cereal, like oatmeal, cream of wheat or grits.” “Now that I believe,” I responded. “You didn’t mention Saturdays, though.” “Usually it’s catch as catch can, meaning it’s everyone for themselves,” Fran explained. “However, every now and then the girls or the boys get together and make something gourmet.” “It’s kind of an ongoing contest,” Rob explained as he sat down. “Maybe once a month, the girls will work together to prepare something you might get at a fancy restaurant, and then the boys will get together and do the same thing. Of course, until now, the boys have been at a disadvantage because there are only three of us.” “You’re at a disadvantage because you’re boys,” Camilla countered. “I’d like to point out that most of the top chefs in the world are guys,” Jerry countered. “Maybe now that J.J.’s here, the balance of power will change,” Henry suggested. Laughing, I responded, “The only problem with that is that I’ve no experience with cooking.” “Judging by how quickly you picked things up in the kitchen today,” Fran countered, “I think you might well be the boys’ secret weapon in the kitchen battle of the sexes.” “We’re gonna crush you next time,” Sammy added. “In your dreams,” Hillary replied. Finishing off the last of my breakfast, I followed the other kids’ example and carried my dishes into the kitchen and loaded them into the dishwasher. Standing next to me, Henry said, “Well, I’d better get going on my homework. Otherwise, there won’t be any time to spend with Darren.” “What have you got?” I asked. “Algebra, Spanish and English,” he replied. “Why don’t you get the material and maybe I can help you with it?” I suggested. “I used to do tutoring before I left home.” “That’d be great!” Henry replied as he ran down the stairs and moments later reappeared carrying what appeared to be a high-end laptop and a tablet of paper with him. He sat right down on the great-room sofa, and so I sat down next to him. In the meantime, he’d removed his sweatshirt and was now dressed only in his shorts. Shirtless definitely seemed to be Henry’s favorite outfit. He was very cute, though. Sexy, if I was gonna be honest. Henry opened his laptop to reveal an Applazon ProBook – the fifteen-inch model, I think. I’d looked into getting one when I was back in Indiana before I decided I’d better save my money, and the base model, even with academic pricing, was something like $1700. Equipped with the fastest processor, a larger SSD, much more memory and a better graphic processor more than doubled that, but even the base model would’ve run circles around the $300 Chromebook I got through the school system back home. “First, I have some algebra problems to solve,” Henry began. “You’re taking algebra in seventh grade?” I asked in surprise. Shrugging his bare shoulders, he responded, “They tested us at the beginning of middle school, and I was placed in the most advanced math class. Anyway, we’re learning how to solve simultaneous equations, but they’re not very hard, so maybe I can make quick work of that.” Indeed, Henry knew what he was doing and easily solved each problem, even though I would have considered the difficulty level to have been moderate for most students in a first-year course. After completing the fifth problem, I decided to see if he was ready to tackle more advanced math like calculus. Some kids – kids like me and perhaps kids like Henry – are hindered more than helped by the traditional math curriculum. “Let me show you another way to solve this one,” I began. “Let’s add a tiny little change to x and y, so x becomes x+Δx and y becomes y+Δy. You can substitute these into each of the original equations and then subtract the original equations to get equations written in terms of the Δ terms. Now let’s see what happens when Δx and Δy are nearly zero. Can you come up with a reason you wouldn’t want to make them exactly zero?”,> “That’s easy,” Henry answered. “If they were zero, you couldn’t divide by either one, ’cause division by zero is indeterminate. For example, if you wanted to calculate the slope of a tangent to the curve defined by either equation, you could rewrite the equations in terms of Δy/Δx, and then make Δx very small without actually being zero.” “Exactly,” I exclaimed. “We call that process taking the limit as Δx goes to zero, and we can write that like this,” I showed him, “or we can use the shorthand notation of dy/dx to represent the slope of the tangent in the limit as dx becomes zero. None of this would be of much help, except that we can actually derive an expression for the tangent of a generic polynomial, which we call the derivative.” “Is this what differential calculus is all about?” Henry asked. “I take it you’ve heard of it?” I asked and he nodded. “I wonder if you can derive the expression for the derivative of a polynomial.” “I think that will be easy,” Henry replied as he made remarkably quick work of it. I didn’t even need to show him how to drop the infinitesimal terms. He got the concept right away without any input from me. He then proceeded to apply the result to solve the original system of equations without my having to ask him to. “Wow! That’s way easier.” He exclaimed. I think I could solve several of the problems that way, but I’m not supposed to know how.” “In that case, why don’t you finish up the rest of the problems, and later I’ll show you a website that’ll take you from basic algebra to advanced differential equations and complex vector calculus at your own pace. Then you can either challenge the entire high-school math sequence, or for a fee, you can take the online exams and get college credit for an undergraduate and graduate math curriculum. It would save you thousands of boring hours in countless classrooms learning what to you is obvious.” “Tell me about it,” Henry responded, clearly knowing exactly what I was talking about. The conventional math curriculum allows smart kids to run while others walk or crawl. Kids like Henry are ready to fly.
  4. “Why’d those two run off like that?” Steve asked as he approached with a plate full of food. “What’s up with that?” “It’s a bit complicated,” I replied. “The short version is that it was a classic case of two best friends afraid to say how they felt about each other. When I told them about what happened to me, Darren made a comment about thinking things like that only happened in the stories he’d read on the internet, and then he had a full-blown panic attack and ran off.” “Ah, well if maybe Darren’s gay, that certainly explains it,” Steve replied. “What was that about?” Rob asked as he approached us. I explained what had happened and he replied, “Don’t worry. They’ll be back. Just give them time.” After finishing my first plate of food, I headed back to the kitchen, grabbed a burger with lettuce, tomato and ketchup, and grabbed a hot dog with chili and shredded cheese, too. I added a serving of the baked beans and some macaroni salad to the plate, and mingled with the girls as I ate, getting to know them as well. They included Lindsey, who was ten and in the fifth grade; Hillary, who was thirteen and in the eighth grade; Camilla, who was sixteen and a sophomore; and Celia, who was a seventeen-year-old senior. Whereas Rob had his own car, which he needed to get to and from work, Camilla and Celia shared a car between them. I was gonna hafta get my learner’s permit and sign up for driving school, but it would probably be a long time before I could afford a car. Walking up to Jerry and Fran, who were talking to Juan and his wife, I exclaimed, “La comida estuvo increíble. Todo estuvo delicioso.” “Muchas gracias por decir eso, J.J.,” Fran replied. Rob was standing within earshot and asked of no one in particular, “What did they say?” “You don’t know Spanish?” I asked Rob, incredulous that a Latino wouldn’t know it. “I never learned it,” he replied. “None of us did. I studied German and French.” “But it’s part of your heritage,” I responded. “How can you study Latin literature and your proud traditions unless you know Spanish?” I asked. Shrugging his shoulders, he responded, “Even if I had learned it, I don’t really have any opportunity to speak it.” “But you could speak it at home with your parents and sibs,” I pointed out. “It’s a little late for that now,” Rob replied. Sighing, I responded, “Qué triste es que no puedas hablar tu propia lengua materna.” Laughing, Rob added, “If you say so.” Steve joined us and agreed, “Tenemos una herencia cultural tan rica. Qué pena no poder estudiarlo en español.” “Okay, my family’s a failure when it comes to our Hispanic heritage,” Rob countered, “but we’re a military family. We moved around a lot when we were younger, and I’m fluent in German and French. “Ich bin mehrsprachig,” he said in German, and then switching to French, “Mais pas en espagnole.” “In diesem Fall entschuldige ich mich,” I replied in German, and then switching to French, “C'est toujours bon de parler plusieurs langues.” “Although your pronunciations leave a lot to be desired,” Rob responded, “Spanish, German and French? I’m impressed.” “The biggest problem is that I learned all three from reading the literature in each language, so I’m entirely self-taught,” I explained. “I’ve never had the opportunity to speak foreign languages before. In high school I took Latin, which really comes in handy, and you can imagine all the opportunities I had to speak foreign languages in southern Indiana,” I added sarcastically. Just then, Henry and Darren walked back in the front door. Coming right up to me, Henry said, “We really do have a lot to talk about, my boyfriend and me, but this is not the time and the place to do it. Suffice to say, we were both afraid of the other finding out we were gay and in love with each other. Talk about clichéd, gay internet fiction! Anyway, thanks for helping us to come out to each other.” Then Henry whistled loudly enough to puncture my eardrums, I think, and shouted, “Everybody, Darren and I have an important announcement to make. We’re boyfriends!” When everyone just went about eating their food as if nothing had been said, Darren responded, “I’m glad that no one said anything negative, but I was expecting at least some kind of reaction.” Camilla, who was seated nearby, responded, “Tell us something we didn’t already know. I think we all just assumed you guys were a couple and had been for the past couple of years. I mean, the way you make eyes at each other, it’s pretty obvious how you two feel about each other.” “It is?” Henry asked of no one in particular. “Then, why didn’t I see it?” “At least, we know it now,” Darren replied, and then he leaned forward, and they kissed each other deeply. After coming up for air, he added, “Let’s go get some food. I’m starved!” “Boys!” Hillary exclaimed. “With boys, food always comes before love.” “And what’s wrong with that?” Carlos, Juan’s thirteen-year-old son asked of no one in particular. Rather than say anything, Hillary, who was also thirteen, pulled Carlos to her and kissed him long and hard. It was evident to anyone who looked that Carlos was hard.” “Maybe you have a point there,” Carlos admitted. “Actually, you’re the one with the point,” Hillary responded. I couldn’t believe she said that and apparently, neither could Carlos as he turned beet red. “You two do realize you’re first cousins, don’t you?” Camilla interjected. Hillary and Carlos turned to look at each other and then exclaimed, “Gross!” In the meantime, Henry and Darren returned with full plates of food and began chowing down, feeding each other as often as they fed themselves. Those two were so lucky to have found each other so early and to have the support of their parents, but then I wondered about Darren’s parents, and so I asked, “Darren, do your parents know about you and Henry?” “Oh, yeah,” he responded. “That’s where we spent the last hour and a half. I came out to my parents and my sister, and they all said they knew and had assumed Henry and I were already a couple.” With tears in his eyes, Henry added, “His parents actually said they loved me as if I was their own flesh and blood. Can you believe it? They accept us totally and hope we’ll always be together.” “I wish we’d come out two years ago,” Darren responded. “Just think of all the fucking we could have done in that time.” “I so didn’t need to hear that,” Hillary interjected. “We did plenty, don’t you think?” Henry countered. “Your mouth should be certified as a lethal weapon.” “I definitely didn’t need to hear that, either,” Hillary added. Since I’d finished my second plate of food and knowing the Rodriguez family would have to head back to KC, I disposed of the remnants of my plate and was planning to find Mamá and Papi when I spotted a huge homemade sheet cake with a large Applazon smile across it and in a rainbow of colors, ‘Welcome to Omaha, JJ’. Wow, it was beautiful, but I was stuffed. Hopefully it would be a while before we cut the cake. Realizing I needed to use the bathroom, I headed downstairs to use the bathroom I shared with the brothers. Afterwards, as I approached the stairs that led back up to the great room, I overheard Papi say, “He’s a good kid with a troubled past.” Stopping in my tracks, I stayed outta sight. “Did he tell you anything about his past?” I heard Fran ask. “I stopped him from telling me anything incriminating,” Papi replied. “If anything ever happens and the police become involved, it’s better for all of us if we don’t know the whole story. From what I do know, his mother died in childbirth and his father was abusive. He spent much more time talking to Esteban, so I asked my son, and he confirmed my suspicion that the abuse was sexual.” “Jesus,” Jerry interrupted. “I’m pretty sure that J.J. killed his father in self-defense,” Papi continued. “Who could blame him?” Fran interjected. “Wouldn’t it have been better for him to have turned himself in?” Jerry asked. “I don’t think so,” Papi countered. “He once let it slip that he grew up in southern Indiana, and the politics there aren’t much different from rural Kentucky, Tennessee or Alabama. He would’ve been tried as an adult and probably given a life sentence, perhaps even without parole. They care more about closing the case than seeking justice in those small rural towns.” “How could they do that to a kid?” Fran asked. “He isn’t really sixteen, is he?” “He said he was from the start, but he now has a birth certificate that says he just turned sixteen in January, which means he would’ve been fifteen when he came to us. I’m pretty sure he was only thirteen back then.” “He once mentioned that his birthday was in February,” Mamá interjected. “I’m sure that’s his real birthday, and I think he probably just turned fourteen.” “He just got his GED,” Papi added, “but he sounds more like a college graduate. The boy’s a genius.” “I’ll have to make sure he takes advantage of Applazon’s tuition benefit while he’s here,” Jerry suggested. “There’s no reason he shouldn’t get a college degree, at the least.” “Yeah, he deserves that,” Papi agreed. “What about his identity?” Jerry asked. “It’s pretty hard to fake an ID now.” “It’s a solid ID,” Papi explained. “Nothing’s foolproof, but he has exceptional computer skills. He needed my help to find a notary to certify his name, so he had to tell me everything. He did an extensive search and found a boy who, along with his parents and sister, was killed in a car accident a few years back. The boy was born in Wyoming and lived in Iowa, and the only living relative is a grandmother with Alzheimer’s in a nursing home in Wyoming. J.J. requested a duplicate birth certificate from the county where the boy was born and then used it to get a duplicate Social Security card and to apply for the GED. He just needs a photo ID now, and he decided to move to Nebraska because they don’t require an existing photo ID to obtain a driver’s license, whereas Kansas does.” “I didn’t realize that,” Fran interjected. “Neither did we,” Mamá concurred. “The local high school has a state-certified course, and there’s still time to sign up for the summer session,” Fran suggested. “He’d have to take it in the evening after work, but he’d get his fifty hours of on-road instruction along with his nighttime driving that way, and the high school’s only a mile and a half away, which is easy walking distance. I’ll have to tell him about it while there’s still time to sign up.” “You realize he’ll still only be fourteen when he gets his license,” Mamá said. “In parts of Nebraska, you can get a learner’s permit at fourteen,” Jerry pointed out, “as I’m pretty sure you can in Kansas. Farm kids can get a permit that lets them drive farm vehicles on public roads as young as thirteen. You have to remember that Bellevue’s a self-contained town of sorts, and even Omaha’s pretty small for a city, especially compared to Kansas City. Highway 370 practically goes right to Applazon, so he won’t be going far, anyway. Besides, there’s not much traffic here.” “What is the population of Omaha?” Papá asked. “Our metro population’s said to be just under a million,” Jerry answered. “I’m pretty sure KC is more than double that.” “Indianapolis and Cincinnati are close to where he grew up and also over two million metro,” Papá added, “same as KC, but you have to remember that J.J. grew up in a very small rural town – maybe even less than ten thousand. We only exposed him to a tiny part of KC. To him, Omaha will seem motherfucking huge.” Oh, my god. I’d never heard Papi swear, ever. I didn’t know he even knew words like that! Did all adults talk differently to other adults than when children were around? That thought was a real eye-opener. I decided I’d been eavesdropping long enough and headed up the stairs, as if I were heading to the kitchen. “Oh, hey,” I said as I passed by the table where they were seated. The fridge was filled with different things to drink, and I selected a bottle of what was labeled as peach iced tea, which sounded really good. It was from a brand I’d never heard of before, called Snapple. There were also at least three brands of beer – Coors, Budweiser and something called Heineken – but I doubted any of that was for the kids. Heading out to the table with the ’rents, I prepared to open my bottle of peach iced tea when Jerry asked, “Have you ever drunk beer, J.J.?” “Are you kidding?” I replied. “The minimum drinking age is 21, even in Nebraska, I’m sure. I’m sure it’s the same in all fifty states.” “The law applies only to the purchase of alcohol or consumption in a public place,” Jerry explained. “The law doesn’t apply to consumption in your own home in the presence of your parents or guardian. We’d rather our children learn to drink responsibly than to go out and party and drive drunk. Now that you’re sixteen, you’re free to drink beer so long as you only drink at home and responsibly.” That was unexpected. Of course, I wasn’t really sixteen, but then I shouldn’t be driving, either. “I’m not sure I should,” I replied. I guess Jerry saw the uncertainty in my eyes, because he added, “You should do what you feel is right for you, J.J. No one is going to have a better or worse opinion of you if you decide to drink a beer. This being a military town, as I’m sure you can imagine, a lot of people drink when they’re off-duty. Nothing is more refreshing at a barbecue or with pizza and wings than an ice-cold beer, but it’s definitely an acquired taste. I’m sure you’re curious like most teenagers and you’re welcome to try it, and if you don’t like it, that’s fine, too.” The thing was, I really did want to try it, but I felt I was deceiving them since I was really only fourteen. However, just moments before, they’d actually acknowledged that I was probably only fourteen, so didn’t that mean they already knew it? As if he were reading my mind, Papi added, “You’re very mature for your age, J.J., so I know that whatever your age or whatever you decide, it’ll be the right decision.” “Okay,” I agreed. “I’ll be right back. Oh, do you have a suggestion of which beer I should try?” “Heineken is one of the best,” Jerry replied, “but it’s a bit rich and probably not the best for your first experience with beer. It’s also better if you don’t acquire a taste for it, because it’s expensive. Rob likes it, and I make him pay for his own, but I know he wouldn’t mind if you want to try some. Bud is a very good overall beer, but Coors Lite is a bit more delicate for a first-time experience.” “Thanks,” I responded, “I’ll give the Coors a try.” Heading back into the kitchen, I exchanged the iced tea for a bottle of Coors Lite. I hoped I wasn’t making a mistake, but with the adults’ encouragement, why not? Returning to the table, I sat down only to realize I needed a bottle opener to open the beer. Shit. Just as I started to get up, Fran handed me the bottle opener that had been on the table all along. Popping the top off the bottle, I put it up to my lips and slowly tilted it back, taking my first-ever sip of beer. At least, I knew better than to chug away. I’d read enough stories in which a teen tried to drink their first beer the way they would a soda and ended up spewing it all over the place. I swallowed my first sip and although there was a bitter aftertaste I hadn’t been expecting, the overall taste wasn’t unpleasant. I took a bit of a larger sip for my second time and found I actually quite liked it, so I took a third swallow that was definitely not just a sip. The aftertaste was completely gone now, and the taste was indeed refreshing. With a smile on my face, I said, “Well, it’s not quite what I was expecting, but it pretty damn good. Is it okay to say damn?” I asked as an afterthought. Did that slip out because of the effects of the alcohol? “This is the adult table and you’re sixteen,” Jerry answered. “You can say whatever shit you damn well please as long as you don’t use the ‘f’ word. Just don’t let the alcohol go to your head,” he added as I took another gulp of my beer. “The alcohol content’s a little over a third of that in wine and most mixed drinks, but you usually drink more of it. Drinking a couple of beers or a mug of it is like drinking a glass of wine.” I really had a good time, talking with the adults as an adult. We got to talking about politics and everyone had an opinion regarding President Trump. Papi liked the man and thought his border policy was a long overdue reaction to free migration across the border. I was surprised that a Latino would feel that way, but then he was born in the U.S. Jerry noted how most of the military liked the way Trump was putting more emphasis on building up the military, although he had misgivings about his cozying up to Russia and his seemingly adversarial relationship with our longtime allies in NATO. Both of the women at the table thought that Trump’s behavior was deplorable and had voted for Hillary. “My dad didn’t even bother to vote in the last election,” I noted, “but he really liked Trump. He even wore a MAGA hat a lot of the time while working. No one ever said anything, and southern Indiana is heavily Republican, but I always wondered if he was antagonizing the roughly one third of our clients who were probably Democrats.” “What do you think, J.J.,” Fran asked. Taking a deep breath, I began, “I think Trump is the greatest threat this nation has ever faced, including the threats from Stalin and Hitler. The thing is, he’s no friend of the working class, even though he portrays himself as a populist, and he’s weakening the very foundations of our democracy. In the short time he’s been in office, he’s managed to turn the public against the free press, which is essential to open debate, and he’s antagonized our allies, dismantled our treaties and imperiled the world’s trust in our leadership. He’s undermined the safeguards meant to limit the power of the presidency and corrupted the Republican Party, leaving the Democrats unable to mount an effective opposition. If he manages to win another term, it will probably be the last free election this country ever has.” “Wow!” Papi exclaimed. “You certainly don’t mince words.” “There’s a hell of a lot more I coulda said,” I replied. “For example, his border policy is completely ineffective, and in reality, he’s managed to add only a few miles of new fence to the border wall with Mexico. Mostly, he’s replaced existing fencing with what’s supposed to be a stronger wall, but a standard DeWalt reciprocating saw from Home Depot cuts right through it. It’s all cosmetic. It’s all for show. And don’t get me started on all his lies.” “In all the time I’ve known you, J.J.,” Papi interjected, “I’ve never heard you express yourself so forcefully. I didn’t even know you had political opinions before.” Shrugging my shoulders, I responded, “Neither did I. I’d never really given it much thought before, but I read a lot, and I’ve read a lot on American and World history. Great powers have come and gone, but none of them has ever lasted more than a few hundred years. It’s really a shame. The whole world seemed to think we might be different. American exceptionalism, they called it. Look at what we accomplished with the Marshall Plan. Our motives weren’t pure, but for the first time in history since the Roman Empire, we rebuilt our enemies instead of vanquishing them. It was a brilliant strategy. Patton was probably right; we shoulda taken out Russia before they had the chance to get the bomb, but then there wouldn’t have been a Marshall Plan at all.” “No, there wouldn’t have been,” Jerry agreed, “but more importantly, the country was worn out by four years of war, and we weren’t prepared for such an undertaking. It was hard enough to sell the public on Korea. Stalin was no pushover, either. Look at what he did with the Warsaw Pact.” “We shoulda pushed back against it,” I countered. “What would you have done, bombed Moscow?” Jerry asked. Thinking about the ramifications of an American first strike, I replied, “It’s easy to realize in hindsight that a tactical nuclear strike in response to Stalin’s aggressive moves on the Warsaw Pact might have averted the Cold War entirely, but a single nuclear strike would have only been the beginning of a protracted war, and the risk of the Soviets developing their own nuclear weapon before we could vanquish them was too great. The cost in Russian lives of a quick end to the conflict with multiple nuclear strikes would’ve been more than most Americans could’ve stomached. Furthermore, there’s no way we could’ve rebuilt Europe and Japan at the same time while fighting a major war with the Soviet Union. We would have won, but the world would’ve been a much more dangerous place, not unlike it is today.” “You have an excellent tactical mind,” Jerry responded. “You really ought to consider a career in the military. In another year or two, you should consider applying to the Air Force Academy.” Did I really want to be a career military officer? The thing was, I’d be risking everything. They’d need my fingerprints and with that, the relationship to my arrest in Hannibal would be exposed, along with my fraudulent identity. Then there was the risk of being tied to my father’s murder. Either way, I didn’t think the Air Force Academy would be interested in admitting a convicted felon. Rather than stating the real reason, however, I replied, “It’s an interesting thought, but I’d rather not serve under the current Commander in Chief.” “You might want to avoid discussing politics around here,” Jerry interjected. “This part of the country tends to be very conservative, and you are in a military community.” “Point well taken,” I replied. Actually, talking politics was completely new to me. Perhaps at a basic level I realized how much I despised President Trump, but I’d never dared to articulate it before. Nebraska was actually one of only two states that splits its electoral votes by congressional district, the other being Maine, and although the second district, which includes Omaha, usually votes Republican, it voted for Barak Obama in 2008, but why did I remember that? Why couldn’t I turn my brain’s tendency to rationalize everything off except when I needed it? Perhaps I really would make a great leader someday, except that my past pretty much had conspired against it ever happening. I had a great time with the adults that afternoon, talking about everything other than politics. Steve joined us after a while, followed by Juan Gonzalez, his wife, Carlotta, and their oldest daughter, Anita. Rob joined us and insisted I should enjoy a Heineken with him. Unfortunately, he was right; Heineken was way better than Coors. Even so, Coors was good enough, much as a Cadillac is great, but a Chevy is good enough. Later, we all enjoyed the sheet cake together. It turned out to be a Kahlua-flavored cake with vanilla frosting. I’d never had Kahlua-flavored anything before. It turned out that Fran made the cake with real Kahlua, which is a coffee liqueur, and she served the cake with homemade coffee-flavored ice cream. I guess Mamá had leaked it to Fran that I love coffee. Fuck, the cake and ice cream were incredible. It was a tearful goodbye when it came time for Mamá , Papi, Steve and Juan Gonzalez’s family to return to Kansas City. At least we would not be so far apart that we couldn’t see each other from time to time. Ultimately for their own safety, I’d have to cut my ties altogether with the Rodriguez family, but not for now.
  5. Bellevue was definitely a military town in which just about everyone was either stationed at or worked on the adjacent Offutt Air Force Base. Even though the town was contiguous with the City of Omaha, it had an entirely different feel than the surrounding communities. The houses were decidedly modest, and even the larger ones were split levels or raised ranches. We entered an area that I later learned was College Heights at the north end of Bellevue, where all the homes were split-levels, and pulled in front of one of the nicer ones. It had a two-car garage in front, with the entry to the right and an upper level in front of and behind the garage. No sooner had we piled out of the car than the whole Gonzalez brood gathered in front of their house, all of them bundled up for the frigid temperature. It was a Saturday, and everyone was home. The parents looked to be around the same age as Papi and Mamá , and the four girls and three boys ranged in age from about ten to eighteen, it appeared. It was a household of teens and tweens, which I imagined made for boisterous times. I would be their eighth kid and yet another teen. I was introduced to all of them, but I couldn’t have remembered all their names if my life depended on it. The father was Geraldo, and he asked me to call him Jerry, and the mother was Francesca, and she asked me to call her Fran. I couldn’t detect even the slightest hint of a Hispanic accent with either of them or with their children. What struck me the most about Jerry was how ordinary he seemed. Never in a million years would I have suspected him of being one of the top military brass in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal. Right away, the oldest son, Roberto, or Rob as he insisted I call him, took me aside. He and I would be spending a lot of time together. “We have six bedrooms and three bathrooms,” he began as he led me inside, “which works out to one bedroom for the ‘rents’ and two bedrooms for four girls upstairs and one bedroom for two boys and one bedroom for me downstairs. There’s also a tiny bedroom upstairs that’s used as a guest room and study. The problem with you sleeping there is that you’d hafta use the girls’ bathroom. The boys share the downstairs bath, and so it would be much better for you to room with me if you don’t mind sharing a queen-size bed with another guy.” “Did anyone tell you that I’m gay?” I asked. “No, but that’s not a problem by any means,” he responded. “I’m not, by the way, and I have a girlfriend. I strongly suspect that Henry’s gay, but he’s only twelve, and time will tell.” We entered through the front door to find ourselves in a very attractive, large, open space. “The house originally had only four bedrooms, all on the upper level, with a family room and half bath behind the garage on the lower level and a formal living room, dining room and kitchen up here. We needed more bedrooms and had no use for a formal living room or dining room, so we converted the downstairs to two bedrooms and a full bath, and we gutted the main level, turning it into a great room with a modern, open kitchen. The original kitchen was an eat-in, which was a waste for us ’cause we all couldn’t fit in there at once, so we moved it to where the dining room used to be and opened it up to the whole floor. “Where the kitchen used to be, we have a large eating area with a table big enough for a dozen or more to eat at once.” I couldn’t help but notice the plastic plates and utensils stacked on the table, as well as bowls of food. Apparently, we were gonna eat soon. Leading me through a large, triple-wide, sliding-glass door, he continued, “We added this deck to give us an outdoor eating area right off the great room.” It was a large deck with stairs that led directly below. On the deck was a comfortable set of patio furniture and a very large table and chair set, all still covered for the winter. The overall effect would have been inviting had the weather been warmer. Rob continued. “As you can see, it overlooks the…” “Pool!” I exclaimed as the small, round, in-ground pool came into view. “You guys have a pool!” “It’s nice to have on a hot summer day,” Rob continued as we turned around and headed back into the house. As we headed up the stairs to the upper level, I asked, “When you say you’re pretty sure Henry’s gay, why do you say that? People talk about confusion, especially at that age, but the only confusion is from gay kids denying their orientation or from straight kids worrying that having the normal, homoerotic impulses all kids have in early adolescence means they’re gay.” “It’s nothing like that,” Rob answered, “nor is he at all effeminate, but he’s had a best friend, Darren, ever since the fourth grade, ever since we moved back to the States,” Rob explained. “They have a lot of sleepovers and spend a lot of time behind a locked bedroom door.” “Henry shares a bedroom with your middle brother, right?” I asked. “What does he think?” “It was Sammy who brought it up with me,” Rob explained. “Whenever Darren sleeps over, Sammy rooms with me, and we’ve talked.” “How does he feel about it?” I asked. “Sammy’s fine with having a gay brother,” Rob related. “He just resents the amount of time he finds himself locked out of his bedroom. Although now that he has a girlfriend and spends a lot of time after school with her, that’s much less of an issue.” Rob led me around the upper floor as he pointed out, “There are four bedrooms up here, including the tiny guest room I mentioned, and the master bedroom. Two of my sisters share each of the larger bedrooms and the bathroom across the hall that’s right next to the stairs. The master bedroom is much larger than the others, and it has a walk-in closet as well as its own bath with a shower.” Heading back downstairs and then down to the lower level, Rob led us into a room with a queen-size bed. “When I turned sixteen, I asked my parents if I could replace my two twin beds with a queen. I told them it would make my room look larger, but I doubt they were fooled,” he added with a grin. “That won’t be a problem for you, will it?” “Of course not,” I replied, “as long as you don’t mind sharing a bed with a gay boy.” “That’s not a problem,” Rob replied, “so long as you stick to your side of the bed,” he added as he gave me a playful shove. I shoved him right back and our back and forth led to an all-out wrestling match on the bed. Rob wasn’t quite as tall as I am, but he was more than four years older and had real muscles, undoubtedly from lifting packages all day. Not that I didn’t have decent muscles thanks to all the prep work associated with painting, but the match was no contest. Rob had me pinned in no time. “Hey, homos,” a young boy greeted us as he entered the room. Rob and I both stood up, and I got a good look at the boy, who appeared to be in his early teens, with dark peach fuzz on his upper lip and a voice that had already changed. Although he was around 5-foot, 4-inches tall, the roundness of his face belied his age. “You shouldn’t go around calling people ‘homo’ even in jest,” I responded. “Sooner or later, you’ll say it to a gay kid you didn’t know was gay, Henry. Someone like me.” “You’re gay?” he asked in surprise. “One hundred percent,” I replied. “Gees, I’m sorry I called you a homo, then,” Henry replied, then asked, “Um, could I maybe talk to you sometime?” “Of course, you can,” I replied. “After all, I’m the one putting you guys out. I hear you have a best friend who sleeps over a lot, but Sammy usually sleeps in here when he does, and I’m interfering with that.” Wrinkling his nose, Henry replied, “There’s still the upstairs guest room, but Sammy hates it ’cause he hasta either use the girls’ bathroom or come all the way down here to use ours. He asked Darren and me to lay off the sleepovers for now.” “I could always sleep in the guest room whenever Darren stays over,” I suggested. “I wouldn’t ask you to do that, J.J.,” Henry replied. “It wouldn’t be right. Maybe once in a while.” “Hey, whenever you want, just ask,” I replied. “Someday I might get a boyfriend and want to play musical beds for a sleepover, too, but I imagine I’ll probably be ready to get my own place by the time that happens.” “Darren’s not my…” Henry started to say, but then stopped himself, turned red and started to get tears in his eyes. Placing his hand under Henry’s chin, Rob lifted his head and looked right into his youngest brother’s eyes. “You know I love you, no matter what, don’t you? You can talk to me about anything.” “Yeah, I know you do and I can, but I think Darren and I need to talk to J.J.,” Henry responded. “Darren and I have been foolin’ around since the fifth grade, but I think Darren sees what we do now as still foolin’ around. He talks about girls all the time,” he added as he rolled his eyes. “I’m pretty sure he’s straight.” “And you’re not?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he answered sincerely. “I’m not at all interested in girls, but other than Darren, I’m not much interested in boys, either. It’s all fucked up.” “Sounds like you’re in love with your best friend,” I interjected, “but maybe he loves you back in a different way.” Henry nodded his head. “That really sucks.” “Big time,” Henry agreed. “I want to make love to him, and he just wants to get off.” “Are you sure that’s what’s goin’ on?” I asked. “Pretty sure, but I don’t know,” Henry answered. “You need to talk to him, Henry,” I suggested “But what if he rejects me and we can no longer be friends?” he asked. “And what would happen if he found out later? Then it could really blow up, and your best friend could become your worst enemy,” I related. “There’s no way around it. If he’s really your friend, he’ll accept you as you are, and the two of you together can decide where to go from there. However, he may take offense at you having used him all this time, even though he was a willing participant. A true friend wouldn’t let any feelings like that get in the way of your friendship, regardless. You’re going to hafta deal with all that someday, and it’ll only get worse with time. “Who knows, though, you may find he feels the same way about you as you do about him?” “Could Darren and I both talk to you later, J.J.?” Henry asked. “Of course, you can,” I replied. “Thanks,” he said with a wan smile. “Henry, if you are gay,” Rob interjected, “you know we’re all okay with it. Mom and Dad, too.” “Yeah, I know,” Henry replied. “I guess I’ve been wrestling with it myself, ’cause I was afraid to push it too far with Darren. But yeah, I think I’m ready to admit it to myself. I’m going to talk to Darren, and I’m going to come out – to you guys, for sure, and maybe even at school if Darren takes it okay.” “What grade are you in?” I asked Henry. “Seventh grade, middle school,” he answered. “I’ll be thirteen in September.” “Cool,” I replied, then asked, “Sammy’s fifteen and a sophomore?” “Fifteen and a freshman,” Rob corrected me. “His birthday was back in November, which is after the cutoff date for the school year.” “I’m gonna go see if Darren’s here yet, and if not, I’ll help Mom with the food,” Henry announced as he left the room.” “Food?” I asked. “Yeah, we’re having a barbecue in your honor,” Rob explained. “It’s too cold to have it outdoors, so we’re having an indoor barbecue. The convection ovens are designed so they can be used to grill things, so we often grill stuff during the colder months. It almost makes you forget there’s snow outside. “Let me show you around a bit more,” Rob suggested. “If I’m keeping you entertained, Mom and Dad won’t ask me to help get things ready,” he added with a grin. Instinctively, I really found myself liking Rob in spite of the age difference. He was definitely someone who could be a good friend. The room had a sliding glass door that led out to a patio and the pool. Behind the patio was a large yard and then what appeared to be undeveloped, forested land. “One of the things I’ll really miss when I move out someday is having a forest right behind my back yard,” Rob added. “It goes on for miles, but here it’s narrow, although it still gives us privacy you just don’t have when there are neighbors right behind you. Of course, there are neighbors on both sides, so you can’t exactly go skinny-dipping in the pool. You can’t see it from here, but we’re right on the Missouri River. There’s maybe fifty feet of forest and then a railroad track before you reach a floodplain and the river. The Platte empties into it just south of town.” “Does the river ever flood?” I asked. “The Platte’s actually the bigger risk, because it’s very shallow and it meanders all over the place,” Rob explained. “Nebraska has more miles of river than any other state.” “I didn’t know that,” I responded. “There’s a berm on this side of the railroad track, and the forest is somewhat uphill,” Rob continued, “so we’re actually a good twenty feet above the hundred-year-flood stage. That said, we’ve had a historic snowfall this year and there’s another major snowstorm predicted in the coming week, possibly a blizzard. After that, it’s expected to warm up rapidly, so we’re anticipating that hundred-year flood within the next couple of weeks. There’s a chance we may need to evacuate, but not likely as we’re still well above the flood stage. There are low-lying areas that won’t be so fortunate, and there’s even a risk that the airbase will flood.” “Damn, first I was expecting a pool party to welcome me to Omaha…” I began. “In March?” Rob interrupted. “That’ll be the day.” “And now I find that my plans for skiing are gonna be wrecked by a blizzard,” I continued. “There’s an old saying about the weather in the Midwest,” Rob interjected. “If you don’t like the weather, just wait and it’ll change. Where else can you experience a four-season climate, all in one day? By the way, did you know the Missouri-Mississippi River system is the longest in the world?” Laughing, I replied, “The headwaters are in Glacier National Park, right on the border with Alberta, but there are tributaries that drain much of the western plains. The Mississippi drains about two-thirds of the continental United States.” “A fellow geek, I see,” Rob noted as we walked along the edge of the forest. “I’m curious, though,” I asked, “if you’re a geek, why are you working at Applazon?” “I could ask you much the same.” He countered, “but given that you’re sixteen and on your own and that you’re gay, I can pretty much guess why. In my case it’s a bit complicated. The short story is that I’m not sure what I want to do with my life, except that I’m sure I don’t want to go into the military. I’m taking a couple of years off to make some money while still living at home, and then I’m gonna spend a year traveling the globe. Unless I find the girl of my dreams and settle down first.” “I take it your current girlfriend isn’t the girl of your dreams, then,” “Don’t get me wrong; we have a lot of fun together and she’s a great lay, but I don’t think either of us is deluded into thinking about marriage and certainly not with each other. She’d be the first one to say we’re best friends with benefits.” “At this stage in our lives, I think that’s what we really need more than anything,” I agreed. “There will come a time for love and marriage, but that time sure as fuck isn’t now.” “Well put, brother,” Rob chimed in as he punched me in the shoulder. Anyway, while I’m working, I’m taking advantage of Applazon’s tuition benefit. They pay 95% of full tuition, regardless of the area of study. I’m taking some online classes this year, and maybe when I get back from my travels I’ll spend a year on campus in Lincoln and get my degree.” “Applazon pays tuition?” I asked in surprise. “Applazon’s benefits are fantastic, from tuition to healthcare to a 401k – not that I’ve started one yet. You should definitely take advantage of the tuition benefit, though. It’s a great way to get a start on college.” “That sounds fantastic,” I responded, “and your trip sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. In a way, I wish I could come with you.” “You could if you wanted to,” Rob suggested. “It’d be nice to have company.” I was surprised by the offer, but I felt I had to get my life in order before I could even begin to consider such a thing, so I replied, “You probably ought to get to know me first before making that kind of offer, but I think I need to get my life back together first.” “I think we’d probably enjoy each other’s company, but yeah, you have a lot of fuckin’ shit to deal with, so I completely understand,” Rob replied. “So tomorrow, while just about everyone else is at church, you and I will sit down and work on your résumé. We hafta submit it online, and it’ll go to Corporate, where it’ll percolate for a few decades, not going anywhere. However, our HR folks will be able to pull it right up when we pay them a visit on Monday.” “You don’t go to church?” I asked as the smell of grilling meat began to permeate the house. “I go whenever I feel like it,” he replied. “I’m neither here nor there when it comes to religion, unlike Henry. Henry’s been a devout atheist since he was ten, so he doesn’t go, either. I think it’s so he can spend the time with Darren. Sammy goes, and the girls all go.” “A devout atheist,” I responded. “That sounds like a contradiction in terms.” “Just think about it,” Rob answered. “An atheist has absolute faith that everything can be explained by science, but there are things science can’t explain. Science can only address what you can test, and there are things that can never be tested. The bottom line, I think, is that to be an atheist, you hafta believe we’re here by chance, and I don’t believe that. There hasta be a reason for our existence that’s way beyond our understanding.” “But if there’s a reason,” I countered, “there must be an intelligence behind it, but then who or what created the intelligence?” “In other words, who created God?” Rob asked, and I nodded my head. “Henry’s really gonna love you. That’s just the sort of thing he’d come up with if he could.” We headed back upstairs to the great room to find that the kitchen island was set with bowls of food and stacks of plates, silverware and the like. Already the kids were lining up for food. Papi, Mamá and Steve were there, too, which meant they were staying for the barbecue. I hated to admit that I’d almost forgotten about them, but it was great we’d have more time together. It was strange after eating Oaxacan Mexican food for so long to be having a traditional American-style barbecue. On the island were serving bowls of baked beans, coleslaw, potato salad, pasta salad and a plate of corn on the cob. It was clear that everything was homemade, as the baked beans had pieces of bacon mixed in, the potato salad contained green grapes, red onion and broccoli and the pasta salad was filled with walnuts, apples and raisins. The corn on the cob was white corn, too. On the grill, Jerry had hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken breasts, and for garnishments he had lettuce, tomato, onion, grilled onions and peppers, chili and grated cheese. Squeeze bottles contained ketchup, yellow and spicy brown mustard, relish and mayonnaise. Everything looked wonderful. It was hard to choose. I decided to start with a grilled chicken sandwich with onions and peppers and spicy brown mustard, corn on the cob, coleslaw and potato salad. Everything tasted as good as it looked. I started to sit down at the large, great-room table, but Henry intercepted me and asked If I’d sit with him by the TV. With him was a boy who looked to be about the same age, and so I went with them and sat in a swivel chair while they sat across from me in a love seat. As we sat down, I surreptitiously took a close look at Darren. He was obviously on the cusp of his teens but was much less far along in his development than Henry, although his face appeared to be somewhat older. He had no discernible facial hair, minimal hair on his bare arms and legs. He had an unruly mop of curly, dirty-blond hair on his head with vivid blue eyes that made him utterly cute and, frankly, sexy. “I take it you’re Darren, Henry’s best friend,” I began. “My reputation precedes me,” Darren replied in a high-pitched voice and with an endearing smile that could melt anyone’s heart. No wonder Henry was in love with him. “Henry, did you have a chance to discuss any of the things we talked about?” I asked. When he merely shook his head, I realized a difficult conversation might lie ahead. Then again, I had a perfectly valid reason to talk to Darren, so perhaps we could approach it obliquely. “Well, Darren, I’m sure Henry mentioned I’m going to be staying here for the next few months, until I get my feet on the ground and can afford to get my own place,” I began. “He probably didn’t mention why I’m here because he didn’t know it himself until a little while ago. I’m what they call a throw-away kid. My dad threw me out of the house when he discovered I’m gay.” There was an audible gasp from Darren and what I thought was a look of concern. “Most parents are better than that these days and have no problem with having a gay kid. I’ve been living with Arturo Rodriguez and his son and wife for the past several months in Kansas City, working for his painting and construction firm. He’s right over there and his son, Steve, is talking to Rob. “Anyway, Steve came out a couple years ago and his parents have been fine with it. He’s still accepted by the members of the Catholic Church they attend, and everyone knows about him and they’re fine with him.” “I can’t believe your dad threw you out like that,” Darren responded in a very soft voice. “You hear stories and I’ve read some things on the internet, but I thought that was mostly just fiction.” “You’ve read gay fiction on the internet?” Henry asked. That wasn’t the subtlest approach to asking your best friend if he’s gay, which was quickly borne out by Darren’s reaction. Darren turned bright red and started breathing very rapidly and even so, appeared to be having trouble breathing. The boy was in a full-blown panic attack, but before I could do anything, Darren ran from the table and headed right out the front door, followed a moment later by Henry. “Well, fuck me,” I responded to no one in particular.
  6. The summer passed far too quickly, and before long, Steve was back in school, as I should’ve been. I’d managed to save more than five thousand dollars over the course of the summer, but that was hardly enough to live on. Papi offered to keep me on as he had more than enough work to keep us busy through at least the end of the year. Actually, he begged me to stay on, as he really needed my help and could only rely on Steve’s help on the weekends, when there was also church. That my situation was still precarious was driven home one fall day in which we were stopped by a police officer who wanted to know why I wasn’t in school. When I told him I was sixteen, he insisted on seeing proof of my age, which of course I didn’t have. It was only because Papi vouched for me that the officer let me go, but it was a close call. At least we were in Kansas then, but I couldn’t take that for granted given that some of our jobs were across the river. I had to get away from here, but where could I go with only six thousand dollars in a bank account under a name that wasn’t really mine? My situation with the Rodriguez family had occurred by pure luck. Had it not been for them, I might well have ended up as one of thousands of homeless youths living on the streets, possibly addicted to drugs and working as a prostitute just to survive. That would’ve been a dead end, and it would’ve been better to have just let my father kill me. Thanks to the Rodriguez family, I had a roof over my head, delicious food in my belly and people who cared about me, but the situation was precarious as was driven home by the close call with a police officer. Deep down, I knew I could run away from Indiana, but Indiana would always be inside of me. I had nightmares every now and then in which I relived the moment I killed my father. The rational side of my brain acknowledged the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and that counseling would probably be a good idea, but there was no way I could talk about it with anyone. Running was the only option. I had to go further away from the state of Missouri as well as Indiana, but I needed money to survive on until I could establish myself someplace else. Simply going wherever the road took me clearly wasn’t enough. I needed a plan with contingencies to keep me from getting picked up by the police for sleeping in a public park. I needed to keep a destination in mind and a plan for what to do when I got there. More than that, I needed an identity that wouldn’t result in my being taken into custody or arrested and sent back home. I needed proof of my identity and proof that I was at least sixteen and legally able to live on my own. The trouble was, I sure as fuck didn’t look sixteen. My voice had yet to change, and I had almost no body hair beside what was on my head. It was pretty embarrassing for a thirteen-year-old boy, let alone a sixteen-year-old. At least, I’d known sixteen-year-olds who were no more developed than I was when I was in high school. I could get away with it for now, but there was no way I could get away with passing for seventeen if I hadn’t started puberty by then. The most useful proof of ID would be a driver’s license, but even a good fake was easily spotted these days. The use of holograms and tamper-proof designs made it difficult for even the best forger to make a fake one or alter an existing one. Worse, the police had the ability to verify a driver’s license instantly online. They could bring up a picture, proving that an altered license wasn’t mine. The obvious solution was to apply for a legitimate driver’s license, but that would require proof of my identity, proof that I was sixteen, and there was that little thing about needing to pass a driving test. I could always apply instead for a government-issued photo-ID, but if I was sixteen, why wouldn’t I have a driver’s license? What I needed first and foremost was a birth certificate. Most potential employers these days who would hire a sixteen-year-old would require a birth certificate before even considering an application. Some of them might accept a passport or a driver’s license, but I couldn’t get either of those without a birth certificate in the first place. Also, I’d need to apply for a Social Security number, and that again would require a birth certificate. Somehow, I was gonna need to get hold of a legitimate birth certificate – one that showed I was over sixteen. I wasn’t capable of forgery nor did I have the finances to obtain a realistic forgery of a birth certificate. Besides which, I couldn’t take a chance that someone wouldn’t actually attempt to verify a forged birth certificate. That alone would be enough to send me to prison for years. The best overall option was to steal a birth certificate that couldn’t be traced back to the original owner. Proving I was someone I was not would have been hard enough, but without any other supporting identification, such as school records and the like, it was damn near impossible. I knew that in cities, they often used DNA testing to establish a match, so I couldn’t go anywhere that required that. Hell, I couldn’t go anyplace where they checked one’s footprints against those on file from birth. Knowing how lax things had been in the small town where I grew up, though, I reasoned that I might be able to get a birth certificate from a small town based only on my word and my blood type. I knew I was O-positive, the most common blood type, so at least that meant the odds were close to even. Since I hoped to get a copy of an existing birth certificate and didn’t want to take a chance on being discovered by the real person to whom the identity belonged, I reasoned I needed to get the copy of the birth certificate of a dead kid, preferably an orphan without any relatives that could be tracked down. I had access to the Rodriguez family computer and although they were of very modest means, they did have broadband through their cable provider. I tried doing a simple Google search, hoping to find obituaries in small-town newspapers, but Google just wasn’t set up for that kind of thing. My search results were voluminous and contained everything but what I was looking for, or so it seemed. I’d learned the basics of JavaScript in high school as part of a web-site design course, but then I’d gone on to teach myself advanced skills and use of the Java programming language. I therefore set about writing an extensive script that could make use of Google’s search engine but using much more specific search criteria than was possible from within Google’s website. Over the course of a couple of months, I tweaked the script to get better and better search results and to cull and combine the results from multiple searches. Even so, there were thousands upon thousands of possible cases. I focused the search on kids who’d died within the last five years, who lived in a small town within a thousand miles from Kansas City, but not closer than a hundred miles away. I further limited the results to kids who would’ve been between fifteen and seventeen today. That actually proved tricky because of the way obituaries are worded, and so I ended up using different criteria depending on the year the kid died. I limited the search to kids with obituaries that didn’t list any surviving relatives. Of course, that didn’t guarantee that the kid was an orphan, let alone that there weren’t any relatives, but it was a start. Unfortunately, most obituaries don’t consistently include information on where someone was born, so I had to run a separate search of birth records on the tens of thousands of kids who otherwise met my criteria. I wanted to find a kid who was born hundreds of miles away from where they died so as to minimize the risk of being discovered. I started making phone calls to county records departments to see if they even had the desired birth certificate. At first, I kept running into situations where I needed to provide information I simply didn’t have, and so I had to pass on those. The first time I found what appeared to be a viable prospect, when they mentioned the need to confirm my blood type, I responded, “That’s O-positive, right?” “No, we have B-positive,” the clerk responded. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Absolutely,” she replied. “We’ve never had a case where it was recorded wrong. You’d need to provide additional proof before we could give you a copy.” Well, that was that. Eventually, I did find a kid, Josiah Jeffreys, who would have been sixteen in January, which made him just a little over two years older than me. He’d been born in a small town in Wyoming but lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when he died four years ago. He, his sister and his parents were all killed in an accident in which they were broadsided by a semitrailer truck while on the way to church. I looked up the story in the local newspaper and noted that the truck driver had fallen asleep at the wheel and ran a red light. He’d been charged with vehicular homicide but killed himself before he could be brought to trial. As far as I was concerned, the fewer loose ends, the better. Neither the article nor the obituary mentioned any family or survivors, but just to be sure, I did a search under the parents’ names and found a grandmother who had Alzheimer’s and lived in a nursing home in Laramie. Apparently, there were no other living relatives. That left two critical issues that needed to be checked, and I’d bombed out on them before. First of all was the blood type, so I called the department of records in the town where he was born. I asked what was needed to obtain a duplicate birth certificate and determined it was only a notarized affidavit and payment of a fee. In passing, I confirmed that the blood type was O-positive, and it was! So far so good. The one final thing I needed was to be sure his Social Security number was still active, as it would do me little good to have a valid birth certificate if the kid had a Social Security number but one that had been retired. It took some doing to find this out, but as is often the case, especially when there are no family members to follow up on it, no one had thought to notify the Social Security Administration that he’d passed away. It looked like I had my new identity. Now, I needed a notary to certify that I was Josiah Joshua Jeffreys. Why the fuck would any parents name their kid that? I suppose he went by the nickname J.J., so I’d better get used to it. The trouble was that no notary was gonna certify my signature without some kind of legitimate ID to begin with. However, Papi probably would know someone who would do it if he vouched for me. That was a lot to ask of the man who’d been like a dad to me for the past several months. I’d already told him about what had happened to me in Missouri – I felt I had to when we were stopped by the police officer. Could I trust him with the knowledge of what had happened in Indiana? Would it destroy the relationship I had with him? Might he even turn me in? I’d already told Greg and Larry back in Springfield and hinted at it to Steve. The more people who knew, the more risk I’d be taking. Still, I felt I had no choice. He’d be taking quite a risk, and he needed to know why. If anything happened to me in the future and they traced my birth certificate back to where it had been issued, they could then track my copy to the paperwork submitted to get it, and they could track that to the notary who certified it. If they tracked down the notary, they could potentially report Papi as the one who’d vouched for my identity, and then both he and the notary would be in major trouble. The risk would become less and less with time, but it would always be there. And so it was on a November day that I made a request of the family that had been supporting me. As we were finishing supper, I asked, “I need to talk to all of you. Could we maybe meet in the living room?” “It sounds pretty serious,” Papi responded. “It is… I’ve decided I need to tell you about my past, because I will need your help to make a life for myself in the future,” I explained, “but there’s a risk it could be traced back to you and you could go to prison for helping me, for a number of reasons.” “Simon, you know I’d never push you,” Papi responded. “You don’t have to tell us anything. We’ll help you in any way we can.” “But I need you to lie for me, in order for me to get a legitimate birth certificate,” I went on. “I need a legitimate identity to be able to get a job, to get a driver’s license or even to get my GED. I can’t ask you to lie on my behalf unless you know why. If it’s too much to ask of you, just say so and I’ll not ask again.” “No matter what happened, I know you’re not a bad person, Simon,” Papi countered. “If you did something wrong, you did it because you had to. You wouldn’t have done it unless you were in imminent danger.” “Even murder?” I asked. “Simon, I know you,” he replied. “You never murdered anyone in your life. If you killed someone, it was in self-defense.” Nodding my head, I continued, “But helping me forge an identity could put you and your family at risk. I wouldn’t ask you this unless I could think of another way. Let’s go sit in the living room and I’ll explain.” “Don’t you think it would be better if I don’t know of your past, Simon?” Papi asked. “I think the lawyers call it negación plausible, which I think translates as plausible deniability. If asked, I will swear on a thousand bibles that I knew you for years. Let them try to say otherwise.” I couldn’t help myself. I cried like a baby as I hugged Papi for all he was worth. “I need a notary who’s willing to certify my signature under my new name, but I need an adult who’s willing to vouch for me. Without any other documentation of my own, I won’t be able to find a notary who’ll do that unless it’s one who’s willing to do it for a bribe, and I don’t want that sort of thing hanging over my head the rest of my life. Not that I have anything close to the kind of money to offer a bribe.” Sighing, Papi responded, “I don’t know, Simon. It’s not like being in Witness Protection, where you’d have the full power of the government behind you. There’s a lot that could go wrong. Tell me how you came by this new identity and everything you know about it.” So I did. Papi was surprised at the trouble I’d undergone to find a legitimate identity and was impressed with my skills on the computer. “It’s not perfect, but it’s probably the best you could do under the circumstances. It’s as foolproof as you could make it, which is good enough for me. Besides which, I could never turn my back on you. “You need to go to college, Simon. It would be a crime for you to spend your life doing what I do. Steve isn’t interested in college, but you have a future. Promise me you will use your new identity to get an education and make something of yourself.” “It could be a while before I can even think of getting an education,” I cautioned. “Maybe someday, but I have to survive first. I can’t predict when opportunities might arise.” “Try, Simon,” Papi reiterated. “You must try. All I can ask is that you give it your best.” Three days later, Papi went with me to a notary in the community that he knew and who trusted him at his word. She didn’t even charge a fee. I walked out of there with a signed, notarized affidavit that I was Josiah Joshua Jeffreys, born on January 6, 2003 in Elk Mountain, Wyoming. In place of my current address, I listed ‘No Fixed Address’, c/o Arturo Rodriguez and sons, Kansas City, Kansas. We then went to the nearest post office and sent the form with a money order for the fee and for extra copies to the county recorder in Wyoming. It took three weeks for the birth certificates to arrive by mail, by which time a Christmas tree adorned a corner of the living room. One thing I hadn’t even thought to consider when searching for a new identity was race. I suppose I could have claimed to be an African American passing as white, had the certificate listed my race as Negro, but a DNA test would have proven otherwise. What a relief it was when the birth certificate listed my race as Caucasian. There were three additional pieces of documentation I thought I should have before leaving Kansas and looking for work. Those were a Social Security card, a driver’s license and a GED certificate. The need for a Social Security card was obvious, and a driver’s license was necessary as I’d need a government-issued photo ID. Since I’d soon be passing for sixteen, I figured I might as well get a driver’s license, as it would remove any question of my age. Finally, a GED would make me a high school graduate and capable of getting jobs for which I otherwise wouldn’t qualify. Eventually I might even go to college. I knew I was perfectly capable of passing the exam. Getting a Social Security card required a trip to the local office, where I needed to present my birth certificate and evidence of my current address. That was a bit tricky as I’d used Papi’s business address in certifying the birth certificate, and even though that address wasn’t on the certificate itself, it was best to stick to the same address for Social Security. However, Papi was paying me under the table, so we couldn’t tell Social Security that it was the address of my employer. What we came up with was that I was a friend of his son and that I’d been thrown out of my house for being gay, so I was staying with the Rodriguez family. They asked Papi if he had guardianship of me, and he indicated that he intended to apply but pointed out that I’d be sixteen in less than a month and could live on my own, anyway. Because I was only requesting a new card and already had an established SSN and had the birth certificate to prove my identity, the request for a new card and change of address were processed on the spot. That evening I was able to set up a login to my Social Security account and print out a copy of my Social Security Card. I received the original card just after New Year’s. In the meantime, I looked into the requirements to get a driver’s license in Kansas. Ironically, the minimum age for a learner’s permit was fourteen, and I could get a license after having a learner’s permit for a year, so I could even get that at fifteen. It sure wasn’t that way in Indiana, where you couldn’t get a learner’s permit until you were fifteen and couldn’t get a license until you were sixteen-and-a-half. In Kansas, I’d be eligible to get a permit in February with my actual age. Unbelievable. However, the requirements to get a permit and then a license were absurd. I had to have a photo ID; how the fuck was I supposed to get that? I couldn’t even get a passport without a photo ID. Wasn’t that what a driver’s license was for? I also needed to have a parent or guardian go with me to the DMV and sign for me. If it was legal for me to live on my own at sixteen, why did I still need a parent or guardian’s signature? I went online and looked up the requirements for a learner’s permit and driver’s license in the states nearby. Iowa wasn’t a possibility, because the real J.J. Jeffrey’s had lived and died there. Likewise for Wyoming, since he was born there and still had a grandmother living there. There were multiple states where I could have gone, but the closest was Nebraska. Omaha was only three hours away by car or bus, or a day away by bicycle. To get a learner’s permit and then a license in Nebraska, I only needed to submit a birth certificate, my Social Security card and two proofs of residence, such as a copy of a lease agreement, a bill or an employment form. Once I completed an approved driver’s education course, I could get a provisional driver’s license in six months. I wouldn’t even have to take an exam. It looked like I’d be moving to Nebraska – most likely Omaha, cause that’s where the jobs were. I looked up the requirements to get my GED and found that the minimum age was eighteen; however, I could take the exam at sixteen if I got a waiver from the local school district. Papi arranged for that through the local high school that Steve attended, so I couldn’t leave Kansas City until I got my GED. I could take the test online with a proctor observing me via a webcam, but there was a sixty-day waiting period and a qualifying test that had to be completed first. Instead, I paid the fees and signed up to take the test at a local testing center, just after my new birthday, in January. I didn’t bother with any exam prep courses or practice exams. I knew I’d pass on the first attempt, even without studying for it. Christmas was a festive affair in the Rodriguez household, and the whole house smelled of Mamá ’s cooking for days in advance of the holiday. Because much of the holiday was spent at Church, we had a huge family feast on Christmas Eve, and then we gave each other presents. Because I had some money now, I was able to buy presents for the first time in my life. I got Papi a fancy bottle of the cologne I knew he wore for special occasions, and I got Mamá a bottle of nice perfume. Steve and I shared a bedroom and sometimes a bed together, and although we’d agreed not to do anything more than oral, we did stuff together just about every day. I didn’t love Steve the way I’d loved Greg, but he’d become my best friend and a brother to me, and so I felt he really deserved something special. The trouble was, I couldn’t afford much. He was a huge KC Royals fan and I’d have loved to have gotten him season tickets, but even the cost of a half-season was prohibitive. There was a holiday promotion of ten tickets for a hundred dollars, and that was something I could afford. Papi and Mamá loved their presents, but the reaction from Steve was unexpected to say the least. Much as he loved the Royals, he rarely took the time to attend a game, especially since he spent the summer working. He was so excited by the tickets that he kissed me on the lips. He obviously liked his gift. The gift he got me was a hundred-dollar gift certificate to Target. Perhaps I could finally get some clothes that fit me, particularly since I was getting to be too tall for his brother’s old clothes. When Steve opened his present from his parents, he was rendered speechless. It was a brand-new smartphone, his first ever, and even though it was the cheapest model, it was on the company plan that included unlimited talk, text and data. The total cost for two years was well over a thousand dollars, which was an extraordinary Christmas gift. Steve hugged his dad so tightly, I feared he’d squeeze the life out of him. Then it was time for my present from Mamá and Papi, and I couldn’t help but notice that the size and wrapping paper were the same as on Steve’s phone. My vision blurred as I opened the package to reveal the very same model of smartphone inside. As with Steve’s it was activated on the same company plan. For the second time in the last couple of months, I cried like a baby as I hugged the people who meant so much to me. We went to midnight mass and then to Church services the next day. It was a small Catholic church that catered to the local Latino community, and services were entirely in Spanish. Papi didn’t like my accent, but it couldn’t be helped. I was mostly self-taught, from reading books rather than from classroom instruction or conversation. At least, I was able to understand the services and to participate. On Christmas Day, everyone brought food to the church, and there was a huge feast in the basement of the church. I’d had a fancy meal with Greg and Larry back in Springfield, but the food served at the Christmas potluck was some of the best I’d ever eaten. I was stuffed by the time we went home that evening. It was interesting to compare Larry and Greg’s brand of religion with that of the Rodriguez family. As someone who was raised without religion at all, I had an outsider’s viewpoint and could look at both objectively. Both families were deeply religious, yet they couldn’t be more different in how they practiced their religion or in how they treated others. Larry found comfort in his religion after his wife went to prison, but his religion was so suffocating that it drove Greg away. There was no room for doubt or other viewpoints, and it wasn’t until he nearly lost Greg that Larry realized he had to change or lose his son forever. Even so, although Larry went to a Unitarian Church for his son’s sake, he was unable to consider that religion had become a negative force in his life. Mamá and Papi also had a gay son and believed in a religion that didn’t accept homosexuality, yet they didn’t let religion define them. Moreover, their church accepted Steve as he was and didn’t judge him, even though it didn’t condone his lifestyle. Their church was central to their lives, but it wasn’t suffocating, and it allowed them to see other people who had other faiths as their equals rather than as souls in need of salvation. Not that I was about to become Catholic, but I felt welcome in their church, even as a nonbeliever. Religion was a positive force in their lives. That point was driven home when Papi introduced me to a friend of his, Senor Juan Gonzalez, whose brother, Geraldo, was a major general in the U.S. Air Force and one of the deputy directors in the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, just south of Omaha. Geraldo eschewed on-base housing on Generals’ Row and lived with his wife, three sons and four daughters in a large house in Bellevue, right near the base. Juan had already contacted his brother on Papi’s behalf, and his brother had agreed to let me live with his family at no cost, until I was on my feet. That would have been phenomenal by itself, but the oldest son, who worked at the nearby Applazon Delivery Station, was willing to help me get a job there. Applazon paid fifteen dollars an hour, plus benefits, which was way better than the minimum wage in Nebraska, which was only nine dollars an hour. The generosity of Papi, his family and his friends seemed to know no bounds. I wondered how this proposal would interfere with my future, but more so, help in the distancing from my past. Shortly after ringing in the new year, we celebrated my new birthday. I’d officially turned sixteen. Just after that I took the GED exam and was pretty certain I passed it. Actually, I was pretty certain I aced it, which was confirmed when I got the results and my certificate in the mail. I continued to work for Papi and built up my savings. I had over $15,000, but I had no illusions about how far that would go in the absence of an income. With a birth certificate, a valid SSN and Papi’s assistance, I was able to set up a savings account in my own name, as well as my first-ever checking account. For the time being, they could be traced back to Papi, but once I moved to Omaha, got a job, got my own place and became an adult, at least on paper I’d be able to sever my relationships with the Rodriguez family, further protecting them in the event of my discovery in the future. In the end, the only remaining link would be the application for a replacement birth certificate, found only in a small town in Wyoming, and my temporary address while in Kansas City, which would hopefully be lost to time. In February I turned fourteen for real and, in the process, passed the one-year anniversary of the incident with my father and my flight from Indiana. I shared the date of my real birthday with no one. That was from another lifetime, one that no longer existed. My subconscious wouldn’t let me forget it, though, as I had yet another nightmare. It was a time of great anxiety for another reason, however, as my GED certificate was the last thing holding me to Kansas City. I knew I needed to leave for the sake not only of my own safety but the Rodriguez’s, but the love I felt for them was telling me I should stay. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but it was tax-free and included room and board. However, then I remembered the incident with the police officer some time back and realized that the next time, we might not be so lucky. I wasn’t the only one who’d be affected by my arrest. I had to think of that, so with trepidation I announced my intent to move to Omaha to accept the Gonzalez’s offer at the beginning of March. At first, I thought I’d buy a bicycle before I left, as I’d need a means of transportation, and ride it up to Nebraska with all my worldly possessions on my back. Papi quickly nixed that idea, insisting that we would all drive up there together. How could he let me leave on a bicycle when they had a car? Besides, it was the coldest March on record, with temperatures in the single digits. I’d get frostbite if I rode up there on a bicycle. The night before my departure, I made love to Steve as I’d only done before with Greg. It might have been a stupid thing to do, but I considered it a going away gift to him. In all my time with the Rodriguez family, we’d never done anything more than oral. This time I rode him until we were both depleted. Steve was definitely more of a top, but I doubt he ever considered that a bottom could be so dominant. We ended up sleeping the rest of the night together in his narrow bed. Morning came way to soon. After a sumptuous breakfast that included all of my favorite Oaxacan dishes, we packed up my meager possessions into a suitcase they gave me because they no longer needed it – or so they told me. We packed up Mamá ’s car and drove west on Interstate 70, north on 435, across the Missouri River and then north on Interstate 29. Even though Omaha isn’t that much north of Kansas City in latitude, the difference in climate was striking. Except for a patch of snow here and there in the shadow of trees, the snow was gone in Kansas City. However, as we drove further and further north, we saw increasing amounts of snow along the way. By the time we reached State Highway 370 and the turnoff to cross back over the Missouri River and into Nebraska, the ground was covered with several inches of snow. What a contrast!
  7. “Don’t be so glum, Simon,” Steve admonished me. We were crammed together in the bench seat of Papi’s pickup truck, which wasn’t easy given that it had a floor-mounted stick shift. As the skinnier of the two, I was in the middle, and, dressed in only painter’s overalls and flipflops, my bare shoulders rubbed against both Papi’s muscular arm and Steve’s bare torso. Steve had his left arm around my shoulders, which probably wasn’t lost on Papi. Although doing so made it easier for Steve’s broad shoulders to fit in the cramped space, he knew his son was gay and probably suspected we fancied each other. I imagined it must have been tough, as a Catholic and a Latino, accepting a gay son. As far as I was concerned, family was far more important than religion. “I really hoped we could order a gazebo and get to work fixing their porch,” I replied. “What we proposed is cheap for a new porch, and the cedar posts will last as long as the house as will the galvanized steel roof. They’ll never have to replace it, yet it looks similar to the design they have now.” “They’re already paying us as much money to paint the whole house,” Papi pointed out. “That’s already significantly less than what we usually charge for such an extensive job, but it’s all they can afford. Their only income is Social Security, and they have no savings. They just don’t have the money to spend on the porch.” “An aluminum and cloth gazebo would be a lot cheaper,” Steve pointed out. “And it would look cheap,” Papi countered. “The owners are proud people, and they care about how their house looks. Yes, I know it looks like crap with a porch that’s practically falling down, but replacing it with something cheap would point out how little they have.” In a way, I could understand where Papi was coming from. How a house appears can make a huge difference in how it’s perceived. When I was growing up, my dad and I were squatters in an abandoned house, I guess. However, it would’ve looked suspicious if we fixed it up. When it came to maintenance, however, Dad didn’t cut corners. For example, we had a tin roof, which was both expensive and noisy, but it would last forever and yet not rouse suspicions. Most people choose fiberglass shingles for their positive aesthetics even though they had to be replaced every twenty years. We chose tin for its negative aesthetics because Dad wanted to maintain our shack’s dilapidated appearance. He didn’t outright put it in those terms; he said that shingles would have looked out of place on our house, even though they’d have cost less. Perceptions matter! “Tonight, I’ll call around,” Papi continued. “Maybe I can find someone with excess inventory they’d be willing to part with.” “We can only hope,” Steve agreed. Avenida Cesar Chavez became Kansas Avenue, once we passed the state line, but we were already high over the east bank of the Kansas River by then. We continued across the river but remained on an elevated roadway for at least another mile before the roadway dropped down into an industrial area. Had I come this way on foot as I’d intended, it wouldn’t have been the best place for a young boy to be walking alone. It was quite a while before we came to any houses, and then we were in an area of modest houses mixed in with businesses. “It’s not much to look at, but it’s safe here,” Steve stated abruptly. “On this side of the railroad tracks and the Interstate, it’s mostly Latino. On the other side, almost all black. Kansas City’s pretty strongly segregated. It always has been, and I doubt it’ll change anytime soon.” What could I say to that? Where I grew up, there were hardly any African Americans at all. There used to be more, from what I heard, back when the mental hospital was still open. The other thing that surprised me was how rural the area looked. I’d had some experience with urban and suburban spots now, but this didn’t look at all like those. If anything, this looked much more like the small-town, rural America I grew up in, except that it seemed to go on forever. We pulled up in front of a modest, one-story house and pulled into a gravel driveway on the side of it. The house was small but well-kept, although the same couldn’t be said of the other houses on the block. We got out of the truck and walked up a steep set of steps and entered directly into the kitchen, where a very pleasant-looking woman with greying hair was busy taking something that smelled wonderful out of the oven. “Mami, este es Simon,” Papi began, “ el joven que se va a quedar con nosotros por un tiempo.” I guess he’d called or texted her about me. Looking right at me, or rather looking up at me, since she was several inches shorter than I was, she said, “Goodness, Simon, Arturo didn’t say what a handsome young man you are, but so skinny! I’m gonna have to work on fattening you up.” “It’s nice to meet you,” I said as I shook her hand. “Is it okay for me to call you Mamá ?” “You better!” she replied. There was something about her that instantly made me feel at home. Perhaps it was the fact that I’d grown up without a mother in the house or that she had such an endearing smile, but she seemed like a very kind woman. Still, there was something about the edge in her voice that told me she could be a terror when she wanted to be. “Now you men need to wash up,” she added. “I can’t have you smelling like rutting pigs at the dinner table. Supper will be ready in twenty minutes.” I hadn’t noticed it, but I guess we didn’t smell all that pleasant. Even I’d worked up a sweat, which was rare for me. Steve showed me the guest room, which was the smallest of three bedrooms and was little more than a closet with a narrow bed, a chest of drawers and a small window high up on the wall over the chest. He also showed me his room, which he said he used to share with his brother. It had two twin beds, a desk, a dresser and a chest of drawers, as well as a larger window. Having spent so much time incarcerated lately, the small room seemed way more claustrophobic than was comfortable to me, so I asked, “I know it would be strange since you used to share your room with your brother, but would you mind if I slept in your room instead of the back bedroom?” “I think I would like that very much,” he replied. “We only have one bathroom, so your shower has to be quick.” At that moment, Papi came out of the bathroom, dressed only in a bathrobe. “C’mon,” Steve said as he pulled me into the bathroom. “There’s room enough to get ready at the same time.” “You just want to have your way with me in the shower,” I responded. “I didn’t mean we’d shower at the same time,” he explained. “You can brush your teeth while I’m in the shower and vice versa.” He got me a new toothbrush and showed me where the toothpaste was, and then he pulled off his shorts and hung them on a hook. He shucked his boxers and dropped them into a hamper. He was average in size, I suppose, with only a sparse patch of hair, but what caught my attention was that he wasn’t circumcised. I couldn’t help but stare as I’d never seen an uncircumcised dick before. “What, you’ve never seen a boy’s cock before?” “Not one that wasn’t circumcised,” I replied. “Can I touch it?” I asked. “Maybe later tonight,” he answered, “but there’s no time now,” he added as he closed the shower curtain and turned on the water. It was a good thing, too, as I was hard as a rock. I turned toward the sink and brushed my teeth while Steve took his shower. No sooner had I rinsed out my mouth than the water in the shower shut off and Steve opened the curtain. He grabbed a towel off an adjacent towel bar and started drying himself. His body was magnificent. Stepping out of the tub, he said, “You can use this towel,” as he pointed to one on the other towel bar, and then he added, I think things are self-explanatory. You can use any of the shampoos in the rack under the showerhead.” Pulling off the overalls, I hung them on a hook, then dropped my boxer briefs and put them into the hamper. Getting into the tub, I pulled the shower curtain closed and turned on the water, adjusting the temperature. I lathered up my head with shampoo, then used a bar of soap to wash off the sweat from my body. I rinsed the shampoo out of my hair, shut off the water, opened the curtain and grabbed the towel. Steve was dressed in boxers, and finishing up brushing his teeth, rinsed out his mouth, and then said, “I’ll see you at supper,” and left the bathroom, closing the door behind him. I dried myself off and got out of the tub, but I needed to apply deodorant and didn’t know where to find any. Opening the medicine cabinet, I found several different kinds and selected a bottle of Brut, which had a nice manly scent, and applied it. It was then that I realized I didn’t have any clothes to wear. The overalls were gone and I didn’t see any other robes like the one Papi had worn. I looked in the linen closet and under the sink and didn’t see any boxers. Reluctantly, I opened the hamper, intending to retrieve my boxer briefs to wear until I could find something to wear to supper, but the hamper was completely empty. What the fuck was I supposed to do? Opening the door just enough to stick my head out, I yelled Steve’s name, but he didn’t respond. I could hear loud voices coming from the other end of the hall, but apparently he couldn’t hear me, so I called his name more loudly this time; he still didn’t respond. His bedroom door was open, right across the hall, so I turned out the bathroom light and made a mad dash for his bedroom and closed the door behind me. I had trouble finding a light switch and eventually found a light I could turn on by a switch on the lamp. I started searching drawers for something to wear and eventually found a drawer with boxers in it, and so I donned a pair. They were a bit loose on me but not to the point that I was in danger of losing my modesty in front of Mamá . I was afraid to wear any of Steve’s shirts or pants, though, so I cautiously approached the kitchen, where everyone was already seated at the table. Much to my surprise, Papi was still wearing a robe and Steve was still shirtless. I couldn’t tell from my angle if he was wearing anything more than his boxers. Mamá called out, “Come on in, Simon. We’re ready to get started.” “But I’m not dressed,” I groused. “I don’t have any clothes.” “Why should you worry about getting dressed when these two don’t?” Mamá insisted. “After a long day of work, who wants to get dressed up just to get undressed again? Sit down so we can eat.” She obviously wasn’t taking no for an answer, so I sat down. The smells that were emanating from the table were incredible. “Esteban tells me you’re from Kentucky,” Mamá began as she started passing the food around. “Indiana,” I corrected her but then realized I’d said more than I meant to. “Near the border with Kentucky and even nearer to Cincinnati.” “How did you end up in Kansas City?” she asked. “When my father died,” I began, “I had no living relatives, and I was afraid of ending up in a group home or abusive foster home.” Gulping, I continued, “I don’t know if Esteban told you that I’m gay, but southern Indiana is very religious, and there were horror stories about what happens to gay teenagers in foster care, so I packed up my things and rode my bicycle, looking to start a new life for myself.” “Wouldn’t it have been easier to go to a major city like Chicago?” she asked. This was getting into dangerous territory, because I didn’t want to get caught in a lie. I’d already told Papi I was sixteen, and although he didn’t believe me, I didn’t want to admit I’d lied to him, so I sidestepped the issue. “I don’t exactly look like I’m sixteen,” I began, “and there are a lot of folks who prey on runaway teenagers, getting them addicted to drugs and forcing them into a life of prostitution. I like to read and I’ve read a lot about this sort of thing. I was scared of what could happen, so I avoided the cities and traveled mostly on country roads. “I had a little money to live off for a while, but then my bike was stolen and everything I own along with it, so I arrived in Kansas City, broke and penniless and looking for shelter and work.” “And God brought you to us,” Papi exclaimed. I wasn’t going to argue the point because I wasn’t sure he wasn’t right. After saying grace in Spanish, we dug in. Mamá made us a feast, starting with a sopa de mariscos, a seafood soup that was incredible. There were deep fried peppers called chile relleno, pronounced reyeno, and there were black beans and something that looked like guacamole, but it sure didn’t taste like guacamole. For one thing, it was wayspicier, and it tasted nutty. It was called mole verde, which literally means green sauce. Finally, there was a fruit or vegetable I absolutely couldn’t identify, so I had to ask what it was. Called flor de calabaza, it was a squash blossom filled with cheese. I never knew you could eat squash blossoms. I spent the whole meal praising Mamá for her cooking but was stunned to learn that she worked during day as a nurse’s aide, so the meal was something she put together after getting home. She was remarkable. After the meal, Papi retreated to a room he called the den and started making some phone calls. Steve settled in on the living room sofa and switched on the TV and started to watch a soccer match. Although I wasn’t much of a sports fan, I sat next to him and watched it with him. Like most kids, I’d played some soccer in school and actually found I liked playing it. When I was nine, I asked Dad if I could play in a youth soccer league, but he nixed it, saying soccer was for queers. Maybe he was right. Again, Steve put his arm around me and pulled me close, which was nice. Unlike in the truck, there was no real reason for doing that, but the feel of his skin against mine was electrifying. I was rock-hard, instantly, and I noticed that Steve was hard, too. Since his parents were nearby, I was petrified of the thought of one of them seeing us in our aroused state and could only hope that neither of them walked through the living room. After a while, Steve said, “You know, we can’t become involved. Not only could it get messy, but I’m your boss’s son, and it could be seen as harassment.” “Do you have a boyfriend?” I asked. “No,” Steve replied. “I’ve never had a boyfriend. There aren’t many opportunities in this community.” Then laughing, he said, “I just finished eighth grade. Not many Latinos in middle school are out, you know.” “It wasn’t any better in my small town in Indiana,” I responded. “Not even in high school.” “Are you really sixteen?” he asked. “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” I replied. “I could believe fifteen,” Steve responded, “but sixteen? No way. You’re tall enough, but you don’t look a day over thirteen.” “It’s hard to look sixteen when you’ve barely begun puberty,” I added. “Until my voice changes, my shoulders broaden, and I get hair in places other than on my head, people are going to assume I’m a little kid, even as tall as I am.” “Yeah, but your face looks young,” Steve countered, and that truly was the crux of my problem. It’s hard to pass for sixteen when you look more like twelve. “It’s easier to believe you’re tall for thirteen than a young-looking, late-blooming sixteen-year-old.” “Believe it or don’t,” I responded. “I was a senior in high school when I ran.” “Now that I can believe,” Steve stated, “regardless of your age.” Fortunately, my erection had gone down, so it wasn’t obvious when Papi entered and said, “We need to get up early, boys, so you might want to head to bed soon. I found someone with a gazebo who’s willing to give it to us for free if we take it away.” “Seriously?” I asked. “Very seriously,” Papi confirmed. “Then let’s go to bed,” Steve suggested. After switching the TV off, we headed to the bathroom, taking our turns in front of the toilet, and then headed to Steve’s bedroom. Steve dropped his boxers and I followed suit. Again, I was fascinated by his foreskin, and with my staring at it, we both quickly became hard. So hard that we were pointing toward the ceiling. That exposed the tip of his glans, which had been completely covered up when he was soft, but most of the glans remained hidden. It looked so cool. “Can I touch it?” I asked again. “We shouldn’t do this,” Steve replied. “But it’d be different if we were just fooling around, wouldn’t it?” I asked. “I guess,” Steve answered. Rather than waiting for an invitation, I stepped closer to Steve and wrapped my hand around his shaft. Steve took a sharp intake of breath. Slowly and sensuously, I moved his foreskin down, fully exposing his glans, and then I took my thumb and carefully moved it around the base of his glans, marveling in the soft feel of the rumpled foreskin beneath it. Steve shuddered with that, so I slowly let go, fearing I might push him over the edge before we even got started. In that moment, I knew exactly what I wanted. It had been months since I’d last had sex with Greg, and though I still loved him in a way, I knew that I’d never see Greg again. It wouldn’t be fair to expect him to remain my boyfriend under the circumstances. I desperately wanted to feel what a difference a foreskin could make in the feel of Steve being inside of me, but that was a line we shouldn’t cross. Besides which, I seriously doubted Steve had any condoms or lube handy, and so I did the next best thing. I took him into my mouth. I didn’t even need to move at all. Merely the act of sucking on him was enough to cause him to unload into my mouth by the gallon – or so it seemed. His knees nearly collapsed when he came, and so I helped support him so he didn’t fall. Finally, as he came down from his high, I pulled off of him and looked into his eyes and kissed him on the lips. Perhaps kissing was crossing a line, but the look of ecstasy on his face made him look so fuckin’ sexy, I couldn’t resist. “You shouldn’t have done that,” Steve responded once he was able to speak. “Would you rather I hadn’t?” I asked. “God, no,” he replied. “I probably shouldn’t do this, either,” he added, and then he went down on me. He was nowhere nearly as experienced as Greg had been, but he was a fast learner and when I warned him that I was about to come and he should pull off, he doubled down and swallowed all I had to give him, which still wasn’t very much. “Sorry, but I’m barely into puberty,” I responded. “So maybe there’ll be more to share by the end of the summer,” Steve suggested. “Maybe we should try to get some sleep?” “Sounds like a plan,” I agreed. <> <> <> I was running as hard as I could. In mere moments, Dad would recover from the pain of me smashing my knee into his crotch. I was still gasping for air, filling my lungs as fast as I could. I ran into his bedroom and reached for the gun I knew he kept behind the headboard, grabbing it just as he burst into the room. I had less than a second before my dad would reach me, and then it would be all over. I’d never fired a gun before in my life. Oh, Dad tried to teach me how to use a rifle, so we could go hunting together, but I’d refused. I didn’t want to have anything to do with guns, whether for hunting and killing innocent animals or for stopping not too innocent humans. Not until now. I figured you just pulled the trigger, right? Aiming the gun right at the center of his chest, I moved my finger inside the trigger guard and tried to pull the trigger, but nothing happened. As he reached me, it dawned on me that I’d failed to release the safety, but it was too late. Dad knocked the gun outta my hand and grabbed me by the neck, once again squeezing the life outta me. I tried to knee him again in the balls, but he was already on top of me. Desperately I tried to catch a breath, but his hands were huge and his choking me was complete. Slowly, I felt my life slipping away… and then I was in a strange bed and I was gasping for breath. I heard a voice from across the room call out, “Simon, are you okay?” I remembered where I was and that it was Steve. “Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied. “It was just a bad dream,” I added. “Would you like to talk about it?” Steve asked. “Nah,” I replied. “I’m fine. Let’s get back to sleep. We have to get up soon,” I reminded him. “If you need anything, just be sure to let me know,” Steve responded, and I was soon again fast asleep. <> <> <> When Papi said we needed to get an early start in the morning, I didn’t realize just how early. We had to travel a fair distance outside of the city, completely disassemble an existing gazebo, or so I presumed, load up all the pieces into the truck, drive back into the city to the worksite and unload the gazebo by the middle of the morning. That was a shitload of work to finish in a limited amount of time. Papi woke Steve and me up at 4:00 in the fuckin’ a.m. There wasn’t time for us to eat breakfast. It was way too early to eat anyway, so Mamá prepared a dish called memelas, which consisted of corn tortillas with beans, salsa verde and cheese. It looked wonderful. For lunch she made tlayuda with grilled tasajo, consisting of thin strips of beef. She packed everything up for us in the cooler with blue ice to keep it fresh, and then she got ready to head off to her job as we did ours. I didn’t have any clothes to wear other than the dress clothes from the school. Most of Steve’s clothes were a poor fit, given that he was a bit shorter and stockier than I was. Papi had me try on some work clothes that fit surprisingly well, but then I noticed a look of sadness in his eyes. “Were these Roberto’s clothes?” I asked. “These were his clothes from when he was Esteban’s age,” he confirmed. “They fit you perfectly, and you need good work clothes, especially for what we’re going to be doing today. You can’t go around in only overalls and flip-flops when you’re doing carpentry. In any case, he would want you to have them, and so do I. Now let’s see if his shoes fit you.” They fit me as if they’d been measured for my feet. I’d assumed we would disassemble the gazebo and then reassemble it – a task that could take days to complete – so I was taken aback when Papi had Steve and me fill the bed of the pickup with about a dozen heavy-duty truck tires and a couple large coils of thick rope. I could see where the rope would come in handy, but what were we gonna do with all those tires, and where did Papi plan to put the disassembled gazebo with the truck bed filled with tires? I began to get an inkling when he had Steve and me wheel a flatbed trailer from behind the house around to just in front of the pickup. Next, Papi drove the truck out into the street and then he backed it into the driveway and right up to the trailer, which he then hooked up to the truck. Was he seriously thinking of transporting the gazebo whole? Was that even possible? Was it safe? As the sky was just starting to lighten, we got on Interstate 70 and headed into the darkness, with the lightening sky behind us. We drove for quite a way, and then, right after passing a huge motherfucker of a racetrack, the Kansas Speedway, we turned off on Kansas Highway 7, which was also U.S. Highway 73, which we took north for quite a way. Eventually we came to a large town, Lansing, but I couldn’t help but notice the name on the sign when we crossed into the City of Leavenworth. “Leavenworth?” I asked. “You’ve heard of it?” Papi asked as Steve chuckled. “Everyone’s heard of Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary,” I answered. “Leavenworth and Lansing have several prisons, and there’s a large army base, Fort Leavenworth, but this is still Metro Kansas City,” Papi explained. “The airport is just across the Missouri River.” I hadn’t realized we were so close to the Missouri, but then the Missouri, combined with the Mississippi, formed the longest river system in the world. The headwaters originated just this side of the Continental Divide in Glacier National Park in western Montana, right on the border with Alberta. it meandered across much of the western continental United States, merging with the Mississippi just north of St. Louis. As always, I just couldn’t turn the thinking part of my brain off, even when it was so irrelevant. We turned onto a residential side street and pulled up in front of a nice-looking, single-story house in a middle-class neighborhood. An older gentleman came out to greet us, and Papi introduced himself as well as his ‘sons’. “The wife decided she wants to plant a vegetable garden,” the gentleman explained. It’s almost too late in the year to get started, but you know how it is when the wife wants something.” Papi couldn’t help but laugh. Leading us back into the back yard, the man continued, “Not much light for a garden either but, wouldn’t you know, the one sunny spot is right where I put the gazebo. Your call came at just the right time ’cause I was looking to paysomeone to haul it away. You’re welcome to have it if you just haul it out of here.” It was a very nice rectangular gazebo but quite a bit larger than what I’d had in mind. The depth looked to be about eight feet, which was just about what we needed, but the width had to be close to twenty feet. It would make a great front porch, but how in hell were we gonna get it back using the pickup? Could the three of us handle it ourselves? Did Papi really intend to move it in one piece as I suspected? Papi didn’t appear to be the least bit fazed by it, however. He just got out a tape measure and set to work making measurements. He got up on a ladder and carefully examined the bolts that were holding the whole thing together, then he got to work. Pulling the truck into the back yard, he unhitched the flatbed trailer. He had Steve and me grab one of the coils of rope and tie it to one of the support posts, and then we wound the rope around and around the gazebo, maybe ten full times, gradually working our way down from the roof to the base of the gazebo. I had to admit that the rope made the gazebo a lot sturdier. Steve then got behind the wheel of the pickup, and he deftly backed it right up to one side of the gazebo. He was only fourteen, yet he drove like a pro. After disassembling and removing the steps from the gazebo, Papi used some of the rope to firmly hook the truck’s winch to the foundation of the gazebo. I wasn’t sure how that was gonna work, but he seemed confident in what he was doing. Steve then slowly and cautiously used the winch to lift the end of the gazebo off of the ground. I was afraid the gazebo might break up, but thanks to all the rope, it held. Papi and I then wheeled the flatbed under the raised end of the gazebo; it barely fit. We then grabbed the tires from the back of the pickup, and we arranged them on the flatbed. Steve then lowered the gazebo as we made sure it was aligned properly. The tires provided a buffer between the gazebo’s foundation and the flatbed underneath, ensuring a resilient coupling between them. It was ingenious. Finally, we hitched the flatbed back up to the truck and reconnected the hookup for the taillights. Once that was done, we used the rest of the rope to secure the gazebo to the flatbed, making sure it couldn’t slide off, and added a Wide Load sign and a flag to the back side of the gazebo, which overhung the flatbed by perhaps six feet. We were ready to roll. Papi thanked the property owner, who’d watched the entire operation with apprehension. He seemed relieved as he watched us pull away. Papi managed to drive it deftly back down KS-9 to I-70 and then east across the Kansas River into Missouri and right to the house we were working on. It was still barely 9:00 a.m. Amazing. Finally, we ate our breakfast and drank our coffee. Leaving the truck with the gazebo on the street, Papi asked the owners if they’d like us to replace the front porch with the gazebo for only the modest cost of materials. Of course, they readily agreed, and we went to work demolishing the existing porch, which it turned out was in far worse shape than even I’d guessed. Much of the underlying wood was severely rotted and fell apart when we attempted to remove it. A dumpster would have come in handy, but we’d cart everything away in the pickup when we finished installing the gazebo. Not unexpectedly, a moderate amount of the front clapboard, just under the porch roofline came loose from the front of the house revealing rot underneath. Fortunately, the area was limited, and we had no difficulty replacing it and the clapboard with the supplies we had on hand. After we’d removed all the wood from the porch, we were left with a stone foundation that was too small, too high, and horribly slanted due to settling of the underlying land. That would have to be completely rebuilt and so we removed all the stones and set them aside. Instead of relying on a stone foundation to support the porch, we set eight steel pylons into the ground – four in the front and four in back, nearly against the house, and secured them in the ground with quick-dry concrete. We then removed all of the rope and removed the back railing from the gazebo. Otherwise, it would’ve blocked the front door and living-room windows. We ate our lunch while waiting for the concrete to dry. Steve drove the truck and expertly backed the gazebo into place as Papi directed him. Papi then unhitched the truck, and Steve drove it out of the way. Rather than use the winch, Papi instead used a pair of hydraulic jacks, first on one end and then the other, to raise the gazebo up enough to slide the tires out and then roll the flatbed out of the way. We set the gazebo foundation onto the pylons and bolted it down. Lastly, we placed the foundation stones back under the gazebo to give the appearance of a stone foundation and reassembled the steps in front. It took us the entire day, but everything looked great when we were done. The gazebo was made of cedar that would last for decades. I would have opted to leave it as it was, but the owner wanted it painted to match the house, and we would certainly do that, charging only for the cost of the additional paint. The roof itself was covered with elegant cedar shingles and those we’d take the time to properly seal. We loaded all the old wood from the original porch into the truck bed and took everything to the dump, where we paid a small fee to discard it. We drove home, took long showers and ate a very light supper, going to bed early. We were all exhausted. Steve and I were far too tired to even consider doing anything together. All in all, it took us a full day to replace the porch, whereas it would have taken at least a week to repair the old one, not that it would have even been possible, given all the rot. It was a day for which we received no pay, but it was a day well spent. Indeed, a number of the neighbors watched us as we worked, and later Papi confirmed that we got two additional jobs out of it, so the time spent paid off in the end.
  8. The Hilltop Residential Facility wasn’t at all what I was expecting. Under the jurisdiction of the Jackson County Family Court, it was located in a distant suburb of Kansas City in an area that was still largely rural. A number of suburban developments had sprung up around the area’s numerous lakes and golf courses, giving homeowners their own little slice of paradise within commuting distance of the city. The juvenile-justice facility was quite obviously built long before the suburbs, when it was quite literally surrounded on two sides by the Lee’s Summit Municipal Airport and on the other two sides by undeveloped farmland. There was no need for locks, fences or other constraints because there literally was no place for an escapee to go. Now that there were people living nearby, the facility was considered a minimum-security residential facility and a school for boys with special needs. Within the constraints of the rules, I could walk freely on the campus but was never out of sight of the cameras. It was also quite some distance from the state line. Another thing that was different was the emphasis on the facility being a school first and a correctional facility second. The school uniform was more of a traditional private-school dress uniform with the Hilltop School crest on the jacket. School took place year-round, including in the summer, and the academic schedule was rigorous. The school was actually under the jurisdiction of the county school system. In spite of my best effort to appear to be age-appropriate, after several days of testing, I was assigned to the ninth grade rather than seventh grade and would start high school as a sophomore next fall. Of course, that assumed I would still be an inmate there – something I had no intention of being by then. Were it not for the risks, I could actually see myself staying there until I graduated from high school, perhaps at the age of sixteen. I had a roof over my head, ample food and a first-rate education – undoubtedly better than the one I’d been receiving in Southern Indiana. There were only two problems with that. Firstly, I was only there because I had no place else to go and had refused to cooperate. The goal was still to place me within the community and into a group home or with a foster family. Secondly, there was the major risk that my fingerprints would be matched with those at the site of my dad’s death, and then I’d be sent back home and be incarcerated forever. No, the way forward involved getting out of Missouri, acquiring a new identity as someone who was at least sixteen, getting my GED and getting a job. And then there was the issue of money. When I first arrived and checked out the computers in the school library, I was astounded to find I had pretty much free access to the internet. I’m sure I would have been paid a visit if I visited a porn site, but I had no trouble getting into Applazon. When I attempted to redeem the first Applazon gift card, as I expected, it had expired. That money was gone. When I attempted to redeem the second gift card to roll the balance into another card, however, the serial number was listed as invalid. Could I have remembered the number incorrectly? I tried each serial number in sequence and found the same thing; they were all invalid. WTF? Slowly, it dawned on me that the Department of Corrections had confiscated my wallet when I was taken into custody back in Hannibal. I’d dumped most everything that had been in my wallet, with the exception of my cash and the Applazon gift cards. I didn’t even need the actual gift cards to use them. I’d memorized the serial numbers and PINs, but if law enforcement reported the cards stolen, Applazon of course would have invalidated them. The only reason I’d kept them in the first place was in case I needed to prove ownership. Had the cards been stolen, I could have redeemed them with the serial numbers and PINs, depleting the original, physical cards and rendering them useless. I’d just never conceived of the possibility of law enforcement rendering them invalid. Tens of thousands of dollars I thought I had were now gone. I was penniless. Even if I got away from the State of Missouri, I had no way to support myself. I had no skills. What was I gonna do? I was still scheduled for a workup at Children’s Mercy Medical Center but had not had any further evidence of internal bleeding since faking it by eating spinach and taking bismuth. Since I’d apparently stabilized, the workup was considered only slightly more urgent than elective and, hence, had been scheduled to be done at a leisurely pace. I was scheduled to see a gastroenterologist downtown for an initial visit and would likely be scheduled for endoscopy at a later date. They’d likely draw some blood while I was there to make sure my counts weren’t dropping. Someone from the school would accompany me to the visit, but I’d likely be left alone for at least part of the time. It might well be my best chance to escape, and with the state line less than a mile from the hospital, I could quickly get away from the state of Missouri, but then what? Where would I go? What would I do for food and money? I’d be destitute and homeless, and there’d be plenty of people who’d take advantage. Worse, there were outright predators who were actively looking for kids like me to exploit. As far as I was concerned, prostitution wasn’t an option, no matter how desperate I became. I spent hours in the school library, studying the area around the hospital in Google Maps using Satellite and Street View, but the area around the University of Kansas Medical Center, where the hospital was located, was a maze of dead ends, bridges and passageways to nowhere. The train tracks leading out from the restored Union Station cut a broad swath through the area, cutting through streets and blocking any kind of pedestrian access. Then there were parks and a WW II memorial that blocked through traffic, so Street View didn’t even work in spots. I could see pedestrian walkways that Street View wouldn’t let me take. I developed a basic sense of where I needed to go to get to Avenida Cesar Chavez and the bridge that would take me over the Kansas River and across the state line, but beyond that, I had no idea where to go. I only hoped that my time spent looking at Google Maps didn’t alert the authorities to my plans. Was crossing the state border enough? What if Missouri notified Kansas? I wasn’t a criminal, so it wasn’t like Kansas was gonna extradite me back to Missouri. Still, they wouldn’t let me live on my own, either. The bottom line was that I needed to stay well under the radar until I could establish myself elsewhere under a new identity with proper documentation. I needed a plan. When the day of the appointment finally arrived, I was no closer to developing a plan for survival than before. I could probably get to Kansas City, Kansas, but where to find shelter, food and clothing was a blank slate. The only two homeless shelters in the area were on the Missouri side of the line. I needed money, but if I attempted to steal it, I’d just end up back in Juvie. They didn’t notify me that I had an appointment until breakfast on the day it was scheduled. I guess they were afraid I’d notify an accomplice on the outside to come pick me up, so they didn’t tell me about the date in advance. Fortunately, they didn’t stop me from eating breakfast, as I’d feared they might. I wasn’t going for a procedure or anything where I might get anesthesia, but I’d worried they might have been instructed to hold my breakfast, just in case they needed fasting labs drawn or anything like that. Had I been forced to skip breakfast, the need for food after I escaped would’ve been severe. As it was, I’d probably be hungry by the time lunch rolled around. The school had a van, but there was no doubt it was a police van. The department-of-corrections logo was on the side, and there were steel-mesh partitions inside that separated the inmates from the driver and prevented escape. I wondered if the emergency exits were even functional in the event of a serious accident. We took off just after breakfast with a driver, a sitter and me. The driver dropped me and the sitter off in front of Children’s Mercy Hospital, on the campus of the University of Kansas City Medical Center, and the sitter took me into the outpatient entrance and followed directions she’d apparently been provided. I guess inmates weren’t permitted advance knowledge of such things. We made our way through a labyrinth of hallways and elevators until we reached a nondescript clinic waiting area labeled simply, Gastroenterology. I wondered how many people even realized what that was before being referred there. Not even the medical profession called it that – they simply referred to it as ‘GI’. The sitter took me to the reception desk and provided my credentials, such as they were, and the receptionist handed me a clipboard with what I guess was an intake form. The name ‘John Doe’ and a fictitious birthdate with the correct birth year, but January 1, were printed on the form. I sat down and proceeded to fill out the form as best I could, leaving most of the information blank. I did relate a history of vague stomach pains, cramping and occasional vomiting since the age of ten. I crossed out everything else in terms of history and symptoms. Finally, I was taken back to a room while the sitter remained in the waiting area. I couldn’t believe it. She simply assumed I’d be safe inside. There had to be a back door. There had to be. It was required by code in case of fire. She was foolish. I was taken to an exam room and after a short while, a nurse, or maybe she was a medical assistant, came in and started chatting with me as she took my vital signs. I was shocked to discover that my height was now up to five-foot, nine inches, which was pretty damn tall for a thirteen-year-old boy. And yet I remained hairless, and my voice had yet to change. The nurse informed me that the doctor was running behind, which seemed strange so early in the morning, and she said to just sit tight, and he’d get to me as soon as he could. That meant I had an opportunity that might not come again. It was now or never, and so I asked where the restroom was. After getting an answer, I headed right to the restroom and slipped inside. I actually did use the restroom while I was there as the next opportunity might not come until I was on the street. After doing my business, I slipped out of the restroom, and rather than head back to the exam room, I looked around and deliberately went down the wrong corridor. I expected someone would stop me fairly quickly and redirect me back to the exam room, but that didn’t happen before I spotted an exit sign. I made a beeline for it, and seeing no warning about alarms that would sound, I checked for anyone watching and then slipped through it. I found myself in a stairwell and quickly surmised that it likely supported the clinic areas on multiple floors. As tempting as it was to head down to the first floor, I had no idea what I’d find there. There probably wasn’t a clinic on the first floor and I could easily find myself in a dead end. I decided to go up two floors as I doubted anyone would think of me heading up rather than down, and I looked through the window in the door. There was much activity, but I noticed that I saw only girls and no boys, which made me thing it might be a gynecology clinic. I’d almost certainly be stopped if I exited the stairwell there, but this was the top floor and so I went back down one floor and on seeing both male and female patients inside, reentered the clinic area and followed the signs to the reception area. Once in the waiting area, I simply followed the signs to the lobby and exited the hospital. Once outside, I ditched my sportscoat at the first trashcan I found. With the Hill Top school logo on it, it made me too easy to spot. As it was, I was a bit too well dressed, with a button-up white shirt, khaki slacks and comfortable leather shoes. They were by far too nice for the street, though, yet they were all I had. Spotting Locust Street directly in front of the hospital, I crossed it and walked on the grass, crossing Gillham Road and walked down a grassy hill to Pershing Road. This was the route I’d spotted when studying Google Maps. I walked down Pershing, past multiple parking garages and past a Panera Bread – how I wished I had the money to stop there for something to eat – and then I crossed Grand Boulevard. I walked by Washington Square Park, alongside the Westin Inn and then crossed Main Street, which was a major intersection. The World War II Memorial and Liberty Tower were clearly visible on my left, but the dominant structure was Union Station, which dominated the view on my right for several blocks. I stuck to Pershing Road until it came to an end at West Pennway Street, where I turned right. What I didn’t realize was that in staying on the same side of the street, I was locked into following Pennway until it morphed into Broadway Boulevard. It might not have made any difference had I been on the other side of the street, but at least I’d have had a view of where I needed to go. To reach the bridge that would take me across the state line and over the Kansas River, I needed to get to Avenida Cesar Chavez, but I was well past the point where I’d expected to turn onto it. I’d crossed over it on a bridge. It was a classic case of ‘you can’t get there from here.’ Making a turn onto Southwest Boulevard, I took it to where it intersected West 23rd Street. I didn’t even realize there was a West 23rd Street on this side of Union Station, but it was in the right place and it went under the Interstate, which I needed to cross, and so I turned and headed down it. I was surprised to find myself in an area that was more suburban than urban, with one- and two-story buildings with signs in Spanish and a lot of suburban-style houses. That was completely unexpected, and I couldn’t help but think I was headed in the wrong direction in spite of my having studied the area on Google Maps. I spotted a street sign confirming I was on Avenida Cesar Chavez, but the view ahead looked like a dead end. The area became increasingly residential as I walked and the houses seedier, with boarded-up houses visible ahead. On a side street, I spotted a man on a ladder a few houses down and headed in his direction. In front of the house where he was working was a pickup truck with a label on the side that simply read, ‘Arturo Rodriguez and sons, Handyman’. When I reached the house, I saw that the man was up on a ladder, scraping loose paint from some of the wood trim. I also noticed there was a kid working with him, scraping paint on the first floor. The kid was shirtless and was very muscular, with a ruggedly handsome face that just about took my breath away. He looked to be about my age or perhaps a bit older. I went up to the kid and asked for directions to the bridge in my most passable Spanish. “Buen día, señor. ¿Podría decirme cómo llegar al puente sobre el río Kansas?” Being self-taught, I had no idea if I was pronouncing it correctly, but it was the best I could do. Laughing, he responded in perfect English, “Not bad for a gringo, but your accent leaves a lot to be desired. You’re definitely not from around here. Maybe Kentucky…” “Close,” I replied. Then noticing how meticulous he’d been in removing the peeling paint, I added, “You do nice work. Not many take the time to do the prep work properly.” “Popá and I always do good work,” he responded. “We paint the way we’d paint our own house.” Then he asked, “Do you know how to paint?” “Helped my daddy last summer,” I replied. “He was a mean SOB, but he insisted on doing a job right. He had a reputation for doing good work, so folks hired him in spite of his temper.” “What happened to him?” the kid asked. “You referred to him as, ‘was’.” “He ticked off the wrong person and found himself on the wrong end of a gun,” I replied. Actually, it was an honest answer; I just didn’t mention it was me holding the gun. “That’s too bad. How about your mom?” He asked. “She died when I was born,” I answered. “So what are you doing in KC?” the kid asked. “It sounds like you’re a long way from home.” “It’s kinda a long story,” I answered. “Where I grew up was not a good place to be an orphan, and there were too many bad memories there, and I’d have had no choice if I went into the system. So I hopped on my bike and I ran.” “Where’s your bike now?” he asked. “You ask a lot of questions,” I replied. “As I’m sure you figured out, it was stolen, along with everything I own and all my money. I was so careful, too, but I didn’t think anyone would be foolish enough to steal it in a pouring thunderstorm, so I didn’t bother to lock it up when I made camp under a picnic shelter. When I woke up, it was gone.” Laughing, the kid answered, “Criminals don’t let a little thing like pouring rain get in the way, amigo. By the way, my name’s Steve.” “What kind of a Latino name is ‘Steve’?” I asked. “Well, my given name’s Esteban, but this is America,” he answered. “Middle America, where different isn’t allowed. You’d think with so many Hispanic folks around that it wouldn’t matter, but especially these days, everyone seems to think we’re all murderers and rapists. It’s bad enough bein’ gay.” “You can tell I’m gay?” I asked in surprise. “Not you, dufus,” he replied, “me. Not that I make it a point to announce it, but I don’t hide it, either. So you thought I was referring to you?” he asked. My face felt like it was on fire. “You’re cute when you blush. I take it you just lost your bike ’cause your clothes are way too nice for a kid who’s been living on the street. In fact, they look too nice for anyone who’s been on the run at all and definitely not someone who’s been traveling by bicycle. You haven’t been workin’ as a prostitute, have you?” “God, no,” I replied. “Not after a lifetime of abuse from my old man.” With a look of shock on his face, Steve responded, “Your father raped you? You shoulda killed him yourself!” When I failed to say anything, he added, “If you did, he more than deserved it. It would explain why you’re on the run, but don’t worry, I’d never tell anyone. Not in a million. You don’t hafta tell me, and I won’t ask again.” Then Steve reached out to me and literally saved my life. Maybe there was a god who brought me to this spot at this time, or maybe I really did have a guardian angel, but Steve asked, “So, you’ve lost your bike and the only clothes are the ones on your back, and you’ve got no money. What are you gonna do, and how will you eat?” “I don’t know,” I answered earnestly. “Would you be interested in working for us?” he asked. “Of course, my popá would hafta approve, and the pay wouldn’t be much, but we could give you a roof over your head, we’d feed you well and by the time school starts back up in the fall, you could be on your way with a new bike and a decent set of clothes with enough cash to get started on your next journey. It’d all hafta be under the table. We couldn’t afford to pay your Social Security or health insurance, and I doubt you’re old enough to be legal…” “I’m sixteen,” I objected. “Sure you are,” Steve responded with a grin. “Unless you’re a family member, you hafta be at least my age to work with a parent’s permission, but I’m guessing you’re only thirteen, if that,” he continued. My blush pretty much confirmed that he was right. “We couldn’t afford to pay minimum wage. Maybe fifty dollars a day, under the table, and double that if you’re really good. “You may have noticed, it says ‘sons’ on the side of the truck,” he went on. “I had an older brother, but he enlisted the minute he turned seventeen. After boot camp he was sent to Iraq and hit an IED in his first week. We wouldn’t have had his help on jobs this summer anyway, but Popá always assumed he’d come back and go into the family business. The last few months have been hell, man.” When tears came to his eyes, I couldn’t help myself. I pulled Steve into a hug and didn’t let go until the tears subsided. Neither of us had noticed that Steve’s father had come down the ladder, but there he was next to us when I released the hug. “Lo siento, papá . Me puse a hablar de Roberto,” Steve explained. “Your brother’s name was Roberto?” I asked. “To everyone else, Robbie,” Steve elaborated. Then turning to his father, he said, “Papá , este es … ¡No sé su nombre!” Turning back to me, he asked, “What is your name? You never said.” After a long pause, he suggested, “How about Simon? You look like a Simon to me.” “That sounds as good as anything,” I replied. Turning back to his father, Steve said, “Papá , el suyo es Simon. Dice que tiene dieciséis años y necesita un trabajo. Le dije que podíamos pagarle 50 dólares al día má s alojamiento y comida durante el verano, y el doble si era realmente bueno. Solía trabajar para su padre, hasta que su padre murió.” Seeming to scrutinize me, Arturo responded, “Sixteen? You’re not a day over thirteen, but I’ll take you at your word. Esteban said you have experience?” “Trabajé para mi padre el verano pasado,” I explained. “Me enseñó que una reputación honesta es má s importante que el dinero fá cil.” Cringing, he responded, “Your accent! Please don’t speak to me in Spanish. It’s painful to hear. I was born in America and have been speaking English all my life. “We do only quality work, and I will not pay you if I have to redo any of your work. Don’t count on anything more than $50 a day. I’ll pay more for exceptional work, but not even Esteban’s work is good enough for that yet. We work six days a week. The only day we take off is Sunday, when we go to church. You do not have to go to church unless you want to. We are Catholic, and you’re probably not. I’ll provide a roof over your head and more appropriate clothes for painting. My wife will fill your belly with some of the best food you’ve ever had.” Then holding out his hand, he asked, “So Simon, can we shake on it?” Taking his hand firmly in mine, I replied, “It would be my pleasure to work for you. Should I call you Arturo, or Mr. Rodriguez?” “It wouldn’t be appropriate for a child to call his employer by his first name, but my clients will probably think you’re my son. Why don’t you call me Papi?” “Papi it is,” I replied. “My son likes to work practically naked,” Papi explained, “but I have traditional painter’s overalls in the truck, and my son will get you properly outfitted, and you can start work today.” After Papi had retreated back up the ladder, I asked Steve, “This is still in Missouri, isn’t it?” “Yes, but we live in Kansas and most of our jobs are in Kansas, but occasionally we get a job over here. It’s a Latino neighborhood, and we’ve developed a reputation for good work. Unfortunately, without the help of my brother, we’ve gotten behind and we can really use another set of hands. “Is there a reason you don’t want to stay in Missouri?” Steve asked. “It was a police officer who found me sleeping in a public park, and he took me into custody. Of course, I was forced to leave my bike behind, so that’s how it was stolen. Because I refused to provide an identity, I’ve spent the last four months in Juvenile Detention. There were no charges filed, mind you, but they held me, nevertheless.” “Can they do that?” Steve asked in surprise. “Probably not legally,” I replied. “I asked for legal counsel, but it was refused because I wasn’t charged with a crime.” “But they can’t hold you indefinitely,” Steve countered. “Not more than 72 hours, I think. I used to have a friend with some experience in that regard. Holding you beyond 72 hours is a violation of your rights.” “Children don’t have any rights,” I explained. “They have a right to place an unaccompanied minor in a group home or comparable facility, and I guess the state of Missouri considers juvenile-detention centers to represent a comparable facility.” “That’s unbelievable,” Steve responded. “No wonder you were trying to get to the bridge into Kansas. However, Papi will vouch for you being a family member, so there’s nothing to worry about as long as you work for us.” Nodding my head, I added, “Remind me to tell you about how I managed to escape sometime.” “Let me get you outfitted with some clothes,” Steve suggested as he led me back to the truck. He pulled out a set of white painter’s overalls and handed them to me, saying, “There’s no one around, so you can change right next to the truck. Unfortunately, I don’t have painter’s shoes to match, but these should work,” he added as he held up a pair of cheap flip-flops. Having never been modest, I wasted no time in getting undressed, removing all my clothes except for my boxers. I noticed that Steve was staring, and he was red as a beet. It was cute. I slipped into the overalls and snapped the straps closed, cinching them up quite a bit to keep them from falling off my rather narrow shoulders. Even still, it felt like if I leaned the wrong way, the whole thing could slide right off my torso. I noticed how sexy it felt, being in a garment without any belt and with an open back and sides. Slipping my feet into the flip-flops, I saluted Steve and said, “Ready for my first assignment, Sir.” Steve actually laughed and said, “Let me get you some tools, and then you can get started, Simon.” He handed me a bucket with a wire brush, some scraping tools, sandpaper and a sponge and said, “Let’s start you out working near me, in case you have any questions.” Steve led me to a spot a few feet away from him where there was a lot of peeling paint and I got to work. Prep work is the least enjoyable part of any painting job, but I honestly didn’t mind it and enjoyed getting wood down to a smooth, flawless surface ready to be primed and painted. After about fifteen minutes, Steve came over and took a close look at my work so far and seemed impressed. “Your work is as good as my brother’s, Simon, and that’s saying a lot. You’re gonna show me up,” he added with a smile. “In fifteen minutes, you did as much work as I did in close to an hour.” “I’m not trying to show you up, Steve,” I explained, but he interrupted me with, “That’s not a complaint! If you do as much quality work as my brother, we can take on more work. Maybe you can even teach me your secrets.” I couldn’t help but grin at that. By the time we stopped for lunch a short while later, I’d finished scraping the entire front and a good portion of one of the sides of the house. Papi scrutinized my work very carefully, and then proclaimed, “This is outstanding work. It’s as good as anything I could’ve done.” “I’m concerned about the front porch,” I expressed. “Sure, we can paint it, but the way the front has settled, it looks like the whole thing could collapse any day now. In spite of the flashing, water’s gonna continue to seep in behind the roof line and I’m pretty sure there’s rot behind this clapboard.” “Tell me something I don’t already know,” Papi replied. “I told the client as much, but they can’t afford to fix it.” “I figured as much,” I replied, “but the cost of saving the house after the front porch has collapsed would be prohibitive. You might as well bulldoze the house and start over if that happens. If the owner can’t afford to fix or replace the porch, offer to tear it down, put up a new set of steps in front of the front door and add a simple roof over the steps. Do it at cost as a gesture of good will. However, if the owner can come up with a bit more, you can buy a prefab gazebo or pergola from someone like Home Depot at a fraction of the cost of fixing this one or building one from scratch. You can adapt it to use as a front porch.” “I did offer to demolish the porch at no cost to the owner,” Papi responded “but they love sitting out on their front porch. I never considered using a prefab gazebo in place of the porch. How did you ever think of such a thing?” “My dad and I installed a few gazebos for people who couldn’t do it themselves, so I have a good idea of what’s involved and how much it would cost” I explained. “I’m certain it’d work.” “Yes, I think it would,” Papi agreed. “We might even be able to salvage the foundation and level it, and just replace the decking and maybe the steps. Even if we have to replace some of the clapboard, if we do it at cost, I think we can keep the cost down to something the owner can afford. “That’s a great idea, Simon. Now let’s go eat.” Papi had a cooler in the truck, and it was filled with food. I’m not sure what kind of food it was, but it sure wasn’t like any Mexican food I’d ever had. Steve explained it was from a place called Oaxaca, pronounced ‘wa-ha-ka’, and it was much closer to the food eaten by the indigenous people of the region than most of the Mexican food served in America. We had something that looked like miniature pizzas, topped with beans and cheese. Called Tlayuda. To say it was delicious would have been a gross understatement.
  9. The good news was that I hadn’t been sent back to Indiana. The bad news was that I wasn’t free. I’d wanted to visit Hannibal because it was the boyhood home of Mark Twain. I’d wanted to see the sites that formed the basis of his wonderful books. It was on my way, so why not stop? Of course, I needed a place to stay, and there was a lovely park, Riverview Park, right on the west bank of the Mississippi. There weren’t any campsites, but I didn’t need a campsite. There were public restrooms, and there were plenty of places out of site where I could pitch a tent. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate, and the heavens let loose not long after I set up camp, and the ground quickly turned to mud. A cold rain in late February isn’t something anyone should be out in, so I packed up my tent and sleeping bag as quickly as I could and headed for the closest picnic shelter I could find. It didn’t provide much protection as it was open on all sides and the roof wasn’t fully waterproof, but at least it got me out of the rain, and there was a public restroom nearby. My tent was soaked but would dry out fairly quickly. My sleeping bag was a different story. It was a good one with insulation designed to remain effective even when wet, but who wants to sleep in a soaking-wet sleeping bag? I opened my puptent under a picnic table so that it wouldn’t blow away and left it open to dry out. I opened up my sleeping bag completely and draped it over another picnic table. Without anyone else in sight, I stripped completely and spread out all my clothes on another picnic table, so they would dry overnight. Finally, I got dressed in dry clothes, bundled up in multiple layers and did my best to create an acceptable place to sleep on top of another one of the picnic tables. I awoke in the early morning light to find a police officer looking down on me. It was surreal. I was disoriented, and for a moment, I couldn’t even remember who I was, let alone where I was. The officer didn’t wait for me to come to my senses, shouting at me and insisting I tell him what I was doing sleeping in Riverview Park in the middle of a rainstorm. All I could do was respond, “Riverview Park?” “What the hell are you doing here, boy?” he shouted at me. “Doing here?” I asked. I was still disoriented, having just woken up from a very deep sleep. “Never mind,” he responded. “We’ll let Juvie sort it out.” That sure woke me up. “No!” I practically shouted. “I’m fine. Really.” “Ten-year-old boys don’t spend their night sleeping in a public park,” he replied. I looked young for my age, but I did not look like I was ten. Indignantly, I responded, “I’m thirteen!” Unintentionally, it came out as confrontational, which was the last thing I wanted. “An even better reason to take you to Juvie,” he replied. “Where are your parents?” “They’re both dead,” I replied. That much was true. “Then who’s responsible for you?” “No one,” I replied. “Where’d you get such a fancy bike?” he asked. “It was a birthday present,” I replied, also honestly. “Sure, it is,” the officer responded. “Probably stolen. Let’s go.” As the officer started dragging me to his car, I shouted, “Wait! What about my stuff?” “How do I even know it’s your stuff?” he asked. “If it’s yours, we can come back for it later.” “It won’t be here later,” I complained. “Not my problem,” the officer replied. God dammit. I hadn’t even bothered to lock my bike up. Who would steal a bike in the pouring rain with the owner just a few feet away? Shit, I’d even left the pannier case open. By the time everything was sorted out, all my stuff would be gone. It would take a huge chunk of my remaining Applazon gift cards to replace everything. If only it had been that simple. Replacing my stuff turned out to be the least of my problems. I never did get to see the sites in Hannibal, but that too, was the least of my problems. Taken to the local jail, I was actually booked, photographed and fingerprinted. I refused to give them my name, so they simply listed me as a ‘John Doe’. With my fingerprints in the system, there was a huge risk of being sent back to Indiana. If my dad’s body had been discovered and they dusted our house for prints, they could easily match my prints to the crime scene. I had to get out of here as quickly as possible, but how? And even if I could get away from here, where would I go? Without my bike, how could I get very far? One thing was certain. I couldn’t contact Larry back in Springfield. Now that my fingerprints were on file, there was a very real risk of being tied to my father’s death, and I couldn’t let Larry and Greg get pulled into it. As Larry himself pointed out, he didn’t have the resources to defend himself in court, let alone defend me. I couldn’t let them lose everything because of me. Not after all they did for me. I’d spend my life in prison before I’d let that happen. Because I refused to give them a name or tell them where I was from, they transferred me to the Bruce Normile Juvenile Justice Center in Kirksville, more than an hour-and-a-half drive away, where I was kept under lock and key. I was assigned a social worker, and she met with me every day, but my situation didn’t change. I asked what charge I was being held on but was told I wasn’t under arrest. I asked for an attorney, but was told I wasn’t entitled to one, ’cause I wasn’t accused of a crime. I asked to be transferred to a group home and was told that would happen as soon as I cooperated, or I could even be placed into foster care, but I had to tell them who I was. I asked to be released and was told that as a minor, I could only be released to the care of an adult. The bottom line was that Missouri could hold me in juvenile detention indefinitely so long as my social worker deemed me to be a flight risk. Only later would I realize they’d taken advantage of my ignorance. Unless they charged me, they could only hold me for 72 hours. After that, they either had to release me or place me in the care of CPS, with or without an identity. They were only making it easier on themselves without regard to my welfare. Hence, the weeks passed me by as I continued to refuse to answer their questions. I assumed they were keeping me isolated from the general Juvenile population as a form of punishment, and only later realized they didn’t want a roommate informing me of my rights. They did enroll me in school as required by law, however – seventh grade, based on my self-reported age. The last thing I wanted to do was let them know I was really a high-school senior ’cause that would’ve given them a critical clue as to who I was, and so I suffered through coursework that I’d completed years ago. Even more difficult was making it look like I was learning it for the first time so as not to arouse suspicion. In time the visits by my social worker became weekly rather than daily, and my life became routine. However, as March came to a close, it dawned on me that my Applazon gift cards would all expire if I didn’t escape – and soon. In fact, at least one of them had already expired if I wasn’t mistaken. Although I’d memorized the serial numbers and PIN numbers for all of the cards, internet access to Applazon was blocked from any of the facility computers. Hence if I was to prevent any further loss of funds, I had to get out of there. Not even accessing an outside computer would be sufficient in the long run, as I could only transfer funds from one card to the next. Eventually I’d be down to only one card, and when it expired, I’d lose everything. Then there was always the possibility that Dad’s body would be discovered and my prints matched to those at the scene. I had to distance myself from the prints obtained when I was brought in. I had to escape. Period. But how? We were all on lockdown, and even our medical care was provided on-site. However, then one of the other boys was sent to the hospital for an asthma attack that didn’t respond to medication. I formulated a plan that very night. Two days later, I talked one of the nurses into getting me a couple doses of bismuth for the diarrhea I claimed I was having. Normally they’d use a pill, Imodium, I think, but I told her I get episodes of diarrhea sometimes, and bismuth is the only thing that works. It was also something I knew she could get me without contacting the doctor. Further, because bismuth should be given after each loose bowel movement, I could take it back to my room without the nurse watching to make sure I took it. Now, I just had to be patient. I waited nearly two weeks until we were served spinach with supper. I made sure to take seconds and thirds of the spinach. It wasn’t one of the more popular items, so I had no trouble getting extra portions. That evening before going to bed, I took both doses of bismuth, swallowed each small cup of the pink liquid and leaving not a trace of it to be discovered. I could only hope it worked as well as it did in the book I remembered, where the main character escaped from a mental hospital by using the same trick. In the early morning hours, I woke up with stomach cramps, just as I was hoping I would. I took a dump and sure enough, my shit was jet black. I called for help and when someone finally came, I rapidly said, “My shit’s turned black, and my stomach feels awful. I think I’m bleeding inside. I need to get to the hospital.” “Whatever it is, I’m sure it can wait until the morning,” the guy said, so I elaborated. “No, you don’t understand. I have always had stomach problems and was warned to go to Emergency if my stool ever turned black. I was told it was a sign of internal bleeding and that I could go into shock and die within a few hours. This can’t wait. I could be dead by morning. Call the nurse. She’ll confirm that black shit’s a life-and-death emergency.” “I’ll be right back with the nurse,” he responded and then locked the door and left. I must have waited nearly an hour, and the stench from my shit was overpowering, but I needed to be able to show it to the nurse. I was about to start banging on the door when, finally, the nurse came. I showed her the shit in my toilet, and she took me straight to the infirmary. What happened next wasn’t unexpected, but it certainly wasn’t pleasant. Suffice to say, it involved a gloved hand, lubricant and a stool-sample test card. I could tell from the look on her face that the test for occult blood was strongly positive, as I’d hoped it would be, ensuring a trip to the hospital. There, they wouldn’t find anything wrong and would probably do a series of tests, but I’d have a chance to escape. In the book, I’d remembered the main character used exactly the ruse I’d just carried out. At first, he tried to get iron supplements, ’cause in high doses, they mimic the signs of internal bleeding. The main character, however, was unable to get his hands on iron tablets, so he concocted the plan I’d just used. Spinach is very high in iron, and a large serving can result in a false-positive result on tests for occult blood in stool. The problem is that spinach turns shit a dark shade of green. It doesn’t look like the black tarry stool you get with digested blood from internal bleeding. That’s what the bismuth was for. Bismuth turns shit black. They took me to Northeast Regional Medical Center, which was near the juvenile facility. Unfortunately, they sent someone in the ambulance with me to ensure I didn’t try to escape. That would make it more difficult, but I was determined. I’d be long gone by the time they realized I was missing. Since the state still listed me as John Doe, I was admitted to Emergency under that name, with the medical history unknown. They checked my vital signs, put me in a cubicle with only a stretcher and a chair for my babysitter to keep watch on me, and had me get undressed and put on a hospital gown. Not that I was wearing much to begin with – just the state-issued jump suit we all had to wear in the juvenile facility. At least it wasn’t bright orange like the ones you see on TV. The sitter wasn’t even gonna let me have privacy to get undressed – I had to ask her to step out so I could undress. One thing that struck me when they took my vitals was my height, which they measured at five-foot-eight inches. The last time I’d checked at home, I was five-foot three. Apparently, I was in the midst of a growth spurt and was gonna be tall like my dad was. Maybe now I reallycould pass for sixteen if I could escape from my prison. The trouble was, my voice hadn’t yet started to change, and I was still pretty much hairless everywhere except on my head. I knew some kids were late bloomers, but it’d be pretty hard to pass for seventeen next year if my voice still hadn’t changed. After changing into the hospital gown and stowing the prison garb in the plastic bag they gave me for my personal belongings, such as they were, it took more than an hour before someone even came to check up on me. It wasn’t even a doctor, but a physician’s assistant. She listened to my heart and lungs, which was pretty worthless, and finally she had me lie flat and listened to my stomach. She pressed all over my belly and elicited a deliberate groan from me when she pressed down on my stomach, which I knew was in the upper center and left portion of the abdomen. She then simply walked away without even asking me any questions or tellin’ me anything about what was goin’ on. Didn’t she need to know when the pain started, what made it better or worse, did it come and go and had I ever had the pain before? Those were the sorts of questions my Medicaid doc at home would’ve asked. It was at least another hour before someone else came to check up on me, and it was just the phlebotomist, who drew six tubes of blood. What did they need with six tubes? I could see maybe four tubes – chemistry, cell counts, coagulation and type and cross for possible transfusion. What else could they need? Then the obvious came to mind – toxicology and drugs, but given that my symptoms pointed to internal bleeding, why were they taking it so slowly? If I were really bleeding, wouldn’t I have bled out by now? Come to think of it, they hadn’t even started an IV. Wasn’t that the first thing they usually did in Emergency? If I really was bleeding internally, I’d be dead by now. It wasn’t until three hours later, I think, that someone came to see me. “Hello, John, I’m Dr. Margoles,” she began. “The good news is that if you lost any blood, the amount wasn’t significant. Your hemoglobin is fourteen and your hematocrit is 43. Your white count is mildly elevated at 11.3, which might explain the source of the diarrhea.” Actually, it was the spinach, but I couldn’t tell her that. “Your stool occult blood test was strongly positive, however, so you do have internal bleeding, and that has to be worked up.” Then I had a crazy thought that was so out of left field, it might actually work. “Could my normal blood counts be due to dehydration?” I asked. “In other words, if we gave you fluids, would the dilution lower the numbers?” Dr. Margoles caught on. “Although there might be some dilution, your BUN and creatinine were normal, telling me that any dehydration is minor. By the way, your blood type is O-Positive, the most common blood type. You might need to know that someday.” Little did either of us know how right she was about that. “I’m going to have Dr. Narayana come see you,” she continued. “He’s a gastroenterologist, which is a stomach doctor. He’s going to talk to you about the next steps to evaluate this, and then you’ll be free to go home.” “What?” I exclaimed in surprise. “You’ve gotta be fuckin’ kidding me. I was told the last time that I needed to get to Emergency right away if I ever had black shit. They told me I could bleed to death and die.” “You mean this has happened before?” Dr. Margoles asked. “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” “Because no one asked,” I replied. “No one even let me tell them my story. I’ve had problems with stomach pain since I was maybe ten.” “Well, that does change things, but this is still something that could be worked up as an outpatient, John,” she responded. “I’m sure you have fine people here and that Dr. Narayana is a fine gastroenterologist, but how many kids my age has he scoped?” I asked. “How many pediatric specialists do you have on staff?” I continued. “Do you even have a pediatric radiologist? “Look, I’ve had unexplained stomach pain for years now, and I’m only thirteen. I’m no expert, but I’ve read enough stuff to have some Ideas of what could be goin’ on. If it’s some sort of cancer, it would be very rare in someone my age. If it’s an ulcer, there’s something very wrong for me to have gotten symptoms when I was ten. If it’s something more obscure like a vascular abnormality – I think it’s called an AVM or something like that – I doubt that anyone on your staff has dealt with something like that in someone my age. I need the workup that can only be obtained at a major teaching hospital, and that isn’t gonna happen here.” “No, I’m sure your right about that,” Dr. Margoles replied. “Ultimately, we’ll have to send you to a tertiary-care hospital, but we can certainly look for the basics here.” “Can you?” I asked. “If I were still bleeding actively, I’d probably be dead by now. Not that you did anything wrong, but you’re not used to a case like mine, and I could’ve bled to death before I showed any signs of shock. No offense, but kids look fine until they don’t, and by then it’s usually too late. I read that in a medical thriller once. If I need to be scoped, I’d rather it be by someone who’s done it hundreds of times in kids. “I may seem calm, ’cause that’s how I act when I’m scared,” I continued. “Actually, I’m freakin’ out here, and I don’t want to be sent back to that facility to die. For what it’s worth, I’m not there because I did anything wrong. I’m there because there’s no one to take care of me and they haven’t been able to figure out what to do with me.” “You’re obviously very smart,” Dr. Margoles responded. “So, you probably realize this is out of my hands. It’s up to your social worker to arrange for something like a transfer to St. Louis.” “Then get her on the phone,” I admonished the doctor. “Tell her there’s something potentially very wrong with me and that there’s a risk I could die if you send me back there. Tell her I need to be worked up in a tertiary-care medical center and that I need to be transferred today.” The doctor looked intently at me, and so I said, “Treat me the way you would if I was yourson instead of some abandoned homeless kid. At least give me that much.” “I’ll see what I can do,” she replied, and then she left. Hours passed and I still hadn’t heard from my social worker. They weren’t permitting me to eat or drink anything, just in case I needed to have an emergency endoscopy, and I was beyond starved and thirsty beyond belief. Finally, after much begging and cajoling, they relented and let me have a clear-liquid diet, so I had the pleasure of eating a supper consisting of clear chicken broth, apple juice and lime gelatin. The meal was so wonderful, I asked for seconds. Well, I was hungry. My social worker, Ms. Hollister, finally showed up at 7:30. I was beyond exhausted by then. I’d been up since the early morning hours and of course there was the stress of not knowing what was gonna happen. I was shocked to see her when she finally entered my room. “Good evening, John Doe. Still not willing to share your real name with us?” she asked. “The way I feel tonight, I’m not sure I could remember it if I tried,” I responded. “But you do know that you’ve had stomach problems for years, since you were ten?” she asked. “That’s right,” I replied. Sighing, she continued, “Your doctor tells me you need a thorough workup for a GI bleed, and that you’re afraid of going back to the facility for fear you could die there. She says we don’t have the resources to provide an adequate workup for your condition here and that you require hospital admission, given your active bleeding and your anxiety. I think we both recognize that her decision’s a bit, shall we say, tenuous?” “Let’s just say I’d rather not die here,” I replied. “And you think you’d be better off in St. Louis?” she asked. “Not better off in general, but they have real children’s hospitals there. Shriner’s is renowned,” I responded. Nodding her head, she acknowledged, “It is, but it’s not in network with the state, nor is the St. Louis Children’s Hospital, which is part of Washington University. I can send you to Mercy Hospital…” “I’ve never heard of it,” I interrupted. “Let’s just say it doesn’t have the reputation that the others do and leave it at that,” she went on. “You’ve made a lot of extra work for me, but at least I’ll have you out of my hair and you’ll be someone else’s responsibility. Sending you to St. Louis means transferring you to a facility there, and that alone might make you want to reconsider. St. Louis is a tough city with one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the nation. There are two Juvenile justice facilities in greater St. Louis. In one of them, you’d be one of the few white faces, and it might be dangerous for you. The other, across the Missouri River in St. Charles, would be a better choice if we can get you in there.” Shit, I’d been avoiding St. Louis like the plague for good reason, but I thought I’d have a better chance of escaping there and disappearing for a time, until it was safe to buy a new bike or to catch a bus out of town. However, if my plans didn’t work out, I might be jumping from the frying pan into the fire. “Columbia’s a university town,” Ms. Hollister continued. “I think you’d be much happier there, and it’s significantly closer. Women’s and Children’s Hospital may not be Shriners, but It’s in network, and I need to consider what your life will be like once you get out of the hospital.” That did sound more promising, but I got the impression there was something she wasn’t telling me. “What about Kansas City?” I asked, thinking of the ease of crossing right into Kansas from there. “Do you have something in network there?” “It’s nearly a three-hour drive from here,” Ms. Hollister cautioned. “It would be taking quite a risk transporting you there if you’re bleeding starts up again, but yes, Kansas City’s an option. The only trouble is that Children’s Mercy’s main campus is on the Kansas side of the state line, and technically we’re not allowed to send you out of state. They do have a campus in Missouri that’s part of the university medical center, and the hospital’s renowned, but if they need to send you to the main hospital for a procedure, we’d actually have to get a court order for you to do so.” By the same token, if I managed to slip across the state line on my own, Missouri couldn’t come after me. That was worth everything. “Why don’t you see if you can get me into Kansas City?” I responded. “The Hilltop School would be a good place for you,” Ms. Hollister suggested. “I’ll see if we can transfer you there. Alternatively, there’s Clay County if we can’t. However, I’ll have to get authorization to send you by ambulance, and I might not be able to get it, period. If that’s the case, you’ll have to stay right here until you’re stable enough to travel in a state vehicle. I’d have to obtain a release from your doctor so that we can transport you to Kansas City and have you worked up as an outpatient.” “I’d feel safer going directly to the hospital by ambulance,” I replied, “but if the alternative is to be worked-up here, then we’ll do it your way.” “I’ll make the arrangements either way,” she replied, and then after a pause, she asked, “Judging from your vocabulary, you’re not really in the seventh grade, are you, John?” “I’d rather not comment on that,” I replied. Shit, she was onto me! “Don’t worry about it, John,” she continued. “I’m not going to press the issue, although I suspect you could tell me the arctangent of one.” “Forty-fi…” I started to answer without thinking. “You couldn’t resist,” she laughed. “Trig’s at least a junior-level course, but I suspect you mastered it some time ago, and maybe calculus, too. Your country accent makes it easy for you to hide your exceptional intelligence. You’re someone else’s problem now, and as far as I’m concerned, this conversation never happened.” I felt dumbfounded as she left. She’d picked up on my extensive vocabulary, so from now on, I was gonna hafta watch it.
  10. Come the morning, we got up early and had a light breakfast, which was all we could stomach, and got ready to go to church. I was surprised when we piled into Larry’s SUV and headed south, well outside of the city. Everything we’d gone to so far had been within walking distance, and there were several churches and even a synagogue located right downtown, so I was surprised to see us traveling so far to go to church. Then we pulled up in front of a Unitarian Church, and it made a bit more sense. “We used to attend the Baptist church,” Larry explained, “but after Greg ran away and when he came out, there was no way we could go back there.” “I’d run away again before I’d go back there,” Greg chimed in. “Unfortunately, all of the churches downtown take a literal approach to interpreting the Bible,” Larry explained. “One of the Evangelical churches welcomes gay parishioners, believe it or not, but the emphasis is still on salvation. I do miss that aspect of the church, but far better to be able to pray with my son at my side than alone.” “No offense, but salvation won’t do me much good when I don’t even believe in it,” Greg replied, “and I don’t like being told I’m a sinner for not believing, let alone because I’m gay. I can live with the Unitarian Church, but I could do without the emphasis on faith.” “I’m with you there, Greg,” I chimed in. Laughing, Larry chimed in with, “You’ve certainly come to the right place, Adam. You can believe whatever you want here – or not believe at all.” We got outta Larry’s SUV and headed into the church. It was evident Larry and Greg were regulars as we were greeted by the other parishioners as we headed down the aisle and took our seats. It was evident that people were curious as to who I was, and fortunately, Larry managed to get away with saying I was an out-of-town friend of Greg’s visiting for the weekend. I was glad he didn’t make up something more elaborate, as it’s easy to get caught in a lie when things become too complicated. A simple story is easily forgotten, which was just the way I wanted it. I’d never been to a church service before, so I didn’t have a basis for comparison. Of course, I had some ideas from the books I’d read, so I did have a basic understanding of what Christianity was all about. I guess if I had to characterize the service, I’d have called it Christian lite. There wasn’t an organ but there was a guitar and a flute and a lot of singing. It seemed like a bunch of prayers to whatever or whomever you considered god to be. It kinda reminded me of, ‘May the Force be with you.’ Seriously, they didn’t actually say that, but they might as well have. There was a social hour afterwards that I could’ve done without, although the food was quite good. I just didn’t care for the socially awkward moments of meeting other kids. It was obvious that Greg was out, ’cause kids kept asking if I was Greg’s boyfriend. Fortunately, Greg responded that I was just a friend. Although I liked the idea of being his boyfriend, mostly I just wanted to be forgotten. After the service, Greg and I visited Lincoln’s house and his law office, and the Old State Capitol, all of which were very interesting. We then headed back to his home, where Larry was busy making a pot roast. Since the food I had at home consisted mostly of things that could be nuked, and the food at school was, well, school food, I’d never had a pot roast before. Larry served the roast with potatoes and carrots that were cooked with the roast as well as green beans prepared separately. The beans were from a package kept in the freezer rather than from a can, and, man, what a difference that made. The food was all delicious. Of course, Greg a and I took care of the cleanup after dinner. Having a dishwasher sure made things easier. Afterwards, Greg suggested we watch a movie or two on the big-screen TV in their living room. At first I wasn’t keen on the idea ’cause I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of watching another religious movie like Ben Hur. When he asked if I’d be interested in seeing Spider-Man Homecoming or Thor Ragnarok, I realized he meant watching a real movie, and I was certainly up for that. Greg was a major fan of the Marvel Comics movies, whereas I could take them or leave them. The problem is that they all build on each other, so they don’t make much sense unless you’ve seen all the previous ones, which I hadn’t. Greg was a major fan of Christopher Nolan, and while I was familiar with the Dark Night trilogy, I was much more interested in science fiction. I’d seen Interstellar a few years back and had found it disappointing. It happened to be one of Greg’s all-time favorites, so we got into quite a discussion of what I thought was wrong with it. “Look, if there’s another planet with life on it, it would be incredibly irresponsible to contaminate it with life from earth,” I began. “We probably wouldn’t be compatible with it and we’d end up destroying it as well as ourselves. Planets within the so-called Goldilocks zone that don’t harbor life probably don’t for a reason, be it the lack of radiation-shielding magnetic fields or the lack of an atmosphere or water. Mars, for example, comes to mind. Without photosynthesis, there wouldn’t be oxygen in any case. “The bottom line is that no matter how badly we manage to fuck up the earth, it would still be easier to terraform the earth back to what it was than to start from scratch elsewhere.” “Okay, I get it,” Greg countered, “but it was still a cool movie. How about Inception? Please tell me you liked that one.” “I never saw it,” I replied. “I was like only four when it came out, and by the time I was old enough to appreciate it, there were other movies to see.” “Oh, you have to see Inception,” Greg exclaimed, so I agreed to watch it with him. He was right – it was outstanding. Next to the Star Wars movies, it was probably the best science-fiction movie I’d ever seen. “So, what did you think about the ending?” Greg asked as the credits rolled. “Was he still dreaming or was it real?” “Obviously, Nolan left it ambiguous for a reason,” I answered. “You’re meant to hope it’s real but have just enough doubt to make it interesting. I’d counter that it doesn’t really matter, at least not to Mr. Cobb. Regardless, he’ll watch his kids grow up and have kids of their own. Perhaps he’ll find someone and remarry. She might even be the girl of his dreams, literally.” Hitting me on the shoulder, Greg responded, “Oh, that was bad, but very clever. You wanna watch another movie?” “Greg, need I remind you that you have school in the morning?” Larry interrupted. “And, Adam, you’ll be helping me to open the shop.” “Did the wheels come in?” I asked, suddenly remembering why I was there in the first place.” “I scheduled delivery for first thing in the morning,” Larry answered. “C’mon Adam, let’s get ready for bed,” Greg suggested. “Maybe we can watch something short on the TV in my room.” He added. Once we were behind the closed bathroom door, I asked, “Isn’t your dad gonna know we’re having sex?” “Of course, he’ll know,” Greg answered, “but by saying we’re gonna be watching TV, it gives him plausible deniability.” “Plausible deniability?” I said as I rolled the words off my tongue. “I like that.” Returning to Greg’s room, undressing and slipping under the sheets, once again I took charge as I kissed Greg deeply and forcefully. There was no question in my mind that I was a bottom, yet I liked to assume a dominant role. Why was that? I’d always assumed being a bottom went hand-in-hand with being passive, but I got excited when I dominated Greg. I didn’t know if Greg preferred being a top or if he was more versatile than I was, but he clearly seemed to enjoy being dominated. It made no sense to me. Apparently, being on top versus on the bottom was completely different, from aggressiveness. Was that typical? I just didn’t know. After a frenzied make-out session, I sniffed under his right armpit. His scent was strong and musky there, and I licked him hungrily there, moving my tongue around and over his sparse patch of hair. I repeated the action with his left armpit and then licked, sucked and nibbled on each of his nipples. Greg was whimpering and writhing, which only served to excite me further. I kneaded his balls in one hand while I teased his ring with the index finger on the other hand, and then I pushed inside. “Quick, I’m gonna cum,” he whispered loudly, and I used the hand that was kneading his balls to grab and stroke him. I moved my head, so I was looking right into his member, when he erupted forcefully, sending jet after jet of his spunk all over me. I could feel the warmth of it as it started to slowly run down my face. “God, that is so fuckin’ sexy,” Greg exclaimed as he reached behind him, grabbed his phone and proceeded to capture several shots of me. “I’m definitely keeping this one,” he said as he turned his phone to show me. The pic he’d captured showed me with his spunk all over my face and even in my hair. There was spunk coating my eyelids, spunk running down my nose with a drop of it about to drip off the end of my nose. There was a look of lust on my face, with my lips slightly parted and a large glob of his spunk sliding into the corner of my mouth. I had to admit, the picture was sexy as hell. “Just don’t sext that to anyone,” I admonished him. “Much as I’d love to show it off, I wouldn’t do that,” Greg replied. “Now let me have some fun with you, too.” With that, he lifted my legs up in the air, bent my knees and spread them widely. He put a pillow under my butt and got up close and personal with my boy-bits. Next, he did something really unexpected – he spread my cheeks and started licking my hole. I’d never even thought of doing such a thing, especially considering what comes out there. I knew I wasn’t exactly clean as I’d shit earlier, and some of my farts hadn’t exactly been dry. I hated to think of Greg having to taste that, but he clearly was enjoying himself, and so was I, intensely. I nearly lost it when I felt the tip of his tongue teasing at my ring, and then he pushed forward, and his tongue slipped inside. Oh. My. God. As he started to fuck me with his tongue, he used one hand to rub my chest and the other to stroke me. I was insanely aroused and could only hold back from such a broad assault for a short time. When my climax was imminent, I warned Greg as he’d done with me, and he put his face right in the path of my erupting spasm. Of course, having no outward evidence of having entered puberty, my eruption was limited, but there was enough to leave a streak of my cum in his hair, down the side of his nose, across his mouth and down to his chin. As I came down from my high, Greg again grabbed his phone and, putting his face next to mine, took a selfie of the two of us together with semen covering both our faces. It was an amazingly sexy shot – one Greg could share with no one else. I initiated an intense make-out session in which we smeared each other with our cum and licked most of it off. Finally, I grabbed the condom I saw on top of Greg’s nightstand, opened the package and unrolled it onto him. I grabbed the tube of lube I saw there as well and smeared it generously over him. He’d never gotten fully soft, nor had I, but now we were hard as steel, so I pushed his shoulders back and sat down forcefully on him. At first there was some sharp pain, but then it felt wonderful as I started to rock back and forth on top of him. It didn’t take long until we both came again. By now, Larry had gone to bed, so I snuck into the bathroom and took a shower while Greg changed the bed clothes. We then switched places and, once he returned, snuggled up together under the sheets and went to sleep. The alarm on Greg’s phone went off way too early. We both washed up in the bathroom together, then grabbed a breakfast of cereal, yogurt and toast. I’d never had yogurt with cereal before and wasn’t sure how I’d like it instead of milk, but it was actually much better tasting than with milk. The toast was made with whole-wheat bread instead of white bread, and to me there was no comparison. The whole wheat had much more substance and flavor. The three of us headed out of the house together and came to the bike shop first. Larry and I peeled off at that point, while Greg continued on toward the high school. A FedEx truck pulled up just as we unlocked the door, and we ended up helping the driver to offload not only my wheels but a bunch of merchandise for sale in the store. No sooner had the FedEx truck departed minutes later, a brown UPS truck pulled up, and we unloaded even more merchandise. By the time we carried everything inside, it was time to open the store, and there were already customers waiting outside. “Why don’t you unpack the new wheels for your bike and check them to make sure they’re okay,” Larry suggested. “Make sure there are no nicks or dents in the rims, and that they’re true. When you’ve done that, I’ll show you what to do next.” As I got to work, I noticed that one of the customers was simply picking up a bike that had been repaired, and another was picking up a custom-order bike seat that had arrived with the morning’s delivery, and Larry installed it while the guy waited. The third customer had a malfunctioning derailer that was causing the chain to slip off the sprocket while attempting to change gears. Larry decided he was gonna hafta replace it and promised to have it ready by the end of the day. In the meantime, I opened the boxes containing my new wheels and was shocked to see that they were only rims, without hubs or spokes. I couldn’t believe I was paying so much money, just for the rims. I guess we were gonna have to reuse the ones already on my bike, but I’d no idea how to remove and install bicycle spokes. No wonder replacing the wheels was a four-hour job! I looked over each wheel to make sure there were no nicks, dents or scratches, but how could I check for alignment? I hit on the idea of laying the wheel on a flat table and checking for gaps, and then rolling each wheel to see if it settled in any one place on the wheel. Once I was convinced the wheels were both true, I got ready to remove the front wheel, but then Larry, noticing what I was doing, told me to wait because aligning the disk brake was tricky. I’d changed the front wheel multiple times already and was surprised to learn that I might have been doing it wrong. After Larry finished up with the customers, he showed me how to remove the pannier case, which was far trickier than I would’ve thought. He recommended I do that first, before doing anything else, which turned out to be very sound advice. While I did that, Larry opened boxes from the morning’s shipment and placed the contents either into inventory or on display. That left about a dozen bikes in boxes that needed to be assembled and put on display. First, however, he got to work replacing the derailer on the bike that had been dropped off that morning. The precision and speed he exhibited in disassembling and reassembling the parts, and then aligning them was extraordinary, but then he’d been doing this for a living for years. Once I had the pannier case off my bike, Larry had me remove the chain and then remove both the front and rear wheels at the same time. He showed me how easy it was to knock the brake pads out of alignment and how to open them properly to facilitate removal of the wheels. Then he said, “The work involved in reusing these spokes isn’t worth the effort. Take these bolt cutters and cut all the spokes close to the wheel. When you’re done, discard the wheel and then remove the other halves of the spokes from the hub.” Following his instructions, I removed both wheels and set them aside. I then unhooked all of the spokes from the hubs and set them aside as well. In the meantime, Larry finished installing the new derailer on the bike with the faulty one, and then he began unboxing new bikes and assembling them. It was fascinating to watch him, but I needed to focus on working on my bike. Once I had the hubs separated from the spokes, I asked Larry what to do next. He said, “Ordinarily, we’d use a spoke alignment tool to make it easier to replace a full set of spokes at once. Unfortunately, your bike uses a non-standard number of spokes and spoke spacing, which is why we couldn’t replace your wheels with a standard model. We’d have had to replace the hub as well, but they don’t make a standard hub that would fit this frame. You can custom-order one, but for what that would cost, you could buy a really nice new bike.” Larry got out a box of spokes that were pre-sized to fit the size wheels on my bike, and then he showed me how to start with inserting three of them to fix the hub squarely in the center of the wheel. He then demonstrated how to add the rest of the spokes and snug them up, and once that was finished, to adjust the tension in opposite pairs using a torque wrench. Finally, he showed me how to check the wheel for wobble and circularity and to tweak the spokes until the wheel alignment was perfect. After doing the first wheel with his help, I did the second one completely on my own, and then he inspected my work, which he deemed to be satisfactory, as he put it. With the new spokes all in place, Larry told me to install the innertubes and tires on both wheels. That was something I knew how to do! When it got to reinstalling the wheels on the bike frame, Larry showed me how to adjust it properly so that the wheel remained true without even the slightest wobble, and he showed me how to recalibrate the disk brakes, so the bike didn’t veer to the side when stopping. Finally, Larry told me to go ahead and reinstall the pannier case, figuring I could figure it out on my own, and I did. Throughout the day, customers came in to look at bikes and accessories, and to bring in their bikes for repair. As the business picked up in the afternoon, a young guy joined us and took over the lion’s share of the sales while Larry got down to the business of assembling the shipment of new bikes. Each bike had to be aligned, calibrated and tested by riding outside. It was very apparent why the shop had all five-star reviews. Larry provided exceptional service and had earned a reputation that kept customers coming back. When I finally finished the work on my bike, I rode it around the immediate area to make sure the wheels were properly installed and true. I couldn’t get over how much more smoothly it rode than it had before. When I mentioned that to Larry, he explained that the tires had a much less aggressive tread than my old tires, which were designed for riding on dirt. These were far better suited to a road bike and had a much lower rolling resistance. Since the vast majority of my riding was on pavement, road-bike tires made far more sense. However, the 4-season tread design, particularly in the side walls, gave them exceptional traction on snow and Ice and made them suitable for occasional use on dirt and mud. The Kevlar belts and sidewalls made them resistant to puncture, and I could ride them right over broken glass and keep riding them for several miles, even flat, without worrying about damaging the rims. A little money spent on better tires could’ve saved me a lot of time and money, but then I’d have never met Larry and Greg. I lost four days and spent hundreds of dollars, but it was time and money well spent. Before I knew it, having finished the day in high school, Greg showed up at the bicycle shop. I asked Larry about paying up, but he said we’d take care of it later at home since he had to cash in my Applazon gift cards. Larry and I headed home, but my plans for wild sex with reckless abandon had to be put on hold, ’cause Greg had a shitload of homework. Greg said that it went much faster with my help, and he understood it much better, too. Unfortunately, by the time we finished, it was time to start dinner. Since we still had some leftover pot roast from last night’s dinner, Greg suggested making a beef stew from it. They served something like that at school, but it was nothing like what Greg and I were gonna make. Adding water to the pot, Greg brought it to a low boil and let it simmer until the meat literally fell apart, making it easy to remove the few bones from the roast. He added some carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, a can of candied sweet potatoes and then something I never would have thought to include: a can of pineapple. He added a dash of cumin, a pinch of chili powder and a sprinkle of black pepper. After allowing the mixture to cook thoroughly, until all the vegetables were overcooked, as he put it, he added flour to thicken the water and turn it into a brown gravy. In the meantime, Greg put me to work peeling potatoes. Once that was done, he put them in a large pot of boiling water and cooked them thoroughly. He then had me mash them in their mixer while he sautéed butter and garlic powder in a small saucepan. He folded the butter and garlic into the potatoes, added grated parmesan cheese and a dash of paprika, and mixed them thoroughly into the potatoes. They smelled wonderful. We finished it all as Larry arrived home, and I set the table while Greg warmed and sliced up a loaf of challah. Following Greg’s example, I spooned the stew onto a slice of the challah, added a dollop of mashed potatoes on the side and spooned some of the gravy over the potatoes. For a meal made with leftovers, it was amazingly good. Since it was our last night together, Greg and I took our time snuggling up in bed, just making out for the longest time and then slowly and gently making love. It was a memorable night. In the morning, Larry fixed a frittata for breakfast. Made with eggs, potatoes, sausage, peppers and onions, it was an incredible sendoff for me. As we were eating, however, he asked me where I was headed, and I told him my next destination was Hannibal, Missouri. “You might not be aware of it, but the bridge at Florence washed out with the flooding we had a few weeks back,” Larry informed me. “Not a problem,” I replied smugly. “I’ll be crossing at Meredosia.” “I hate to be the bearer of bad news,” Larry interjected, “but that bridge washed out over a year ago and it won’t be fixed until later this summer.” “Fuck, how am I supposed to get across the Illinois River?” I asked. “I can’t take the Interstate.” “I’d be happy to drive you to Hannibal, but it’s a four-hour round trip,” Larry responded, ignoring my language. “I couldn’t take you until Saturday and something tells me you’d like to be well on your way before then. Your best bet is probably to take the bridge at Beardstown. It’s a bit out of the way, but it shouldn’t add much more than an hour to your trip.” “Then Beardstown it is,” I replied, but then I remembered, “Oh, I still need to pay you for the repairs to my bike!” Shaking his head, Larry said, “You did all the labor yourself, so I certainly can’t charge you for labor.” “But you showed me how,” I replied, “and that took a lot of your time.” “Even so, you did almost all the work yourself,” Larry countered, “and you helped me assemble all those bikes, which saved me a crapload of time. Let’s just call it even.” “But there was Saturday night’s dinner,” I noted. “Greg and I don’t get out to eat a nice meal often enough,” Larry countered. Wiping the tears from my eyes, I exclaimed, “You guys treated me so nicely, even after I told you what happened with my dad.” “Son, you’re a really good kid,” Larry countered, “and good kids don’t kill their father without good reason. There was as much said as unsaid, and I know you probably told Greg more than you told me, but you didn’t need to say anything for me to realize you’d been physically, mentally and sexually abused by your father. Horribly abused.” “Shit, how’d you know?” Greg asked in surprise. “Let’s just say I learned a lot after you ran away, Greg,” Larry answered. “If we were rich, I’d hire the best criminal defense attorney and the best family lawyer in Indiana, and we’d fight this thing to the ends of the earth. But even if I sold the business and the house, it wouldn’t be enough, and then how would I send Greg to college?” “Adam’s more important than college, Dad,” Greg responded with tears in his eyes. “I understand how you feel, Greg. If it were only me, I’d live homeless on the street to save Adam, but even then, it wouldn’t be enough. I called my personal attorney and asked how much something like this could cost, and it’s into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even if we sold everything but the clothes on our backs, it wouldn’t be enough. Like it or not, Adam’s best bet may well be what he’s already doing: to make a new identity for himself and to run.” Then turning back to me, he said, “Son, take care of yourself, and if you can, keep in touch.” Handing me a card from the bicycle shop, he added, “My phone number and e-mail address are both on here, and I’ve written Greg’s number and address on the back. If you ever need help, no matter how bad things may be, contact us. If you’re only allowed one phone call, make it us.” I couldn’t help myself as tears flowed freely from my eyes. I ran to Larry and hugged him tightly. I’d never loved my father, but I loved Larry as if he were my real dad. Letting go of Larry, I hugged Greg tightly, and then I kissed him long and hard on the lips. As I pulled away from the kiss, I saw that Larry was smiling. He was actually grinning. He was truly happy that Greg and I had connected as lovers, even if only briefly. I loved this boy and this man so much it hurt, and I didn’t want to leave them in the worst way. But Greg had to get to school, Larry had a shop to open, and I had a long ride ahead of me, and so I mounted my bike and rode away.
  11. “That was so fucking cool,” I exclaimed as Greg and I exited the Lincoln Library as they literally locked the doors behind us. They’d actually started shutting things down at 4:30, which I thought was cheap of them, but I guess the idea was to move people toward the exits so they could close up at 5:00. Even so, we’d had a fantastic time together. There was so much cool stuff, the interactive exhibits were unlike anything I’d ever seen before and the live performances were really sick. You could even ask Lincoln questions! I’d never been to a presidential library before, but apparently this was the largest one by far. “Have you been to any other presidential libraries?” I asked Greg. “I’ve been to three,” he answered, “the Truman library in Kansas City, the Clinton Library in Little Rock and the Carter Library in Atlanta. I’d like to see the LBJ library in Austin. No president ever did more for civil rights than he did. It’s too bad he got saddled with Vietnam. Imagine what he coulda done with another four years. Instead, we got four more years of war, and Watergate.” “Is there an Obama Library?” I asked. “There will be, right in Chicago,” Greg answered. “I can’t wait to see it. Unfortunately, construction hasn’t even started, and it’ll be a while before it opens. I’ll undoubtedly have my license by then and be able to drive there myself.” We approached a very tall building, which appeared to be one of the tallest in Springfield if not the tallest. It was the Windham Hotel and a young man dressed in a fancy uniform held the door open for us. Greg led us inside and we found ourselves in a very elegant lobby with fancy furniture, art on the walls and a long desk, behind which there were impeccably dressed staff. Of course, I knew such places existed and I’d been by similar hotels in Indy, but I’d never been inside one before. That morning, when Greg suggested we wear button-up dress shirts with our jeans, it seemed kind of ridiculous, just to go to a museum and out to dinner. Now, if anything, I felt underdressed. I was a country hick in the city. I felt so out of place. “Let’s go sit and wait for Dad,” Greg suggested as he led us to a seat that was wide enough for two. I guess you’d call it a love seat, but it was so large and plush that we seemed to sink down into it, all the way to China. “You look uncomfortable,” Greg noted. “Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz comes to mind,” I agreed. Greg laughed with a snort. “You might be from a small town,” Greg interjected, “but your only lack is with experience. You’re smarter than anyone I’ve ever met and probably smarter than anyone else in Springfield.” “I doubt that,” I countered with a laugh. “I saw you looking at the posters on my walls,” Greg responded. “Tell me what you saw.” “John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Shirley Horn, Bill Evans, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and I’m sure there were other Jazz greats, but those are the ones I remember,” I replied. “How many symphonies did Beethoven write,” he asked. “Nine of course,” I responded, “The ninth is one of the most famous choral symphonies with the ‘Ode to Joy’. The opening notes of the fifth symphony are among the best-known tunes of any. The second movement of the seventh symphony is among the most beautiful, and it was written after he’d gone completely deaf.” “How about Tchaikovsky?” Greg asked. “He wrote six symphonies of course, the final one being the famous Pathétique, written shortly before his death,” I answered. “It’s widely accepted that he actually committed suicide by deliberately drinking tainted water rather than face being publicly outed. His music is timeless.” “In the category of famous gay artists for $100,” Greg began, mimicking the cadence of Alex Trebek, “Best known for his painting of a young woman and his depiction of Christ’s last supper, he is credited with the first design for a submarine, although the actual craft was never built.” Scoffing, I replied, “C’mon, you can do better than that. Who was Leonardo DaVinci? He may well have been a pedophile, by the way, or more correctly a pederast. He certainly was interested in boys, but we’ll never know if the interest was sexual. For what it was worth, he was left-handed. Beyond a doubt, he was one of the greatest scientists since the fall of the Roman Empire and one of the most brilliant men that ever lived.” “I rest my case,” Greg concluded. “You may have grown up in a small town, but you don’t belong in a small town. You don’t even belong here really. You should live in a place like Boston, New York, San Francisco, London or Paris,” “Oh, Paris,” I replied. “Sure, that’ll work. After all, I purr-less vouz French real good. Actually, I can read it pretty well. I just can’t speak it.” Greg responded, “Seriously, wouldn’t you at least like to go there?” Did I want to see Paris? It was a major city with so many people, but it’d be a chance to see the Mona Lisa in person, not to mention the other art of the Louvre, to see the Eiffel Tower and the Panthéon, where Victor Hugo and Madame Curie were buried. And the Impressionist collection at Musée d’Orsay was said to be second to none. “Fuck yeah, I want to go to Paris,” I agreed, “but maybe first I should go to New York.” Then I said something outta the blue that took me completely by surprise. “Maybe someday I’ll live there.” The thought of actually living in New York was terrifying to my small-town psyche, but there was something about the idea that somehow seemed to fit with me. How weird. “You should at least go to Chicago,” Greg suggested. “It’s only about four hours by car and there’s a lot to see and do there.” Laughing, I responded, “Big cities aren’t a place for a young boy to blend in. Older teens could get away with it, maybe even you, but a boy my age, who looks more like he’s eleven or twelve, would stand out, and there a lot of bad characters who zero in on runaways like lightening. In the country, no one thinks twice about seeing a boy alone on a bike, but in the city, people wonder why they’re not with their parents or friends. It’s just not safe.” “Yeah, that pretty much sums it up,” Greg agreed, apparently thinking about his own experience running away. At that moment, Larry walked into the lobby and motioned for us to follow him. He went right up to a stand – I guess what you’d call a podium where a man was standing dressed in a tux. I’d seen kids in tuxes for prom, but those were various colors and, frankly, looked ridiculous. The host here looked very elegant, with a black coat, black pants, a black bow tie, a white shirt, a really wide belt made of cloth, and black shoes polished to a brilliant shine. Larry gave his name to the gentleman, who checked it off on a list and then pushed a button to open the elevator for us and led us inside. He pushed the button for the top floor, the thirtieth floor, and then exited before the doors could close. The elevator took us straight to the top and opened directly into the restaurant, where a woman dressed in an elegant black dress that went all the way to the floor, was waiting for us. She took us straight ahead to a table set for three, right by the window, waited for us to seat ourselves, and then handed each of us a menu. I was shocked by how small the restaurant actually was, with only about twenty tables. Perhaps a quarter of the place was taken up by a large open bar, and I wondered how it was legal for kids to eat there – I’d never be allowed in such a place back home – but then reasoned that the bar was in a room by itself, and although it was completely open to the restaurant, there was probably a loophole in the law that let them get away with it. The view out of the window was spectacular, with the entire city visible below, and a river could be seen meandering in the distance. I opened the menu to find that everything was listed separately, and half the items or maybe more than half were things I’d never even heard of before. Then I realized there were no prices listed. I knew the food wasn’t free, so I asked, “Why aren’t there any prices shown?” “It’s common in fancy restaurants to put the prices only in the menu given to the one paying for the meal. That’s so his or her guests won’t feel obligated to choose the cheapest item on the menu. Seriously, I’d like you boys to order something you’ve never had before. I know you’re probably starving, but don’t worry about ordering too much. We can always get the dessert to go. There was a reason I told you not to eat anything at the museum. I’ll order some appetizers for the table. You should order either a large salad or a bowl of soup and a small house salad. The lobster bisque is beyond heavenly. “This is a steakhouse and they’re known for their steaks, particularly the filet mignon. The lobster is also outstanding. If I can make a suggestion, you might want to get a petit filet with a single lobster tail, so you can enjoy a taste of both. They call it Surf and Turf. If you’d like something a bit more elegant, the sea bass is exceptional, but a bit spicy. The seared ahi tuna is incredible, but keep in mind that it’s mostly raw. Not raw like sushi, but very rare on the inside and grilled on the outside. The sea scallops are also quite good. There’s also a vegetarian pasta if you’re not into eating meat. “You can order your steaks with a variety of sauces, or just have them plain and let the meat speak for itself, so to speak. Béarnaise is a kind of butter sauce. Truffles are a kind of fungus with a more delicate, mustier flavor than mushrooms. I think you can figure the others out. Do order some side dishes, though, or you won’t get any vegetables. The seasonal vegetables are a must. They’re always excellent, no matter the selection or time of year. If you get a potato, don’t just settle for an ordinary baked potato. The garlic mashed potatoes are homemade and incredible. The parmesan truffle fries have to be tasted to be believed.” A woman in an elegant black dress that didn’t go all the way to the floor approached our table and asked, “Can I get you gentlemen something to drink?” “Do you have Heineken on tap?” Larry asked. “We do,” our server confirmed. “I’ll have a rum and coke, please,” Greg announced, the stinker. “Non-alcoholic rum and coke,” the server said aloud as she nodded at him. “It was worth a try,” he replied. “And how about you, young man,” she asked me. I really didn’t know anything about fancy drinks other than what I’d encountered in the many books I’d read, but that was probably a hell of a lot more than most people knew, so taking a literal page from James Bond, I think it was, I answered, “I’d like a Schweppe’s Bitter Lemon with an ounce of lime juice, lightly stirred, and a twist of lime.” “A man of discerning taste,” the server said, and then she departed. Looking back at the menu, I decided I’d try the Surf and Turf as Larry had suggested. I certainly didn’t want raw tuna! I’d never had lobster before, and I’d rarely had steak, and even then, it was a char-burned ribeye at someone’s backyard barbecue birthday party. Hell, about the only meats we ate back home were hotdogs, meatballs or pepperoni on a pizza. The few times we went out to eat, usually at the Steak ’n Shake in Seymour, I’d had hamburgers, and those were always a treat. The lobster bisque I guess was a kind of soup and the way Larry described it, I had to try it. I’d get the house salad and the seasonal vegetables, and the parmesan truffle fries. The server returned with the drinks and asked, “Have you gentlemen decided what to order?” “Are you boys ready?” Larry asked and both Greg and I nodded our heads in the affirmative. “We’ll have an order of the pan seared crab bites and an order of the New Zeeland Lamb Lollipops for the table,” Larry began. “I’ll have the lobster bisque and a house salad, the pan seared ahi tuna, the seasonal vegetables and the sautéed wild mushrooms.” Larry closed his menu and handed it back to the server. “How about you, young man,” she asked Greg. “The sea bass comes with spinach and sweet potato fries?” he asked. “They’re more of a garnish than a side dish, but the bass is an incredibly heavy fish. You’ll wonder if it’ll be enough when it’s first served, but you’ll have trouble finishing it. It’s that filling. If I could make a suggestion, order it with a side of the asparagus. They go very well together.” “Ok, I’ll have that,” Greg replied, “along with the lobster bisque and a house salad,” and then he handed the menu back to her. Finally, it was my turn. “I’ll start with the lobster bisque and a house salad, and I’ll have the Surf and Turf,” I began. “What can I bring you for the surf?” she asked. “The surf?” I asked. “You have a choice of the lobster tail or the shrimp,” she explained. “Oh, I’ll have the lobster,” I replied. “Excellent, and what would you like for the turf?” she asked. “The turf?” I asked. “What kind of steak would you like with that?” she asked. “Oh,” I responded, “I’ll have a petite filet.” “And how would you like that done?” she asked. Done? “What are my choices?” I asked. I guess she took pity on me, ’cause she explained it in more detail than I suspected she did most. “Rare is grilled on the outside, dark red on the inside and very, very juicy. Medium-rare is pink on the inside, grilled on the outside and moderately juicy. Medium is pink only in the very center, and otherwise grilled throughout with juicy meat but no juice outside the steak. Medium-well is completely grilled throughout with very little juice, and well-done is like shoe leather, but some people like their meat ruined that way.” I couldn’t help but laugh at her descriptions. I couldn’t believe I was actually considering asking for it rare, which sounded almost like it was raw inside, but I figured I could always send it back to have it cooked longer if I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t send it back to have it uncooked. So, I said, “As long as I can send it back to have it cooked longer, I’d like to try mine rare.” “I’ll be sure to tell the chef to make sure it’s not still mooing,” she replied. I really liked our server! “Did you want any sauces or crusts with that? If I could make a couple of suggestions, the garlic crust is perfect with the lobster and the brandy peppercorn sauce is amazing on the filet.” “Okay, that sounds good,” I agreed, “and since your next question’s probably gonna be about sides, I’ll have the parmesan truffle fries and seasonal vegetables.” “Excellent choices,” she replied, as I imagine she would’ve replied no matter what I ordered. “Did you boys have a good time today,” Larry asked. “We had a fantastic time,” I answered. “I thought I knew most everything about Lincoln, but that isn’t the same as actually seeing things first-hand.” “If you’d like, after going to church tomorrow, you could go to some other historic sites around town,” Larry suggested. I guess going to church was not optional. “There’s the old state capitol, Lincoln’s home, and his law office. We can also take a trip to New Salem historic site, about 25 miles north of here. It’s a restored log village where Lincoln lived when he was a young man.” “It’s kinda lame,” Greg chimed in. “They have actors pretending to be people that lived back when Lincoln lived there. It’s a bit contrived. Maybe worth a visit once, especially when you’re young and like things like that, but it’s more for entertainment than realistic.” “Maybe if there’s time,” I responded. “Fair enough,” Larry agreed. Just then the server brought the appetizers to the table and set small plates and forks in front of each of us. There were three lambchops, which was perfect for a table of three, but there were four small crab cakes and so Larry took the knife from his place and cut one of them in half and placed a half-cake on each of Greg’s and my plates. I’d never had crab anything before and couldn’t relate the cake in front of me to the sea critters that scurried around on six legs. I saw Greg stab his half-cake with his fork and pop it into his mouth, so I did the same with mine. I couldn’t believe the explosion of tastes that resulted in my mouth. There was some kind of spicy sauce on it – calypso sauce, as I recalled, and it was incredible. I hadn’t had lamb before either and was amazed at how succulent my lambchop lollipop tasted. I finished up with my other crab-cake bite, this time with mango salsa. Wow! The server returned with our soups and took away the plates from the appetizers. The lobster bisque smelled wonderful, but the taste was unbelievable. It was a good thing it was a small portion, ’cause otherwise I’d have never had room for the rest of the meal. Just as we were finishing the soup, the server brought our salads. It was a very simple plate of greens, but the lemon champagne vinaigrette, the fresh blueberries and the blue cheese crumbles made it special. The server took the salad plates away, and then we had a little time, I guess, to digest what we’d eaten so far before starting on the main course. I was just about to open my mouth, when our server arrived with a large tray that she put down on a stand and then proceeded to set our dinners down in front of us. The plate with my filet and lobster tail was huge, and it also included my sautéed seasonal vegetables. My fries came on a separate plate by themselves. Our server asked, “Would you like some ketchup for your fries? However, I can also offer barbecue sauce, lemon mayo or calypso sauce.” “Oh, the calypso sauce for sure,” I replied. Greg’s dinner certainly looked interesting. As our server warned us, it looked like a very small portion, but I could see that the piece of fish was very thick and dense. I wasn’t sure what to think of the asparagus – I’d never had asparagus before. Larry’s tuna was completely different than what I was expecting. I mean, I’d been eating tuna from a can forever, but this didn’t look anything like that. There were slices of what I guess was tuna that were dark red on the inside and crusty grey on the outside. I guess they seared the whole piece of fish on the outside first, and then sliced it up into thin slices. Never in a million years did I guess that tuna could be red when it’s raw. The other stuff on the plate looked good too – eggplant, pomegranate and bacon. Holding up a slice of the tuna on his fork, Larry asked, “Would you be interested in trying the tuna, Adam?” I wasn’t sure I could get past the fact that it was raw, but it sure looked good, so I said, “Why not?” Larry passed the slice over and onto my plate. He did the same with a second slice to Greg’s plate. “Could I return the favor, Larry and Greg?” I asked. “I’d love to try the steak with the brandy sauce,” Larry responded. “I’ve never had it before.” I wasn’t sure what the best way was to cut into the filet, but if I cut into it from the end, Larry would end up with only the outer edge of the steak. Therefore, I cut the fllet in half, right down the middle, then cut off a thin slice and passed it onto Larry’s plate. I cut off another slice and offered it to Greg, who grinned and nodded his head. I couldn’t help but notice that the filet was just as red inside as the tuna. “Would you guys like some of the lobster too?” I asked, and then similarly cut off a slice for each of them. It was a lot harder to cut than the filet, though. I then proceeded to eat some of the lobster myself and, wow, it was one of the best things I’d ever had. When I took a bite of the filet, however, I think I might have had an orgasm. It was so good. I never knew something could taste like that. I ate the slice of the tuna and it was every bit as incredible as the filet. Greg slipped a small slice of the sea bass onto my plate, and that one tiny piece put even the filet to shame. I actually moaned when I tasted it. “You’ve got the best thing on the menu, Greg,” I exclaimed. The only fish or seafood I’d ever had before that didn’t come out of a can was deep-fried and rectangular or the fried shrimp at school served with ketchup. The meal was incredible. I did swap some of my fries for some of Larry’s mushrooms and one of Greg’s asparagus spears. I was surprised at how much I liked the asparagus, and the sautéed seasonal vegetables were much more flavorful than any vegetables I’d ever had before. When the server came to take our plates, she rattled off the dessert selections and Larry insisted we order dessert, even if we had to take it home, but I put my foot down. I was stuffed beyond reason and didn’t even want to think about food. Greg said he felt the same way. Larry just laughed and claimed he’d never encountered a teenager before who refused dessert, but I could tell he was teasing us. How did this happen? How could it be that I was here this night enjoying food fit for a god. I’d fallen hard for Greg, and even for Larry in spite of his feelings about religion. There was a part of me that desperately wanted to stay here with them. Hadn’t Larry even suggested he’d like to take me in? The problem was that couldn’t be done legally. For him to even foster me, CPS would have to contact my father and when they found his body, all hell would break loose. Illinois wasn’t safe for me. It’d be too easy to send me back. Not even Missouri or Kansas would be safe. No, I needed to go far away from here and then forge a new identity for myself, one that showed me to be at least sixteen years old. When Larry paid the check using his phone with the machine the server brought to the table, he tried to keep the display hidden from my view, but he put his phone down on the table afterwards and a notification appeared confirming the amount charged to his credit card, and it was hundreds of dollars. When Larry saw that I saw the amount, he said, “Don’t worry about it, Adam. I’ve got a big job on Monday that’ll pay a good part of the bill,” he added with a wink. Later, even though I was snuggled up, naked with Greg that night, I didn’t even think about sex. I was just too damn full to think about doin’ anything that’d put pressure on my stomach. I drifted off to sleep with pleasant thoughts in my head, and this time, I slept through the night.
  12. “What did you think?” Larry asked as the credits rolled. We’d watched Ben Hur on their big-screen TV. It was a real old movie about the final days of Jesus’ life and his resurrection, but to me it seemed contrived. I’d read extensively about the Roman Empire in the days of the occupation of the Holy Land, and what was depicted in the movie was nothing like I’d imagined real life to be like in that era. It was a case of religion-based historical revisionism, but I couldn’t tell Larry that. He was being a very gracious host, and I was thankful for all he’d done. “I think it’s a pretty crappy work of historical fiction,” Greg responded, putting in words what I was afraid to say. Greg had his arm around my shoulders, and although I think neither of us felt comfortable snuggling with each other in front of Larry, even so, we had full body contact from our shoulders to our toes – something that I’m sure wasn’t lost on his father, who was seated in the recliner. “I know what you think about it, Greg, but I asked Adam,” Larry responded. “Actually, I believe the same thing,” I replied, “which is not to say there isn’t some truth to what’s in the Bible. This movie, however, has taken a lot of liberties with the nature of life in the Roman Empire in general and with life in the occupied Holy Land in particular. I’ve read a lot of books dealing with that period and even some of the writing of Cicero, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. I tend to favor the unbiased viewpoint of the great philosophers over the biased accounts of the Apostles,” I concluded. “Aren’t you in the seventh grade?” Larry asked. “He’s a high-school senior, Dad,” Greg answered for me. “I was until I ran,” I added. “Now, I’ll hafta get my GED.” “You’re twelve?” Larry asked. “Just turned thirteen,” I answered. “It’s a pity you’re on the run,” Larry responded. “You should be going to Harvard or MIT or Stanford.” Then turning to Greg, he said, “Greg, why don’t you sleep out here so Adam can have your bed.” “There’s no need for Greg to give up his bed on my behalf,” I countered. “His bed is plenty big enough for both of us.” “That’s what I’m afraid of,” Larry responded. “Were you celibate when you were my age?” Greg asked his father. “You already know I wasn’t,” Larry answered. “You also know how I feel about that. I made many mistakes in my youth, as you know, including trusting your mother.” “Mom has nothing to do with it!” Greg shouted in anger. “Maybe not, but you’re teenagers and you’re both gay,” Larry explained. “You’re too young to be making decisions about sex and way too young to know about love. I really believe that sex should wait for marriage, and now that gays can marry…” “Would it make a difference if I gave you my word we won’t have sex?” I asked. “Adam!” Greg exclaimed in surprise. “If that’s what we have to agree to for your father to let us sleep in the same room, then that’s what we hafta do,” I explained. “Spending the time together, talking and just sharing our thoughts is what’s important. Sure, I’d love to do more, but just being together is far more valuable that getting each other off.” “Gees, did you hafta be so graphic?” Larry exclaimed. “However, I understand where you’re coming from, Adam. “It wouldn’t be right of me to keep you separated, but it wouldn’t be right for you to make promises you can’t keep. I won’t keep you from sleeping together in the same bed, and I’ll leave it to your own judgement regarding sex.” Getting up from the recliner, he added, “Now, if you boys’ll excuse me, I’m going to get ready for bed. Adam, I’ll let you know if I hear anything about your wheels shipping in the morning. Then we can plan accordingly.” As we watched Larry’s retreating form, Greg looked at me with a gleam in his eye and said, “Why don’t we do the same?” Getting up from the living-room sofa, he added, “Let me get you a toothbrush and we can get ready for sleep… and other things.” Greg held out his hand, and I grabbed hold of it; he pulled me off the sofa. Greg led me to his bedroom, where he removed his shirt and shorts, and following his example, I did the same. The tent in both our boxers was pretty obvious, so Greg giggled and, so did I. Greg led the way to the bathroom and got a fresh toothbrush in a box out from under the sink. He grabbed a tube of toothpaste from the medicine cabinet and applied some to his toothbrush, and then handed the tube to me, and I did likewise. We stood together in front of the sink and brushed our teeth simultaneously. Because I was left-handed and he was right-handed, we managed to do so without our arms getting in the way. Greg finished first and used his hand to cup water and rinse his mouth. I followed his example. He then washed his face with soap and water and let it air dry. I did likewise, and then we attempted to piss together in front of the toilet, but we were both too hard to start our streams. Laughing, Greg suggested, “Why don’t you go first and I’ll wait in the bedroom, and then we can switch places.” That worked much better for both of us. In his bedroom, Greg dropped his boxers and let them fall to the floor, stepping out of them, he pulled back the covers on his bed and got under them. I did likewise. Then he reached over and turned out the light. Reaching out with his hand, he stroked the side of my face and said, “I could fall for you so easily, Adam. I really wish you could stay here.” “The feeling’s mutual, but you know why I can’t,” I responded. Greg leaned forward and our lips met. It was my first kiss with a boy; hell, it was my first kiss on the lips with anyone. I never realized how soft a boy’s lips were yet how firm nor how sexual it felt when two pair of lips came together. The feel of Greg’s tongue entering my mouth and the feel of it gyrating against my own tongue was almost enough to send me over the edge by itself. I felt Greg’s hands caressing me all over, from my scalp to my butt, as our members rubbed against each other, dueling for their own attention. The kiss went on and on, and it was amazing. After a while, Greg flipped himself around and took me into his mouth. I had to stretch a bit to reach him, but I went to it as well, and it didn’t take long for us to climax, but we didn’t stop there. I felt something cool against my crack and then I felt Greg pushing against my opening. At first, I thought he might be trying to fuck me, but his member was still in my face and I realized I was feeling his finger poking at me. I’d read about how some gay boys were tops and some were bottoms, and most enjoyed both to some degree. I’d never given much thought to what I might like, but the instant I felt Greg’s finger inside of me, massaging me, I knew that I was a bottom. I actually moaned and had to work to stifle myself to keep Larry from hearing me. “Are you okay with this?” Greg asked. “I’m more than okay with it,” I responded. “I want to feel you inside of me,” I added. With a giggle, Greg said, “Eager, are we? I need to loosen you up a bit first. You may have noticed that I’m not exactly small and your hole isn’t exactly large.” Greg withdrew his finger, which left me feeling empty inside, but moments later I felt him pushing back in with two fingers. It was a bit tight, but, oh, that was so much better than just one. I pushed into him and started rocking a bit, riding his two fingers for all they were worth. Greg spread his fingers and stretched my opening, and although there was perhaps a little pain, I really enjoyed what he was doing. I liked it a lot and kissed him so I could moan into his mouth. Breaking his kiss, Greg asked, “Are you sure you’ve never done this before?” “Never. I didn’t even realize how much I like bein’ a bottom,” I added. “I really want you inside of me. I want it now.” With another giggle, Greg replied, “I need to open you up a bit more, I think; at least from what I’ve seen in online porn. And I have to get a condom.” Greg added a third finger and although it hurt a bit at first, as with the addition of the second finger, the pain didn’t last, and the feeling of three fingers filling me was fantastic. Again, he spread his fingers, stretching me out, and I loved it. Then the fingers were gone and I whimpered for their return. I heard the sound of cellophane tearing, and a moment later there was something blunter, larger pushing against my back door. I knew I wanted that inside of me, and I pushed back against Greg forcefully. The head popped inside suddenly, causing a flash of pain, but I wanted more. I pushed down harder until I felt Greg’s pubes against my cheeks. I was on fire. Pushing Greg’s shoulders back against the bed, I think I surprised him when I sat up on top of him, never losing contact. I didn’t think he was expecting such aggressiveness from me. I lifted myself up on my haunches until only the tip remained inside and then pushed myself back down on his shaft forcefully. Slowly, almost painfully slowly, I started a rocking motion, speeding up ever so slowly. It was a slow frenzy, maddeningly slow and yet exquisitely forceful. Slowly, I picked up my rhythm as I felt myself edging closer and closer to an earth-shattering climax, and then I was there as my sphincter clamped down on Greg and my balls unloaded, sending a white-hot jet of semen rocketing toward Greg’s face. I’d had dribbles before, but this was my first real ejaculation. Vaguely I was aware of Greg unloading into his condom at the same time. As we both came down from the intensity of our orgasms, Greg said, “Whoa, what was that? You were like a madman, Adam. Are you sure you’ve never done this before?” “I think maybe I’ve discovered my true calling as a bottom,” I replied, and we both laughed quietly. Feeling Greg slip outta me and noticing the wetness behind me, I added, “I think maybe we should take a shower, or your dad’s gonna know we had sex.” “I’m sure he already does,” Greg responded, “There’s no way he didn’t hear some of that. The walls aren’t exactly soundproof. He’ll probably want to talk to us about it in the morning. Still, there’s no point in fanning the flames. Why don’t you go take a shower while I change the bed sheets, and then I can take a shower after you take yours.” “Okay,” I agreed as I got out of bed, located my boxers and slipped them on. I made my way across the hall to the bathroom, where I turned on the water and waited for it to warm up and then got in the shower. I was still coming off a sexual high and was rather sensitive to touch around my nipples, my genitals and behind. My asshole was actually rather sore and still gaping open. I squeezed my butt cheeks hard and although it was painful doing so, my pucker did contract and remain shut, even as it continued to be tender. Shutting off the water, I got out and dried myself using the bath towel Greg had given me earlier in the day. After applying some of Greg’s deodorant, I slipped on my boxers and made my way back to his bedroom. As I was opening the door, I heard laughter inside and from more than one voice. When I opened the door the rest of the way, I saw that Larry was also inside, and like his son, he wasn’t wearing anything. Shit, some of my cum was still glistening on Greg’s chest. I hadn’t realized I’d ejaculated that much. “Come on in, Adam,” Larry began. “I’m sorry to flash you, but I always sleep in the nude, so I wasn’t even thinking about it until I saw you staring at my stuff. I’ll go put on my boxers and then we can all talk,” he added. “You don’t need to put on clothes just because of me,” I countered. “I was just a little surprised by it. For an older guy, you’re really built.” Shit, did I really say that aloud. “For an older guy!” Larry exclaimed. “He thinks I’m an older guy.” “Well, you are, Dad,” Greg chimed in, “but calling you built?” he added has he rocked his hand from side-to-side. “Remind me again why I rescued you from Chicago,” Larry countered, and then they both laughed. “Why don’t you take your shower, and then we can all talk in the living room,” Larry suggested to his son, “and don’t forget to change the bedsheets.” Not even bothering with his boxers, Greg walked naked past me, into the hall, and then into the bathroom, closing the bathroom door behind him. “Adam, I know you’re both teenage boys with raging hormones, and resisting your urges is all but impossible,” Larry started. “I’m not so old that I don’t remember what it’s like. I know you and Greg are growing fond of each other, and I worry that Greg’s going to be hurt when you leave. I’m willing to explore having you stay here with us, but there are risks involved with that, and it would be largely up to a judge to decide whether or not you should be returned to your father. Undoubtedly, there are states that would be more favorable to the interests of the child than Illinois.” “I killed my dad,” I blurted out. I wasn’t sure why I told Larry, but it was done. Looking down, I added, “I can’t stay here.” Nodding his head, Larry said, “I know you wouldn’t have told me if you killed him for any reason other than self-defense. I figured it might be something like that. I think you should consider turning yourself in, son. No one should live the rest of their life always looking over their shoulder. It’s a hell of a burden to carry with you to the grave.” “In Indiana, I’d never see the light of day,” I responded. “I might not see my twentieth birthday, for that matter. They’re especially fond of lethal injection,” I added. “Not even Indiana would execute a minor,” Larry countered. “I understand why you’d worry about taking a chance on that, but it would be a violation of international law.” “It’s more than a worry, Larry,” I countered. “In my town, there’s one public defender and he’s very young and overworked. I might as well not even have a lawyer. Not that they’d help much, but I wouldn’t get anywhere near Child Protective Services. At thirteen, I’d be tried as an adult. The DA’s a hard-ass politician who only cares about getting convictions, regardless of inconvenient things like the truth. “I wouldn’t be taking a chance if I went back to Indiana. I’d be committing myself to a life behind bars, or life on death row, or lethal injection.” “I won’t turn you in if you’re worried about it,” Larry interjected. “That’s what Greg said,” I replied. “You told Greg?” Larry asked in surprise. “Like you said, I’ve grown fond of him,” I answered. At that moment, the bathroom door opened, and Greg emerged, still naked and cute as ever. Walking past me, he went straight to his dresser and got out a fresh pair of boxers and put them on. He then grabbed a second pair from his dresser drawer, obviously an old pair, and tossed it my way. Reaching down, he grabbed his dirty boxers off the floor and tossed them in the hamper in the corner of his room. Taking the hint, I dropped the pair I was wearing and stepped out of them, putting on the fresh pair and tossing the old pair in the hamper, still held open by Greg. I did so right in front of Larry, figuring that having borne my sole in front of him, getting naked in front of him was no big deal. “I’ll go put something on,” Larry responded. “I’ll see you boys in the living room.” “I’d better strip the bed,” Greg added after his dad had disappeared around the corner. Left unsaid was that his bedroom wreaked of sex. Greg pulled the bed clothes off the bed and tossed them in the hamper. “You might want to open the window a crack,” I suggested. Giggling, he did just that, and then we headed out into the living room and sat down together on the sofa facing Larry. In what I’m sure was an act of defiance, Greg put his arm around my shoulders and pulled me close to him, snuggling up with me. “You know I feel that we can all benefit from turning to God in times of trouble,” Larry began, and I could almost feel Greg rolling his eyes. “I think you should both take your direction from the Lord, but it’s not up to me to force the issue. Children aren’t empty vessels to be filled with whatever we parents choose, much as we’d like to think they are. “I don’t know if Greg told you about what happened with his mother… my wife… but she wasn’t the person we thought she was.” “He told me,” I related. “When she went to prison,” Larry continued, “I found solace in Jesus. His words brought me comfort. They spoke to me. I was certain Greg would take comfort in them, too, but they only drove a wedge between us and ultimately drove him to run away. It took that for me to realize that I couldn’t make him feel about religion the way I did. I can make him go to church, but I can’t make him believe. “Adam, I’m curious what you think of religion.” I figured he’d bring it up, and I’d actually been thinking a lot about it lately after offing my dad. “I wasn’t raised to believe anything at all. We never went to church or anything and although we celebrated Christmas, it was more as a national holiday than as Jesus’ birth. I think it was when I was eight… almost nine that I asked Dad if what the other kids said was true. He said he reckoned some of it was, but prayer never put food on the table or clothes on your back, nor did it stop my mom from passing when she gave birth to me. He said believing in god was fine, but if you wanted something, you had to go out and get it yourself.” “Wise man,” Greg responded. “My dad was many things,” I replied, “but he was never wise. Even the ignorant and the selfish occasionally say things that are profound.” It wasn’t until after I said it that I’d acknowledged Dad was dead, but neither Greg nor Larry mentioned it if they noticed. “But what do you think, Adam?” Larry asked. “I guess you could say I’m an agnostic,” I replied, “but not the way some atheists use the term to fudge what they tell their friends in the Bible Belt. The thing is, to be an atheist implies believing that the universe and life and humanity arose purely by chance, and I have a hard time believing that. The problem with believing in a creator is that it doesn’t explain who created the creator… where god came from, and why. There’s also the fact that there are literally thousands of religions and nearly all of them involve the belief in the existence of an afterlife and a soul. The simplest explanation is that there actually is a soul of some kind, and that the soul survives death. “I just don’t believe in organized religion. Too much evil has been done in its name, and the idea that any one religion is the one true religion suggests that god plays favorites. Why would he save only some people and relegate everyone else to eternal damnation based strictly on an accident of birth? “When it comes to the Bible, as far as I’m concerned, it’s just another form of mythology, no better than Greek or Norse mythology. The story of creation is a crock. The earth is but a tiny planet orbiting an ordinary star within a large galaxy that’s part of one of countless galactic clusters. Where in Genesis is the Big Bang or the early giant stars whose collapse was necessary before there could be the heavier elements needed to sustain life? Where is the story of evolution, and where are the dinosaurs? Wasn’t the asteroid that slammed into the Yucatán and wiped out the dinosaurs every bit as significant as Noah’s flood?” “You really think we evolved from apes rather than being created in God’s image?” Larry asked. “First of all, saying we’re created in god’s image is an insult to god. The human body’s a kludge assembled from bits and pieces from more primitive animals, and they sometimes don’t work well together, and the result is something like Parkinson’s Disease, which arises from the degeneration of one of the more primitive parts of the brain. Secondly, we didn’t evolve from apes. We are apes and differ from chimpanzees by only a handful of genes. What makes us truly different is the ability to pass knowledge from one generation to the next and maybe that’s what’s meant by, ‘created in god’s image’. Evolution may be a proven fact, but the real miracle is life itself. Where did life come from in the first place? How in the world did the first proteins to transcribe DNA come to exist, without the proteins to transcribe them? Let religion focus on things for which science lacks an answer.” “The ultimate conundrum,” Greg chimed in. “I never heard this before, but it’s almost enough to make one a believer, even for a nonbeliever like me.” Dad was coming right for me, his face contorted with rage. In less than a second, he’d be on me, and that would be the end. It was either him or me. Reaching behind me, I reached for his gun in the place where I knew he kept it, but it wasn’t there! Fuck, his hands were around my throat and I couldn’t breathe. I tried to kick him in the balls again, but he was on top of me, and I couldn’t breathe. I tried to scream, but my lungs were empty, and I couldn’t breathe. Slowly I felt life slippin’ out of me, and then he was gone. I sat bolt upright and gasped for air. “Adam,” I heard a young adolescent voice next to me. “Adam? Are you okay?” Slowly I regained consciousness, and I remembered the events of the last few days. It was Greg. “Yeah, I’m okay,” I answered. “I was just rememberin’ is all.” “Maybe you should get some counseling or something,” Greg suggested. “It probably would help, but I’m not ready to tell a stranger what happened,” I replied. “But you told my dad and me,” he pointed out. “We’re strangers.” “No, you’re not.” I answered. “I know it sounds a bit strange, but in a way I feel I’ve known you guys all my life.” With a smile, Greg responded, “That’s sweet.” Then rubbing the stubble on my scalp, he said, “Let’s go back to sleep.” “Good morning, boys,” Larry said as he popped his head in the door. Slowly I became conscious of my surroundings, and that Greg and I were literally entwined with each other in his bed. How’d that happen? What’s worse, we were naked, and the sheet and blanket had somehow fallen off the end of the bed, so we were completely exposed. How embarrassing! As luck would have it, I was the one facing the door, with Greg snuggled up behind me, and my morning wood was on full display. Suddenly becoming aware of the situation, Greg sat bolt upright and shouted, “Dad!” Then he comically reached around, feeling for the bedsheets to cover us – bedsheets that were apparently on the floor. Larry actually laughed at us, which only made our embarrassment worse, and he said, “It’s already 10:00 and I thought you boys might want to do something with the rest of the day before it’s over.” “Is there any word on the wheels for my bike?” I asked as I got out of bed and stood up. “It was my fault that I didn’t pay more attention.” Larry answered. “I only looked to see that they weren’t out of stock, assuming that otherwise they must be in stock. What it actually said was, ‘Arrives in 2-3 business days.’ That means it ships from a warehouse in the U.K. into Boston, which takes 2-3 business days, and from there it’s sent via FedEx overnight. I checked with my supplier in Boston, and even though it’s the weekend, it’s expected to clear Customs by the end of the day today. Because we’re paying for overnight shipping, I got them to agree to send someone to the airport to pick it up tomorrow and take it to FedEx directly and ship it overnight. I told them we’d pay extra for morning delivery, so it will get here by Monday morning.” “How much more is it gonna cost me for morning delivery?” I asked. “Nothing. Not a penny,” Larry answered. “It was my mistake, and so it’s my responsibility to make it right.” “Thank you,” I responded, “I know that couldn’t have come cheap.” “Some of us still believe that customer service is more important than making a profit,” Larry explained, and again, I thanked him profusely. “I’m gonna wash up,” Greg announced as he slipped past me and headed to the bathroom. “Actually, that’s a good idea,” I responded. “Besides, I really gotta pee.” Chuckling, Larry responded, “I’ll have breakfast ready in ten minutes. Let Greg know, too.” “Will do,” I replied as I slipped outta Greg’s bedroom and into the bathroom. Greg was just finishing up at the toilet and was about to flush when I interrupted him with, “Don’t bother, I gotta go, too.” “Okay…” Greg answered. “By the way, didn’t anyone ever tell you to knock?” Shrugging my shoulders, I replied, “Never had to share a bathroom before.” I then stepped up to the toilet and let loose my stream and then flushed when I finished. I turned around to see Greg… lathering up his face? “You shave?” I asked in surprise. He didn’t look to be old enough to need to shave yet. “Hey, I’m nearly fifteen,” he replied. “I’m up to shaving once a week now.” I’d gotten to be up close and personal with Greg’s face over the past several hours and I couldn’t say I felt any stubble, let alone saw any, so I replied, “Whether you need to or not. I’d have noticed if you had any stubble.” “I’ll admit that I could probably go a few more days between shaves.” he responded. “You mean a few more weeks,” I teasingly interrupted. “Jerk,” he replied. “It’s just easier to shave on the weekend so I can sleep a little later on school days.” “Better still, wait until your peach fuzz is actually visible before you start shaving,” I quipped. “I bet you’ll start shaving the moment your voice changes,” Greg countered. “More like after I get my driver’s license,” I responded. “Blonds don’t need to start shaving so soon, and I’m in no hurry to cut up my face.” Then after a pause, I added, “Oh, and your dad said breakfast would be ready in ten, but that was a few minutes ago.” “Good, I’m starving,” Greg replied as he finished shaving and rinsed the shaving cream off his face, and then he used some sort of acne scrub to wash his face. As far as I could tell, his skin was completely clear, but maybe that was why. I wondered if I’d hafta worry about things like that once I entered puberty for real. Greg got out his toothbrush and began brushing his teeth. I washed my face with soap and water, and then proceeded to brush my teeth as well. Returning to Greg’s bedroom, we both put on our boxers and headed to the kitchen, where Larry was in the process of setting plates on the table. On each plate was a very thick piece of bread that looked like it had been fried, and a couple of eggs with the yolks barely visible. On top of that were a couple of strips of bacon and a couple of sausage links. It all looked wonderful. “I wasn’t sure how you liked your eggs, Adam,” Larry began, so I made them the way Greg and I like them, over easy. I always make our French toast with challah because we like the doughy texture and the way the Jewish bread absorbs the egg and milk and gives the toast much more substance. There’s real maple syrup on the table and real butter, too. Nothing about the breakfast is low calorie or low cholesterol.” I’d never heard of challah before, and the way he pronounced it was with a guttural sound like clearing his throat. We didn’t have many Jews back in North Vernon – just the owners of the furniture shop, a couple of law partners and a dentist – and none of them had kids my age, so I really knew nothing about Jews at all except that they didn’t believe that Jesus was the messiah. Since I was an agnostic, that didn’t matter to me at all. They looked just the same as anyone else and nothing like the Jews in Fiddler on the Roof, so I never thought of them as bein’ different. I guess it made sense that they’d brought some of their traditional foods with them though, just like the Italians brought pizza and spaghetti and the like. Greg added a pat of butter on top of his French toast and let it melt a little before smearing it around on top, so I did the same. He then poured a little of the maple syrup on top of that and let it spread over the top and drip down the sides, but the amount of syrup he used was miniscule compared to what I was used to. Seeing how small the pitcher was, however, I realized it must be very concentrated and maybe a bit expensive, so I only took the same amount that Greg had. Larry set a glass of orange juice at each place, and then he asked me, “Would you like some coffee, Adam? It’s Starbucks House Blend. I also have tea if you’d prefer.” “Coffee would be fantastic,” I replied with perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm, but I’d been dying to try Starbucks coffee and I didn’t realize you could make it at home. Larry poured the coffee into a large mug at each place setting, and then finally sat down. Greg immediately added a bit of milk and two teaspoons of sugar to the coffee. I knew it was milk and not cream, ’cause it was still in the carton. Larry apparently drank his black. I decided to try it with a little milk and only one teaspoon of sugar. After all, I could always add more. I was about to dig in, but neither Greg nor Larry had started and so I waited. Then Larry stuck out his hands and Greg did likewise, taking his father’s hand on one side and taking my hand on the other. I gathered I was supposed to complete the circle by taking Larry’s hand. Larry bowed his head, but Greg did not, so I followed Greg’s example. Oh yeah, Larry insisted on saying grace, I recalled. “Dear Lord, we thank you for the bounty of your harvest and the gift of the food you have given us for our table. Amen.” As expected, Greg rolled his eyes. God didn’t make the challah. Some Jewish baker made it using a recipe that probably went back more than a thousand years. The eggs were laid by chickens, some poor pigs gave their lives for our sausage and bacon and then a butcher prepared the cuts of pork for us, and the syrup I think came from a tree. Greg wasted no time at all digging in, slicing off a bit of his French toast with the edge of his fork, then stabbing it and dragging it over the eggs, coating it with yellow slimy raw egg yolk. Well, this was probably my best chance to try eating raw eggs, so I mimicked what Greg did and popped the piece of toast into my mouth. Oh. My. God. The flavors that burst through were incredible. The egg yolk didn’t taste raw at all. It tasted like sunshine. I wasn’t sure how else to describe it. No wonder there was a style of egg called sunny side up. The challah was incredible, and the fried egg and milk batter gave it substance. The bacon was crisp, and the sausage was succulent. It was all excellent. I took a sip of the coffee and had another ‘oh my God’ moment. To my taste, it didn’t need more milk and sugar. It was incredibly rich and flavorful. I knew Starbucks was expensive, but it was worth it for something this good. But then again, I needed to save my money, so it was probably still out of reach for me. “In terms of what you might want to do today,” Larry began, “You mentioned seeing the Lincoln Tomb, but have you been to the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum?” “The Lincoln Library?” I asked “It’s really cool,” Greg chimed in. “It opened in 2005, so it’s not that old. They have a lot of stuff from his life – everything from his early years through the Civil War. There’s a lot of historical objects that were actually used by Lincoln and documents in his original writing. The exhibits are interactive, and there are live performances in a couple of theaters, but it’s not like Disney. The performances are realistic.” “Disney?” I laughed. “I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what that’s like. Watching the Star Wars movies is the closest I’ve ever gotten to Disney.” “Wow! Someday you’ve got to go to Disney World,” Greg exclaimed. “It’s motherfuckin’ huge!” “Greg!” Larry shouted in a stern voice. “Sorry, Dad,” he replied. “I know you hear a lot of language like that at school,” Larry continued. “I certainly did. It doesn’t mean you have to talk like that. Those words have their place, but they lose their impact when they’re used in everyday conversation.” Greg rolled his eyes, telling me he’d had this conversation many times before. “Anyway, if you’re interested in seeing the museum, we need to get going, ’cause it closes at 5:00.” “On a Saturday?” I asked. “Yeah, Springfield kinda closes down early compared to most places,” Greg answered. “Gees, that sounds even worse than the little town where I grew up,” I related. “You boys do need to get going,” Larry chimed in. “If you hurry up, you can still have five hours there, which is barely enough for an introduction to it.” “You’re not going, Dad?” Greg asked. “I’ve been there enough times,” he said with a laugh. “Besides which, I think the two of you would enjoy it more on your own. I’ll take you to Nick & Nino’s afterwards.” “Are you serious, Dad?” Greg asked. “It’s been a long time since we’ve done anything special,” Larry responded. “I thought it’d be a nice way to spend our one and only Saturday night with Adam.” “Wow! You didn’t even take me there for my birthday,” Greg exclaimed. “I’ll make a reservation for 5:30, when they open,” Larry continued. “That’s early enough you won’t have to dress up. I’ll meet you boys in the lobby.”
  13. I’d figured it would take maybe a week before the school reported my absence to the police and then maybe another week before someone actually went to the house to investigate, and then all hell would break loose. It didn’t occur to me until much later that the school district probably didn’t even have a valid address on file. Dad always picked the mail up at the post office, and I’d even gone in with him and watched him open our mailbox with a key. Knowing the cheapskate my old man was, he wouldn’t have subscribed to a post-office box unless we couldn’t get mail at home. Realizing that we’d probably been squatters in an abandoned house, it was likely that we didn’t even have an address at all. Dad had to use something in the way of an address to register me at school, to collect welfare checks and food stamps, and to apply for Medicaid, but unless someone actually came to the house to check, the address coulda been on the moon, for all I knew. Perhaps he’d invented a bogus address and then forwarded everything to a post-office box. That would have been just the sort of thing Dad would’ve done. When it came to packages, Dad always had everything sent to the UPS Shipping Center over on State Street. That’s what he did with my bike. They knew him there and sent him a text whenever something came in, and then he stopped by with our ancient Chevy Suburban and brought it home. I didn’t even know you could get things delivered to your house. I didn’t even know there were other shipping companies like Federal Express until much later. What I didn’t know was what would happen if a truant officer went to our address and found there wasn’t even a house there or that the address didn’t exist at all. Would they mount an all-encompassing search for our whereabouts, or would they assume we weren’t legal residents in the first place and quietly let the matter drop? What did they do when it came to homeless kids? Homelessness wasn’t just a problem in the cities. We had grifters come through town all the time, and some of them had children. What did the police do when it came to the children of the migrant workers? Some of the farms couldn’t function without migrant workers, and their children were enrolled in our schools. Did they have an address? There were so many things I didn’t know, and I couldn’t assume I wouldn’t find my face plastered all over the news media someday. Perhaps I’d be lucky and Dad’s body would never be found, or it wouldn’t be found for years. Perhaps he’d already been found. No matter what, I still needed to get as far away from Indiana as possible, and so I continued my journey. I’d figured I’d get to Hannibal in about three days. According to the GPS, the cycling time would be 26 hours total, which I could do in three days if I rode eight hours, forty minutes every day. However, I’d failed to account for weather and a blinding, late-winter snowstorm just past Charleston, Illinois, that made travel impossible. I actually had to backtrack into town and hunker down in the Lincoln Garden Family Restaurant. At least I didn’t starve. When the snow gave way to pouring rain, it became evident that I wouldn’t be going anywhere until the next morning at least, and camping out was not an option. Since Charleston was the home of Eastern Illinois University, I was able to get a room at the Student Union. I was surprised they didn’t ask for any kind of I.D., but then I looked like a miserable, drowned rat, and the guy at the desk probably felt sorry for me. In any case, it was cheap as lodging went, but then there was only a sink in the room and a communal bathroom down the hall. I’d lost an entire day because of the snowstorm, and although there wasn’t a place I had to be, the slow pace was impeding my ability to get far away from Indiana, and it was draining my cash. One thing was for sure: I couldn’t continue spending a hundred dollars a day on food and campsites. The scary thing was that no matter what I did, the money wouldn’t last all that long. I would literally run out of money by early summer. At some point I’d hafta find a way to earn some cash, and it certainly wasn’t gonna be from prostitution. The first thing I was gonna hafta do was to minimize my expenses. I couldn’t afford to eat three meals a day in restaurants, no matter how reasonably priced they seemed to be. Even so, I still had to take care of myself and eat well enough to keep up the pace on my bicycle. Otherwise, it’d defeat the purpose. I couldn’t live on junk food, after all. One thing I’d noticed was that the biggest bang for the buck in terms of restaurant food was breakfast. Hearty breakfasts seldom cost more than ten or twelve dollars, and if I took care to avoid carb-heavy items such as pancakes, they were rich in protein and high in nutrition. Some places even had breakfast buffets where you could eat all you wanted for under fifteen bucks. A buffet meal like that could keep me goin’ all day, and although a lot more expensive than the toast and cereal I’d get at a sit-down restaurant, it was probably the most efficient way of fueling my teenage body. I could then supplement my breakfasts with cheese sandwiches or peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, with ingredients purchased at groceries along the way. If I stuck to that routine, I could manage to feed myself reasonably well for fifteen to twenty dollars a day. Lodging was a bit more difficult. I’d bought a tent, a sleeping bag and air mattress with the intent of sleeping under the stars for free. Unfortunately, the stars didn’t provide a place to take a dump, nor a hot shower in the morning. Until it got hot out, I could probably get away with showering once or twice a week, and for that, I’d stay in a campground, which typically cost around $20 or $25. In more severe inclement weather, however, even sleeping in my tent wasn’t possible, as everything got soaked. When that happened, I needed to rent a cabin, and even at a place like a KOA campground with communal facilities, that cost around a hundred bucks. Then there were the unexpected expenses, things I couldn’t budget for at all. A good example of that was when my stuff was stolen, setting me back close to a thousand dollars or the freak snowstorm that forced me to spend an extra day along the way. The next major expense came when I got to Taylorville, a town of close to twelve thousand folks. As such, it was bigger than my hometown of North Vernon, but smaller than Seymour. I approached Taylorville on Illinois route 29, coming up from the tiny town of Pana. My intent was to follow 29 through Taylorville and then turn west on 1500 North Road and head to Kincaid, bypassing Springfield altogether. It was a good plan if I’d been paying more attention to the road and had seen the broken glass in time to stop. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been and I didn’t, and by the time I passed over it, I had two completely shredded bicycle tires and inner tubes. I had spares for both, and it took me a couple of hours to change them, but it would have been risky to have continued on my way without a new set of spares. I stopped in a couple of gas stations and received the same answer: that I’d have to get those in Springfield. Not even the Walmart Supercenter had them, and so reluctantly, I continued up Illinois 29 to Springfield. Springfield is the capital of Illinois and the place where Abraham Lincoln got his start as a lawyer and in politics; also, it’s where he’s buried. It’s kind of small for the capital city of one of the larger states, with a metro population of 212,000, making it not that much bigger than Bloomington. It sure felt bigger, though, perhaps because there were so many state agencies and businesses associated with the state government. Now, Indianapolis was more like what I thought a capital city should look like, and Indiana wasn’t even a very large state. In fact, Indiana was the smallest state west of the Appalachians in terms of land area – one of those little factoids we all had to learn when we studied Indiana History. Entering ‘bicycle repair’ into the GPS yielded several listings for Springfield and even one for Chatham. I would’ve gone to Dick’s Sporting Goods, but the Yelp reviews were terrible. I decided to go to Velocity Mile, ’cause it had thirteen reviews on Yelp, all of them five stars, but then I noticed that it closed at 5:00 p.m., so I was too late. There weren’t exactly any campgrounds in Springfield, and the Red Roof Inn refused to give me a room without an I.D. It was just as well, given how much the cheapest room cost. I couldn’t exactly camp out on the grounds of the State House, so I used the GPS to locate a wooded area in Lincoln Park. I even got a chance to see Lincoln’s tomb. <> <> <> Washing up in the restrooms of the Visitors’ Center at the Lincoln Tomb, I headed back into the city the next morning and grabbed breakfast at McDonalds, right between Burger King and Domino’s. At least I knew what I was getting, and it was cheap. I got to Velocity Mile when it opened at 8:00 and asked about replacement tires and inner tubes for my bike. I brought the bike inside, figuring they might need to see it to fit it with the right ones, but the guy took one look at the bike and then lifted the whole thing, pannier case and all, up onto the counter. His name tag read ‘Larry’. “It looks like you ran over some broken glass,” Larry began, “and it did a number on your wheels.” Then pointing out some dents in the rim, he said, “You see those nicks? That’s where the glass gouged your rims. You must have ridden over the glass and shredded your tires, and then continued to ride on the rims over more of the glass. It only took a few seconds for the glass to gouge the rims, and of course just riding on the rims bent them out of shape, as you can see here,” he pointed out. “If you don’t replace the wheels, you’ll have to buy new tires every hundred miles or so, if not even more often. You’ve already damaged these tires and they should be replaced. What’s more important is that riding on these wheels isn’t safe.” Swallowing hard, I asked, “How much do new wheels cost?” “Let me see if I can even get these wheels for you,” he said, just about sinking any hope of continuing on that day. Tapping some keys on his computer, he answered, “Raleigh’s an imported bike, from the U.K., and these wheels aren’t standard. The newer models can take a standard wheel, but this frame is too narrow. I can get you a set for $175 for the pair, plus shipping.” Ouch! “Ground shipping’s free actually, with an estimated delivery in fourteen days.” Fuck! “Third-day air’s available for thirty dollars, second-day air for sixty and overnight for ninety dollars.” What choice did I have? Each night spent waiting meant spending more of my cash on food and maybe even lodging. After all, how long could I get away with sleeping in Lincoln Park? “How long will it take you to install them if we order them overnight?” I asked. “And how much will it cost?” “That Pannier case makes it tricky, since those are very difficult to remove,” Larry replied, “and I’ll need to remove it to get to the wheel. If the wheels come in by noon tomorrow, I can have the bike ready by the end of the day.” Shit! Shit! Fuck! That meant spending at least two more nights in Springfield. “I charge fifty dollars an hour for labor and you can figure about four hours of actual time spent on labor, so unless it takes me less time or unless I encounter something unexpected, you can figure $200 for the job.” “Shit! It’s not like I have a choice,” I replied, “and of course I’ll need to purchase two pairs of tires and tubes too.” “You know, I could sell you a decent used bike for less,” Larry suggested. “I just don’t have anything in stock right now. My competitors might, if you’d like me to check. Maybe you’d consider a new bike. I can offer something very similar in trade for about eight hundred, and it would be much easier to find parts for it and to repair it along the way.” Shaking my head, I responded, “I’m happy with this one. It’s one of the only adult bikes I know of that’s small enough for me to ride now, but large enough to ride if I grow as tall as my dad. Better to stick with it than take a chance on something else.” “A wise choice, I think,” Larry replied. “I do have bikes that you could grow into, but to be honest, you won’t find a bike that rides as smoothly or effortlessly for under two grand, and then you’d be stuck with the high cost of maintaining a composite frame. Now, as far as the tires and tubes are concerned, however, you really should get yourself a set of puncture-resistant tires,” he added. “I thought that’s what I had,” I replied, “at least the tires anyway.” Shakin’ his head, Larry responded, “All bicycle tires say they’re puncture resistant, but you need something made with Kevlar, the stuff they use in bullet-proof vests. The new wheels will take a tubeless tire if you’re interested, but even then, I’d still recommend using inner tubes. Better to replace a punctured inner tube than a tire. You should get Kevlar-reinforced inner tubes too.” Then going to a rack, he pulled off a box and showed it to me. “Especially if you’re traveling in the winter, I’d recommend you get these, the Continental Grand Prix 4 Season Road Bike Tires. They’re from Germany and have much better traction on snow and ice than a standard tire, yet they have an exceptionally low rolling resistance for an all-season tire. I’m not saying you can’t shred them still, but the tires won’t go flat if you do.” “How much do they cost?” I asked. “These sell for fifty dollars a tire, and they’re about the same on Applazon, so we’re definitely giving you a fair price on them,” he answered. “You’ll need two, plus two spares, so that’s two hundred for a set of four.” “And the inner tubes?” I asked. “The Continentals can be used tubeless, but I’d still recommend using inner tubes, and they’ll cost you fifty dollars for two sets of four,” Larry answered. Shit, this whole thing was gonna set me back some five hundred, plus tax. When I entered the store, I’d expected to spend about $25 tops. Nodding my head, I asked, “My supply of cash is in Applazon gift cards, though. Do you accept those for payment?” “No, but if they’re legitimate and not stolen, I can make the exchange myself,” he answered. “There’s no danger of them going to waste in my household,” he laughed. “One more thing,” I asked. “Is there a place where a kid can stay in town? Maybe a campground?” “The closest campground’s in Riverside Park, which is a long walk from here,” he answered. “But son, are you a runaway?” Shit! How was I gonna respond to that? He’d surely know I was lying if I told him I wasn’t. Why else would I be on my own? When I didn’t answer, he continued, “The reason I ask is that my son ran away a few years ago, when he was twelve. He made it all the way to Chicago. I shudder when I think what could’ve happened to him. I had to do a lot of soul-searching when he told me why he’d run away. I’d never realized how my religious beliefs caused me to say things Jesus would’ve never condoned. We spent a lot of time talking about it and healing. As a result, my son learned to trust me and talk to me rather than trying to solve his problems himself.” “Why did your son run away?” I asked. “That’s something you should really ask him yourself,” Larry replied. “He can do a much better job of explaining it than I ever could.” I had to say something. I had a feeling his son ran away because he was gay, but what if it was something else? It was pretty obvious I was a runaway, but what if Larry turned me in? I was afraid to take a chance, but he might turn me in anyway, and as they said, it’s better to be caught telling the truth than caught in a lie. Perhaps I could get away with telling only part of the truth. “My dad tried to kill me,” I began. “He had his hands around my throat, and if I hadn’t kicked him in the nuts, I wouldn’t be alive today.” “Not that killing your kid is ever justified, but was there a reason for it?” Larry asked. Nodding my head, I replied, “There was. Maybe even the same reason as your son had.” “Do you think maybe he’d listen if you called him?” Larry asked. “Even before now, my dad never listened to me,” I answered. “You shoulda heard how he talked about blacks, Latinos, Asians, Jews and gays. He’s a hate-filled man. With what happened, I can’t go back there. Never. I can’t take a chance on what might happen to me.” Of course, all of that was true. I just left out the little detail that I’d shot and killed my father. “Although I never threatened Greg, I’m sure he felt the same way about me,” Larry countered. “Parents mean well, but they sometimes say things they don’t mean. Are you sure your father really feels that strongly about gays?” I guess I’d kinda made it obvious where I’d been going with this. That, and it was pretty obvious I wasn’t black, Latino or Asian. If I was Jewish, so would’ve been my dad. “I’d say tryin’ to strangle me with his bare hands was a pretty good indication,” I answered. “That’s such a shame,” Larry responded. “Our children are our most precious possessions. Throwing a child away is worse than discarding all the precious jewels in the world. I think you should go to the authorities, but I understand how you might be worried about being sent back there, so that’s a decision that’s up to you. In the meantime, if you’d like, you can stay with my son and me while waiting on your bike repair.” “Are you serious?” I asked in surprise. “I couldn’t possibly impose like that.” Actually, I was still worried that Larry might be thinking of turning me in. “Consider it my way of paying it forward,” Larry countered. I’d heard that phrase before, but never really knew what it meant. “Let’s just say it’s my way of paying the people back who watched out for my son. And it might do both of you some good to talk to someone else who’s been through a similar experience. “I wouldn’t mind having your help in the bike shop today, and I’ll even buy you lunch. Then I’ll introduce you to Greg when he gets out of school, and the two of you can spend the rest of the day together. We’ll feed you again tonight, provide a roof over your head and do the same tomorrow.” It was a really nice offer and Larry seemed genuine in making it, and with nothing better to do over the next two days, I accepted. Larry actually let me do a lot when it came to fixing the bikes that came in. He was very patient, too, and showed me which tools to use and how to do everything the right way. I learned a great deal from him on how to fix bikes, so I was the one who frankly got the better deal. Lunch was takeout from a place nearby called Turbo Fire Pizza, and Larry sent me to pick it up. It was right across from Domino’s Pizza, but it was way better. When it came time for school to let out, Larry took me to the high school, which was nearby, and introduced me to his son, “Greg, this is…” then laughing, he continued, “I just realized you never told me what your name is.” Without thinking, I replied, “Adam.” Shit, I gave him my real name. “I know that’s probably not your real name, but Adam it is,” Larry responded. “Anyway, Adam’s going to be staying with us for a couple of days while I fix his bike. I thought maybe the two of you could spend a little time together.” “Yeah, that’d be great,” Greg replied as he shook my hand. As Larry left us to return to the bicycle shop, Greg suggested, “So, maybe we could go to our house while Dad finishes up at work. The store closes at five, but there’s always stuff he has to do afterwards, so he usually doesn’t get home until around seven.” Greg continued talking as we walked the short distance to his house. “So, I’m guessing you’re a runaway? You don’t hafta answer that, but I’m sure Dad told you how I ran away two summers ago… actually it’s closer to three now – right after I turned twelve. What he wouldn’t have told you is that I was convinced Dad would never accept having a gay son. He’d never out me like that, even though I’m out now anyway. It’s so much easier that way. “So, Adam, is that why you ran away? Do you mind telling me if it’s ’cause you’re gay?” Nodding my head, I replied, “My dad tried to kill me. He tried to strangle me. He had his hands around my neck, and I was close to passing out, so I kicked him in the nuts and got away. “Man, I can’t imagine,” Greg responded as we approached a small, one-story house. I noticed the name ‘Hofstetter’ on the mailbox. Pulling out a chain from under his shirt, he revealed a key that he used to unlock the door. Opening it, he stepped inside and beckoned me to follow, closing the door behind us. Toeing off his sneakers, he added, “Please take your shoes off inside the house, okay?” Grimacing a bit, I said, “I’m on day three for my socks and underwear, so I warn you that it might not be pleasant.” “Probably no worse than the locker room in gym,” he countered, and so I toed off my sneakers. The smell indeed wasn’t pleasant. Scrunching up his face, Greg said, “I think I can spare a fresh pair of socks,” with a laugh. Leading me inside the house, he took me into what I presumed was his bedroom, opened a drawer and pulled out a pair of socks which he tossed my way. Pointing to a hamper in the corner, he added, “You can throw your socks in there, and we’ll wash them before you go.” Pulling off my socks and tossing them into the hamper, I sat on his bed to put the new ones on when I realized that Greg had removed both his shirt and jeans, and was standing in front of his dresser wearing only his boxers and socks. He must have seen me staring at him from my reflection in the mirror as he turned around to face me. “I usually change out of my school clothes when I get home, but if that bothers you, I can put something else on.” “You mean you strip to your underwear when you get home from school?” I asked. “Actually less,” he answered with an intense blush. “Of course, I wouldn’t do that while you’re here.” “I bet you usually come home and jerk off first thing,” I responded with a smirk. If anything, Greg’s blush grew even more intense as he replied, “Guilty as charged. I usually look at some porn, jerk off, do my homework and then get dinner ready, dressing just before Dad gets home. But with you here, I probably should put some clothes on first.” Laughing, I replied, “But won’t that make it harder to jerk off?” Then, getting a devilish look in his eyes, he asked, “You wanna join me?” Now it was my turn to blush as I grinned and nodded my head. I knew he was probably joking, but why not call his bluff, and then I remembered how underdeveloped I was. “I’m thirteen, but I haven’t started puberty yet,” I interjected. Chuckling, Greg answered, “Since your voice hasn’t changed, I figured as much. Don’t worry if you don’t have any pubes yet either. I’m sure your equipment works just fine.” The lack of hair was exactly what had me worried. Grinning, I pulled off my shirt and my jeans, and then dropped my boxer briefs as Greg pulled off his socks and boxers. “Sorry, it’s been a couple of days since my last shower,” I added. Making exaggerated sniffing noises, Greg responded, “Actually, I like the way you smell. It’s very sexy. Can I touch you?” “You’d better!” I replied. “And I’d like to touch you, too.” I’d never touched another boy, and I didn’t know what if anything Greg had done, but we were both eager as we reached out and grabbed each other. Feeling another boy and having another boy’s hand on me was so different than feeling myself. It was amazing. When Greg used his other hand to rub my chest and finger my nipples, it magnified the feelings a thousand-fold. I actually moaned. I rubbed Greg’s chest and couldn’t get over how wonderful that felt. Feeling another boy’s beating heart while I felt the simultaneous throbbing in his member was incredible. What happened next would forever be etched into my memory. Greg leaned forward, sucked my right nipple into his mouth, and then nibbled on it with his teeth. He moved his head lower and breathed in deeply from my groin. He was smelling me. He was getting turned on by the musky smell of my balls, and that turned me on like nothing else. Then Greg went down on me as he rubbed my balls with one hand and rubbed my chest with the other. I didn’t last long. “Where the fuck did you learn to do that?” I asked. “Do you do that very often?” Laughing, Greg replied, “Actually, that was my first time. None of the other freshmen are out, and I’m too shy to go up to guys and take a chance on asking them out on a date. And as to where I learned to do that, remind me to show you my collection of internet porn.” “Damn, you’re good,” I responded. “I’ll try to return the favor, but I doubt it’ll be anything like what you did.” “Adam, you don’t have to do that if you don’t want…” “Believe me, I want to,” I interrupted. In the end, he exploded in my mouth. I had only produced a little bit of clear liquid when I jacked off, but Greg erupted like a raging volcano, filling my mouth faster than I could swallow it all, so I was left with his stuff dribbling out the corners of my mouth and down my chin. I mean, I was barely thirteen and not really into puberty yet, and he was almost fifteen and quite obviously well along, but damn. I knew we probably shoulda used condoms, even though it was just oral, and realized I should probably keep some in my backpack. I had no reason to doubt that this was Greg’s first time, though. We cleaned ourselves up, and Greg got started on his homework while I took a shower. I realized only after I got out that my clean underwear and toiletries were packed up in the pannier case in Larry’s shop. I located Greg’s deodorant in the medicine cabinet and used that instead of my own. I’d hafta borrow some clothes from Greg until I could retrieve my own. His would be big on me for sure, and for now I wouldn’t bother with clothes. After all, he was still in the nude as he did his homework at his desk. While he continued with his homework, I took a look at his room and what amounted to a full wall of bookshelves. He was obviously a bigtime reader like me and had an extensive collection of science fiction, in particular. He had a lot of classic authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and even Jules Verne. He also had an extensive collection of classics by the likes of Dickens, Hugo and even Tolstoy. On the other walls, rather than posters of rock bands, he had posters of Coltrane, Davis, Armstrong, Fitzgerald and other jazz greats. It was too bad I’d be leaving in a couple of days. I could really fall for this boy. “Shit fuck, I just don’t get this one!” Greg cried out in frustration. “What is it?” I asked. “Geometry,” he responded. “I know you probably haven’t had this stuff yet, but it’s all about proving geometric relationships. Theorem-proof, theorem-proof. I like math, but I hate this shit.” Looking over his shoulder, I took a look at the problem that was giving him trouble. It was pretty simple actually, but I could see how it would frustrate someone seeing it for the first time. There was a circle with a horizontal line passing through the origin. Above the line were two right triangles inscribed in the circle that combined to form a third triangle, with its hypotenuse being the horizontal line. The various sides were labeled a, b, c and d. “I have to prove that a/b is the same as d/c and c/e,” Greg explained. “It would be trivial with trig,” I observed. “They’re all three right triangles and you can use the trig functions to prove it. In fact, they’re all three different sizes of the same right triangle.” “How do you know that the enclosing triangle’s also a right triangle?” Greg asked. “It’s called Thale’s Theorem and the proof is as follows,” I explained. “If you draw a line from the center of the circle to the apex, this angle equals this angle, and that angle equals that angle, but we already know that these two angles sum to 90 degrees, and therefore the apex must be 90 degrees and the bounding triangle is therefore a right triangle. So, by Pythagorean’s Theorem, a2 + b2 = (d + e)2, c2 + d2 = a2 and c2 + e2 = b2. Now it’s simpler to prove that a2/b2 = d2/c2 = c2/e2. If you add equations two and three and plug that into one, you get c2 = de. Divide that by e2 and you get c2/e2 = d/e, divide d2 by it and you also get d2/c2 = d/e. Finally, divide equation two by equation three and substitute de for c2 and low and behold, you get a2/b2 = d/e, and that’s your proof. Of course, with trig you need only show that all three ratios are the tangent of the same angle.” “There’s no way you’re in seventh grade,” Greg exclaimed, “nor eighth grade.” “I’m a senior,” I explained, “or at least I was.” “Damn, I just gave a blow job to a genius,” Greg exclaimed. “You could also say you were blown by a genius,” I responded, and Greg stuck out his tongue. “With what happened, I’m surprised you didn’t just off your dad,” Greg thought aloud. When I didn’t say anything at all, he went on to say, “Holy shit, you did, didn’t you!” It was taking all my effort to keep from bolting out of the house and make a run for it, but everything I owned was in his dad’s bike shop, and without my bike, I wouldn’t get very far. Putting his hand on my shoulder and looking me in the eyes, Greg said, “Adam, don’t worry about it. Like I said, I’d have done the same thing. I won’t tell my dad if that’s what you’re worried about. He wouldn’t turn you in anyway. I know him and he wouldn’t do it unless he thought you were a danger to yourself or others, but I’m not gonna tell him anyway. I trust you completely, and I can tell that you’re tellin’ the truth.” “Indiana would try me as an adult,” I finally responded. “Without a history of abuse, they wouldn’t believe me if I said it was in self-defense. They’re more interested in closing cases and getting convictions than in getting to the truth. The irony is that my dad did abuse me. He made me suck him off every day, and sometimes more.” “Fuck, I’d have cut off his balls and buried them in the back yard,” Greg responded. “Don’t think that never occurred to me, but that would’ve ended up the same way,” I related. “I’d been planning to run away someday anyway, but he forced the issue when he tried to kill me.” “Where did you plan to go?” Greg asked. “At thirteen, I couldn’t have lived alone, regardless,” I replied. “Once I graduated, Dad would’ve put me to work painting houses, like he did last summer. It’s a year-round business – outsides of houses in the summer and insides during the winter. I tried talking to him about going to school and getting a college degree. Even goin’ part-time online, a college degree would’ve meant I could’ve brought in way more money than I could helping him paint houses. The way he saw it, I’d have left home the moment I turned sixteen and he’d have spent money sending me to school and gotten nothing back to show for it. It’s true, but it’s not like he paid me for my work anyway, so I figured it was the least he could do.” “He didn’t pay you?” Greg asked. “Was that even legal?” “Of course not,” I replied. “Neither is collecting public assistance or food stamps when you have a decent income, nor applying for Medicaid, squatting in an abandoned house or stealin’ electricity.” “Gees, sounds like a real scumbag,” Greg exclaimed. “Can I ask what happened to your mom?” “She died in childbirth,” I explained. “How about yours?” Sighing, Greg answered, “Mom’s in prison. She set up bogus companies to defraud the state. Dad thought her businesses were legitimate, but then she got caught. We lost our house and all our savings, and nearly lost Dad’s business too. That’s why we live in such a crappy house.” “Your house is a lot better than the one I grew up in. Looks like we both hit the jackpot for sleazebag parents,” I interjected. “You can say that again,” Greg replied. “Yeah, like we both hit the jackpot for sleazebag parents,” I repeated. “Jerk,” Greg responded as he slugged me in the arm. “Ow, that hurt,” I complained. “You deserved it,” he replied. After a short interval, I added, “At least you still have your dad and a roof over your head.” “And I almost threw it all away,” Greg responded. Then after a thoughtful pause, he asked, “Wouldn’t it have been better to just wait your old man out? You could’ve worked for him for three years and then left home legally when you turned sixteen. You could’ve gotten a full-ride scholarship to an Ivy League school and written your own ticket.” Shakin’ my head, I replied, “That was my plan, actually. However, the scholarships wouldn’t have been worth shit without his signature. He always threatened he’d start fuckin’ me, once I graduated high school, and I’m certain he meant it. With his temper, he’d have killed me eventually. I’d have never gotten away from him alive. Turned out I was right about that, too. It just happened sooner than expected.” “I’m curious about what you’re gonna do now, but we need to get started on dinner,” Greg interjected. “Would you like some help with that?” I asked. “I can always use some help,” he replied. I was used to making supper sometimes at home, but that was usually mac and cheese or spaghetti from a box. Greg and I made chicken divan using boneless chicken breasts, fresh broccoli and three kinds of cheese. It smelled incredible. We also made long-grain wild rice and Caesar salad from scratch to go with it – and homemade sugar cookies for dessert. I never knew you could make food like that at home. No wonder Greg had left so much time to get supper ready. Greg lent me an old shirt, boxers and a pair of shorts from when he was my age, and they actually fit me pretty well. By the time Larry arrived home, dinner was on the table and, except for bein’ barefoot, Greg and I were dressed. Larry disappeared for just a moment, emerging a minute later wearing shorts and a t-shirt too. Sitting down at the table, Larry said, “I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Adam, but your wheels haven’t shipped yet.” “What do you mean they haven’t shipped?” I asked. “I always get a tracking number when an item I order has shipped,” Larry explained. “I get an email, and with FedEx, I get a text. I haven’t received it yet. Overnight shipping means they can deliver it as late as 4:30 p.m. on the next business day, which isn’t until Monday. They could still get it here by tomorrow afternoon if they ship it first thing in the morning and pay for Saturday delivery. We’re not open on the weekend, but I was going to work on your bike tomorrow anyway, to get it ready for you in time for Sunday morning. “I’m sorry, Adam, but we go to Church on Sunday.” I noticed Greg rolling his eyes. “If your wheels aren’t here by noon tomorrow, I’m afraid I won’t be able to start working on your bike until Monday morning, and I won’t have it ready for you until Tuesday.” “Crap,” I replied, “If only I’d gotten here a little earlier on Thursday, but it was already after five when I arrived in town.” “We’re open ’til eight on Thursdays,” Larry interjected, causing my jaw to drop open. “You probably got your information from Yelp, and we’ve been trying to get them to correct the listing to reflect that.” “I got screwed, all around,” I replied “If the wheels don’t get here by tomorrow, I’ll make my supplier refund your shipping even if they get it here by Monday morning,” Larry continued. “When they charge that much for overnight shipping, they should’ve made the effort to get it out tonight and they should have paid for Saturday delivery. There’s just no excuse for taking your money and then taking their time.” “I’d have rather had my bike,” I complained. “I realize that, Adam, but at least you and Greg can spend the weekend together, and then you can help me fix your bike come Monday. That’s four more nights with a roof over your head and food in your belly,” Larry concluded. Spending the weekend with Greg would indeed be nice, even if it did mean spending some time in church. “Adam, would you like to say grace?” Larry asked. Swallowing hard, I replied, “I’m sorry but I don’t know how. My Dad and I were never religious. Maybe it had somethin’ to do with my mom dying in childbirth, or maybe he never believed in god. I’m not sure what I believe, but church has never been a part of my life.” “Then maybe attending some church would do you some good,” Larry suggested and again Greg rolled his eyes.
  14. As bad as things were with Dad, I had a roof over my head, clothes in my closet and food on the table. He was a horrible father; nevertheless, he provided for me. There was certainty in my life, and I knew, more or less, what to expect every day. There were so many things I took for granted and, fucked up as it might have been, I could count on school, community and a sense of place. That all changed when I put a bullet in his chest. I’d grown up near North Vernon, a small town in Southern Indiana. The population was under eight thousand in the town, with a county population of less than thirty thousand. I was a very smart kid in a rural backwater in the middle of nowhere. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Lowe’s had a regional distribution center! Big deal. The county high school and middle school were nearby, too, and those had been my salvation. The rest of the county was all farms. Actually, there was the old mental hospital outside of Butlerville from back in the day, but that had closed down a very long time ago and was now being used as a training facility by the military. Actually, the area was rather picturesque, with extensive limestone deposits that had been carved by the meandering Muscatatuck River. The primary highway that served our town was old U.S. Highway 50, which used to be the main route connecting Washington, D.C. and Sacramento, California. In Indiana, it connected Cincinnati with Vincennes, but it was long ago supplanted by Interstate 71, which connects Cincinnati with Louisville, and Interstate 64, which connects Louisville to Evansville and then St. Louis. There was also State Road 7, which connected Madison, Indiana, on the Ohio River, with Indianapolis, passing right through our town. Now I had a decision to make. The quickest route out of Indiana was to head south on State Road 7 to Madison and cross over the Ohio River into Kentucky. The next quickest route was to take U.S. 50 east into Ohio, but that would put me right in Cincinnati. I might be well-read, but I was still a country boy who’d be out of place in a big city like Cincinnati. I’d been to Indy a few times, and it was motherfuckin’ huge. The thing I noticed right away about Indy, though, was that you didn’t see many kids by themselves. They were either with their parents or with groups of other kids. In my small town, it wasn’t like that. Not that you didn’t see a couple of kids together – best friends, usually – but there was nothing unusual about a kid being by himself. For one thing, there weren’t so many of us, so we’d learned early on how to keep ourselves occupied. More importantly, everything was easy to get to, on foot or by bicycle. The farm kids didn’t have it as easy, but most of them had motor bikes, four-wheelers or even horses. In the city, the nearest store could be miles away from their suburban homes; thus kids were dependent on their parents to go anywhere. No, I needed to avoid the cities, at least for now. I didn’t act like a city kid, and alone on a bicycle, particularly during school hours, I’d stand out. So, heading east on U.S. 50 was out. Heading south on 7 was the quickest way out of state, but then what? I could undoubtedly get my supplies in Madison, which had a Walmart Supercenter similar to ours, but the town wasn’t much larger than North Vernon, and on the other side of the river was just farms. I didn’t know the area well, and I’d probably end up passing through Louisville, Cincinnati or Lexington, which kinda formed a triangle of cities that were maybe thirty miles apart, and I’d be in the middle of the triangle. Although it would take me much longer to reach the state line, heading west was probably my best bet. I could reach Vincennes in a matter of hours, and then I’d be in Illinois. Therefore, in the rapidly fading light under a moonless, overcast sky, I headed west on County Road 150 until I reached U.S. 50. Turning onto the old highway, all I had to do was to follow it west. I could take it all the way to St. Louis. I wouldn’t even need a map for that; I couldn’t get lost. Of course, I’d find a route that went around St. Louis before I actually got there. St. Louis was even bigger than Indy, I think. Where was I gonna get my supplies, though? What about breakfast, lunch and supper? The town of Seymour, famous as the boyhood home of singer-songwriter John Mellencamp, was perhaps an hour or maybe two away by bicycle. It was more than double the size of North Vernon and home to a large Walmart Supercenter and a Home Depot. The town was right off Interstate 65, and there was a large truck stop as well as a number of hotels and restaurants. I was familiar with the town because it was the place where Dad and I did most of our shopping. I was tempted to stop in Seymour for my supplies, since it would have everything I needed, and if I made tracks, I could even get there in time to do my shopping before Walmart closed. However, because it was the main place Dad and I did our shopping, there was a chance I’d be recognized. Some of the cashiers at Walmart seemed to know me and always said hello when we checked out. Being recognized was not a risk I could take. If I was spotted in Seymour, the police would know I’d killed my father, and they could figure out I was headed west. Perhaps I should turn around and head north on 7, to Columbus. Columbus, Indiana, was where we went when we needed to shop for nicer things like so-called Sunday clothes, whatever that meant. Let’s face it, Walmart and Target weren’t good places to buy a suit. Columbus was a small city that was famous for its modern architecture, with buildings designed by the likes of I.M. Pei. Columbus was also the headquarters of Culver Diesel, a huge multinational conglomerate. I guess the company was originally founded there. Otherwise, why would one of the biggest makers of diesel engines, electric generators and the like be headquartered in dinky Columbus? The trouble was, Columbus wasn’t dinky enough for my purposes. It was a city, and going there would only take me deeper into Indiana. I guessed I could head west from there, through Bloomington, the home of Indiana University, but that would take me well outside of my comfort zone. Bloomington wasn’t Indy, but it was a far cry from being the country. No, for now I’d stick to heading west on U.S. 50. I could wait to get some basic supplies, but I’d need food, and what about a bike lock? I couldn’t even go to the bathroom unless I could lock up my bike. For obvious reasons, that couldn’t wait. The truck stop in Seymour probably sold things like that, and they probably wouldn’t know me from Adam, even though that was my name. I could always get something basic and then get a better lock along the way. Plus, it was open all night, so I wouldn’t hafta rush to get there. I wasn’t expecting to see much traffic, but I noticed a steady stream of headlights coming the other way. Lookin’ behind me, there was a steady stream of headlights off in the distance behind me as well. I definitely would want to get a rearview mirror or maybe two – one for each handlebar. A more serious issue was that I just wasn’t outfitted for night riding. I didn’t have a headlamp, so I could barely see ahead of me, and I didn’t have adequate reflectors on my bike. My winter coat was black too, and I was wearing jeans. As I was thinking about that, a set of headlights came up from behind me, much faster than I’d been expecting. I barely had time to pull off to the side of the road before the headlights morphed into a huge, tandem semitrailer. The air flow around the thing was so strong that it literally knocked me over and into a ditch by the side of the road. Getting up, I didn’t seem to be hurt, nor was the bike damaged from what I could see, but in just the time it took me to get back up, three more huge semis passed by. Fuck! Suddenly it dawned on me that truckers must prefer to drive at night. When I thought about it, it made sense. Why deal with slow-moving cars and even slower moving farm tractors if you didn’t have to? Obviously, it wasn’t gonna be safe to ride my bike at night, even with the right equipment. As much as I wanted to put some distance behind me, that would be of little import if I got myself killed in the process. I recognized where I was and knew there was a driveway not more than fifty feet ahead of me, and so I headed right for it. There was a spur off the driveway that led into the adjacent woods and ended at a pond. During the summer, we often used the pond for skinny dipping, but in winter, it would be pretty much deserted. I pulled off into the woods and made a pile of leaves and twigs to use as a mattress. Using my duffel as a large pillow, I lay down, but I was wide awake. It wasn’t all that late, and ordinarily, I wouldn’t go to bed for at least a few hours. I realized I hadn’t had any supper, but I wasn’t the least bit hungry. In my mind, I kept replaying the shooting of my father. I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. At some point I must have fallen asleep because I woke up suddenly, thinking my dad had his hands around my neck. It had seemed so real; my heart was racing, and I was breathing rapidly. I couldn’t tell what time it was as I didn’t have a watch and had ditched my phone. It was still an overcast, moonless night. At least, it wasn’t raining or snowing. I did hafta piss, though. Urgently. I got up and moved away from my makeshift bed, unzipped and let loose my stream. I got hard as I finished the last dribbles. With nothing else to do, I grabbed hold and started to stroke. I’d been jerkin’ off for a while now and did it just about every night – and often during the day, too. Afterwards, I had no trouble getting back to sleep. <> <> <> The next thing I knew, it was light out and a light snow was falling. Already, I was covered in what looked like powdered sugar. Shit! Getting up, I brushed the snow off me and then relieved my bladder nearby. I kinda needed to take a dump, but the thought of doing that outdoors without a way to wipe myself didn’t appeal to me at all, so I shouldered my duffle, walked my bike to the driveway and pulled back out onto the shoulder of the highway. I had to be careful ’cause the pavement was wet, so I slowly brought myself up to a safe speed and headed west. There were hardly any semis at all now; I was passed by the occasional car, pickup truck or SUV. Even those produced enough airflow to push me to the side. U.S. 50 might be the quickest way west, but I was beginning to wonder if I’d do better stickin’ to county roads. Those tended to run in straight lines between adjacent farms, but often ended in dead ends, I reasoned that I probably wouldn’t, and I’d need a detailed map for that, in any case. It took me about an hour to get to the outskirts of Seymour. I actually spotted the sign for the TA Travel Center high above the Interstate before I actually saw any other signs of civilization. When I got to the store, I dismounted my bike and wheeled it inside with me. I was afraid I’d be stopped and made to leave it outside, but no one seemed to be payin’ attention to me, which was good. I quickly found the aisle with bicycle equipment and was pleasantly surprised by the selection. They even had a Kryptonite New-U Evolution Mini-7 bike lock with cable that was reasonably priced and came with a year’s anti-theft protection. There was no way I could register the lock, let alone collect on it if my bike was stolen, but the fact that they offered the insurance at all suggested it was probably a decent lock. I also liked that it not only was inexpensive, but it didn’t look expensive. An expensive lock tended to draw unwanted attention to even a cheap bike. While I was at it, I picked out a helmet, a flagpole, a reflector kit, a basic toolkit, and a water bottle. I still needed a headlamp, a bicycle pump, spare inner tubes and tires and a spare chain sooner rather than later, but those could wait. I’d need a sleeping bag, a pannier rack and saddlebags, too, but those would be better found at Walmart. I’d also need to cash in some of my Applazon gift-card money before I could buy all that. Wheeling my bike up to the cashier, I paid cash for my purchases and exited the store. Outside, I made quick work of using the toolkit to attach the reflectors to the frame and wheels, and then I locked up the bike, setting the combination to my birthday. Throwing everything else into the duffle and carrying my new helmet, I headed back inside, rented a locker and locked the duffle and helmet inside. Getting a saddlebag and rack would definitely be a priority, as carrying the duffle across my back while on a bicycle was awkward, to say the least. After securing my belongings in a locker, I went to the restaurant and sat down on a stool at the counter. Grabbing the menu, I decided to order something substantial to carry me through the rest of the day until I got to Vincennes. The Farmer’s Breakfast, with two pancakes, two eggs, sausage, bacon, hash browns, toast, juice and coffee sure seemed to fit the bill. A server named Joy came right up to me and asked, “What can I get you, cutie pie?” Gees! I was trying to pass as a sixteen-year-old high-school dropout, and having her call attention to my young appearance by calling me ‘cutie pie’ wasn’t helping. It didn’t help that I looked more like eleven than thirteen and that my voice hadn’t changed. “I’ll have the Farmer’s Breakfast,” I replied. “How would you like your eggs, sugar?” she asked. There was more than one way to make eggs? I’d no idea. I hated to sound like a rube, but I had to find out, so I asked, “What are my choices? “We can make them any way you like, sweetheart,” she replied, which told me a hell of a lot. She musta seen the confusion on my face, so she elaborated, “You can have them hard boiled, soft boiled, over easy, over hard, poached, sunny side up, or of course scrambled, with or without cheese or bacon.” I’d heard of poached, sunny side up and scrambled before, but wasn’t sure what they meant. Sunny side up obviously meant that the yolk was on top, just like in the picture on the menu, but that meant the yolk was raw. Yuck! Hard boiled was pretty obvious – the whole egg was boiled until it was hard – and soft boiled probably meant it was undercooked. Poached was another kind of boiling – maybe outside the shell, over hard probably meant it was fried on both sides and thoroughly cooked, and over easy probably meant it was fried on both sides and undercooked. Raw egg yolks didn’t appeal to me at all. Maybe someday I’d try them, but not today. The only way Dad ever served eggs I guess was what was called scrambled, and having scrambled eggs with cheese or bacon sounded great, but why not both, so I asked, “Could I have scrambled with both cheese and bacon?” She answered, “Of course you can, honey.” She then asked, “Do you want buttermilk, whole wheat or blueberry pancakes?” God, I’d no idea there were so many choices! Well, I loved blueberries, so that was an easy choice, but then she asked, “What kind of toast would you like?” When she saw the perplexed look on my face, she added, “White, rye, whole wheat, pumpernickel or cinnamon swirl?” Shit, I thought toast was toast, just like bread was bread. Then I remembered that the label on the bread Dad always bought said ‘White’, so I figured I’d always had white toast, but damned if cinnamon swirl didn’t sound good, so I ordered that. “And what about your juice, sugar?” she asked. “We have orange, apple, grapefruit, pineapple, pomegranate, cranberry, mango, tomato and V8, or any combination.” Damn! Then seeing a chance to get even, I asked, “Any combination? Can I, like, have all of them?” Laughing, she answered, “You like to be daring, don’t you? You mightn’t want to mix tomato or V8 with anything else, but I’d be happy to serve you a cranberry-orange-apple-grapefruit-pomegranate-pineapple-mango juice cocktail.” Laughing, I replied, “Orange juice will be just fine.” “Would you like some coffee or tea?” she asked. Dad never let me drink coffee, so that was an easy choice. “I’ll have coffee.” She turned over a cup that was already at my place and poured me a cup from a glass pot that was behind the counter. Dad always drank his coffee straight – actually, I think he called it ‘black’ – so I tried taking a sip and nearly spat it out. It was bitter! I knew some people drank their coffee with cream and sugar, and seeing both a small pitcher of cream and a large dispenser of sugar in front of me, I added a fair amount of both and tried it again. What a difference it made! I’d made it a bit too sweet, but it was good! Amazingly good. Why the fuck didn’t Dad want me to have it? I knew coffee had lots of caffeine in it, but so did Coke, and this was way better. Maybe that’s why he didn’t want me to have it. One sip and I was hooked! The server brought me a small glass of orange juice and a plate with four slices of toast, and she set a small pitcher of syrup down in front of me. I picked up a half of one of the slices of toast and took a bite. Oh. My. God. It was one of the best things I’d ever tasted. Moments later, the server moved the toast back and placed a huge platter in front of me with the pancakes, eggs and potatoes on it. Not only did the eggs have cheese and bacon in them, but the hash browns had red and green peppers in them, as well as onion. The only hash browns I’d ever eaten before were the frozen kind you made in the microwave. I poured syrup over the pancakes and dug in. It was probably the best meal I’d ever eaten, hands down. I’d heard truck stops had some of the best food, but this was only a chain and from what I’d heard, not one of the better ones. If this was what people considered mediocre, then what kinda crap had my old man been feeding me all those years? What kind of crap had I been getting at school? Maybe that’s why I was so skinny. Maybe that’s why I hadn’t entered puberty yet. I couldn’t afford to spend fifteen bucks on breakfast every day, but I had a feelin’ that with eating real food, I was gonna have a growth spurt. The server cleared away the dishes and brought me the check. I forgot completely about tipping until I saw at the bottom of the check, ‘Suggested gratuity 18%’. I remembered seeing my dad leave a quarter on the table when we went out sometimes, but what the fuck, that wasn’t even a percent. Cheap bastard. The service had been outstanding, and the server deserved her eighteen percent. Maybe even more. I saw that the guy seated next to me had left a five-dollar bill and somehow that just seemed right, and so I did the same. Maybe 33% was too much, but the server worked her ass off, yet she took the time to explain things to a naïve kid. She deserved it! Stopping in the men’s room, I took care of my business, then noticing that showers were available for rent, I went to the window, paid the fee and was given a towel and a key. There were dispensers inside for soap and shampoo, which was a good thing, ’cause I’d forgotten to pack any. It felt great to get myself clean! After finishing my shower, I retrieved my duffle from my locker, applied deodorant and got out a fresh pair of boxers and socks. Standing naked in front of the locker, I noticed that an older guy was eying me up and down, and I got the distinct impression I could have made some quick cash. Gross! Two of me coulda fit inside his belly. I’d read that runaways often resorted to prostitution just to survive. I could only hope that I was never that desperate. After getting dressed, I grabbed my toothbrush and toothpaste, went over to one of the sinks and brushed my teeth, realizing that I probably shoulda done that before I entered the premises. Then, shouldering my duffle bag and strapping my new bike helmet on for the first time, I headed outside and unlocked my bike. Riding under the interstate, I passed an enormous Walmart Distribution Center on the left and passed by a Starbucks on the right, wondering if the coffee there was even better than what I’d just had at the truck stop. When the duffle bag fell off my shoulders for the second time, nearly causing me to fall over, I decided buying a pannier rack and saddlebags for my bike was a priority. Home Depot and the Walmart Supercenter were on my left, and I made a decision. Although Walmart probably had a better selection, the risk of being recognized wasn’t worth the risk, so I headed to Home Depot. When I got inside, I made a quick check of the self-serve checkout kiosks and was astounded to find Applazon gift cards under the listed accepted payment types. Fantastic! I headed to the sports-gear section and found the bicycle accessories, which were pretty extensive. They even had the same lock I’d just bought for about ten dollars less. They had a pretty good pannier rack that fit my bike, so I threw that into my basket, and there was a locking, hard pannier case that was designed to mount securely on top of it, so I threw that in too. It was a bit pricey, but it’d be good to have something that could lock. I added a pair of large sturdy saddlebags. I selected a decent solar-powered LED headlamp and tail lamp, and a set of colorful LED wheel lights that looked really cool. I selected a frame-mounted bicycle pump, a pair of handlebar-mounted rear-view mirrors, a spare bicycle chain and couple of spare tires and several spare inner tubes. I hadn’t intended to buy any camping gear until later, but Home Depot had a decent selection and I thought it was worth picking it up while I was there. I therefore added to my shopping cart, a 2-person, popup backpacking tent; a lightweight, backpack sleeping bag; a pair of water bladders that fit the pannier saddlebags; a light-weight poncho, and a set of straps that I’d use to secure the duffle bag to the pannier rack. Eventually I might invest in a backcountry backpack, but I’d already filled the shopping cart with hundreds of dollars’ worth of camping equipment as it was. Besides, it was better to let the bike carry the weight than my back as long as it was stable. Rolling up to a self-serve checkout kiosk, I carefully scanned each item from my cart into the checkout area, placing them in the largest sized bags available. Placing the bags back into the shopping cart, the register totaled everything up and calculated the sales tax owed. I pressed the ’Pay’ button on the display and selected ‘Gift Card’ and then ‘Applazon’. I was surprised that I didn’t need to use the actual card, but rather just needed to enter the serial number and PIN. I didn’t even need an Applazon account to redeem it. The display promptly displayed the card balance and subtracted the proper amount. The machine printed out a receipt, which I had to show to a clerk on leaving the kiosk, and then I went and retrieved my bike. Installing the pannier rack was a bit more difficult than I’d expected, using the meager toolkit I’d bought at the truck stop, but once installed, it looked like it belonged there. It looked good. Securing the hard case and saddlebags went smoothly, and I fit the other items I’d purchased inside. There was still a lot of room, so I offloaded some of the contents of my duffle bag into them as well. I installed the bike lamps, wheel lights and rearview mirrors easily enough, then stowed the toolkit inside the hard pannier case and locked it up. Lastly, I secured the duffle to the back of the pannier rack. I filled both water bladders and the water bottle from a water cooler and was on my way. Riding through Seymour only took a few minutes, and then I reached the next town, Brownstown, where the highway made an abrupt right turn, less than twenty minutes later. From there the terrain became monotonous as I passed farm after farm after farm, all of them pretty desolate on this February day. The sky remained overcast with just a hint of snow, but fortunately no actual flakes fell. I had to focus to maintain my speed, as it was all too easy to be lulled into a slower rhythm. Perhaps I’d buy a speedometer along the way. Wondering what was ahead, it dawned on me that I’d forgotten to buy any maps while at the truck stop. How stupid! If only I had my phone! Eventually I’d get another prepaid phone, but only after I’d put some distance behind me. However, didn’t they make smart watches that could be used as a GPS? Even if they did, where was I gonna find one in Southern Indiana? I might be able to get a GPS for a car or maybe for a motorcycle, but those operated off of twelve-volt power. But then I wondered if they made GPS units specifically for bicycles or even handheld units for hiking, but why would anyone need one in Indiana? Maybe in Bloomington, which was famous for Indiana University and the Little 500 bicycle race, but not here. Finally, I came to the town of Bedford, and they had a Lowes and a Walmart Supercenter, so I stopped, secured my bike and went inside the Walmart. I checked out the watches, but what they considered to be a smart watch was nothing more than an overpriced dumb watch as far as I could tell. None of them had anything approaching decent GPS. I did ask a clerk about it, though, and she told me to order one online and have it sent to that store. Yeah, right! If I could get something online, it wouldn’t be from Walmart. They did have some GPS units for cars, and Lowes had even more, but like I thought, they all plugged into a twelve-volt outlet. They were pretty expensive, too. Highway 50 seemed to end there, but then I noticed a sign under the one for Indiana 37, that showed U.S. 50 turning left and following 37 to the south. The sign said it was 24 miles to Bloomington, to the right and 34 miles to French Lick, to the left. I knew I shoulda stuck to my plan and continued on U.S. 50 to Vincennes and beyond, but Bloomington was a college town, and it had everything. Surely, I could get a GPS for my bicycle there. By going a bit north, I’d also avoid going through St. Louis, and I definitely wanted to avoid that. Therefore, I made a decision. In spite of its size, I was gonna go to Bloomington. Highway 37 was nothing like U.S. 50. It might not be a U.S. highway, but it was way bigger, with two full lanes in each direction and a grassy strip in between, separating the north and southbound lanes from each other. I think they called it a grassy median, and this was a four-lane divided highway. It wasn’t an interstate, though, and the shoulder was fully paved and just as wide as a regular lane, so there was plenty of room for me to ride my bicycle on it. I passed the small town of Oolitic on my right, and about a half-hour later, I came to a sign for Monroe Lake. I could actually smell the water. Curious, I turned off on the road, which meandered a bit before ending at I guess was a boat ramp. There were houses nearby, too. Riding on a bit further on what looked like a bike path, I came to a path along the shoreline. I was astounded by what I saw. There are a lot of small, manmade lakes in southern Indiana, but this lake was neither small nor artificial. Maybe there was a dam, but the lake wasn’t something that was dug out of flat land. There were boats in the water, even in the winter, too. Damn, I might be smart, but there was so much I’d never seen before. Going back to Highway 37, I continued on north for about another half hour until I came to the turnoff for Old Highway 37. It also indicated that Interstate 69 was just ahead, and I couldn’t take my bike on the interstate, so I turned off onto the old highway. Soon, I was riding past street after street of houses, and then there was a Kroger on the right. I remembered going to Kroger in Columbus; it was a mother-fuckin’ huge grocery store, and this looked just as big. There was a football stadium and a high school, Bloomington South High school, that dwarfed the one I went to. On my left, I passed car dealership after car dealership. The ones I’d seen near where I grew up were tiny. These were huge and had a ton of brand-new cars and SUVs, and not a pickup truck in sight. I passed a Starbucks and a McDonalds and more and more streets of houses. I could tell I was getting near the university, ’cause there were a lot of college kids and lots of shops, cafés and the like. I had yet to see a Walmart, Home Depot or anything resembling a shopping center, though, and began to think those must be in an entirely different part of town. There should be bike shops near the university though, and maybe I could find what I was looking for there. I came to a street called Kirkwood Avenue that looked particularly promising, so I made a right turn there and headed into what appeared to be the heart of the university. There was a ton of restaurants, and in spite of the huge breakfast I’d eaten that morning, I was absolutely starved. The smells were incredible. There was a Chipotle Mexican Grill on the right, and the smell from it was amazing. I’d had tacos before at school, but this smelled nothing like those. Across the street was a Tibetan restaurant; I didn’t even know there was such a thing. I figured Mexican food was a safe bet, so I secured my bike to a bike rack behind some trees on the street and used the bike lock and cable to fix my bike to it. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have left my duffle there, held in place by only a strap, with all my worldly possessions so visible. I was naïve. Satisfied that I’d secured my bike as best as possible – in broad daylight – I headed into the restaurant and went up to the counter. There were lots of college kids inside, but it was early afternoon, and the place wasn’t all that crowded. There were so many choices on the menu, and except for the tacos, I had no idea what anything was. I remembered having burritos at school, never realizing they were Mexican, but the pictures on the menu board looked nothing like what they served at school. I decided on the Fajita Burrito with chicken, but everyone around me laughed at the way I pronounced fajita. Who knew that a ‘j’ in Spanish was pronounced as an ‘h’? I could read Spanish just fine, but I was self-taught; I’d never actually heard the language spoken before. The meal came with some spicy green stuff – I guess it was what they call guacamole – as well as corn chips and spicy red stuff called salsa. The corn chips were what they called tortilla chips, and they were way better than Fritos. I got another laugh when I asked for more tortilla chips and guacamole. Who knew that a double ‘l’ in Spanish is pronounced like a ‘y’ or that the e on the end of guacamole isn’t silent? Damn, I sounded like such a rube. Man, the food was incredible. I’d never tasted anything like it before. When I went outside to retrieve my bike, however, I coulda cried. At least the bike was still there, locked up where I’d left it, but all my stuff was gone. My duffle bag, the saddlebags and even the pannier rack itself was gone. I guess when they couldn’t remove the locking hard case, they simply removed the whole rack, which was secured with ordinary screws and bolts. The bracket holding the back wheel was bent, making the bike unrideable. I could replace the bags and even my clothes, but there were things in the duffle – personal keepsakes, that could never be replaced. I figured I was out well over a thousand dollars in gear and clothes, and they’d done it in broad daylight right next to a church. At least, I still had my wallet and my Applazon gift cards. I couldn’t go very far without having the bike repaired, so I could only hope to find a bike shop nearby. Perhaps someone was watching out for me, ’cause there was a sign for a place called the Bicycle Garage on the next block. I headed right for it. I wheeled my bicycle inside. It was a large bike shop with an extensive selection of new and used bikes, and there was a fair bit of Little 500 memorabilia on the walls. They were surprisingly busy for a late-winter afternoon, so I waited patiently until a young kid who seemed to work there came up to me and said, “Nice bike, but it looks like someone did a number on it. Looks like you had a pannier rack and they just yanked it off.” “That and just about everything I had,” I related, “and they did it in broad daylight – in front of Chipotle.” “Fuck, that’s brazen,” the kid replied. “I can fix the frame while you wait, and there won’t be any charge for it. If you’re interested, I can sell you a pannier rack that won’t be so easy to steal.” “What have you got?” I asked. What he showed me was like something from another planet. Once bolted to the frame, it couldn’t be removed without the use of special tools. He even had something with integrated hard-shell case that was more like something you see on a motorcycle. The locks were pickproof too, and there was a built-in solar panel and integrated taillight. The whole thing cost more than I’d spent on the bike, though, but I figured it would be worth it to keep from being ripped off again. I asked him if I should get a better lock, but he said the one I had was one of the best. He could sell me a better one at more than twice the price but said he wouldn’t recommend it unless I lived in a crappy neighborhood with a high crime rate. “You mean like around here?” I quipped. “Hey, with a cheap lock, they coulda stolen your whole bike,” he pointed out. “That they didn’t is testament to the security of that lock.” “Out of curiosity,” I asked, “do you sell any kind of GPS for bicycles?” “Yeah, we do,” the kid replied, and then he got a box off a shelf and opened it up on the counter in front of me. “We sell several, but this is the only one I’d recommend. It mounts on your bike and can be used handheld, too, and has a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. It comes with lifetime maps and updates itself over Verizon’s network at no charge. The built-in maps cover all of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It has an integrated touchscreen with a touch-activated backlight, and of course, it doubles as a speedometer.” “What if I can’t get to an outlet to recharge?” I asked. “It powers off any USB outlet, including the one on the pannier case I showed you, so you can charge it off the solar cells. I’ll throw in the cable, so you can charge it as you go.” “How much?” I asked with more than a bit of trepidation. “$250,” he replied. That was pretty reasonable! Dad used to harp about spending as much on groceries at Walmart. I was expecting to pay double that. “Great!” I responded. “If you can install everything, and fix the frame, I’ll take it! Oh, and I’ll need a new helmet and spare tubes and tires, and I’d better get a flagpole too.” He showed me several helmets, all of them a lot pricier than the one that was stolen, but they looked much sturdier and more stylish, and they even weighed less. He threw in the flagpole at no extra cost. “How will you be paying for it?” he asked. Shit! That was a very good question. “The only way I can pay for it is with an Applazon gift card,” I answered. Scratching his chin, the kid responded, “Hmm, I know we take Applazon Pay, so I assume we have a way to take an Applazon gift card. Let me check on that,” he added as he dashed off. Returning a moment later, he said, “It turns out we’re an Applazon merchant, so we just need to ring the sale through our Applazon account.” While he was ringing up the sale and then fixing the bike frame, I asked, “By the way, is there a place you can recommend where I can pick up some camping gear and replace the clothes that were stolen?” “Is there a reason you wouldn’t want to go to College Mall?” the kid asked. Laughing, I responded, “College Mall is probably just what I need, but I’m not from around here. I rode up from Bedford.” “Of course,” the kid replied. “I shoulda known from your accent.” I had an accent? “Just take Kirkwood until it ends, then turn left on Indiana Avenue. It’s one way, so it’s the only way you can go, and then turn right on Seventh Street. Seventh Street is also one way. Take it until it seems to end, at the Showalter Fountain, but just go around the fountain and through the parking lot on the side of the IU Auditorium, and you’ll come out on Jordan Avenue. Take Jordan Avenue south to Third Avenue and turn left on Third Avenue. Take Third Avenue past Highway 46, and it’ll be on your right. Better still, just set the destination on your GPS and it’ll take you right there.” I couldn’t help but laugh at that. College Mall was huge! They had Target and Macy’s, but I figured the best bet for camping gear was Dick’s Sporting Goods, so that was where I headed first. I’d never been in a store that large before, outside of a Walmart or Home Depot, and the whole thing was devoted to sports. Amazing! Yeah, they had camping gear. Much better camping gear than they did at Home Depot, for sure. I picked up a really sweet one-person, backcountry pup tent and a very compact, backpacking sleeping bag, rated for temperatures down to twenty below. I got a foot-pedal-operated air mattress and a backpack with an integrated water bladder that was nicely padded and wouldn’t get in the way of the bike. The prices were reasonable, too. Dick’s carried a large selection of sportswear, most of it name-brand and pricey, so I decided to look for most of my clothes at Target first. We didn’t have a Target in North Vernon or Seymour, and I was pleasantly surprised. The quality and selection were much better than at Walmart, yet the prices were pretty much the same. I was able to replace my entire wardrobe with better stuff than what I’d had. I replaced my poncho and bought light- and medium-weight jackets. With the addition of a fleece vest, I wouldn’t need my winter coat until next year, and so I decided to ditch it. Finally, I picked up new toiletries, including a toothbrush, a hairbrush, soap, shampoo, deodorant and a battery-powered electric razor with which to maintain my buzz cut. When I went to pay, however, I found that Target doesn’t accept payment with Applazon gift cards. Fuck. I didn’t have enough cash. I ended up having to leave my purchases at the service desk and go in search of a Coinstar Kiosk, where I could trade virtually any gift card for cash. One of the clerks said they had one at Kroger, so I rode my bike down State Road 46 a little way, to a large strip mall where there was a Kroger and a Hobby Lobby. There was also an AMC Theater with a large marquee proclaiming eleven screens. Eleven screens? Fuck. Our local theater in North Vernon only had one screen. Holy shit, The Last Jedi was one of the movies playing. I’d been drooling over seeing it since it came out in December, but I usually didn’t get to see a movie until it was on cable for free. I knew I should be trying to get as far away from Indiana as possible, but the chance to see The Last Jedi in a real theater on a large screen was so tempting, I just knew I was gonna hafta do it. The clerk at the service desk at Target had told me they’d hold my stuff ’til closing, which was several hours away, so I didn’t have to rush right back. Locking my bike up in a rack outside the theater, I headed up to the ticket windows and saw that the movie was playing on multiple screens, and there was one showing in twenty minutes. It was in 3D, too. I’d never seen a movie in 3D before. The ticket price was $25, which was something I could afford, so I asked for a ticket for the next showing. I didn’t realize it, but the seats were reserved and so I had to choose where I wanted to sit. That sure wasn’t the case back home. Most seats were still available, so I picked one in the center. The guy who took my ticket gave me what looked like clear sunglasses, but I guessed they had something to do with the 3D. Once inside, I was confronted by concessions selling everything from soft drinks to entire meals. I decided to splurge and get myself the largest bucket of buttered popcorn they sold and a large Pepsi. Seeing how greasy the popcorn looked, I grabbed a bunch of napkins too. Following the signs to where my movie was showing, I went inside and was astounded by how roomy the seats were. The aisles were wide, there was a lot of space between the rows, and the seats themselves were widely spaced and plush. Each seat had a large pull-out table on which to put my popcorn and drink. Damn, it was nice. This was the first time I’d been to a movie theater in ages, and I’d never been to one like this one. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t all the previews they had. There were a million of them, and they were so violent – and loud. Finally, there was a notice on the screen to put on our glasses, and so I did. Seeing a Star Wars movie on the large screen was surreal. As much as I’d looked forward to it, nothing could’ve prepared me for seeing the characters, larger than life. The 3D visuals were something else, too. When the lights came up, I couldn’t help but think I’d just seen the best Star Wars movie ever. I couldn’t believe it when I exited the theater and saw that I’d been there for nearly three hours. It had seemed more like three minutes. Shit! It was already dark out, and clearly, I was gonna hafta spend the night in Bloomington, but I had no idea where. I found the Coinstar Kiosk easily enough in the Kroger grocery store. Calling Kroger a grocery store didn’t do it justice though. It was mother-fuckin’ huge – and beautiful inside. Seeing that they had hot food, ready to eat and some tables to eat it at, I decided to eat a light supper before picking up my clothes. There was a food bar priced at eight dollars a pound and it didn’t take me long to figure out how it worked. Grabbing a plastic bowl and a matching lid, I filled it with mac and cheese, meatballs, green beans, mashed potatoes and fish. It came to a little over ten dollars, so I guess I took more than I thought. I sat down and ate my supper, and it was really good. After cashing in some of my Applazon gift-card funds, I returned to Target and completed the purchase of my clothes. I then stowed everything in the storage case on my bike and used the GPS unit to search for campgrounds nearby. Right away I found the Paynetown Campground, on the north shore of Lake Monroe. It was close and had full facilities, and it was open in winter. It also wasn’t free, as I found when I got there. For a bit more money, I could rent a small shelter with a kerosene heater, so that’s what I did. I slept amazingly well, dreaming of visions of life as a Jedi. In the morning I enjoyed a hot shower in the camp facilities, and then brushed my teeth and trimmed my hair. After packing up my things, I headed back into Bloomington and seeing a lot of cars around a place called Panera Bread, decided to check it out. Although it was obviously a chain restaurant like Chipotle was, the food was made fresh, and it smelled wonderful. They had a selection of breakfast sandwiches that looked really good. I’d never heard of a breakfast sandwich before, but I was quickly learning about the things people in the city took for granted. I ordered the bacon, over-easy egg and cheese sandwich, a bowl of oatmeal and of course, coffee. The coffee was self-serve, and you could take as much as you liked as long as you drank it there. I wasn’t sure which coffee to take but figured the house blend was a safe choice. This time I added only a little cream and sugar and when I tasted it, oh my god, it was good. I thought yesterday’s coffee was good, but this was incredible. No wonder this place was so popular. I couldn’t help but wonder how Starbucks compared. No wonder folks went out just for coffee. While I had the chance, I got out my GPS and looked at potential routes west. I wanted to avoid going through cities in general, but particularly major cities. The highways, naturally, tended to connect the rural towns to the cities, making avoiding them difficult. Worse yet, many highways had been supplanted by interstates, which were off limits to bicycles. I couldn’t exactly blame the planners for making use of the existing rights of way when planning for the interstates, but doing so was making it very difficult for me to plan my escape west. Then there were the rivers. For example, there were only so many places where I could cross the Wabash. Most of the roads passed through Terre Haute, but Terre Haute was a city with a metro population of 170,000, about the same size as Bloomington. Not only were cities difficult to navigate, but they slowed me down. Avoiding them, however, meant detours that were miles out of the way. I could avoid Terre Haute by crossing the Wabash at Hutsonville, but then the highway ended, and I’d hafta go miles to the south to pick up another road to the west. Crossing the Mississippi would be even more of a challenge. I needed to avoid St. Louis at all costs, but every other crossing dictated routes through various cities in Illinois, and most of them favored the interstates. I kinda wanted to cross at Hannibal, Missouri, though, ’cause it was the home of Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain. In my opinion, he was one of the greatest authors of all time and perhaps the greatest American author, ever. Yeah, seeing his birthplace would be cool. I plotted a route on the GPS that would take avoid all the cities. It took me through Hutsonville, Martinsville, Westfield and Charleston, Mattoon, Shelbyville, Pana and Taylorville, Kincaid, Pawnee, Auburn and Waverly, Jacksonville, Meredosia, Fishhook and Payson. I’d get to see a good swath of rural Illinois in the process. It would take me days to cross Illinois, let alone Missouri. Where I’d go from there, I’d no idea. At some point I’d hafta figure out how to get a new identity, and maybe get my GED. One thing was certain. If I kept spending money the way I had been, I’d run out before the summer began.
  15. Young Adam, aka Simon, aka J.J. grew up in Southern Indiana, the victim of sexual abuse for as long as he could remember. The one thing he had going for himself was his intelligence, which allowed him to master advanced college-level material online. On his 13th birthday, however, his father left him no choice but to fight back the only way he could. Forced to run away, he began an amazing journey that would lead him to the highest corporate echelons, and more importantly, to love.
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