I walked into the kitchen with Mike and explained briefly what he'd told me to his family, and that I thought the Murphy family should hear it. Joe thought so, too, but he also thought others should listen. He called Bob Surdiak over and suggested he call Capatin McGrath. I managed to get hold of Reverend Kramer, and he said he could come by and listen. Joe went over to tell the Murphy's that Mike had something he needed to say. In about an hour, everyone was gathered in the living room.
It was a pretty grim group. George McGrath had brought Marty Lemke with him, and Marta Christiansen had come with the Surdiaks. She's Jens' aunt. The Murphy's had about five of their relatives with them.
Mike looked a little self-conscious, but he finally started. He was looking at Jack's parents.
"I need to tell you what happened yesterday. I know it's awful for you, but something good happened, too. I want to tell you about Jack."
He started to speak with the moment the crash happened. He told them about feeling Jack inside him. Every time he got an incredulous look from anyone in the room, he backed up and went into more detail. About how it felt, about how Jack communicated, could understand his thoughts. He didn't go on until everyone there seemed to accept the concept.
When he finally started telling his story, he did it in minute detail. He didn't leave out a thought or an action. He had a spellbound audience once he got going. He was good. He had everything in sequence, never having to correct himself. The Murphy's were rapt and Mike was speaking directly to them.
It suddenly dawned on me that he was giving them their son back for a few precious hours, letting them know that Jack had lived on in spirit after the crash had killed his body.
The phone rang and went unanswered. A couple of beepers went off and they were silenced without a glance. People came to the door and were hushed and brought into the room. Nobody left. Nobody looked at a watch. We all just listened. Mike talked for almost five unblinking hours, never once seeming uncomfortable or looking at any person other than his dead friend's parents.
You could just tell when something Mike said was actually something Jack had said. The phrasing and emphasis would change, and you could see the Murphy's nodding and smiling as if they were listening to their own son. When Mike got to Jack's final goodbye, there wasn't a dry eye in the room. But Jack Murphy's parents were smiling through their own tears. They knew. They believed.
I looked around. Nobody seemed to doubt a word Mike had said. I had wondered at first when we'd been alone earlier, but ended up believing Mike in the end. And that was the ten minute version. Everybody got the reality of it now. There was no way this could have been made up or fashioned from forgotten memories. It was too real. Too immediate. There had been too much dialogue between the two boys.
The room was silent for awhile, then people began to stir. Mike piped up again, "Jack was the hero. Not me. He could'a just gone to heaven, and I know he wanted to. But he stayed until everything was in control. He was too good to leave people layin' around hurt. Nobody else would'a been able to do the right thing. Nobody else knew what to do. Please tell me you believe me!"
People looked around at everyone else. Reverend Kramer walked over to face Mike. He put both hands on his shoulders and looked at him for a long moment. Then he smiled. "Michael, that's a very generous thing to say. I wish you were in my congregation. Mike, how could we not believe you?" Then he looked over at Captain McGrath. "George, do you know what to do here? We all just heard a powerful story, but aren't you the guy who gives out medals?"
"Yeah, we got badges and things, but this begs for something more. You're all gonna have to help me."
Everyone was paying attention to George when he continued, "We need to tell this story at the services tonight. Everybody has to understand it, believe it. It's a powerful story, and it ain't gonna just get a merit badge, not if I can help it."
Mike was looking hopeful. People started to stand and move around. Joe invited the men to piss off the back porch to leave the bathrooms for the ladies. I looked around to see my son Jason and his wife Jen. I'd never seen them come in.
Marta came running out of the kitchen. "I just called! Jens is going to be ok! They still have a lot of tests but things look good!"
The sigh that spread around the room was loud enough that it almost sounded like a cheer.
"Any news on Patty?" Mike asked.
George said, "He's gonna live. It's too early to tell how well. He took a mighty blow to the head. You did good, Mike, you and Jack. You boys did the right things for everybody. It's a terrible time for this town, but it'd be worse if not for you boys."
I didn't really know George McGrath, but just then I wanted to hug him. 'You and Jack' was just what Mike needed to hear ... what we all needed to hear. It was just like he was saying it to both of them, and that the whole saga that Mike had just related to us was being accepted without question. I actually started bouncing on my toes a little.
I went over to Jason and asked how much he'd heard, and he surprised me by saying all of it. That's how riveting Mike's story had been. My own son was there and I'd never noticed him. I told him I wished the whole town could have heard it, because I thought there would be doubters. He reminded me that there were about thirty people at Joe's house, and he didn't see anybody doubting anything. I brought him over to where the Murphy's were and he gave his condolences. He'd moved out of state a year ago, but he had known most people in town, and he remembered Jack well since he'd been Mike's buddy, and Mike had always adored Jason.
The place had become a lot less solemn. It hadn't turned into a party by any means, but there was a definite feeling of hope in the room. Mike had related what was really a series of events, but it had been so real, so clear, that I think we all had a renewed hope for life after death. When Mike had described Jack's struggle with the beauty and serenity that was beckoning him, his near total desire to just leave then and there, but his very real need to hang on here until things were ok, it humbled all of us. Most religions promise an afterlife, but Mike had made it feel very real - very tangible - very irresistible. Whatever part of Jack had gotten into Mike that night - his mind? ... his very soul? wanted so badly, so fiercely, to follow whatever was calling him. But he had resisted. Against all desire he had resisted. He stayed with Mike until help came, then he could hold back no longer, and succumbed to the lure of the hereafter. Jack had died last night, but he was very much alive in Joe's living room that day. So alive that nobody wanted to leave.
I went over to Mike. I had to wait in line a few minutes since everyone wanted to talk to him. I finally got my chance.
"You givin' out hugs yet?"
"Oh, God, thanks. Yes." He stood up and we embraced. "Thanks, Andy. This is perfect."
"You did it Mike, not me. You did it all by yourself."
We just hugged for a while, until Jason came over and asked if we were going to dance all day. I guess Mike hadn't seen him there, either. He was thrilled, and Jason took my place. I said I was going home. Jason wanted to catch up on things with Mike and some of the others, so Lin and I left alone. We were pretty well starved.
Driving home, we saw Jed Anderson pacing in his front yard by the road. We stopped and I got out.
"Jed, we're so sorry about Kevin. How're you doing? How are your folks?"
"I'm ok, I guess. They're at the hospital with Pat. They're so worried about him I don't think it's sunk in yet."
I said, "This whole thing sucks. I guess Jens is going to be okay, though."
He brightened visibly. "Really? Me and Marty thought he was prob'ly dead when we got to the hospital. Does Mike know? He's the one that saved him."
"Mike knows. He says Jack saved Jens and Pat." His look told me I was going to have to explain. I waved to Lin to go on home without me.
"Jed, do you have anything to eat? Just a couple slices of bread would be fine." We went into the house and he dug around in the refrigerator and came up with some salami and cheese and we made sandwiches. My mind starts to shut down if I get too hungry.
I gave him the short version of Mike's story. As soon as I'd finished, he broke down crying. I thought it was because he'd lost Kevin. I started to console him.
"You don't get it, Andy! I'm such an asshole, a supid fuckin' asshole! Mike's such a good kid, and I guess Jack was too. I got to be the dumbest fuck ever born!"
"What, Jed? I never thought you were dumb."
He was crying. Through his sobs he managed to get out, "I'm a miserable prick. All I ever did was torture those two. And get everybody else to. I should'a died! Not Jack!"
"Why are you saying this.?"
"When we found out they were queers ... um ... gay, me and Don started teasing them all the time. We got everybody to. I don't think they had a quiet day since school started."
"Why'd that bother you. And how did you find out?"
"They just came out and said it. First day of school. Why'd it bother me? It didn't ... shouldn't ... it didn't really bother me. I mean personally. I mean, they didn't do anything to me. I never really knew Jack - he was always hidin' somewhere. But I always liked Mike, I mean he was part of the family. You know - the neighborhood."
We were interrupted by a knock at the back door, then my son Jason came in. He hugged Jed. "Jeddy, I'm so sorry about Kevin. I hope Pat's gonna be ok." He looked at me quickly, "Hi, Dad. Mom said where you were. Turning back to Jed, he said, "Jed, you turned out to be a real prick. A fuckin' cunt. How the hell could you turn on Mike and Jack? What'd they ever ever do to you? You better have a good answer, asshole!"
This was classic Jason. He was the product of a hidden gene somewhere along the line. I'm five foot nine and 165 pounds. Lin's five foot flat and about 100. Jason's six foot and about two hundred, all muscle, brain and mouth. There's a kind and gentle soul in there somewhere, but when he's pissed off, you're in trouble. Serious trouble. He's never physically hurt anyone, to my knowledge, but his tongue could slice and dice somebody to the point they'd wish for a simple punch in the nose just to make it end.
"I'm waitin', Jed. And it better be good! Mike told me what's been goin' on, and I don't like it."
"I'm sorry, Jay."
"Sorry? I'll say! You're pathetic! You take two of the nicest kids on the planet and torment them for a year? So they're queer - wouldn't a couple of days be enough? What? They didn't cry, so you had to keep it up? Ever think they might be stronger than you? You better say something, Jed!"
"I said I was sorry."
"Jesus, Jason. I said I was sorry. I was just telling your father I was an asshole. Whattya want?"
Jason glared at him. "I don't want anything, Jed. I just thought you'd be better than this."
Yay, Jason! That was one of the lines I used to pull on him.
"I want to be better. I mean, it just got out of hand. I thought we would just tease them for a while, but they were the only queers around and it didn't stop. I'd stop, but somebody else would pick it up, then it came around back to me. I can tell you one thing. They were pretty strong. I don't mean they liked it, but they got to where it just bounced off. "
Jason still looked furious, but I could tell he was listening. Jed continued, "They even laughed sometimes if it was a good one, I mean, one time somebody asked Jack what a queer Eskimo's called, and when he found out it was a snowblower he started laughin' with the rest of us. I got no excuses, Jay. I just went with the flow."
I'd had to stifle a laugh on the joke, and I could tell Jason did, too. And I felt good that Mike and Jack had kept their sense of humor. But I was getting really angry that this had gone on so long and I'd never heard of it.
"Jed," I asked, "why do you think Mike and Jack kept it inside themselves? I mean, I never heard any of this."
"I don't know. I know they never said anything at school, to the principal or anything. Like I said, they were strong. And they were always together. We could tease them 'til the sun went blue, but they just kept on keepin' on. No reaction. I mean, if they cried or even fought back it might'a died down, somebody might'a felt sorry for them. But they never did."
"Jed - tonight everybody's going to hear the story about Jack. He's going to be a hero. You don't think anyone will have a problem with that, do you?"
"You can't ask me that! How would I know? I mean, the kid's dead. Nobody wanted that. Nobody. Who's puttin' this thing together? I want to be able to say something, to tell everybody what we were doin'. I gotta try to make things right. I know, I know. It's too late, but I still have to say it."
Jason said, "Jed, I really don't think the service tonight is the time and place for that sort of thing. I'm sure your school will have some kind of assembly for themselves. That would be more appropriate. I don't think too many people in town knew about Mike and Jack, and tonight's assembly isn't a good place to be bringing it up. It's for remembering the dead and honoring the people who helped the living. What you guys did to Mike and Jack you did in high school, and that's where you need to fix it. Am I making sense?"
"Yeah, I guess so. Do you think Mike will talk to me? I mean, should I go up and see him?"
Jason's look finally softened. "Yeah, Jed. You should. Mike hated what you were all doing to him and Jack, but I don't get the sense that he hated the people doing it. Why don't you go up there now? He's surrounded by adults and just lost his only friend. Go sit with him for a while and see what happens. If he doesn't want you there that's fine, but if he'll listen to you, then you might be able to start patching things up."
"I guess I'll go now."
"It's not going to be easy. You're going to have to get inside his head a little to figure out what you need to do to make things right. And, so help me, you better keep trying until you do get through. Understood?"
"I understand, Jason. I understand."
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