Jack in the Box

Chapter 47

Michael Waters - Arlington Road : November, 2000

I walked into our kitchen and found my mother and Aunt Widget talking at the table over coffee. "Hi, Ma. Hi, Widget!"

They turned smiles to me, my mother speaking. "Hello yourself! How is Tony's mother? Did you see her?"

"Yeah, I saw her. She's gonna be okay, in fact, she's comin' home tomorrow. Oh, guess what? I met Tony's brother and his family! They drove over from South Carolina."

My mother smiled, "That would be Bart. He was always a handsome devil."

I said, "He still is, and he seems real nice." I looked around, "Where is everyone?"

"Your brother went off to see friends. Joey is among the missing. Sally took a ride with Jed, and your sisters are visiting friends. As far as your father and uncle, well it is football season."

I smiled, "Andy's?"

She nodded. I made myself a sandwich and sat with them for awhile, but felt kind of out of place. I went to my room and changed, asked when I should be back to eat, and headed down to Pat's house to get some work in.

It was pretty cold again, so I kept warm by walking fast. I was halfway there when a sudden sound behind me made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I stopped dead in my tracks, then Buster stopped right beside me, grinning and panting. Lord, my heart had stopped in my chest, and I gasped out, "Buster! Geez, boy, you scared me half to death!"

It took a good minute for me to start breathing regular, and Buster just sat there like scared people were part of his everyday experience. I finally managed to pat his head and ask, "You comin' with me?"

He cocked his head and walked beside me when I started to move. My heart was still pounding. Buster was smart, and he was gentle, but he was also huge, the biggest dog I ever saw. He was owned by Dave and Tim, but he wasn't especially particular about his people. If you had two arms and two legs he'd like you, but I fed him sometimes so I was pretty high on his list of friends.

When we got to Pat's place, I could see that they had company, too, so I just went in the barn with Buster where I lit up the wood stove and turned on the glue pot. While things warmed up, I looked at the houses that Pat and I had put together recently, showing them to an apparently interested dog, and thought that we had it down pretty well. It was gratifying to start with a pile of pieces and end up with something finished that looked so nice, and get paid for it at the same time.

The little stove heated the room up quickly and, as soon as I could take my coat off, I got to work on a house that I had already started. Buster went to sleep beside the stove. It was fun working with Pat, but it was nice alone sometimes, too. The work was enough that you had to focus on it, and the time always flew by. I don't know how long I'd been there when Pat came in, surprised to find me there.

"Hey, Mike! Howcum you didn't say you were here?"

I shrugged, lining up a fancy looking front door, "You had company."

"It's just relatives. I been itchin' to get outta there for two hours now."

I grinned, "Well, you're out now, so get to work."

Pat muttered, "Thanks a lot," and positioned himself in front of the frame he was working on. "How's Tony's ma?"

"She's doin' good, Pat. She's comin' home tomorrow."

Pat exhaled loudly and said, "That's good. I got scared last night."

"Me, too. I met one of Tony's brothers today."

Pat looked at me, "Really? What's he like?"

"Real nice. He's old enough to be his daddy, though. One of Tony's nephews is older than him, and his niece is our age." I smiled, "You'll want a look at her, Patty. She's really cute."

"Yeah? What's she look like?"

"Oh, dark like Tony, dark brown hair, really pretty eyes."

Pat snickered, "Pretty eyes, or big eyes?"

I laughed, "Not like Tony's, that's for sure. Annie caught her checkin' me out. I got a good kiss out of it, so Christa'd know who's boss."

Buster stirred and stretched, causing Pat to shriek in panic, and it made me laugh. He obviously hadn't noticed the big dog sleeping there, and his reaction was hilarious, though it almost cost Tony a house frame. I put down what I was working on and stroked Pat's shoulder until he could draw breath again.

He finally gasped out, "Jeez'm! What's that thing doing here?"

I laughed, "It's just Buster. He don't bite." I looked at the dog, "You don't, do you boy?"

Buster looked interested for a second, then curled back up by the stove.

Pat and I got back to work. We were making progress when the door opened. Joey and Matt rushed in, closing it quickly behind them. They were both frozen looking from biking in the cold air. They grunted, "Hi," and made a beeline for the heat source.

I asked, "How'd you find me?"

Joey shivered, "Your mom told us. It's really gettin' cold out." He looked around, "So, this is where you work?"

I said, "Yeah. You guys met Pat last night, right?"

They remembered each other, and Matt and Joey were still trying to pick an eye to focus on. Pat lifted his glasses for a second so they could see that both eyes looked the same without them.

We showed them the completed birdhouses. Joey was appreciative, but Matt was blown away by them, exclaiming all over the place. He wanted to know all about them, who did what, how much they cost, how Tony got the idea to make them. I answered what I could, though I only knew how much Tony paid Pat and me. I didn't know exactly what they sold for, but I did know that the store that sold them got twenty-five percent, that it cost thirty dollars to get them packed and shipped, and that Tony split whatever was left with Richard. That much had come out of just talking to Tony, but I was pretty sure that he was pocketing about a hundred bucks per house, maybe more. I did know that so far, anyhow, he was charging one price, no matter how much fancy work a particular house had.

He didn't make the houses to any particular scale. No matter how big the house in the picture was, the bird houses all ended up about the same size. Tony didn't know much about people houses, but he knew what birds liked, which was to be cozy. A big mansion ended up the same size as a woodsy cabin. It just took smaller pieces to make everything in proportion.

Pat and I got back to work, while Joey and Matt hovered behind us, watching. I suppose it was their reluctance to go back outside, but we all fell into an easy, friendly patter for the next hour or so.

My stomach told me when I was at a good breaking point, and I finished what I had to, then cleaned up my area. We said goodbye to Pat, rustled up Buster, and headed out into the frigid air. I told the guys that they could ride ahead, but they just walked the bikes, laughing when Buster lifted his leg halfway up a tree and held it there for a solid minute, creating his own fog bank with the warm pee in the cold air.

When we got home, Matt went next door, saying he'd catch up with us later. Buster followed him, and Joey and I put the bikes away. "How's Matt?" I asked.

Joey smiled, "He's a lot of fun. We froze our asses off, but he can't ride like that where he lives, it's too much city. We just kinda cruised all day, and we both loved it. Did you know he's not really Davy's cousin?"

I stopped short, "That's not true, Joey. Did he really say that?"

Joey looked wounded, "Uh, not exactly...no, he said it's kinda a made up family, not really blood."

I smiled, "I can buy that. Made up or not, it's a real family. He's as much Davy's cousin as you are mine." I put my hand on Joey's shoulder and pulled him along. "Made up's not right, it's more like put-together." I lowered my voice, "Tim, Dave, Jerry, Artie...they all had messed up lives. Don't you see? They needed a family, a real one, so they put it together themselves. You don't need blood for that, just love. Those guys are closer than our dads, so it's not fair to say it's not real."

Joey's eyes teared up just when mine did, and I know it was the memory of the last visit, years ago. Our fathers had gotten into a fist fight, right in the kitchen, and scared the daylights out of all of us. It was over nothing, just tiredness and a wise comment from one or the other of them. They got mad and tried to bust each other up, doing a pretty good job on the kitchen in the process. The families were still in panic after they'd already made up and hugged, but the fear lingered for the rest of us.

It lingered for the rest of their visit, beyond that even. Ray and I had gotten into screaming fights often enough, even into shoving matches, but we'd never actually hit each other. I think seeing our father in a fist fight with his brother was all we needed to make personal vows not to get that mad at each other, not ever.

Damn, just the memory of that broke the concentration Joey and I had. It was one of those experiences that meant more to the onlookers than those involved. My dad had never mentioned it except for an embarrassed apology right after, but I'd always remember, and I knew Joey would, too. The anger, the yelling, the fists flying, things crashing all around: there was a violence that none of us thought either man was capable of, and they were our fathers, brothers, doing that to each other.

I shuddered and Joey returned it, then we turned onto the back steps and went inside. It was a different scene. Our mothers were sipping drinks at the table while our fathers were fussing at the stove and counter. We announced our presence, and got happy enough greetings, Uncle Mike grumbled about whatever he was doing as soon as he'd said hello.

Sally must have heard us, because she came rushing into the kitchen from the living room. She grabbed my arm and said, "I'm not spending all week here and not talking to you." She smiled, "You're my specimen, Mike, and right now I have to justify everything I've been preaching for two years." She tugged on my reluctant arm, "Come on...come on!"

I smiled helplessly at Joey and everyone else, and allowed myself to be dragged down the hall. We ended up in my parents' room, sitting on the edge of the bed. Sally grinned, almost maniacally, "Tell me all about being gay, Mike." She shivered, "Ooh, this is gonna be so neat!"

I coughed out a little laugh, "I can't, Sally. I'm...um," I turned it into a question, "less than gay? I'm, ah...maybe other than gay is better." I faced her, "I'm just Mike, just me." I made a helpless little gesture over my head, and squeaked, "Still me, still Mike."

Sally stared for a second, then grinned, "I get it." Her grin faded, but she still held a smile, "You're a bisexual, not just gay."

I grimaced and reached for her hand, "You don't get it, Sally. I'm Mike...Michael Waters...your cousin! That's all I am, Sally. I got your father's name, and my parents gave that to me. I doubt you go runnin' around callin' them straight. Why do I need another tag?" I softened my tone, putting my other hand on hers, smiling into her pretty eyes, "Your dad told me what you did, and for that I'm grateful, but if you're runnin' a club you shouldn't be startin'out with a dividin' line. Ain't that what you wanna get away from?" I thought, "You don't need no alliance, you need to make people understand. Understand that there's no difference, no real difference." I stared for a second, lowering my voice, "I guess tolerance is a good place to start, but that shouldn't be your end game. I don't wanna go around feelin' tolerated, not like some bad smell. I wanna be a person like everyone else."

Sally started to say something, but I interrupted, "Sally, listen. I did think I was queer once, and that's still there." I got tears in my eyes, "I'm so sure sometimes, and then there's Annie, making me not queer. Honest to God, it freaks me out sometimes, but..."

"But then there's Annie?"

I smiled, "Yeah, then there's Annie. You asked about gay, well I was as queer as it gets with Jack. I loved him, as hard as I can love anybody" I sat forward and put my elbows on my knees and my chin in my hands. "I still do, Sally, I still do." I lifted my head a little so I could see Sally, "Annie lets me keep that, Sally. She lets me love Jack and she tries to share it. Oh, God. She never really knew him, but she understands what we had. She doesn't try to take it away, to make it less than it was." I started leaking tears, "She understands, Sally. That's the difference!"

Sally mumbled, "Between Annie and me?'

I was sad, nodded.

Sally was right there, hugging me, whispering, "I understand, Mike. Now I do. I think I do, anyhow, and you're right. Tolerance isn't enough, and I need to think about that." She rubbed my shoulder gently, calming my tears. She said softly, "Why don't you tell me what the end game should be. Tell me where you are now, and where you want to be."

I nodded, then went into the bathroom to blow my nose and wash my face. I sat back down with Sally, and we talked quietly until the call for dinner. It was a nice talk, with lots of ideas from both of us, kind of leading to a 'perfect world' scenario, and we left it with the idea that we'd try to talk to the guys next door. My perspective was only my own, not enough to create a new world around. Dave and Tim had several other gay guys visiting, men with histories. They'd all survived, thrived even. Sally and I were fairly certain that they probably knew others who had stumbled or fallen, got beaten down, and we could ask about that, too. I lived in a small town, not a vacuum. I knew about gay bashing, about AIDS. Lord knows Jack and I had talked about it enough.

I managed to forget about things on my mind during dinner, which was tasty and noisy. Dad and Uncle Mike had come up with a reasonable facsimile of fajitas, and we had to put our own together. There was a mountain of blackened steak and chicken strips, onions and peppers, hot and medium salsa, guacamole, cheese, beans, warm tortilla rounds, and spicy rice. We made a royal mess of my mother's tablecloth, but she didn't seem to mind.

We were just quieting down with fried ice cream when there was a knock at the kitchen door, then it opened and Matt got propelled, laughing, right across the kitchen. Then Davy followed him in, grinning wildly and pointing at Matt. Matt came back and bumped into Davy with intent, then they came into the dining room. My father asked, "Fried ice cream, guys?"

Davy looked a little green and declined, but Matt said, "I'll have some."

Dad said, "Pull up a chair, then. I'll be right back with it." He looked at the table, "Anyone else?"

Joey and I raised our hands. I was just trying to be polite, so Matt wouldn't have to eat alone. I kind of liked the ice cream, anyhow.

Matt squeezed in between me and Joey, while Davy leaned against the wall, amusement on his face. Dad came in with the ice cream, and general conversation picked back up. Sally looked at Davy and stood up to talk to him. I eavesdropped.

She said, "I was talking to Mike before dinner. He told me you're totally okay with him being gay?"

I turned around to listen, and Davy noticed, smiling quickly at me. He turned back to Sally, "Mike says I'm okay with it?"

I thought, "Oh, Jeez. Here it comes."

It didn't. Davy said, "There's nothing for me to be okay with, Sally. I like Mike...I love Mike. Whoever...whatever he likes, I like. "He shrugged happily, "I never thought I'd say something like that, but it's true. Mike's my best friend." He grinned, "Any other questions?"

Sally looked befuddled, "Am I being set up? Did you guys rehearse this or something?"

Davy laughed softly, took Sally's shoulders in his hands, then pulled her into a hug. "No rehearsals, Sally. That's just the way things are."

Sally pulled back a little, "But..."

Davy looked her in the eyes, "No buts, Sally. That's the way things are, the way they're going to stay." He turned a happy smile to me, "Love comes in lots of ways, Sally. I'm just learning that." He turned back to her, "Lots of ways, Sally...lots of ways." Davy steadied himself, "What you see is what you get doesn't cut it, not anymore. What you look for and what you find is what's important."

Sally lifted her eyes to Davy and smiled, while Raymond let out a sound that sounded like a bark, then started clapping his hands. "Go, Davy!"

Ray's applause was joined by everyone, kind of one at a time, and Davy and Sally both turned red when it continued, even my sisters hooting along.

Sally looked defeated, and that's not what anybody wanted. I felt bad for her, and got up, sitting back down and pulling her uncomfortably onto my lap. I leaned my head around hers and whispered, "Nobody's makin' fun, Sally. If you don't understand, just join the club." I patted her shoulder and then held onto it. "I'm Mike, Sally. I'll always be me; it's all I'll ever be." She turned her head in a shy smile, and I went on, "There's things I wanna do, Sally...lots of things, and there's somethin' I wanna be." I squeezed my eyes shut for a second, then opened them. "Most of all, I wanna be me, I wanna like bein' me. I want...no...I need to love who I love, and I need to be good to the rest." I sighed, thinking of Dwayne, "Even creeps have their good side, Sally...even creeps."

All drama passed when Davy backhanded my shoulder and said, "Your ice cream's all melted. C'mon, Mike. Don't keep everyone in suspense; tell 'em what you're thinking."

I looked up at him, "Huh?"

He said, "Go ahead. Tell everyone what you told us this morning."

I looked around the table nervously, afraid of being shot down. I mumbled, "I wanna be..." and I stopped. After a moment, I said clearly, "I want to be...a doctor! I'm going to be a doctor!" A surprised buzz went up, and I continued, "I need to go to Vanderbilt; that's where I'll learn how." I looked around helplessly, "I know it's crazy..."

My dad piped in, "It's not crazy, Mike, not crazy at all, just...a real surprise." I looked up, and he was smiling brightly, "Not what I expected at all, but...Jesus, kid; you go for it!"

Suddenly, everyone was cheering me on, which wasn't what I expected. I looked from face to face, smile to smile. Intense smiles, teary-eyed in the case of my mother, wide-eyed from my brother and sisters, but smiles nonetheless. Encouragement, needed encouragement, not the doubt I expected, not from anyone. Davy was back to leaning against the wall, arms folded in front of him, his head tilted to one side, with a smug little smile on his face. Our eyes locked, and I wondered how Davy had known what the reaction would be, how he knew I wouldn't be laughed at.

Davy did laugh at my stunned stare, and tugged at the corners of his mouth with his fingers to indicate that I should be smiling myself, which of course made me smile immediately. Once I started, I couldn't stop. I looked back around, returning smiles this time, not feeling like a kid with an idea bigger than his pants.

Doctor Waters! It sounded so good in my head, so good coming from people's mouths. Maybe I'd be Doctor Mike if I ended up working with kids, which felt appealing, but I wasn't ready to decide anything beyond getting into Vanderbilt. I could do it, I was certain I could. All I had to do was keep the fuzz out of my brain and learn, learn, learn. The thought made me smile to myself, but I'd have to earn, earn, earn, too. That wasn't lost on me, because I knew about what it was costing Jed. Oh, Lord. It was lots of money, way more than my family could afford, and my sisters would be right behind me with college needs.

There was a lot to do, a lot to learn about scholarships and such, and I wanted to start right away. There was a brain trust right next door, too, and that's where I wanted to be; with all those people who had made it through college, even two doctors. I couldn't, though. I couldn't just walk out when everyone else was talking to and about me, stroking my ego, giving me more confidence in myself. I was almost delirious with happiness just knowing that my family...my whole family believed in me. I basked in it and answered a million questions that hadn't been asked before, because this was new to all of us.

We probably talked about me for about an hour, and somewhere along the line Jed stopped by to see Sally, so the conversation finally turned to other things, even though I had questions for Jed. Jed was so tickled that I'd actually decided something...anything...and that it was about my future, that he almost forgot about Sally being there, but her presence insinuated itself soon enough. They had planned to do 'something', and that turned out to be heading next door with us to pick brains, my questions and Sally's.

What a mind-boggling evening it turned out to be! When we finally extricated ourselves from my house, we could see that Jack's old place was dark, so we walked back to the barn. I talked to Davy along the way, telling him what Sally hoped to learn, and what I hoped to learn, knowing that he'd have to make the introductions. He was holding my hand, and he squeezed it, "Let's just hope they're not all drunk, then."

It was quite a scene when we got there. Everybody was in the big living room, and they were everywhere there, sitting, standing, on the floor, leaning against walls. Lots of different conversations were going on, and it was crowded enough that we had to go in single-file. Things quieted down when some people noticed us, and the sudden quiet from one little group would make another look to see what was going on, and it was suddenly very quiet.

Davy, in front of the rest of us, said, "Hi. I don't know who-all met who last night, so here goes." He took my hand and pulled me beside him, "This is Mike from next door. He's my best friend." He turned and smiled at me, asking, "Should I tell them?"

I nodded in embarrassment. "He just told his family, so I'm telling you. Mike wants to be a doctor, he's got it decided in his head, so..." he looked around until he spotted Dr. Forrester and Mary, "run for your lives if you don't want a jillion questions." He gave me a gentle shove forward, and I was met by smiles all around, a very surprised look from Tim.

Davy introduced Jed as my friend from down the street, Matt as a jerk that they all knew anyhow, which got a laugh, Joey as my cousin from Virginia, Ray as my brother, then when he got to Sally, he said, "This is Mike's cousin Sally. Sally's special. When she learned that Mike was...in a...um relationship with another guy, instead of freaking out, she went and learned things. She's now..." he turned to her, and she whispered in his ear, "the vice president of her school's GSA, and she wants to make it better than it is." I had turned around to watch Davy, and he seemed a little nervous, "Sally's looking for history, guys, and she wants to know...I don't know...I guess, basically how this room full of people can happen, how she can make it happen in other rooms."

Davy smiled, first at me, then around. "I love all of you, but you know that. Sally needs to know how that can be, and I can't really answer it. I know the stories, but I wasn't there at the beginning. I know why I personally don't think sex..." he blushed, and everyone laughed, "I mean sexuality doesn't count on your scorecard, but that's the way I was brought up." He grinned at me, "Sorry, Mike, I meant brung up."

I laughed, and everyone else did, too. Davy had this way about him, of getting right to the point, but not leaving that point so sharp that people would be afraid of it.

The voices picked back up, and the different gay people there kind of came together. Sally and I sat on the floor, side by side, both interested, though for mostly different reasons. A lot of other people joined us to listen, and Sally began probing, almost as well as Dwayne would have.

We heard lots of stories, different but similar. Little boys at first, learning how to pee standing up, maybe even hit the toilet, that little thing in their hands nothing more than equipment to expel water. Then, with adolescence, even earlier in some cases, the slow advent of early sexual feelings started. Even some straight people there admitted to same-sex attractions at some point, but it was more like any-sex when you heard it and sorted it out. They had just been kids, fooling around and experimenting with whoever was available.

It seemed that early teens was when realization dawned, at least increased curiosity. In most of their cases that was when the fear set in, the self-denial, the lying, the making believe they were something they weren't. They felt alone at that point, they were alone. No resources to explain things, nothing. The word gay was just coming into usage as a synonym or adjective for homosexual, and these guys had precious few sources of information. They had to learn what ailed them through the flat language of dictionaries, and for the most part they thought it was an ailment, a condition, something they weren't responsible for, and had no control over.

No information, nothing to learn except that another 'pervert' had been arrested or something, nothing to feel good about. Every one of them had felt guilty, like they were misplaced in this world, one-of-a-kind creatures with no sense of belonging.

Then, for this particular group of guys, Barry happened. He was a man when they were still kids who didn't know each other yet, but a few of them knew Barry: Dave and Tim to be specific, and they liked and respected him as a man before they knew he was gay.

For Dave, especially, that brought a new perspective. When he learned that Barry was gay, he had to re-think a lot of things, and he did. He decided he liked Barry the man for who he was, even before he had any real sexual awareness of his own.

There were lots of stories, not many of them very pretty. Rafe was my new hero, because his story was a lot like mine. Not smarter than mine, nor exactly like it, but he broke the barriers for the rest of them. Like me and Jack, when he figured he was gay he just told people, and it got around. He survived a whole year of harassment and fights all on his own, friendless except for a few drug jockeys he hung around with.

Rafe met Dave Devino on a school bus, just happenstance, and they didn't have any good intentions. Rafe introduced Dave to drugs, and that was their relationship, other than Dave told Rafe he didn't mind that Rafe was gay.

Listening, it was hard for me to picture Dave at my age, all full of anger, all ready to unleash it on whoever was unlucky enough to invoke his rage. What Dave called 'love taps' had broken jaws and noses, caused permanent hearing loss, and...I don't know...it was kind of a vicarious thrill to hear about it, how it made a small bunch of gay kids okay with themselves, okay with the world. There was a lot more to it; Ken's place and Ken's friends, the love and guidance available to those guys when they were teenagers. It all added up, and I was with ten gay men and about thirty other people who loved them.

Then, beyond when they were kids, the body count among their gay acquaintances, that belied their own successes in life, started to come out. Fear ended up in suicide in some cases. Rejection by family in others. Bashed one too many times ended up in suicide for some. Bashed equaled death or disability for still others. Still others were gone from their lives owing to things like cancer, accidents, fires, things that had nothing at all with whether they were gay or not.

AIDS, though, that disease had claimed the lives of over a hundred of their friends, collectively, and I think they had their fingers crossed when they said that number. They'd grown up at exactly the wrong time, become young adults just when the disease hit its stride, and nobody knew anything about it yet, nor the horror it would become in their world.

They'd been forewarned, albeit for different reasons. A much younger Dr. Forrester had warned them all that any sex not intended to produce a baby was best performed using a condom. These guys had all gotten that message, either directly from the doc or from each other, and none of them would consider 'sex without latex', as Ronnie put it.

Ron was a funny guy, the life of the party, but when we found ourselves alone together, getting something to drink in the kitchen, I saw the more thoughtful side of him. He said, "Dave and Tim told me about Jack. I think I know how you must have felt...going through the year you did, then just losing him. I lost my younger brother in an accident, and I know how much it hurts."

I started to say, "I'm sorry to..."

Ron cut me off, shaking his head sadly, "It was a long time ago; I'm not looking for sympathy. Dick drowned the day I left for college." He looked wistful, "It was supposed to be the best day of my life. My dad picked me up, and we were all kind of emotional when I was leaving. It was a long day's drive, and Dad was impatient to get going. The only good thing about that day was that I hugged my mother and brother before we left, told them both that I loved them."

Ron had a tear in his eye, and he brushed it aside with a finger. "We drove for six hours, then when we got to where I had to check in, there was an urgent message to call home." Ron fixed his gaze on me, "I'm going somewhere with this, Mike, just bear with me. My brother had asthma all his life, sometimes bad, sometimes not so bad. After we left that day, he went swimming with some friends, and he had an attack in the water. His friends tried to save him, but they couldn't because he was thrashing so much. Dick drowned in four feet of water, Mike. He could have just stood up if he could have, but he couldn't."

"That's awful!"

Ron nodded, "Yeah, it was awful. We had to drive back, then there was a funeral, and when I finally got to college it was with a hole in my heart." He hung his head, "I loved my brother, Mike. I loved him a lot, and he was gone just like that. I know it's nothing like you and Jack, but in a way it is."

I just stared.

"Mike, if your time with Jack was like a book, if you had read the last chapter first and knew what was going to happen, you would have still gone and read the first chapters. You'd have to. All the 'might have been' and 'could have been' things don't really matter." Ron got serious tears in his eyes, "You'll always have those first chapters, and you can read them over and over again, rejoice in what you once had. You'll always have that last chapter, too, and you can't re-write it." He sniffed, "Bad things come out of the blue, just like good ones do."

Ron put a gentle hand on my shoulder, "You had something, Mike. It'll always belong to you. I have my brother's book in my head, and I look at a chapter whenever I need to. I keep him with me by doing it. I saw the articles about Jack Murphy, and you're doing the same thing, in your own way." He tightened his grip on my shoulder, "People die, Mike. Love doesn't. It can't."

I smiled at Ron. I liked him...a whole lot. I asked, "How old was your brother when he..."

Ron smiled, "Fifteen, just like you," then he reverted into character and pinched my cheek, "but not nearly as cute as you!" I laughed, and he steered me back to the others, asking, "Do you like ballroom dancing? I adore ballroom dancing. Do you have plans for Tuesday..."

His voice disappeared into the general din. I gave him a quick hug, and he pinched my ass!"

I left him, both of us laughing. Sally was still in her conversation, so I went looking for Mary and Doctor Forrester. I had my own questions, and they were bunching up in my head. Oh, Lord. Now that I'd said what I wanted, I had to do it, and I had to learn how.

I found Mary with Ken and a few other people, and waited politely for a break in their conversation. Ken noticed me, and said to Mary, "Don't look now, but there's a boy doctor right behind you." He smiled up at me, "Big ambitions, huh, Mike? I kinda had you figured as a pyrotechnics expert, but that's just me."

I didn't know the word, and my confusion was showing when Mary turned around, smiling. She giggled, "Fireworks, Mike...you know. boom, boom, boom, BLAM!" She patted Ken's knee absently, "My husband lives for them, but that doesn't mean you have to." She pulled her feet from the ottoman they were on and gestured, "Sit."

I did, and I was right in front of her. She had the warmest smile. "I was your age, Mike...when I knew." She giggled, "I...it's not a decision, not something that can even be discussed, you just know, like it's a revelation. Am I right?"

I nodded happily. Not a decision, not a choice, but something that had to happen. Mary understood. I could see it. "Learn everything, Mike. Your science and math grades will help get you in, but language skills, sociology, art, history...you need the depth to pull you through. Not so much to study medicine, but to help you deal with the work, the things you'll have to learn, the things you'll have to miss out on."

"Let me sit, dammit!" We all looked to see Doc Forrester, a drink in each hand, trying to displace Ken from his chair. With a mighty wave of the doctor's butt, Ken went flying onto the floor, where he pulled himself up and sat like a kid might, his knees up and his arms tight around his legs. Doc occupied his chair, putting one drink down on a little table, and taking a mighty swig from the other one. His eyes were merry, "Ahh!" He smiled, "I drink for effect. Where are we? What'd I miss?"

Everyone chuckled, and Ken slapped Doc's knee, "You drink to get drunk, just like everyone else. Who are you kidding?"

Doc smiled, "Like I said, I drink for effect." He stared at me, searching, then he smiled. "It's tough, Mike, at least if you don't have a pile of money at your disposal. You'll be thirty or older before you earn your first honest dollar as a doctor. Between now and then, you'll never eat right, never sleep at all, never have a life beyond striving."

Mary inserted herself, "Gerry's right, but don't let him discourage you." She smiled at me, "I spent many hours at menial jobs, just trying to realize a dream, before I ever sat at my paying desk." Mary rocked her head back and forth a little, holding my eyes with her own, "It's not easy, Michael, not easy at all." Her face brightened, "It's worth it, though. All that labor, all that study, all that humiliation...it's worth it. When you get that degree, that license to practice, you're a humble person."

Doc Forrester laughed, "Yeah, humble and poor."

I snickered, "I think I'm used to that part. I need to know how much money? How long?"

Doc said, "Lots of money, Mike. It costs a lot more now than when I went through, but the outgo is endless. I'm an internist, Mike, internal medicine. I've had two wives and five kids." He looked over at me, sadly. "My children are my friends now, but they were never my kids, not in any real sense. I sired them, I paid for them, but I never really had time to know them. By the time we were settled financially and I had free time, they were almost grown."

Mary nodded knowingly, "Relationships are a hazard for people treating bodies. Psychiatry, psychology, research, those are mostly day jobs, at least if you're in private practice. Emergencies happen, but they're rarer."

I looked at Mary, "You never had kids?"

She giggled, "I didn't have to...I married one, and there's usually a yard full of little misfits available, should my maternal instincts suddenly flare up."

Ken snorted, "Don't start that. Those little misfits have a way of turnin' out alright."

Mary looked around the room, her eyebrows raising when she spotted certain people, and smiled wistfully, "They do have that habit, don't they." She smiled right at Ken, "I wonder why that is?"

Ken smiled back and shrugged, then crooked his finger at his wife, indicating that she should join him on the floor. When she got up, I was reminded of what a little woman she was, but I remembered stories Tim and Dave had told, stories about circles of goodness. Ken and Mary had held theirs together, and taught generations of kids how to find their own circles. I was learning second-hand, and my life was already better. There weren't really any rules other than friends stuck together no matter what. I was getting cheered on because I said I wanted to be a doctor, but I bet the cheers would have been just as loud, just as sincere, no matter what I chose to do, as long as it was something gainful.

Ken wasn't a big man, Mary was a little woman, but in a lot of minds they were important people. People with a huge gift to give, and I was sharing in that gift, even by long distance.

I smiled at them, and turned my attention back to Doc Forrester, asking every question I could think of about getting into and through medical school. He was helpful and funny at the same time, and we both had fun while I learned a lot.

He was getting pretty tipsy, though, and it eventually ended up in a joke session. The laughter around us drew other people over, and it was soon a party. I gave up my chair to Dave's mother and sat on the floor, listening and laughing. Of course, with Tim there you didn't have to be close enough to hear the jokes to know when to laugh. I swear, his laugh could dim the lights. When he got going, he shook so much you'd start to think he needed hospitalization. It really had to hurt to laugh that hard, and I guess it did. After awhile, he said, "I gotta get out of here. C'mon, Mike, let's talk."

I looked at him, and he seemed serious as he got to his feet. I followed him through the dining room into the kitchen, and both rooms were full of people. We had to make small talk along the way, and a few people followed along with us. There was Dave, Artie and Jerry, and Tim led us out to the office area for some privacy. They were all joking around, being friendly, but I still felt that I was being singled out for something.

When we went into the office, Jerry closed the door behind us, while Tim and Dave cleared off a small table. They pulled the four chairs there around it, and Dave sat on one of the computer tables while the rest of us took chairs. I was getting nervous, because I had no idea what was going on. Everyone was looking at me, like they were trying to figure out something from it. Dave finally said, "Who wants to start?"

They all looked around, then Jerry, who was Matt's dad and the one man I didn't really know, said, "I guess I should. I'm the stranger here, and it's probably better coming from a stranger." He turned to me and smiled nervously, which made me more nervous myself. "I'm hearing good things about you, Mike...very good things." He coughed, then went on, "Matt says you're 'way cool', and he's kind of fussy about his friends."

He hesitated, looking around again, getting nods. "It's okay, probably even good, to be fussy about choosing friends. Family, that's different. You don't get to choose your family..." he looked around again, then smiled more confidently, "unless you're us."

I didn't know what he was getting at, and I raised my eyebrows in a question. Jerry said, "Our families were all messed up in one way or another. Something was always no-good. Davy, Tim and I were pretty good friends for awhile, then Artie came along to mess things up." He smiled sadly at Artie. "Dave took off, and that really screwed everything up for a long time." He grimaced, "Listen, Mike. Putting it back together made us realize how important we were to each other, how much it hurt to miss that one friend, especially when we didn't know what happened."

I just stared, fascinated, but wondering where it was leading to. Jerry continued, "Then we found Dave again. Tim saved his life from drowning, just like you did with your friend." He made a sad face, "It was a long time before Dave really came back, and when he did he still had a lot of baggage." He looked up at Dave and asked, "Does Mike know everything?"

Dave shook his head, "No. I'll tell him someday, if you think it's important."

The guys looked around at each other, eventually shrugging like it probably didn't matter. Jerry went on, "Anyhow, Dave was back, and he and Timmy were together. Things were looking up, but it turned out that Artie's connection went deeper than anyone had thought. Dave's mother took Artie into their home, and I think that's where we really found ourselves."

Jerry stood and paced for awhile, then turned to me. "None of us had backgrounds to brag about, Mike. Dave's dad died young, my folks didn't care about me, Tim's dad was a drug addict. We were lost kids, hanging in there mostly by Ken's grace. We were pulling along, but Ken and his friends showed us how to stay together, to find what we needed through other people, even if our own families couldn't give it to us."

He smiled, "Heh, they weren't really overt about it, not a lot of lessons, they just let us have so much fun being good that there wasn't much time for us to get into trouble. Then Artie came into Dave's life, and Dave disappeared from ours." He sat back down, leaning right into my face. "We all hated Artie...hated him...for what almost happened to Dave. Then, one by one, we learned about Artie's life, how what should have been his best years were totally separated from any reality you'd want to imagine." Jerry smiled at Artie and patted his wrist, then turned back to me. "When we met Artie, the person, he was hard not to like. Sincere, but so naive you just wanted to smack him sometimes."

Artie interrupted, "I sold drugs, Mike. I made money, lots of it, by helping people screw up their lives, and I was blind to the harm I was inflicting."

Jerry sat back in his chair, "Well, let's not go there, okay? Mike's heard that part." He looked at me, a soft smile on his face, "Artie believed that Dave's family was his. He'd grown up with Dave's father and uncle, pictures of Dave and his sisters. When Dave's mother took Artie in, it wasn't anything we could argue with anyhow, but Artie needed a family. It was Tim at first, his father an addict while Artie was a dealer, but Tim saw something...felt something, and he adopted Artie as his brother. Dave's mother was suddenly Tim's and Artie's mother, too, and I didn't get left out. We were brothers because we wanted to be brothers, and nothing could stop us."

I said, "That's beautiful..."

Jerry said, "There's more. That's when we all got serious about life, about building futures. We still had fun, tons of it, but we started working harder, started defining goals for ourselves, started thinking ahead instead of just dreaming ahead. That's when we really became important to each other, like our own support group. What we couldn't figure out among ourselves, we had lots of adults to ask, the people who had been looking after us all along, though we never thought of it like that before." He grinned, "We were the golden boys, Mike. Happy where we'd been sad and angry, confident where we'd been afraid, loving when we'd been afraid of it for too long. We were so sure of each other that we just couldn't fail"

I liked the story, I really did, but I wasn't sure why I was hearing it, and I must have had a question on my face, because Tim poked Jerry's arm gently.

Jerry smiled, "Oh, yeah. There's more." They all looked at me, smiling hopefully. "I said you can choose your friends, but not your family, remember? Except us?"

I nodded.

Jerry got a merry look in his eyes, "That's still true. We get to pick family, and you don't. You've got a nice, solid family as it is." His smile brightened, "Ours just isn't big enough, so we all think we should adopt you." He looked around, "What? As uncles?" The other guys mumbled that uncles was good, and Jerry smiled back at me. "See how it works, Mike? We get to choose, and you don't."

I started laughing in confusion. "Me? I don't get it. What's goin' on?"

Tim got up and stood behind me, his hand on my shoulder. "It's family business, Mike. You're helping to do something useful with the dirty money, and there's more of that in a suitcase for you. We've never spent as much as a penny of that money on ourselves, and we never will. You won't either, and I know you won't. That's bad money looking for good purpose, and that's all it'll ever be."

I was even more confused, and it must have shown. Dave stood and said, "There's one more box, Mike. Clean money, money that was earned by work," He snickered at Artie, "even though the work may have been a little nefarious, it was done in earnest."

Total confusion, "What's it got to do with me?"

Dave said, "You want to be a doctor, to go to Vanderbilt. Davy told us how adamant you are about it, and we could all see it tonight." His smile came on like a sunrise, "We want to see that happen. College costs a lot of money these days, a whole lot. The schoolwork's hard enough without working ten jobs to pay for it, taking years off to build up a war chest. You're talking eight...ten, maybe twelve years of university, depending on the specialty you choose."

I said woefully, "I know that. It's pretty scary."

Tim said, "The work, the things you have to learn, are scary enough. We're adopting you for a good reason, Mike."

I looked around at him, and he laughed at the quizzical expression that I knew was on my face. "What's that?" I asked.

Tim leant down and gave me a hug. "There's something like eighty-five grand in that box."

Artie corrected, "Eighty-seven and change."

Tim said, "It's yours, Mike. All of it."

I gasped, and Dave added, "It won't pay for everything, Mike, not even close. You'll get scholarships, and I'm a past master at figuring those out. You'll have your own money, your parents will pay part. You can work summers, borrow the rest." His soft eyes caught mine, "It won't be a cake walk, Mike, but when you get that last degree you'll at least have the strength left to go out and doctor properly."

I was totally stunned, and gasped out, "What about you? What about your own kids?"

Jerry smiled, "I think we're covered. Artie and I have both done well."

Speechless, I just looked around, finding nothing but hopeful smiles. Honest smiles from honest men, smiles intended to turn my dream into an endeavor. I tried to smile back, but I got choked up and started leaking big tears instead. New uncles? No way. They were angels, no doubt about it, not even a little, tiny doubt.

Things were quiet while I pondered what was going on, still leaking tears like a waterfall. I head Tim whisper, "See what I said?"

Jerry's voice responded, also in a whisper, a happy one, "A body could get tired of someone who's always right, Timmy." He snickered, "But you're always right in such good ways."

I looked up, wiping my eyes. Tim and Jerry were smiling at each other, and Artie was smiling at me. Dave was behind me, and he said quietly, "Stand up, Mike. There's one more thing." He tugged at my elbow.

I stood, and turned to face him, his huge smile. "Even teachers can hug relatives," he said, as he pulled me to him. A giant bear hug, my chin on his shoulder, Dave kissing my hair, me kissing his stubbly cheek. It was a moment so right, so overdue, that I just hung on, and Dave did, too. That scent, that feeling of gentle power, it was almost overwhelming to me. I wondered how Tim mustered up the courage to let Dave go to work in the morning, then felt foolish for thinking that.

I pulled back and smiled at Dave. It was the same confidence that let my parents go to separate jobs, that let parents send their kids off to school in the morning. They'd come home, almost always, and for the first time since Jack died, that thought didn't send me into a crying fit. Ronnie had been so right. I had Jack, my book about Jack, right in my head, and I could look at it any time I wanted to.

Dave and I were interrupted. Other angels wanted to hug me, to affirm. I got kisses and hugs from each of them, and they all felt good. A family that hugged felt good, even if I was adopted. Tim's hug was especially good. He whispered, "If I ever could have a son, I'd hope that he'd be just," he tapped my head gently, causing a knock, "like," knock, "you." knock.

I pulled back a little, so I could see his happy face, then buried my own in his shoulder. I somehow felt that Dave was the angel in charge, but Tim was the first one there, the vanguard angel, and he was taking up the rear guard, too. To hear him tell it, he was the guy with the easy life. He made money playing with his hobbies, though he obviously had played well. Tim and Artie were the soloists, the businessmen who did things on their own, and they both done well, though in different ways.

Jerry and Dave worked for other people, Jerry for an airline and Dave for the school system. They had bosses, people to answer to, but they were their own men, men that people would and could respect.

Jerry had hugged me warmly, too, kissed my forehead and welcomed me to the family. He was the kind of person who just insinuated himself into your life. I wasn't there yesterday, but today is what counts, so it's still righteous, and I liked him for that alone. He felt like an uncle.

Then Artie, Davy's dad. He was an open book, his shame behind him, his happiness right out front. He was, for his age, the most innocent man I'd ever met, totally open to new things, free like a kid to say what he thought of those things. Like, not-like, or "Let's do it again."

I would have loved Davy's parents just for producing Davy, for sharing him with me, but there was more than that. I didn't know the details of Artie's childhood, but I understood that it was pretty brutal. I guess his wife's life wasn't perfect, either. I admired that they could have kids of their own, and do everything to avoid their own parents' mistakes. They'd managed to raise two smart, respectful, fun-loving boys, one of whom I loved as my best friend. Artie could be funny, too. I asked why I was getting the box of money instead of someone else.

He snickered, "Mama always hoped for a doctor in the family."

I stared at him. He chuckled again, "I'll be so glad to get that box out of my life."

I kept staring, wondering how a box of money could be particularly bothersome.

He smiled, "It's going to sound sick, but money wants to rot, all by itself. Keeping it fresh and usable really takes some work." He hugged me a little tighter, "Call me, I have some ideas on how you can change the cash into a bank account."

Dave overheard, putting a hand on each of our shoulders. He grinned, "Always Artie, huh?"

Artie said, "I'm serious. It's not like a whole lot of money. Mike has a few years, lots of people who can put a little money in the bank each week, no questions asked." He looked at me, "Six people in your family, right?"

I giggled, "Yeah, until tonight."

Artie laughed and slapped my shoulder, "Open up six accounts, then. You can all get away with putting like a hundred bucks a week in the bank, nobody will think a thing, no red flags will go up. Then, when the time comes that you need it, your family can gift it to you, up to ten grand a year each. The only taxes you'll pay is on the interest.

I guessed that I was getting good advice. I was already banking the money Tony paid me, and nobody ever asked anything about where it came from. I went with my father on Thursdays, when the bank was open late. Whatever I had, I always held back twenty bucks, and even that was turning into a pile of money in my pocket. I'd spend a dollar or two here and there, but that was just for a soda, pastry, or an ice cream. Money is easier to spend in the summer, and I intended to have some fun with it, but there weren't many places in Morton to show off your wealth.

Dave suggested that we head back to the house. On the way there, he said we'd sit down with my folks after the holidays to explain things, and he wondered how they'd take to the idea. I didn't have a clue as to what they'd think, so I put it on my list of things to worry about when I had time.

When we went back inside the house, there were a few couples dancing on the tiled floor of the kitchen, Jed and Sally among them. I smiled because they looked good together, and they obviously liked each other.

There were snacks laid out on the dining room table, so that's as far as I got. A lot of people were munching on things, and Joey, Davy and Ray were among them. I piled up a plate full with goodies, and joined them where they were standing by a big window. Joey smiled, "Where'd you disappear to?"

I put something in my mouth before I answered, then I wondered what I was eating. It was kind of mooshy, kind of salty and kind of sour. I chewed slowly, hoping I could learn what it was so I could have more. Delicious. Davy noticed me savoring it, and asked, "You like artichokes, too?"

I swallowed, "That's what it was? I didn't even look at it." I licked my lips clean, "Good!"

Davy laughed, and we all started back munching and joking around. Joey was drinking a soda, but Davy and Ray had beers, and I asked where they got them. Davy said, "Wait right here, I'll get you one." He looked at Ray, "You ready for another?"

Ray said, "I gotta pee, I'll go with you."

Joey turned a surprised smile to me, "You like beer? You're allowed?"

I smirked, "Nobody told me I couldn't."

He grunted, "Oh." He looked at me cautiously, "Um, Mike. I thought we'd spend more time together."

I finished chewing a pretzel and said, "I'm sorry, it's just kinda busy. Anything important?"

Joey looked down, "No, just that you were gone all day, and you keep disappearing."

I smiled, "We'll find some time. Let's make some time."

Joey brightened, "That'll be cool. When?"

"Tomorrow? We can ride to town and have lunch at the diner, then go do whatever."

Joey smiled, "That sounds good." He looked around, "It's just that I'm meeting all these people, and I don't know how they fit in. You don't know anything about me and my friends."

I grinned, "Let's do it, then. Just you and me, okay?"

Just then, Davy showed up holding a cup of beer out to me, smiling like he knew something I didn't. "What?" I asked, wondering what was up now.

He chuckled, "Nothing." He couldn't contain his grin, and took my cup back before I got a sip, put on the windowsill with his own, and literally leapt into a hug. "Dad told me! You must be freaked out!"

I probably should have been freaked out, and I knew I would be when my brain allowed me to believe it. Actually, feeling Davy's own excitement let me feel it right then. I got a sudden shot of adrenaline and let out a whoop that turned a few heads. I started hugging Davy back, lifting him right off the floor and kissing his cheek.

Suddenly, the sum of money was overwhelming. And they were just giving it to me, enough to buy a decent little place in Morton. And they trusted me not to do that, but to use it to help with years of hard work. God, the feelings running through me right then. I felt trusted beyond belief, but even more than that, I felt cherished, like everybody I knew was on my side. They wanted me to realize a dream that was brand new even to me, a dream that only took form that same morning. Dream's the wrong word, it was a calling. Fulfilling that calling was the dream.

I found myself suffocating Davy, and when I realized it I backed off a few inches, not letting him go, just enough that his lungs could work. He snickered, "If my brother is my cousin, does that make me my own uncle?"

Instead of trying to sort that out, I giggled, "Yup," then kissed him on the cheek again. Taking a cue from Ronnie, I pinched Davy's ass, and he pinched back, causing both of us to start laughing.

Poor Joey was there, and he had to watch Davy and me fool around like that. Then it struck me what he was seeing: Davy and me hugging, kissing and playing grab-ass right in front of him. I literally jerked away from Davy, leaving him with nothing but a surprised smile. I was still looking at him, and I rolled my eyes repeatedly in Joey's direction until Davy got the message.

Davy grinned at Joey, "We're not weird, Joe...not like that anyhow. We're just plain weird...I mean, like normal weird!"

I turned to Joey, just in time to catch his little smile, which was shy and confused at the same time. It made me feel bad for him. I looked back at Davy, "Listen, I promised Joey some time tomorrow. We hardly know each other anymore." I tried to ask if it was okay with my eyes, and Davy got it.

"Yeah, no problem. I should go to town with my folks anyhow. They want to see things I didn't see, so it'll be fun."

I smiled, "Thanks, man," as Davy handed me my beer again.

Joey leaned in, asking, "Can I have a sip?"

I held the cup out to him, "You never tasted beer before?"

He took a sip and grimaced, handing me back the cup. "Yeah, I tasted it." He grinned, "I thought it tasted like piss then, and it still does."

I arched my eyebrows. "You should drink a whole one, it gets better after awhile."

Joey grinned and reached for the cup, which I handed to him. "Thanks, Mike." He guzzled about half of it, smiled, and tipped it up to his mouth again.

I'd been had! I grinned, "Good piss, Joey?"

He finished the cup, burped, and grinned, "Not bad. Can we get more?"

I wagged my finger, "Promise you won't wet the bed?"

Joey giggled, "I'll wear a diaper. Where's the beer?"

I laughed, and we went to find the beer, which was in the entrance between the barn and the kitchen. There were guys hanging around it, but none of them lifted an eyebrow when we filled our cups. Two of them were Eddie and Bax, and they'd had more than a few beers. They weren't drunk, but they were in a heck of a talkative mood.

Bax clamped a hand on my shoulder and said, "Ronnie told me that you two had a nice talk."

I smiled, "Yeah, we did. He's a real nice guy."

Bax raised an eyebrow, "Really, now? He was my first boyfriend, you know."

I stuttered, kind of surprised, "N-no, I didn't know that." I also didn't know if Joey wanted to hear about it, but when I looked, he seemed interested enough. I turned back to Bax, eyeing Eddie at the same time. "I...you're so different than Ronnie. I mean...uh..."

Bax smiled, "It was that difference at first, that's why I liked him, why he liked me."

Bax went on to tell me how he met Ron, how they came together, and it was a really funny story, even without the love interest. They had stayed together through high school and the following summer, then headed in different directions for college. Bax went to Tampa for engineering, and Ronnie to Boston for design. Adam also went to school in Boston, paying his way as an in-demand model for men's clothing. As things happen sometimes, Eddie went to Tampa for his baseball training, and stayed nearby playing minor-league ball.

Bax was a nice man. He talked while pouring beer for anyone who came by wanting one, making sure they found anything else they were looking for, and it wasn't even his house. "Eddie and I loved each other before we ever met Adam or Ronnie," he said, "but we were young and stupid, we never said anything. Eddie finally tried to tell me, and I went ballistic." His smile failed him, "It wasn't pretty, guys, and by the time I admitted to myself that I was gay, Adam and Eddie were already together, and very much in love." He grimaced, "I was like the third wheel for a year, and finding somebody like Ronnie was more of a mission on my part than anything else.

Bax took a sip of beer and smiled, "I couldn't have gotten luckier. Ronnie was the sweetest, gentlest kid I ever met, and," he grinned, "we were both scared absolutely shitless of each other. He got animated, "We didn't know what to do with each other, didn't know if any of the things we heard were even true." He smiled at a blushing Joey and patted his shoulder, lowering his voice in fond memory, "We figured it out, though, a little at a time." He leaned into Eddie a little, looking satisfied, "Those were some incredible years. I was already out where I lived, and Ronnie didn't want to hide in a closet, so we made no bones about being a gay couple."

Eddie chuckled behind him, "Interesting choice of words."

Bax didn't miss a beat, didn't even look around, "I knew you'd think that, and the truth is somewhere far north of the 'no bones' remark."

I started giggling, and so did Joey. Bax chuckled, "We had friends, a really nice group of them, including Eddie and Adam. Everyone else was straight...well, Adam knew some other gay kids where he lived, but they figured more into his life than ours. That's where we know Dave and Tim from, though, and we learned from them. We learned where we were safe and where to be just two more guys." He grinned, "We learned how to kick ass, too...even Ronnie, so we weren't much worried when the occasional wise-ass came around."

I kept taking glances at Joey, but he still seemed interested, and Bax was a pretty good story teller. I asked, "So, howcum you...uh..."

Eddie smiled happily, "Switched partners? Heh, I don't know that we really did. We all loved each other. I still had feelings for Bax. Adam and Ron? They were lechin' on each other since the day they met."

Bax added, "That's because they're both pathetic."

Eddie slapped his shoulder, "The day you can say, with a straight face, that you didn't want into Adam's pants is the day you can call somebody else pathetic."

Bax winked at me and Joey, "That's not fair. Dead cats want in his pants."

Eddie laughed, "Anyhow, separation is what finally changed things, or a different togetherness, I guess you could call it."

Joey laughed, "Just like halftime, when you change sides?"

We all laughed, especially Eddie. He grinned, "Yeah, Joey...just like halftime." Eddie put his hand on Bax's shoulder, laughing, "That's funny."

Bax grinned, "At least it wasn't musical chairs." We giggled again. His smile became more gentle, "We were all true to love. It was a matter of proximity, maybe maturity. Eddie and I saw each other more than we saw Ron and Adam. They saw each other more than us." He shrugged, smiling helplessly.

Eddie said, "It wasn't a falling out or anything, more like a realignment...the way things should have been all along."

Bax laughed, "Yeah. Nobody got mad, nobody at all." He craned his neck to look at Eddie and smiled, "Things just work out the way they're meant sometimes."

Joey was surprising me, "You didn't fight?"

Eddie smiled, "No fights."

Joey said, "I don't believe this."

It was Bax's turn to smile, "Joey, I loved Eddie since I was maybe ten. He loved me, too, we just never said it. When we were your age, we each found someone else, but our love was still there. We kind of hid it from each other, but it was always there. I was jealous of Eddie and Adam, and he was jealous of me and Ron. It wasn't overt, and it took a long time to realize. When we got geography in the middle, that's when things got real. I loved Ron as much as a person can love anybody, and Eddie was the same way with Adam" He looked down and shook his head slowly, then looked back up, "It just wasn't perfect."

Eddie said, earnestly, "When we separated, that's when it got clear. I still loved Bax...always did, but now he was where I was, and Adam was where Ronnie was. He looked, clear eyed, at me, then at Joey. "Things just made more sense after awhile. I still loved Adam, but Bax was right there. Adam loved me, but Ronnie was right there!" He looked up, grumbling, "How to put it?" He paused, then smiled at us, "I don't know what to say. The universe lined up one day, and here we are, all friends, all still in love."

His eyes suddenly widened, "Joey! Are you okay?"

Surprised, I looked at Joey. He was going to barf, and I pushed him toward the toilet, which he made just in time. I knelt behind him, trying to make sure his aim was true, and Bax and Eddie were behind us, Eddie asking, "How many beers did he have?"

I shrugged, "I don't know...maybe four or five."

Bax laughed, "More than that!"

Joey was funny. He was barfing into the toilet, his head right in there, but he freed up his right hand and held out five fingers, then five again, then folded it and held out three more.

"Thirteen beers, about nine more than I ever had at once," Bax laughed and gave Joey's shoulder a gentle swat. "Not bad, Joey. That's right about where all your secrets come out."


When Joey finally stopped, I jacked him up under his armpits, "Come on, Joey." I suddenly thought of mouthwash, the horrible taste of puking. I had Joey on his feet, sort of, and I passed him over to Eddie to hold while I looked for something fresh tasting to put in his mouth. There was a tiny tube of toothpaste in the medicine cabinet, and I squeezed some out onto Joey's tongue, then told his funnily blank face to work it around in his mouth. He tried, but he started hiccuping, almost violently, then he had to puke again.

It took awhile, but Joey finally calmed down and seemed like he could walk. I smiled my embarrassed goodnights to Eddie and Bax,

Then I had to almost carry Joey to the kitchen for our coats, and onward to the safety of Jack's room.

On the way, he puked one more time, then, me holding him upright, pissed something of a record volume. He passed out after that, and I really had to carry him inside and to Jack's room. I laid him on the floor and then opened up a sleeping bag.

Before I rolled him into it, I pulled off his sneaks. Then, when he was covered up, his head on a pillow, I looked at my drunken cousin for a minute. It was funny that he was all drunk, sad at the same time.

I considered going back to the party and decided to just hit the sack myself. I had my picture of Jack against the wall, so I gave him a kiss, promised to write to him soon, took off my clothes and got into the sleeping bag next to Joey. Before I tried to go to sleep, I leaned over and kissed right where his hair met his sweaty forehead.

"Peace, Joey."

My cousin...my friend. I wondered what he'd remember in the morning.

I knew a few things I'd remember: things I'd never, ever forget.

© Copyright, 2018-2020, the author. All rights reserved.