Plan B: A Degree of Difference
To the tune of 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' played on a harmonica, I had Aaron's profile passing in front of mine, then mine passing back in front of him. I'd bled the color from the images, then made darker and lighter versions, so the darker one would pass in front of the lighter one, then vice-versa.
In varying locations on the screen, in alternating bright colors and big, bold type it would say, 'Man Must Man,' then 'Evan Must Aaron,' which would morph to 'Aaron Must Evan'. It would be two heads, then ten heads, then countless heads, and it all faded into an extreme close-up of a kiss, and that was my favorite image of them all. Just a silhouette of noses and happy lips.
I thought it was hilarious, except for the kiss, and I felt very smug about my inner genius. I'd just had a new idea that night, and it came out really well. When the multiple images started picking up speed, the music changed in a similar way, and I had a bunch of discordant notes swell, then pull together into a five-octave G Major chord just when the picture of the kiss gelled from it all. It rocked the house when I cranked up the volume.
God, it was beautiful and powerful, and it was sexy as hell, and that last chord wasn't all that far from how I felt when I really did kiss Aaron. It was all the senses, all the nerves, pulled together from whatever they'd been doing into a sudden and overwhelming harmony.
I tried adding another level of bass, but it was out of hearing range, so I played around until I got that giant chord to fade to a single, wavering 'g' note, then the music morphed seamlessly back into the harmonica playing the hymn, and the whole thing started again.
I clicked on save, then called the file 'Evan must Aaron', because that was the major truth in my life. Aaron was a person, and I loved him. I also messed around with his name, using it as a noun, a verb, an adverb and an adjective. I Aaroned when I made a certain gesture, said something in a certain way, and I Aaroned in a totally different way when I jumped his bones. I had Aaron moments for the same reasons, but also when I got to spend special time with him; Aaron time. And yes, I could do some things so Aaronly that anybody watching would suspect in an instant that I was gay.
I'd see Aaron on the weekend, anyhow. It had been two months since I came home, and things were settling out. My parents had come to the conclusion that I was gay, and they didn't like it. I was happy enough with them just acknowledging the fact, and I thought it was all I'd ever get. They were more resigned to it than accepting of it, and I think they were both still ashamed of something, as if I had gone wrong in some way.
They weren't standing in my way, and that was the big thing, and they were both trying. They were going to PFLAG meetings with Aaron's parents, and I think they really liked Aaron as a person, and even as my boyfriend. I don't know what the final stumbling block was, but it was there, and my folks weren't a hundred percent yet.
It had been an interesting two months, though.
* * * * * * * *
I'd only been home one night, and I wasn't going to school the first day, nor was I planning on attending the second day or the one after. There were lots of things to do, and talking to my mother was the main one, and I was scared to death.
Dad left for work when Alton left, and Bruce headed out to school for the first day a little later on. I had my mother to myself, and had to confront her with something potentially huge.
I waited until the eggs and bacon were gone, and all that was left was toast, juice and coffee. Mom had been staring at me all through the meal, and we'd made small talk. I think the staring was her committing me to memory.
I finally put down my toast and said, "Mom, nobody thinks I should tell you, but ..."
I felt like a puny weakling for stopping, and I had to think of how to phrase what I had to say. "Mom," I said, aware of her full attention, "I didn't leave for the heck of it, you know."
Her eyes glimmered, but her voice was dry, "I never thought you did."
"There was a reason," I continued.
I looked at her expectant face and said, "Mom, I love you. You know that, right?"
She nodded, and I said, "Well, I do," just for reinforcement.
"Mom ... " I couldn't do it.
I tried again, "Mom, I left because ... I mean ..."
She smiled nervously and touched my wrist, calming me. I said, after a giant gulp, "I'm gay, Mom. That's why."
She looked at me as if she hadn't heard, so I started to repeat myself. She touched my hand and shushed me, saying, "I heard what you said, Evan."
We looked at each other a while longer, then she said quietly, "I think you're wrong."
I stared back, willing her to say something else, and when she didn't, I said, "I'm not wrong, Mom. I'm gay ... queer ... homosexual, however you say it, however you'll believe it."
Her look right then frightened me, because it was one of deepening horror. I tried to appease her with a smile, but it did no good. We were headed to family counseling for sure.
Mom was matter-of-fact with me all morning after that. She took me to the mall to get school things, then back home for lunch. She talked all morning, but never once came close to the subject of gay, and I found that more irritating than if she'd started smacking me for it. Angry, noisy disapproval, that I could defend against, but how do you defend against silence?
She started making lunch in the kitchen, and I went to put my new things away, then I washed up to eat. When I got back to the kitchen, she was just putting sandwiches on plates, and there was already soup on the table. I felt edgy, even though she was being friendly. I sat and took a sip of milk, then I said, "There are a lot of things I never told you, you know."
She brought the plates over, put one at each of our places, then asked, "Like what?"
I shrugged and picked up my sandwich, "Things I thought you could figure out for yourself. I don't have three heads, for instance. It's important that you know that, but I never felt the need to go and mention it myself."
She eyed me, a wary expression on her face. I said, "I'm white, too. That's right, let's see how this builds up. I'm a one-headed white boy. Oh, and everything else is brown. That makes me a one-headed, brown-haired and brown-eyed, white boy."
She warned, "Evan ..."
I said, "No, no, there's more. Have I ever mentioned that I'm smart? I am, you know, I get all these A's in school. I'm into sports, too. In my freshman year I lettered in basketball and baseball."
I shook my head, "Nope, let's take stock again. I'm your son, and I'm a smart, athletic white boy, with one head, brown eyes and brown hair."
She smiled, "I know."
I sighed, "I know you know. What I told you this morning was something you didn't know, but it comes with the package. I can't be proud of being smart, or of being athletic, or even of having only one head. I'm certainly not ashamed of those things, but there's nothing there to be proud of because that's how I was born, and gay is just like those things. I am proud that I use my smarts to learn things, to get good grades, and I am proud that I put my athletic ability to use, but those are things I have control over. I know how to think, and I know how to do useful things with my hands. I also know that I'm gay, and I know that it's how I am, and it's not going to go away, or get wished away."
She reached for my hand, "Evan .."
I felt bad for being so forceful, but I didn't know what else to do.
"Mom, I'm gay. I really am, and I don't want it to come between us. Still, I'm gay now, and I'll grow to be a gay man, and if I hang in there long enough I'll die an old, gay man." I took her hand in mind, "It's not like it's a special adventure or something, I'm pretty much regular in every way."
Her eyes looked hurt, and they were searching my own. I said, "It won't change, Mom, not ever. Listen, you're not alone, you know. I know some people you can talk to, and their son is gay. There's a group you can join, too."
I was praying that she wouldn't cry, and she managed not to, but neither of us ate much of our food. I was trying to project calm, but inside I was as nervous as a cat. Usually when you talk to somebody, especially when you try to be forceful in any way, you get some indication of the effect you're having, and that wasn't the case with my mother. She just looked miserable, and that's how I felt.
I didn't know what else I could have said, and I choked down my lunch so I could leave politely. I looked at my mother while I wiped my lips on the napkin, then I picked up my dishes and brought them to the dishwasher. I said, "I think I'll go over to the school."
She nodded, and when I was almost out the door she called, "Evan?"
I stopped and looked a question at her, and she said, "Maybe it would be good if ... if you had your friends come over."
"Which ones?" I asked.
"The ones with that gay son ... those people."
I stared, thinking I'd made some progress after all. I smiled, "I love you, Mom. I'll call them."
* * * * * * * *
I went up to my room and flipped the computer on, and I quickly got a message that said 'No Operating System', and I remembered the last time it had been on.
I didn't want to deal with loading Windows right then, but I wanted the computer back, so I got it started, and left when it was doing the long file load.
I went to the garage to get my bike, and the back tire was flat. I looked around for the hand pump, but couldn't find it, so I went back outside. I'd been averting my eyes for a whole day now, but the simple truth was that the yard was a mess. The front grass was long and trampled from having news people out there. The back and sides were just long and weedy looking.
I figured I'd at least make myself useful, but when I tried to start the mower I found the rope missing. Not broken, missing. I poked around looking, but I honestly didn't know where to look for rope. Things hadn't changed that much, rope was just something we never had a supply of. I couldn't go to the hardware store because my bike was down, so I ended up in my room finishing the Windows reload. The phone was right there, and I considered calling someone, but the rest of the world was in school.
I had to go there the next day for an appointment in guidance, and nobody knew for sure what that was about. I also had a doctor's appointment for a physical and any shots I might need. I thought sadly that my mother would probably tell them to give me an anti-gay inoculation, then all the bad would go away.
I was getting myself in a mood, anyhow, and that usually happened when three or four things in a row went wrong. It's not a depression, but not a lot different, because I start to think that the next things I do will go wrong, too, and it usually takes sleeping overnight to make it better.
I had an idea, and I dug a paper with phone numbers out of my wallet, then dialed one in Riverton.
"Hokay here! What's up?"
I smiled at his voice, "Hey, Hokay. It's Evan. How's everything?"
"Evan, hello! Everytink not okay, but get better tomorrow! Simon learn good!"
I snickered, "You mean Shane?"
"Shane learn good, too. Everybody learn good. Next week ... just like old times."
I wanted to laugh, but decided to save it for later. Simon was this Jamaican guy who was a bulldozer in his own right, and always in a hurry to get things done. With Shane thinking and Simon doing the bull work, I could picture Hokay enjoying coffee all day long.
I asked, "Can you get Kevin on the radio? I want to know if they can come here and clean up this yard one of these days."
Hokay asked, "Yard at your house?"
I said, "Yeah, it's a mess."
Hokay said, "Wait, I patch you in, I tink. Give me your number, 'case I fuck up."
I gave him the number, then held on while he was doing something, and he said, "We saw you last night."
I asked, astonished, "On television?"
"Ay. We watch about you all summer, never put two and two togedder." He sounded merry, "I show my wife, I say 'you remember letter I mail from home?' Dat da boy, I mail da letter for him!" I was about to say something when he said, "Here we go, maybe. Wait." I could hear his voice get distant, "Garage to B9." Silence. "Garage to B9."
Then Kevin's voice came right into the phone earpiece, "Yeah, Hokay. Go ahead."
I tried talking, "Kevin?"
"Yeah, who's this? Evan?"
I laughed, more certain than ever that Hokay was a genius. "Yeah, it's Evan!"
He said, "I don't believe it! You're back?"
I said, a little confused until I saw how he could think that, "No, I'm home. I'm in Mt. Harman."
"Wow," he said, "What's up?"
"I was wondering ... ah, I can pay so that's not a problem, but this yard is a mess, and I ... I don't ... I can't ..."
Kevin laughed, "What's the address?"
I told him, and he said, "Tell you what, we have to finish our route, then we can come, but we'll be hungry. You make some of those burgers with onions, and we'll take care of that yard."
I said sheepishly, "I'm not old enough to buy beer."
Kevin laughed, "And we're not stupid enough to drink on the job. Water's fine, or whatever."
I asked, "You need directions?"
"Nah, got it on the GPS." He laughed, and it made me feel good. "It won't be long, Evan, two hours tops."
It was my turn to get worried. I said goodbye to Kevin, then wasn't sure how to hang up. I asked, "Hokay? Hokay?"
Kevin came on laughing, "I'll get him, Evan. B9 to garage, you there, Hokay?"
We worked it out, and I thought, just before hanging up, to ask Hokay for some starter rope.
Then I had to ask my mother to take me to the supermarket, which garnered me a Martian look, but she brought me, and when she saw me buying hamburger meat, she suggested that we probably needed propane, too.
That's how those things work out, though. Those guys came and blasted through our little acre like it wasn't there, and my mother was absolutely thrilled to meet the McAffree guys when she learned that it was their sister who they'd be giving the reward to, and that it was them I'd been living with all along.
It's the 'small world' concept, I think. Mom had them down as saints, and I couldn't think of a way to use that to make my gayness any easier for her, even though those guys were now aware of it.
I might have just said something, except the fourth guy on the crew didn't know about me. That may not be strictly true, but I didn't know if he knew or not, and I didn't want to start anything.
The yard looked like new, the guys were full of hamburgers, and when they took off I felt glad that I knew them. I'd asked a favor, a one time thing, and they came through. Now I had rope, could fix my own mower, and I could take care of things. Not as fast, not as good, but I could do it to neighborhood standards all by myself.
* * * * * * * *
I knew what I wanted to do, what I had to do, I just didn't know what order to do it in. I had to get started in school, and I knew the three days I'd miss wouldn't mean anything. I couldn't be marked absent until I'd started, so there was no real downside.
I'd been to the pediatrician, and in a private moment asked him to tell my mother that my being gay wasn't something she could change, and he thankfully agreed and did just that.
I had these things to do: Start school, get my folks and Aaron's talking, finish up somehow with the news people, who had kept hope alive for my family, and come out.
I had an order for all of those things to happen in my head, but I didn't want to think about it. Well, I did. I knew that my father thought we, as a family, owed something to the news people who they'd worked with for so long. I didn't doubt that in any way, but I didn't know how anything but the whole truth would help them finish their stories.
I had to say why I left home, and if I didn't come out as gay in public, and in a big way, there was no honest way to answer that.
I'd had my fill of being dishonest, and always having to dance around what I'd said the day before because it wasn't true. Still, for me to tell the news why I'd left, I'd have to come out in public. I didn't have to, really, but I didn't know what else I could say.
The alternative was to either lie, or just try to disappear and be forgotten.
My support was basically Chris. We had some long discussions, and in my heart I knew what I wanted to do, which was just to tell some reporter that I left home because I was queer, and I wasn't really afraid to do that, not totally afraid anyhow. It sounded simple and honest, but it brought up the even more serious repercussions that Sgt. Donovan had warned me about.
Television, newspapers, radio, they'd all do the same thing, and basically tell the entire world that I was a homo. They'd do it with glee, too, like a gay kid was big news, then when I got murdered they'd get all somber. I'd still be dead, but they'd have something for the ten o'clock report, and that's what their world revolved around.
The news people didn't wish people to get dead, but they did look for the 'big story' every day. They could bemoan forever another 'hate crime', and could hang onto one longer than another, but it was just for ratings value, not real news.
I'd talked to my father and brother about how and why they used the news to help find me, and the answer was simple. People watched the news, they read the paper, listened to the radio. If you think about it, the daily news, in whatever form, had more power than anything else.
I wasn't material for 'World News Tonight,' but for local television, if my folks could think up new things, they'd keep flashing my picture and reporting updates.
My dilemma was deciding what to do soon enough. If I was going to come out like that, like on a local news show, I wanted to do it before I went back to school, and that was only a few days away. I was well known in school, and my going back was bound to be some kind of event anyhow, given what had already gone on. I didn't want one big thing to happen, however people looked at it, and then follow it up with another big announcement.
That night I sat with Chris, then we took a walk, and I decided.
* * * * * * * *
I knew what I was going to say. Chris knew. Aaron knew. My folks knew, and they were against it.
I was scared but determined. We did it at my house, with only one reporter allowed to ask questions, but the others were there, and they were recording the interview in video and audio forms, even though the actual interview was by a newspaper reporter.
The lady interviewing me, Pam Knechtel, was a youngish blonde with big boobs and a great smile. My father had chosen her for the interview because he thought she was the most thoughtful of the bunch. She was the one who'd hung around while the equipment was being broken down, and she'd just talk to my family like a friend.
They had that to go on, and I didn't. I sat in the living room feeling like a cardboard cutout of myself. Pam rubbed my shoulder gently, "There's no start-stop, Evan. Calm down. If today's not a good day, then tomorrow's another day."
I breathed deeply, "I'm okay, just nervous."
She brushed my cheek with her hand and said, "You're handsome, too. Calm down, now. Let's try a few test questions to get everything right."
I gulped, "That would be good."
She stroked my shoulder and asked, "How old are you, Evan?"
"Fifteen," I said, relieved that it was a mundane question.
"How long have you been fifteen?"
I looked at her. She smiled and I laughed, "Since my last birthday." All of the reporters chuckled.
"When was that?" Pam asked.
She smiled again, "See how easy it is? You'll do fine, Evan."
I felt better, and said, "Okay."
She started with the questions, and for someone with no idea of what I was planning to say, she backgrounded it really well. She got into the basic normalcy of my life; my life at home, my school and sports, and my social life.
After a little while, the questions became more pointed and probing, as if she thought I was going to reveal some monster who lived under my bed. When that didn't lead anywhere, she said, "Evan, let's skip ahead to June sixth of this year."
"You had breakfast with your mother, kissed her goodbye when she left for work, then you cleaned up the kitchen, is that right?"
I got nervous suddenly, but I said, "Yes, that's right."
"Then you disappeared, Evan, and for all intents and purposes, you disappeared right off the face of the earth."
I said, "I know."
"Where were you, Evan?"
I fidgeted, "I didn't get that far. I went to Riverton, and I was there all the time I wasn't here."
"Did you have friends in Riverton?"
I shook my head, "No, I didn't know the place."
"How did you survive, then?"
I smiled, "I had a plan I worked up, and I did have a job interview when I got there."
She seemed surprised, "You had this all planned? For how long?"
I said, "Oh, not long, just from the night before."
She bit her lower lip, then decided, "Let's do this in two parts, then. Tell me how you survived, how you interviewed for a job when you're not old enough to work in this state, how you survived two months on your own." She looked at me, "Did you get the job?"
I nodded, "Yeah, but please don't ask where. I lied about my age, and I faked my id's to get in. They never knew 'til right at the end, then I got fired right away when they found out."
Pam's head was nodding for a second, then she came to. "You found a job, how about a place to live?"
I nodded, "Yeah, I lived with some guys who shared a rent."
She leaned forward toward me and asked, "Weren't you frightened? Okay, Evan, here's the big question: Why did you do it? You ran away from a comfortable, and apparently happy life, to go off on your own. You didn't run to a big city or to a beach area, but to a small town not an hour from here, where you didn't know anybody."
I nodded, waiting on the big question.
"Tell me, Evan. You seem like a very level-headed young man, but I can't see the logic here. Why did you run?"
I swallowed hard, took a deep breath, and said, "I was afraid of being here anymore. I was afraid my family was going to hate me. I was afraid they'd kick me out anyhow."
Pam asked softly, "Afraid of what, Evan?"
I looked down, then back at her. "Somebody knew something about me, and I was positive my parents would find out. Anyhow, I'm gay. That's what it's all about."
Well, that shut her up for a long minute, and even though her expression never wavered I knew that a lot of thoughts were going through her mind. She looked at the other reporters and photographers, then at me, then back at them. Her mouth moved before any words came out, and she finally stammered, "G ... guys, um ... let me think here." She had a cup of water beside her and took a sip, then looked around the room, at me, then back at the other news people, and she finally said, or asked, "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" and one of the television people nodded.
She looked into my eyes, "We can't do this, Evan. No." She looked at the guys with video equipment, "You're rewinding that, right?"
They both nodded, and one of them said, "Done. It's gone."
I was totally confused, and I asked, "What's wrong? I can't be gay?"
Pam sank back into the couch for a second, then leaned forward, putting her hand gently on my knee. "Of course you can, Evan, and I think it was very courageous of you to tell us that, and ... and it actually rounds out your story pretty well. I just won't report it."
I gaped, and she said, "I can't do it, Evan ... won't. I think it's admirable that you're willing to let people know that you're gay, but I ... " Her hand tightened on my knee, "Listen, reporters have a well-deserved reputation for being ghoulish, going for the throat all the time. It's not all we do, though, and any of us reporting to the public that you're fifteen and gay would be heading into very dangerous territory. I don't know if you've thought out the possible repercussions, but they're potentially deadly, Evan." She looked quickly at the others, then back, "None of us want to be responsible for that."
I looked at the other reporters, and the camera guy from Channel 7 said, "Pam's right, Evan. We do some ... um, odd things to earn our living. If there are blood stains on a sidewalk at a crime scene, I'll film those stains." He looked at the ceiling, then at me, "They're already there. I think that's what Pam is trying to say, is that none of us wants to be in any way responsible for new bloodstains, and especially not yours."
Another man, who I knew was Bob Chadwick, the anchor from Channel 2, said in his deep tones, "I won't report this either. You should think carefully, too, because there are people out there ... oh, my. Listen, people watch the news, they read the papers, they listen in their cars. Your face has been on a lot this summer, and I know that if I ask, I'll find that we've had serial callers asking about you. These are different people, Evan. They have no reason to be interested in you beyond what they've seen or read or heard." He looked at me, "They're interested in you because of the way you look, probably, your youth. Most are probably just closet queers, but I, for one, wouldn't rule out dangerous people."
My heart sank, and I wondered about what I'd been thinking.
Bob went on, "Evan, your address has been advertised, pictures of you and your home have been on television and in the papers. If even one of these people is dangerous, and if we go ahead and let you tell that one dangerous person that you're gay, then something that none of us wants could be set in motion."
Still, I think my eyes bugged out, and I didn't know what to think.
Another guy said, "Evan, up in Boston about ten years ago, they did a local show about gay teens, interviewed some kids, gave out their real names. The kids all got harassed after that, and not long after, one of the boys got beaten to within an inch of his life. That happened in his own neighborhood."
Pam said, "We call it the Channel 24 rule, Evan. If we were doing a story on gay teens, we'd do everything we could think of to protect your identity, to make yours an anonymous voice." She smiled nervously at me, "We can't do that with you, so we can't tell this part of your story at all. The implications to you are too real."
I had to think, and the thinking hurt. I couldn't tell the world I was gay, not on the news anyhow. I felt like I was in a tunnel for a second, careening ahead to a room full, nay, a city full of weirdos ... people who would want to cause harm to me just because I said I was gay, or people who somehow thought that gave them some privileges with my body.
It scared me, and it made me angry. I couldn't see it having anything to do with gay. People who knew me would accept that as part of my makeup, and people I was meeting for the first time would figure it out or not. But for them to fear for me, to not want to go so far as finishing the story they'd followed for so long, that seemed bizarre.
I could understand the feelings about gay bashers, and I knew they existed, and I'd have to face potential problems with people like that forever. The suggestion that pedophiles would suddenly start following me was more unnerving. I'd never been bothered in any real sense when nobody knew I was gay. There were a few people whose behavior seemed strange to me, but nothing overt.
At the same time, I knew how to read, and I heard the horror stories, too. Kids did get assaulted all the time, and they often enough got killed during those assaults, but I never put that together with anyone being gay. Yes, it happened to boys and girls both, but I'm certain that there were no interviews by the assailants to determine the sexual proclivities of their victims. They were just kids the perpetrators found both attractive and available. Targets of opportunity, that's what I'd read.
Still, I felt weird. I'd been alternately scared, then assured about coming out publicly. Now, sitting with a bunch of professional adults, I felt like an idiot, and wasn't sure what to say. Oddly enough, I trusted that they were doing the right thing, and I'd been pushing ahead rashly.
Pam offered, "Why don't we pick up where we left off, Evan?"
I looked at her, and she snickered, "You could say that, at fifteen, you were still wetting your pants."
I looked at her in horror, and one of the camera guys said, "Haha! How about a halitosis clinic?"
"No, no, just talk about boils, scabs, carbunkles," another voice offered.
That did it. Pam held an imaginary microphone and looked at one of the cameras, and she said, "You heard it here first. Evan Smiley left home to hide the fact that he had an unimaginably large boil in a singularly unspeakable place on his body." She looked at me in amazement, "Thank you, Evan, for that remarkably frank admission." Then she cracked up, as did I and the rest of them.
When we stopped laughing, I asked, "Is that it? That's what you're gonna use?"
Pam shook her head, and said quietly, "No. Not that, either. I know what I'm going to write, and that's that you left home because you had some personal issues to sort out, and now you're back, and it was only ever a big deal because you neglected to say anything."
I grinned, "I can say that."
The cameras got refocused, and I said what Pam said, then it was over.
I was Evan again. Not gay Evan, just runaway Evan, now returned.
There's logic to things sometimes, and when they'd left I could see where it made sense all around. I was gay Evan in reality, but that wouldn't matter to most people. Well, not matter is a euphemism, but it was the true business of very few people. My family knew by then, Chris, some people in Riverton. I'd known all along that I'd have to tell people if I wanted them to know I was gay, but it made sense to keep that list close and personal.
Heh, I could avoid all kinds of unpleasantness by doing that. For instance, I could avoid beatings, maybe even murder, harassment, who knew what else? I was glad that I decided to come out on television, because it made me smarter. Smart enough to know I shouldn't do that.
Even so, I could think of some kids I knew who, if they learned I was gay, would make it everyone's business anyhow, and I didn't know how to avoid that. There were people and then there were people, and even one of my good friends, Marlene Mitchell ... well, telling her I was gay would get the news around faster than if it was broadcast on satellite. She wasn't nicknamed 'www dot marlene dot blab' for no reason, even if it was said as a joke..
Everyone seemed to sense when it was okay to come in, that the reporters were leaving once and for all. My parents thanked the lot of them, and I got close to Aaron. He was there for my fifteen minutes of fame, but I'd decided to do the interview all by myself.
I was glad to see that Chris, my parents, and both of my brothers already had a comfort level with Aaron. I'd seen him in action now, too, and he just slipped in there and charmed everyone with his humor, his singing, whatever it took. Yes, right on the surface Aaron was gay, but he had his charms and even his wiles, and you'd dig vainly forever to find a reason not to like him.
I think that Chris, Bruce and Alton all were surprised the first time I held Aaron's hand and introduced him, but that was the night before. They'd had some time then to get to meet him, and now they'd just had over an hour together, and they seemed like friends.
I got close to Aaron, then described to them what had just taken place. By then I already thought it was funny. My parents didn't when they heard it, but they were relieved that the news people had that level of responsibility.
Dad could see me with Aaron and not flinch, but my mother was having problems, and things got quiet pretty quickly. I said, nervously, "Has Aaron sung anything for you?"
I got stares, and said, "Go ahead, Aar. What's that song I really like? The Rose?"
Aaron looked around, then back at me, and he nodded. It was the prettiest song I ever heard, both musically and lyrically.
He looked at me nervously, and I took hold of his hand.
I looked around, "He's nervous, if you can believe that. C'mon guys, tell Aaron you want to hear him sing."
Alton said, smiling, "Go ahead, Aaron. I know that song, I think. Bette Midler, right?"
Aaron nodded and smiled nervously, then cleared his throat and started.
My brothers were both staring at him, as were my parents and Chris, but they were all soon caught up in it.
It's the heart afraid of breaking
that never learns to dance.
It's the dream afraid of waking
that never takes the chance.
It's the one who won't be taken,
who cannot seem to give,
and the soul afraid of dying
that never learns to live.
When the night has been too lonely
and the road has been too long,
and you think that love is only
for the lucky and the strong,
just remember in the winter
far beneath the bitter snows,
lies the seed that with the sun's love
in the spring becomes the rose. [*]
Aaron ended to a stunned silence. It took me a moment to notice that, then I started clapping, and everyone joined in. I felt like the lucky one right then. Aaron was my rose, and I was his. Our hearts, not afraid of breaking, had let us learn to dance. Our dreams woke us up to a world that we both loved, and we took our chances.
We had kisses in all our nights, so they never seemed too lonely. As for love, ours had surely been reserved for us in advance, and it made us both lucky and strong. I didn't know how anyone else would see that, but the luck and strength came from the love, not the other way around.
I said, kind of out loud, "I think love is there for you to find, maybe even with your name already on it."
Aaron smiled at me, "Like it's waiting for you?"
I grinned and nodded, and my younger brother said, "Yeah, right."
My dad said, "Don't knock that theory, Bruce. There's balance in the world, and finding a mate is part of that, the yin and yang."
I stared at my father. I had never heard him say anything remotely like that. He knew about yin and yang? Try this!
I pulled Aaron to me and kissed him on the lips. Not anything sexual or even flamboyant, but me kissing another boy on the mouth, and in front of my yin-yang father, my mother, my brothers, and my best friend.
When I pulled away, I grinned at Aaron, "Now, that's what I call balance!"
Well, Bruce and Chris both giggled, Alton just stared, my father coughed, and my mother harrumphed herself right out of the room, but was soon back with a tray of veggies and dip.
* * * * * * * *
That was then, and it turned into what you might call a long evening. Some things got decided, and when Aaron was around my family we were as touchy-feely as at his house.
My parents were weird about my relationship with Aaron, but they never did anything to stop us, or even slow us down. Not that we could do much anyhow, given the distance between us. No, my parents actually liked Aaron, and they knew I was gay and in love with him, and they didn't try to derail us.
They just weren't right with it, and I didn't know if they'd ever be. I guess their reaction was okay. My being gay was a surprise more than anything, not an abomination or something like that. With PFLAG, with Aaron's parents coming around, they still didn't get their arms around the fact that I was gay. A gay kid, their kid. I guess it wasn't supposed to work out like that, but it had.
I didn't develop an attitude, I just waited it out. I was gay and they didn't like it, but they understood the truth and left me alone, and that was good enough.
I had Aaron, number one. Then I had Chris. I had Bruce, I had Alton and my parents. I had Aaron's parents and Justin, Billy and Dean. I was a gay boy with a boyfriend, not a shunned gay boy with a boyfriend.
Now months had passed, and not a lot had changed. As my long-time friends met Aaron, they learned I was gay. I surprised everyone I told, but only shocked a few. A few people who I thought would have a problem with it didn't, just as some I thought wouldn't give a hoot did. In general, among my old circle of friends, there were a few 'eww' moments. I was still Evan, though, and still got picked first or early when people were choosing up sides.
There were some rumors about me floating around the school, but they were half-hearted whispers for the most part. They never lasted long, although they'd pop back up now and then, but I don't think the kids who repeated them ever had any conviction. It was more like idle speculation, and the speculators were apt to get a smack on the head just for opening their mouths.
Still, I visited Aaron as often as he came to see me, getting there anyway I could, and I was way out of the closet in Riverton. We dated there, even at school things, and I was known as Aaron's boyfriend to a lot of people. We went to the Friday night football games and cheered like everyone else, and we held hands right in front of people. We got the odd nasty comment, even got asked to move somewhere else once, but there was never a threat of any violence. We were usually with friends, but not always.
We weren't into making out in public anyhow, but our time together was limited by distance and other activities, and physical closeness was inevitable when we did get together. Holding hands was a foregone conclusion. Aaron's hands and mine were magnetized, and it didn't matter what side who was on. There'd be this 'clunk' and we'd be holding hands. Happily, there was nothing we could do about that. Just as happily, my heavy hands loved Aaron's slender, delicate hands right to death.
I lived thirty miles from Aaron, so things weren't perfect for either of us, but by the time November rolled in we had a life together. We'd see each other once during the week, usually, then spend sporadically varying weekends at each other's house.
My friends liked Aaron, and they were good with him, and I had the same thing going in Riverton. My parents liked Aaron the person, and more-or-less accepted him as Aaron the boyfriend. Aaron was effeminate, delicate even, but he wasn't weird in any way, and when anybody got past the obvious, they found a bright, funny and intelligent person under the surface.
Together, Aaron and I talked a lot when we were alone and had time. It may seem odd, but I was a more liberal thinker than Aaron, at least about certain things, and we had an awful lot of yes/no discussions when it came to politics and crime.
Aaron said the punishment should fit the crime, which I didn't disagree with on the surface of it. Still, it seemed to me that every prosecutor in the country was trying to go after every juvenile offender as an adult, and I thought that was incredibly cheap, and came at a potentially huge cost to humanity. Cheap because it was something a prosecutor, with his education and influence, could do too easily. They are, after all, dealing with children, who aren't accustomed to defending their actions.
The cost comes in the fact that they win the prosecutions almost one hundred percent of the time, because someone charged as an adult is more likely to plead guilty to some reduced charge than to fight. That costs society the knowledge of the real circumstances behind these 'crimes'.
Kids do get abused. Physically, sexually, financially. They get locked up, tied up, starved, beaten, fucked, and that's fine. When one strikes back, even a kid under ten years old, there will be some super-brave and macho prosecutor waiting there to declare the kid is an adult, because of 'the magnitude of his crime.'
I thought that was bullshit, and I gradually got Aaron to think my way. Yes, some people seem to be born evil, but it's not a natural condition.
People like Ted Bundy take an inordinate toll in human suffering. People like Bundy, though, can only die once for all their crimes, and that death penalty seems like a blessing compared to what might happen in another place, in another time, if he were released to the families of his victims.
My feeling, and Aaron listened to me, was that, if you're twelve or so, and enraged enough to commit a murder, then something bigger is usually wrong, because most people aren't Ted Bundy, but probably just a terrified twelve-year-old.
* * * * * * * *
It was Friday, the week before Thanksgiving. I'd be spending the weekend at Aaron's, then he was coming to our house for the long one. If the truth were known, I would have preferred the opposite, just to see Aaron's grandfather again. Instead, Aaron had to meet mine, and I had no Idea where I'd stand with my grandparents when they learned I was gay.
It was an average day at school. Classes, then lunch with my friends, gym right after, then history. I stayed after for a meeting of our drama club, called, 'Props and Paints'. The meeting was in the auditorium, and was part casting call for a play, part call for volunteers to help put it on.
The drama club coach was an English teacher, Mr. Kennedy, and he had a daughter in our grade who was in the club. He was a small man, very energetic and very funny. He was creative, too, and would find a way to stage Ben Hur if anyone would let him.
When the meeting broke up, I stayed behind for a minute to joke with him, then he went to put his things away, and I headed out an exit door that led directly outside. I had my book bag dangling from my hand, and the door hadn't clicked behind me when my world suddenly went dark. Somebody with some serious strength pulled some kind of cloth over my head, and trapped my arms at my side at the same time.
I got kicked hard on the ass bone, then spun around and my head was slammed into the brick wall of the building.
A voice that sounded like an adult said, somewhere between a growl and a hiss, "Give it up, Smiley." I got kneed again in the butt, "You can't think you're wanted here," the voice said, then I got kicked again, my head slammed back into the wall.
I was dizzy, and I was having a hard time catching my breath with the cloth over my head. I managed, "What do you want?"
A foot got my butt, and I was propelled forward until I fell, hearing the guy grunt, "No fags. Die, fag," and I tripped up and fell forward. All during this, I'd been getting punched hard on my neck, upper back and shoulders .. hard enough that the guy grunted with each hit, and it felt like I was getting pinched there, too, and hard, like with pliers. It was a violent attack, and it hurt me all over.
I had to struggle to pull the cloth off my head because I was disoriented and nothing was easy for me. It turned out to be a leather jacket.
I got up to where I was on my knees in the dark, scared and dizzy, totally out of breath. My head hurt a little and my butt and shoulders hurt a lot. I didn't think I was injured seriously, but I was unsure of what had just happened. The jacket looked old and worn. I toyed with it a little before trying to get up, and I almost found comfort in the feel of it.
Then it dawned on me that I'd just been assaulted, and it was serious. I was in a lot of pain because somebody didn't want me around. I felt numb, my mind slow, but I tried to press it into action. Dead fag. No fag. I'd just heard those words. I was too stunned to be either afraid or angry. I was just out of it. Then I saw red drops forming on the tan of the jacket I held, and things faded to black.
When I came to for real, it was in the emergency room. I'd been in and out of consciousness for what seemed like a long time, waking up briefly in an ambulance, then some other times, but I could never stay awake. I hurt, and now people were working on me, and more people were watching me and them. I didn't think I knew anybody at first, but then Mr. Kennedy's face showed up.
It turned out that he found me in the schoolyard, and that I'd been left to bleed to death. He had a cell phone and called 911, then that little man picked me up on his shoulders and carried me to the other side of the building, and got me there just when the ambulance arrived.
Weird. It turned out that I'd been stabbed eleven times, and that's what I'd perceived as pinching. It was by a little weapon apparently, like a pocket knife or something, so my worry was infection more than anything, but there were still plenty of implications, because each stab wound carried its own threat of infection.
I was okay, though, injured but not in any mortal danger.
My family came, Mom first, as they learned what had happened. It was Bruce next, then my dad, and finally Alton.
I got hugs from my parents, kisses from my mother, but otherwise mostly silence as the Smiley clan tried to come to terms with unprovoked violence.
I was doped up, and unprepared for anger. My dad was plenty mad, and my mother was all tearful. They were all milling around, muttering angry things, but nothing was really registering with me.
Then Aaron ran in, followed by his worried looking parents and Justin.
For a second, it looked like Aaron would leap on me like he was prone to, but at the last possible second he stopped, and his eyes filled with tears. "Oh, God! Oh, oh, oh!" then his knees buckled, and only Justin's athleticism kept Aaron from hitting the floor in his faint. He was already coming around as Justin got him into a chair, and he looked at me in complete horror. Justin knelt to comfort him while I said, "I'm okay, Aar, just some ventilation holes."
I, of course, didn't know what I looked like, which was like an emergency room patient. They'd cleaned up the wounds and bandaged them, but they hadn't cleaned the blood from the rest of me, and I'm surprised my mother hadn't fainted, too, when I got a look at myself afterwards.
The doctor came in and asked me some questions, did some reaction tests, then said they weren't going to admit me. I was surprised by that, but glad just the same. I was to hurry back if anything didn't seem right, otherwise I should follow up with our family doctor. I got a prescription for pain, the loan of my brother's jacket, and we were on our way. Bruce stayed with my father, who had to finish the paperwork, and Aaron rode home with me and my mother. His parents and Justin followed us, and Alton was in his own car.
Aaron held my hand all the way home, and got out of the car first to help me get up. I let him, even though I could have done it by myself. Chris was sitting on the side doorstep, and he jumped up and ran over when he saw that I was there. I held my hands out a little so he wouldn't touch me, and smiled at him. "Hi."
I could see him relax, then he frowned when the other cars pulled in. "Who did it, Evan?" he asked.
"I don't know, I never saw them. Let's go inside, I don't feel too good."
We went into the house, settling in the family room after Aaron helped me out of the jacket, and Chris winced at the condition of my shoulders. I finally saw myself in the mirror and muttered, "Why didn't somebody say something? Jesus, I'm washing up!"
Chris and Aaron both volunteered to help me, and between them, and four bloody wash cloths later, they got me looking pretty good, considering. I made the mistake of combing my hair, and almost screamed when the comb hit this giant lump on my head. It hurt my shoulder to use the comb anyhow, so I gave up on the idea and went to find a shirt. I tried to put on a t-shirt but thought better of it when it hurt to even do that, so Chris and Aaron helped me into an old, soft, flannel button-down.
When we got back downstairs the police were there. Sgt. Donovan introduced me to Det. Munro, who was a slender black man, dressed casually. They asked about my injuries, then if I wanted to talk in private or with everyone else there.
I said, "I don't know how much I can tell you, but everyone can stay if it's alright with you. That way I won't have to keep repeating everything."
They had me relate things as I remembered them, and Munro recorded me and wrote some notes, too.
When I finished, Munro led me back through it, searching for more detail, even reenacting things so they'd have an idea of what size person I was describing. I tried to remember if there were any particular smells like he was a smoker, what position I was forced into, what the voice sounded like, whether I could tell if I'd been kicked by a shoe or a sneaker. The biggest thing that came out of it was that I remembered hearing the slightest little cough coming from beside me during the assault, which meant the attacker wasn't alone.
I also had reasonable confidence that the guy who talked was an adult. I could have been wrong, but the voice wasn't like one of any kid I ever heard, and I had two friends with very deep voices. The guy's size and voice had me convinced that he was an adult. Other things indicated that he or they were waiting for me, and didn't just happen to run into me at that particular building exit at that odd time of day. Whoever did it knew where I was. Either that or they got very, very lucky if it was really me they were waiting for.
My thoughts still weren't very clear, and it was slow going, but we got through it.
They described to me how they'd secured the scene and how they'd get a better look at it in the light of day. It had been well after dark when they first searched the area by flashlight, and they hadn't found anything, but Munro seemed confident that they'd find something; crime scenes always held evidence or clues. It was his job to recognize them.
When the detectives left, Aaron's parents offered to treat us all to dinner, and my folks surprised me by taking them up on it. I didn't feel good, though, and I didn't want to go, so Alton offered to go and pick up pizza or something, and to stay home with me.
Things change quickly, and the parents ended up going out to 'someplace quick', and the rest of us stayed home and had Chinese delivered.
I didn't feel right, which was no surprise, and I think the pain pill was upsetting my stomach. I was really hungry, but I was having a hard time swallowing food without thinking it was about to come right back up on me. Finally, I think enough white rice was in me to settle things down, and I ate most of my lo mein.
The physical pain was getting worse, and my shoulder muscles were convulsing at the stab wounds, which was a very weird thing to experience. I'd get a painful little twitch in one spot, and another one an inch away, while two or more spasms jerked my other shoulder at the same time. If it didn't hurt, it might have been funny, but it hurt enough to keep me wincing.
Alton got me another pain pill, and when I tried to describe what it felt like, Justin suggested an ibuprofen to relax the muscles.
All during the police interview and our meal, the phone had been ringing, with either Bruce or Alton answering the calls, and it had been my friends checking up on me. Just after our folks came back, and after Aaron's parents left with Justin, they started showing up at the door.
They were concerned about me, of course, and I looked sufficiently beat up that nobody took what happened lightly. I didn't keep count, but at least six people stopped over, though nobody stayed very long. Chris and I asked everyone who came, but none of them had heard any serious remarks about me being gay, and not many kids from outside our circle knew about it.
Nancy Johnson gave me a curious look when I asked her, though, then shook her head and muttered something.
"What?" I asked.
She said, "It's nothing."
Nancy was my favorite girl person. We'd been friends for years, and close friends at that. She was striking rather than really pretty, but her body had turned out just fine, and she turned heads all over the place. She was smart and fun loving, and she was a sincere friend, so if she thought something she'd tell me. "It's just ... I don't know, Evan. You certainly surprised each and every one of us when you came out of the closet. The mood wasn't hostile, though, I didn't get that from anyone, just ... astonishment, I guess. Except for Carly, she seemed ... I don't know, disappointed, I guess."
"Carly did?" I asked, somewhat astonished myself. Carly Mathers was a friend of sorts, but more or less on the fringe of the regulars. She lived in the neighborhood and sometimes did things with us, but she was more into the preppie crowd.
She'd been enough of a friend to come see me when I turned back up, and if she'd been there by herself I most likely wouldn't have told her I was gay. We weren't that close. She showed up just when I was starting to tell two other kids, so I just kept going. By then, I was used to eyes bugging out, jaws dropping, all the typical reactions to surprise, and I didn't recall Carly's as any more severe than anyone else's.
Nancy said, "I don't want to imply anything, Evan, she just seemed odd about it ... hurt even." Nancy wiggled her eyebrows, "If I didn't know better, I'd have thought she kind of liked you." She shrugged, "Anyhow, I haven't seen much of her lately, so I have nothing recent to go on."
I smiled, "Thanks, Nancy. I'm pretty sure it wasn't Carly trying to break my head, anyhow."
By the time everyone had gone, the pain was back and the spasms were back, so I took two more pills and headed up to bed. I stopped in to see my parents in their room, and they had a few sleepy questions, but there wasn't really a lot left to talk about.
Chris had stayed over before when Aaron was there, and he slept downstairs on the sofa. That night, though, Bruce asked if he'd sleep in his room and Chris agreed.
I was finally alone with Aaron, cause for celebration no matter how lousy I felt.
Everything I did that involved my arms, neck or shoulders, I did very gingerly, because almost anything I moved caused something to hurt. We sat on the side of the bed, and Aaron looked at me so sadly that I could have cried. "I'm so sorry," he croaked. "This really bites."
I bit my lip, "It scares me, Aaron. Not so much when it happened, but now, knowing what they did to me. I knew my head was being banged into a wall, but getting stabbed isn't what you'd think it feels like. I thought I was getting pinched."
Aaron had been helping me out of my shirt, and he said, "This looks worse, it's getting all black and blue."
"Does it look infected?" I asked, looking myself.
"No, I don't think so." He kissed my ear, just brushing it with his lips, and I could tell he was whimpering, trying not to cry. "Oh, God, Evan! This was so violent."
Tears formed in my eyes despite my efforts to hold them back, and I finally stopped trying and let them flow. I knew it hurt Aaron to see me like that, but I couldn't help it. This hadn't been a schoolyard shoving match with some student thinking he'd harass a gay kid. Somebody had tried to kill me, and they'd planned to kill me, and the size of the black and blue spots on my shoulders told me they tried hard to kill me, they just brought the wrong weapon.
Just as I fell apart, Aaron pulled himself together and comforted me. I needed his gentle strength right then as much as I needed the power to breathe on my own. Aaron had deep reserves of inner strength, too, a fact that had become clear to me over time. His normal mode was what anybody would call fairy, and it suited him, and he was happy with who he was and what he was.
It's a lot of things that make us what we grow up to be. I'd never had anything worse than normal scraps with other people. I have no memory of ever being teased, at least not for what people perceived as some kind of deficiency in me. I wasn't a teaser either, not for personal traits anyhow. I'd get on you if you forgot to zip your pants, or if you did something stupid with your hair, but I was never mean about anything.
Aaron grew up with mean, and mean directed at him, and I guess he went home crying a lot. That particular teasing had stopped, and that story's been told, but Aaron grew past that, and he learned to charm his former tormentors. We'd never talked about forgiveness, and I don't know how much that comes into the picture with six year-olds. It's more likely that Aaron started having more fun when the torment was over, and that he never noticed it ending. It was really only years later that older kids started putting things into words and stories.
My friends, meeting Aaron for the first time, gave him the benefit of the doubt because I told them to. I kept close watch, too, and they knew I was watching. Given that chance, Aaron had befriended all of them. He had the charm, the wit, the grace. He had great human traits, too. He was honest, kind, generous, caring, and non-judgmental. He could be funny, too, and he could sing beautifully.
He was an asset in lesser ways, too; quite the style maven no matter what you were into. He could do prep, punk, goth, skater, whatever you wanted, and all with equal panache.
What he did best of all, though, was love me. I was at my lowest ever, and Aaron kept me afloat. He kissed me, caressed me, stroked me, spoke softly to me, and I rose out of my panic.
Aaron was his own reality to me. If he'd been there when I got attacked, he probably would have been powerless to change anything. Still, he managed to take the hurt and the fear away afterwards.
He had me face down on the bed, and he was massaging my lower back. "Feel good?" he asked.
"You should sleep like this," he whispered. "That way you won't have to lie on any hurt spots."
I grumbled, "I can never sleep on my stomach. I always roll over."
Aaron was silent for a moment, then he said, "I have an idea," and he reached for a pillow, "Lift your chest up, see how this feels under it."
I lifted up, and Aaron slipped the pillow under me. "It feels weird," I said.
"Lift your head."
I did, and that pillow came out from underneath, and Aaron said, "Lift up higher."
I did, and when I went back down on two cushions a whole bunch of things relaxed, and it felt pretty good. I smiled, "You're a genius."
Aaron kissed my cheek, "I know. Hold on."
He got up and left the room, returning after a few minutes with the throw cushions from the sofa in the family room. Aaron was smiling brightly, "This should work. Do you need the bathroom?"
I looked at him and said slowly, "Yeah ..."
He touched the end of my nose and said, "Go, then. Your next chance will be tomorrow."
I went and peed, then came back to see a mountain of pillows on the bed. Aaron went out to the bathroom without saying anything, then when he came back he said, "Get ready for an Aaron bed, Evan. Stand up."
I stood, then Aaron pushed the covers back, put a pillow where my head normally went, and he laid down on his back. Then he put pillows along the length of his body, and finally said, "Sleep on me, Evan." He smiled, "I'll keep you from rolling over," the smile turned into a little grin, "and if you get lined up right, anytime you wake up we can have a kiss."
His expression went all expectant, like what are you waiting for? So I giggled and turned the light off. Then I laid down on top of Aaron, face first. On top of all those pillows. He had two on his chest, so my face ended up just where his started. He pulled the covers over us, and we were a millimeter away from a kiss, and my body position totally relaxed my shoulders. Aaron said he was fine with the weight, which I kind of doubted, but his mouth was right there, so fibbing or not, it got kissed. And again, until we fell asleep.
Nothing in my life had prepared me for the violence that had been perpetrated on me that day. The injuries would heal, or at least I was pretty sure they would, but now my head was messed up, and really for the first time in my life. I was angry, and I was upset, and I was afraid of future attacks. I was confused more than anything, though, and I wasn't used to being confused.
It was dark, but my face was close enough to Aaron's that I could see his eyes, and I got the feeling that he was smiling at me. He couldn't have been comfortable, but the position relaxed me to where I didn't hurt nearly as much as before. I closed my eyes for a few minutes, and when I looked again Aaron's were closed, and I could tell he was asleep. This was a different kind of bed, but the way Aaron had it he could breathe just fine. I kissed his sleeping mouth one last time, and one more tear dropped onto his face.
I had to go to sleep knowing that somebody wanted me dead, and for the simple fact that I was gay. I had a sore head, and I was full of holes because of that, and I couldn't make it compute in my mind.
I guess I'd fooled myself, for starters. I was big enough, tough enough, that I thought I could get away with being out even if everyone in school knew. I'd already tried to out myself on television, that's how confident I was.
I expected dirty looks, snide comments, maybe even a shove here and there, possibly an outright slur. I did not think someone would try to kill me, though, and I wondered what went through that guy's head. I didn't know who it was, but thought if it was anyone I really knew I would have recognized him.
I was tired. Beyond tired, I was weary. Aaron's face was right there, his lips asleep but ready to be kissed.
I shed another tear.
My protector, my Aaron.
I fell asleep in the kiss, safe and sound.
* Credit is hereby noted for Amanda McBroom for 'The Rose' lyrics quoted in the story chapter.
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