A Horse Named Phil

By Driver

Chapter 3

I love baseball, I really do. Watching it is great, and even just thinking about it is fun. Playing it, though, it's such a neat game.

I played Little League from T-Ball on up. Then I played Junior League. T-Ball starts at age five or six, depending on where you were born during the year. It's sort of the first filter, because nobody knows anything. The adults set a ball up on a 'tee' just like in golf, only taller, and everyone takes turns trying to hit it with a bat. When you're not taking your turn, you stand in the 'outfield'. When you're in the field and the boy or girl at bat actually hits the ball, then you duck or run so as not to get hit by it. It's a scary introduction to a fun sport, but ninety percent of the kids who try it drop out.

After two years of T-ball, there's Little League, where you actually play games on this little baseball field. Until you're nine years old, you play on a field with fifty feet between the bases. Up until fourteen the field is bigger; seventy feet between bases, and the outfield fence is out there, usually something just over two hundred feet.

When you're fourteen, if you're still playing, it's in Junior League. There, you play what's basically a major-league field. Ninety feet between bases, and the outfield fence can be any distance away, if there even is one.

The kids who make it past the fear of T-ball then play Little League, where they learn the fear of thrown balls in addition to the fear of hit balls. More kids fold, but the ones who keep playing do so because they're learning things, and mostly that the game is fun.

The games gets faster and better played as the players get older and gain experience. Everyone builds competence and confidence, and some of the players start to get good at it. A game between twelve-year-old players bears no resemblance to the same game played by the same kids when they were ten.

Junior League is something else again. It's fourteen and fifteen-year-old kids who play because they love to and they want to. It's a thin league for those same reasons; most don't want to play enough to continue on through puberty, when so many other things distract them. Junior Leaguers are already good players, and here they learn things about strategy. Until then, if I was on base and my coach wanted me to run, he'd yell, "Run Evan!"

Now, before the game, he'd explain the day's signals. They didn't make them complicated, not like "I'll touch my hat, then my shoulder, then that lady's tits, then my heart." No, it was that if he touched his heart at all, no matter what came first or afterwards, it meant, "Run, Evan!"

My Little League teams had usually made it to the playoffs, then lost. We never made the finals. My first year in Junior League, we made it to the finals and won all of our games, which sent us to the championships. We lost in the first and only game.

The next year, our last year in the 'kid' leagues, we made it right to the last game for league champions, and we blew it. Well, maybe we just lost. Every pitcher we put up had trouble, but our fielding kept things in hand. We were hitting and running well, just not well enough. Our loss was a painful twelve to nine. We'd played better than that all year, and kicked butt every time with the team who beat us out in the end. Unfortunately, in that league it was best-of-one, so we were finished.

Now I was in high school, playing for the varsity team as a sophomore, and we'd had a kick-ass year. We ended the regular season with thirty wins versus sixteen losses, which was the best in the league and second best in the state. I'd had a great year myself, but so had almost everyone on the team. As you'd expect, the real stalwarts were the older players, the guys who'd been around the longest. Those were the players who could still manage to rally a win when we were down by four runs with two outs in the ninth. I thought I was a shoo-in for a Golden Glove in the league. I'd started in over half our games and played in all but a few, and I didn't have a single fielding error against me.

I would have had a better batting average, too, but batting cleanup when I played, I often had to sacrifice to get runs in. I was third on the team for RBI's, but not far from the bottom with my batting average. I was third in slugging, though, with eleven home runs, thirteen doubles and two triples.

This, of course, brings me to Coach Goodwin, and I suppose I'll go to my grave not understanding that man. When he learned that I was gay, he tried to derail me and, I think, to trick me off the team by saying the other players didn't want me anymore. When that didn't work, he changed his mind and decided to use my gayness to distract other teams, and I can't judge the success he had with that.

Then he saw me wearing wacky sunglasses, and he decided to get them for everyone on the team. That did have a distracting effect on opposing pitchers, and more than one had thrown pitches that let us get hits while they tried to figure out what they were looking at.

Those things only last for a while, of course, and the other teams came to expect them. After that we had to win without tricks, and we did anyhow. Our record was hardly the best in high school baseball, but it was the best ever for Mt. Harman High, which had been in business for many generations.

Coach Goodwin I could not fathom. To me, to the rest of the players, the man was like Coach Robot, the mechanical man. Nobody could accuse him of playing favorites because he didn't, even with a kid like Gerry Brin on the team; a future Major League player for sure. Coach, to his players, saw the game and nothing but the game, and the game all the time. I felt singled out sometimes, but that was for special coaching; nothing I'd complain about. Otherwise, Coach thought of us as baseball players and not people. All game, Hell; he was all business all the time. We'd see him after games with parents or with a reporter and he'd be cordial, jovial even. Even with my Dad, who'd sent Goodwin what might have been construed as a threatening note, Coach was the model man. He wouldn't be pinned down on anything, but he'd tell my Dad things like, "Oh, Evan is showing promise this year ... real promise," then he'd tell a joke or something to change the subject.

By the end of the season I had long since stopped worrying about it. I played, and that was the most important thing to me. I played well, too, and that was satisfying on a personal level. It wasn't really that Coach was ignoring me to heap praise on someone else, I felt like I was being ignored under his own misguided equal-opportunity program. We all got ignored, no matter how well we performed. Guys only got noticed when they screwed up, and they'd get a tongue lashing when they did.

Coach gave us two days off between the season ending game and the start of the playoffs, and he gave no reason. I think those of us on the team inferred what we wanted to; either we were good enough, we needed a break, or Coach just wanted the time off himself. We had from Thursday after the last regular game until Saturday, when the first playoff game was scheduled, to ourselves.

* * * * * * * *

Our first meeting with the group trying to support Ron Mastracchio was that Thursday, and my father came with me, Chris, Lee and Bruce. It was at the First Congregational Church, which was a handsome old granite building built in the Gothic style. We met in the church hall, and the leader of the show introduced himself as Reverend Holt.

He was a guy of thirty or even younger, dressed in slacks and a shirt. I wouldn't have picked him out of a crowd as a minister. I don't want to say he didn't look the part, but I don't know what the part looks like so that's not fair. He wasn't tall or short, probably about five foot nine. He was a handsome man, though; dark and swarthy, with black hair and surprising hazel eyes.

I didn't count, but there were about fifteen people there, all adults except me and my friends. Rev. Holt sat in a chair at a table, and the rest of us were at that table or the one beside it.

He looked at his hands and said gently, "I'd like to take a moment to welcome some new people here," and he introduced us each as if he'd known us for more than two minutes.

Then he got down to business. "We've heard the charges against Ron and he's not denying them He did those things and he admits to them. Ron and his family all understand that there are consequences for his behavior. That's not the issue we have to deal with." He looked around and fidgeted for a second before continuing. He took a deep breath, "It's right that the state wants to prosecute Ron for his crimes, and Ron accepts that as fact. We are all here because the state, and our local District Attorney in particular, have distorted the magnitude of the crimes committed, and it's a gross distortion. At the same time the state wants to prosecute Ron as an adult for hundreds of felony crimes, the actual adults who participated in those exact same crimes are being charged with minor offenses, and single offenses at that." He looked around again and said, "If you'll forgive the expression, something really stinks here."

That got him a loud agreement, and he smiled, "This is a small group and that's fine. We have to devise an approach to get our view of this out to as many people as possible. We can't appear to be apologists for Ron, so I think it's important that we focus on injustice rather than unfairness. I'm open to any suggestions, and right now we need next steps. Let's just shoot ideas out for a few minutes and learn what each of us is thinking."

We did that for about ten minutes; tossed out idea after idea while one woman furiously took notes. In the end we decided on a letter writing campaign, but one that would attempt to get the investigative arms of the local news media looking into the situation. If the prosecutors tactics seemed scandalous to us, all we'd have to do is convince a single reporter to look into things, and the rest of them would soon descend in a frenzy.

We also had to get officials to look at what was going on, and we'd use more letters to get that effort going. Then there would be open letters to the paper, and we'd try to get someone on the 'My Turn' part of the news, where individuals could editorialize on the air.

We all thought it was a smart approach. We had time on our side, and it made sense to first let the rest of the town know that Ron had people behind him, at least to the extent that he was targeted for special punishment for crimes that involved many. The word 'unfair' was out of our vocabularies as it applied to Ron. It was an injustice, and that was probably the smartest thing that came out of the meeting. In the meantime, we'd try to get more people involved, so if it came to a point where we had to demonstrate, we might have larger numbers. For the time being, we decided against fund raising, so each individual would have to furnish their own postage.

After the meeting broke up, we stayed to meet the others over coffee. My father knew someone, and Chris knew a few friends of his parents, but they were all new people to me, Bruce, and Lee.

There were three elderly couples who apparently had a good deal of experience protesting injustice, and there was no lack of zeal on their part. I happened to agree with them that the government was going after Ron in all the wrong ways, so it wasn't a problem. I'm just glad I didn't have an opposing view.

Most of the others were neighbors of the Mastracchio family, along with a co-worker of the mother. The one who astounded me was a woman who had ben introduced as Maria Merrill, but it turned out her maiden name was Maria Throckmorton, and she was Mr. Throckmorton's sister.

She was open and forthcoming about what she knew of her brother's gambling addiction, as she called it. She'd had suspicions for years that he might be using students to further his 'operations', but with nothing to go on, she'd kept her mouth shut.

No more. She obviously grieved over her brother's death, but she wouldn't protect his name if it meant Ron Mastracchio had to pay an unreasonable price. She was, as she said, "In for the penny, in for the pound!" Her brother was dead, and when he was alive he wasn't a big fish, certainly not the big fish! It was preposterous to go after a kid like Ron the way they were.

Afterwards, in the car, I asked Lee what he thought.

He looked pained but managed a smile, "What can I say? Life sucks, then you die, right?" His look intensified, "It shouldn't be that way, and I'm glad we're doing this. I say I don't like Ron, but that's not really true because I don't even know him. I don't like the way he teased me, but our D.A. struck again then, and I was in a bind. I was still in trouble, else I would have knocked Ron out as many times as it took to shut him up. I couldn't risk it then, and I think he knew that. Otherwise it would have ended right there, and between him and me where it belonged." He folded his arms indignantly and asked, "Where's it end? Do babies that cry during the District Attorney's speeches get the electric chair?"

I stared, Bruce stared, Chris stared. Dad was driving so he couldn't stare, but he started with the laughter, croaking, "Yeah, the electric potty chair!" and that broke us up.

* * * * * * * *

I wrote my first letter as soon as I got home, my eye on the clock so I didn't miss talking to Aaron. Mine was to the school paper, and as we'd discussed during the meeting, it was explanatory in nature. Near the end I did bring the serious charges against Ron into it, and questioned the relative slaps on the hand that others were getting, but that wasn't the main focus. I said that we were organizing and invited others to think about it, and maybe join us. Everyone in my family read it, and everyone suggested small changes. I was proud of the finished product, and e-mailed it to the submissions page. Step one completed.

After that I talked to Aaron. He was floating way up in the air about his play and his part in it. He loved his character and the songs, and just about everything else. He even tried to induce jealousy in me, saying coyly, "I'm a real Lothario, Evan. I don't do it on stage, but I seduce a lot of those women!"

I grinned at the other end of the phone, "Aar, if they don't show you doing it, why is the name Show Boat? I'm not sure I understand."

I could sense the wheels turning, and Aaron finally made a lip-licking sound and said, "It's in the sub-text, Ev. The boat is the set, that's all. That's where we set the plot, set the scenes, set up the audience to picture what takes place below decks."

I laughed, "I think I know you too well, Aar."

"Hmmph! Maybe you do, but you're not the audience. The audience will just know that I'm getting my wiener squeezed between every scene! And by different women every time!"

"... and meanwhile?"

"You're no fun!" Aaron said sharply. "Loosen up and play along or ... oh, I know! Maybe I'll do it for real just to see what it's like. Who knows?"

I laughed, "I knows!"

"Sez you! I'll have you know that lots of people think I'm sexy. Women, I mean."

"Like?" I asked.

"Well, my Mom ... Lilac ... I mean lots!"

I was chuckling, "I think you're sexy. I bet I think you're sexier than any lady ever thought you were sexy. Wait, did you say Lilac?"

"You really think I'm sexy?" Aaron cooed, ignoring my question.

"Oh, yeah," I said. "It's not a matter of think, because you are sexy. You're downright pornographic!"

Aaron giggled, "You're too much, too. You're the one with the body, Ev."

I snickered, "I already have my bod, it's yours that I crave all the time."

We fooled around for awhile, and got serious afterwards, to the extent that we were ever really serious. I told him about our meeting that night, and read him the letter I'd sent. He thought it was good, then I mentioned Lee's remark about sending babies to the electric chair, and my father's joke about it being the electric potty chair. Aaron just about had a seizure.

"That's it, Evan! Oh, God, that's so funny! Let ... let me think! You need that for a logo ... like a cartoon! I'll do it! I need a picture of that District Attorney! Oh, oh, God! I have to do this now while I'm thinking of it. I'll find the picture, let me go."

I laughed, "Calm down, will you?"

"NO, Evan! You calm down. I have to do this while it's in my head. I love you. I love you, I love you. I love you, but I have to do this!"

I gave up. I told Aaron again that I loved him, but his head was already devising something, and I wasn't clear about the specifics.

After I hung up, I sat for a few minutes trying to organize my thoughts around the next day. My school things were ready, and there was no baseball to worry about. I'd written the letter, talked to Aaron, and I was good to go. Bedtime! Kiss time!

I lay there thinking about addictions, then about the reasons one person will develop an addiction to something, whether it be booze or drugs or gambling, while the next twenty people who indulged in the same thing could turn it off and on. To me, Paul was a good example. He smoked pot and a lot of it, and he drank beer when he could get his hands on some. Yet with exams taking place, he was living the life of a monk and not complaining about anything. I'd never really heard of anyone having an addiction to marijuana anyhow, at least not a physical one, but we'd always been told that it led to more serious drugs. I'd managed to never try it, even though it was available.

I had an uncle George, my mother's brother, who drank every day of the world, and he drank from the time he got home from work until he went to bed. For the amount that he drank, I guess he held it pretty well, but I think he passed out in bed every night. I know I wouldn't care to see his liver. Yet my folks could go out to dinner and have a few drinks, and not drink another drop until they went out the next time. They kept wine in the house, and sometimes there was some beer, but their lives didn't revolve around the bottle. They never said anything when we ate at so-called family restaurants that didn't serve alcohol to begin with. I'd used alcohol myself when I was recovering at Harlan's, and I had drunk wine as if I was used to it, which wasn't true. It was offered to me by Harlan the first night, and I liked it, plain and simple. Wine made me feel good and it relaxed my aching shoulders, and I liked the taste of it. I drank quite a lot that week, and except for a few sips of champagne at family celebrations, I hadn't had a drop since.

I had been very surprised when Justin Castle and his jock friends went to smoke a joint with Paul at the lake, and much of that surprise owed to their casual attitude when they left to get high. It was clear that it was nothing new to them, yet I'd never had even a little inkling that Justin would do something like that. They weren't gone very long that day, and they weren't exactly stoned when they came back; just a little buzzed and very talkative. They weren't drug addicts.

None of my friends smoked cigarettes, although some of their parents did. I could politely tolerate cigarette smoke, but I didn't like it. Chris and I, of course, had tried a cigarette not long after we met. We were with some other kids, hiding in a culvert in the park. One kid had a pack of cigarettes, and he and a couple of others had been smoking for a little while. I will never forget the reaction Chris had when he took his first drag. Honestly, his face wouldn't have registered any more shock and revulsion if somebody put boiling nitric acid on his tongue. He coughed the smoke out of his mouth, and he gave the kid who'd handed him the cigarette the same look of horror he'd have if he'd just been sucker-punched by his grandmother.

I was Evan even then, and I figured I'd show Chris the right way to do it. I took the cigarette, put it between my lips, then breathed in heavily. Then I gasped in my own horror, and I choked and spit and coughed until I could get my breath back. Not!

The other kids tried to convince us that we'd like it when we got used to it, but that was not in the cards, not then and not ever! Still, lots of people smoked, and there was some point where they became addicted to nicotine, too. Quitting was big business, and I don't know what, if anything, would prevent kids from experimenting that first time. Why on Earth anyone would take a second puff I'll never know, but the lure must be stronger for some than for others.

Now I was learning about gambling as an addiction, and that one had me thinking hard, because I'd played those same pools and had fun doing it. I always hoped to win, but I never really expected to. I never thought that the few dollars I put in were wasted because they made me part of the game, and somebody always won. It was just for fun. I didn't see where it could become an obsession, but I'm only me. I wanted to sleep, but I had to think some more first.

I wondered if winning money a few times was what made it addictive, and that seemed to make sense. I had no personal experience in that department. Friends of mine had won on occasion, though, and I didn't think they were obsessed with gambling because of it. Still, it was all new to me. A few weeks earlier I'd been surprised that sports betting was even considered to be gambling, which I always associated in my mind with lotteries and casinos.

I knew better, or I should have. Every time we played pool for money, even for the cost of the next game, it was gambling. When I played poker and lost my shirt at Harlan's picnic, that was gambling. When I made my money back that night with parlor tricks, that was gambling, too. I had grown men laughing, groaning, and smacking their heads, and all the while I was shoving their own dollars in my pocket. To that extent, I guess every game played, every race raced, every schoolyard dare is like gambling. All creatures compete to survive, and they gamble their fate with every move they make, so the spirit of gambling is born into all of us. It seemed easy enough for me to box it up like that, to compare compulsive gambling to an aberration on the will to survive and succeed. You can't win if you don't play, goes the saying, so if you have to win, then you must play.

That made enough sense for one night, and I went to sleep satisfied that I at least had a plausible answer.

* * * * * * *

I smelled it the next morning as soon as I walked out of the house. It had rained a little overnight, but the sky was blue under some haze. Everything was still damp, and when mornings were like that there was natural ozone in the air, and that slight scent always seemed to cheer me up. It certainly did that day. I slowed down to admire the flowers my mother had planted in little beds on either side of the driveway, and I paid attention to the neat lawns around me, the flowering shrubs everywhere.

Days don't start much better than that one did. I'd been up early, so I had a second cup of coffee with my most excellent bagel. I felt clean from my shower and I had minimal clothes on. Undershirts, sweaters, jackets; they were cold-weather things. I wore a crispy-white pocket tee, gray cargo shorts, and I had sneakers with no socks on my feet. I had my algebra final that day, and I wasn't worried at all. I was certain that I could figure for five unknowns if they asked me to, but they didn't and wouldn't do that. I also had my graphics class project finished in my back pack, and I couldn't wait to show it.

It was one of those days where I felt like I belonged right where I was. The mass that was my body was there of course, I just wasn't aware of it. Instead I felt weightless, and my footsteps as I made my way up the street may as well have fallen on clouds.

I wasn't alone, either. Many moons had passed since what I considered to be 'my gang' went anywhere en-masse, but we all seemed to be out at the same time that day, and for all it mattered we could have been headed off for the last days of fifth grade rather than tenth. We had all changed dramatically in size, looks and interests, even dispositions in some cases. A day like that though, it was a common denominator. Summer vacation had moved from hint to suggestion to a promise to right-around-the-corner, and we had forgotten our ages. One of the girls started humming a song we learned in sixth grade, when we were all in the same class, and soon the humming took on the words. Before long, we were literally marching toward school singing,

Here I go a-wandering, along the mountain track,
and as I go, I love to sing with a knapsack on my back!
Fal-da-reeeee, fal-da-raaaaaaa,

fal-da-reeeeee, fal-da-ra-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!
Fal-da-ree, fal-da-raa, fal-da-ree,


Even with changed voices and all the other growth things that had taken place, we were suddenly sixth-graders again, and not embarrassed about it at all. We'd all go our own ways in a few years and we knew that. I, for one, didn't think I'd forget that happy, childish walk to high school. Or that sweet smell in the air.

Chris and I were so used to baseball by then that a day without a practice or a game seemed like we were getting out early. We played because we loved the game, but just practice would keep us for an extra two hours. A game, depending where it was and how long it went on, could stretch that out to three, four, or even five hours.

We were all cheerful when we got to school and split up. Chris walked to my locker with me, and kept going to his own after we made vague plans for after school. There was a lot we could do for fun, and we were rusty with the spontaneity thing, that thought funny all by itself.

I had a few minutes after Chris walked off, and I poked through the debris in the bottom of my locker to see if it was all trash, or if something was worth keeping. It looked to be all trash, so I scooped up a double handful of pistachio shells and plastic wrappers that were in my locker because I was such a good citizen. I didn't litter, but I hated when I reached in my pocket for money and came up with garbage, especially in front of people. I walked past trash bins all the time, but my mind would be somewhere else. I was at my locker between four and seven times a day, and it became my habit back in grade seven, when I first had a locker, to toss the junk in there and worry about it another day.

I got my handful, and held it inside the locker for a second until the things that wanted to fall off did, then I turned around and stood. And there he was, leaning against the wall watching me with a smile in his eyes.

"Hey, Evan," he said in a friendly voice.

"Dan! Hey, how are you?" The little devil who hovered by my left ear said he was perfect in every way that could possibly matter. Dan Crumb was like a chimera to me in that school. I knew he was around because I saw him, but I never saw him long enough at one time. Until we met at bowling, he'd been this wisp in the wind. He always showed up in my peripheral vision, and when I turned to look all I'd see would be something like a shoulder, the rest of him obscured by another person. To my mind, that was a good way to know him, because he was always this fleeting glint of perfection. There was nothing to mar it that way. He couldn't talk funny if I didn't talk to him, nor could he be stupid, arrogant or sarcastic if I didn't know him.

Now he was standing there, and I had a big handful of trash, all of which originated either as food, or as a way to keep food fresh and accessible. I said meekly, "Let me..."

Dan grinned, "Go ahead. You had a party in your locker?"

Don't tell me he has a sense of humor. Don't tell me that! I thought, as I dumped everything into the nearest garbage can, "Oh yeah, well ... I kind of like to eat in private sometimes." I had the sense to ask, "What's up?"

"Your letter," he said, totally confusing me. I think my eyes bugged out when I stared at him. "The one you sent to the paper? By e-mail?" He grinned at me, and I realized it was because my mouth was open. I didn't know he worked on the paper.

"Oh, that," I said, relieved. "I didn't know you were on the paper."

He smiled gently, and I didn't even know what that expression meant. "We're intrigued, Evan. You made some good points. We're going to publish your letter. All of us think we should be taking a closer look at what really happened here. I wanted to know if you could talk to us ... maybe right after school. Just push us in the right direction with our thinking."

I stared, "Me? I don't know the right direction, I really don't. I just think Ron Mastracchio's taking the shit that really belongs to a lot of other people." I took a deep breath and tried to clear my head, "I'll talk if you want. I don't mind, but you're the newspaper. You should find your own direction."

Dan Crumb. His name is Crumb I found myself thinking. It didn't matter really, but if I'd known Dan before I met Aaron I might not have ever met Aaron because I would have never let Dan out of my sight. Now, truthfully, Aaron was woven into the fabric of my life and I didn't see that changing, not just because I thought someone else was sexy anyhow.

I knew lots of guys, some very good looking, some pretty good looking, and some not so good looking. I don't know where my attractions come from anyhow. If there was a book of guys I could just choose from, I'd still pick Aaron. He had a great, expressive face, a willowy body, and this built-in good nature that had drawn me to him when I first met him, and he'd been yelling at a car in the driveway at the time. Now we had almost a year together, and I loved Aaron more and more all the time. When I was on a roll myself, Aaron was twice as high. When I was serious, he was too, but he wouldn't let it go too far. When I hurt, he was there until I was fixed, and through everything our feelings for each other seemed as natural and commonplace as they could be. We were sixteen, gay and out. There was grief here and there about that, but remarkably little. Given that we were a new experience for most people when they learned we were gay, we were both more than surprised to feel more celebrated than simply accepted.

It was different from what I had envisioned, but it was me who had been too worried.

Nothing was universal. It was actually the most odd on the baseball team. I was liked as a player and a guy, and I contributed, but the team is where I felt the most separate, even now that they wore rainbow patches on their sleeves. I wasn't being shunned and nobody even said anything, much less anything humiliating, but that degree of difference was there, the feeling of separation. It wasn't overt, and it wasn't awful, but it was still there. If I wasn't me, and was John Berman instead, I'm sure it would have been worse. He was the guy you wanted on your team, too; talented and dedicated, but he was odd in his own way, and therefore already separate in his own way. I don't think he would have got my deal if he said he was gay, because that would have been on top of his own paranoiac baggage.

I'm off track, I was talking about guys. My brother, Bruce, at least at fourteen-going-on-fifteen, was as perfect looking as anyone could be. He was my brother and I knew his flaws all too well, but not a one of them was visual. He was the perfect size and shape for his age, and he had a body that he'd done absolutely nothing to earn, but he was in good shape anyhow. Now he was displaying not only energy, but humor too, and a certain naive charm that drew a raft of fawning girls in his wake. And he was interested in the one who didn't fool around.

When Bruce used to pester me and Chris, we threatened to hot-glue his little head to the garage wall to get him out of our hair. Now he seemed to have gathered common sense, and I'll bet if we used the same threat he'd think it was funny.

There were other guys: Chris, of course, who I loved in a different and special way. His Polish heritage showed mostly through his blondness and his straight nose, and he'd come out of a good mold, too. Chris was athletic like me, and had the better body by a little. He was an only child, and that left more fun money for his family, but they weren't extravagant. They did things I wished my own family would do, like go on bicycle picnics to nice spots. Those didn't cost anything except for the food, and they would eat anyhow, so they really did cost nothing. I was finding strength in lots of places, but there had been years where Chris was all of it. It was, after all, his great humor and sense of reality that had held my sanity in place when it became evident that I was gay. Where I might have panicked on my own, I had Chris there instead, and even at twelve years old he was my sanity and my solid comfort. I could be gay if I wanted to. I should be gay if I couldn't help it. He didn't have the answers, but he did at the same time. I knew that my love for Chris was one-sided in a way, but he loved me too, just differently. Now I had Aaron, and I could love Chris as a friend, and just cherish some special memories while we continued to make new memories.

There were other guys who were my friends; my brothers in their own way, Billy and Dean O'Shea. Even Huck Onwauser. John Balls! Damn! Closer to home there were Paul Dawson and Lee Erasmus, and a lot of other people. I had a lot of good friends when I thought about them, and more than one was physically attractive to me. Fortunately or not, only Aaron was gay like me, and I wouldn't cheat on Aaron anyhow.

I hoped. I hoped I was wrong about Dan Crumb being gay, I really did. For his was a presence I wasn't sure I could turn my back on.

There are words I hate to use when I'm not talking about puppies, but Dan was adorable. Not handsome, Lord no! But as cute as the proverbial button, and all wrapped up in a body that spoke of warmth and softness and sexiness.

Maybe I was wrong. That would be good. Since we first shook hands I had this certainty in me that he was gay like me, too, and my salvation would come if I was wrong about that. Maybe I was wrong. Most likely I was wrong. It would be good if I was wrong, even if Dan put my lights out if I made a fool of myself.

I went to my classes. The algebra test went as expected, and only a typo would keep me from a perfect score. I had a blast in graphic arts watching everyone's flashes and videos, and everyone was waiting for mine, which I loved.

Chris had helped me with the photography, but only because we didn't have a digital camera. The rest was all mine. It started with a blue ball of play-doh on a white shelf against a white background, just sitting there for about five seconds. Suddenly it had eyes, and they opened as a big, yellow ball rolled in beside it. The eyes didn't open in fear or anything, but like an 'oh' and blue-ball suddenly had a mouth with red lips. Yellow-ball was the one who suddenly looked nervous, because blue-ball was eyeing him, and suddenly blue-ball had a tongue to lick those lips with. Yellow-ball started slinking away, but not fast enough. Blue-ball sprung arms and legs, with mannequin hands and feet. Suddenly there was background from a chase scene, with scenery flying by at a million miles an hour, and blue-ball was lumbering after a clearly panicked yellow-ball, who couldn't seem to move quite fast enough!

In a moment it was over. Blue-ball seized yellow-ball, and squeezed him with his big mannequin hands, and yellow-ball oozed in vertical globs between those plastic fingers, forming new little balls at the top of what looked like yellow mozzarella being stretched upward. Then the little yellow-balls start to pop to the sound of fireworks. Until then, the only sounds had been breathing, a thumping like a heartbeat, and the faint sound of a basketball rolling across wood.

Then it was blue-ball again, and he was featureless again. What remained of yellow-ball molded around blue-ball's white shelf, and now it was a yellow shelf. Then the 'donk' sound you get from a big mistake on your pc sounded loudly, and the whole screen went yellow.

I loved it!

So did the class. They applauded while the teacher asked, "Uh, is there significance to that, Evan?"

I grinned, "Absolutely none. Well, maybe something subconscious, but I just wanted all the required elements."

The teacher smiled, "I'm sure you touched on everything. Nice job."

With everyone in for exams, the cafeteria was packed, and I couldn't even spot my friends. I didn't mind, thinking I'd get something and eat outdoors. I waited to get to the salad bar, then hurriedly put a lot of things in a bowl. I picked up a roll and a cup of lemonade, then it suddenly all went flying. I'd bumped into something, and I still didn't see it until I looked down, and there on the floor was Two, on his hands and knees looking for something. Evan Two! I knelt beside him and asked what was going on, thankful that I hadn't actually paid for the mess in front of me.

He gave me a cockeyed look, then seemed to remember me. "I lost a contact! I'm trying to look with one eye here!"

Oh no! I stood up quickly and yelled, "Dropped contact! Look around your feet!"

I knelt back down, and several other kids tried to help. After about two minutes someone yelled, "Here it is!" and it took another minute before everyone was clear who it belonged to.

I just got up and started making another salad. Two was there beside me in a minute saying, "Thanks!"

I smiled at him, "No problem. You eating with anyone?"

He eyed me, but shook his head no. I said, "Come on, let's eat outside." Then I realized he didn't even have a tray yet, and I added, "I'll sit as close to the door as I can find. Just look me up out there."

He nodded, and I got in line to pay. That's where I ended up wearing my next salad. The girl in front of me, who was pretty damn heavy, got a call on her cell phone. She was close enough to the register to put her tray down, and she started gabbing. She walked backwards at the same time, and there was nothing I could do short of yelling, and I would have yelled if I wasn't so surprised.

I backed up until I felt a tray poking me in the back, but maxi-maam in front of me kept coming. My styrofoam tray folded right into me, and the salad ended up on my shirt, all over it, and the dressing was dripping down. When the line moved forward the girl who'd backed into me went with it, apparently unaware that my shirt now looked like an elephant had blown its lunch on it.

I was speechless. I was also hungry, so I hurried to the boy's room and cleaned up as well as I could, thankful that it was Spring now and I didn't have hot soup on that tray.

On the way back to the cafeteria, I thought it was amusing that I hadn't actually paid for anything yet. I got yet another salad, another lemonade, and I made it safely outside with my tray. I didn't expect to find Two again, and I didn't, but Paul was sitting there at a table, and one of they guys with him was just standing to leave. I waited a few seconds until he walked off, then took his place. Paul and the guys he was with were done eating, but Paul stayed with me.

He grinned, "What's up? You look all exasperated!"

I took a giant mouthful of salad and held my hand up while I chewed it down. Oh, it was good! I finally swallowed, and I told Paul about my misadventures in the lunch line. He, of course, found them to be amusing, and I was sure I would too, at a future date.

Paul got serious, "Ev, watch your back, okay? I'm hearing noises that I don't like."

I was confused, "What's it about? Me being gay?" I was shoveling in the food, otherwise I might have been more coherent.

Paul shook his head, "No, it's not that. I don't have details, but it sounds like you're stepping on toes by sticking up for Mastracchio. I'll find out more. Just watch who you talk to."

"What?" I asked. "How'm I stepping on toes by saying that Ron's getting the shaft? Whose toes?"

Paul shrugged and looked at me sadly, "I don't know. Probably the toes the DA is avoiding if you ask me." He closed his eyes and rested his chin in his hand, then looked back at me. "I'd back off, Evan. I know you won't, so just be careful and don't name names. Don't try to learn anything, just put it to the DA to back off on Mastracchio."

"You're scaring me," I said.

I'd never seen Paul look so sad. "I'm trying to scare you! Guidance counselors don't suddenly have guns, they come from somewhere! From what I hear, the gun that killed Throckmorton came from someplace you don't want to know exists."

My appetite was gone, but the hollow feeling in my stomach wasn't from hunger any more. It was fear, and I looked helplessly at Paul, hoping he'd say something to make it go away. He couldn't, though. Paul was as frightened as me to find this bigger thing in our midst. It went too deep, and there were too many people.

I already regretted my letter to the school paper, but I couldn't take that back. The best I could do for my own safety, and that of my family, was to send another letter that was slightly re-worded. Don't look elsewhere for culprits, Mr. DA, just don't treat Ron Mastracchio differently, or more severely, than anyone else. I couldn't even say that. I had to imply it. And Dan!

Oh Jesus! I'd started it already, and before I knew what it might be. When school let out, I literally ran to meet Dan and the other kids from the paper. I stopped short of the door, because I realized I didn't know what to say to them.

I finally pushed the door open, and when I took a step into the room the people there looked up. Dan was leaning over a table spread with papers, and he said, "Here he is," when he looked up at me. He seemed nervous, "Come on in, Evan. Do you know everyone?"

I looked around, and I didn't really know everyone even though their faces were familiar from around school. I nodded anyhow, not wishing to waste time on introductions.

I spoke first, still standing. "I heard something at lunch that's pretty scary," I said darkly. "This thing ... this gambling might trace back to some bad people." The people from the paper all grimaced, which told me they already knew. I said, "Listen, all I want is for Ron to get a fair shake." I suddenly had a very bad feeling, because eyeballs started going from left to right, and I suddenly understood that they thought they were being recorded. A chill went down my spine, but I'd been talking and that made me feel like I was committed to finishing.

After a long pause, I said softly, "I don't want anybody to get in trouble, I just want Mastracchio to be out of trouble. This penny-ante gambling doesn't hurt anyone, and I think the DA's off his rocker going after Ron like he is."

I thought I was on the right track, because those eyes staring at me seemed to relax a little. I licked my lips, "That's all I want, is for Ron to get charged for what he really did, and then for all these cops to go home and leave us alone."

Well, that was a lie and a cop out. I hated doing it, but the last thing I wanted was for anyone else to get hurt. I was just saying it anyhow. If all those people were already investigating, they wouldn't give up based on my words. However, if the bad guys were listening they might turn their attention back to the police and away from students. I did wonder just who the bad guys might be, because it was clear to me that the newspaper staff were already aware that something sinister was afoot.

Still, Jan McGuire, the editor, said, "Thank you for clearing that up, Evan. We were all a bit startled by the tone of your letter, but now I understand you better." She rolled her eyes, then smiled nervously. "We're not out to get anyone, either. This is just a student paper, and none of us wants to forget that. Ron is a student, so he's news here. These ... investigations and things aren't really school business, and we want to stay away from them."

I could tell from her expression more than her tone that she was sorely disappointed, but I didn't blame her. A bunch of students trying to get a square deal for Ron Mastracchio was one thing. Facing down the people behind all that trouble wasn't a kid's game, and it behooved all of us to stay at a long arm's length.

I didn't stay long, and I didn't feel very good when I left. When it came to people with guns and reasons to use them, I was out of my league and I knew it. I didn't know where I could go with it either, but I felt I had to warn the others away from any confrontations except with the District Attorney's office. I was going to go straight to see Rev. Holt, but Dan chased after me calling, "Wait up!"

I turned and waited. With the fear in me, I didn't have a smile for him. He didn't smile either, and he said earnestly, "You're good, Evan! We're not sure, but we think that room is bugged. Listen, you have it right, so stick to that line for now, at least in public. It's only Ron you care about, the gambling be damned! Okay? Just Ron ... just that the DA is being a big prick." He leveled his gaze on me, and even all serious he was damned cute. He bit his lip, "Janet's right about this one. There are state and federal agencies looking into it, so more power to them. We have a student in bigger trouble than he should be, and that's our focus from now on." He finally smiled hopefully, "Okay?"

I could have rhymed that and asked, 'are you gay?' but I didn't. I nodded and smiled nervously, then turned to go. "Evan?" Dan called behind me.

I turned and he looked serious. "Take care of yourself, okay?"

I looked at him for a long moment before I nodded. I felt desire for Dan, and sometimes I thought I sensed something similar on his part, but it was only a feeling. I'd mentioned Dan Crumb to Aaron, and he was amused that I was so wishy-washy about my feelings. Aaron was true to me, except for Billy, like I was true to him, except for Chris. Aaron was open about admitting his desires for other guys that he found attractive. He thought that was fine as long as the lust lived his mind. He told me once that it was healthy and only helped to make us normal.

I thought of my Dad looking at a certain waitress at Hooters, and I knew Aaron was right.

Dan Crumb might have been gay or not, but regardless of that, he was one fine looking guy in my eyes. Aaron made me feel like it was my duty to lust after him, so I did my best and envisioned certain things ... lots of things, especially as I watched him walk off. He looked as good from behind as he did from the front. I thought that anyone, seeing him walk away, could envision his face. I knew that was a bogus thought when it came to me. I would envision Dan forever, from whatever angle, and it would be a near-perfect vision every time.

If Aaron was right and lust was a good thing, I had a powerful lot of good going on inside me. I might even be the most wonderful person on earth! I finally smiled and turned to go home.

Home sounded good right then. I wanted to be there, to just goof off and not do anything. I'd had a lot of trouble in the past year, most of it caused by me. I wasn't sure how that happened after fifteen years of comparative bliss. The day Bruce saw me and Chris, and I was doing the dirty ... that was the day things changed for me. It went way beyond the obvious, because I'd never been by nature a do-gooder. I didn't try to do bad things, but I did keep my nose out of other peoples business. Still, since that day when Bruce saw me, I'd been jousting with trouble all over the place.

I stopped at the Congregational Church office, but Rev. Holt wasn't in so I left a message for him to call me. For the rest of the way home, I wondered what I'd say to him.

I'd never even considered that one day I might have to warn a minister about the dangers of doing business in Mt. Harman, but I supposed there was a time for everything and everything in its own time. I didn't really suppose that, but it came to me as a funny kind of thought. I was thinking to every season, there is a reason, so it was the season for Evan to be warning a man of the cloth to focus on Ron Mastracchio and not anyone else. I don't know why I thought it was funny, but it was funny anyhow.

I flopped in front of the television when I got home, and promptly spaced out. I wasn't exactly asleep, just almost. I had visions of baseball in my head for some reason; heroic visions. I pictured myself hitting the longest home run on record at Yankee Stadium. Phil Rizzuto was saying, "Holy cow! Watch out up there in Connecticut. That ball cleared the fence and it's still climbing!"


"That's right, folks! Third baseman Evan Smiley just set a new major-league record for the longest hit ever. Wait ...wait! That ball hit someone and ... wait ... that someone is dead! Holy cow!"


"Oh, this is terrible. The mayor of a small town in Connecticut was killed at her desk when that ball crashed through her window. The ball hit by ...."

"Evan? Evan, wake up!"

I jumped, and probably a good foot. Bruce was standing there about to shake me again, and the little nightmare of my home run went poof. "Jesus! You jumped the life out of me!" I growled at him.

He gave me a look and said, "Jesus yourself! Matty called. He's coming home!"

That took a moment to register. "Matty is? When?"

"Right now," Bruce grinned. "He called from Germany and he'll be in Florida on Saturday. Then he's all done with it."

"All done?" I asked stupidly.

"Yes! He gets his discharge, and he's coming home!"

For some reason, that was hard to think about all at once. I'd been a faithful little letter writer, but Matt wasn't much as a correspondent. Well, there was one of him and lots of us, but I'd only had three personal letters from him. We shared letters when we got them, so I guess he wrote a lot after all. There had been no definite mention of him leaving Kuwait, and no mention at all of him getting out of the Air Force. It took my mind a minute or two to process the message into the 'good news' column, then I got excited.

"Do Mom and Dad know?" I asked.

Bruce shook his head, "No. I just found out now. Should I call them at work?"

"You better!" I said. "This is major!"

Bruce said, "Can you call Mom?"

I nodded, "Sure, but why?"

His eyebrows bounced up and he smiled, "You're better with her." He turned and hurried up the stairs before I could ask what he meant. I got up and got my mother's number from the wall before heading upstairs and dialing from my room.

I hated when they answered, because of the name of the firm. It was Jachov, Jachov, Jachov and Pierce, but the last name always got pronounced like 'purse', and I was usually laughing too hard to ask to speak with my mother.

Not that day, though. "May I speak with Mrs. Smiley, please? This is her son, Evan."

"Hello, Evan," the voice cooed, "Coming right up."

"Evan?" my mother's voice said momentarily, and she sounded like she always did at work, where we were only supposed to call if it was really, really important.

"I got a surprise, Mom! Matt's coming home!"

I heard her gasp in air, then, "Matt? When? How do you know?"

"Calm down. He called Bruce. He's in Germany right now, and he'll be back in the country on Saturday. I don't know how long it takes to get discharged, but he's getting out of the service."

"Oh my," she said breathlessly, then I could hear her telling the people in the office, and a cheer came up. "Evan, did you call your father?"

"Bruce is, right now."

She breathed deeply, then sobbed. "Let me go, Evan. Thank you so much for calling."

I smiled, "Should I order something for dinner?"

"Good thinking. Yes, do that. I don't care what it is."

I grinned, thinking she might not want to repeat that. "I love you, Mom."

I could hear the change in her tone, "Oh, and I love you too, Evan. I'll pick up champagne."

After I hung up, I thought about that last statement. This would be a first if Matt got a mention on the ceiling when he wasn't even there. He deserved it, too. He was no gung-ho, let-me-at-em soldier, but he went where they sent him and did his job. I'm sure he complained, but he spent time in a war zone and did his part. He had at least one little brother who respected him for it.

When I saw Bruce again we compared notes, and we agreed that it was great for once ro bring really good news to our parents. Dad was buying champagne on the way home, too.

I was excited. I called Chris to tell him the news, and ended up telling his mother instead. She seemed ecstatic and said she'd call my mother later. Then I called Lee, and he did a good job at being excited, even though he was only dimly aware that I had another brother.

I thought about dinner and didn't think that pizza or Chinese was good enough. There was a place I'd seen that was more of a gourmet delivery service, only I couldn't think of the name of it. I went to Google and found it fast enough. The Gourmet Express had a website with their menu, and while the prices weren't cheap, they weren't out of sight either. I was trying desperately to remember if Alton would be home that night and decided he wouldn't be. If he was he could eat mine and I'd make a sandwich.

I ordered steamed, garlicky mussels for four, salad from so-called 'forest greens', and pork tenderloins wrapped in bacon, with peaches in vinagrette. Kelly potatoes sounded good, and banana mousse with raisins and brandy for dessert. I made a mental note to never, ever call again when my appetite was up, but right then I stood by my choices.

They called a few minutes later to verify the order, and that I'd be paying in cash. And yes, I had the cash. Seven o'clock, thank you very much!

The clock told me Aaron should be home, so I called him and his mother answered.

"Oh Evan, Aaron hasn't come in yet. You sound all excited!"

"I am!" I cried. "My brother is coming home from the war!"

"Oh!" she said. "Oh, your mother must be so relieved. I'll call her later on. When does this happen?"

"He's on his way now. He's in Germany."

I heard her voice go faint and she called, "Aaron, Evan's on the phone," then her voice came back clearly, "Here's Aaron. Let us know if you plan a celebration. We can't wait to meet Matthew."

I started to reply, then Aaron's excited voice came on, "Evan! Your brother's coming home?"

I loved Aaron's voice, and sensing his excitement for me over someone he'd never met was a wonderful emotional thing for me. I said softly, "Yeah, real soon. He's in Germany getting ready to go to Florida, then he'll get discharged and come home."

"Wow!" Aaron said. Are you going to Florida to see him when he gets there? I always see these soldiers getting off the plane with families there waiting for them. It's so beautiful!"

The thought had never crossed my mind, and it excited me even more to think of it. Aaron was so right; Matty would be thrilled if someone was waiting for him. I couldn't go because of the playoffs, but Mom, Dad and Bruce could, and maybe Alton. "Aaron," I said, "that's a great idea! Hold on a second, okay?"

I put the phone down and ran to find Bruce, who was on the phone in his room. "Bruce! I gotta interrupt!" He turned and said something into the phone, then turned his expectant face to me and I asked, "Did Matty say anything about where he'd fly into in Florida, or exactly when?"

Bruce bit his lip, "He told me. I didn't write it down, but I remember. He's coming on Lufthansa from Stuttgart, and he lands in Tampa at ten after eight at night. You want the flight number?"

I shook my head, "Did he leave a way to get in touch with him?"

"I have a number for a voice mailbox, that's it."

"Write it down!" I said. "I'll be back, Aaron's on the phone."

I chuckled on the way back to my room. One of the good things about having a brother with a brain the size of a Volkswagen like Bruce had was that he was a regular human Google. He remembered everything!"

"Aaron," I said when I picked up the phone, "I'm gonna do it.! Well, I will if my folks will go. This is so brilliant! He should have people waiting for him at the airport. It's been a long time, and he's been places nobody else wants to go. Oh, man! Let me call you later. I want to look up prices and things."

Aaron snickered, "Hi, Evan. How was your day?"

Oh man, I felt bad. "I'm sorry," I sighed. "I'm just all worked up. I love you, man, and thanks big time for the idea."

"You'll call?" Aaron asked.

"I promise. I'll call around ten, or you can just call when you get home."

We finally got off the phone after a lot of smoochy noises, and my mother was already home when I went downstairs. Excitement, at least the good kind of excitement, made her kind of flighty, which could make her kind of funny. This would be one of those nights, because she still had her coat on, which meant she didn't know she had it on. I tried the gentle approach, asking, "Are you cold, Mom?"

She spun in surprise, her face full of happy surprise. "Oh, Evan! Don't startle me like that! Why would I be cold? The weather is positively gorgeous!"

I shrugged, "I don't know. You have your coat on."

She looked at herself and said, "Oh, silly me! Has Matt called again?"

"No, he hasn't. I have this idea, though. Well, it came from Aaron. You should go to Florida so you'll be there when Matty gets off the plane."

Mom had her hands on her coat, and they froze there when I said that. She stared at me, and her eyes changed as I watched. It was the truth!

"Evan," she cried. "That's perfect!"

I said, "Bruce knows everything. I was going to look up flights on the net if you want."

"Look them up!" she said excitedly, "We should all go."

I bit my lip, "I can't, it's the first day of playoffs."

I got a look that I didn't like much, but it changed and she said, "Of course you have baseball. The rest of us will go. Ooh! I'll be right up!"

I went upstairs and tried Expedia for baseline prices. My mother was there before I figured out the airport codes, and she still had her coat on. I didn't mention it, and soon there was a listing of flights. Expensive flights. Then I realized that you paid more without advance reservations, and just changing the return date to that Sunday cut the prices by a lot.

I kept looking around until the food came, then I hurried downstairs to get the door. Dad was already there, and he was paying. I protested, "I was going to pay for that."

Damn! It sure smelled good. Dad said, "Don't be silly. Where's your mother?"

"Up in my room," I said. We're looking for flights to Florida."

The deliveryman left, and I called upstairs to my Mom and Bruce, then helped Dad set the table. Dad did a belated double-take and asked, "Florida! Who's going to Florida?"

"Um, you probably. I'll let Mom tell you."

"Evan ..."

"Hello!" my mother said brightly as she appeared at the bottom of the stairs, her coat still on.

I rolled my eyes and didn't say anything. My father just helped her out of the coat like it was the most natural thing he ever did. I called to Bruce until he heard me, and then we sat down to what had to be about the best ordered-in food outside of room service. There was red wine, too, and I don't think either of my parents even noticed when I got another wine glass and filled it for myself.

I think it was seeing the strain gone from my parents' faces that made me realize how stressful it had been for them with Matt in a war zone. And that came right on the heels of me disappearing. They were relaxed that night, though. They enjoyed the meal, joked and laughed, and talked seriously about all of us going to Florida to meet Matt's flight. Bruce was eager to go, and his excitement somewhat offset the fact that I couldn't miss my game. Alton didn't even know Matt was headed home yet, and Saturday was his big night for tips. He might still go, but nobody really expected it. Still, we were all certain that Matt would be thrilled if anyone at all was there to meet him, and after dinner we did something really odd. As a family, we gathered around the computer in my bedroom and found the site for Southwest Airlines, and nobody left until I'd printed out three e-tickets and made a reservation for Alton. He could cancel that if he decided within twenty four hours that he couldn't go.

Everyone left me alone when they went to look for hotels near MacGill AFB.

I watched them go, then I had a moment of panic. Of all people, Matty didn't know yet that I was gay! I took the stairs down as fast as I could, and I rushed into my dad's office as soon as I determined they were in there. My mother turned and saw me, and she said, "Evan ...."

"Did anybody ..." I gasped for air, "Does Matty know ..." I was suddenly embarrassed by my own question. "I mean," I let my breath out and said, "Matt doesn't know about me ... that I'm gay."

My mother stared at me while Dad fingered his chin. Bruce giggled, "Send Aaron with us. Matty'll figure it out pretty fast."

"That's not funny," I growled. It was true, maybe, but not funny at all.

Dad gave Bruce a warning look and turned to me, "It seems, Evan, that with all the letters you've been writing..." He sharpened his look, "What exactly did you write about all those times? I thought for sure you would have this all worked out with your brother by now."

I hung my head. "Well?" Dad asked. "What did you talk about?"

"Mawg Dilligs," I muttered under my breath.

"Mawg who?" my father roared.

My brain, at least, wasn't fried even if my goose was cooked. "Dilligs," I lied. "Mawg Dilligs. He was this huge guy the Mets were gonna sign once, but he ended up going to Japan. It turns out he couldn't hit anyhow."

Dad wasn't slipping either. "You're telling me that you corresponded about baseball with Matt for all that time? He always hated baseball."

I got defensive, "I wrote like you said.. You didn't tell me what to write. I just thought maybe somebody else mentioned it." I looked at the floor then said, "I don't know about Matt. If he was here I would have told him, but he wasn't. I don't know what he'll think, but it didn't seem right to say it in a letter."

Mom patted my shoulder and Dad gave me a sad look. He finally said, "You're right, Evan. I'm sorry. Matt had enough on his plate just being where he was. None of us told him, either, and I'm not sure what that says." He looked at me, his face now gentle again, and he said, "I'll talk to Matt the first chance I get with him. Don't worry for now. He's a smart guy."

"Yeah," I said.

Dad looked back at his computer screen and said, "Yes! This is the place!"

Bruce and my mother jumped back to where they'd been when I came down, and I took a look at a pretty, beachfront hotel on the screen.

I wished I could be in two places at once all of a sudden. We'd been to Florida twice as a family, and both times were to beaches and not the amusement parks. I fought both times to go to Disney, or at least Sea World, but I had fun where we went just the same. I loved the endless days on the beach so much that I fought against going to the Kennedy Space Center, then once there I could have stayed forever. We stayed once in Cocoa Beach and once in Daytona Beach. Both times were at beachfront motels. They each had a pool and a little playground in back, which is where the road was, and the beach out front. We made our friends at the pool or playground, but the beach is where we spent all our time.

I made my first best friend in Cocoa Beach. The motel we stayed at had two big, family units, one at each end, and regular rooms in the middle. I met Lionel at the pool within five minutes of getting my bathing suit on that first day. I still love his name. I wasn't exactly skinny, and Lionel wasn't exactly chubby, but there was a pretty substantial difference in our weights. He was a squat, tough looking kid with black, curly hair and a mile wide smile. He was the first person I ever met with an energy level equal to my own and an interest level that was right up there too. Our friendship came without courtship, too. It was instantaneous. He was from Florida to begin with, so he knew the different fish, the bugs, and these little sand lizards, and we spent a week with those lizards, getting them to nibble onto our ears, lips and noses where they'd stay and dangle just like living jewelry.

That was a week spent at a dead run. We stopped to eat, use the bathroom and cadge money from our parents. Other than that we must have seemed like a blur to everyone else. We went from this to that to the next thing, and rarely back again. We rented boogie boards and were good at using them within the first hour, experts the next day. We fished in the surf and caught nothing except excitement and laughs. We'd body surf in the ocean, then talk away an hour in the pool on air mattresses, nose to nose. And we laughed! Lord, did we ever laugh. Lionel was the first person in my life who told me I was funny, and I wasn't trying to be. He was funny too, so coming from him it seemed the maximum compliment.

After that time together we wrote a few times, like we promised we would, but it couldn't be the same and it just ended. Still, that was one of the best vacations of my life. Lionel, though I have no idea where he is, will always be important because I learned from that week. I knew I couldn't repeat the exact same thing, and that was reserved for Lionel anyhow, but I could go outside and make friends all by myself. I didn't have to go to school with somebody, or live in the same neighborhood, go to the same church. I could just get run over playing basketball like I did with Chris, or let somebody try to murder me like Lee. Morbid but true.

Or I could hear about somebody one day, then later see him yelling at a car in the dark, and suddenly decide I'm in love. That would be me: typical Evan. After nearly a year I was still in love; more in love. Way more in love!

I still had my friends, too, and who would have believed that? I had more friends than ever. I had my family too, and a brand new dilemma. I didn't like not knowing, and I had no idea what my oldest brother would think of me after he learned I was gay. Queer!

I was years younger than Matt, and we'd never been buddies. He was my brother and I was his. I admired him for no good reason. He wasn't mean to me ever, but he wasn't especially nice either. That's true about Alton and Bruce, too. Brotherhood is strange. We had the same parents, grew up in the same house, but I knew lots of people better than I knew any of my brothers. They could say the same thing, for they each had their own close friends, even attempts at romance with the older two.

Brothers knew different things about each other; things that couldn't possibly matter in the larger world. Quirks! We knew each other's hot buttons for sure, and pressed them with every opportunity. Gleefully! Screaming, throwing things, slamming doors ... that all came with having brothers in the same house. Now it seemed different, and not because Matt was gone, but because we were older. There hadn't been any outright incivility since a year ago when Bruce saw me and Chris. Since I'd come back home, I was at peace and even better with the entire household. It didn't seem fair to me that there was one still to go.

I'd daydreamed my way back to my room, and I flopped on my bed wondering how I got there. I remembered soon enough, and it was my brother being on my mind that had me so distracted. I don't know why, but Matt's opinion suddenly seemed huge to me. It didn't make sense in any logical way, because I was out to the world, and so far the judgment hadn't been harsh at all. I wasn't out to Matt, though. Mawg Dilligs! I wasn't afraid really, but it was still intimidating. There was no basis for fear, because I was as big as Matt already. I was back, in a nutshell, to fear of rejection.

It was time to call Aaron, and that cheered me up. I'd deal with Matt when he got home. He was an adult anyhow, so he would probably find a place of his own somewhere. He'd seen some of the world now via the Air Force. He'd been stationed in Washington and Maine before going to Germany, and he'd been to several other countries from his base in Germany. Now there was Kuwait of course, and I had the feeling that he had no desire to return there. I didn't know if Matt would stick close to Mt. Harman or if he had thoughts of moving away, maybe far away. I didn't know all that much about him anyhow. He was just my brother.

Continued ...