A Horse Named Phil

By Driver

Chapter 5

I had a tough time at school the next day. My mood had little to do with school itself, but rather with worry about my brother, Matthew. When I picked up Dad, Alton and Bruce at the airport, I learned right away that Matt hadn't reacted well at all to the news that I was gay. He was still coming home, too, although they weren't sure exactly when yet. Matt wouldn't know until he checked in the next day at the air base, but he felt he should get right out. His assignment papers said he was to be discharged, and he didn't think there was officially any big deal to that. It was important to Matt, of course, but that was a personal thing. As far as the government was concerned, he was leaving and they'd be done with him.

That sounded fine. What didn't was that my brothers, and especially my father, had been stunned by Matt's prolonged outburst after Dad told him I was gay. They'd been alone on the beach at the time, and apparently now about half the state of Florida understood that Matt had a gay brother and he wasn't happy to know about it.

It had come to the point when Dad and my other brothers were leaving, that Dad explained to Matt that as parents, they were technically done with him, but they owed me a few more years. Al told me that Dad didn't come right out and say it, but everyone there understood him to mean that I still lived at home, and if Matt didn't want to deal with me civilly, then I would be the one to stay. That didn't sit very well with me. I didn't want to see Matt lose anything no matter how he felt about me. If he had strong feelings, then whether I agreed with him or not, he was certainly entitled to them.

We stopped at a Mexican place for dinner, and when we were seated I asked Dad nervously, "So, what's it mean? Everyone else has been really good about everything. What's his problem?"

Dad grimaced, "I don't know. He didn't learn it at home. My guess is that he's heard four years of negative malarkey in the service. Add to that the idea that he's probably never given homosexuality a rational thought in his life ... I don't know, Ev. I really don't. What I do know, is that he's quite serious. Obscenely serious." He looked at me sadly, and sad was how I felt.

It put me into a funk that lasted through the meal and the rest of the evening. I made Aaron feel bad when I talked to him, but at least he raised my spirits enough that I got some sleep.

I was alright until breakfast, where everyone was studiously quiet around me. I figured that meant they expected a major confrontation when Matt arrived, and one they would rather not witness.

I was a slug all morning. I had no exams that day, and no real reason to be in school at all except to fulfill the minimum days as set by the government. I really felt bad, and I couldn't foresee any happy options. Well, it couldn't last long, because I was going back to work for Harlan right after school got out. I'd be out of the house, and I could plan my visits home for when Matt wouldn't be there. That, being the best news I could come up with, pissed me off anyhow. Matt was intelligent, not some dumb fart who got all his ideas from other people, and didn't know how to think for himself.

I should talk, right? I'd put the same qualities Matt was exhibiting onto my Dad when I ran away the year before, in my imagination anyhow. I was wrong about Dad, like way wrong. Even though I'd worried about what Matt would think, I never expected some big freak-out.

I was completely frustrated, and I was bored out of my mind to boot. I couldn't do a thing about Matt, but I'd have to face him just the same, and live under the same roof for at least a couple of weeks. Maybe he'd come to terms, but nobody else thought he would or could.

It took some cafeteria madness to cheer me up. I was grumbling through a salad, sitting with Paul, Lee and one of Paul's friends. That's when Nancy came over all excited, making gestures and whispering, "Come on, come on! This will be so fun!" When we looked curiously at her, she demanded, "Come on! It's a birthday!"

We looked at each other, then at Nancy, and gave a collective shrug of our shoulders. We followed her to another table, and she stood on a chair calling, "Come on, everybody! Gather 'round here, there's a birthday to celebrate!"

I was already far enough away that I couldn't see all the people at the table, but the ones I could see were Freshmen. I did see Chris next to Nancy, though he was standing at ground level, and he handed her a piece of cake with a candle sticking out the top.

Nancy yelled cheerfully, "Can you believe it? We're not allowed to have lit candles. So, little guy, this is for you! Stand up here!"

I groaned when I saw who it was that she lifted, almost physically, onto the chair beside her. It was the other Evan. I didn't even know his last name for real, but half the school already referred to him as 'Two'. He was embarrassed and blushing like an Exit sign, squirming to get free. Nancy had his wrist in a vice-grip, and she cried, "Let's sing Happy Birthday to Two!"

She started, "Happy birthday to Two!" and the room broke out roaring, and they joined in.

"Happy birthday to Two-oo," they ended up, "Happy birthday to Two."

By that time the flush had left Evan's face, and I think he was enjoying the attention. Maybe not, because he escaped as soon as Nancy let go, and that was it.

It cheered me up some. It was a good and amusing distraction from thinking about my brother. Whatever happened between me and Matt, as unpleasant as it might get, would happen in at least relative privacy. It wouldn't be on tables in the school cafeteria with hundreds looking on.

I cared what Matt thought, I really did. I couldn't control his thoughts, though. My Dad had been right about one thing. He owed me two more years as a parent, and he didn't owe Matty another thing. I knew in every fiber of my body that the technicality would never equal the reality of that, but it was written in the law just the same.

I saw the way my grandparents were with my mother and father, and their relationships never wavered. Whatever ups and downs there were in the past, there was this love between them that was just there, and it was up to the parents to filter it down to us kids. We were fortunate that the grandparents on both sides did indulge us, and I loved all of them. I used to think the reality there was that we weren't much more than cute customers to them, little people to carry the family name for another generation. It was more than that, and it became clearer as I got older. I was indulged by them as a younger kid, but as I grew they all tried to engage me as well, and they learned about me just as I learned about them. We'd never be close because they'd all moved away, the Davisons right to Arizona. Dad's folks lived just a state away, but we still didn't see them often. Mom's parents used to visit more, but as they got used to the Scottsdale heat they tended to want to stay there in it.

I thought the afternoon would be as boring as the morning had been, and I wasn't looking forward to it. When I got up to leave the cafeteria, I saw Lee Erasmus, and we started talking. Just when I was putting my tray away, Chris came hurrying over, and he slipped on something. With a huge look of surprise on his face, he stumbled right past us until he caught his balance. He turned around sheepishly, and when he was cleaning off his tray I nudged Lee and asked, "Know why they spell Polish and polish the same?"

Chris growled, "Don't you dare ..." and Lee looked at me.

"Because they can't tell shit from Shinola!" I said, and started laughing.

Chris cried, "Prick!"

Lee asked, "What's Shinola?" so it was a waste anyhow. God, grow up two towns away and amidst Italians and Irish, and you don't know your most basic Polish joke!

Chris gave me a dirty look and put his arm firmly around Lee's shoulder. "Shinola is the English word for bad joke! Now, if you want to hear some real Polish jokes ... well, what do 1492, 1776, and 1812 have in common?"

I knew the answer, so I laughed in advance. Lee didn't get it when Chris said, "They're adjoining rooms at the Warsaw Hilton," and I think that's where I knew that Lee grew up in some void of ethnic jokes.

Well, that's probably a good thing. Ethnicity wasn't a big deal anymore, where once it had been huge. Everyone who came to this country had to make their own place at some point, and find their own grace. It was the melting pot, they said, and whatever you came here as, wherever from, within a generation or two you were just Americans. I almost just quoted 'Americans', but decided not to because it's the prevalent term.

My grandparents told me that when they were growing up, people kept more to their own kind ... their ethnicity and nationality, so people lived in enclaves, or neighborhoods. The Italians, French, English, Portugese, Jews ... they all lived in their own neighborhoods and married their own. To be sure, they did commerce with one another, celebrated the other's holidays and feasts, and they made friends with each other.

Over time, the melting pot theory took over, and they ceased to see themselves as different anymore. They worked in the same places, so moved into the neighborhoods near that work, and then they were Polish-Americans, or Italian-Americans, or African-Americans, and now you don't even hear that kind of distinction often. We're just people, and inter-ethnic and interracial marriages have introduced a huge crop of the most beautiful and interesting people on the face of the Earth. In another fifty or a hundred years, nothing is going to matter regarding who you live next to, who you live with, or who you love.

Unless you're gay.

I'm not that much of a pessimist, but somehow it seems we'll be the last to be assimilated. Or maybe not. When everyone else is done becoming like everyone else, there will still be 'different' people, and I'll be one of them. Then again, maybe not.

My oldest brother was weighing heavily on my thoughts, and it took me thinking about him to break through the pessimism I was feeling. When I thought about him, Matt became a problem for me, kind of a personal problem. Matty was angry with me, as far as I knew, not with some vague idea that gay people in general were somehow messing up his life. No, his problem was that he didn't want a gay brother. I had to separate fact from fiction.

I was out, for whatever that means. It didn't mean much when Aaron wasn't around, because I was out to be with him. I wasn't on the hunt, so I was just me most of the time. When I tried to act gay, which I did sometimes, people just laughed, even the ones who knew I was gay. Being out made my life weird sometimes, even upsetting, but it was Matty who had the problem, not me!

I felt better through the rest of the afternoon, and I even managed to doze off on the bus ride to our second playoff game. It wasn't far, and Jerry Brin nudged me from where Chris should have been sitting just before we got there.

"Jerry!" I said, then immediately yawned. "Oh," another yawn, "Sorry! Are we still on? Coach is already starting Chris at first?"

Jerry nodded, "No change. You'll pinch hit if any of us gets on, and you'll start third for the second inning regardless. Everything else is set."

I leaned back and thought about my talk with Jerry the day before. He knew his baseball, and he thought he knew our coach's game, so he was trying to work around Coach from the beginning to make sure that one upset didn't muck up the whole works. A big part of his plan was to get guys into the game that the other team hadn't seen in the opener, and the starting lineup was brilliant on that account. Those guys had killed our Seniors and Juniors in one game. Jerry's idea was to start a mix, some older kids and some younger ones, and keep changing them. According to him, I might even pitch, which would not be a good thing. It's not my strong point.

First up to bat was Jerry, and he drew a walk. They played John Berman next, and he also walked. Chris was next, and the guy pitching caught him looking. Chris took a mighty swing at the first pitch, then watched the next two go by for a strikeout.

Tom Bilger, who was supposed to start on third, walked toward the plate, then Coach called him back. "Take a turn, Smiley," he said flatly. Tom seemed disappointed but hardly angry. He stood near me while I pulled on my batting glove and helmet, then he held out the bat he had and I took it. He gave me an earnest look and said, "Get us in the game, man!"

I nodded and took a couple of swings, then stepped up to the plate. The pitcher was one big dude, and I'd faced him during the season. He could put on the performance of a major league all-star. He hunkered and glowered, spat huge globs into the sand, played with his hat brim, and licked his fingers. It looked great, and it could be intimidating. If he was really Roger Clemens, maybe he'd be intimidating. He'd walked the first two guys, but then he got Chris looking so he had something going.

For all his prancing, he didn't have a great windup, and he pretty much telegraphed his moves. My first pitch was way low and in, and their catcher did a great job containing it. Jerry and John started having fun out on the baseline, dancing and prancing and taking huge leads. Good pitchers learn to ignore that, but this guy was getting rattled and it was still the first inning. He threw another pitch, and the umpire called it a strike. The umpire was wrong, and my teammates let him know that, but I didn't argue. I caught sight of Coach out there, and he touched the bridge of his nose. That wasn't one of our regular signals, but when he tapped his nose twice again I got what he meant. I took a step out of the batter's box and took my glasses out of my pocket, and when I turned back to the pitcher he saw heart-shaped blue lenses amidst bright pink flamingoes, and a nasty grin on my face.

Jerry and John were still threatening, and he made the huge mistake of trying to pick John Berman off at first. The first baseman wasn't even there, so the throw went out and bounced almost out to the fence, while Jerry and John both advanced a base.

I looked at Coach and he was signaling for a bunt. I was no hero, and a bunt would be good if I got my pitch.

I didn't. I could bunt most pitches, but the guy threw a change-up that would have made Luis Tiant proud. That thing arced high and slow, and it seemed destined not to reach the plate at all. Then suddenly it was right there and I had to swing, and blam! That kind of pitch is never going anywhere, no matter how hard you hit it, but I got the ball on the top. It bounced in front of the pitcher, and right over his head, then it stopped dead where it hit next. The second baseman had poised to catch it back behind the base, and now he had to run to collect it up. By the time he got to it, I was happily on first base and Jerry had scored a run.

That's where things stayed until the seventh inning. A one run lead is tenuous anytime, and we really needed a win to remain viable. I had a busy but uneventful time at third, and when Coach sent in Andre Gavin to take my place I was almost grateful. It had been warm already when the game started, but the clouds had broken up and it was not just humid, but hot and humid. My uniform felt glued on, and I cherished the idea of some time in the shade.

It turned out to be a good move, too. Gavin wasn't an all-around hitter, but he was a good slugger against a fastball pitcher, and he got a two-run double on his first at-bat. He scored on the next play. He was competent at third base, too, and the game ended with us up by four to nothing: a shutout to answer for the earlier humiliation!

After the last out, I threw up my hat like everyone else. Unlike the others, I cried "Yay for the Blue Bonnets!" not knowing where that came from. Our hats were blue, but we were the Bears, not the Bonnets. Well, until right then we were the Bears. It was winning the game that had everyone in such a good mood, but my little mis-speak seemed hilarious to everyone, and some were still sniggering about it when the bus dropped us off at school.

Why not? We had the rainbow patches on our sleeves, so why not wear bonnets instead of caps? It's just words, right? And I'd been known for butchering the language since I could remember. It didn't matter anyhow. What a lot of the guys were doing was acting faggy, and they were having a ball doing it. They were hilarious, too, with limp wrists and expressions that would probably kill their parents. I know for sure that our bus driver was one perplexed woman when we piled off into the school parking lot.

Coach was there waiting, and he wore his usual steely expression. "Home field tomorrow, men. That was more like it today, don't lose it."

Someone asked, "Our own field? It's fixed?"

Coach glowered, "Fixed is a euphemism. The clay has been replaced, the holes are patched, and we have break-aways. Let's call it safe, not fixed."

That still elicited a whoop as we broke up. We called out the usual compliments to the guys who'd had some action, and I got my fair share from the others. In Little League, each team had a sponsor. The sponsor, normally a local business, paid something to the league for advertising, and subsidized our uniforms so the company name would be displayed. Beyond that, when we won they'd treat us to hot dogs or ice creams at the concession stand. Not that we ever met the actual sponsor, but they'd reimburse our coach for the treat.

We didn't get that in high school. At the end of the game, we had the game to remember, or to try and forget, but that was it. No sponsor, no ice cream, no nothing except each other.

It was good that way, really. Jerry Brin might make a name for himself in pro-ball, but the rest of us weren't kidding ourselves. We played because we loved the game, and it was fun to play. In Little League, playing sports was a good way to meet people. In high school, when the game was over we went our separate ways. Chris and I happened to be best friends, but that started way before high school baseball entered our minds. There were other friends on the team, of course, but a lot of the guys just went their own way alone after a game. It wasn't bad, and not even sad, it's just the way things were. We were a team when we played, and I think we'd all stick up for anyone else on the team off the field, but few of us were real friends. Chris was my best friend, and John Berman counted as a friend, albeit a strange one. Now I was becoming friends with Jerry Brin, and it wasn't just from admiration on my part. He was a real kind of guy and I liked him. I could kid around with Jerry, but we were also serious together. His experience was way different than mine, but we didn't turn out a lot different. He grew up downtown in a single-parent family. I knew from talking to him that he regretted not having a father around, but he knew his father and didn't really want a relationship with him. So he made do, and he did pretty well. He took advantage of his own personality to charm people into showing him the ropes, and he found a lot of substitute father-figures that way. Plus, he found someone who was actually good at something before he latched on. By the time I knew him, he had several mentors and most were experts at something, which is why he was good at so many things.

John Berman walked with us from the bus to my car, and I figured he'd want a ride home, but I figured wrong. Beside my car was a bright blue Miata, top down, with a tan interior. John said, "See ya," and opened the driver's door.

"Wait, wait!" Chris and I called together, and I asked, "That's yours?" I ran over an rubbed my hand on the buttery leather of the headrest.

John said, "Yeah, you like it?"

Chris was admiring it too, and he asked, "What? Belated Bar Mitzvah present?"

John smiled, "No, I bought it. I guess most of it was Bar Mitzvah money. I really like it!"

Chris nodded dumbly, "Yeh, me too! Take me for a ride!" He looked at me, "You don't mind, do you?"

"I want a ride too," I said. "Take Chris home, then come to my house."

John seemed happy to comply, so he said, "Get in," to Chris, and I watched them drive away. That car had the shiniest paint I'd ever seen.

I chased after them and followed John to Chris' house, then I pulled in beside them. Chris was impressed by the ride, and asked us in for something cold to drink. I was anxious for a ride in the Miata, anxious about what was going on at home, but I was thirsty too. I tossed back a can of iced tea in about five swallows and let John know I was ready for my ride.

He was ready to drive, too. We thanked Chris and went outside. I left my car there and got into the little two-seater beside John. It was a pretty little thing, not fancy by any stretch, but it seemed luxurious almost by the lack of luxuries. Everything I could see looked to be both perfect and necessary, and generally about three-quarter scale.

John didn't drive fast, and in his case I think it was because he didn't drive fast. He wasn't the type. He drove well, though, and I could learn some things about smooth shifting from him. He went snick-snick-snick through the gears, and his changes were smoother than most automatics. If I closed my eyes, I think only engine noises would tell me when John had changed gears.

I was grinning when we got back to Chris' house. "Great car, man! Great car!"

The car looked brand new, and there was nothing about it to say that it wasn't, so I was stunned to learn that it was an eighty-nine with over a hundred thousand miles on it. When I looked really closely, the only signs of wear were on the pedals, the shift knob and the steering wheel. There were some marks around the driver's side door pull too, but the paint color made them practically invisible.

I still wondered aloud at the shiny paint, and John said, "The guy chamoised it, Ev. A real leather chamois." He opened the trunk and showed me a thin piece of tan-colored leather that looked like suede and was as stiff as a board. It wasn't computing in my mind until John put the hose to it, then handed it to me. Then it was as supple and soft as a baby's skin. John took it and squeezed the water out, then demonstrated the technique the prior owner used, and it was years of plying this chamois that had so smoothed the paint. I was in awe, thinking you truly did learn something new every day. I wanted a chamois for my own car, and John said I'd have better luck on the Internet finding one. The one he had came with the car, and it was as old as the car. That meant it was a good investment as well, so I'd doubly learned things, and from my most paranoid friend, John Berman.

I smiled all the way home, and when I got there only Alton's car was in the driveway. That turned out to mean that my father had put his car in the garage, because when I went inside Dad, Alton and Bruce were all there in the family room reading things. They all looked up when I came in, too, and nodded their hellos. Dad said, "Hi, Evan. How went the game?"

"We won, so we're still in it. Hear from Mom yet?"

He nodded and smiled, "They're on the way. They should pull in here around nine."

I sensed that Dad, Alton and Bruce were all full of anticipation about having Matty home, and in a way I was too. Unfortunately, I had equal parts of dread, too, and while that probably spilled over to the others, it was me who had to face Matt and his apparent loathing of gays.

I'd come in hungry and ready to ask what was for dinner, but I lost my appetite thinking about Matt. Dad said, "We ordered pizza, Ev. Do you want to pick it up?"

I shrugged, "I don't care. I guess so. How soon?"

Dad looked at his watch and said, "You could leave now, and you won't have to wait."

I looked at my brothers and asked, "Want to take a ride?" No. I don't know why, but I didn't think they would.

"Here," Dad said. "Take some money."

I walked out, and with my back to him I said, "I'll buy."

I was deflated. There was a time a year before that I'd dreaded my father's reaction to me being gay, and I'd been afraid enough to run away from home. Driving to the pizza place, I thought about how things change. It's like on a Monday, after the Giants lose a football game. Somebody will say, "Oh man, if they only made that field goal!"

That wasn't it, though, because if the Giants had made that field goal, then the entire dynamic of the game would have changed. The other team would have adjusted; put in different players and run different plays. Outcomes are unpredictable when things change, and I knew that all too well. God, I left home because of my little brother, and for fear of what could happen to me. My leaving didn't only change the dynamic of my life, it wove an entirely new fabric into it. I led a different life for a summer, but my two lives were one again and all the richer for the experience. I had two homes, two home towns, and a raft of new friends and experiences that were only there because of that initial panic. In that analogy, my panic wasn't much different from a missed field goal. Things change from moment to moment, so even picking up a pizza was filled with chance, peril and opportunity.

Or ho-hum. "Meester Smiley!" Arturo beamed. "You are all set here," he said while handing me the box. "That's fourteen twenty-five."

I eyed the box, and saw the upside-down 'Smiley' and the letters 'SMAPO'. I made a little circle with my finger as I pointed at the 'A' and asked, "What's the 'A' mean?"

"Anchovies," Alfredo said without looking. I made a gagging noise because anchovies were not in my diet. Too salty!

Alfredo looked at me, then the box, and he said, "Sorry, Capital A means artichokes."

I looked at the box suspiciously, then at Alfredo, "Are you sure?"

He leaned close, his big nose an inch from mine and his bushy eyebrows inches away. "Do you see anybody else here, boy? Anchovies I can forget, everybody wants anchovies." He leaned back and pointed out the letters on the box in turn. "Sausage, Mushrooms, Artichokes, Peppers and Onions! That's a Smiley pizza if I ever heard of one. Now give me some money and get lost, okay?"

I smirked and forked over the money, saying "If it's anchovies, I'm bringing it back!"

Arturo handed me my change and leaned close again, "You do that, boy. You bring back an Arturo pizza and I'll call CNN to put it on the TV! Anchovies, smanchovies! You know you'll be lickin' the box when it's gone!"

I giggled and took my change. He was right, because anchovies I could pick off and give to someone who wanted them. I liked artichokes, though, and tried to remember if I ever had one on a pizza before.

Driving home, the smell of that thing beside me made my hunger multiply many fold, and when I got home I ran that pizza up to the kitchen like a madman, and I had paper plates out before my father and brothers came in.

It was delicious, like make your eyeballs roll in their sockets delicious. God, it was huge, too. Not in diameter, but each slice had so much stuff on it, and that night the slices were actually heavy.

I'll stop. When I was done, I went to my room to burp, take my baseball uniform off, and call Aaron. Then I realized that I had to wash my uniforms because I had two dirty ones, and none clean.

I went back down to the laundry room with the dirty clothes. Baseball things always got washed separately anyhow, though I don't know the reasoning behind that, so I tossed everything in one load, put my caps in the special little baskets made for them, and started the machine. Everyone was in the other room, so I took the cordless phone from the kitchen and dialed Aaron. I could keep an eye on my wash from there.

As soon as Aaron answered, he said excitedly, "You won! I heard it on the news."

I snickered, "Yup, and I hit in a run."

"It's nice that you let other guys play, Ev."

"My brother's on his way home," I said, trying to sound upbeat. "He should be here around nine."

"Really?" Aaron asked cheerfully. "You must be thrilled!"

I smiled, "I should be, shouldn't I? It's just that ... well, you know how he feels. I get nervous."

Aaron sighed and mumbled, "Let me think," and he only thought for a moment. "Listen, Ev. I don't know how you'll pull it off, but make this Matt's night, not yours. You all need to celebrate him being home anyhow, and you're part of that. I can't imagine that gay will even come up, but if it does just shrug it off. Tell him you'll still be gay tomorrow, but this is the one and only time that he'll come home from a war, and you're part of the only family he has. Just don't let him start ... even back off if you have to. Get some of your friends there too, like Chris and Paul."

"Lots of witnesses?" I asked bleakly.

Aaron giggled, "Don't talk like that. He's your brother and he's coming home without any holes in him. Party hearty tonight. Don't worry about it anyhow. So what if your brother hates you? You have two others who like you just fine! Picture where I'd be if it was Justin!"

I smiled. Aaron was right. If my brother never came to terms with me being gay, he'd still be my brother, still part of the family. "Thanks, Aaron," I said. "You're the teacher tonight. You know what?"


"I'm wanting to love the pants off you right now. Since you're there and I'm here, and therefore I can't, will you do one thing for me?"

Aaron practically sang, "Absolutely!"

"When it's time for kisses, don't stop at one. Have more ... have many ... have lots, because that's what I'll be doing."

"Oh dear, my waist!"

"Yeah right, Aar!" I laughed. "Like you have a problem! Screw the calories, tonight we make love! Um ... candy love."

Aaron laughed. "Maybe I'll get one of those big, two-dollar Hershey bars and take it to bed with me."

I laughed, "I'd think twice about that one, Aar." The washer stopped spinning, "I have to put my clothes in the dryer. You want to wait?"

Aaron said, "I better not. I have things I should do, too. Evan?"


"Behave, okay? Things will come to a head with your brother, but it doesn't have to happen tonight. It's time to celebrate, and I'm sure he's as nervous as you are. Now get your uniform out of the washer before the EPA finds out it's in there!"

I laughed, "You bastard! Like right? I can picture them sneaking around the yard to see if I'm upsetting the toads or something."

Aaron giggled gleefully, "At least it's not your underwear. They'd be looking for toads in it!"

I said, "Say goodbye, Aaron, while I still love you."

He laughed, "I still love you, too. Bye-eee!"

I put the phone down and walked back to the laundry room laughing. I was talking out loud, too. "Toads! I'll give him toads!" I heard the neighbor's dog woof and said, "Barking toads. That's the problem here. We don't get ribbit, we get woof, woof, woof! I should call the EPA myself!"

I think I mentioned once that I'm easily amused, so I won't go on and on. I didn't need Aaron on the other end of the phone to keep that particular conversation going. I could do it all by myself.

The uniforms looked good, so I dropped them in the dryer and pushed the button, then I went back to the kitchen and called Chris and Paul. Short calls. I told them Matty was almost home and asked them over, and they both said okay. Paul was actually there in about a minute, and I was still trying to envision myself describing the barking toads from my underwear drawer to the EPA police.

I heard him come in, then called, "I'm out here!" when I heard the conversation stop in the other room. Paul came through the kitchen and I said, "Laundry room! I'm out here barking with the underpants toads!"

Paul came in cackling out his laugh. "Underpants toads?" he laughed when he saw me. "Surely you mean skid marks? Maybe even outright turds?"

I smiled proudly, "Nope. Toads! Barking toads!" I opened the back door, and for sure Charlie, the dog from next door had half the dogs in town barking by then.

Paul said, "Sounds like a bunch of dogs."

I eyed him steadily, "Yes, to the untrained ear it could sound like doggies, but listen more carefully. Teach that ear to listen to the subtleties, and you'll see. Toads! Big suckers for sure, but toads just the same." I touched Paul's shoulder, "Listen now," I said, both our heads out the back door. "You'll hear the difference."

I went to check the dryer, and things felt dry in there so I started taking them out and folding them. I didn't have a lot, just two of everything, and before I could finish, Paul pulled my elbows together behind my back when my face was still in the dryer.

"You fuck! You're funny, you know that? Barking fucking toads, my ass! Let's run you through the laundry and see what comes out the other end!"

"I don't think you want to know, Paul," I said dryly.

Paul let me go and leaned against the wall. I finished with my clothes, then turned to see him smiling at me. "So," he said.

I knew what he meant, and just nodded. Paul said, "Don't fear your brother, Ev. Not without reason, anyhow," he snickered, "and if you want some advice, put some clothes on. Lots of clothes."

A glance told me he was right. I had on cutoff sweat pants and absolutely nothing else.

When I had things together, I carried them up to my room. "You know," I said to Paul. "I'm glad you came over." I told Paul what Aaron told me while I got dressed, and Paul agreed with Aaron.

Chris showed up while I was still putting clothes on, and I felt better and more hopeful. It was weird, because Matt is my brother and I was waiting on him like some stranger, and that was because he'd reacted badly to the news that I was gay. I wouldn't be worried if Matt had learned that I had really big feet, or even that I worked for a landscaping company. I could have acne, bad breath, probably even lose my mind, and Matt would look beyond all that because I was his brother. I knew he would. He'd be there for me if I was a convicted killer, at least to a brotherly extent.

Gay was a different matter. Well, I made myself stop thinking that. He was coming home, and that's all there was to it. He was traveling with Mom, and she could be persuasive, so the truth was that I had no idea what to expect.

We hung around in my room, talking and kidding around. Nine o'clock came and went, and it was after ten when we heard noises from downstairs, so we hurried down.

I guess we missed the immediate entrance. Mom was there hugging my father, and there was a pile of stuff beside her. There was no Matt in sight though, and I looked the question at my father, who pointed discreetly toward the bathroom. Then I got a big hug from my mother, and she whispered, "Be strong, sweetheart, and don't get upset."

"I won't," I promised, then the bathroom door opened and Matt was there. He looked good, too. He was tanned dark, and wearing a white knit shirt that showed it off. He looked tough, too, hardened by almost four years in the service. Matt had always been slender like Aaron, and he'd filled out some, which became him. His hair was military-short, but that was pretty much in style with guys his age anyhow, so I was used to seeing it.

He saw me looking at him and nodded toward me. I said softly, "Mawg dilligs, Matty. That means welcome home in Evan-speak." He just looked at me, so I said as brightly as I could manage, "Let's celebrate! We're having a party, right?"

"Yes we are!" my father said loudly. "Dining room, everyone! The champagne's on me!"

I hooted and hollered with everyone else.

Aaron had been right, too. Matt was cool to me, but he was civil. He gave short answers to my questions instead of the enthusiastic answers everyone else got, and he didn't ask me a single question. He was full of questions for my parents and brothers, so I guess I was being snubbed in a fashion, but I don't think anyone else would have noticed. I didn't let it bother me a whole lot, and I had a good time just the same.

The party lasted longer than Matt did. He was beat from time changes, lack of sleep, and plane rides. My Dad had bought a welcome home cake. Matt had a big piece of that and a couple of glasses of champagne, and by then he looked ready to keel over. We all helped him carry things up to his room, but I didn't go inside. When Chris was coming out, I handed him the bags I had in my hands and stayed in the hall.

It was quiet after that, and late for a school night. Chris and Paul took off shortly, and I went to bed.

I was less anxious than I was earlier because there had been no scene. Coolness toward me I could deal with, though I suspected hostility still lay in my future. I was a little restless and possibly a bit wired from the cake, but I managed a short night's sleep.

It was another quiet breakfast the next morning, made less tense by my mother. She didn't cook anything, but the leftover cake was on the table. It tasted better with coffee than champagne, and the sugar in it charged me up all over again.

I'd gone back to my room for the things I needed, and I was just about ready to leave when Matty walked into the kitchen. He had a look of mild surprise on his face, and that may have just been from waking up in his own bed. He headed toward the coffee pot and I headed for the door, but his voice stopped me. "We'll talk, Evan. You have a schedule, but we'll talk."

I didn't turn around to look at him because just his voice threatened me. I nodded and walked outside, now oblivious to the beautiful morning. Rain would have fit better.

The plan had been for Chris to pick me up that day, but I walked toward his house instead of waiting for him. Matt was on my mind, but the early summer weather took over soon enough to brighten my mood. It was seven AM, bright and sunny, and already as warm as my morning toast. Cake. I usually had toast, which was warmer than cake.

Chris had to be running late because I was almost to his house when a horn tooted beside me, causing me to jump because I never heard a car coming. I turned, and it was Nancy Johnson at the wheel of her Dodge Stratus. The window came down and I leaned to look at her. She smiled, "Hey gorgeous! I can't believe you're walking. Want a ride?"

"I'm supposed to go in with Chris," I said. "He's a little late."

Nancy smirked, "I wouldn't say that, not to describe Chris." She looked at me slyly, then burst out laughing. "You probably already know that, but don't look now!" She pointed, and Chris was backing down his driveway slowly, like he had time to spare. In truth, he had that time. It looked like it could be the perfect lazy day to begin with, and I didn't see any real reason to go to school other than it was the law. I had no exams once again, and none until Friday, actually.

Nancy tooted her horn and Chris stopped. I said to Nan, "We have a game after school, so I better ride with Chris. I already don't have my uniform with me."

She grinned, "Oooh, sounds like a game I won't want to miss. You're back playing at the school today, aren't you?"

"Yup," I said. "Thanks for the offer. I'll see you in school." I ran to the passenger side of Chris' car. As I climbed in I said, "Take me home, man. I forgot my uniform!"

Chris seemed amused. "You? Oh my God, Ev, your brother has you more shook up than I thought!"

"Fuck you, too. This is not the first time I ever forgot something. Anyhow, my brother loves me, so why would I be all shook up?"

"Is this the power of positive thinking that I'm hearing?" Chris asked, still sounding bemused.

"Yes it is," I snapped. "I've been practicing up for this with fifteen years of positivity. I'm an expert now, and Matthew is not going to get me down!"

Chris grinned, "Good for you. Try adding some good cheer and it might just work."

Chris was right and I grinned at him as I climbed out in my driveway. "Thanks for reminding me," I said, then I hurried in for my things. I made the round trip without seeing anyone at least, and when I climbed back into the truck I grumbled, "That was a waste of positive thinking. I'm saving the rest for the game."

Chris snickered, "I hope you saved some for me."

I looked at him, "You know what? I don't use any up on you, it just comes naturally." I laughed, "I think it takes an jerk to require effort."

Chris gave me a look and said, "You're right, you know that? It's like, when I'm with you I stock up on positive so I have a reserve."

I leaned against the door and smiled at Chris. He was my best friend all that time for a lot of reasons, and tops among those reasons was his ability to think and say things like he just had. You do stock up on positive thoughts when you're with people you have easy relationships with, and the strength of those thoughts is with you when you have to deal with unpleasantness. It makes it worthwhile, because you're always aware of the good things in your life; the good things that are always there waiting for you.

That set the tone for my day. School was still boring, but when I asked teachers, they let me go to the library, so I ended up just checking into classes, then reading. We sat outside to eat lunch, then a bunch of us walked around the building to absorb some sunshine.

After school, I joined the other guys in the locker room to dress out for the game, and there was some nervousness that I wasn't used to seeing. I felt it myself, though. I guess it was a combination of bravado, testosterone, and maybe even a touch of school pride, but we were in the playoffs with a tough team. There was no rule written anywhere that said we could win by any other means than being even tougher than them, and I think we were each wondering about the resolve of the others. Along with resolve, we needed skill, which we had in spades, but even the best players seemed to sometimes forget everything they knew.

We got pep talks, and they served to at least get us thinking as a team, then we ran down to the field. Even for the playoffs, I don't think there were more than a hundred people there to watch, only about thirty of them on the visitor's side. Bruce was there with Lee, though, and they were there for me and Chris. That cheered me up more than the lineup. Chris would start at first, but my name wasn't mentioned. I didn't expect to start really, but there was always that hope.

There was a lot of scoring into the seventh inning, and none of it very exciting. It was a run here and a run there, but by the second half of the seventh we were up by nine to seven. Pitching had been crummy on both sides, and two of our runs had walked in. The game dragged on, and Coach pulled a lot of players after the stretch, which sent me out to play third base.

Chris was still playing first, so I was in my element immediately. Unfortunately, the new pitcher wasn't. The first two batters swatted easy singles, and the next guy was their best hitter. He was no slugger, but he had been consistent in both prior games, and already had two hits that day. He took a strike on the first pitch, then sure enough hit the next on into the gap between first and second. The outfield was playing in close, and since the center fielder picked up the ball, the logical play was to me, and I had it. I caught the ball just as the runner started his slide, and all I had to do was drop my hand and tag him. Then his foot lifted, and the next thing I knew I was in agony. His foot hit my gloved palm and bent my wrist back so suddenly and violently that I think I blacked out, but I remember the feeling of a painful electrical shock from my wrist to my elbow to my shoulder, and the umpire screaming, "Out! Out of the game, too! Intentional hit!"

That did me a lot of good. I couldn't believe the pain in my arm and couldn't imagine the damage to it that would hurt so much. I was on my knees, my face in the dirt, then on my back rolling around, and it wouldn't go away. Pain like that does things to your mind, and I had a sudden vision of going to sleep in that comfy bed at Harlan's house, but I couldn't make it become real. My eyes were open, but I couldn't focus them. People were around me; my teammates, maybe an umpire, then there was ice on my wrist and it made me pull my arm back, but whoever was holding it was persistent.

Then I heard Coach Gooding's voice asking, "Is it broken?"

Another voice said, "I don't think so. Let's get him to the emergency room." I felt somebody pat my shoulder, "Hang in there, Evan, here's a stretcher."

I can't say the pain went away, but it either subsided or evened out enough, or maybe I got used to it. I opened my eyes and looked up to see a dozen or more faces looking down at me. My team. At least the ones I could see.

Soon enough I was on a stretcher, then fitted with a neck brace and strapped on. I could see the guy who lifted my feet, and he was exerting himself. He was around thirty, heavyset, and with a red face. He smiled at me though, and said, "It's downhill now, kid. The worst is over."

Suddenly, Bruce's face was right over mine. I didn't have a smile in me right then, so I just blinked when I saw him. He said, "I'm going with you, Ev! Lee's calling Dad at work."

I just looked for a moment, then closed my eyes. A cheer came up just about when they hoisted me into the ambulance, and I didn't know what it was for. I was surprised a little that they let Bruce ride in the ambulance with me, but I guess things like that were allowed. It wasn't far to the hospital, and I didn't wait long at all when I got to the emergency room. It wasn't a busy time of day. I was sent to x-ray first, and the positions they wanted me to get into hurt when I could do them at all, and most just weren't possible.

I laid on a gurney for several minutes afterwards, then a female doctor came over. She was very matter-of-fact. "Hello, Evan. I know your arm must hurt like the dickens, but nothing is broken. I'm sure you've heard of whiplash injuries, and this is very similar. Your wrist was bent, very suddenly, in a direction it doesn't go. X-rays won't show it, but the soft tissue around the joint is probably all torn up." She smiled, "Just to prove me right, would you try to wiggle your fingers?"

I held up my right hand and wiggled away, which made her smile. "The other hand, please."

I sighed. I tried, and I could cause motion in all the fingers, so she seemed satisfied, even though it hurt the way that people say childbirth hurts. She said, "I'll prescribe a good pain killer. You're a bit young for opiates." She smiled, "You're young and you seem strong. I think you'll be surprised how soon you feel better."

I looked at her, "And baseball?"

"Give it a month at least," she said gently. Then she picked up her notes and turned away.

That's when I noticed Bruce, and he had a worried expression on his face. "I heard," he said as he stepped toward me. "That kid did that on purpose, Ev. I saw him. He didn't just bump into you, he kicked out."

"Are you sure?" I asked. "He was sliding. You don't always know exactly where you are."

"He knew," Bruce said resolutely. "He kicked your glove and he did it on purpose!"

My arm was throbbing, and I groaned, "He did a good job of it. I'm done for the season."

Bruce commiserated quietly, then he suddenly said, "There's Mom! I'll go get her."

He hurried off, and was back momentarily with my mother, who gave me a worried look. "Evan?"

"I'll live," I said. "Nothing's broken"

"They treated you already?" she asked, surprised. "They've always insisted that one of us sign for treatment first."

I looked at her, and it dawned on me. "You signed when I signed up to play, remember? We had to pay for insurance, too."

She nodded, but said, "I'm still surprised. Let me see what I have to do here, then we can go home."

She turned and walked out, and returned a few minutes later shrugging. "You're right, it's all taken care of. I have a prescription for you, so we're free to go."

I took my time getting to my feet, then wondered aloud about my glove, which was a real Vinci and worth plenty. "Lee took it with him, Evan. He said he'd give it to Chris after the game," Bruce said.

I nodded, and tried to decide how I felt once I was on my feet. My arm hurt a lot, and in three distinct places. The wrist was the worst, but my elbow hurt almost as badly, and there was another pain at my shoulder. I tried adjusting position to the extent that I could, but while I could make it hurt more, nothing I could do made me feel any better. The best I could do was to hope I didn't bump into anything.

I made it home alive, and I sat on the front step just to be outdoors while my mother went to get the prescription filled. I was there all of two minutes when Chris pulled up out front, and he had Lee and Jerry Brin with him. They all hurried over, and I gave them my best imitation of a smile.

"Well?" Chris asked, "How is it?"

"I'll trade you for a good arm," I said. "It's not broken or anything, but I don't feel so good either."

Jerry squatted down and looked at my arm, then at my face. "Do you know how long you'll be out?"

Chris said sardonically, "Spoken like a true co-captain."

Jerry made a face and said, "That's not what I meant." He looked back at Chris, "It's just what I said, not what I meant to say." He turned back to me, a sly smile on his face, "What I meant to ask, is how long will that take to heal? How long before you're better?"

"I don't know," I said. "The doctor said not long, but I'm off baseball for a month."

He said, "That's bad, we'll miss you on the field. The way you went off the field, I thought it'd be worse than that, though."

"My brother said it was intentional," I said.

Jerry's face clouded with anger, "Oh, it was, Evan! That guy was tryin' to take you out all the way. Even his coach didn't try to defend him. He made the guy go sit on the bus."

"The game," I said. "Who won?"

"We won, Evan." I looked at Chris and he added, "I think you getting hurt took the steam out of both sides. Suddenly everybody was striking out, and it was still nine to seven."

I started idly poking at my left wrist with my right index finger, and it didn't really hurt to the touch, though I wasn't applying any pressure. It hurt enough anyhow, and I wished my mother would get there with some drugs. My father got home before she did, and he looked concerned while he walked over from his car. His brow furrowed as he looked me over, and I pointed at my sore arm with my good one. "Nothing broken," I muttered, "but it hurts like all get out."

"Tell me what happened," Dad said, and I let Chris and Jerry do that because they knew more than me. After they stopped, Dad looked at me and asked, "It hurts?"

I nodded, "I'll say. Mom went to get me some pain pills, but it's been awhile."

He looked around, "Well, it's probably busy. I um, have you seen Matt?"

I looked at my father. I'd forgotten Matt, like totally until he said something, and I shook my head no.

Dad smiled at me and said, "I'll go check on him. He's trying to catch up on sleep."

I didn't buy that, but I didn't say anything. Lee sat beside me and Jerry leaned close, "Who's Matt?"

I rolled my eyes. "He's my oldest brother. He just got back from Kuwait last night."

Jerry started to stand, "Oh man, I won't keep you then."

I said, "Sit down. He's pissed that I'm gay, and he just found out. I'm better off out here for now." I looked at Jerry, "Unless maybe you want to bring me home with you?"

Jerry stared, then he laughed when he got the joke, and we all laughed. I said, "It hasn't hit the fan yet, and maybe me getting busted up will put it off, but he's not a happy camper."

Jerry said, "That hurts, Evan! You want me to talk to him? "

I looked at Jerry, and it was a generous offer, but I said, "No, it's something that has to come out. If you'll listen I'll tell you what I think it is."

"All of us?" Chris asked.

I looked at him, ashamed. "Yeah, all of you." I touched Lee's arm, "Sorry, I wasn't trying to leave anyone out."

Lee smiled, "I wasn't feeling left out, I just thought you might want privacy."

Chris said, "Well excuse me? I was feeling left out!"

I snickered and muttered, "You mean out in left field, right? Well gather 'round and I'll tell you a tale," I joked. I added between gritted teeth, "If I start to moan it's only because my arm is killing me."

Chris said, "Don't talk, then. I can't stand to hear you whine."

"Screw you." I looked at my brother, "Bruce, you're being too quiet. Will you kindly smack Chris on the head so I can say something here?"

Bruce recoiled, and Chris and I both laughed. "Okay, okay," I said, and everyone looked at me. "I see this in two parts. First, for whatever reason, Matt has something against gay people. I'm willing to bet it's not based on any experience, either. It's probably just bullshit he learned in high school thug class, and maybe even more in the service. I can picture when he starts something, that he'll say gay is wrong, it's bad, it's immoral, it's evil ... all the usual baloney. I can't say that he has no life experience with gay people, because he probably does. I still think his arguments will be other people's arguments and he never, ever gave any serious thought to it on his own. It's a cop out, it's the easy way out. It's like saying he's a Republican, and thinks all Democrats are wrong about everything all the time, or vice versa from a Democrat."

"Yeah," Jerry said. "My grandma gets like that with politics all the time. When she sees the President on television, you'd swear that man was after her with a chain saw, for the reaction she gives. There's no logic, no rhyme or reason; it's just raw hatred. And I can promise you, she's never even met the man."

I snickered, "That's what I mean. That was my point. There are people who just hate certain people, and they have no real basis for that. It happens with race and religion too, and you know that. I think Matt hates gays because he thinks he's supposed to hate gays. He's not going to have any good arguments."

Bruce was staring, and I said, "What?"

He looked down, "I was like that."

I waited, and he didn't say anything else. "How about you, Lee?" I asked. "Don't answer if you don't want to, but what do you think?"

Lee stared at the lawn for long enough that he was temporarily off the hook when my mother pulled in. She hurried over, a small, white bag in her hands. "Oh, Evan! I'm sorry it took so long. That place was packed! How is your arm?"

"Very sore," I said honestly.

She put the bag in my hand and turned to the door, "I'll be right back with some water."

While she went in, I handed the stapled bag to Jerry, who was closest, and he got it open. He handed me the bottle from inside, and a piece of paper that had special instructions. I didn't usually look at those because they could be scary, so I dropped the paper on the step and looked at a very full bottle of pills. I noticed on the label that there were ninety of them. "Man," I said. "Ninety pills, and three a day. I might be hurting for longer than I thought."

Chris picked up the instructions and looked at them while he said, "They always give you extra just in case. Jesus!"

"What?" four of us echoed.

"Be careful, Ev!" Chris said. "Are you an alcoholic?"

I shook my head, and he asked, "Do you think you could be pregnant?"

"I doubt it," I snickered.

Chris read on, his free hand held up like a traffic cop's. "Are you allergic to eggs or aspirin? Glutamates? Do you take insulin? Ever had a stroke? How's your blood pressure?"

I asked, "What in hell is a glutamate?" as I reached for the paper, but Chris pulled it back.

"Ever gone to the movies or played basketball? Watched television while eating popcorn? Have you swam? Shouldn't that be swum? Oh, here's a good one! Describe your last five sexual experiences in detail!" He smirked at me, "We're waiting!"

Jerry snatched that paper, demanding, "What in hell are you talking about?" and Chris and I broke out laughing, which made my arm hurt.

My mother came out with some water for me, and I handed the pill bottle to Bruce to get one out for me. Mom said, "The pharmacist said to go ahead and take three today, about an hour apart. That will get them working."

I looked at her and smiled, "You mean I might get some sleep tonight?"

That worried her and she said, "Oh, Evan! I hope so!" She looked at the guys there and said, "Don't stay out here too long. You should be resting."

"I'm resting," I said. "I'm resting with my friends."

Chris said, "I have to take Jerry and Lee home, anyhow." He looked at them, "We should get going, guys."

I said, "Wait, I never got to finish what I was trying to say."

Chris said, "Oh yeah, you said there were two parts." He sat back down, and Lee and Jerry followed suit.

I said, "I was saying I don't think Matt has any real arguments about gays, just bullshit. He does have a reason to be mad at me, and it's a good one. Last summer, when he was in Germany, he was going to take his leave and see some of Europe ... have a good time and not spend too much doing it because he was already there. Instead, he came back here and spent his whole leave looking for me when I took off. Now he finds out I left because I was afraid of what being gay would bring down on my head. He's got a right to be mad. If I stayed home and faced whatever, he would have stayed in Germany and had the time of his life." I looked at the ground and mumbled, "I cost him, guys, just like I cost everyone. It's not something I can give back, either. That's the truth, too. He was probably as scared as everyone else, and now he finds out it's all because I'm gay. That's what he hates; that's what he can't stand. He gave up something major for me, and he resents the reason."

I didn't get any agreement on that, nor any disagreement. Those guys left while they were thinking about it. When I was getting to my feet, Bruce asked, "You think that's it? You think Matt's just mad at you?"

I asked Bruce to pick up the pills and the papers, and said, "I'm just guessing. I could be wrong, but I think Matt's mad at me because he blew a big opportunity just to go hunting for a little fag, only he didn't know it at the time. What I know now is that my arm hurts, and I don't want to get into anything with anybody."

I heard a car pulling up and turned to see Paul stopping his Mustang in front of the house. He climbed out and said, "I heard what happened. You're okay?"

I said, "Define okay. My arm's all sprained and everything hurts." I smirked at him, "How was your day?"

"Dull," he said. "Listen, it's time to eat. Maybe I'll come over later."

"Okay," I said, not too enthusiastic about having company when I really wanted to go to bed early. Oh well, I had to stay up to take pills anyhow.

I finally followed Bruce inside, and I had to dodge the screen door when it tried to hit my sore arm. Bruce noticed and apologized, and I turned off into the bathroom as soon as I was in the house. The hospital people had washed my damaged hand so they wouldn't confuse the dust on it for anything else, but my right hand was still dirty from the game. It wasn't a lot of fun washing it either, since one hand really does wash the other. When that hand hurts a lot, it's a real chore to make it work at all. I managed after a fashion, and decided to drip dry rather than punish myself further.

When I came out, my father was in the family room alone, and he turned a hopeful face to me. "How is it, Ev? Sit down and relax." He smiled warmly, "You don't have to be nervous tonight. You and Matt have a divide between you, and you'll have to debate it one of these days. Matt is more or less grown up now, and he's not going to bother you while you're hurting."

"He better not," I grumbled. "I'm not in a real good mood to begin with."

Dad sighed, "I know your feelings are hurt, but Matt's are too." His smile became grim, "You'll see. You can work it out, and I'm trusting you to help Matty along. I think you're pretty good at dealing with human problems."

"Yeah, sure I am."

"I mean it," Dad said. "I don't know how to put this and still make sense, but I'll try. Evan, you project a sense of yourself, and by that I mean you know who you are far better than most people know themselves." He smiled, "Heh, you don't let anyone forget it's you, either. When you came home last year saying you were gay, both your mother and I were complete disbelievers." He chuckled, "Not for long, though. Not with you around. Nope, it was the classic situation where the student becomes the teacher. We were a couple of hard nuts, too, and that's where the Evan in you came through. I'm sure we angered and frustrated you, but you never once showed it. You found humor in our resistance and made us see it ourselves, and that's what made us realize our own folly. If anyone should have been worried about you being gay, that should have been you, not us."

I smiled, remembering. Dad continued, "You're kind of ruthless, too. Maybe relentless is a better word, but I swear that for weeks there was nowhere I could look that didn't contain a note from you, or a brochure from PFLAG. And you were always there to say it's true, and to ask if we had questions."

I smiled, "Are you saying I was .."

"A pest, yes! But it was about you, and calling yourself gay isn't quite a form of flattery. You were trying to change minds ... determined to change minds, and you did in the end. That's not even what I'm getting at. You're in this class that's unique to you. You were Evan all through it, just yourself. You went to school, saw your friends. It was like nothing had changed, and it took us a long time to realize that for you, that was the truth. We were all trying to see you as different, and we were wrong to do that. Because nothing had changed. Not a thing! You were still our Evan; the same free spirit who'd been roaming this neighborhood for fifteen years.'

I said, "Well, PFLAG and Aaron's folks must have helped."

Dad nodded, "The Castles, yes. We've become good friends now, and I can appreciate what you saw in them. PFLAG, heh, that was different at first. We were certainly the only parents there trying to believe our son might be gay. Most were trying to accept or learn, or just come to some understanding. It's not all parents there either, not by a long shot. There are married people who find out that one or the other partner has been gay all along. Grown children of older people who came out late in life. Grandparents go, and others are just friends and neighbors of gay people." Dad grinned slyly, "Let's just say that PFLAG is a learning experience of the third kind."

I chuckled, "That's funny."

Dad looked at me kindly, "No, you're funny, Ev. It's been a long time since I had to peel one of your 'You have a gay son' stickers off anything. You reached your peak when every slice of bread in a new loaf had one on it. Then you changed the message on the answering machine. Very subtle. And then ..." he slapped his knee and laughed, "and then, the first time we'd meet Aaron, you made us sit through a lesson on what he was like, and I honestly thought I'd piss myself. That was brilliant on your part, I should add, because I don't know what I would have thought without that little intro."

I laughed, remembering. "You like Aaron now, don't you?"

Dad smiled, "Of course we do. What's not to like? Aaron is a real delight to have around."

I grinned. I knew my family loved Aaron, and I always liked having it reconfirmed. I understood what Dad was telling me, too. Whatever my brother Matt thought, I had to be me; be the Evan he was familiar with.

That would be easy, because I didn't have an alternate version of myself that I could roll out for occasions. That was my father's point, and I liked hearing it. I think it was his point anyhow, to say that I was me in a way that I was always me. I didn't change, I was steady-state. That might not be a compliment, but it was the truth. I had that even temper my father mentioned, and it was easier for me to laugh at things ... to make fun of them ... than to do anything else.

I worried, and I was worried then about Matt, but Dad was right. I had to stay me. My version of me, which is the one I live in, and not Matt's. Matt would get it or he wouldn't, but the only one in line to lose any respect for a brother was me. If Matt could find a reason within himself to reject my homosexuality there wasn't much I could do about it. As long as he played with external reasons, with other people's words, then I had a chance. I'd barely seen Matt in four years anyhow, and when he was leaving for the service I was just then beginning to think I might be different. So he wasn't there to see what nobody else noticed anyhow, and I did nothing to make anybody notice. I had Chris all along, and I couldn't remember if Matt had still been around when I met Chris. I thought he might not even know him until I remembered that they'd worked together the last summer trying to find me.

See, that gave me hope that Matt would come around. He gave up that leave, spent that time, trying to find his brother, who is humbly me. I'd pin my initial hopes on the blood thicker than water jive. Matt was eight years my senior, so I'd always been a little kid to him. Now I wasn't little anymore, not the young innocent he remembered. I was Evan now, and make that Evan! Matt wouldn't know that unless he took the time, and I couldn't decide in my own mind if it was time he still owed me.

He had already sacrificed on my behalf, and I had to ask my father, "Is it another sacrifice for Matty to still like me?"

Dad looked at me until he understood what I was asking, and he shook his head no. "No," he said softly. "I wish I could say that liking you ... loving you is a requirement in this family, but it's not so. Matthew acts like his mind is made up, and I don't know how true that is, or what it's based on." He shook his head sadly, "I just don't know, Ev."

It was about time to find out. My mother looked in and called us to dinner, then she called up the stairs for my brothers. It was only when I stood up that I realized I was still in my uniform, and it was pretty dirty from the bust-up at third base. I wasn't about to change with dinner on the table, so I tried to ignore it and followed my father into the dining room.

Chili! I love my mother's chili! She made it with small chunks of steak rather than hamburger, and it was loaded with onion and peppers. There was a lot of spice in it, but she didn't make it hot with Tabasco sauce or anything like that. It was all fresh stuff, and it was always wonderful. Not to mention her homemade guacamole, which wasn't exactly chunky, but it wasn't beaten to death either.

I was smiling and almost drooling when I sat down. Bruce sat beside me and Matt took the seat opposite Bruce. Al was back at school. It was only then that I realized I'd probably make a mess if I tried to serve myself, so I asked Bruce to dish me up some salad, and I caught a glance of Matt when Bruce took my plate. My left arm seemed to feel best if I just let it dangle, and that's what I was doing. Matt's look seemed scornful, and when I told Bruce it was enough salad, I looked at Matt. I grinned, "I have a limp wrist, you know! I can usually get my own salad." I turned to Bruce and smiled when he put my dish in front of me, "Thanks. Now how about some bread?"

Bruce said, "Sure," and cut me two slices, which he buttered and put beside the salad.

I smiled and patted his shoulder, "Thanks again. You turned out alright, you know that?" I looked at my mother and father in turn and said, "Nice job with this one."

Dad suddenly had to wipe his mouth, and he covered half his face with the napkin for a long time. I avoided looking at Matt and chowed down on my salad and bread, then I cast a hungry glance at the big chili pot. My mother beamed, and started ladling it into my bowl until I said it was enough I spooned up my own guacamole, and Bruce fixed another piece of bread for me, and we ate in general silence until Dad asked, "Evan, didn't you have a science exam today?"

I looked at him, thinking that was an odd question. "No. My last test is physics, and that's on Friday. If you want to talk about science, though, last night we discovered barking toads right here in Mt. Harman."

Dad gave me a put-out look, "Barking toads?"

"Yeh, the kind that go woof! They're found in dirty laundry, I think they spawn there. Paul's coming over later, he knows all about them."

Bruce looked at me seriously and asked, "Barking toads? Really? I've never heard of them, and I thought I knew all the fauna around here."

I decided to go for broke. "It's what they call mawg dilligs, Bruce. You will never know everything!" I was having a hard time keeping a straight face, "I'm always here to help, and just like you buttered my bread, I'll help you with mawg toads. I mean barking dilligs. Whatever."

Bruce kind of gawked at me, and it was clear he thought I'd lost my mind. When I stole a glance at Matt, he had a ferocious look plastered on his face, but he had tears in his eyes at the same time.

Yes! I would win him over with nonsense, not logic! I decided to let it go for the time being, and asked to be excused. Mom said there was pie, and I said later because I was full. I took another pill after Bruce got one out for me, and I asked him to put one more pill on the cap so I wouldn't have to work for it later.

I went to my room, my left arm still hanging, and plopped down in my desk chair. I didn't hurt automatically, and wasn't sure if that was from my position or the pills. Being minus an arm was still very weird feeling, and I didn't like it. I sat there thinking I should be grateful that it wasn't broken, but that thought came hard to me. I shouldn't have been there, and for the second time in my life I was hurt because someone else wanted to hurt me.

I was madder at the guy who took me out that day than Lee's father, who'd actually tried to kill me. I don't know why, either. I had eleven scars on my back, neck and shoulders from one attack, a very sore arm from the other.

I picked up the phone and called Aaron, and even dialing made me think. I could do that with one hand, of course, but it was unnatural, as was holding the receiver to my right ear.

Aaron was in a good mood. He'd been fumigating his room or, as he put it, airing it out, and decided that it was time for a new look. His parents agreed that it had been a long time, and when he promised to take better care of it they agreed to new paint, wallpaper, carpeting, a bedspread and curtains. He'd been looking through a catalog with his mother when I called and wished that I was there to help him pick something out. He was cheerful and excited, and I hated to bring him down, but I had to tell him about my arm.

"Aaron," I said. "I got hurt in the game today. My left arm's kind of useless for awhile."

He inhaled sharply, "Oh my God! What happened? Are you okay?"

I explained what I could, which was everything except why it happened, so of course Aaron's first question was, "Do you think it's because you're gay?"

That stopped me, because it's not something I'd even considered. "I don't know, Aar. I never thought of it, and I kind of doubt it. I don't see how he would have known I'm gay anyhow, and besides, I've had a good season. It was just a really stupid thing to do. Now we're both out for the year, and we still won the game."

"Some people are too crude for words, Evan. How's it going with your brother? Is he being a boob like you thought he would?"

I let out some air, "It's not good. He's trying to ignore me for the most part, and I think my folks have a lot to do with that. He's not being friendly, that's for sure."

Aaron let out a little, mirthless laugh. "You sure have your ups and downs, Ev. I can't wait 'til you move back over here and I can keep an eye on you."

I laughed, "I'd get in less trouble if you kept something other than your eye on me."

I could picture Aaron settling in, "Ooh! Tell me more."

Laughing with Aaron had the effect of making me forget my arm until we hung up, but it was still there and still very sore. I went into the bathroom to clean up for bed, and it seemed that absolutely everything was going to be difficult one-handed, even getting a glob of toothpaste on my brush. I managed, of course, but I resented the deliberation it took to do things that were second nature when I had both hands. It was hard enough getting my clothes off that I had no idea how I'd get dressed in the morning.

I was pretty frustrated by the time I ate my kiss, took my third pill, and decided to just get in bed. Even that was a chore, and the only position I could find that was halfway comfortable was flat on my back with my left arm pulled loosely across my chest.

I just knew I'd roll over and wake myself up, but I was worn out enough that I fell asleep before long. I did wake up a few times from sudden pains associated with me moving in my sleep, and I thought to put my second pillow under my knees, and I think I slept through after that.

When the alarm went off, I let it beep for awhile, wondering if I should just shut it off and stay home, or hit the snooze button and think about it later, which is what I did. I fell back asleep three more times, and finally decided to get up and go to school. I could at least socialize there, and I wouldn't be alone with my brother. I hesitantly tested my left arm and was sorry I did. It felt different than it had the day before, and seemed to hurt more rather than less. Like everything else, even getting up from under the covers was more of a chore than it should have been.

When I saw my arm, I groaned, because I could now see why it hurt. My wrist right down to the knuckles was a bluish color and there was puffy swelling at the elbow. There was nothing noticeable at the shoulder, but it still ached there, too. My pills were right there, the childproof lid on nice and tight. I put the bottle between my knees and managed to get the cap off, and I left it off. I shook a few pills out onto my night stand and popped one into my mouth. I pulled clean underwear and socks from their respective drawers, thinking of the fun I'd have trying to get them on later, and went across the hall to the bathroom. My shower went okay, and it felt good. For the most part, I could reach everywhere, though my right armpit went without soap and my left pit didn't get much of a rinsing off. I didn't get very dry either, since I was unable to reach my backside much above my butt. I dripped dry while I combed my hair and brushed my teeth, foregoing the added hassle of a shave.

I'd been right about getting dressed, too. Underpants were hard enough to get into, and socks were even harder. Somebody else was absolutely going to have to tie my shoes for me. Back in my room, my shirt was surprisingly the easiest thing to get on. Pants were a different matter, and I gave up on long ones after too long trying. Shorts were easier, and I had some cargos with elastic at the waist so I could get by without a belt. The button at the waist was the worst of everything, but I finally got it. I felt proud like a five year old that I'd managed to dress myself, but when I went to slide into my sneakers I realized that crew socks, sneaks and shorts would get me laughed out of school faster than forgetting to get dressed at all would. With difficulty and frustration, I pulled the socks off and put on sneaker liners, which were mercifully easy.

There was a big mirror in the hallway, and when I looked in it I hadn't done badly. The button flap on my shirt took a sharp left before it went under my shorts, but I tugged the waistband of the pants out as far as I could and did a little hula dance until things fell into place. It was straight but still not right all bunched up like it was. That happened to everybody, though, so I stopped fooling around and went downstairs to eat something.

With all the time it took me to get dressed, I was still the first one in the kitchen, so I had to make coffee. That was the only easy thing I did, and it had no sooner started making than nature called me loud and clear.

I hurried to the little half-bathroom by the family room and closed the door behind me. All that work for nothing! I did my business, then had to put myself together all over again. I knew what to do by then, but a throbbing pain in my left arm didn't help, and it still took time.

When I got back to the kitchen my father was there, and he said, "Morning, Ev. Did you manage to get some sleep?"

"Yeah," I said as I poured coffee into my cup. I held my arm out so he could see and said, "Look at this! That .. arrrrrh!" Lord, I wanted to swear about the motherfucker who'd hit me, but my father had no sympathy for swearing, no matter what the circumstances.

He grimaced, "You're going to school?"

"Yeah," I snapped. "At least there I'll be with people who care. Can you tie my shoes?"

Dad seemed stung by my remark, but looked at my feet and said, "Sit down." When I did he laced up my sneaks, asking in surprise, "Are these Converse All Stars?"

"Yup," I said proudly.

Dad chuckled, "I used to wear the exact same things. I can't believe they still make them." He patted my knee when he was done and asked, "How are you getting to school?"

"I don't know," I said honestly. "I'll start off walking and maybe catch a ride with someone."0

Dad looked at me. "Is that a good idea? I can drop you off if you want."

"You don't have to," I said. "It's nice out. I don't mind walking."

"Your arm?" he said hesitantly.

I snickered, "I'm not an ape, Dad. I can walk without using my arm." I couldn't butter toast, though, because it kept sliding away from the knife, so Dad fixed it for me, then Bruce showed up and he poured me a juice when he got his own.

I said, "My car key is by the downstairs door if Matty wants to use my car to go somewhere."

Dad just eyed me, but Bruce was surprised, "You'll let him drive your car the way he treats you?"

I rolled my eyes, "Why not? I sure won't be using it 'til I grow another arm. Besides, he can use my car to go find one for himself, and he can use that to go find a job in Oregon. or someplace. The barking toads out there are poisonous, you know."

Bruce's eyes went wide, "Are those the Lesser Catachan barking toads? Those are like the most poisonous critters in the universe."

It was my turn for a double-take. "Been doing your homework?" I asked uneasily.

Bruce looked at me and said, "I thought you were teasing about the toads, but I thought you were kidding about giant clams when we were at the beach, and they were real."

"They were?" I started to ask. "I mean, why would I kid you? I gotta get going."

I remembered the giant clams from years before. We'd rented a beach house for a week, and one day during the week was rainy so we stayed inside diddling around; playing games and reading mostly. From where we were, we could see the stacks of a big nuclear power plant out on a point of land and we started talking about where we'd be safest if there was a nuclear war. I argued for the salt flats of Utah while Al said the Mojave Desert. Bruce thought Kansas at first, but then Matt assured him that we had our own missile installations all over the place in Kansas, and they would be certain targets. Matt thought the beaches in Baja would be nice, by which I presume he meant safe. Bruce thought about it all afternoon, and when the rain let up we took our bikes to go to the store. We always took our bikes to the store, but we walked them because the store was only about eighty feet away. We brought them because we might ride them afterwards, otherwise we'd walk them back to the cabin.

On the way, Bruce said, "I think if the bombs come I want to be in Rhode Island. There's nothing there that's dangerous, right?"

Nothing I could think of, but I, as the oldest brother there, had to say something, so I muttered, "Well, there's those giant clams. I don't think Rhode Island ever went to war over 'em yet, but one could sure swallow up a kid your size."

Now Bruce's studies had obviously revealed to him the existence of real giant clams, not to mention venemous barking toads. It was unsettling to learn that even my wild fantasies actually existed somewhere, and I was tempted to ask Bruce to research the Egyptian Lovecock.

My book bag wasn't just for books anymore. Actually, my textbooks had all been returned, so the bag was light with just a few notebooks and cd's in it. I added my clean baseball jersey and cap. I'd watch the game from the bench, but I didn't want to miss it.

I put pills in my pocket and headed outside, and just being out on a day like that made a whole lot of things feel better. It was still a little foggy right at ground level, but the sky was blue overhead and the sun was already high enough that I could feel its warmth on my skin. Lawns were green and tended all around me, and every flowering tree and shrub in town was busy showing its stuff.

I decided that I didn't really want a ride. My arm was a mess, and it was already complaining about being walked to school, but I couldn't help it. The other ninety-five percent of me was being all assaulted with good feelings, and one grouchy arm didn't have a chance of cracking that attitude.

Continued ...