Plan B: A Degree of Difference

by Driver

Chapter 5

You can't change the weather. The snow stopped after dusting the branches, and it was almost all gone from the ground by the time Aaron and I got back to the house, and we had barely walked in when Harlan and Edie showed up.

I was in a primo mood. I'd slept really well, had the time in the hot tub, a great breakfast, and a nice walk outside with Aaron. It was Harlan's house, but staying there put us into the midst of their rich lifestyle, and Aaron loved it as much as I did. Our own families were hardly hurting, but neither of us was used to any kind of excess. We both eagerly agreed that a touch of excess was a good thing, though ... an excellent thing.

Harlan and Edie both looked good in the dress clothes they'd worn to church, Harlan in a beige herringbone sport jacket, dark brown slacks, shiny brown wingtips, a white shirt and a dark red tie. The clothes transformed him, and made him look different enough that I saw him for the first time as a really handsome man.

Edie was a striking woman, too. I figured her for a Spanish or Italian heritage, but she could have been a lot of things. Where Harlan was light skinned and had light brown hair, Edie was dark, with black hair and fiery brown eyes. They were both hard people to describe, because from knowing them and working with them, I knew how motivated they were. That didn't really come across in their personalities, and from the first time I'd seen either of them, I always got the impression that they were laid back and friendly.

They were laid back, in truth. Edie was what you could call an elegant lady, and Harlan could seem pretty elegant himself, when he wanted to. At the same time they were both warm and friendly people, both eager to know people and to find ways to niche them into their lives.

I was learning that there's a lot that goes into a life, a lot that ultimately fixes your character where it ends up, and a lot of it is pure accident. In my case, happy accident. I only knew Harlan because of another problem in my life, so meeting him at all was a coincidence. Now I was there, staying in his house as a former employee, and I was totally impressed with the guy.

I learned a lot from him, too, and he didn't go around teaching me lessons, he just showed me. You could be successful. It took work, and I think you probably had to like the work. It took other things, too, like belief in yourself, belief in the people around you. There was probably a monumental hunk of luck involved, too. Harlan was far from the only successful person on the planet, and far from the most successful, but he was the one I knew personally, and therefore my own measuring stick.

His looks certainly weren't a hindrance to his success, but he would have made it if he looked like a fish. Harlan and Edie went upstairs to change, but not before they asked us if we wanted to join them later when they went to pick out Christmas trees.

We wanted to, and Aaron wanted to call home. He went into the kitchen to call, and I stood by a window looking outside while I called home.

My dad answered.

"Hi, Dad, it's me."

There was warmth in his voice, "Evan, hi. I was hoping you'd call. Are you feeling any better?"

I said, "Better, yes. Good, no, but I'm getting better. There's a hot tub here, and that felt really good this morning."

"I'll bet it did," Dad said. "Is everything else okay? Have you heard from anyone?"

"Aaron and his father came yesterday, and Aaron spent the night. He's here now."

Dad cleared his throat and mumbled, "That's nice to hear. Listen, Evan, your mother told me what she said yesterday, and she didn't mean it to sound the way it came out."

"I know," I grumbled, "but it still hurt to hear."

"Evan, we're every bit as shocked and upset as you are with what's been happening. We're certainly not trying to blame you for anything, but if some of our words reflect our shock and upset, well, we still have to talk."

"I know," I said glumly.

"If we try to politically correct all our thoughts before we voice them at a time like this, I don't know how we'll get through it. Cut us a little slack, son. Don't get all snippy the moment we step on one of your sensibilities. We love you, and we're on your side. If you keep that in mind, the next time someone in this family says something boneheaded, just remember that it could be you saying the wrong thing the time after that."

I held the phone in my hand and looked at it. It sounded like my father's voice coming through it, but I was almost certain it had to be an advanced-model Terminator. My family was dead, and this was an imposter. I grinned at the phone. I knew how to find out if my real father could put together such a reasoned response, much less get it out without blustering.

"Pardon?" I asked innocently.

It was him! His voice tightened and got louder, "Don't start, Evan! Don't tell me you didn't understand that. I know you heard it, and I'm not about to repeat myself to appease your tilted sense of humor. We have important things to talk about, and unless you have something constructive to add, let's try to move forward!"

Oh Lord. If I'd been home, and my brothers had heard that exchange, they'd be in the back yard, so red-faced and out of breath from trying not to laugh that you'd have to seriously consider heart monitors to see if they'd survive.

I swallowed, "Okay, I'm sorry. Tell me what's important."

"The police have learned some things. It's all vagueness now, but here goes. They found the knife at the school."

I said, "Yeah, that detective told me that."

"Okay," Dad said, "there may be fingerprints on it, but they haven't said so for sure yet. Yesterday, a lot of people saw things before the shooting started, and they're trying to put it all together. Tommy from next door saw the shooting itself. It was two people in a minivan. The driver shot with a pistol, and there was a shotgun from the back seat. That validates that there are two people, at least. He just saw the guns, not the faces. Other people saw the car, both coming and going, but there are a lot of different descriptions. They have a witness from near the school, too, somebody who saw two people running to a dark-colored minivan around when you were attacked."

I whistled through my teeth while that sank in. "That's it?" I asked.

"That's what they told me, Evan. You have Detective Munro's card, you might consider calling him tonight or tomorrow. I have the feeling that they're waiting for tomorrow more than anything, to see if somebody starts asking after you."

Aaron had come back during this, and he seemed impatient, so I tried to cut it off with my father. "Anything else?" I asked.

Dad sighed, "No, not that I can think of. You?"

I said, "No ... yes!" Aaron leaned up against me, and I said, "I deviate, Dad, but just from the norm. People that try to make it a perversion, some unspeakably un-religious thing, they're just blowing smoke. I can take care of myself, and I've proven that, but I love that you and Mom ... my whole family ..." I got teary-eyed, " I love that you stay with me. I won't let you down, you'll see."

Damn! Aaron started crying, and my father sounded all weepy when he said goodbye.

I hugged Aaron and thought about my brothers.

Well, what could you expect from us? We were four boys, but three of us existed because our parents kept trying for a girl. They were aiming for the perfect nuclear family at first, and to just replace themselves without adding to the world's population, and look what happened when they kept it up.

When Alton wasn't a girl, they took a four-year break, then their next try brought them me. Ever the optimists, when I came out a boy too, they tried one more time. Bruce was the last straw, and in a whole lot of ways. They thought they'd figured out parenting by the time I was born, and I was a complacent baby, a non-complainer by nature. I was the easy one.

Bruce was born with a brain bigger than his ass, and it kept growing from there. His brain, that is.

He was saying words before he was one, talking in sentences before age two, and half of his talk was complaints. If it wasn't for Bruce, we'd have probably eventually gotten a sister, no matter how large the family became.

If my being gay was actually good for anybody, it turned out to be good for Bruce, because it forced him to face a human condition that affected him, and it made him look at it head-on. His IQ was in the top zero percent, but all his logic, all his science, all his math, did nothing to explain me to him.

It took Chris to do that, and Bruce still had all his teeth, so Chris had toned down his persuasive powers and dealt with Bruce on a mental level.

Aaron was tugging at me, and I had to give up my thoughts to him.

That was a happy process, and when he saw that he had my attention he grinned and kissed me. Well, that was probably the number one thing in the world to make me happy, and we kissed back and forth almost foolishly, never getting passionate, or even sexy. This was kissing based on who we were and what we thought about each other, and never mind.

We had love, Aaron and me, and we had it in a lot of ways. I've read lurid stories about love, and we'd done some of the things depicted in those stories, but our love was of a more quiet type. Yes, we could get passionate in private, but we needed a love we could have in public, so it became quiet. Not silent, not by any means. Not forced into quiet, not that either.

No, our love was there for people to see, for us to feel, and it was there all the time. We just took it easy on each other and the people around us.

I couldn't be like Aaron, and he couldn't be like me, but together we were a something. I didn't have a word for it, but Aaron and Evan were absolutely and without a doubt a something, and it was something important, to us anyhow. It was something I wanted to keep, to continue working at and expanding on.

Now somebody wanted me dead, and standing there quietly with Aaron, looking out on Harlan's beautiful yard, was the first time I started to feel my anger rise over the situation. Aaron noticed right away because I tightened my grip on his hand suddenly, and he jumped a little, "What?"

I snickered, "Sorry. I'm just feeling pissed about whoever it is that's trying to get me. It's hard to explain, Aaron."

Aaron nudged me toward a sofa and we sat down beside each other. He said softly, "I'm hardly surprised that you're angry about it. I sure am."

I leaned my head against his and sighed, "It's not just anger, Aaron. It's the way they work, like they're trying to ambush me. I mean, what's next? A sniper behind a tree? A grenade in my bedroom?"

Aaron shuddered, and I went on, "It's not fair, Aaron, it's ... it's ... cowardly! What chance do I have with people who come up from behind, who shoot up my house from a car? If I could just face them, then even if they win I at least get to know who hates me so much." I'm not a despairing person, but being murdered without a fight wasn't high on my list of ways to go out. Murder of any sort, of course, wasn't on that list at all, because there was no such list.

There hadn't been one before, anyhow. I slumped down into the sofa, and muttered, "I'm scared, Aaron. I never really thought of dying before. Not me dying, anyhow. This really sucks."

Aaron whispered, "Don't think about it, Evan. It can't do any good to worry."

I shook my head, "I'm not worried, Aaron, not really. I'm mad more than anything." I looked at him, "I mean, if you wanted to kill me, wouldn't it be kind of your responsibility to let me know, to identify yourself? To say what it's about? I think it's about gay, but only because the guy said that when he was pounding on me. For all I know, he calls everybody a fag. I mean, half the world says that. Even the cops aren't treating it as a hate crime, not yet anyhow."

Aaron rubbed my knee, "What else could it be, Evan?"

"I don't know," I sighed. "Let's change the subject."

Aaron looked at me and asked, "Are you sure? I can talk about this if you want."

I smiled at him. Aaron, for all his outward frailty, was a pretty tough kid. He had to be, I suppose, and that wasn't a happy thought either, but one of the delights about knowing him was how resourceful and brave he really was. If I had a problem, he had the same problem, and we'd face it together.

Which is fine when you know what the problem is. Our real problem was that we had no idea, so for the time being we had to run with just knowing that the police were trying to smoke out whoever it was that was after me.

It wasn't long before Harlan showed up, dressed down to some jeans and a heavy sweater over his dress shirt. He must have caught our look, because he asked, "Something wrong?" before dropping into a chair that faced us.

I said, "Everything's wrong, Harlan. I'm making myself frustrated thinking about it, but somebody wants to kill me, and I have no idea who it is or what he wants. All I know for sure is what they've done so far." I pounded the arm of the sofa for emphasis.

Harlan looked at us thoughtfully, then looked away, then back at us. "I don't know what to say, Evan. You're right, it's like dirty pool that you don't even know who it is. They're playing hardball, though, so you're doing the best thing for now." Then a light seemed to go off for him, "That's it, isn't it? You want to face it, and there's nothing there to face!"

I looked up quickly, "That's exactly it! I don't want to die in some ambush and never know what it was all about. If this guy can get me when I'm looking at him, and it's after I know what he's about, then ... well, then he wins and I lose. If I just die in a sneak attack," I sobbed unexpectedly, "if that happens ... then the way they say it in the movies is what happened, because if that's the way, I just got wasted."

Harlan's look darkened, and he smiled grimly. "Don't talk like that, Evan, you'll get me depressed. You're right, but until something changes, you're still doing the right thing by staying here. I think the idea of smoking these people out is a great one, and there's nothing that says you have to be inside the smoke cloud when they show themselves."

I suppose the instinct to fight back, to protect your physical self, is primal. Still, common sense told me I had no choice. I didn't know the enemy, so there was nobody to face, nobody to go after. I was a sitting duck at home, and if I had to go hide out, at least I had a very amicable hideout.

I felt down, but tried to bring myself up by smiling at Harlan. He smiled back, then Aaron smiled, then I snickered. "This sucks, you know it?"

Harlan said, "It does for sure." His eyes lifted, "Do you agree, Aaron?"

Aaron giggled, "Sucks!"

Harlan smiled, "Then it's final! This officially sucks! Anybody want a sandwich before we go?"

We followed him into the kitchen. Edie had some cold cuts out, and some sandwich fixings. Aaron and I had a late breakfast, so we both made minor sandwiches, ham and cheese for me, with roasted peppers, and Aaron had plain corned beef on rye bread, with just some mustard.

Harlan and Edie both stacked their sandwiches with lettuce, tomatoes and peppers, onions, and wads of meat. It was understandable because it was their first food of the day, but it still seemed that we'd reversed our roles. Aaron and I were eating our parents' sandwiches, and the Blaines were eating like teenagers.

That set the tone for the afternoon. We drove to the tree farm in Harlan's truck, and it wasn't much more than a mile away. Still, I wore shades and a Red Sox cap, which I had sorely protested until Aaron said it was the best way to prove it wasn't me, and he had something there. I blushed just looking in the mirror, but it surely wasn't me there looking back. Evan Smiley wouldn't wear a Red Sox logo if his life depended on it, although I did own a 'Red Sux' hat, and it was among my favorites.

By the time we got to the tree farm, it had started to snow again, or maybe it had never stopped there. We went into this low building that was heated with a wood stove, and Harlan and Edie were greeted warmly by the people working there. They had Edie write their name on ribbons, on tree-shaped tags, and on what looked like hospital wrist-bands. We were there to tag trees, not to cut them down yet.

It was fun. Harlan was the tree meister, and whenever Edie suggested one he looked it over carefully.

If it had possibilities, he'd take note of where we were relative to where the buildings were. After we'd traipsed around for more than an hour, and had surely seen every tree on the farm, he positioned Aaron by one of the possibilities, then me at another one. He and Edie decided on the one by Aaron, and they put tags on it. Then it was time to find one for the office, which had much higher ceilings than their house. Harlan already had a few in mind, and it didn't take him long at all to decide on one.

After the tree farm, we stopped at a food farm, or an orchard, or whatever it was. It had a big barn that was full of things for sale, and very full of people buying things.

Harlan and Edie got a cart, and we followed them for awhile, then stepped outside. There was a deck there, and a nice enough view, and I stood there with Aaron, holding his hand. We hadn't talked a lot except about trees, and when I said, "This is nice," Aaron looked at me.

I had his hand in mine, but in all seriousness he asked, "Do I know you?"

I started giggling, "It's the hat, isn't it? I even have you fooled?"

Aaron backed off, as if in horror, though he didn't drop my hand. "I don't know you! I don't know anybody who'd volunteer to wear that thing on their head. Well, maybe some people, but they're marginal human beings."

I started laughing. Aaron was cutting into his brother and Billy, and I thought it was funny. He was an actor, too, so his incredulity seemed real, and he kept me laughing for a solid minute before he laughed at all.

We ended up just smiling at each other, as was so often the case. We loved each other, and we liked each other, and we had become really close friends as well as lovers. We made each other feel good. Better than that, we made each other feel right, and it didn't take any special setting to realize that. Being with Aaron on the deck of a farm market was like being with Aaron in a hot tub, the only difference being that the crowd of people and the cold air of the farm market caused us to hide our horniness with clothing. Okay, so it wasn't hot and wet, either, but we were more than that anyhow.

Any time we could be together in any way was good, because since we'd met we'd had to find ways to get together. Things hadn't changed all that dramatically when I came back home. We still had weekends together. We had a little more when I was in Riverton, but anything other than the weekends had been pretty spotty anyhow. We still saw each other during school weeks, and there were Hershey's Kisses for those other times.

We weren't complaining. I had expected a big lecture from my folks about what I was and wasn't allowed to do with Aaron, but it had never taken place, and he slept in my room with me from the first time he stayed over. My parents never seemed to be concerned about that, for some reason, and they'd both taken to Aaron, at least on the surface. If they were harboring ill thoughts about our relationship, they were hiding them well.

I could speculate on that. Aaron was pretty effeminate, and he also liked to be touching me in some way when we were together. Even when we were watching television, he'd find some reason to have a leg draped over mine or something like that. It had always been like that with Chris, too, though, and I think my folks were used to seeing me in close contact with other boys. They knew Chris wasn't gay because they'd asked me and I told them, and that had only come up after Aaron's first long visit. There's an old saying about not looking a gift horse in the mouth, and if the elders weren't questioning, I was keeping my mouth shut.

When Harlan and Edie came out, we all carried sacks to the car, then drove back to the house, and carried things in. Aaron and I stayed to help put things away, then I needed pills, and I wanted to get back in that hot tub.

Harlan said, "You know, if you slide that big panel open, there's a television in that bathroom. I'll be watching the game, so you may as well, too."

I grinned at the thought of watching the Jets from a hot tub, and I caught Aaron's little wince, but he could wince all he wanted. He could watch the game or not, maybe read a book or something. When we started out of the room, suddenly Edie was there with us. She whispered, "Guys, go watch the first half up there, then give it up to us. Harlan watches his games from there."

Oh No.

I said, "Tell him to go, then, I really just need my pills."

She smiled, "No, he gave it up, so you enjoy it first." She made this dizzy little motion with her finger, "Halftime, okay? I'll make snacks and we can change sides."

I asked, "Really?"

She nodded a smile, and I headed upstairs with Aaron. Halftime. We'd look like prunes by then anyhow.

I may have mentioned this already, but Harlan Blaine didn't mess around when it came to toys. Behind that big panel in the bathroom that he had mentioned was a big Panasonic HDTV, a thirty-six inch one.

Aaron got the tub right while I messed around trying to figure out the television, then I spotted the remote and used that. I turned off the overhead light and just left on a little spotlight that shone down on the sink.

It was perfect. The room just had a little window, and the light it let in didn't reflect on the television. The hot tub was hot at first, but I quickly acclimated. The reception was perfect, and I settled in to watch the game.

I missed the first quarter because Aaron wasn't having it, so I was more relaxed than ever when halftime rolled around, as close to being asleep as I considered possible while sitting in water.

We were both prunes, too, just like I knew we'd be. I'd managed to go from all pain to lots of pain to some pain to no pain in just two days. I still looked like hell, and that would take time, but I doubted I even needed the bandages anymore. I let Aaron put new ones on anyhow, thinking it was the last time.

We got dressed and downstairs in a hurry, and found Harlan and Edie munching on things in the family room. Aaron sang out, "Halftime! Change sides!" and the rest of us laughed.

Edie had put out a little spread; some cut up veggies with a dip, some apple and peach slices with another dip, and something that looked like tiny pizzas, which turned out to be mini-bagels with slices of salami and cheese cooked on top.

Hungry again, I started grabbing for things. The bagel pizzas were yummy, and the veggies and dip were good, too. The fruit and dip, though, that was outrageous. Aaron and I tried it at the same time, him with an apple slice and me with a peach wedge. While I just savored the sweet on sweet taste, Aaron cried, "This dip is delicious! How do you make this?"

Harlan chuckled and Edie smiled, "It's sour cream and pudding, Aaron, banana pudding in this case."

Aaron had a sweet tooth to start with, and by the time Edie had told him what he was eating, he was just taking in a peach wedge with a big glob of the dip. His face took on that look that only comes around when something you absolutely love is in your mouth, and he was giggling by the time he swallowed it. "Ambrosia!" he cried, "Manna! The food of the Gods!" He licked his lips and smiled, "I love this!" Then he picked up another piece of peach and dipped it.

I liked it, too, and Edie led Harlan out of the room, while Aaron and I took over the still-warm sofa they'd been on.

It was a good deal all around. They got the hot tub, Aaron and I got the food, the other big-screen television, a burning fireplace, and more privacy. Aaron was a sticky, gooey mess by the time he finished off the apples and peaches and dip, but he was a contented mess. He was the way I liked him best, because with sticky fingers and goop on his face he looked like any other happy kid. He could be gay, a hermaphrodite even, but he still found most of his pleasures where everyone else did. He was different, but it was only a degree of difference.

I have this friend, Larry Blum, and he's always lived up the street from me. When we were younger we all had birthday parties every year, and there were games, cake, and ice cream. Nobody's parties were significantly different than anyone else's. Summer parties, if the parents were feeling flush that year, they might rent a trampoline or one of those inflatable houses that bounce around inside of.

We all went to each others' parties, even when we didn't want to go. I guess that on a parental level, that kept popularity out of it. Pick an age, and if you were that age, you went to all the parties, and the same kids came to your party. The only variables were whose house and family.

Larry, though, he didn't want us at his party one year, and it was because he wanted the cake and ice cream for himself. I kind of liked that attitude, and he became one of my better friends. I even went to his Bar Mitzvah, and was sorely disappointed to learn that I wouldn't get to see him being circumcised. Larry was one guy who, as we got older together, I thought was one sexy dude.

Aaron had the same kind of sweet tooth as Larry, though, and that's what brought this train of thought on. That's another trait of mine; I'm always finding common ground for people I know.

We settled into watching the game, comfortably entwined, and I was really comfortable. Then the sad thought that Aaron's father was probably watching the same game, and that he'd come to get Aaron after it ended started to encroach on my thoughts. We'd kind of sprawled, and I got up closer to him and pulled him to me.

"What?" he asked.

"Nothing, the day's almost done."

Aaron sighed, "I know. So kiss me."

I grinned and did just that, and we were still kissing when we heard Harlan and Edie on the stairs. We pulled apart, and Aaron was disheveled, once again, but he looked great like that. I probably looked just like him anyhow.

We had time for another quick kiss, and I was satisfied. I could love Aaron without being in a constant lip lock. I could love him without sex, actually, but I didn't have to so I didn't.

Harlan and Edie came in looking all rosy from the hot tub. Harlan gave us a funny look, but I think anyone would have. Edie exclaimed happily over the fact that we'd eaten everything she put out, including crumbs, and that the bowls were so clean.

Aaron and I decided to clean up, and he had to get his things ready, so we excused ourselves and went upstairs. We washed first, then straightened ourselves out, then sat quietly for a few minutes. Aaron got up just to scoop his belongings into his bag, then sat back down in silence beside me, just our arms and knees touching on one side.

We both liked our quiet times, and it was just short of conscious thought that led us into those little spells. It was just a few moments, then I asked him, "Ready?"

"Uh huh."

We got up and walked downstairs, side by side but not touching. We didn't see Harlan and Edie immediately, so we sat and watched television for awhile. I thought about calling home, but decided to wait until after Aaron left. We heard another phone ringing, and after awhile Harlan came in and said, "Your father's on his way, Aaron." He looked at me and smiled, "He has some of your friends with him, Evan. They can only stay for a little while, so we'll leave you alone, okay?"

I said, "Thanks, Harlan," and he left the room. I figured it would be Billy and Huck, but when they got there Dean and Justin were with them, and Aaron's mother, too.

It was good to see Billy and Huck, because I considered them to be friends, and I didn't get to see much of them when I visited with Aaron. They had not yet managed to get over to my house, either, so there were a lot of smiles to go around.

Billy wanted to see my injuries, and even with Aaron's mother chiding him for being morbid, he talked me out of my shirt. My shoulders felt better, but they looked worse, even to my eyes. What was black was blacker, and the red and yellowish areas stood out more, too. Both my shoulders looked almost like I had a giant, very abstract tattoo. When Dean gingerly pulled up a bandage to see one of the stab wounds, it was a slash of black that made everyone wince.

I heard Harlan come in, and he gasped, "Oh Jesus!" He came quickly to me for a better look, and he sighed, "I had no idea, man. That must hurt like hell."

I said, "Not really, not anymore." I looked at myself and it was ugly. It didn't feel good, either, but I was functional. It'd be awhile before I was doing pushups, and in truth I could barely put my own shirt on, but I didn't feel like complaining. The agony was behind me, and I was getting better.

Nobody stayed long. Billy's dad was waiting on him and Dean for dinner, and Aaron's family wanted to get home, too. I didn't mind, really.

I hadn't done much all day, at least not physically, and I still felt weary. Going to bed early seemed like a good idea.

The goodbyes were a little funky because people had seen my wounds, and it seemed to make them feel funny toward me, like nobody wanted to touch me. Dean and Mr. Castle had already gone with Justin, and Billy was just looking at me, worry in his eyes. I smiled and hugged him to me, and he flailed his arms for a second, like he was afraid to hurt me, then he finally grabbed on. He whispered, "I'm sorry, Evan. I wish I was there."

I snickered, "You were getting laid, right?"

Billy giggled, "Close to laid. I'll get there."

"Give me a base," I suggested.

Billy snickered, "Okay ... um, caught between second and third."

"Explain?" I asked.

He put his mouth right to my ear and whispered, "Hand job."

I pulled back and grinned at him, "Way to go!" picturing it, putting myself in that girl's place. I said that, too, whispering, "Lucky girl!"

Billy laughed, then he left with Aaron and his mother and Huck. Huck was funny too, saying that I'd chosen an odd way to become black like him, but he appreciated the thought behind it all.

Huck hugged me, too, then Aaron's mom did, then it was just Aaron and me there in the foyer.

His eyes were sad, so I kissed him, and they brightened. I said, "I'm fine, guy. Our day ... is on the way!" I just thought of that, and it made us both smile. "I'm fine, Aaron," I assured him. "Call the cell phone later, and don't worry if I don't pick up, because I'm envisioning major sleep in my future."

He smiled back, "You sleep, I won't call." He took a half-step back. "I love you, Evan. I want you better, and I want this over." His smile faded, "I can't help with getting it over and done with, but I can let you sleep." His eyebrows lifted, "Okay?"

I kissed the tip of his nose and said, "Very okay, Aaron. I'll dream about you."

* * * * * * * *

I did dream about Aaron that night, but not a dream that's pleasant to recall. I was walking by the little pond with the black water, looking for Aaron. I could hear sounds off in the woods, and I kept calling his name. Finally, I heard him calling back faintly, and it was clear that he was in distress.

I couldn't find him. I'd head off in the direction his voice came from, then it would be somewhere else, and sounding even more panicky. Evan, they're hurting me. When I ran, I still couldn't get close. Then finally .. finally, he sounded closer, but more scared than before, more desperate, and he was screaming and crying for me. I was sloshing through mud, my face was being hit with branches, but I was getting close, and I kept calling back to Aaron.

I finally burst into a small clearing .. and woke up!

Oh, Lord! I was sweaty, breathing hard, and confused about where I was. I sat up, and the softness of the bed immediately reminded me that I was at Harlan's. I climbed out of bed and went to the bathroom, then drank a little water from the tap to wash down a pain pill. They'd been working well, but they did wear off, and my shoulders had a slight throb happening.

I didn't stay up long enough to really wake up, and I got back to sleep easily enough. I'd never even looked at the time.

If I dreamed again, I don't remember it. When I woke up next, it was already light out, and not like early-morning light. I had to go tot he toilet again, and afterwards I went downstairs in just the sweats I'd worn to bed. The house was silent, and when I got to the kitchen the clock read ten past eight, so Harlan and Edie had been gone for awhile.

I didn't see any notes or anything, so I poured a glass of orange juice and drank that while I dumped out the cold coffee and started a fresh pot.

I went to watch television while the coffee maker did its thing. I guess I'm the opposite of Eli, because I usually find television difficult, and right then wasn't any different, so I turned it to CNN and left the room to get a coffee.

I'm usually pretty hungry when I wake up, but I wasn't then, even though I hadn't had a real meal since breakfast the day before. I'd eaten snacks watching football, then had corn chowder from a can that Edie doctored up with ham at night.

I chalked it up to the pills, and dropped a couple of slices of bread in the toaster. When I was looking for jelly, I found a jar of honey and put some of that on, and it was all I wanted. I took a second cup of coffee in to watch the news with, but it was the financial news by then and I wasn't interested, so I turned the television set off and poked through their cd's to see what music they had. It was an eclectic mix, to say the least, but music wasn't exactly what I had in mind either, so I started wandering around the downstairs rooms.

The wing where the kitchen and the family room were had obviously been added on, even though colonial touches were everywhere, and I think a lot of the materials must have been salvaged. The family room floor had a big, beige carpet over most of it, but where the wood planks showed, they were of all sizes, some probably fifteen inches wide, others as narrow as six. The wood was stained to a reddish-honey color, and it somehow just looked to me like very old wood.

That whole section had been built as an ell to the original house, which was a two-story colonial. That part of the house had much lower ceilings, probably seven foot instead of eight. I remembered to be wary of the front windows, and only looked into the formal living room and dining room, which were both pretty elegant looking, and beautifully furnished. One of the rooms must have been the original kitchen. It faced the back of the house, but shared a chimney with the dining room, and the fireplace on the kitchen side was a big, rounded-top affair with some kind of metal hook near the top, and a couple of iron doors on the side. I knew those were Dutch ovens, though I couldn't tell why they were called Dutch. There was a design on each, but underneath that it said, 'Phila.'.

The old kitchen didn't seem to serve any current purpose, except as a pass-through to a glassed-in porch, which I remembered from the picnic as a screened-in porch. I didn't go out there, but the door to it had a nice window. It was a large porch, front-to back of the house, and probably eighteen feet wide. It had a blue floor, and there was green and white floral print on everything, but still a lot of wood accents. At the picnic, Harlan said he lived out there in the summer, and that it was his favorite place in the world. I suspect, that with a house like that, he probably had other favorite places, too.

I wandered back to the family room and thought about starting a fire in the fireplace, but it actually looked pretty nice outside, so I stepped out to check the temperature. It was nippy but not cold, and the November sun was out bright, so I went upstairs for my shoes, then pulled my jacket over my sweats and went outside.

I had this odd feeling about me that I couldn't place, and when I reached the grass it dawned on me. I had that feeling like I'd been sick, and I was back outside for the first time in awhile. That wasn't the case, and I'm not sure where it came from, but that's how I felt. And it felt good.

I took a different direction, following the yard to the far side before turning towards the woods where the little pond was.

It was a cheerful walk, a nice day after a gloomy one, and I felt myself getting better, felt myself healing. Even though I had pains in new places, I attributed the new ones to me favoring the old pains, to sleeping in odd positions. It was nothing anyhow, just aches a little farther down my arms.

When I got to the pond, it was still black looking, and I looked up to see if the sky was really bright blue with puffy clouds floating by. It was, and the pond was even prettier by comparison. Even though it seemed to refuse to reflect the sky above it, the colorful leaves floating there and surrounding the water took every advantage of the special light to show off their colors.

I sat on the skinny log, and it still didn't feel good under my butt, but it was the best vantage point, and I wished I had a camera to record the scene.

Then I remembered my dream from the night before, and that made me listen, but the only sounds were faint ones of traffic in the distance, the thin limb under me creaking with my weight when I moved, me tossing a pebble into the water. It was a very pleasant place to be, and I stayed there for a long time, and not much passed through my head except reflections.

I sat there until I felt that if I mooned somebody, I'd have both vertical and horizontal cracks in my ass. It hurt, and I was stiffening up, so it was time to go back. I took the middle of the yard heading back, and it was beautiful. There was nothing you'd call a hill, but it was higher there and you got an idea of the scope of the place. The woods were at the back of the property, at least the ones that Harlan owned and that I'd been visiting.

From the house back, on the side where the house was, there was a board fence that went the whole distance, even beside the woods, because there was a road along that side, not ten feet from the fence.

The other side was all woods, but not land that Harlan owned. It was a state park that had never been developed, so it was just woods. If it got developed, then a fence might go up on that side, too, but it wasn't a problem for the present. It was public land, but you'd have to struggle a long distance through dense forest to get to where it abutted Harlan's property.

When I stepped into the house, I was startled by a loud noise. I froze in my tracks and listened, and it sounded for all the world like a vacuum cleaner. It got my heart beating anyhow, and when I tracked the noise to its source I was as startled as the lady I frightened.

"Ahhhhhh!" she screamed.

"Ai-eeee!" I cried, then I realized that she was indeed vacuuming, and that she was barely over five feet tall. A maid, or cleaning lady, or something like that. My heart quieted, and I smiled, "Hi. I won't bother you."

"You are?" she asked, with a strong accent.

"I'm Evan," I said, "just visiting." I tried to smile reassuringly.

She smiled herself, "Ah, relative?"

I shook my head, "No, employee. Um, former employee!"

She nodded like she heard that every day. "Okay, well, back to work for me."

I asked, "What's your name?"

"Katrina," she said. "If you work for Harlan, then you know Ivan?"

I nodded. Ivan was this giant blond guy from Russia. Katrina said, "Ivan's my husband."

That made me smile. Ivan was well over six feet tall, and probably weighed something like two-fifty. Katrina was little, and in the way a little girl is little, which is to say in every way. Her face was older, but her body was that of a young teenager, fifteen or younger.

I suddenly felt something grab my leg, and when I looked down there was a toddler there. It was funny. Ivan was blonde, very blonde for a guy his age, and Katrina was blonde. This kid had hair that was positively white, and eyes that were blue like the ice in a glacier. He had a broad smile, and a big booger dangling from his nose. I grinned, and bent down to pick him up.

I got him at eye level and said, "Hi, Tiger."

"His name's Arnold," Katrina said, and she stroked the back of his head, "Say hello to Evan."

Arnold focused on me, gave me a cute smile, and said, "Hewo, En."

I laughed and looked at Katrina, "Close enough. Want me to look after him while you work?"

She nodded eagerly, and I was hungry by then, so Arnold and I made friends in the kitchen. I made some scrambled eggs, soft the way I liked them, and made three so Arnold could have some, and he liked them that way, too. We ate it all, had juice and milk, then I took him outside.

My experience with little kids was almost zero, but Arnold appealed to me. He was bright, had a sunny disposition, and he seemed to like me just fine, and whatever I wanted was what he wanted.

Nice days in November are measured things, and it clouded up after awhile, and it got colder. We went back into the house, and his mother was almost done anyhow. I waited until they left, then took my pain pill. I thought I probably didn't need the muscle relaxants anymore.

I could still tell when the pain pills lost effect, and it would be awhile before I didn't want them anymore. I really didn't want to take anything, but I had to. I didn't like drugs, didn't like the idea of drugs. The muscle pills made me feel tired, the pain pills interrupted my stomach.

They each had a desired effect, and they each had side effects. I didn't like the side effects, but they were minor enough that I didn't hate the pills either. I just didn't want them.

I poked around after Katrina left with Arnold. It was starting to spit rain outside, so another walk wasn't appealing. I was even less interested in afternoon television than the morning variety.

If Harlan and Edie ever read anything, I hadn't found it yet. Not a book, not a magazine, not even a newspaper.

It was probably one in the afternoon before I realized that I hadn't even washed up that day. I went and took a quick shower, quit the idea of bothering to shave as soon as it entered my head, then I went and laid in the hot tub. That felt good, just like I expected, and I stayed for another long time. I eventually felt water logged, so I got out.

I was experiencing something that was unusual for me, and that was boredom. It was hard for me to just sit, harder still to sit by myself. I poked around into other parts of the house, even looking in Harlan's and Edie's bedroom, but just for a second. It took up the whole front half of the old part of the house, and the door from the hallway was open, so I looked in. What I saw at a glance was a sitting area that looked very comfortable, and there was another fireplace in there. It looked nice, and worthy of exploration, but I figured I'd be pushing my luck by checking out their private space.

Finally, across the hall, I hit paydirt. It was a library, or study, and except for one large window and the door to the hall, it was all bookshelves, from floor to ceiling. There were a few armchairs, dark green ones, with side tables and separate lamps for reading. There were a few other tables, and they were stacked with magazines.

I flipped on the light switch, and track lights from the ceiling did a good job of lighting up the books, so I went to find something. A whole section was horticulture, books on decorative landscaping, practical landscaping, gardening, arboring. Yawn.

There was another shelf with books and picture books about colonial times in the U.S. Architecture, city planning, modern paving techniques, bricklaying for beginners, a history of stone construction.

I appreciated all those things, I really did, and if the history of cobblestones in America was the only book there, that would have been the one I read. I probably would have found it interesting, too, but I was looking for something else. A spy novel, an adventure, maybe even a mystery. I was questing after entertainment, not personal edification.

They were there, of course, a whole wall full of fiction, and part of another wall. Some of it was sorted; all the Michener books were together, all the Twain. Other things seemed pretty random, and I just started pulling books out, thinking I'd decide from the jacket. It didn't take all that long, and I decided on "The Least One" by Borden Deal. It was about a poor family during the depression, and the notes on the back cover were enough to interest me.

I sat down in one of the comfy chairs, and I was lost in the book immediately. It was a storyteller's tale, not a writer's, and it was thoroughly engrossing. I was appalled by the hardships American people had to live through, and not that long ago, but the story only pointed them out. It was more amusing than sad, and I laughed out loud several times at how the author could turn a phrase.

I was lost in it; the endless days in the fields, followed by more work at home. A relentlessly hard life with no end in sight, but no loss of hope, either. It was beautiful.

I was enthralled enough that I had no idea a sound was trying to get through to me, but it finally did. Somebody was pounding on the door, which was more-or-less underneath where I was sitting. I could hear a voice yelling, too. I jumped up and looked out the window, but the overhang blocked the view, so I just tore downstairs and yanked the door open.

I almost got punched in the face for that. Justin was there, Aaron behind him, and Justin was in mid-swing to pound on the door again, with the side of his gloved fist. I ducked and it went right past me, but I was still startled. Justin looked at me with a very surprised smile on his face, and Aaron came from behind him.

"Evan!" he cried. "Where were you? I tried to call from school, and we were just about to break the door down."

Aaron was anxious, and he was agitated, and it was my fault. I glanced at Justin and he nodded, with a little smile. I pulled Aaron to me and hugged him, saying, "I'm sorry, Aar. I found something to read, and I was just into it. I don't know what number you called, but I never heard anything."

He snuggled into me and snickered, "You're a goof. I called your cell phone, and I know I dialed right because I got voice mail. Where is that phone, Evan?"

I was smug, and I said, "Right here," as I felt for it in my pocket. My smugness vanished immediately, because not only didn't I have a phone, I didn't even have a pocket. I was in my sweat pants, still, and a loose, unbuttoned shirt, nothing else. I had no idea where the phone was, or even when I'd seen it last.

Unlike a lot of my friends, I wasn't used to carrying a phone around. Chris always had his. He kept it on a belt-clip that he even attached to his gym shorts. If he wasn't actively showering, that phone was a part of him, and even when he was in a public shower it was no farther away than the top of his towel.

I snickered to Aaron, "I need discipline. I don't even know where it is."

Aaron gave me a look, then smiled slyly, "If you let me do the disciplining, I'll find it for you."

I looked helplessly at Justin, who shrugged and said, "No reason for me to hang around, then. Call me when you're ready, Aaron, otherwise I'll pick you up right after six."

"Thanks, Justin," I said. He smiled and then shook his head, and he left without another word.

I said, "Okay, discipline boy, find that telephone!"

Aaron nodded, shed his coat to the back of a chair, and picked up a cordless phone from the desk. I knew immediately what he was going to do, and I felt like an idiot. He dialed, heard nothing, so he hung up and hit redial and started walking. The phone, of course, was right beside my bed where I put it the night before.

We sat on the side of the bed and I checked the messages. The first one was from the morning, "This is Munro. I'm expecting to hear from you today," and he left his number. The next one was from him, too, at noon. "This is Munro. Call me, Evan, we need to talk."

I muttered, "I'm in trouble, Aaron."

The next message was Donovan, "Evan, don't hide from us. We have things, and we really need to talk to you. Here's my home phone, call whenever, okay?" He gave the number.

I looked at Aaron, "I have to call in to the police," then I heard Aaron's first message, which was followed by three increasingly anxious ones. I sighed, "I'm sorry, I just forgot."

Aaron stood up, made a dramatic gesture with his arm, and looked up, just over my head. "Fine, Evan! Be careless. I won't mind, and I'm sure the police don't care." He thought of something and smiled at me, "Heh, careless people is how they earn their living."

"Go home," I said, as I dialed Munro's number. I got voice mail and left him a message, apologizing for not remembering the phone. Then I called Donovan, and I did the same thing.

I groaned. For all the convenience cell phones promised, voice mail certainly took it away at a faster rate. Now I had to be in line to get called, and Aaron was there, so I had better things to do. I would have talked if I could control when I could talk, but I couldn't even do that. I picked up the phone and poked through the menu until I found where it said, 'Ringer, Pulse, Both, Off' and I chose 'Off'.

That done, I tapped Aaron's shoulder, because he was looking out the window. "I'm ready for my discipline."

Aaron was surprised, "Your calls?"

"Nobody home," I said. "So, what do I have to do?"

Aaron grinned, "Blow me."

I looked at him, "That's punishment?"

He shook his head, "No, that's discipline. You want to be punished, too?"

I stared at Aaron and mumbled, "No, discipline is good." I smirked, "So, are we doing this with your pants on somehow? Come on, Castle, show me that turret!"

* * * * * * * *

I didn't get in touch with Sgt. Donovan until after dinner, and I had to call him at home. He didn't seem to mind, and he updated me on the status of their investigation. It wasn't a whole lot, but they had clues from the scene that told them some things, information about the shooting incident that told them other things. They were following up on things I already knew about, like the jacket and the knife.

"Are you still waiting for someone to start asking about me?" I asked.

Donovan said, "We're waiting. You should know that your principal and his staff aren't too happy with us, but we haven't really told them anything yet, and she's pretty well steamed. Heh, in a way that's payback for us, because what that school doesn't tell us about things that are legitimate police business could fill a book a month."

"Really?" I asked, but he didn't answer that question.

"We talked to all your friends, and they agreed to not say anything, and they're listening for us. Frankly, there's not a lot of interest, and everything that is going around in the school is just rumor, and pretty far off base. If our guy gets nervous, he should stick out like a sore thumb."

I said, "My friends ... none of them are ..."

"No, Evan, and they each swore they hadn't told a soul about you being gay."

I was glad to hear that. I didn't think my friends would tell anyone, but it was still nice to hear. "What about me being absent?"

"It's not an issue yet, Evan. A couple of hundred kids are out every day, and it's a short week anyhow. If you miss all three days, that would be in line with you just having a cold. If we get into next week, then you can have the flu. For now, we're saying nothing at all. If your name happens to pop up on the list for the school to call, your mother will simply say you're not feeling well. If this goes long, we'll have to come up with a way to keep you current, but for now nobody's doing anything."

I asked timidly, "Do you ... do you think it could go on for long like that?"

"I don't know, Evan, not for sure, but I doubt it. There's a long, holiday weekend starting in two days, and our guy most likely wants to celebrate it himself. It's just my gut, but I have a feeling that he'll get jumpy over your disappearance. He'll show himself."

"I hope so," I said, feeling kind of distant. "Is there anything else?"

"Not from me. How are you feeling?"

I said, "This sucks, but I'm doing okay. I look like hell, and it still aches a little, but nothing like before."

"That's good. You're getting better, then. I'll let you go if there's nothing else."

I thought, then said, "Nope, nothing else."

"Bye then, Evan. Try to remember your phone tomorrow."

I said, "I will," but he was already gone.

I sat back, satisfied. After I did my penance with Aaron, we took a short walk in the cold drizzle just for the sake of being outside. The weather wasn't nice, but it wasn't awful, either, and it felt good to hold hands and breathe in the chill air.

Justin had just arrived to pick Aaron up when Harlan and Edie came in with a big bag from KFC.

I walked out to Justin's car and got a kiss goodnight from Aaron, then came back in for a meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits and bean salad. After they ate, Harlan and Edie left separately.

Harlan had a meeting to go to for some board he was on, and Edie was off to see a friend. I watched CNN for awhile, then went back to my book. Aaron called after he'd done his homework, and we talked for quite a while, ending with kissy noises when I couldn't stop yawning. If he was there, I could have stayed up, and I don't think I ever consciously yawned in front of Aaron.

I went to the bathroom before bed, and decided I could try a little harder when I saw myself in the mirror. I'd never really combed my hair that day, hadn't shaved, hadn't gotten properly dressed all day.

Tomorrow, I thought, as I switched off the bathroom light. I figured out the alarm clock and set it for six, thinking tomorrow. I looked around, then took the things out of my bag and either hung them in the closet or put them in drawers, then I put the bag on the closet floor. Tomorrow I'd get up on the alarm. Tomorrow I'd take a shower, shave and comb my hair. I'd put clothes on, have a quick breakfast and a cup of coffee, and I'd be ready to ride to work with Harlan.

I felt a twitch in my shoulder, and it reminded me to take my pain pill, so I went back to the bathroom and took it with some water, still thinking about tomorrow. I might not need the pain pills by then. I could carry them in my pocket, just in case, but I was getting better.

Tomorrow I'd get back to normal, do normal things, think normal thoughts. I probably didn't have the strength to rebuild an engine, but I could help on the computer, drink coffee and talk about distant lands with Hokay. I could see how things had changed and how they hadn't, and I could talk about movies with Shane.

I was the victim of a crime. I knew I could never change that little fact, but I was damned if I was going to feel victimized anymore. Whoever had it in for me had his own agenda, and I wasn't party to it. He might still succeed, but I doubted that he would, if only because I didn't feel ready to die yet, at least not on his whim.

I'd been surprised once, not sure that I was really being assaulted until it was too late. If this guy wanted to try again, he'd have to do it from a distance, because if he ever got that close to me again he'd have a real fight on his hands, and I was feeling righteous enough to think it was one he didn't have a prayer of winning.

I'd spent the day alone, and it was an isolated alone because I couldn't go anywhere, couldn't contact just anybody. I'd felt self-sufficient for years, and that hadn't changed, but now I knew for real that I wasn't self-entertaining. I needed people more than I needed a nice house or a big yard, and it partly took a two-year-old to show me that. Little Arnold gave me a cheerfully-spent hour that I couldn't find on my own. I could take care of myself, even thrive on my own, and I'd learned that for real when I left home.

I didn't like being alone, though, and that was another thing that had become clear when I left my family and friends. Having a job helped, because I was with people. I had the sociability of working with other people, living with other people, but I still cried myself to sleep every night for a month.

Some of those people were friends now, but they weren't then, and going to bed at night with nothing but acquaintances to think about left a huge hole in me. I hadn't felt sad during the day, really, but staying in the nicest house I'd ever seen, having the biggest yard I knew about at my disposal, I still bored myself.

I never minded solitude, in fact I often sought it out. I liked to find a nook to read in where nobody would see me, and I liked to shut myself away to do homework. It's another thing that's a matter of degree, I suppose. Sought-after solitude was a good thing, but imposed solitude was just boring.

I climbed into bed and got comfortable, which wasn't hard given such a comfortable bed.

My mostly-boring day hadn't been entirely bad. I took a nice walk in the morning, and another with Aaron just after dark. I played with a two-year-old and enjoyed myself, which isn't something I ever thought would happen. I soaked, I read, and it was pleasant enough, I guess.

Still, I'd get back on track tomorrow.

I wasn't dead yet, and this guy wasn't about to make me dead. I could go to work in a place he knew nothing of, and he could stew in his own juices for all I cared. I settled into bed, reveling in the simple beauty of Det. Munro's plan. This guy, whoever he was, thought he'd killed me on Friday, then he had to try again on Saturday, and now I'd simply disappeared, and in a way that absolutely nobody was talking about me.

His curiosity would out him eventually, but he had to act faster than that for his own sake. He could try to kill me anonymously, but he could never be sure about who knew what about him. With the possibility that I was alive, he had too many things to worry about to not show his hand. He could either leave town, or he could ask some questions.

When I disappeared, it meant one thing, and that was the fact that only one adult male in Mt. Harman could incriminate himself by asking questions about me. The questions had been asked legitimately when I left home before, and the police knew where legitimate came from.

This would be an unknown, or unlikely, person asking after me, and he'd get caught for doing it. If it didn't happen within a week or ten days, then Munro thought it would be safe to assume he'd left town.

He'd show up tomorrow, though, I shared Donovan's confidence in that. He was in deep, and if it went into the weekend he'd have to wonder for four days. Nobody thought he was a model of patience.

Tomorrow! I'd show up at work in Riverton, not at school in Mt. Harman. My 'guy' as I'd come to think of him, would have another day of not knowing, and he'd get more nervous. He'd ask some kid, some teacher, somebody. He'd ask some question, and he'd ask after me by name.

You couldn't hide something when you asked questions. I went to that school, and when somebody asked if somebody else was out for a reason, the answer would be a disinterested shrug. Students didn't care, teachers marked you absent, and the administrators who should have cared only cared if you came up flagged on the computer, then they'd call your house.

If anybody asked more than a disinterested, "Evan's not here?" he'd get noticed. He'd probably already shown his hand and they just hadn't heard yet. He was anxious to get me, and me just disappearing had to be killing him, plus worrying him to death.

He'd show tomorrow, or at the very worst, the day after.

Tomorrow I'd work, do something useful. I'd get some time with Aaron and do something wonderful, which was a happy thought.

Tonight I'd sleep, another happy thought.

Then there was tomorrow, a new day..

Continued ...

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