Plan B: A Degree of Difference

by Driver

Chapter 7

When Harlan came back from taking Aaron home, we both offered to help Edie in the kitchen, and we were assigned little jobs of chopping things up, but she pretty much wanted to work on things alone.

They had some friends and family coming for dinner, but they weren't expected for a few hours. The Macy's parade was on television, but even in wide-screen it was still just a parade, so Harlan and I went outside. It was cloudy, warm for that time of year, and we shot baskets for awhile, then took a walk out back.

"How are you holding up?" Harlan asked.

"I'm fine," I said, blankly. "I just wish they'd figure something out."

Harlan said, "I'll bet you do," then he snickered, "Well, it's good that you're missing home, I suppose. Things are going good with your parents? Better than you thought?"

I looked at Harlan and realized that I hadn't told him much of what had gone on, just the wild parts. I shrugged, "Yeah, pretty good. I'm not ostracized or anything, but they're not exactly jumping through hoops, either." I dragged my toe for some reason, and stumbled because of it, but it was just a mis-step. "My dad's better than my mother, but it's still not perfect." I stopped and thought, then looked at Harlan again, "I don't know what it is that I'm getting from them. It's not like they're mad, or even upset. They both like Aaron and they see how we are together." I couldn't explain, "I don't know, Harlan, it's nothing overt, but there's still something wrong, and I think it's that they just don't like that I'm gay. Period! Nobody says anything, nobody argues it, but it's still not right. Am I making any sense?"

Harlan patted my shoulder, "Yeah," he muttered, "I guess I can see that."

We started walking again, in silence, then he said, almost in awe, "It shouldn't be like that, you know it?" He stopped and turned to me, "Evan, gay was always a distant thing for me. I never had a big reason to even consider it. The gay people I knew of were always kind of on the periphery, and I never really thought either good or bad about them." He smiled, "You know, I was really naive when I was younger. I didn't know about girls, much less two guys together, and when my friends would talk about guys ... um, sucking them off ... I thought they were so full of shit .."

I nodded eagerly, "And?"

Harlan smiled meekly, "And ... well, and! What the heck did I know?" He nudged me with his elbow, "So, I guess that brings us to the here and now." He indicated a bench and said, "Let's sit."

We sat down, and he went on, "Evan, when you came to interview, I didn't know what to think. You were so damn eager for that job that it was almost funny. Half the guys I get coming in just want their unemployment cards punched, and I'm looking at a kid who really wants to work. Hiring you felt like an obligation, then I worried for the first few weeks because I know how the crews can be."

I snickered, "You remembered me? I'm surprised."

Harlan smiled, "Don't be. The worst I heard about you was indifference, but you made some impressions, too. Then, when Shane got hurt, you came inside and ..." He looked at me and smiled, patting my knee, "and that's when I saw your star." He straightened, "Evan, you impressed the hell out of everyone in the company, and that is no small thing." His voice softened, "Mostly, you impressed me, so when I learned you were gay it brought the whole idea of being gay up front to me, and I learned fast."

I looked a question at Harlan, and he said, happily, "I think I told you this, Evan, but you should be the spokesperson for all gay men." He grinned at my confused look, "What I'm saying is, if you ... Evan Smiley ... is gay, then where's the problem with all this?" He leaned back, still grinning, "And before you hit me, Aaron is at the opposite end, but we find ourselves really liking him."

"Really?" I asked hopefully.

Harlan nodded, "Yeah really," he said softly. "Not that long ago I might have not ... noticed him, but I don't think that'll happen again." He snickered, "I mean, Jesus! Look at the people who work for me! If they're not drunks, then they're on drugs. The ones with kids, I don't think some of them know their own kids' names. Hah! I bet I could get you a medal from the town for keeping the McAffree boys out of the bars! And I'm supposed to disdain you?" He pounded my shoulder, making me wince, but he didn't notice, "Never again, Evan. Never again! Gay is not good and gay is not bad. Gay just doesn't matter, not anymore, not to me."

I smiled as we stood and continued our walk. Harlan had impressed me from the moment I met him, and he continued to. He was an honest man, a hard-working man, and a straight shooter. He was also hugely compassionate

It helped that he had a compulsion for tech toys, but Harlan was more than ever the man I wanted to be like. I was setting my sights high, I thought, but that was better than setting them low.

I moved a little closer to him as we walked, and I found myself wondering if he was liking our walk as much as I was. He'd just given my ego a stroke from the nose to the toes, and I was hugely pleased to once again hear that Harlan thought so highly of me.

Still, I had things on my mind, and I asked, "Did you live here when those kids got murdered? I didn't know it was right near here until yesterday."

Harlan said, "That happened before we bought this place." He looked to me, "How'd you know about that, anyhow?"

I shrugged, "It wasn't that long ago. It was all over the news when it happened, then again when they found the one kid, then a third time when that guy got shot." I smiled, "I just wondered if you had any ghosts from that."

Harlan snickered, "No ghosts, Evan. This old house creaks and groans with the best of them, but I think our ghosts are more architectural than spiritual. We're sealed up now, but when we first moved here there were spots you couldn't put a lit candle in, the drafts were so bad." He snickered, "I mean, you hardly ever hear about a ghost in a new house, and I think you can peg most of that to construction methods. Nails and screws don't shrink, where wooden pegs do. That's not to say that a modern house won't make noise as it settles, but the settling will eventually end. A house like ours will only shut up when it finally collapses into the foundation."

"I don't think that will happen soon," I said, but I didn't want to be talking about houses or ghosts anyhow. "Do those people still live around here?" I asked.

"What people?"

"The families ... that kid who got kidnaped, the ones who got killed?"

Harlan gave me a curious look, then said, "I don't know. That whole thing happened, and most of it right here, but I never followed up. I mean, it was awful, but we only learned about it after the fact."

I shrugged and thought I'd drop it, then Harlan asked, "Why the interest?"

I said, "I don't know. I got attacked, too. I know it's not related, but still ... I don't know, I just think I can learn things sometimes."

Harlan put a hand on my shoulder, "I can't help you a lot with this one. I can see why you find a connection to the area. I know that the guy who did the crime here was pretty slick. There was no trace, no real evidence, until he got careless and let the kid he took start roaming around."

I thought about that, and it didn't make sense. "Why do you think he did that, Harlan? And why do you think that boy didn't take off running the first chance he got?"

Harlan shook his head and said grimly, "It's hard to believe, but I've read that kidnaped people, even adults, can start to look at their kidnapers as all they have left, their only means of support."

I looked at Harlan in amazement, and he went on, "It can be true of POW's, political hostages ... they can form bonds with their jailers. I suppose it stands to reason. Who else do they have at that point? They're dependent on their takers for everything, and if they're treated with any kindness at all, then I can envision feelings developing. So yeah, a young boy like that, even though he's being savagely abused, he's also being fed, sheltered, cared for in basic ways. And who knows what lies he's being fed to justify everything?"

I said, "At least the kid's dad took care of that fucker."

Harlan put his hand back on my shoulder and said softly, "I don't think that was right, Evan. Understandable, yes, and that man got his own justice. He took justice from the other families, though, and he took away any chance at all for them to understand the person who killed their children, or even the real circumstances of their deaths. It looked for the longest time like it was going to be an unsolved crime. Well, now it's solved, but no understanding came from that particular solution."

I hung my head, "Sorry, I never thought of that."

Harlan smiled, "Never mind. Anyhow, it's Thanksgiving, a day of celebration, so let's not go making ourselves morbid."

I smiled, "Okay, ready to head back?"

Harlan nodded and we turned around, picking up our pace as we walked back, both quiet with our own thoughts.

There was a blue minivan in the driveway when we got back to the house, and Harlan said, "My brother's here." He bopped my shoulder, "Barrett is about your age. That's his son."

We went in, and his brother and family were just getting their coats off in the hallway. They all greeted Harlan at once, and I got a look at them. Harlan's brother was older, and their resemblance to each other was only slight, but it was there. The brother was a bigger man, and a bit paunchy, but he seemed cheerful, and he was obviously fond of Harlan. His wife may have been pretty once, but it was hard to find at a glance.

There were three young girls, probably eight, ten and twelve, and they were all destined to be tall and leggy. They had different shades of brown hair, and they were all pretty in different ways.

That left Barrett, and he was a decent piece of work. He was naturally taller than me by about an inch, and he had his hair pushed back and up for another inch. It was all highlighted with copper and gold, and was the kind of do that could make the wrong person just look weird and pathetic.

Not Barrett, though. He had a broad face that wore a wide smile as he talked to Harlan. His brown eyes were piercing on either side of his straight nose, and his teeth positively glittered out their whiteness. They outshone even the tiny gold hoop that went through one ear.

He was built, too, with broad shoulders and a tapered waist. He wasn't handsome in any classical sense, nor was he especially cute, but he sure was striking, and he was really friendly when we were introduced. He was interesting, too. I hadn't met anyone so easily since I ran into Billy O'Shea in the summer, but Barrett was easy to know, and we warmed right up to each other, talking fast to cover a lot of ground.

As I knew it would, our talk turned to women, and Barrett talked about a few of the girls he was interested in before asking, "How about you? Are you tied up with anyone?"

I wasn't ready to get that close with Barrett, so I said, "No, no girlfriend right now."

He smiled and said, "Too bad you live so far. You I could fix up!"

Right, I thought. "Hey, wanna shoot hoops?" I asked hopefully.

"Yeah, let's," he said as he stood. "Work up an appetite."

We decided against jackets and headed outside, picking up a ball right where Harlan had left it outside the door.

Barrett was good, just like I knew he'd be, but no better than I was, so we had a good time and worked up a sweat, even in the chill air. By the time we called it quits, we were teasing each other, which was a sign of the instant friendship we both felt. We were rosy-cheeked and laughing when we went back inside.

There were other people there by then, and I got introduced around to more relatives, including Harlan's parents and Edie's mother.

Edie's sister and her family were there, too, and the sister looked like a chubby Edie. Her husband was on the heavy side, too, and their son, Russ, was downright tubby. He was okay, though; eleven, and a happy kid. He had that kind of smile that only chubby kids could come up with, so cheerful and comfortable.

Harlan's dad was a trip. He was very quiet and laid back, but when he opened his mouth something wickedly funny usually came out, and his dry humor really got me going a few times.

I liked everyone I met, and it was a gregarious group who lined up at the buffet table. There were way more people than would fit at the table in the dining room, and I couldn't sit there anyhow because of the windows on the street. It wasn't assigned seating, either, but except for the two youngest kids, it ended up with adults in the dining room and kids in the kitchen.

Once we started eating, it didn't matter anyhow. It was strictly a traditional meal, but everything was perfectly delicious, and we all ate until we hurt.

Afterwards, I ended up on a comfy sofa watching college football, and I dozed off for awhile. When I came to, I was in a roomful of dozing males, and I could hear the cheerful doings of all the women and girls coming from the other room.

Half-awake, I gazed at a few plays on the screen. I liked to watch football, but I was still groggy from napping, so I barely paid attention, and when a commercial break came on I stood up to stretch. That made me realize I needed the bathroom, so I went upstairs for that. Afterwards, I washed up, then went into my room just to be alone for a minute. I straightened things out to be busy, then headed back downstairs. Barrett had his eyes open, but he was just staring at the television. As I sat down, I said, "I'm stuffed."

He looked over at me and rolled his eyes, "No shit? If I ate any more I'd need a different zip code for each cheek of my ass!"

I snickered, "I see. So, your rear end is divided into postal districts?"

He laughed, "Not yet, but one more meal like that and the USPS would be on my case" He grinned, "Feel like taking a walk?"

That sounded good. "Sure," I said, as I stood back up. Russ heard us and said he was coming, so the three of us found our coats and went outside.

The sky was still blue where you could see it, but dark clouds had come in, and what blue was left was only in patches, and the breeze had picked up. It wasn't bad weather for November, just a change from earlier. It was cold out, but far from painfully so.

Barrett started toward the road and I called, "Let's go the other way."

He turned and shrugged, and we headed out into the yard. I thought we were walking normally, then I noticed Russ half running to keep up with us, and he pleaded, "Why are you walking so fast?"

Barrett chuckled and patted the younger boy's shoulder, "It's to develop some muscle, Russell, you should try it!"

Russ wheezed, "Okay, I'll try it, but I just ate!"

Barrett squared off in front of Russ, stopping him with a hand on each shoulder, and he smiled, "Russ, you always just ate. It's about time you think about making yourself hungry first."

Russell's eyes squinted, "You calling me fat?"

Barrett said, "No, you said that, not me. What I'm saying is that by the time you're twelve or so, you're going to want to be fast and strong so you can play with the big kids." He cuffed Russ' shoulder, "That's why we walk so fast, so don't complain, okay?" He winked.

Russ smiled, though his expression said he didn't know exactly why he was smiling. When Barrett started walking again, I whispered, "You're good."

We walked awhile before he said, "No, I'm the voice of experience. I used to be Russell!"

I snickered, "No way!"

"Way, man! Short and wide!"

I started giggling, "Damn, I hope you were as happy as Russell is."

Barrett's hand landed on my shoulder, "Oh, I was, believe me. It took my uncle to help me mend my ways."

"Harlan?" I asked.

He nodded, "Yeah, we went crabbing once, and he kind of got me to look at myself compared to my friends." He smiled at me, "He wasn't mean or snide or anything. He said I wouldn't be very happy if I was still heavy when I got older, then he helped my dad find ways to trim me down."

I asked, "Did you just make a commitment to Russ, then?"

Barrett looked at Russ, then nodded to me, "I guess I did. The part that's baby fat will go away by itself, the rest can be hard work, or it can be fun."

I grinned at him, "And you picked the fun way?"

He smiled, "I just played hard." He looked at me, "So, what's the story, Evan? Why are you staying with my uncle?"

I said, without drama, "Somebody's after me. I'm hiding right now."

Barrett's face went from mildly interested to very serious in a flash, "Really? You're not kidding?"

I shook my head, "Not kidding. I was attacked last week after school. I have eleven holes in me to prove it."

Barrett stopped, and his eyes went wide. He shook his head quickly, "Wait-wait-wait! Somebody shot you?"

I took a deep breath and exhaled it, and said, "No, stabbed. Then the next day they shot up my house."

Barrett and Russ were both gaping at me, and I didn't know what to say. I shouldn't have said anything, but I did. It would have been better if I just made up a reason, like a flat tire, then I wouldn't need to think of what to say.

I looked at their surprise and waited for them to say or ask something, and it was Russell who finally asked, "Why? Are you into drugs or something?"

I shook my head, "I don't even know who it is. I never saw them when they stabbed me, and they shot at the house from a car. I don't know what the police know, just that it's two people, one of them is a man."

Barrett's look was pleading, "Why, though. Why would somebody want you dead?"

I whispered honestly, "I don't know. I don't know who it is, and I have no idea what they want."

We'd all gotten pretty tense, and it seemed that we released it as one, just sighing and shrugging, and heading on our way, going more slowly. Barrett asked, "When was this?"

"Last week," I said.

Barrett let out a low whistle, and he didn't say anything more.

"Hey," I said when we were close to the park, "Not far from here is where three kids got murdered."

Barrett gave me a worried look and said, "Sick!"

Russ got excited, "Really? Where? What happened?"

I recited the little I knew, and added Harlan's thoughts, then we were at the bend in the river. I had zero evidence that it was the actual spot where it happened, but it worked for me.

I tried to picture the events of that night. Four kids sleeping, but I didn't know if they were in tents or just on the grass, probably the latter. I made myself the perpetrator, and it was easy. Bang, bang, bang! Three down, so I incapacitate the other one, then slit throats just to be thorough.

I was staring at gravel. My vision came out too real, and I was feeling the horror of it right in my gut. And, Oh God, I could see how easy it was.

Bang, bang, bang. Three out of commission, and as a man against children, all I had to do was sit down on top of the fourth boy. That made me wonder if the killer had even chosen who would live, or if it was random, and I thought probably random.

I shut out the vision, saying nervously to Barrett and Russ, "We should go back."

Russ said, "Yeah," kind of breathlessly, and Barrett nodded.

We walked back with a purpose, and in silence. The only incident on the way was when I put my foot on some ice and almost took a header, but I recovered pretty spectacularly, and to the amusement of the other two.

When we got close to the house, I could see Harlan's brother gesturing excitedly to us to hurry up, then Harlan hurried to his side and looked anxiously our way, so we broke into a trot, Barrett and I leaving Russ far behind.

"Hurry," Harlan called when we were in earshot, and as we got close to them they ran inside, and went back to where the others were watching football.

All eyes were on me, though, when I came in, and I asked, "What?"

"Watch the TV, Evan," Harlan said. "There's a hostage situation over in Mt. Harman, and I think it's something to do with you. They haven't said much, but they mentioned it might be related to a so-called 'incident' at the high school. There's been some shooting going on."

I felt panic taking over me, envisioning my family being taken hostage on Thanksgiving day. The cell phone, of course, was up beside the bed, so I raced upstairs to get it, but there were no messages. I charged back down the stairs and stood looking at the television, willing it to tell me something. I almost called home, then was afraid to make the phone ring there.

I almost jumped out of my skin when the phone in my hand rang, and I tossed it in the air as if it had burned me. I quickly retrieved it from the floor and answered with a nervous, "Hello?" I sat on the floor to talk.

"Evan!" my mother said. "Oh, Evan, have you seen the news?"

"Are you okay, mom?" I asked in fear, "Is it over?"

She paused for a second, then said gently, "It's not here, Evan, if that's what you're thinking. We're all fine."

"What is it, then? What's happening?"

"It's a man ... I don't have a name yet, they haven't said much. He's got his family barricaded in their house. There have been shots fired inside, and he's shooting at people outside, too. He called the television station and told them he demands a Smiley Face, otherwise he's going to start killing."

Oh God, I felt sick, and it's a wonder I didn't just throw up. Instead, I stared numbly at the screen and tried to think of something to say, but I'd been struck dumb.

Harlan was there suddenly, and he helped me back up into a chair so I could sit, and that jogged me enough to say, "I'll call back, Mom. I need to think for a second."

She agreed, and I dropped the phone into my lap, speechless again. Harlan was on a hassock that he'd pulled in front of me, and he asked softly, "What is it?"

I choked, "He ... the guy ... " I gulped air and tried to go on, but I couldn't.

Harlan patted my knee, and his brother said sharply, "Here it is!"

I looked up quickly to see video of a normal looking raised-ranch style house on a tidy yard, while the female announcer said, "This is the scene in Mt. Harman, where a man has taken his own family hostage. His motives are unclear, but a police spokesman says he believes this is related to an attack that took place near the local high school last week. Here's what we know so far. At about two o'clock this afternoon, neighbors reported screaming coming from the home, then what sounded like shots being fired. Police were called, and the first units on the scene were fired on from the home. Those officers pulled back, and the S.W.A.T. team was called in, and now neighboring homes have been evacuated. A hostage negotiator has been trying to make contact with someone in the house, and we don't have the results of those attempts."

I looked away for a second, and everyone was staring at the set. The announcer continued, "In a bizarre twist, a man claiming he is the gunman called another station, and he is demanding what he called a smiley-face, or he threatened to start killing people. We will interrupt, of course, if there are any updates to the situation, but for now it's back to football coverage. For Channel Seven news, I'm Cheryl Barnes."

I think I'd held my breath through the whole thing, and I finally let it go when I collapsed back into the chair.

Nothing made sense. I didn't recognize that house, though Mt. Harman was full of ones like it. Who was this guy, and what was his so-called family? Why would he hurt them if it was me he wanted, and what the fuck was his problem with me? Did he even know me?

My phone rang again, and this time it was my father. "Evan, don't hang up. Have you seen the news now?"

I stood and started pacing, "Yeah, just now. What's going on, Dad?"

"Just listen, Evan, and tell me if you recognize any names. The family in that house is named McHugh. The father is Vernon, the mother is Susan, and they have three young daughters who I don't have specifics on. There are cars in the driveway that must belong to visitors, so there may be other people there for the holiday, and the police are checking plates and the like. You heard about the smiley-face demand, but there have also been a lot of slurs ... homophobic slurs, both on the phone and out the window."

I found that I was leaking tears, and it embarrassed me. I didn't look up when I wiped them away, and then I still didn't look up, so I could pretend that nobody had seen them. I didn't know what was happening to me, or why it was happening. This ... this ... person ... had it in for me, and apparently because I was gay, but who the hell was he, and why would he know me from the woodwork? Who, what, when, why and where were the vital questions, and I was missing two crucial answers; who and why.

Then suddenly it was on television again, interrupting a play in the game this time. The same announcer said seriously, "This was the scene just moments ago in Mt. Harman, when three little girls were released from the house where they've been held hostage for over two hours now."

You could see the three girls on the front step, bundled up against the cold air. They were looking back inside the door, and suddenly walked away, and toward where the camera was. They were very young, too. The oldest didn't look anything over seven, and the littlest one kind of waddled like she was still in diapers. Then you could hear shots, and they started running, and cops started running toward them, and in a few seconds it seemed like everyone was safe. The announcer said, "Those shots seemed to be fired into the air, I don't think he was shooting at the children, but they definitely came from the house." She paused, then said, "The game is in half-time now, still tied at seven." Another pause, "We'll stay on here in Mt. Harman rather than present the festivities. Here's Mark Bidinger in the studio."

I rolled my eyes, then a man came on, and he looked like the typical talking head. "Thank you, Cheryl. Here's what Channel Seven Eyewitness News has learned. The hostage house is owned by Vern McHugh, who is an inspector with Anders Aerospace. His wife, Susan, is employed part-time at the Wal-Mart on Route 3. They're both twenty-nine, and have lived in the house just over two years. The little girls you just saw are Artemis, Abigail and Andrea, and they're six, five, and two respectively. We talked to some of their neighbors, who have been evacuated to a church hall nearby."

I won't repeat the whole newscast here. The neighbors thought highly of the McHugh family, and believed them to be victims themselves. They were considered to be friendly, happy, honest, hard-working, yada yada yada, but the Mrs. had an unsavory brother or nephew who sometimes stayed there, and nobody was sure whose cars were in the driveway when the shooting started.

Then they had some shrink theorizing on the meaning of the smiley-face demand, and that was almost funny.

Almost, but nothing was really funny. Edie asked, and surprised me by even being there, "Would you like a coffee, honey? How about some dessert?"

I nodded dumbly, and she rattled off the various sweets that were available. Some sounded exotic and wonderful, but I settled on plain old pumpkin pie, vanilla ice cream, and a black coffee. When she left to get it for me, most of the room emptied out to get their own, and I was left with Harlan, his father, and Barrett.

Barrett asked, "What's going on, Evan? Is this the guy that cut you?"

I said, "You're pretty smart, you know that?" and came up with my first smile of the hour.

Harlan looked at me and asked, "How much have you told Barrett, Evan?"

I shook my head slowly and mumbled, "Only that I had my own run-in with Freddie Krueger last week." I looked in his eyes, "I know what you know, Harlan, which is nothing at all."

I suddenly realized that I'd just stopped talking to my father, and it had been awhile. The phone was on the arm of my chair, and I could see that it was offline. I reached for it, and once again it rang as soon as I picked it up, and it spooked me as much as it did the first time, and now it went down between the cushions.

I had to get up and pull the cushion up to get the phone, and I said breathlessly, "Dad?"

"No, I'm Aaron," Aaron said with some nervous humor. "Are you watching the news? Are you okay?"

I said, "Both. Where are you? I have to call my dad, I kind of forgot him."

He said, "I'm at Violet's, call back when you can, okay?"

I smiled at the phone, "I'm alright, Aaron. I'm here, not there, if you remember. I'll call you."

"I love you, Evan."

I looked around, and most people had come back, but I said, "I love you, too," just the same. "Bye."

I called my father, and when he answered, I said, "I'm sorry, Dad. It came on, and I forgot about you being on the phone."

Dad said, "Don't worry about it. I was watching, too. I don't know, Evan, I really don't, but this isn't fun and games. I hope nobody gets hurt, but I have a very bad feeling about this. Whoever it is, he's been shooting inside that house for a long time."

"The little girls came out," I said hopefully. "He let them go."

Dad was quiet, then he said softly, "He did do that. I hope he regains his senses, Evan. We don't have to stay on the phone. Call if something happens, or I will."

I said, "Okay, Dad. Is Bruce around?"

"Yup, hold on."

I talked to my younger brother for a few minutes, and he was alright. We were all worked up over what was taking place. Watching it on television, though, even knowing my involvement, made it seem kind of distant. Still, I grew steadily more horrified at the increasing level of violence.

The game was back on, so I ate my pie and ice cream before I called Aaron. Like everything else that day, the dessert was plain and it was wonderful. It helped me to relax a little, too, and I took my coffee upstairs with me so I could call Aaron in private.

I found the number Aaron had called from and dialed it, and his Aunt Violet answered. I asked for Aaron, and she asked, "Are you alright, Evan? I had no idea before today what you were being put through. Let me say this; while I have fixed feelings about homosexuality, I in no way condone hatred or violence, and I was alarmed to learn of the attacks on you. Please believe me when I say this. I wish you and Aaron would reconsider your ways, but I harbor no ill-will against either of you. I think you're both marvelous boys, and I pray that you'll be careful."

I blinked my surprise, but she couldn't see that. "Thanks," was all I said, and she said she'd find Aaron.

He must have been right there, because he said hello right away. I lay on the bed to talk, and it was good.

We talked around the violence, not really to avoid the subject, but because we couldn't affect it anyhow.

We talked about our days and our meals, and I told Aaron about talking to Harlan about the murders, and Harlan's feeling about one guy's actions denying justice to the other families. That seemed more profound to me the second time around, and it started to seem selfish on that guy's part. His son had been harmed and he had every right to rage against the guy who caused the harm, but still ... he had his son back. He was damaged, probably, but he was alive and had a chance to be fixed.

He left the other families totally without a rejoinder. They could watch the footage of him shooting the perpetrator until they went to their own graves, but they'd never learn the why, or possibly even the how, of their own son's deaths. Those boys wouldn't be coming back, either, and whatever promise was born in them vanished on that awful night.

I said, "Man, I hope they don't shoot the guy who's after me. Then I'd be just like those people, lost for a reason. I don't know if I could stand it, Aar, never knowing what this guy wants, or what he hates so much about me."

Aaron said, "That's a deep thought. You're right, that would totally suck."

I smiled, "Leave it to you to bring 'totally suck' into the conversation."

Humor came back into Aaron's voice, "You are so fun to talk to, Evan. But, since we're on my favorite subject, what are you doing tomorrow?"

I laughed, "I don't know, I really don't. This thing can't go on overnight, can it? I mean, they'll shoot this dude or he'll give up, so I hope I can go home."

Aaron sighed heavily, "I know Ev, I just like having you close like this. We haven't had this much time since summer."

I was about to say something dumb, but Aaron suddenly cried, "Jesus! They're shooting!"

I dropped the phone and raced downstairs. All heads were focused intently on the television, and I don't think anyone even noticed me.

It was a scary picture on that screen; a nice residential house on a nice residential road, but everything else was out of whack. It was dark out by then, but that house was all lit up like a sunny day, and there were people in black advancing on it, firing guns. It wasn't like an all-out assault, they weren't running and blasting the place. They were advancing on the house, and taking an occasional shot in that direction.

There was resistance, though. I could see flashes coming from two windows, and they had to be from gunfire.

The video was taken from too far away to make much sense of, but anybody who'd seen a cop show would know what was happening.

Suddenly, the police stopped their advance, then beat a hasty retreat to out of camera range. I was confused, but only for a moment. The announcer said, "Oh my God. We've just learned that there are still children in the home." You could hear her pause while she listened to someone, then continued, "The police had been led to believe that only the shooters were still in the house, but a hostage negotiator in contact with the house heard children in the background. The swat team has pulled back for now, and we're going to go back to the studio for the six o'clock Action News. Stay tuned for live updates. For channel seven news, I'm Cheryl Barnes."

I collapsed back into my seat. I knew I was safe where I was, but the threat to me was like an overwhelming weight on me. I was seriously nervous, too, and when I got my hand close to my face for a moment, I could smell the fear on myself. I'd washed my hands just after dessert, too.

I sighed and looked around. Barrett was staring at me, his expression curious. I lifted my eyebrows, and he moved closer to me.

"What?" I asked.

His eyes bored into mine, "What's this got to do with you? This is craziness!"

"Tell me about it," I said. "That's probably the guy who's been trying to do me in, and I have no idea what he wants. It's gonna make me crazy!"

Barrett grimaced, then he smiled weakly, "I don't think he's going anywhere."

I closed my eyes for a second, knowing that Barrett was right. Whoever it was, he wasn't going anywhere, not unless some spectacular change took place in the situation. With kids in the house, he'd probably be allowed to hold out as long as he could, but that wouldn't be for very long. I was sure they'd make it uncomfortable by turning off the power at least, and they probably had other things they did in these situations.

I answered Barrett, "You're right, I guess." I shook my head in my nervousness, "It's just hard for me to say how totally weird this feels." I pointed at the television, "Whoever's in that house wants to kill me, and I don't even know who it is, yet I can watch the trouble I'm in on Action News!" My voice sounded a little hysterical even to me, and I laughed nervously.

Barrett stood and paced for a few seconds, his hand on his chin, then he looked at me, "Listen, Evan. I can't help you with what's going on, so let me try to calm you down. You should look at this like it's over, because it is for you. Whatever happens to that guy, he's not going anywhere." He took another few paces, then looked back at me, "I don't want to see anybody get hurt, but if it comes down to it, I don't know who's even in that house, and I do know you. If they get hurt, it'll just be names on the news. If you got hurt, then it would be somebody I know, and," he smiled hesitantly, "and someone I like." He hesitated again, then gestured, "You won't get hurt, though, because it's going to end right where it is."

I just looked at him, then felt a smile coming on, and when it finally did Barrett smiled back at me.

Barrett Blaine! I liked him before, but he just made me feel good with words, and very few people had that talent. He was so exactly right. Whoever was in that house, regardless of what happened, wouldn't get the chance to bother me again.

Burdens like that don't just disappear, but there comes a point where they start to go away, and Barrett had brought me to that point. I found myself grinning about nothing in particular just because I felt so good. Barrett was smiling back at me, and others were smiling, too.

"Yeah," I said softly.

We all hung around quietly for awhile, then Russell came over to me and nervously asked, "Evan?"

"What's up?"

"Can I ... um ... I mean ... well, would it be okay ... I mean ... can I see where you got stabbed?" He backed up as soon as he got the words out, like he didn't want to be in range if I decided to hit him.

I started to ask why, then just shrugged. I had a sweater, a shirt and an undershirt on, and by the time they were off I had a sizeable audience. The throbbing pain had gone from my shoulders, but they were still sensitive to the touch and kind of stiff, and they didn't look much better than the day it had happened.

Russell got his show, and he and Barrett's sisters ooh'd and aah'd like they were mightily impressed. The men expressed disgust and sympathy. Edie got a look and turned her head with a gasp, and she started sobbing. Her mother led her away, followed by Harlan, and I put my undershirt back on, suddenly embarrassed. "Show's over," I said.

Harlan's brother looked at his watch and said, "It's getting late, gang. Say your goodbyes and let's get going."

He moved over to Harlan and their father, and Barrett stood in front of me. I stood, smiling shyly, "Like my holes?"

He snickered, "As long as they're on you." He shook his head, "Man, that must have hurt like holy hell."

I just nodded and asked, "Do you have e-mail? We should stay in touch."

Barrett brightened, "Good idea. Let me get something to write with." He disappeared out of the room, and was soon back with pad and pen, and we wrote down e-mail addresses, IM id's, phone numbers, home addresses, everything.

Barrett lived eighty miles away from me. We'd never see much of each other, but that didn't seem to matter right then. I promised to stay in touch with him, and I made that promise to myself so I'd remember. We'd made friends with each other already, and I was learning that people don't have to live right next door to remain friends. I was kind of looking forward to it, actually, thinking a little distance would hide the warts, and we'd only be in a position to piss each other off when we did get together. Otherwise we'd be friends to share things with remotely, and it was an intriguing thing to think about.

Everyone left within a half hour of each other, then it was quiet. I offered to help Edie, but she said everything was taken care of and she was going upstairs to lay down. I looked at Harlan, and he seemed tired too, so I said I was going to watch television for awhile before going to bed.

I sat in front of the set and flipped through channels. I settled on some science channel thing about Komodo dragons. They were vicious things, and man-eaters. I didn't see anyone get eaten, but I saw how it could happen, because those lizards were deceitful things. The guys making the movie, who were researchers in reality, were in a scene where they were trying to capture a dragon that they'd been teaching to trust them.

The camera was on a tripod with nobody behind it. The two men were putting food into a metal dish, and their target dragon approached, and they were paying serious attention to the one dragon.

Unknown to them, a phalanx of four more dragons was creeping up behind the men. Suddenly, the dragons made their move, including the target one, and it was only athleticism, agility, and the presence of a tree with low branches that kept those guys from becoming lunch themselves. They jumped up into the branches, knowing the dragons could follow them, but they made enough noise to bother the animals away.

What impressed me most was the fact that it was so clear that those dragons had planned the attack. It wasn't like the researchers became friends with one dragon and four others just happened along to find a free lunch. There was more than that, because the deceit involved was too clear.

It was like what people might do if they were trying to scam you, or worse. One gets your attention, then the accomplices do the dirty work, whatever that is.

That wasn't a great thing for me to think about, because it made me wonder if I was being set up somehow. Was I getting a great smile from someone, and it was only to distract me so someone else could do me in? I couldn't put that with what had been going on with me because that's not how things happened, but it was a scary thought. You always hear warnings like 'watch your ass', and the dragon show had given me a pretty vivid example of what that meant.

I put the set back on channel seven to see what was going on, but they only had a quick thing during a commercial, and by then they were calling it a siege. All had been quiet for some time.

I was determined to watch, at least get the late news, but I fell asleep and the next thing I knew it was morning. I woke up slumped in a chair, my feet stretched out onto a hassock. I was a little chilly, and suddenly remembered why I was there. The station was on an ad break, so I went to the bathroom. Then I stumbled out into the kitchen and started a pot of coffee before getting a glass of juice for myself.

I learned what I wanted to know as soon as I got back to the television, and that was that nothing new had happened overnight, and the siege continued. I thought about just sitting there and watching the television until something happened, then I discarded the idea.. I felt cruddy to start with, and I wanted to feel better in a lot of ways, not just hygienic ones.

I went upstairs and took a shower, then shaved and everything else. I got dressed and went downstairs, then I got my coat and went outside. The sky was cloudy, and it felt that way it did just before it snowed. I thought I'd take a walk at first, but once I got out there I walked right to the spot in the park where I thought that murder had taken place. I wasn't all that certain about my fascination with that spot before I got there, but it came to me when I once again stared at it.

It was a place of communion. I made it through the attack on me, but three people hadn't been lucky, and they died where I stood when they were just children.

Don't ask me how I knew that I was in the right place, I just knew it. I'd known it the first time, and I knew it again.

There was nothing in my personal history, or my family's history, to suggest the violence that seemed to surround me so suddenly. The violence was still happening, in a different place and on television, but it was still going on. The violence where I stood was done, but it was still inscrutable.

There was a marginal case that the violence against me was because I was gay. The boys who had died so needlessly where I stood didn't have credentials that I'd ever heard of. They were ten and eleven years old at the time, and gayness wouldn't be a likely factor at that age. Still, the man who murdered them took their friend, and committed violent gay acts on him.

Harlan had told me that sexual violence against children was just cruelty, and not necessarily related to any particular preference. The targets of the people who did those crimes weren't kids of a particular sex, but targets of convenience. Boy or girl, it didn't matter, only that you were vulnerable.

That was slim comfort, but one thought was. When I was under attack at the school I felt fear, but not mortal fear, because the thought never crossed my mind that the guy was trying to kill me. He did a number on me, too, and I was still recovering. It hurt at the time, but not all that much, and the actual stabbing didn't even register with me because I had nothing to relate it to. Each puncture of the knife felt to me like a pinch, the ones that hurt, like pinches with fingernails, but nothing worse than that.

If I'd died that night, it wouldn't have been with the idea that I was being murdered, and I somehow found comfort in that, and I extended that comfort to the boys who'd died where I was standing.

I stayed there for a little while, then went to see the falls again, and I was impressed all over again. I stood there and watched the water for a few minutes, then I walked back toward Harlan's. I walked right past the other spot, and sped up after a little while.

The walk had done nothing for me, really, but I got some air and got outside for awhile, and that was good. I was neither hungry nor feeling sociable when I got back, so I went in and straight up to my room.

I still had my coat on, so I dropped it on the floor and flopped down on the bed. I was awake, and I was wondering where things went wrong.

In the closet, my life had been pretty happy. Worry free. I had my friends, my academics, my sports, and everything was pretty regular and fun. Even when gay crept up on me, I had Chris to see me through, and I never worried it to any length.

Things had changed since then. Now I was ecstatically happy with Aaron in my life, yet my folks were basically unhappy about me being gay. That seemed minor, trivial even, against attempted murder, and they were two different things. I had my life to sort out in normal terms, and now I had my life to worry about, as in would it continue?

One thing would make it better right then, and I called Chris. I'd promised not to just in case, but I never really understood in case what. I was just to cut out contact with Mt. Harman except for my family and the police. Now that things seemed tied up in a siege, I felt the need to talk to my best friend.

"Evan?" his mother asked when I said hello, "Well, lock me away! How are you? And please say you're fine!"

I smiled, "I'm fine." Chris was the way he was partly because he was like his parents, and they were a fun loving pair who didn't like it much when things went wrong. They didn't shy away from trouble when it came knocking, they'd be on the front line beating it back. It's just that trouble wasn't a welcome commodity around them, because it got in the way of the good life that they were determined to lead. Mrs. Humphrey made me laugh about three separate things before she called Chris to the phone, and I was still snickering when he picked up.

"Evie!" he said excitedly, "Oh man, do you believe what's goin' on? If this crap's gonna follow you around, I'll seriously consider dumping you as a friend and getting a cat."

I laughed, "Sure, go ahead. Watch me get abused, then just leave. Wait! Where have I heard that before?"

He cleared his throat loudly, "It's an echo, Evan. You left, remember? Like, bye-bye, except you omitted mentioning you were leaving?"

I said, quietly, "I did do that. You're still there, Chris. I'd get choked up right now, except I know you'd never let that pass."

He said, his voice suddenly thick, "You knew I'd be here."

I said, "I was sure of it. I count on you, Chris, I know you know that, too."

His voice was soft, "I count on you too, Evan." He snickered, "What's the plural of abacus? Abaci, right? That's us, then, always counting on each other."

I was chuckling silently, "The Brothers Abaci?" I snorted out. "I don't think so, Chris, not this time."

"Calculi?" he tried.

"Give it up," I suggested. "We're just a pair of displaced Cossacks in need of a place to dance."

Chris chuckled, "Yeah, and a reason to. I'm sure you've been watching this."


"Do you know any of those people?"

"No," I said. "I heard the names last night, but I don't know them. Do you?"

Chris said, "They had more names this morning. There's a lot of people in that house."

I was very surprised, "Really? Who besides the people that live there?"

"They think they're all relatives. It's like inlaws of the people who live there, plus their families. They had names, but they didn't mean anything to me. There's one kid from school they think might be in there, but I don't know him. Ever hear of an Erasmus?"

I screwed up my face, "No. Is that a first name or a last name?"

"Last. It's Lee Erasmus. They said he's fourteen, so he'd be a freshman."

I said, "No, I never heard of him," but my mind was working fast, because at least there was some connection, a student from school. What did it mean, though? Why would a kid I didn't know have it in for me? Why would it all escalate to where things were? Was he even the shooter, or was he a victim himself?

I hate it, but sometimes my head spins out an impossible number of things so fast that I don't get to consider them. Was Lee Erasmus another gay kid, maybe? Would that make this whole thing more about him than me, and I was just practice? Were the people in that house alive? Chris said lots of people, and it didn't seem possible that one or two family members could keep them all there against their will.

Oh, Lord! "Chris? Help me here, I get scared just thinking about this."

"Evie," he said reassuringly, "It's gonna work out. You're safe there, right?" to which I nodded. "Whatever it is, I don't think it's ever leaving that house .. not alive anyhow." He took a breath deep enough that I could hear it over the phone, "Nothing's going to happen to you, Evan, nothing! There's some kind of insanity in that house. I think it's because of what they did with you. Only crazy people start crap like this to begin with, and I think that you just disappearing brought the crazy up to the surface."

"Really?" I asked.

Chris sighed, "I'm sure of it. I know I went nuts when you took off last summer, and I know what it feels like when you know nothing at all, and you have all the wrong ideas."

I got tears in my eyes. I knew Chris wasn't getting down on me, but I also knew full-well what I'd done, to him and a lot of other people I loved. He made sense though, and that made Det. Munro something of a genius in my mind.

I wanted to change the subject, so I asked, "Have you asked around? Does anybody know this Erasmus kid?"

"Not yet," Chris replied, "but I only asked two people so far. I should be thinking here, and call some freshmen instead of our friends."

"Good idea," I said, and there was a knock at the door. "Hold on, Chris," I said. "It's open!"

Harlan opened the door and smiled when he saw me. "I'm going into the office for awhile. Need anything?"

I grinned, "Yeah, how about one of those mowers with the seventy-two inch deck?"

It was his turn to grin, and he said, "Sure, Evan, coming right up. I'll just be a few hours."

I waved and smiled, feeling pretty good. "Chris, I'm getting hungry. Thanks for talking, man, and I guess you can call now if you want to."

Chris sounded anxious, "Don't hang up yet! You haven't said how you're doing. Are you healing up okay?"

I felt bad, "Yeah, sorry. It'll be okay, it only looks bad now. You know how it is, I can make it feel bad if I do the wrong thing, but in general I'm okay."

"Evan?" he said suggestively.


"Don't do the wrong thing, okay?"

I chuckled, "Okay, I'll just do the right things for now. I'll save the wrong ones until you're here."

I could feel the smile when he said, "Fucking pathetic," and hung up.

Hunger had flared up in me, and I went straight downstairs to the kitchen. I met Edie leaving just when I was going in, and she asked, "Hungry?"

I nodded and grunted, and she said, "Harlan left some stuffing patties. Just warm them up and have them with eggs, it's very good."

I smiled, "Sounds it," and went on the prowl. I'd had French toast in mind, but that stuffing had been extra good and I could already almost taste it fried in butter.

It's hard to believe that I hadn't felt hungry at all just an hour earlier, because I reheated two of the stuffing patties, fried up three eggs to go with them, put toast in the toaster, and I was munching on cold turkey slices with mayo while I waited for it all to cook.

Bad Evan! FAT Evan! I could just picture those little red devils with pitchforks right beside my head, like in the cartoons. What did they know? I didn't even break an egg, and it was one of the most delicious breakfasts in the history of breakfasts. It made me feel that I'd grow another inch by the time the day was out.

I was barely finished when Aaron just walked in. As much as I loved the warm-weather Aaron with all his suntan, I also loved the cold-weather version with the pink cheeks and the look of frosty happiness that he brought in with him.

I grinned, "How'd you get in?"

He smiled, "You have crumbs on your lip. The door opened before I even knocked. Edie was going out right when I got here."

I leered, "She's gone? The crumbs are your job, Aar, I can't even see them."

Aaron shed his coat, and eagerly removed the crumbs from my lip. All I could think while we walked upstairs, was what a roller coaster. I felt that I was shirking a duty by not watching television to see what was going on, but I didn't want to. I wanted it to be history the next time I heard anything, whatever the story was.

I was probably showing signs of weakness, but I didn't really care. I'd been involved in the first person for long enough in my mind, and I wanted the rest of it to happen somewhere else, and I wanted it to stay contained there. Those people wanted me, but nobody was going to give me to them no matter what they did. I didn't want anyone to get hurt, but they seemed bent on it, and they may already have been hurt for all I knew.

What I wanted was away from it, and Aaron was there to take me away, figuratively, literally, however anyone might want to look at it. We got to my room and all I could do was smile at Aaron.

I'm sure it's not normal, but Aaron and I were both boys, and I thought Aaron was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. He had the neatest clothes, too, and I loved the pants he had on. Faded bell-bottomed blue jeans, except one leg, from the knee down, was from a gray pair of bell-bottomed jeans, and it had been stitched on with a big, ribbed stitch. I smiled, "Where'd you find the pants?"

He looked down, then at me, "I got them at a tag sale. I never look at tag sale clothes, but Mom spotted them." He smiled, "Aren't they neat?"

They were neat okay; cut low, tight, and very flattering to everything they covered. If I wore them I'd just look ridiculous, like I was trying to show off, but Aaron was a natural-born model, and he got away with just about everything he put on. He never tried to be flamboyant, and most of his things were actually quite preppy, but he had a sense of style that I lacked, and he always looked terrific.

I'd hurried the rest of the way upstairs with sex in the back of my mind, but I didn't want to jump into it because Aaron was worth more than that. I loved spending time cuddling and talking, and I really needed to talk, just to sort things out for myself, kind of to set a place marker.

That's what we did; sat up on the bed side-by-side, and we hashed things over. We didn't know enough yet to make sense of much, but we put what we did know in order, and that helps when you have to think about things again later.

Aaron and I had gone about as far as we could, and we were just cuddling when the cell phone rang, followed almost immediately by the bedside phone, and before I even answered the cell, I could hear other phones ringing in the distance. Aaron picked up the other phone, and I got the cell, and that was an excited sounding Chris screaming, "Evie, get to your tv now! You're not gonna believe this!"

I didn't even talk. There was a set in the room. There was a remote somewhere, but I just ran to the set and pushed the on button, then kept cussing until it warmed up enough for a picture, and right then it was an ad. I looked at Aaron, flustered, and he squeaked, "Channel seven, Ev! That's ESPN!"

Damn! Now I needed the remote. No I didn't! It would have been easier, but I tapped the down arrow as fast as I could until it was on channel seven, and I practically dove back on the bed to watch with Aaron.

"Who was that?" I asked.

"Harlan," he gasped. "Oh God, Evan!"

The screen at the moment was filled with some guy's face, and he looked very excited, and he was flubbing his words, so I knew the excitement was real. Then the picture changed while the guy talked, and it was of that same house, only now there was a crowd of people running crazily from it in all directions. The guy talking wasn't narrating what we were seeing, so I focused on the picture, and suddenly that house literally disappeared into toothpicks from a huge explosion from within.

That took too long to register, because it looked like a special-effects explosion from any decent movie, complete with orange fireball and thick, black smoke. When that smoke cleared, though, there was house debris everywhere, and that neighborhood would never be the same again ... a neighborhood in my home town, a place where families like mine lived.

It was awesome, but in the religious sense of that word, and I didn't get my arms around what I'd seen right away. That picture was working its way into my common-sense center, and everything else seemed like so much blather.

The announcer may as well have been talking Swahili for all I could understand, and I stared in shock for the longest time. It took slender little fingers stroking my cheek, and Aaron's voice quietly coaxing me, before I could focus outside my head again, then the first words out of me were, "Jesus fucking Christ! Oh man!" I snuggled up against Aaron seeking comfort, and I found it there, but I still couldn't believe what I'd just witnessed.

I knew what I'd seen, and I knew it was somehow connected to me. Before, I'd wanted answers, but now I just wanted someone to say it was all a mistake. I said, purposely slowly, "I don't know these people, Aaron. I never heard their names before. How can I be even involved in something so ... God, even crazy doesn't sound good enough. This is lunacy ... madness! What did I ever do?" I hugged Aaron, suddenly crying, "What did I do, Aaron? I need to find out."

"She." Aaron stroked me, "Be quiet, Evan. You didn't do anything. Somebody lost his mind, and it's not your fault," he whispered, "Not your fault."

I wanted to believe that, and I should have believed that. Logic said that it couldn't be my fault if I didn't even know the people, but somehow they knew me, so we must have crossed paths somewhere along the line. Aaron was good at comforting, almost hypnotic, and I managed to calm myself almost into a trance, and it was nice because I was focused on Aaron's hands and his gentle cooing. My mind cleared, more like it emptied.

His cooing turned into words after awhile, and I deciphered, "He's dead, Evan. Did you hear that?"

"Hm?" I asked, "Who's dead?"

"The guy, the one who started it! He blew up the house to commit suicide! At least that's what their saying is most likely."

Suddenly Aaron's face was right in front of mine, searching. "Come on, Evan, this will keep. Come and wash up, I'll get you a coffee."

I nodded dumbly and let him pull me up. Aaron deposited me in the bathroom and went to get coffee. I washed my face, then felt a different need, so I sat on the toilet.

I felt weird. Suicide. That should mean it's over, unless someone else was involved. It was too much too fast, and one thing almost seemed funny. For somebody who did such a poor job of murdering me, he sure took himself out pretty spectacularly. Or maybe that was the plan all along, and I was just noise to get attention. I didn't know, and when Aaron came back and asked if I was decent I had to say no, then hurry up.

I felt better afterwards, though, and I was anxious to listen when I got back to the room.

Aaron looked hopeful, so I smiled and took the coffee that he offered me, and we sat down to listen and learn.

They had pulled one body from the house, and according to the other people who escaped, that's all they'd find. It was a man named Leonard Erasmus, but they didn't know anything about him yet. He had visited that house where his wife's sister lived, with his wife and son for Thanksgiving dinner. All of the other people had been relatives on one side or another, and none of them had been harmed by the man, though there were some minor injuries from their escape run.

I mumbled, "Man, they're lucky ... that blew up right behind them," and Aaron shushed me.

We weren't going to learn a lot more right then, but we got to watch the house blow up all over again, and I was certain we'd see that until we were sick to death of it.

Erasmus. Why couldn't he have a name like Smith? That way I could think that maybe I knew him, or of him, but I never knew an Erasmus, not as a first name or a last.

I sipped coffee and tried to think, but I couldn't even stretch to find any reason for my involvement with that family.

I'd left the door open, and we heard Harlan coming up the stairs just before he appeared in it. He had a serious expression that bordered on worry, but it softened as soon as he saw us. "Strange day, huh, Evan?" he asked.

"I'll say," I said, then I snickered, "Right up there with the strangest of days."

Harlan's look darkened, "You know who that is, right?"

I shook my head.

"It was Leonard Erasmus, Evan. We were just talking about him the other day."

I stared, uncomprehending. Harlan said, "The murders? Right next door? It was Leonard Erasmus who killed the killer! His son was the one who was kidnaped. He's been in jail until just this fall."

I heard and understood what Harlan said, but I did not comprehend the meaning of it. I'm not dumb, and when I thought it over, there was no meaning, not to me anyhow. Aaron and I had stumbled across the falls and the crime scene quite by accident, but after Mr. Leonard Erasmus had already tried to kill me. What, was he trying to kill me in advance? It made no sense, none at all.

I wanted it to, though. I wanted to see it, to understand everything, to put it together so I'd know what was going on. I had names now, facts, but not a thing to tie it back to me, and the guy who'd blown himself up so spectacularly had, just a week before, cut me up something fierce, then tried to shoot me up, and I didn't know him. I could almost sing it: I didn't know him.

Harlan had his hand on my knee, "Evan! Yoo hoo!"

I looked up sharply, "Yoo hoo?"

Harlan put his hand on his forehead and said, "Cool it, Evan, okay?" He smiled, "I don't know, you don't know, Aaron doesn't know! Stop worrying, because it's over!" He rocked his head a little, and said emphatically, "We'll figure this out, you know! Somewhere, somehow, there's a connection, and once it's pointed out, it'll be as clear as day." He snapped back a little and slapped my knee lightly, "Until then, there's not a whole lot to do. I think you're a free man now, so help me put up the tree?"

I stared for a second, then smiled when I got it. Problem should be over, so let's make it be over by doing something else, and it worked for me.

Harlan was right, as usual, and while others figured things out, we could get ready for Christmas.

As it turned out, 'we' didn't involve a lot of me, because Harlan and Aaron had so much fun putting the tree up. My main job was putting appropriate movies in the DVD player, getting drinks, and admiring their work. I got to laugh steadily at the 'Christmas Vacation' movie while they only got bits of it, but there's nothing in that movie that's not funny, so they got to laugh, too.

Edie was home by the time they started on ornaments, and she took the lead there, but only after opening a bottle of wine. After awhile, I got some cheese and crackers, and changed the movie a few times. By the time Edie told us to get lost so she could do tinsel, we were all slightly tipsy, and found a tree with three thousand teensy-tiny lights just somewhat mesmerizing.

I started the fireplace along the way, and when I stood back with Aaron to enjoy the tree, I was really feeling it. I'll explain 'it', but just once. I'd been lazy in the morning, then totally worked up and scared, then I'd calmed down and laughed, now I'd had maybe one glass of wine too many. It had been an ordeal, I can tell you, and all through it Aaron had been wearing these pants that were driving me crazy!

As much as I liked the look of him in them, it was time for them to be floor ornaments. I gave his hand a discreet tug when Harlan and Edie weren't looking, and we were out of there without a sound. Well, there may have been sound, but just that of friction against carpet and the sparks that can result.

We should have known better, or maybe I should have called home, but it was phone time instead of anything else, and it was all too important to try and get out of.

My parents were concerned, and Det. Munro wanted me to call him, and Chris was worried, and Aaron's folks wanted to know how I was taking it. I talked to them all, listened to the ones with things to say, then I talked to more of them when they called back. Aaron hung on until he fell asleep, and I was back on the phone with Chris.

By the time everything shut up, I was hungry and Aaron was asleep, so I went and made a couple of turkey sandwiches, then I woke Aaron up. Even at night, pooped out, he smiled when he woke up, and he still smiled when he wasn't sure where he was, and he smiled that time because I was with him, and I loved him even more than before.

He nibbled at his sandwich, then woke up more and more until he was awake and the sandwich was gone, and he burped a little, "Good. You're a good cooker, Evan."

I laughed, "Yeah, maybe." I leaned back to kiss his cheek, "You know, Aaron?"


"I think you're a good looker. I think you're a nice guy. I think you're smart, I think you're all sorts of good things."

I stopped, and there was silence for a second before Aaron asked, "And?"

I said, not calmly, "If you don't take those fucking pants off, I'm gonna scream right in your ear!"

Continued ...

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