Plan B: A Degree of Difference

by Driver

Chapter 4

I didn't sleep well. I'd fall into a deep sleep, then wake up with spasms and pain. I got up at one point and took more pills, and I got back to sleep after that, but then I woke up again.

I was disturbing Aaron's sleep, and finally decided that I'd been on top of him long enough. I got up and went to the bathroom, taking the time to brush my teeth because the food or the pills, or maybe the combination, gave me a horrible taste in my mouth. It was almost four in the morning, so it's not like I didn't get any sleep at all, just not enough, and it was a ridiculous time to be up on a Saturday.

Things were all wrong to start with. I should have been normal, not all banged up, and I should have been at Aaron's house, where everyone tended to sleep later.

I was thirsty, so I went down to the kitchen and looked in the refrigerator. There was chocolate milk, and I poured a small glass of that, then sat at the table to drink it. Sitting at the table felt good to my shoulders and neck, so I leaned forward and closed my eyes, and was soon asleep again.

It was the coolness that woke me up next. I was only wearing boxers, so the air chilled me and I woke up again at about five. By then I was a little hungry, so I put some bread in the toaster and ate that with jelly when it popped up.

I could see the cycle that I'd be in for a while, because I was hurting again, so I took some more pills, then went back to my room and climbed on top of Aaron again, waking him this time.

"What are you doing?" he mumbled, half asleep.

"I was just up for a while, now I'm tired again."

"I gotta go, Evan."

My eyes opened, and I saw that he was serious. "Of course you do," I muttered as I rolled off of him.

I was asleep when he came back, and he left me the way I was. The alarm was set for school, so it went off at ten past six. I heard it, and it woke me up, I was just too comfortable to do anything about it. I felt Aaron squiggling around, then muttering swear words to himself, then he did what I was doing and tried to ignore it.

That, of course, doesn't work for long, and I finally reached over and hit the snooze, but the stretch made me swear at a sudden pain, and then we were both awake. Since I was already in pain, I felt around for the off thing, then tried to relax back to sleep, but it was no good.

I wanted to be normal, but everything I did told me I wasn't. From about my ears down to the middle of my back, everything hurt, and the hurts were practically dancing around, calling out 'here I am,' then, 'over here, too!'

I felt incredibly cruddy too, and I didn't even know if I could take a shower. The bandages on me looked like regular band-aids, but I doubted there were enough replacements in the house. Then again, I didn't know if they'd automatically fall off, either. I said to Aaron, "I want a shower."

We were in tune, even at that time of day. We weren't looking at each other, but I felt his smile when he said, "You'll need help."

I giggled, "I know. I'm a mess. Should I ask Chris?"

Aaron snickered, "There's a good idea. You can call him ugly all day long, but I think he's really good looking." He rolled over and looked at me awkwardly from his new position, sneering, "Maybe I'll help Chris bathe. I'm sure your mother ..."

"Aaaaah!" I yelled, as I tried to leap on Aaron, forgetting for the briefest moment that it would hurt to do that, then getting reminded just how much it would hurt. So I just collapsed in place and said, "Chris is the ugliest person I know. You really like him? Because, if you do, I could probably fix you up. You could suck his nose or something."

Aaron's face twisted up like he was thinking, and he grinned at the ceiling, "That's his nose that you've been sucking on? God, Evan! You've had snot in your mouth? Somebody else's snot? That is eww, eww gross!"

I tried to recover, "It was his other nose ... " but I was giggling too hard, and Aaron already had the bed bouncing from his own mirth.

I relaxed. There were a large number of reasons that I loved Aaron so much, and one of the primary ones was that he was such a good waker-upper. I'd always been kind of neutral about mornings; not chipper, but not really grumpy either, just more or less dazed and confused.

Aaron, though, if you were the one to wake him up, you'd be the one to see his smile beating out even his eyes opening. He wasn't an annoying, so-called 'morning person'. He woke up happy, that's all, and he did it every day of his life. It made it a genuine pleasure to wake up with Aaron, the perfect start to any day.

Things were starting out well that day, at least. I was full of holes and full of hurt, but I was home with people I loved, and the person I loved most was right there with me, so even pain couldn't foreshadow the day. I'd get through it, maybe even have some fun, and the hurt would wear off at its own pace.

I started a kiss with Aaron when there was a tap at the door, and Alton's voice asked, "Are you decent?"

I said loudly, "No, we're fifteen and we're queer as Hell! We know nothing of decency."

Aaron started laughing, and my brother may have too, because it was a moment before he managed, "Well, are you decent now? Like, do you have clothes on right this moment?"

"I'm not telling," I said. "If you're any kind of brother, you'll barge right in here and find out for yourself."

The door opened and Al came in, laughing when he saw us just sitting there in all our moral turpitude. He looked at me in concern and asked, "How you doing? Did you get any sleep?"

"Not too bad," I said. "I kept waking up, but I got some sleep." I looked at him, "I want to take a shower, but I don't know if there's enough band-aids for afterwards."

He looked at my shoulder, saying, "Let me see," then he touched one and said, "just regular band-aids. Take your shower, I'll go buy a box." Then he winced, "Man, they really did a job on you. That's scary looking."

I nodded, not wanting to get into it. It was scary feeling too, and creepy feeling, and a whole lot of bad things.

* * * * * * * *

Even the water from the shower hurt at first, until we could find a softer position for the adjustable shower head. Aaron was getting concerned that I was turning all kinds of colors around the stab wounds, from black and blue like they'd been, to reddish and yellow looking. Once we were out of the shower, he was really concerned, so he got me some underpants and sweats, then had my mother come in to look, and she was trailed by my father.

My mother winced, but she didn't think anything was infected. Dad wasn't so sure, so he called his HMO and they suggested a walk-in clinic. It was open all the time, and it was a place they'd pay for.

My mother called the place, then just the two of us went. I got a lady doctor right away, and I was taking my shirt off while explaining what had happened to me. She'd heard about the assault somehow, and said some words that I wouldn't expect to hear from a doctor about the perpetrator, but she agreed with my mother that the color of the bruising was normal and not a threat to my health.

I told her about the twitching pains that had kept me awake, and she gave me a prescription for a stronger muscle relaxant. One stab wound was oozing a little blood still, so she put something on that and I was all done.

Rest, take pills, change band-aids when they fell off, that's what I was to do.

Actually, by mid-morning I could tell that the new muscle relaxing pills were working. Maybe too well, because I felt kind of logy all over, but that painful twitching had gone, and the pain pills themselves kept it to a dull, achy feeling.

I felt good, but lazy, which was fine for a Saturday in November.

Everyone was staying pretty close to me, especially Aaron and Chris, but my brothers and parents, too. People called, and some others came to visit, and I was having a nice enough day, considering. There was nothing to celebrate, but I could hold hands with Aaron while we watched television, and in front of Chris and my own family, so things were fine.

They didn't stay fine, though. The family room that we were in was in what's called a raised basement, and that means that it's only partially underground, and there were ground level windows that were real windows, complete with shutters on the outside. The next level of the house had the living room, dining room, kitchen, and my dad's office, which could have been any kind of room, and a bathroom with only a toilet and a sink. Above that were the bedrooms, and even the attic was partly finished, just a place for one or another kid to disappear with a hobby.

We were watching a video, an old one that had us engrossed on different levels, when there was a crash from upstairs, followed by a scream from my mother and some shouting that I couldn't make out from my father, then we could hear the gunfire from outside, and we all hit the floor, but it was coming into the house upstairs, not where we were. It was bang-bang shots interspersed with louder booms.

It stopped after a few seconds, then we could hear an engine rev and tires chirp, then my brother Alton tore up the stairs. Chris and Bruce were right on his tail, and I followed more slowly with Aaron urging me along.

My parents were at the top of the steps, and thankfully uninjured, but the living room was a mess. There was a big bay window there, and it had been shot out pretty thoroughly. Lots of glass was broken, but they'd also hit an upright, so the whole thing seemed in danger of collapsing. The cold air from outside was coming in, and we could hear sirens getting closer. It was a scene from Hell.

I wandered into the living room, and got totally freaked out when I saw my picture on the mantel. It was still there, frame and all, but a bullet had put a hole right through me, and broken glass radiated out from it.

There was a commotion outside of course, with neighbors on the lawn and at the door, and all kinds of babble about what people had seen or not. Tommy Saeger, the ten-year-old from next door, was insisting loudly that he saw the whole thing, while other people were still screaming about gunfire in the neighborhood.

I started towards the door to see what it looked like from outside, but my dad grabbed my shoulder, which hurt a lot. "No, Evan! Don't go out there. Go in the kitchen for now, take Aaron with you." He was speaking quickly and excitedly, so I just obeyed and tugged Aaron along.

I felt lost, so completely out of my element that I couldn't form a coherent thought. A person or persons unknown were trying to kill me. I can think that now, but at the time it was raw panic. I just didn't know what was happening, or why it was happening. I was hated, and somebody wanted me dead. The guy the night before had said gay and fag, so I had that to go on, but nothing to put it with.

So I was gay, so what? Some people knew that about me, while most people didn't know. I wasn't any kind of gay flirt, so I couldn't have bothered anyone that way. The people who knew I was gay ... they knew, that's all it was. Yes, there had been some icky reactions, but minor ones, nothing to indicate that somebody would come to hate me for being gay.

In a few minutes the place was covered with cops, and the fire department sent a truck and an ambulance along for good measure. The house was losing heat rapidly because of the holes in it, and still nobody comprehended all that had happened, least of all me.

I held onto Aaron, and in truth I was wishing he was my father, but dad was trying to make some order of things in the other room with the police and fire officials. I could hear my mother in there talking with people, and finally Bruce, Chris and Alton joined me and Aaron in the kitchen.

Chris said lamely, "What a show, Smiley!"

I looked at him, and he was kidding, so I smiled and he went on. "This is just a build-up, right? When's the main event?"

Just then, a fireman helped my mother into the kitchen and he asked Chris to stand up so she could sit down. It was then that I noticed her arm was trickling blood, and I got scared all over again.

"Mom," I whined.

She looked at her arm, then at me, "It's nothing, just a little cut from something. I didn't even know it happened."

The fireman pulled up her sleeve, and she'd been exactly right. The trickle of blood was from a tiny little hole, maybe a splinter. It was just a dot, but that didn't make it right. I slumped back into my chair wondering how unfair things could get. I was twelve when I started to understand that I was gay, that I wasn't like other boys. I'm not dumb, and I saw where that got some kids who didn't hide it, so I hid it, from everyone but my friend Chris.

I don't know if most people even get a friend like Chris, but my being gay didn't give him any problem at all, and he'd been my coach, if you will, all that time. He was way more willing than me to think that most people would be okay with it, because I always thought about the opposite.

Then I left home, and a lot of things happened to me, and when I got back home I was too used to being gay, being known as gay, being out as gay, and having a gay boyfriend. I was too used to it to try to reverse anything.

I'd made lists, as I have always done, and headed them with 'Evan Smiley'.

A list on the left, and a list on the right, and under my name I'd list my traits, then my accomplishments. Under traits on the left, I'd put words like big, strong, athletic, intelligent, honest, and ad infinitum. On the other side, no matter whether I put gay at the top or the bottom, the rest of that list never changed one iota. Gay on the left, gay on the right, it didn't change anything else about me.

I was me, and gay didn't have much to do with it, but to somebody it sure did.

I was accustomed to Sgt. Donovan by then, and I'm sure he didn't expect to learn a lot from me, but he sat down anyhow, looking at Aaron. "Is this the boy?"

I smiled, "Ask him."

Aaron said, "I'd better be the boy," and Donovan laughed.

Then Detective Munro came in, and he said, "You're a lucky boy, Evan."

I looked at him incredulously and asked sarcastically, "Mind telling me where luck plays into this?"

He leaned closer, "We found the knife, Evan. Let me tell you this. You had on a tee shirt, a cotton shirt, a sweater, and a down parka. What the attacker threw over you was a leather jacket, or leather where it counted. The knife we found has an inch-and-a-half blade." He looked at me steadily, "You were stabbed hard, Evan, but there was a lot in the way. If he'd caught an artery, we wouldn't be talking right now, but he didn't. You're alive, and now we need to have another discussion." He looked around, "These people are all friends and family?"

I looked quickly, then nodded, and he said, "Evan, twice now, somebody has tried to perpetrate violence of increasing magnitude on you. Last night it was just you, but just now, anyone in the wrong place could have been hurt. I don't know you, but I can see that you're the kind of person who wouldn't want anyone getting hurt in your place, is that right?"

I gulped, "I don't want anybody hurt, period."

He asked, "Do you have somewhere you can go?" He smiled, "I know you do, Evan, I just want to hear it from you."

I nodded, kind of dumbly. I could go spend the weekend or longer with Aaron. Then his smile registered with me, and I smiled, back, "Yeah, I can find a place."

He nodded, then he asked, "How many people know that you're gay, Evan? Is it general knowledge?"

I shook my head, "Not general, at least I don't think so. I basically kept it to people who would see me with Aaron, and I told them so they could freak out in advance of seeing us ... together."

"How many people, Evan? Who knows?"

I thought quickly, counted mentally, and said, "People that I've told, I think eleven, like seven outside the family. That's here in Mt. Harman. In Riverton, probably at least that many, maybe more."

He looked at me, then around, and said, "Let's go somewhere private, Evan. Just you and me, okay?"

I nodded, excused myself, and led the detective down to the family room. I sat down, but he wandered around looking at things, picking some up, and he asked me questions. He had a pad, and he got the names of everyone in town who I'd told I was gay, and asked me something about each of them.

I had a funny feeling about telling him, but I guess he needed to know things. When he sensed my discomfort, he said, "Listen, Evan. You were attacked last night and you ended up in the hospital. Today your home got shot up with your whole family in it. Last night, the words 'gay' and 'fag' were used, so we can be pretty sure this isn't some random thing. You don't suspect your friends, but how else would anyone know you're gay? Work with me here," he said, sounding a bit exasperated. "I need to learn the truth. Somebody told somebody else. Either that, or somebody you told is the one after you. All we really know so far is that it's a male."

I stared at him, my mistrust fading, and he went on, "You're the victim here, Evan, and I'm not trying to make it seem like that's your fault somehow. All I want is to know everything you can tell me, so I can get to the bottom of this. I'm not after your friends, I just want to talk to them, see what they know, or who else they may have told." He relaxed a little and smiled. "It's called investigating, that's what I'm doing here, looking for the truth."

I smiled guiltily, thinking I'd been jumping to conclusions. His eyes rolled a little, and he said, "I need to know who you told what to, and any thoughts you may have about each individual." He grinned, "I promise to only bother them with questions." He put the palms of his hands out quickly, and said, "You're an intelligent guy, Evan, I can see that. Use that to know that I'm on your side, and we'll get right through this. I'm not after your friends, just the truth."

It made sense to me then, and I felt thick-headed for not figuring it out on my own. I hadn't come out to everyone, just my friends, and not even all of them, but only the ones from the neighborhood who were likely to see me with Aaron. It was the people where I had no real other choice.

The other big and obvious thing was that it had something to do with school. That's where I was attacked, and random strangers aren't common on school property. Plus, there seemed to be some foreknowledge of where I'd be, which exit I'd use. That door would get heavy use if there was an end-of-day assembly, but otherwise it could rust shut and nobody would know.

I cooperated with Det. Munro.

Going back through it like that, I could see that when I told my friends I was gay, there hadn't been a single reaction that I could call a good one, just not bad ones. The people I considered to be friends weren't especially liberal or conservative, just kids who flexed with time. When we were younger we had a Clinton, and that was fine. Now we had a Bush, and he'd seen us through the September 11 nightmare, so he was fine, too.

Until I came out, though, what my friends didn't have was a gay friend. I told a few in a little group, but the rest had been alone with me. The truth is, it didn't go over that well, though not that badly either. I was a disappointment, I think, as in not the guy they would have expected it from, not at all.

Still, given time to think things over, every single one of them was still a friend, and nobody saw me and Aaron as being a bad combination.

Munro was right, though, it had to come from somewhere, and some adult male wanted me dead, and he'd go to some lengths.

I sat while the detective paced, and he took his time. He finally turned to me, "We're dealing with an idiot here, Evan. Hold on a second."

He took up a cell phone and walked out of the room while he was dialing. When he came back, he had a thin smile. "We need smoke here, Evan. Our guy is onto you. We purposely didn't say anything to the papers about your condition, and still he showed up here today." He smiled, if that's what you could call his wicked leer, and said, "You need to become a question mark, Evan. Let's go talk to your parents."

* * * * * * * *

The plot was hatched. The ambulance was still there, and the attendants came inside and helped me onto the Gurney, after wrapping a big bandage around the top of my head and down over my eyes. They pulled a sheet over me that came up over my mouth, then brought me to the ambulance and tore out of there with the siren going. My mother, along with Bruce, Chris and Aaron followed in her car. A police cruiser was right behind them. My father and Alton stayed to seal up the front of the house somehow.

I can't imagine what people thought seeing that. It had been about two hours since the shooting, but Det. Munro didn't want anything at all to make sense for the next several days. There had been a little thing in the paper about the assault at school, but it didn't say anything except that there were indications that a male student had been injured by an unknown party. No names, no reports on condition, just a one-paragraph article.

Nothing for the attacker to go on. He'd stabbed me eleven times, and probably went home thinking I was dead in the school yard.

Now there had been a shoot-em-up in a normally docile neighborhood, and there was no way to hide something like that, although even with someone being seen taken from the scene in an ambulance, there would be no reporting of that part. I wasn't headed to a hospital, either, nor exactly to Aaron's house. Harlan had agreed immediately to have me stay with him the moment he heard what was happening.

Now I was trading places with a cop in an ambulance attendant's uniform, which is what I was wearing myself. I wrapped his head in the bandage, and we joked while I pulled the sheet up, then put the straps around him. I pulled on an attendant's red cap and put shades on, and the transformation was complete. At the emergency room, I helped wheel him in, and the hospital orderlies took over, headed straight for surgery. An evacuation helicopter would land on the hospital roof in about forty minutes, and then take off to the north.

I went back with the ambulance to their garage, where Alton was waiting in his car. I changed into my own clothes, talked a bit to the driver I'd been with, then I left for Riverton with Al, face down across the back seat. Aaron's parents would pick him up at the hospital in a little while, and my mother and younger brother would go back home with Chris, and all of this was in the hope that Detective Munro was right. He thought my attacker knew too much, and he hoped that his knowledge came from a compulsion. If that was true, then he might trip himself up trying to find out what became of me.

There would be no news reports, no police or hospital statements, nothing. I'd be gone and he wouldn't know where, and we hoped he'd start sniffing around. If he didn't, I'd be somewhere safe at least.

I had my dad's cell phone, some cash, a list of phone numbers and several business cards. I had my pills ... enough for a week, anyhow, and my brain felt engaged once again. I caught that from Munro, because it was fun trying to out think someone else, and I'd never done that.

An unmarked car followed us all the way to Riverton, where a regular local cruiser got behind us.

It really was a damnable road, even on Saturday. Alton was paying too much attention to traffic to hold up his end of a conversation, so I did the proper thing and dozed off. Even with the shoulders hurting me, I managed a fifteen minute snooze before he woke me up to find out where to go.

We drove right to the shop, right into the shop, actually, and didn't get out of the car until the door closed behind us. The officer who had followed us tooted his horn as we turned off the street, and kept going.

Harlan was alone in the shop, dressed in nice-casual for a Saturday. He looked concerned, but when I smiled he returned it.

I was glad to see him again, and my smile turned into a little grin. "Harlan, this is my brother Alton. Alton, Harlan Blaine."

They shook hands, then we stood and I went into more depth about what had been going on since the day before. Harlan winced when I described my injuries, and said, "Whoever did this is one sick human being, Evan. You don't have any idea at all who it is?"

I shook my head, "No. I think it's a man, not a kid, but who it could be I have no idea. It's two people now, because there was a gun and a shotgun at the house. The detective in charge isn't trusting anybody right now, especially anybody involved with the school. They want to ask around there, teachers and staff, but he doesn't hope for much from them. I think he's waiting for one of them to start asking questions."

Harlan seemed to weigh that in his own mind, rocking his head for a moment, then he said, "That's probably a smart way to do it. Nobody's going to say much if the cops ask, 'did you beat on Evan? but if they're suddenly too interested, or they know too much, then ... " he smiled, "Yeahhh."

That had been pretty much my reaction, and it felt good that Harlan would confirm it.

We talked for a little while, then I got my bag from the car and did something I'd never once done in my life. I hugged my brother, Alton, goodbye, warning him off when he went for my shoulders to return it. He was older than me by four years, taller by an inch, but I think I already outweighed him. I felt a pang of regret that I didn't know him better than I did, for we'd grown up in the same house. We shared our family background, and more than a few personal traits. We'd even shared a bedroom for a few years. Now we were both teenagers, and that gap in our ages didn't seem as wide as it once had, and it had been fun for me having him back at home, even if he was gone most of the time.

Al was commuting to school every day, and he had a job on campus that kept him there late when he worked, and often on weekends. He was dating sporadically, trying to maintain some kind of social life. When he was home, though, I could relate to him. We had lots of interesting talks.

I think I mentioned before that I'm the dummy of the family. That's in relative terms, of course. Of the four of us, Alton was the one who got passionate about his subjects.

Since I could remember, he'd wanted to study linguistics, and that was part of the reason he was so anxious for Tulane, but somewhere along the way that changed. Now his passion, and it looked pretty final, was physical anthropology, and he could wax on about it endlessly.

He was a good talker, though, and funny, and he made things interesting. I told him once that he'd make a good teacher, and he said he thought that's where he was headed. He wanted to do the science, first, make the discoveries, but in a teaching situation. Then he wanted to write about it all, and hopefully make a decent living from it.

When Al left, I rode to Harlan's house with him in the back of a panel van. I marveled again at what a pretty place it was, and once I had my things put away, I took a solitary walk out back. I'd been there for a picnic, and there were lots of people there then, tents, games going on, all kinds of things.

Now I was alone, and it was a different kind of experience for me. I suddenly understood that money could pay for more than food, clothing and rent.

Harlan's was a really beautiful piece of property. His house dated back to the 1700's, and it was close to the road, but starting at the back door it was a different and private world.

There was a really big stone patio there, and the lawn spread out in all directions, with big old shade trees here and there. Even with the leaves down, they were handsome and formidable. After the lawn, there were woods, and they were the deep, dark woods of fairy tales. If I'd found a bean pole that reached to the sky, a pot with kids boiling in it, an old woman living in a shoe, I wouldn't have been surprised.

What did surprise me was a little pond, maybe a half acre, with water that looked black, but still floated some leaves with autumn colors. I sat there for a little while, on a fallen log that wasn't big enough to be comfortable.

I think that, for the first time in my life, I was feeling jealousy. Harlan didn't make this place. He bought it, and he could buy it because he made lots of money.

Still, it was beautiful. I wondered about the person who was trying to hurt me. Did he have beauty, understand beauty? Was me being dead part of that beauty for him? Would he be more tolerant if he was rich?

I smacked my own head for allowing my mind to babble like that, even momentarily.

I was the one being intolerant, too. Harlan had money because he worked his ass off for it, took chances that other people wouldn't. It wasn't up to me to say who should have money and who shouldn't. If I wanted to be like Harlan, then I'd have to be like Harlan and do it on my own. Work hard, stretch, borrow until there's no tomorrow, then keep making good moves until I had it right.

Then, I too could come home at the end of a long day, and probably collapse on a comfy sofa, secure in the knowledge that one of the prettiest places on earth was right outside, and for now I owned it.

I was starting to hurt and it was getting dark, so I walked back toward the house. I wasn't worried about anything, really, not that uncomfortable with my injuries. I just knew something that I hadn't known when I started my walk.

I wanted to be rich, or at least to have a big income that would support a lifestyle like Harlan's. For the first time in a couple of hours, Aaron entered my thoughts. We had equal chances for riches. Aaron was handsome and he could act. Even a television actor makes a great living. Aaron could be whoever he had to portray, and his own nature wouldn't show through. The play I'd seen him in didn't have him as gay, but quite the opposite, and he did it perfectly.

I was smart enough, I just didn't have a vocation yet. I'd had the normal kid fantasies of policeman, fireman, soldier, but they weren't me. Now I had a summer's worth of reality and I wanted to be Harlan.

Well, I wanted to be Evan, but to live like Harlan, relate to the world like Harlan, have pet projects like Harlan, that I could afford to fund like he did. That was the big me, the future me. Right then I felt small and alone, and I wanted a familiar voice.

I used the cell phone to call home, to say where I was and what I was doing. Part of the deal was that I'd initiate calls, not the other way around. My mother answered and she was upset.

She actually said that if I hadn't decided to be gay that none of this would have happened, then she immediately apologized for saying it.

Two months of coddling by Aaron's parents, two months of Pflag meetings, and she hadn't gotten rid of the underlying idea that I was gay because I chose to be gay.

God, somebody wanted to kill me, and my mother thought it was my own fault. Well, I don't believe that she actually thought that, but that's what her words told me. When anyone asked me why I was gay, the answer was 'because I am', and I couldn't do any better.

Coming from a family of all boys, I had a pretty healthy curiosity about girls when I was young, and I had enough girls as friends that my curiosity was eventually satisfied. When I hit puberty, though, when I started thinking sexual thoughts, they were predominantly about boys and their bodies. It wasn't exclusively boys at first, girls still held some fascination for me, and there were a few who could give me a rare sexual fantasy.

By the time I knew what gay was, though, I knew that was me, and it just was. It wasn't a decision I made about some choice I was offered. I was as programmed to be gay as I was to be athletic or to be studious. It was instinct, not choice, and I didn't need my own mother thinking something else.

I got off the phone quickly, and I was almost marching back to the house until I thought about how ridiculous I must look. I was storming because my mother had chosen some unwise words.

My parents didn't like that I was gay. Dad had been pretty good about it, looking at the rest of me for the most part, and I think he kind of swept the gay thing away somewhere in his head, like dust under some mental carpet he had.

Mom, she tried, but she didn't get it. She saw my gayness as some kind of teenage rebellion, something that would pass. She could hear the opposite from every direction, but that's the faith she held onto. I was just acting up, acting out.

Still, my father had been right about one thing. My mother's love for me had never wavered even one iota. That was too obvious to question. No matter what she thought about the one thing, I was her son, and I was a loved person. If she could have found a way to have eleven knife holes in her shoulders rather than mine, that's where they'd be.

I was walking slowly when I went into the house, plodding almost. If she hadn't said something, I probably would have walked right past Harlan's wife, Edie, but she did. "Hi, Evan," she said, "Are you alright?"

I looked at her absently, then immediately felt better. "Hi, Edie," I smiled, "I'm okay. I bet you didn't expect me to come freeloading."

She grinned and slapped absently at me, "You're not freeloading, not here." Her look turned more serious, "Are you alright? How badly were you hurt?"

I winced, "Somebody wanted me gone. I'll be alright, but I got hurt, and I don't mind saying I'm scared as hell."

Her eyes searched mine, then darted back and forth, and she said, "Oh, Evan." Her voice became a whisper, "I wish I knew you earlier." She indicated a chair in their big, low ceilinged living room, "Sit down."

I sat while she left the room, coming back in a moment with a tray with sodas and snacks on it. I took a Coke and put a chip in my mouth while Edie said, "Two years ago I learned that my cousin Eliot was gay." She grimaced, "He was twenty then, and when I talked to him about it, he thought it was the end of the world." She stared at me, "People ... people found out in a bad way. I don't know what he really thought, Evan, but he got caught up with some younger boys on the Internet. After a lot of back and forth, he was arrested by the police when he went to meet someone who he met online." She shook her head sadly, "He thought it was a fourteen year old boy, Evan, but it was a police officer, and he was busted."

I think my jaw was down around my chin. She went on, "We bailed him out, Evan, Harlan did. Nobody else had the means, and he stayed here. At that point it was just charges, so he kept his job, and he commuted to work from here. I talked to him a lot, trying to understand what he'd done, and it wasn't something all that sinister."

"It wasn't?" I asked.

"No," she shook her head. "He was lonely, mainly. He'd known he was gay since ... well ... since he knew about sex, I guess. It terrified him, Evan, which is why I said I wish I knew you then. Eliot's main problem was that he felt so alone, so alienated from his parents and sisters. His gay life was also a secret life."

This had all been past-tense, but nothing had been said about that. "Was?" I asked.

She nodded, "He killed himself. Well, officially he died in an accident, but he drove into a bridge abutment at over seventy miles an hour."

She looked over at me, "Just to add poison to the mix, his car bounced back into the travel lane, and it was struck by two guys going to work together. One of them was badly hurt, too."

"Eliot?" I asked.

"Dead at the scene." Her eyes got tears in them, "Oh, Evan, this has nothing to do with you, except I wish Eliot could have met you. His entire experience with gayness was dishonest, disillusioning. I don't know if you know about things like this or not, but he was always looking, always finding something different. In the end, the only people who seemed to want him were cops on a sting. The other man who got hurt in that accident is suing the New Jersey police for putting Eliot in that state of mind. He's messed up because Eliot was suicidal, and he was suicidal because of police from another state."

I felt bad, and I could tell how bad Edie felt, so I asked, "What was Eliot like?"

Her eyebrows went up, "He was always ..." she shrugged, "like a guy, I guess. He liked some sports. He was always kind of chunky, but he was okay at football and volley ball." She smiled, "He could tell a joke, that's for sure, and he had a million of them." She smiled again, her eyes watering, "I guess that was Eliot, a funny guy. He was kind and nice, too. He never really had any money, but what he had was yours if you needed it, so he was generous, too." She sniffed, "That's what he was, Evan, just a nice guy, who never got to meet another nice guy like you."

I was sniffling myself by then. What a waste! Yet I'd never dared do much on the Internet because of warnings about people like Eliot. It's weird. I could see what the authorities had in mind, but why make so much noise about it? Why make a bust over something that never really happened, never could really happen under the circumstances of a sting ... why make that such a cause for news and celebration? Arresting the person will interrupt his life for sure, why make a national case out of it?

I felt bad for Eliot. He wasn't some lifetime pervert and child molester, just a guy looking for something on his own. Yes, he should have looked for someone of age, but the police should have egged him away instead of closer.

I said, almost involuntarily, "It's fucked up!" Then I saw Edie there and said, "Oops. Sorry!"

She smiled, "That's what I think, Evan, and thanks for saying it. Eliot was lonely, not a pervert, and that's how I want to remember him, so thank you very much."

I liked Edie. This was the first really personal conversation I'd ever had with her. She was the receptionist, the first line of defense at work, and she acted so professional there that you never really considered the fact that she was Harlan's wife.

In their home, though, it was different because she was in charge. We just looked at each other for a few minutes, and I was feeling bad about Eliot.

What if I was him? What if I was overweight, just plain ugly, even? What if I was way too short or way too tall? People do still manage, I had friends whose parents were testament to that. Still, when you're that person, sitting out there all alone and feeling unloved, it's probably hard to think that things can change, get better.

Right then, I appreciated my friend Chris more than ever. Whenever I despaired, whenever I felt that gayness was going to overwhelm me, he'd be there saying, "Don't worry about it, Evie."

That came from a straight boy, a twelve-year-old the first time I heard it. Chris and I figured out at the same time that I was probably gay, but Chris understood it right up front, and it took me two more years to come to terms.

Now I was in a new boat. I was at my former employer's house because somebody wanted me dead for being gay. It was beyond understanding. Somebody hated me enough just because I was gay to try to kill me, and twice now. I wasn't doing it to myself like Eliot, it was coming up behind me, and I was frightened even in Harlan's house.

Edie saw that, I think, and she smiled shyly. "Come on, Evan, help me in the kitchen. Harlan went to the butcher, and you're supposed to ask your friend over."

I was totally taken aback, "I am? I can have Aaron over?"

She smiled, nodded, and backed out through a doorway. I took the cell phone out and dialed Aaron's number.

His father answered, and I said hi. He said, "Hi Evan, how are you?"

I said, "I'm okay I guess. I'm spooked more than anything."

"I don't doubt it. Listen, Evan, we need to talk. I don't think Aaron should be seen with you until things get straightened out."

"What?" I cried!

Mr. Castle sounded near tears. "Evan, it's not you, please believe that. I'm on your side, and you should know that by now. Aaron's my son, though, and I have to protect him."

I didn't say anything, because I was too stunned, and he went on, "Listen, Evan. You don't deserve to hear this on the phone, so I'm coming over, okay?"

My head shook itself 'yes' and I didn't say anything, then I almost hung up.

I was lost in disbelief. Aaron Castle was the gayest person I ever met in my life. I happened to love him, and now his parents thought I was a threat. They were exactly right, too, and I couldn't blame them. Whoever it was who hated me so much wouldn't exactly appreciate Aaron.

Instead, "Can I talk to him?" I asked in a high, whiney voice.

Aaron's father said softly, "Sure, Evan. Hold on."

In a moment Aaron said hello, and I started weeping, trying to hold it all in.

I understood Aaron's father right on the surface. Aaron was Aaron, and he was different than most people. He was worthy of protection, too, especially by the family who loved him. I was caught up in something that didn't involve Aaron, and his parents wanted to keep it that way. If they hadn't, it would have been the weird thing.

Still, Aaron was the person I needed most to be with, and we were both on the phone together, both crying. I couldn't make my mouth work to form words, and apparently Aaron couldn't either. I heard someone talking at his end, then his mother picked up the phone. She said quietly, "Hello, Evan. There's been a change of plans. Steve will bring Aaron to see you. They're leaving now."

I gulped, wondering if I'd heard her correctly, but I must have because she said, "I just sent Aaron to wash his face, and I suggest you do the same."

I smiled while the tears were still falling, and croaked, "Thanks, thanks so much."

She said, "I'm packing clothes for Aaron. If Harlan and Edie will allow it, he can stay there with you until tomorrow night. Steve will talk to you about security while he's there." Her voice took on a warning note, "Evan, I'm trusting you to listen to and heed every word he says. Nobody knows who we're dealing with here, but it's a dangerous person. We don't know what he knows or what he's capable of finding out, so it's best to be careful all around. Promise me, Evan."

I sighed, "Oh, God, of course I promise! I couldn't stand it if anything happened to Aaron."

I could feel the smile in her voice, "Okay, Evan. I'll stop by to visit, too." I heard her say something to someone else, "They just went out, Evan. Go polish up your smile, okay?"

"I will," I sighed, "I mean I will!"

After we hung up, I ran to the bathroom to wash up, and my face was a mess once again. I must have really fat tear ducts or something, because I was soaked right down to my collar, which made a clean shirt something else I needed.

Still, Aaron was coming, and he could stay with me! I was washing my face, grinning and thinking 'Mrs. Castle giveth, and Mr. Castle taketh away, and Mrs. Castle giveth again'.

I couldn't believe my luck, and by the time I opened the door to leave the bathroom, Aaron was on the other side getting ready to tap on it. I was surprised, and opened my mouth to say something, but Aaron was too quick with his kiss, and he planted one to remember on me.

When we broke the kiss, we stood there grinning at each other like a pair of idiots. I finally said, as casually as I could, "Oh, hi Aaron. Imagine meeting you here."

He smiled, then said, "You can be an idiot when you want. Come on, my dad wants to talk to us."

I asked, "Is he okay?" as I followed Aaron out of the room towards the stairs.

Aaron glanced at me, "Uh, he's nervous, but I guess he's okay. We had this big fight all afternoon, then you called and they lost all their resolve."

I mumbled, "You talk funny sometimes, Aaron," then we were at the living room, and Aaron's dad was there with Harlan, sitting by a nice fire in the big fireplace. They hadn't seen us come in, so I draped my arm across Aaron's shoulder, and he put his around my waist, and we approached until they could see us.

Mr. Castle stood and smiled, holding his hand out, and I shook it. Before we even sat down, Edie was there with a cocktail for Aaron's dad and a beer for Harlan, and she asked Aaron and I what we wanted. I suggested cocoa, but I didn't want to make any extra work for her, but Aaron also looked eager, and she said, "I know you have man talk, so two cocoas coming up." As she walked out I heard her say, "I should have thought of that. Three cocoas coming up!"

We sat, and Harlan started to excuse himself, but Aaron's father asked him to stay. Then he laid down some rules for us, and they made a lot of sense. Stay away from windows on the street side, and that was easy because those were to the formal living room, a big entrance hallway, and the dining room. The bedroom I was in upstairs was in back, and facing into the ell that the house formed.

Outside wouldn't be a problem as long as we stayed away from the front. The back was completely shielded from view, and that's where the land was anyhow. It would hardly be a prison, but we just had to remember to think before showing ourselves.

I asked, "Do you think I have to be that worried here?"

Mr. Castle said, "Evan, until they catch this freak," he paused, "be careful everywhere! He got to you once, and his try today was pretty damned blatant, so I don't want you to trust anyone you aren't certain about in your own mind." He looked at Aaron a little sadly, then back at me. "I hate to tell you this, Evan, but trust nobody, and least not until this guy's down for the count."

Harlan stood and looked at the floor, seeming a bit uncomfortable. "Listen, guys. This place isn't exactly an armed fort, but if you take care there's no way anybody will know you're here. Even so, I still have a company to run, so you'll be here three days on your own, Evan. I can have police checks on you, but you do need to be careful otherwise."

I finally asked, "How do you do that, Harlan? Why are all the police so in awe of you?"

He chuckled, "They're not in awe, Evan, they just know I'm on their side. I support their causes, and in a pretty big way if you know what I mean. In return, my guys get looked after, at least to a point. There's not much to be said if they're in something big, but if it's minor speeding, improper parking, things like that, there won't be a lot of hassle for a Blaine truck."

I grinned, "And in return?"

Harlan smiled embarrassedly and shrugged his shoulders, "Not that much, Evan. I buy the prizes for their fishing derby, take care of the lawn at the PBA club for a dollar a week, contribute when one of them gets hurt. It's not like a big bribe, I just try to keep things copacetic. One hand washes the other, like that."

Oh, I could have laughed. If I was thirty and was Harlan's good buddy, I probably would have, because I'd put him on the spot, and Aaron's father was most likely his insurance man. Then again, if I was thirty and his good buddy, Harlan would have probably turned that last squirm into a boast and asked for a reduction in his premiums.

As it was, I let it drop, and Mr. Castle got up. "I'll be going now," he said, and looked at Harlan. "You're sure this isn't a problem?"

Harlan shook his head slowly as if he was still considering the magnitude of the potential problem, then shook his head quicker and said, "No, no problem at all." A sudden smile crossed his face, "As a matter of fact, I haven't even had our fall cleanup here yet. What was I thinking?" He winked at me, then smiled back at Aaron's father, "I should probably get a crew out here right away, otherwise the place will look like Hell for the holidays."

He led Aaron's father to the door after Aaron got a hug, a kiss, and a whispered warning. Aaron and I plopped down by the fire just before Edie came in with our hot chocolates, and suddenly the world was right again.

I was in a beautiful room of a beautiful home, and I was there in a very comfortable sofa, sitting in front of a big fireplace, and with the most delicious hot chocolate I'd ever had. I grinned at Edie, who was in a chair opposite us, and said, "This cocoa's fantastic!"

She crossed her legs, smiled, and said, "I put butter in it. Isn't it divine?"

It sure was, and I felt like I was in heaven.

Harlan and Edie's home was handsome to begin with, but they had it comfortably furnished and beautifully decorated. Their artwork tended toward homey paintings and lots of antiques, but there was a lot of color in everything, and I don't know how you could try to improve on the look of it.

When Harlan came back, he didn't sit down, but announced, "I bought steaks. Big mother ... um, I mean big mama's!" He pointed at me and Aaron and asked, "How do you guys like them?"

Aaron and I both piped up, "Rare!" and I continued with, "Very rare!"

Harlan smiled, leaned down to Edie and kissed her cheek, and said, "See how easy this is? Meat eaters eat meat! There is no point of oohing and ahhing over something at the butcher shop if your intent is to go home and incinerate it." He stood up straight and pointed a finger at the ceiling, grinning, "Nossir! Steak is steak when it's rare. Otherwise we'd cook it by crashing airplanes into the herd."

Edie scowled at him and said, "Harlan Blaine!"

Harlan smiled, "Yes?"

Edie said, "I still like mine medium."

"And that's why I got us sirloins and you cow meat, I mean flank steak," he grinned. He looked at me and Aaron and said, "Come on, guys, we'll eat in the kitchen."

We followed with our cocoas, and what a kitchen! It was huge, and it was rustic looking with lots of exposed wood. The floor was rust-colored tiles that were a little uneven. Right in the middle of everything, there was a table that was like an oversized butcher block, and it was big enough that there were two stools on each side. There was an iron rack hanging from the ceiling above it, and lots of fancy looking pans hanging from the rack.

The range was like from a restaurant, with six burners on top, two ovens underneath, and what looked like two more ovens above it, part cast-iron and part painted ceramic. The room had to be twenty by forty feet, way larger than their big living room, and it was one marvel after another. The counter tops, wood cutting blocks right next to the stove, were tiles everywhere else, as were the splash blocks behind them. The tiles turned out to be hand-painted and fired by a local artist.

It was night then, but the outside walls were loaded with windows, and you could even catch the view at night because it was lit up out there. There was a raised-hearth, brick fireplace, and that had a glass-door wood stove burning in it.

I was amazed, and I could see that Aaron was too. As big as that room was, as full of marvels, it had to be one of the homiest-feeling spaces I'd ever been in. It was the kind of place you could just sink into, cut up mushrooms and things when they were handed to you, carry on a happy conversation that led nowhere special, but still touched a lot of bases along the way.

We all helped to prepare the meal, and without giving much thought to what we were doing, The food was wonderful, too. Edie poured the wine, and she poured glasses for me and Aaron without asking, and we were on a second bottle before long.

We talked and talked, never broaching people who hurt people, never broaching gay problems, or straight problems for that matter. Instead, we talked about places, talked about people, talked about events. It was happy talk, loud talk, with many outbursts of laughter.

It was the kind of meal that goes on and on because nobody wants it to end, and I sure didn't.

It eventually did, of course, and we were all tired and even a little tipsy by the time we broke up, but it had been a singular evening for me. I was more in awe of Harlan than ever, but of Edie now, too, because I saw how they shared every facet of their lives. That kitchen was their own design, the two of them, and they'd done all of the carpentry, tile work, and decorating themselves. They each had wide-ranging interests, too, both shared and not.

That still wasn't the big thing. They had a lot, but they'd put every bit of it together by hard work. They had courage, the faith of their own convictions, all of that, but the thing that shone through for me was their integrity, separately and as a couple. They were both capable and both did things, but they each nudged the other toward doing the right things, and that part of their history was why they were so far ahead of the curve.

I suppose my parents would have freaked out with Harlan and Edie. There wasn't a college education between them, but they employed a lot of people, and took pretty good care of them all. Harlan didn't do benefits because his employees were transient and it didn't make any sense. The people who hung around got taken care of unofficially, as it turned out.

I aspired more than ever to be like Harlan Blaine. If I ended up doing that much good, and was able to enjoy it that much, what possible difference could it make to anyone that my Edie was named Aaron?

Tipsy I was, and that makes you forget about pain, so I tackled Aaron as soon as the door closed behind us in the very manly looking bedroom we'd been loaned.

"Ow!" Aaron exclaimed, as he hit the bed face first.

I just tried to catch my breath, then I rolled off him murmuring, "Sorry. I lost my mind somewhere there."

Aaron was silent for a moment, then he snickered, "Want me to go look for it?"

I still hurt a little, so I groaned, "You think you'd recognize it?"

Aaron chuckled, "Your mind? In a New York minute!"

I laid beside him on my tummy giggling, "How, Aaron? Tell me what my mind looks like as compared to .. say ... I don't know, say Huck's."

Aaron sighed softly, "I don't know, not that much different, Evan. You and Huck are pretty close."

I smiled, and took his hand, "So give me somebody way different, then."

"Different's easy. I don't want to get into it, Evan. I like the way you think, and I don't want to start comparing." He rolled onto his side and kissed my cheek, "I think you're beautiful, and I love you, and it has nothing to do with anybody else."

I got on my own side, and we kissed on the lips. I pulled back, "You think I'm beautiful?"

Aaron got this smirk that he gets, and said, "Um, let's say you were beautiful, you used to be. Now you're all full of holes, and I don't know what I'm going to do with you."

"Shut up," I said, as I pulled him to me, and we locked lips for real.

I remembered to take my pills later on, and when I got back to bed Aaron was zonked. I don't know if a bed can be described as fancy, but that one sure seemed fancy to me. It had a mattress that was so soft you sank right into it, and the pillows were the same. The sheets were some fine material, and the comforter that I pulled over us was thick, but it didn't weigh a thing.

It was quiet there, dark and warm, blissfully comfortable, and Aaron was right beside me. I fell asleep right away, and slept a dreamless sleep, and didn't wake up once during the night.

Aaron was already dressed when he woke me up. He was stroking my hair gently, saying, "Come on, Evan. Time to get up."

I was face down into the pillow, and when I tried to open my mouth to talk I couldn't, not until I moved. I put my head to the side and asked, "What time is it?"

"Nine o'clock. I let you sleep."

I smiled and yawned, "Thanks, man. I needed that."

He asked, "How do you feel?"

I assessed myself, and felt pretty good. "Better, I think." Then I pushed up and immediately felt pain in my shoulders. "Not perfect yet," I giggled. Then I managed to sit up and hang my feet over the side of the bed. Then it was time for another assessment, and I still hurt, though not horribly. I tried to compare to the day before, and all I could honestly say was that it was less pain, and the jerking had gone completely.

That was enough worry. Aaron was there, and he was stroking my arm absently while I came to. Aaron has many fine traits, and a few really marvelous traits, but patience wasn't among them. He was soon tugging my arm, saying, "Get ready, then. I'm making you breakfast!"

I looked at him, "You are? Where's Harlan and Edie?"

"Church, Evan. C'mon, c'mon! Take your bath!"

I looked at him, and he asked, "What are you looking at? I let you sleep in, the least you can do is get ready now."

He seemed so earnest, but I had the idea something was up. I got to my feet and headed toward the bathroom, and suddenly he was beside me. "Not there, Evan. Follow me."

I did. We walked out into the hall, and he led me into another bathroom just across the way, and there, in all its glory, was a big hot tub, all bubbling and steaming. I didn't get to stare for more than a second, because Aaron pulled my undies right off, and since that's all I was wearing, I was ready for a treat of the bathing variety.

It was a treat, too, at least once I got used to the hot water and Aaron turned down the jets a bit. It felt good all over, but especially on my shoulders where I'd been injured. It was like the massage I craved, the one that fingers couldn't give to me, and the gentle, warm bubbling was perfect. I think I could have gone back to sleep, and I might have if I'd been alone, but I wasn't. Aaron was all solicitous at first, but once he saw I was alright and enjoying it, he just got horny, which made me horny, and a little exercise is always good to get the circulation going.

Later, I was watching Sunday talk on television while Aaron fixed our breakfast. He came in with a fancy looking tray, which he set down on the coffee table. There was toast, a jar of red jam, two cups and a small carafe of coffee, and two long-stemmed glasses full of orange juice. He said, "Pour your coffee, I'll be right back."

He left, and I fixed myself a coffee, having a sip of the juice first. I was nursing the coffee, which was very hot, when Aaron came back in with another tray, and this one had two plates with those metal dome covers like restaurants use, silverware, napkins, salt and pepper.

I said, "Wow, Aaron! This is awesome!"

He bowed, and put a covered plate in front of me. Something smelled good, and I waited while Aaron spread my napkin on my lap, then he pulled the cover off with a flourish, going, "Ta-DA!"

I looked. Before me was a nice, round china bowl. I pointed at it and asked Aaron, "Trix?"

He nodded happily, "I knew they were your favorite! Do you need anything else?"

I gaped, "I don't like Trix, Aaron. I hate Trix. I thought you knew that. You're the guy who likes Trix!"

Aaron's eyes went wide and his eyebrows arched to his hairline while this look of horror spread across his face. His hands clasped on his cheeks, and he cried, "No Trix? Damn! What have I done?"

He slammed the cover back over the plate and said, "I'll fix this somehow, just you watch," like he was Buffalo Bill or something.

"I know what to do! Eat this one," he said, as he switched plates with the other one. He pulled that cover off with a flourish, and there on a plate was the biggest, yummiest looking omelet I'd ever seen. I didn't even have to look at Aaron to know that the whole thing had been one of his elaborate little jokes, but I looked at him anyhow just for the view. Yes, I could smack him sometimes when he's smug, but only on the ass, and more to feel it than to hurt him.

Now, I had to say honestly, "I can't eat all that."

Aaron slipped a clean plate out from under the one the omelet rested on, and said, "You don't have to. Just cut it in half, Evan."

I did, and we shared it, and it was a wonderful meal. I was capable in a kitchen, and Aaron was pretty good most of the time. He did very well that particular day, and even the talk on television was entertaining.

Aaron and I both cleaned up in the kitchen, from breakfast and from the night before. You could see out from all those windows in the daylight. It wasn't a pretty day, gray and overcast, but the view to the outside was still beautiful. We looked across the patio to the barn, which was about thirty feet away.

Anyhow, we sat in the kitchen with second cups of coffee, and just kind of let our breakfast digest. It was a comfortable spot, things outside variously caught our interest, and it was nice to just sit there, hold hands, and let our feet dangle from the stools. I was sipping coffee, intent on the cup, when Aaron whispered in awe, "Evan, it's snowing!"

I looked up, and it sure was, though just a few flakes. It was still the first snow of the year, and for whatever reason that always excited me to see. Snow and ice had always made sense to me in a way. If you had to have winter, there may as well be something to make it interesting, to make it pretty.

Snow was pretty, at least new snow, and it was fun to play in, to slide on. Ice could be pretty, and it was a necessary ingredient for hockey.

We hurried to pull our coats on, then we ran outside, and we both turned our faces to the sky at the same time. I loved the feel of a snowflake on my cheek, and it turns out that I loved the look of one melting on Aaron's cheek.

The first snow of the year. It's different than all the rest, but mostly because the others can't be first.

Snow was snow, and it was already lasting where it landed. I wanted to see the pond I'd sat at the day before, to see the snow fall there. There was still color in the water from the leaves, color on the ground around it from the leaves. Most leaves fell, then they turned brown. The ones that fell near water seemed to hold their color just to provide special moments for the people who sought them out.

Well, seek we did, and special it was! I pulled Aaron by the hand, and we ran across the big lawns into the woods, and right to that black pond. We huddled on the uncomfortable log, and without a word spoken I could tell that Aaron knew the magic of that spot, that time, just like I did.

We wouldn't see it again, at least not exactly like it was. The forest protected its own dregs, so the leaves out there were still colorful, and now there was snow dusting them white.

It was at once beautiful and poignant, even to two fifteen year old boys. We sat silently for awhile, just watching the snowflakes land on the leaves, then Aaron started humming, then sang softly.

When the night has been too lonely
and the road has been too long,
and you think that love is only
for the lucky and the strong.
Just remember, in the winter,
far beneath the bitter snows,
lies the seed that with the sun's love,

in the spring becomes the rose.

Oh, God! Aaron was easy to love, and it was always easy to remember why I loved him. Way down deep, under all the joy that he evinced in every day life, the confidence that people were basically and fundamentally good, Aaron had this inner joy, and it connected him to everything and everybody around him. We were watching the first snowflakes of a new winter, and he already had it joined to the Spring that was sure to follow.

White flakes on his black hair, on the shoulders of his coat, were suddenly very appealing, and we kissed. And I hummed, thinking, Aaron and Evan, up in a tree, k - i - s - s - i - n - g!

Aaron heard the words from the tune, and he snickered that I'd hum that.

We kissed, and it was a kiss. His kiss. My kiss.

Our first one had been in summer, with hot, humid weather. This one was with the approach of winter, and it was cold and starting to snow. There had been ones in between, with the leaves turning colors, then falling.

It was the kisses that mattered, both the real ones and the ones we ate when we were apart. Hershey kisses, reminders really, sweet reminders of a sweet boy.

Beat up, full of holes, not feeling that good because of it all, I still loved Aaron, and being with him made it all better.

We kissed in the snow, then again, then headed back to the house because we were getting wet and cold.

Continued ...

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