Plan B: A Degree of Difference

by Driver

Chapter 2

My father hesitantly started to stand from the bench he'd been sitting on, and he was looking as intensely at me as I was at him. He looked different somehow, although I couldn't put my finger on it. His face was inscrutable at first, his expression seemingly trying to find a home, and trying all the ones he knew in the process.

He cocked his head a little, and his lip started quivering, and he took a few hesitant steps toward me. "Evan," he croaked, and then he practically dove on me, pulling me so tight to him I thought I might break. He was sobbing at first, and I didn't know what to do. I tried to give myself some breathing room by backing out of his grip, but he wasn't having it. I ended up putting my arms around his back and patting him with both hands until he relaxed a little.

My emotions caught up with me just about when Dad got control of his, so we stood there a while longer as sobs wracked my own body.

I'm sure people were looking at us and wondering what was going on, but it couldn't have mattered less. A tearful hug from my dad was something I'd never had or even considered in all my life, and the reality of it was overwhelming to me. All the strength I'd promised to exhibit had fled me, and I probably felt exactly like I did the first time I fell off a bike and he comforted me.

That's not a bad analogy, because I felt like I was five again, helpless to help myself despite a brain that was struggling to regain control.

I did finally quiet down, and I wiped my eyes on my sleeve, trying to get a clear look at my father.

Older, that's why his look was so different. More gray hairs, more lines ... he looked somehow smaller, too.

We were interrupted by the clearing of a throat, and we both turned to see a very large female officer there. She was intimidating at first, but her face was soft and kind looking, and she smiled. "You're the Smileys," she said matter-of-factly. She looked at my father and said, "There's nothing to keep you here. We talked to Evan last night, so you're free to go. Your Sgt. Donovan in Mt. Harman will want to see you so he can close his case." She smiled again, and looked at me, "Is there anything else I can help you with?"

I shook my head, and Dad mumbled, "No. I'll call Donovan the moment we get home." He held out his hand, "Thank you. Thank you very much."

She nodded to him, then pointed a finger right in my face, "You're a lucky boy, Evan. Things turn out very differently for most runaways." She smiled, "Now, you run along and work things out with your family so they work for all of you. I don't want to see you again unless you're here to buy tickets to our ball."

That made me chuckle, and then she was gone. I turned an uneasy eye to my father, and he seemed equally uncomfortable. He cocked his head as if in question, and I picked up my bag, then I followed him silently outside. The only thing he said was, "I'm parked over here," as he pointed to the right.

I felt squeamish, and I think my father did, too. He was a man who always had a brisk walk, and right then he seemed to be trudging. With my heavy bag that suited me, but it was still out of character for him. He had his key out, and popped the trunk loose when he could see the car.

The car was another thing. He had always loved that car, and kept it looking like new. Now it looked like the paint had faded, and even the windows weren't very clean. The trunk, normally empty, was full of boxes and packages and things, though there was plenty of room for my bag on top of it all. I closed the lid over it, and walked around to the passenger door just as Dad started the engine. The interior was worse than the exterior, looking not much better than Kevin's ancient Oldsmobile. I had to pick up a wad of papers off the seat and move them on top of more papers on the back seat, and there were papers on the floor, along with a few coffee cups and cellophane wrappers.

When I finally sat down and closed the door, nothing happened. I looked at Dad, and he had his hand a few inches off the wheel, like it hadn't quite made it there, and he was looking straight ahead. "Evan," he finally said, "I have all these things I thought I could just say to you, and right now I can't." His hand gripped the wheel and he still looked straight out the window. "They say you're fine? Healthy? Not abused in any way?"

I croaked, "I'm fine. Nothing bad happened."

He seemed to breathe more deeply for a moment, then he looked like he was going to say something and didn't, then the same thing happened two more times before he managed, "Why, then? Why, Evan?"

I got all teary again, and choked out, "Fear of failure ... " I couldn't go on.

Dad squeezed the steering wheel with both hands, and finally turned to me, a look of anguish on his face. "Get out, Evan." He saw the look of shock on my face and quickly added, "I can't drive right now. Let's find a place to sit."

I started to open the door, and he asked, "Is that what this is all about? Do we understand each other that little?"

"What?" I asked as I got out.

He stood on the other side of the car, "Do we, Evan? I always thought that at least I was clear on things. You just looked like I slapped you when I said ..." His face clouded, "Oh," and his voice dropped to a mumble, "Oh no."

He looked away, then back at me. "I told you to get out, and just expected you to complete the thought for yourself." I stared for a second, and I'm not sure if my expression changed. "All I said was get out, though, no explanation." He looked at the ground and shook his head, "That really fits the situation."

I wanted to say something, but nothing came to mind, and Dad said, "There's a bench over there." I looked where he was pointing, and headed that way. It was a bench by the side of the parking lot, and turned out to be part of the designated smoking area.

Neither of us sat down. I stood there, my hands in my pockets, and Dad had his thumbs in his belt while he paced, glancing at me from time to time, then back at the ground. He finally stopped, looking away from me, and asked, "Why, Evan? Why did you run away?"

I looked his way, and said softly, "You know why."

He said forcefully, though quietly, "I don't know, Evan." Then the first warning sign that he was getting angry came up. His voice wavered, and he said slowly and threateningly, "Don't play games, Evan. Not now." He turned to face me square on, and he said, "I left on a business trip, and you were as happy and excited about making the Honor Society and school getting out as I've ever seen you. Then I come home and you're gone ... just gone, without a trace, and you say I know what's wrong? Don't do it, Evan. I've been ... we've all been living on the edge for months, and none of us has a clue." He practically hissed, "I'm beyond caring, I just need to know what went so wrong."

I knew enough to be wary of my father when he took on that tone of voice. He could still be defused, but if he wasn't, the whole county would hear what came next. I took a step back and said quietly, "You already don't believe it. Why is it so hard to face? At least I'm not a drug addict or a drunk, not some murderer!"

He looked at me like I'd lost my mind. "I'm serious, Dad. I am really, and truly, and honestly gay, and I'm going to live the rest of my life that way. You can deny it all you want, but you can't make it go away. I left so you wouldn't have to see me gay, so you could remember me as a good son." I hung my head, "You can leave me here, I was ready to stay anyhow."

Dad sagged down onto the bench and looked off into space for the longest time, then muttered, "Why didn't I think of that?" He looked at me with confusion all over his face. "Evan ..." he started, then he looked away and breathed for awhile. "Evan ... give me a minute."

He stood up and walked away, and he went clear around the building, because the next time I saw him he was approaching from an alleyway on my other side. He saw me notice him, and he stopped and looked at me for a while, then came closer and looked again, then came back to the bench and sat down.

He was facing away from me again, but the edge was off his voice. "Listen, son. Exactly how was I supposed to know that you think you're gay? Tell me one reason that I should have ever thought you were. Tell me, Evan!"

I couldn't start an answer, because it was suddenly very clear that Bruce had never said a word. Dad looked at me, "You were the one with all the interests, Evan ... so you tell me where I should have seen gay coming up! The sports, the mechanics, the electronics, the idea that English and History are as important to you as science. You always had girls in your gang, and you were always on the phone with them." His hands started working the way they did sometimes, like they were trying to flick an idea off his fingertips. "I'm not ready to hear this."

"That I'm gay?"

"Yes, that you're gay, but more that it's not something more conventional."

"I'm gay."

No response.

"I know I am, it's not something I made up. I'm gay."

Still no response.

"I'm not ashamed of it, it just worked out that way, no different than I have a good eye in baseball, or I can keep a twelve year old lawn mower running. No different than green being my favorite color, for that matter."

He still didn't say anything, so I looked at him. "You have a problem with this, don't you?"

His eyebrows arched a little while he studied my face, and after another long silence he nodded. "I'm sorry, Evan, but you blind-sided me here. I ... I ... I can deal with it, I promise you that. It's just the last thing I expected. Damn!"

We looked at each other warily, and I finally asked, "Do you want me to stay here? I'm good for however long."

He shook his head very slowly, and something like a smile crept into his expression. "No," he whispered, "your mother would kill me."

I waited for him to say something else, and when he didn't I said, "You'd leave me here if it was just you, right?"

He got this incredulous look in his eyes, then closed them, and when they reopened there was a trace of humor there. "Not yet, Evan. Not yet. Tell me about what's been going on. Is there a place to get coffee around here?"

I nodded, "Lots of places."

* * * * * * * *

We talked at an outside table at the coffee shop near where I'd been living. I told my father almost everything, reminding him a lot of times to be quiet and listen, because he was hearing what he couldn't possibly comment on. I knew I'd have to murder Bruce when I got home, and for the really weird reason that he hadn't kept his promise to tell on me. He hadn't said a word all the time I'd been gone, and I had no clue why, and I'm sure my father had no clue that Bruce knew anything, so that put me in a funny position.

If I told Dad that I left because Bruce knew, then he'd be mad at Bruce for living a lie all that time. If Bruce had told Dad about me, then I'd have been the one who was hated.

Dad seemed impressed by my summer, and by the fact that I'd had a job and supported myself, even though he wasn't pleased that I'd lied to get the job. He had a tendency to look ahead of what I'd said, and it was clear that he thought if I'd left because I was gay, it was because I'd come there to be with someone

When I thought my father was up to date on what I'd been doing, about all my deceptions, I still hadn't mentioned Aaron, or even the fact that there was somebody I was interested in.

He hadn't become violent, or even loud, about the gay thing, but I knew it bothered him. I didn't have any idea as to what I could do about that, so I just left it alone. He knew the basics, and I had left nothing wishy-washy about the idea of me being gay. I was, I told him. I was gay, it didn't worry me, and it wouldn't change.

"Evan," my father said, looking levelly at me, "let's leave this gay business aside for a while." I didn't say anything, but he had my attention, "You've done damage, Evan. I mean, you hurt us ... hurt us all ... both as individuals, as a family ... you really marooned us there."

I held back my smile at my father's odd choice of a word, and waited.

"Evan ... Evan," he started, then he looked away, turned back for his coffee, and took his time sipping it before he looked back at me. "Evan, you don't know ... you can't know how you've hurt our family." His eyes turned to tears, "We've tried so hard to find you, looked so many places. Did you ever think of what you left behind?"

I just looked, and he said, "Oh God, Evan. We looked and we looked. We tried everywhere, looked everywhere, tried to think of everything. We knew you left on your own, but that was all we knew."

I looked down and muttered, "I'm sorry."

I heard him mumble, "Yes, you're sorry. Well, let's get you home." There was no malice in his tone.

* * * * * * * *

It was a long, quiet ride. Except for me helping Dad get out to the highway, I couldn't think of anything to say, and it was a road he had to concentrate on, the main reason Riverton wasn't a tourist resort. Traffic was heavy, there were lots of trucks, and we seemed to encounter red lights at quarter-mile intervals.

Boredom got me curious about the mess in the car, and I idly picked up some papers to look at them.

That was a bad move. On two pages, I had parts of two pleas to help find me. The posters I'd seen were like form letters, probably agency things where you just filled in the blanks to save time. These that I was looking at weren't complete, just fragments from the mess on the floor, but they were more personal. One was addressed to a police chief in Colorado, and it was asking for assistance on a tip they'd gotten from someone in his town. The other paper I had was page two of something, but it was similar and had the circumstances of my disappearance.

Things like that took a long time to write, and there had to be dozens of them just on the front floor of the car.

I guess I never envisioned the details of a search for someone. I'd thought they'd call the police, give them a picture of me, and then check in once in awhile to see what was up. There were lots of papers in the car, and they each represented work and time, and the trunk had literally bales of the stuff.

I watched my father drive for a few minutes, and I started to get worried. He didn't look that well, and I wondered what Mom would be like. I don't know that one of them was any stronger than the other, so I couldn't expect my mother to look any better than Dad did.

He said I'd hurt the whole family. I could see that, in general terms, with my older brothers. They'd worry, but probably more for my parents than themselves, or about me personally. We grew up in the same family, in the same house, and I supposed we had brotherly love. There had just never been any closeness, and that was due to the gap in ages. They were reasonably close with each other, just like I'd been reasonably close with Bruce, but there was always the age thing. When I was seven, they were eleven and thirteen, and there's just not a lot in common. The only brother I felt close to was my younger one, Bruce, because we were also two years apart, and that was a tolerable difference most times.

I had to force myself to think about Bruce, because I knew it would set my mind to wondering why he'd never told Dad that I was gay. He was poised to do it the last time I saw him, and I couldn't reason with him at all, and that's why I left to begin with. I knew Bruce, so I knew a few things as fact, without having to hear it from anyone.

He did not decide in a day that being gay was okay, either for me or for anyone else. He didn't decide not to tell to protect my ass, either. He didn't come up with a sudden understanding that being gay was just a variable in the human condition, nor did he infer somehow that it was mathematically some sort of foregone conclusion. He hadn't had time to look under a microscope, nor did he have any of my genetic material that I knew about. I took my comb and toothbrush with me.

No, something had happened to Bruce; something big. There was a remote possibility that he thought he could make money from me bribing him, and that was true enough, but that opportunity followed me out the door when I closed it behind me. I hadn't threatened him, and I never did, so that couldn't have entered his brainy head, but something must have.

The motion of the car, the sun filtering in through the windows, my tiredness from stress and a late night, they all ganged up on me to make me doze, and the second my head hit the passenger window, it came to me.


I wouldn't threaten Bruce, but Chris sure would, and there was enough history between those two that Bruce would listen to Chris. That boy hated pain if anybody ever did, and Chris had no compunctions about dishing it out, especially to Bruce. They didn't hate each other, and they got along most of the time, but Bruce thought Chris was dense about science, which was true enough to keep Chris out of favor.

Chris thought Bruce had a moronic view of people, which was also true. I can't say that Bruce had no heart, because he obviously did. His problem was that his heart was there strictly for pumping purposes, and the things he found real joy in he kept in manila folders. I think I've already described him as cold, but he tended toward the icy side of cold.

He could be amused by human things, and laugh at a joke if it was halfway funny. Slapstick entertained him, and he thought the Three Stooges were hilarious, along with Road Runner cartoons. He wasn't mean either, at least not to the point where he teased other kids, but his indifference to the human side of things worked to make him maddening to most people.

The road from Riverton to Mt. Harman started out as a city street at both ends, and driving past familiar things told me I was almost back home. I looked at Dad, and caught his face just turning from a glance at me, and I suddenly had questions.

I asked, too quietly at first to even get his attention, so I raised my voice, "What should I expect?"

He glanced at me, "What do you mean?"

"You said everything's changed. Tell me how, so I know what to expect."

Dad grimaced, "Evan, we've all been under a lot of strain, and we've all been working hard to find you. Your mother and I still have to work our jobs, so there hasn't been much time for rest. We're tired, Evan, and we're damned near broke, and things have been neglected."

I looked at the floor, the implications of those words sinking in. He went on, "Evan, look at me."

I turned to him, and he shared his glances between the road and me. "Your mother will be walking on air when we get to the house. Please try to keep things on the upside. By that I mean save gay for later, okay? I heard what you said, and I need time to think things over myself, so for now, just come home."

I said quietly, "I can do that. Will she hate me? Is that what you're saying?"

"I honestly have never heard her mention the word, Evan, so I don't know. What I do know is that if she does find it upsetting, if it's the worst news she's ever heard, there is no way that she'll come to hate her favorite son."

That took a moment to sink in, then I turned sharply, "Favorite?" That was news to me. I honestly thought we'd always been treated equally, even though there were lots of times I thought things were unfair.

Dad smiled, "Evan, did either of us ever tell you about the day you were born?"

I had a dim memory of it, "Yeah, I think so. A bike ride, right?"

He nodded, "Yeah, a bike ride. It was really warm for January. You were born the night before, and you came out with no problem. We brought you home in the morning, and you were wide awake, so your mom strapped you into a back pack and we headed out on our bikes. Al was four then, and Matt was six. Mom led the way, and I was right behind her, and there was something about you that I couldn't take my eyes off. Then it came to me. Here you were, less than a day old, and you had this awareness about you, and our whole world seemed to please you to no end. I was charmed, and when I mentioned it, I ended up carrying you so your mom could get to see what I saw."

I somehow found that amusing, "I was an aware baby? Is that not a normal thing?"

Dad chuckled, "I guess it's normal, but you were having fun before we really knew what you looked like. That's what was unusual."

I smiled and looked out the window. We were almost home, and it was comforting to see that things hadn't changed, not big things anyhow. "I wasn't a brat?"

Dad's smile widened, "No, not a brat. You had a great disposition, and some of that probably comes from the fact that by then we were a little less protective. Babies are pretty helpless, but they're not all that fragile, and we had experience by then. We were pretty sure we wouldn't break you."

I looked at Dad, a wary smile on my face, "You gave me freedom at an early age?"

He barked out a quick laugh, "I guess you could say that. Except for your eating habits, you were the easiest of all."

"I was fussy?"

Dad chuckled, "Not especially, but you were strong. Where most babies will tip over what they don't like, or spit it up, you could hit the far wall with your whole dish!"

It seemed bizarre to me, and fascinating at the same time, to be learning my baby behavior when we were so perilously close to home. Still, it was funny, and I could almost picture a two-day-old me learning to throw, and getting rid of something like creamed brussels sprouts at the same time.

I asked, more to keep talking than for any other reason, "So, you were enlightened parents by the time I was born?"

Dad chuckled, "We told ourselves that. Then Bruce came along, and it was back to square one."

We were slowly nearing our street, and I forgot all about it. I felt ominous things around me even though there was no visual evidence of anything unusual. I couldn't see that anything had changed, and I wouldn't have expected any change. The neighborhood had been built out in the early eighties, and almost all of the homes had been custom-built for the original owners. Lots were of various sizes, none more than an acre, and the houses were of many styles.

There were lots of trees, lots of backyard pools, lots of basketball hoops, and lots of kids who lived there, four of them in my house. It was a cared for neighborhood, but mostly the boys who lived in the houses tended things, so it wasn't meticulous like it would be when the parents took over maintenance.

The main road was like an elongated 'O'. It came in from the street for about a mile, curved around at the far end, then turned back into itself almost back at the main street.

It came in along the top of a hill, and there were five streets that headed down that hill to the other end of the 'O', and there were twelve houses on each side of those streets. Like they do in developments, the roads in this neighborhood had names that related to each other. Stonycrest, Rockycrest, you could tell what section of town you were from just from the 'crest' in your street name.

Anyhow, we lived at number one-fourteen Stonycrest Road, which was the second house from the bottom on the right, if you started from the top of the hill.

We had a level yard compared to most in the neighborhood, and that was generally an asset unless a pool uphill let go. That wasn't a common event, but when it happened we were the lowest common denominator, and got the water in our basement, plus the back yard could stay soggy forever.

It was a good place to grow up. No matter how old you were, there were twenty or so kids who'd be your age, and probably in your school, unless they were Catholics or rich enough to be in private school.

I don't know that it was ever a conscious thought in my mind, but where I grew up was definitely an asset in my life, both socially and comfort-wise. I learned from my friends there more than anything, and we tested every limit that ever was imposed on us.

Before Dad turned, he pulled off to the side, took a look at me, then produced a cell phone from his pocket. He flipped it open, pushed a few buttons, then waited, still looking at me. "Hi," he said, and listened for a second. "He's fine. Is the coast clear?" He listened again, "We're at the top of the hill, what's going on?" He made a face, "God dammit! Okay, you make the call, then call me back."

He looked at me and said, "Reporters," like I'd know what he was talking about.


Dad seemed cranky, "Reporters, Evan. You know, like news people?"

I gave him a funny look, so he went on, "Evan, damn it! We used news people to help find you, the papers and the radio and television. Now that you're found, they want the rest of the story. We do have to talk to them, but not before we have some time together." He tapped the wheel with his nervous fingers, "We'll sit right here. Some cops are on their way."

I stared ahead, wondering what kind of monster I'd created. Can't a guy just leave home these days?

It was only a minute, then a cruiser pulled up beside us, and a second one behind us.

The guy in the one beside us said something, then they both turned down our street with their lights all flashing, but no sirens or anything.

After a few moments, my father said, "Get in the back seat, Evan. Lay down so they can't see you."

I hesitated, then I just obeyed silently. I got out of the front and into the back, laid on my face on the seat, and the car started moving, and it wasn't long before I heard the garage door going down, and Dad said, "You're home, Evan."

Safe, I sat up and opened the door, and there was my mother, looking in my direction with a face that belonged to nobody and everybody at the same time. Amazement, I guess, like my sheer existence amazed her, but love too ... concern and caring, a whole range of emotions, and seeing hers drove all of mine directly to the surface.

I'd hurt my mother, and it was plain on her face, and I knew I was doing it when I did it, but I didn't have the first thought about how to fix it right then. I saw her quivering lips move and form 'Evan?' but no sound came out, and in two steps I was to her, whispering, "Mom!" as we hugged. I cried, tears both sweet and acid coming out at the same time.

I was the cause of her pain, yet I was suddenly the end of it. "Mom," I whispered, "I'm so sorry."

She cried, and she shook her head 'no' enough that I noticed it, but she didn't get any words out.

It was a long time before we settled down in the family room, and I was surprised at who was there in the house. Bruce, who hadn't said a word, but hadn't stopped staring at me either. My brother Alton, who should have been starting his second year at Tulane, but I learned later that they'd spent his tuition money on the search for me, and he'd be going to State from now on, and commuting at that. Junior, my oldest brother (Matthew, Jr.), was back in Germany, but only just, after having spent his entire foreign leave at home, aiding the search for me.

There was a lot of staring going on, and not much explaining, and Dad finally went outside to talk to the reporters by himself. Oddly enough, we could watch it on television, because they cut right into the show that was on.

"Mr. Smiley, Mr. Smiley!"

Dad said, "I don't have a statement, but I'll take a few questions." He looked at a man and pointed to him, looking tired but noncommittal.

"You found Evan?" the guy asked. "He's alright?"

Dad said, "Evan is home now, and he seems just fine." He looked around, then said, "Let me say something here. Evan left of his own volition. He put himself into a ... into a new situation, I guess you could say. He had his own reason for leaving home, but you can all polish up your records now. Evan hasn't been exploited, he's not on drugs, he hasn't been abused in any way, and as far as I can see, he's a happy boy. We're a happy family because he's back home."

"Will Evan be making a statement?" somebody asked.

"I don't know," my father said.

"He was right over in Riverton?" someone else asked.

Dad smiled sadly, "That's where he was. Everything else was just imaginations."

The first person asked, "The letter from Asia was imagination?"

Dad chuckled, "I haven't asked yet, but to me that sounds like Evan's imagination." He looked at his watch, "Listen, people. I really appreciate everything you've done, and I hope there's a story for you, but it's not ready yet. Give us time as a family, then we'll talk again, okay?"

There was a murmur, then a voice and face cut in, and some blonde lady said, "There you have it. Evan Smiley, missing since June, is back home, and apparently safe and sound. There are happy endings sometimes. Back to you, Pat."

I stopped paying attention when Dad came in, and my head was spinning anyhow. Newspapers, television, they knew about me being gone, and my engineer of a father had somehow figured out how to use them to help find me.

I was in awe for a moment, then Dad said, "It's time, family. Let's all go in the living room."

He walked down the hall with us following, my brothers behind him and my mother and I clinging to each other in the rear. Dad was looking away from us when we walked in, and I sat with my mother on the couch. There was silence for quite awhile, then my father turned around to face us, tears pouring from his eyes and a quivering smile on his lips. His voice broke into a squeak, "This is so sweet ..."

My older brother stood and comforted Dad, and Bruce finally said something, looking right at me, "Yeah, sweet," he whispered. "I thought you were dead."

I found my voice, "Well, I'm not. I suppose I might have died from surprise, though."

Bruce nervously shook his head, and I tried to question him with my eyes. With most people, that might have worked, but with Bruce it made him look at me like my eyes had suddenly developed a problem.

Everyone noticed that, though, and they were looking at me. I leaned forward, my elbows on my knees and I put my face in my hands, my fingers over my eyes. "I don't know what to say," I said quietly. "I shouldn't have left, at least not like I did, and now I've hurt you." My eyes burned with the tears they were holding back, "I'm sorry, I really am, but I can't make it better because I already did it."

My mother's hand stroked my back gently, "Shh, Evan. You're home now, and that's what matters."

Oh God, that was so unfair of her to say. I pulled my hands off my eyes and sat up, looking around. "I'm glad I'm home," I muttered, "but what matters is that I hurt my own family by leaving. Everything is all turned upside down, and I'm responsible."

I thought for a moment, because nothing had prepared me for this situation. "I ... I'm ..." I coughed to stall, "I just don't believe this," I managed to croak out before I broke down crying.

I felt the worst for Alton, because he was paying the price for my behavior in the worst way. I'd been there when he got that acceptance letter from Tulane, and that was both the one he wanted most, and the one he most feared not getting. When he saw the words on that paper, he was a picture of excitement like I hadn't seen in anyone before or since. Speechless at first, then kissing things like the letter and the envelope it came in, then hugging me so hard I couldn't breathe, then he ran the two miles or so to where my mother worked to show her.

He had wanted Tulane so much that he could taste it, and his smarts and hard work got him in, and I'd managed to take it all away.

I honestly didn't know what to think, or what to say to anyone. I had been pretty sure that my leaving would bubble up some emotions, especially from my mother, and that had bothered me all along. That's all that I ever considered, though, and now look.

Alton was out of Tulane because of me, and a glance anywhere would tell you that the house was upside-down and had been for some time. Where neat used to prevail proudly, there were piles of things, and the things were more evidence of how intensely my family had searched for me.

I hadn't asked, and had resisted thinking about it for as long as I could, but I finally managed, in a thin voice, "Where's Chris?"

To my surprise, Bruce said brightly, "He's wishing he was here, Evan!" He looked at my father, "Can I call him?"

Dad nodded, and I formed even more questions in my mind.

I didn't have the strength to ask them, and an odd silence descended on us. I couldn't find the right word to put on myself right then. Failure didn't work, although I'd failed my own family in a bad way. I didn't feel like a loser either, although I'd treated the people who mattered most to me as if they were losers, and I'd caused loss to Alton for sure, who knew who else.

I was at a loss, and finally said, "I know you're all mad at me, so don't worry about my feelings, just go ahead and say what you want." Heads turned my way, and I pointed at Alton, "You start, you got hurt the most out of this." My eyes clouded, "Oh man, I did not see things going this far. I am so sorry."

Al scowled at me, then his look softened, "It's not so bad, Evan. Reality doesn't always reach what you dream about, and Tulane wasn't what I expected."

I stammered, "B-but all your dreams about going there!"

He eyed me, "That dream came true, I made it. I did well there, too, I just didn't like the place very much. It's too hot, too buggy, and too ... I don't know, too much old South. Part of going to university should be getting involved with traditions and all that, and southern traditions were foreign to me. I felt out of place."

I asked, almost timidly, "You're happy at State?"

He smiled and shook his head, "I don't know yet, but I sincerely doubt it. By the time I knew for sure that I had to transfer ... well, they had to take me. I'll stay current, and I'll find a place soon enough."

I smiled, even though I was almost afraid to, "You're not mad?"

"Who the hell said that?" he exploded. "I am so mad at you that I could rip your tongue out!" He raised his hands and they were both shaking, "I ... I ... I ... oh, God! Evan ... no, I can't right now!" He glared at me, "Okay, you want to hear it? Well, here it comes!"

Dad warned, "Alton..."

My brother looked at him, "He asked for it, Dad. You're pissed, too, I can see it. Evan's right about one thing, let's get it off our chests now."

My mother pulled me to her and kissed my cheek. "I'll leave, so you men can say what you want to. I can see that tensions are high, but I don't want any bloodletting." She whispered, "I love you, Evan," in my ear, then gave me a lingering stroke on the shoulder before she got up to leave.

The door hadn't closed behind her before Alton was in my face, not yelling, but almost hissing out all the things I couldn't disagree with. I sat there, nodding dumbly. I knew the charges, and this was for Alton and my father, not for me. Dad joined in, and they took turns throwing facts and accusations at me, and most hurt to hear, because they were things I never thought would happen.

They did run out of steam eventually, and I'd been crying for a long time by then. We ended up back in a three-way stare, and I said again, "I'm sorry, you'll never know how sorry." I looked at my father, "I want to tell Alton about me. You can leave if you want."

He looked at me for a moment, then stood up. He patted my shoulder, but he left without a word.

I leveled my teary gaze at Alton, "I didn't just run away, you know. I left because ... because I was scared to death." His look turned curious, and I kept going, "I'm gay, Alton, and I was so afraid of what you'd all think ... I just couldn't face it, so I left."

His jaw had dropped, and his mouth worked for a full minute before a sound came out, "Gay? You?" He leaned back and put his hands up a little, as if to hold me away, "I ... I just want to say not, but you're gay?" I could swear that a tug of a smile played with his mouth, but it never formed.

"I am, Al. I had reason to believe that Dad would find out when he got home, so I boogied, plain and simple."


I sighed, "It's not funny, and you know it. Put yourself in my shoes, you know how Dad is! Would things have been a lot better if I hung around and left it to him to change the order of things here?" I shook my head, "I don't think so, so I did the best I could think of, and I cleared out."

Alton stared at me, and I realized once again that I would have loved to be born with his eyes. His were brown, like the rest of ours, but wider spaced, and he always had this look that you could only describe as knowing. Right then, though, they were soft, friendly even. He locked me in that gaze for a long time, then let out a low whistle, "Okay, Evan, I believe you. I don't know if I even blame you anymore, either. You've got the cross to bear here."

"Cross to bear?" I asked.

"Well, gay and all that. I don't think that's going to be a good thing with Mom and Dad."

I looked deeper into those eyes, "What about you?"

He just looked at me, so I repeated, "What about you, Alton?"

He stared back, then smiled a little, "Let it sink in. It's like hearing that the Yankees didn't make the playoffs ... a surprise, but not the end of the world."

I smiled, "Thanks, Alton. And I'm still sorry it cost you Tulane."

He had no expression when he said, "I'll get even," then he stood up and stretched before leaving me alone.

I looked after him, then hurried to the bathroom to let out the pee I'd been holding back. I didn't go back to the family room, but up to my own room, which had obviously been kept either clean or recently spruced up. The room was tidy, which isn't how I left it, but a glance around told me that things were more-or-less the way I'd left them.

I flopped on the bed, feeling very tired, and if Chris and Bruce hadn't barged in almost immediately, I'm sure I would have been out cold for a while.

Chris dove lengthwise right on top of me, crying "Evie!"

"Ouch!" I yelled, as his full weight flattened me into the mattress. "I'm glad to see you, too!"

He moved a little, and there was a wide smile on his face as he studied me for a moment, then it faded. "Are you okay? I don't know why I ask, because I am going to kill you."

God, it was good to see that ugly puss again! Even on my best days in Riverton I'd missed Chris so badly that it hurt. I knew right at that moment that Aaron could be my lover, maybe even the love of my life, but Chris would always be my best friend. I grinned, "I still love you, too, Chris."

His body still felt good, too, and it felt good because it was so familiar. When he moved to get off me, I held him there and he didn't resist. We held the pose until Bruce made to leave, and I said, "Not so fast, Bruce."

He turned and looked at me, and I said, "Close the door."

He nodded, then walked out and started to close the door behind him. "Don't leave," I said, "stay here and close the door."

Bruce looked scared, but did as I asked. I finally sat up, pushing Chris up beside me, and we were there on the bed in kind of awkward positions while I talked to Bruce, "You never said anything. I left home because you wouldn't listen to me. I went through a month of total scariness because I left, and you never told. Then I have to come out in front of half the town last night because I thought you did tell, and I spent the rest of the night thinking this family was in denial, because nothing the police said even mentioned gay, in fact it said specifically that I wasn't gay."

I didn't know if I was making any sense, and Bruce had a stubborn look on his face, so I went on. "Now it's clear that you never said anything, even when you probably should have!" I poked Chris hard in the back, "You, too! I know this involves you, Chris, so I'll sit back and relax now, while the two of you show me some patience while you try to help my tiny little brain sort this out." I propped myself up against the headboard and crossed my arms.

Chris sat up against the wall, and said, "Bruce will explain everything. You'll get yours, Ev, for even suggesting that I somehow played more than a brotherly role in this whole thing." His elbow caught me in the side, "It wasn't me who ran away, either, or Bruce for that matter." He smirked, "Anyhow," then he turned the smirk right to Bruce, "Go ahead, kid. You're on."

I suspected conspiracy until Bruce tried to say something, then his lip started quivering and his eyes filled with tears. I'd seen that often enough with him, but this time it somehow seemed different, so I patted the space on the bed between me and Chris and said, softly, "Sit down."

He did, and to my great surprise he leaned into Chris, and Chris wrapped an arm gently across his shoulder, while giving me a look that suggested I keep my mouth shut.

Bruce stared into space while he talked, "Evan, I was so mad at you ... so ... so disappointed. I didn't know what to think, I really didn't, and you weren't really helping. You were mad at me, and you were scaring me, and I couldn't tell Mom what I saw. I just wanted to get out of here so I could think, and that's what I did."

"Where'd you go?" I asked.

"Nowhere at first, I just wandered around." He looked at me, "I felt sick, Evan. I couldn't believe what I saw you doing with Chris, and I couldn't get over it." Bruce settled back, "I don't know, Evan. I was afraid to talk to you, and I didn't know enough, and there was nobody I could say anything to about what I saw ... except Chris."

I smiled, "I knew it!"

"Don't take it to heart," Chris muttered.

Bruce continued, "We talked, and Chris got mad at first, but we still talked. We could get right down to the details, Evan, but I really grew up that day, and about more than just you being gay."

I chuckled, but because those were so much like words Chris would use. "It's okay, take your time."

"This is embarrassing, so don't look at me. Chris got me mad, because he said he didn't want to talk to a baby. I said babies don't remember things like I saw the day before. He said I was still a child and to leave him alone. I was getting mad, saying I'm not a child, and then he said, 'If you're not a child, then this is your big chance to prove it. You're faced with an adult concept, try dealing with it like an adult would for once."

I looked at Chris in admiration, "You said that?"

Chris shrugged, "If he says so, then I guess I must have."

Bruce said, "He said it, and those were his exact words. Anyhow, that made me think, and I asked about what you being gay really meant."

He stopped, and after a pause I asked, "And?"

"It's too much for right now, Evan. I never said anything to Dad, because that was the adult choice to make, since it was what you wanted, and it was something that involved you and not me. And I know, I know, I could have said something along the line, but then who's the liar? So I stayed quiet and learned about living things."

I'm glad I didn't have a mouthful of food right then, because it would have hit the ceiling from my surprise. "Living things?"

Bruce said simply, "Yes. Grass, flowers, trees, butterflies ... I don't know, bugs, toads, cats ... people."

My eyebrows were up, and he continued, "Yeah, I read all of Mark Twain's books. I read motivational books, I read the Bible, now I see why you like biographies. Chris says I'm a people person now."

Chris mumbled, "I said you're well on your way."

I had to laugh, "A people person? Just like I'm an expert on fractals?"

Bruce smiled, "Hey, it could happen to you, too." I stared, and he added, "Well, it could!"

That! That right there was a spontaneous joke direct from the mind of Bruce Smiley! A first to me, and real evidence that the Brucelet had turned a big corner in his life. Not a big joke, but an earnest expression that was meant to sound funny, and it did.

I quizzed him on Clemens' titles, types of grass, asked him to name some butterflies and to toss in some sub-species, asked Bible questions.

When I stopped, I didn't know what to think. My brother had made an earnest effort to grow up, and my best friend had coached him well. I'd spent the whole summer hating Bruce, and I suddenly liked him more than ever.

I had one last question, or series of questions. "This is great, Bruce, it really is. This all started with me being gay, though, and your aversion to that. I'm still queer, and I always will be. Where's that leave us?"

Bruce smiled at me, then glanced at Chris, then the smile was back on me, broad and sunny on his face. "It means I have a gay brother, Evan." The smile broke up, and he choked, "One I love very much, and I've missed ..."

He choked up, as did I, and the next thing I knew we were hugging, and in a few moments Chris was there like a mother hen, squishing the three of us together.

We hugged and sobbed for awhile, but the sobs turned into snickers soon enough, and before long I was telling them about my life in Riverton, which they both found fascinating. They actually found it to be unbelievable that I'd made out on my own like that. They had all spent the summer harboring worries about me, wondering if I was even still alive, and all along I'd been thirty miles away, and I'd been doing new things and meeting new people.

In turn, I learned just how intense the search for me had been. There weren't dozens of those posters like I'd seen, but tens of thousands of them, and Chris had organized the effort to distribute them. When he learned of anyone going anywhere for any reason, he loaded them up with posters. If they were kids going to camp, he gave them enough so that every camper in the place had a stack of them to bring home, and knew what to do with them in their own towns. He had come up with various techniques for adults going on business trips or on vacation, and to learn when someone was going somewhere. He'd hang out at the truck stop near town, and give posters to truckers passing through.

He e-mailed them to people he met online, and he went to some strange places online to meet people. He was sure he had posters in every state and territory, and in a lot of foreign countries. They were in every Borders, Barnes and Noble, Remainders, Waldenbooks, and every Java House and Starbucks in the country.

They brought in clues, too, too many leads to possibly chase, but my Dad and my older brothers helped the police follow up on things. Bruce had gone ahead and built a voice response system for the police, complete with it's own mail tree, just to help sort out the types of messages that people left.

It was the poster that had worked in the end, too, even if not very dramatically. Nan's daughter was familiar with my name and my face because of it. At home in Mt. Harman that poster was on every lamp post, in every store window, on the trees in the parks, everywhere they could stick one up.

I was as impressed with them as they were with me. I'd survived on my own, thrived even, and they'd made a summer job out of trying to find me. When I left, I freaked them out, just as much as I was freaked out myself by being on my own. Now we were telling each other stories as if it had been a good thing.

Some things were good. I'd done fine after my initial fears, and pushed many parts of myself to the limit, and I still tested out fine. I had a confidence in myself that should have been reserved for eight or ten years later in my life. I'd put myself into a place I didn't know at the age of fifteen, then I scratched out a niche for myself, then made a place for myself, and was well on the way to making a name for myself.

With all the pain I'd caused in my wake, all the hard work I put people through, I still couldn't resist a touch of pride that I'd done well on my own. I hadn't lost my sense of funny either. For all the importance I gave the 'Number Two' name at work, when I was just a boy at home again, it was just once again what you went to the bathroom for when it was more serious than number one.

"I'm a turd," I muttered.

Chris snickered, "I'll say, and an ugly one at that."

I smiled at him, "Beauty is as beauty does, Chris. That's why I still like you."

He laughed, "Thanks for the compliment, ugly." He lost the leer, "Can I ask you something?"

I said, "Sure."

He licked his lip quickly, "Are you out now? Who all knows you're gay?"

That was a hard question. "I don't know, Chris. Lots of people from Riverton know, mostly from last night. I told Dad, but he didn't want me to tell Mom, so it's funny here. I told Al, too, so I guess that's it."

Bruce was frowning, and he said, "Mom might have a real problem with this, Evan."

Those words jerked me back into a serious mood. "Why? Why do you say that?"

Bruce shrugged, "I don't know, maybe it's nothing, but Chris had me going to chat rooms and things on the net looking for you, and she saw that. I know she checked to see where I'd been."

"So?" I asked.

Bruce shrugged again, "I don't know, it was like this aura of disapproval. She warned me about the net, and said to be careful because there were gay people who'd do this and that to boys my age." He looked at me and tossed his hands in the air, "You know how she is, Evan. It was like that!"

I felt deflated by Bruce's words. Like my dad, I'd never heard my mother voice any kind of opinion about gays, yet she was open to the idea that we had friends of many ethnicities. That she'd said anything at all about gays in a negative sense didn't bode well, and since it was really a warning about perverts that she'd given to Bruce, it was even worse.

I didn't get to dwell on it, because there was a heavy knock on the door, and when it opened Dad was standing there. He smiled when he saw Chris, "Hi Chris," he said softly, then smiled more brightly after looking at me, "got our boy back."

Chris touched my shoulder and nodded, smiling shyly at my father. Dad cleared his throat, "Evan ... all of you. Sgt. Donovan is on his way over. Evan, he's been our contact with the local police, and we need to do this for him. He wants to meet you, of course, and he may have some questions so he can close his file on you." He smiled, "You'll like him, so don't get that worried look on your face. While he's here, we have to put on a little pony and dog show for the press folks, because Ms. McAffree is coming for her reward."

I scowled, "I have to see her?"

Dad said, "You don't have to do anything, Evan. You certainly don't have to say anything, but these people have kept your name in the news far longer than they had to, and I think they should at least get a look at you, and get some pictures of you back here at home. And the reward is important, because people seeing her get that money may pay closer attention to all the other missing children posters out there."

I looked at the floor, ashamed once again, wondering where, at what point, I had become selfish. I looked up at my father and smiled hesitantly, "I understand. I feel cruddy from being nervous all day. Do I have time for a shower?"

Dad smiled, "Sure. It should all start in about half an hour."

"Thanks," I mumbled, then dug into my bag for my clothes and shave kit. I left for the bathroom, and tried for a pace that would let me relax and also have me done in time. I was uncertain of what Dad expected me to do, so I was careful with my hair, even though I decided that I didn't really need a shave. At fifteen, I was shadowing out already at the end of the day. It wasn't bad right then, not worth the time another shave would take.

My room was empty when I went back, so I got dressed and headed downstairs. My dad was in the living room with a man who had his considerable back to me, and neither of them noticed me come in. I figured it was Sgt. Donovan, and he was wearing a suit rather than a uniform. It was evident that he and my father had formed a warm friendship, just from the look on Dad's face, and they were leaning close to each other.

I said, "Hi," warily. They both started a little, then Dad smiled.

"Evan, this is Sgt. Donovan. Phil, this is my son, Evan!" Dad beamed, and Sgt. Donovan stood and turned around at the same time.

I almost laughed. Donovan was the stereotype of an Irish cop: big, red-faced, merry looking, and he had these eyebrows straight out of central casting. They were gray, bushy, and they formed points up in the middle, and his eyes were a twinkling green. Before he opened his mouth, I knew I was going to like him.

He smiled as if he were my grandfather, and said, "Mother of Jesus, look at ya!" He winked at my father, "I thought I was searchin' out a little boy, Matthew." He smiled back at me, "Evan, the next time you think your own family can't handle what you have to say," his eyes twinkled, "call a cop, okay?"

I snickered, smiled and nodded. His big paw landed on my shoulder, "Tell your friends that, too." His face lost the smile, "Too many kids can't share your story, Evan. They can't share any story." His voice softened, "Most runaways, we find them in a day or two and try to get their families talking. I'll tell you this, though. You're a rarity. Kids gone as long as you were don't normally come back, and half the time it's because they can't." His voice commanded, "Look at me, Evan. You did your thing, and you got away with it, thrived even." He poked my shoulder gently, "I'm not used to that. Not that I'm not delighted that your ending is a happy one, because I am." He narrowed his eyes on me, "Give me a minute?"

I nodded, and Dad disappeared out the other door. We both stayed standing, and Donovan started, "Listen, Evan. I know what your father told me about you thinking you're gay."

I got my back up, and he put up his hands, "I'm only tellin' ya what he told me, Evan. As far as being gay, that's your row to hoe. The only advice I can give is to be cautious about who knows that. I'm not saying that it's cause for shame, and I don't think it is, but there are plenty of reasons to be cautious. Most people won't care at all, and some people will have issues that they'll keep to themselves. There are people, though, and they're a bad lot."

I said sadly, "I know."

He said, "The state of Wyoming didn't kill young Matthew Shephard, but he still managed to find a few bad boys who were willing to." He put a heavy stare on me, "They're out there Evan, and they speak for nobody but themselves, but they're still out there." His look became more friendly, "You come out when you have a mind to. Just don't forget that there's peril on the fringes, and you'll have to keep your eyes open."

I grimaced at the advice, but it was sound enough.

In my mind, I knew I was going to be out, and out to anyone who wanted to know. I also knew that it wouldn't bring glee to the minds of some to know a gay was in their midst, and there were certain dangers involved. Still, I could handle myself, and I had a lot of friends, most of whom I was pretty certain wouldn't let gay come between us and a good time.

I knew people from a lot of places, and I knew them for a lot of reasons. I respected people on the surface. They'd have to give me a reason to lose that respect, and it rarely happened, so I think the kinds of people who liked me to begin with weren't the kind of people who would dump me because I was gay.

Who knew, though? I smiled at Donovan, and said, "I'll take my chances. Thanks for looking out for me."

He smiled back, "I figured you'd say that. It's right to be who you are Evan, but it's more right to survive and live a fine life. There's a balance there somewhere, and I can't tell you where it is, just that it exists, and it's your job to find your own balance."

I absorbed those words, then stood there in silence for a moment. I smiled at Donovan, "Thanks, that's a good way to put it."

He smiled, "Anything I can do?"

I groaned, "Help me tell my mother!" His eyes bugged and I moaned, "Just kidding."

He smiled at me again, a bit more nervously, "Kid, if you're mom don't know ..."

I said, "That's what I thought. Dad held me off from telling her."

The bushy eyebrows wiggled, "Keep that in mind, Evan. It was your dad who married her, so follow his lead."

I wasn't heartened by that, then Donovan opened the door and called my father, who appeared right away, tailed by several other men. When they were all there, Dad said to me, "Evan, let me introduce some people." He indicated the first one, a somewhat overweight and bald man of maybe fifty, and said, "This is Andrew Hangforwitz, who's our lawyer." He pointed to the next guy, who was twenty-something, and said, "This is Paul Felanger from the bank. He has the reward check."

I shook hands, and got the once over from each of them, and apparently passed muster. The lawyer said, "We should get the signatures on the releases first, then hand over the check."

They talked it over for a moment, then Paul showed them the check, and it was a big cardboard thing so the cameras could see it. I was trying to get a look, and he turned it to me with a smile. Twenty-Five Thousand Dollars, it said. In the memo section is said, For finding Evan Smiley.

The last guy looked sinister, another older man, all wrinkled in his face, but with wavy hair that you knew at once was his vanity. He could have been a politician just based on the hair, but the rest of his demeanor spoke hit man.

He turned out to be the private detective that my family had hired, and despite his appearance, he was a very genuine person who was delighted that I'd been found, even though it hadn't been him who found me.

It was all weird, and my father said it was time. He came over to me and said, "Just smile Evan, wave even. They'll get some pictures, and I'll promise an interview at some future date. Right now it's payback from us to them."

I didn't really understand except in general. At least nobody put cosmetics on us or anything. We walked out through the front door, and I held back while they all got together for the little ceremony. I looked around the neighborhood, and everyone within eyeshot of our house was in their front yards, and they all seemed to have lots of company.

Kevin's sister Amanda was there, and she looked scared, then the guy from the bank was right with her. He said, "Amanda McAffree, on behalf of the Smiley family and this community, I am very pleased to present you with this check."

He smiled, she smiled and held up the check, and a little cheer came up, then a chant of "Evan, Evan!"

I hadn't been coached, but I knew what to do instinctively. I waved hesitantly, and there was a sudden loud, happy roar.

It was our neighbors, mainly, but also the press people who had never actually seen me. I got scared, but the bank guy pulled attention back to the money, and I ducked back into the house.

Oh my Lord, my heart was pounding! I was rationalizing all over the place, too. A quick check told me I was still Evan, still me, not a celebrity or anything. Still, in my absence, by my absence, I'd become one, and now I was absent no longer.

Right then, Chris came up behind me, making noise so I'd know he was there, and when I turned around and saw him it was all I could do to stay standing.

Oh, Chris!

With all the crap I'd pulled on him, and that I'd dumped on him, there he was, and eager for more. It was like, "Sure, Evan. Plan a great summer, then just leave me out of it."

It wasn't like that at all, that was my imagination. Chris was right there, ready for whatever came next, just like always.

When we were first becoming friends, when it was new to both of us that two people could be so alike, could connect so totally, we'd joke, "Evan. Chris. Chris, Evan. What comes first? What comes next?"

No answer ensued, but rather a realization. Evan and Chris were Chris and Evan, and it seemed like this big, ethereal thing that would just last forever, so we stopped questioning early on and just went with it.

Now, after my summer away, his summer of searching, now we were alone together for the first time in months. It seemed somehow important, but funny at the same time.

I fell into Chris and we hugged, and he asked, "You okay?"

I giggled, "I think."

Chris said, "You're weird, Evan. I hope you understand that."

I snickered and said, "Imagine some Russian war music, Chris."

His eyes focused on mine, the usual humor still there, and we dropped to our haunches, arms across our chests, and started the Cossack dance we'd figured out so long ago.

It was funny, and hard to maintain a straight face, but we managed until our legs hurt, which never, ever took long.

We'd seen a movie once, and tried to duplicate the dancing, which was painful. We finally got it down, squatting and kicking our legs straight out, our arms crossed, our faces stern.

It hurt like hell to do that dance, but we had often made our way into classes doing just that, at least when we were sure there was no teacher involved yet. Our other thing was slapstick: pratfalls.

School desks and folding chairs made a ton of noise when they fell over, and Chris and I had been practicing falling into and over things since we met. It was accidental at first, I suppose, but then it became a science. One of noise and general hilarity.

Chris was more the gymnast than I was, and he was funnier. He'd be walking along, then suddenly crash ahead out of the blue, as if some giant log had been in his way, or a hole had opened up in the floor.

It was funny stuff and we knew it, and did it on whims just to laugh or get people laughing. That's what I did right then, made believe I put one foot on my opposite shoelace, and with a great flailing of arms I fell forward into Chris, knocking him back onto the sofa behind him, and our faces coming up inches apart.

He was surprised, so I said, "I did that on purpose."

He just looked at me, and I knew he wanted to smile. I said, "Your nose is too big, you know that?"

Chris nodded, managing to hold off any expression at all. I said, "The ears should just go, really, you'd be better off without ears than with those things."

His face sterned up, and I took hold of the cloth of his shirt, and said, "This is nice material. You should take it home and ask your mom to make a shirt out of it."

Chris was turning red, I was close. I touched his lips with my finger and said, "You know, if you could just get that gap between your teeth plugged up, you'd probably hardly drool at all."

That was it. Chris started bouncing, and laughing helplessly soon afterwards. I had one more for him, "You're not ugly, Chris, you know I don't think so, either." I kissed at his forehead, "No, you're the epitome of average."

I stayed on him until he wired down, and said, "I still love you, Chris. I always will." I smiled, "But, and now there's a but ... how to put this?"

Chris giggled, "You always seem to find a way."

I said, "I know. This is simple, too. Shut up and listen, and I'll tell you all about Aaron Castle."

Chris said, "Aaron, huh? He's the one?"

I nodded.

Chris asked, "Where's this leave me ... us?"

I wiggled my eyebrows, "Wherever you like, sweetheart!" He swatted at me, and I went on. "Just listen, then we'll figure it out, okay?"

I got up so Chris could, and we started toward my room, dropping down to take a few of those steps as Cossacks.

Continued ...

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