Plan B: A Degree of Difference

by Driver

Chapter 8

We went back downstairs later on. I started a new fire, and we sat there by the lit tree with the fire going, and had milk and apple pie while Christmas Vacation played again. Mt. Harman and trouble seemed very far away from us right then. I'd seen that movie many, many times, but it was funny all over again every time, and it was funny yet again.

With the fire crackling and the tree lit, that room was the picture of serenity. Cozy is the right word, and with the sweetness of pie and the freshness of milk in me, and Aaron cuddled up to me, I can't think of anything that would have made me any comfier. Well (and I should blush), my fat, fuzzy, moose slippers would have been the perfect addition.

In a way, what we were doing was special. All my time with Aaron was special, but we'd never watched Christmas Vacation together before, and Aaron obviously thought it was as funny as I did. It was so much fun laughing together at something so easy and familiar to both of us, especially after a rough week.

I felt that I owed Munro in more ways than one. His strategy of getting me out of town got results, and it let me see how a guy like Harlan lived at the same time. Indeed, it let me live just like him, and I loved it. I knew perfectly well how hard and long the man worked. Now I knew what he came home to, and any amount of toil seemed worth it.

I loved being there. I loved that house, and even more loved the fact that it was a real home, too. I loved that Aaron could be there to share in it with me.

I still felt beat up, but it was more distant, not right in my face. The news from Mt. Harman was fresh that day, but it wasn't immediately important anymore, because it wasn't in front of me, blasting from the television.

I was far away from it all, in fact. Aaron and I were cuddled up on the sofa, watching the fire and the tag end of the video, and it was real enough to make everything bad seem unreal, and that's where I needed to be.

I felt strange, but only a little, and because I'd never really had to consider my own safety before. Well, that's not the way to put it. I'd always considered my safety, but I'd never thought somebody bad would try to compromise it like they had. I didn't want it to happen again, either, nor did I want to spend my life looking over my shoulder.

I could spend my life looking at Aaron easily enough, and right then he looked as groggy as I felt. I took our dishes out to the dishwasher in the kitchen while he got the lights, then we went upstairs for some sleep. Aaron was astonished that I didn't want to watch the news, but I honestly felt better without it.

I'd hear it all, there was no doubt, so why cloud up a wonderfully comfortable evening? I'd left the cell phone in the bathroom sort of on purpose, and it had messages when I went in there, but that's where I left it again.

I didn't want it. I didn't want anything except Aaron and bed, and that's what I got. I'd slept in a chair the night before, and not really suffered for it, but I loved the bed that Harlan and Edie provided. I climbed in next to Aaron and lay on my back, wiggling around a little to fit into the mattress. Then I found a little grin that was still left in me, and I sang croakingly, "Evan and Aaron up in a tree, Evan and Aaron up in a tree," and Aaron started giggling. I rolled onto my side and kissed his cheek as I sang, "K-i-s-s-i-n-g," to Aaron's happy laugh.

I didn't do it right then, of course, but afterwards I thought of how much my life had changed, how many things I'd tried to line up with just recently. I left home full of fear, then found a different life that had mostly just frightened me again at first. The fear was real, but it didn't last that long, and it was just fear of not fitting in, not fear of being murdered.

I met some new friends in Billy and Huck, and looking back I can see that I worked hard to insinuate myself into their world. That was fine. I had two new friends, and they turned out to be the best kind of friends. The big thing for me was that they knew Aaron, because I got to meet Aaron, and in a quiet kind of way that was a life-changing experience for me.

I'd been sure that I was gay for several years by the time I met those guys. I was good at hiding it, though, because I felt that I had to. Hiding it to me was simply not saying anything, because I was a jock, popular enough in school. I didn't fit the mold of the 'usual suspect'.

The important thing is that I wanted to be with Aaron, and I wanted to be myself. I wanted to be honest, and it all piled up on me to want to be gay in public, so there would be no question about my relationship with Aaron.

I wasn't afraid of being gay, and I wasn't ashamed of being gay. With Aaron in Riverton, I had a taste of how things could work out, and it tasted pretty damn fine. I'd brought that back home with me to a point. My parents were stuck in the middle. They were having problems, and I could see that, but they weren't pushing them back on me. I never got a good feeling for what they thought gay was, but I was gay right in front of them.

I had grown up feeling something of an obligation to please my parents. To that end, I was clean, honest, and I applied myself at school and in sports. I was always happy with myself and my lot in life, and it showed. I was easily amused, and that kept me cheerful most of the time. I made friends easily, and I kept my friends. That was kind of the Evan that everyone got to see.

I could get moody sometimes, and my family knew that more than my friends did. Those moods weren't anything special, usually just a desire to be alone once in awhile, find some peace for myself. I didn't do anything weird. If it was during the day I'd find a quiet place to read, and at night I'd just lock myself in my room and go to bed early.

My dad said I was sulking, but I never thought that. I didn't harbor bad feelings, I just wanted some time alone, and it wasn't all that often anyhow.

Now I did have different feelings about my parents, and they were probably the inverse of the feelings they had about me being gay. They didn't like it, and even though they said and did nothing, I still knew they didn't like it.

I feel like I'm whining, and maybe I am. My folks were providing for me like they always had, and our relationship had been pretty warm since I came back home. I'd had no punishment for taking off like I did, and I hadn't gotten into any trouble to get myself grounded since I came back. Aaron and I got to see each other without parental restrictions, the only limits being from time and distance, and it was easy enough to see that they both really liked Aaron. They went to the Pflag meetings without fail, and they never said a single bad word about gay in general, or about me being gay.

Still, things weren't right, at least not in my mind. It was really hard to identify, so I won't try too hard. I think they both felt that I'd become gay to somehow cause scandal for them. I don't think they thought that, but they felt it without thinking it. There was no overt tension, but there was this undercurrent of discomfort that I felt all too often, like if I even made a bad joke I'd fall out of favor forever.

That's what it was, for me at least; the feeling of walking a tightrope every time I was around them. And the business of hate crimes against me did nothing to make things better. I think that somewhere deep inside, they thought that's what happens to gay boys. Now they had proof of that, and it was hardly a subtle proof. Mr. Erasmus, whatever his problem with me was, had outrageously displayed the depths of his hatred.

Those feelings about my parents had been nagging at me for months. I didn't say anything for a lot of reasons, but mainly because I was never sure, and wondered if I might be trying to convince myself that I had valid reasons to take off before.

It was more than that, though, and now I was sure of it. There was a void between us that hadn't existed before. It was a marginal one, but no less real because of it. We could see through it, communicate through it, even love through it, yet there was still a gap. No, that's not a good description. It was more like a coating, like we'd all been painted with teflon. We could get close, but only so close, then things got slippery.

I was tired, and that's probably why I was having strange thoughts, so I tried actively to change what I was thinking about.

Aaron was asleep, flat on his back. I lay on my side and put my arm across him gently, smiling at his features. He was one of those lucky people who looked good no matter if he was awake or asleep, or what angle you looked at him from. I looked until my eyes were heavy, then I closed them and started humming The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which I privately considered to be 'our song'. I hadn't even told Aaron about the song. I kissed him through the humming, and then again, and then I was asleep myself.

I didn't hear the alarm go off, but I woke up the next morning to the sound of the television, and Aaron was sitting up watching it. It took me a minute to get fully awake, then I leaned over and kissed his cheek, raising a little smile on his face. He turned his smile to me and said, "Hi. I'm waiting for the news to come on."

I asked, "How long?"

"Seven minutes. I mean six minutes."

I hurried into the bathroom, and was back with time to spare. Sure enough, the program started with scenes from the standoff, then the video of the house blowing up, and the coverage started live from the scene.

There weren't many new facts. Everyone in that house had been taken into custody, but just for questioning, and nobody had been charged with anything yet. That made sense to me. They were trying to get everyone's story, and to untangle the relationships between people.

They did put up a picture of Leonard Erasmus, and he was a regular enough looking guy, but (and a chill ran through me while I looked at the picture) that regular looking guy had tried to kill me. He'd had his hands on me, that's how close he got, and now it was him who was dead.

Then there was video from the day he shot the guy at the airport, and that showed him firing the gun, and he was immediately overcome by officers. They talked about his trial, where he got charged with second-degree manslaughter, and ended up only serving two years for it. They only briefly mentioned the murders of the other boys, like it was just a footnote to the current story.

I stopped paying attention when they started interviewing neighbors again.

I was disappointed that nothing made it any clearer to me why that guy was trying to kill me. They'd said his address was 'uncertain', so I didn't know if he even lived in the same town with me.

It all did nothing to make me any wiser, but I figured I'd be learning more later on, whether I wanted to or not. I shrugged helplessly at Aaron, and asked, "Shower?"

He smiled, "Together?"

I nodded, and that's what we did. Afterwards, I reluctantly took the cell phone with me. I figured that after breakfast I'd just sit down for awhile and call everyone that I had to call.

We went down to the kitchen, and Edie was there with a coffee and the newspaper. She greeted us and offered us warm muffins, which we happily accepted. She left us alone so she could read the paper in the other room, and we had a quiet and delicious light breakfast.

I told Aaron that I had to make calls, and he said he'd stay with me, so I called right from the kitchen after I got out a pad and a pen in case I needed to make notes.

I called the police station, first asking for Munro, who wasn't available, then for Donovan, and they took a message. Then I called home and talked to my parents in turn, starting with my father. He was full of questions, and he was very surprised to hear that I didn't know those people at all. He thought for sure that once they had a name, the connection would become obvious.

When we got off that topic, he asked, "Are you doing okay, Evan? I need to be honest, it was tough here with you gone again. I'd been really looking forward to having you around for the holiday."

Uh oh. The fact was, I hadn't thought much about home at all since I'd been at Harlan's. I hoped he wouldn't ask anything more specific when I said, "Oh, I'm fine here. We had a nice enough Thanksgiving, except it was half watching all that on television." I wanted to change the subject, "You know, this place buts right up to where that crime happened, the one where the Erasmus kid got kidnaped and the other ones got killed. I walk out there, and it's kind of strange feeling."

That was enough to silence my dad into thought for awhile. He gave the phone to my mother. She was somewhat solicitous, too, but we managed to avoid any upsets. She did say that she thought I could come home later that day, but they didn't want to do anything until they heard from the police. The only real news was that the new front window had been installed the day before, and it made the rest of the room look old. They were planning to put up the tree after lunch. Bruce and Alton were out, so that was it.

I clicked off and smiled sadly at Aaron. "I'll probably have to go home later."

He grimaced, "And you should." He looked at me hopefully, "Evan, you know I love being with you, and I love having you near me." He shook his head slowly and sadly, "I still think you need to be with your family." His eyes narrowed, "They're good people, Evan. I love them myself, and I can see ... feel that they care for me. I ... Evan, I don't see what your problem is. You have a path of no resistance with your parents." His look intensified even more, "You should just walk that path."

I stared at him, and he went on, "You have this idea in your head, Evan, that your parents hate you for being gay, and it's not true. It's not! I see them with you. I see them with me!" He laughed, "I'm not hated, I can prove that much. You're not, either, Ev. Your folks might be trying to figure things out, but they're sure not trying to keep us apart. You're making something out of nothing."

I sighed, "You're probably right, but I have this feeling, and it doesn't go away, that something's different now."

Aaron got up and came over to sit on my lap. He kissed my cheek and said softly, "It's different, Ev. You're different. You're not like me, or they would have known all along. No, you're like you, and when you told them, it was all brand new." He smiled, "Ask them for stories from the Pflag meetings, then you'll know what I'm talking about. You're getting the best, Evan. Your folks are the best!" He turned quickly to straddle my legs, so we were nose to nose. "Ev, you can't hope for your parents to like that you're gay. My folks don't like it, either. They deal with it, and that's what your folks are doing." He put his nose right up to mine and looked in my eyes, "It's all you get, Evan. It's all you get. You're not thrown out, you're not disinherited, you're not unloved, you're just a little misunderstood. If you think of the nature of parents, that misunderstanding is all on their side, otherwise they'd be gay themselves, and there wouldn't be a you."

I stared at Aaron, a joke building up in me, but I had to set it up. "This is true?" I asked.

Aaron nodded.

"All true? Wow!"

"I hoped you'd understand," Aaron said.

I said, "Let me think this out. I can be gay, but my folks won't ever like that I'm gay, and that makes sense, I guess. I hate to think of it like this, but they had to fuck to make me, and that makes them un-gay to the max." I looked at Aaron, "Right?"

Aaron knew I was up to bullshit, I could see it in his wary expression, but he just nodded an affirmative.

Well, if he wanted funny, then I'd withhold it. "I should call Chris," I said.

"Chris?" Aaron whined, and I nodded.

"Go ahead," he said.

"I need a new word for ugly first. Does abysmal apply to looks?"

Aaron's look turned into a glare. "Stop it, Evan! Why ... why do you insist on calling Chris ugly? I mean, it's arguable, but he's as good looking as you, and he's a blond!"

I laughed, "Blond means something?"

"In some circles," Aaron said a bit reluctantly.

I said, pointing at Aaron, "Okay, so ugly is a relative term." I smiled, "This is for you, Aaron, okay? You're it! Everybody else is an also-ran, so ugly applies to lots of people nowadays." I grinned, "I used to think Chris was cute too, you know. I guess I can see what you see in him, but I'd appreciate you keeping that to yourself."

I wanted some fresh air, so I edged Aaron off me and said, "I'm taking a walk. Feel like going outside for awhile?"

Aaron said, "What about Chris?"

I headed to the coat closet, saying, "I can walk and talk at the same time. C'mon, get some air."

We both pulled our jackets on and went right outside. It was pretty cold, but the air was still, so it was nice weather for a walk, a short one anyhow. I called Chris right away, and his dad called him to the phone after talking to me for a minute.

"Hey," Chris said.

"Hi, Chris. How's everything?"

He snickered, "I should be asking that, but it's okay here. You been watching the news?"

"I watched earlier. Did something just happen?"

"No, not just now. That neighborhood is taking donations for the family who lost their house. We're taking a ride over in a while. Everyone feels bad for them. They lost everything they own because of some looney relative."

I hadn't thought of things in those terms, and of course Chris was right. I said, "You know, that original crime took place right next door to where I am. I've walked over there a few times."

Chris let out a low whistle, and asked, "Isn't that kind of spooky?"

"Not spooky, not really. The crime was awful for sure, but the place is really kind of peaceful."

"Hoo," Chris breathed out. "I think you can have my share of that kind of peaceful. I didn't find out much about that Erasmus kid. His father was in jail, so he lived with his mother at her sister's house. He was in Catholic school 'til this year, and I guess he doesn't have a lot of friends. Sorry."

I said, "That's okay," and added absently, "Man, he's had one messed up life, huh?"

"I'll say," Chris said. "Um, Dad wants to get going. Can I call you later? Or are you coming home now?"

"Go ahead, Chris. I think we're waiting for the cops to say it's okay before I come home."

"Oh yeah," he said, and we said goodbye.

I dropped the phone into my pocket and didn't say anything for awhile. My one hand was warm from holding Aaron's, but the phone hand was frozen, so I jammed it into my pants pocket.

I felt kind of spaced out thinking about things, and I muttered, "That poor kid," thinking about Lee Erasmus.

"What?" Aaron asked.

"Oh, I'm thinking about the Erasmus kid. I mean, why does the shit pile up on one person like this? He sees his friends getting murdered, then he's kidnaped, and he's some kind of sex toy for who knows how long. He finally gets home, then his dad murders the guy who took him, so then he goes to jail. His father gets out and he tries to fucking kill me, and now he's dead!"

Aaron said sadly, "Yeah, that's all heavy stuff."

"Sure is," I muttered, hoping to drop the subject. After that we walked in silence to the back of the property, then we circled around back to the house. For once, we never left the lawn.

My phone rang just as we were walking up to the house, and it was Sgt. Donovan, and he sounded very tired. He basically told me I could go back home, and asked that I continue to keep my mouth shut about what had gone on. He said that their investigation was still going on, but they were pretty sure their main guy was the one who'd blown himself up. They had other suspects though. He wouldn't tell me anything else, except that he didn't think my safety was an issue anymore.

He ended the call saying, "I'm really dragging here, Evan. Let the office know when you're home, but I want to sleep for a solid day anyhow."

I felt bad for him, and said, "Thanks, Sergeant, for everything. I promise not to bother you."

He chuckled, "Good lad," then he was gone.

I looked at Aaron while I was taking my coat off, "I can officially go home, Aar." I snickered, "That was an official on the phone telling me so."

Aaron's eyes rolled, then he asked, "What do you want to do?"

I said, "I don't know, goof off, I guess."

"I know what we could do," he said. He smiled hopefully, "We could go Christmas shopping."

"Shopping," I stated, wondering what brought this on. "I'm not a good shopper, Aaron. Besides, I don't have much money on me."

He eyed me, "Where's your ATM card?"

"Oh yeah," I muttered, pulling out my wallet to make sure it was in there. "I'll tell you, though, having money doesn't make me a better shopper."

Aaron smiled and touched his chest, "Never mind. I'll make you a better shopper!"

I smiled, "Uh huh. I believe you. Where do we shop? How do we get there?"

Aaron grinned, "We shop downtown. We either ask for a ride or we walk."

I asked Harlan for a ride, and in a few minutes he dropped us off in town.

I just stared at first. I'd always, and I mean always, gone to the mall when I had to shop. Well, there were trips to K-Mart and Wal-Mart, but never to buy anything I wanted, because they didn't know what I wanted. Those stores were for things like light bulbs and toilet paper, things for the house.

Riverton's downtown was something else. The sidewalks were full of people, and it was like a party atmosphere, with lots of smiles and cheerful greetings.

I was instantly charmed, and I smiled at Aaron, "Where to?"

"Let's go to the bank down by the Y, then we'll come back up this side, then go down the other side."

I smiled and shrugged, and we started out. We made okay time getting to the bank because we walked out near the curb. I got some money from the machine, then we poked our way back up the street.

Aaron saw some people he knew, and they'd stop to say hi and not much else. I was introduced a couple of times, and not introduced a couple of other times. It didn't matter to me, because whether I got introduced or not only depended on how much of a hurry the other people were in. We hadn't actually been inside a store yet, though we'd lingered in front of a few windows.

I didn't have any ideas for what to get anyone, and I figured I'd do my usual, which was to look around until I saw things that suited people, then buy them. Sometimes, and with people like my brothers, I could buy a bunch of one thing and get them all out of the way at once.

I wasn't even sure who I should be buying for. Except for Chris, I never exchanged Christmas presents with my friends. Chris and I got each other gag gifts, which is the reason I had moose slippers to begin with.

Aaron was an excitable shopper, and that made him fun to be with. When we were going past the front of a restaurant he said, "You like Mexican? We should have lunch here later, it's really good."

The sign over the door said, El Horno, and I started giggling. Aaron asked, "What?"

"El Horno?"

He said seriously, "Yeah, it's Spanish for the oven. They make all their own tortillas and everything."

I laughed, "It's not that, Aaron. Pronounce it in English. Then it's the horn, and that's what you give me."

Aaron's eyes went wide in surprise as he smiled, "Say that again?"

I leaned in close and whispered, "You give me the horn, Aaron. Big time!" and I gave his ear a quick lick.

His look was longing for a second, then he straightened up, "Right, then. Let's do some shopping, then we can come back for lunch."

One store we came to had nothing but art prints for sale, and I caught Aaron admiring one after we'd looked around for awhile. I liked the picture myself, and it wasn't something I'd normally like. It was a still-life of flowers with a silvery angel flying over them. It was the colors that I liked; rich shades of red and yellow, and the background was dark, with blue and black. I checked the title when Aaron wasn't looking, and it was 'Chrysanthemums' by Marc Chagall. I admired it again, and knew right then what Aaron was getting for Christmas from me.

I didn't buy it then because he was with me. In another store, I did get a hand-carved chess set from Russia for my brother Alton, and it looked well-done, and for not much money. In the same place I got a set of hand-painted nesting dolls for my mother.

Aaron wasn't doing as well. He had specific things in mind, and we hadn't been to the right types of stores yet. He wanted to get a leather wrap for Justin's steering wheel, and he'd probably need an auto parts store for that. The only thing he had by lunch time was a wall-stenciling kit that he thought his mother would like.

El Horno seemed far away when we got hungry for lunch, so we stopped in an Italian hole-in-the wall place instead. Aaron got some pizza slices and I got a calzone that had to weigh three pounds. Mama Mia! It was good, too, and I ate more than two thirds of it.

After that, it was a little strange. Aaron ate just enough to fuel him up, and he was ready to shop in earnest. I, on the other hand, felt heavy and ponderous, and I mostly wanted to burp and lay down.

I followed him dumbly through a few stores, and eventually felt revived enough to pay attention. I did run into a guy I'd worked with, and he had his little family with him, then we saw Billy's father and talked for a few minutes.

When we got to the book store that I liked so much, I had already decided that I liked shopping in town better than at the mall, and there was no single reason why. I could tell that the mall tried to be a concentrated version of a town, and much of the stuff for sale was the same. The big difference seemed to be that in town, whoever's name was on the store sign was almost sure to be in that store, and probably with some of his family.

I felt better treated, for one thing, and I couldn't find a question that people couldn't answer. Even when we didn't buy anything, which was most times, they thanked us for coming in.

It's a fine line, I guess. I suppose that at one time there really was a Barnes and a Noble, but I seriously doubt that any of the friendly people who work there now are related to them. That doesn't make them any less friendly, really, or even any less knowledgeable, but their only stake in those stores is a paycheck.

The one other thing that charmed me about Riverton's shops was their very realness. The mall stores tried to capture an image, and some of them were honest enough to want a mall image, but most of them wanted to be Riverton shops, places that were there before anyone came up with the concept of a mall. What seemed so natural in town really came across as fake in a mall. There was a slightly shabby gentility to a real town that the malls mocked when they actually tried to copy it.

There was one more thing, too, and that was the fact that outside a town store was really outside, and the weather was different from inside. Part of the fun was going in to warm up, then back out to cool off. In the mall, you were always inside, and that's probably good on crummy days, but when you're Christmas shopping, at least where the seasons change, it seemed almost essential to be going in and out like we were.

The book shop was my place, though, and I knew a lot of the people who worked there. I still had the vision of that Chagall print in my head, and I went to look at the art books, which wasn't my habit. This woman, Marcia, was working there, and she greeted me when I came by.

"Evan! How are you?"

I smiled, "Hi, Marcia. I'm good, how about you?"

She wiggled her nose, "Just ducky, Evan. Looking for something special?"

I shrugged, "I just want to see ..." I looked at her, "Did you ever hear of Marc Chagall?"

She made a face, "Hmmm ..." Her eyes widened, "Remainders! There's a big one over there, I'm sure of it!"

I followed her, comparing the way she walked to her comment about feeling ducky, and I could reconcile the two. Still, she knew that store, and when we got to the remainders section she held out her hand to stop me. I stopped in my tracks while she looked around, her chin in her hands, then it apparently came to her because she signaled me to follow her, and I was soon looking at a short stack of big art books, the coffee-table kind.

I smiled at Marcia, because there were four copies of a huge one titled, 'Chagall', and it was marked down from a hundred bucks to thirty. I picked one up and fingered through it.

I had never paid that much for a book of any sort, but the pictures inside were beautiful, and I decided right away how I'd do something to return Harlan's and Edie's kindness to me. I walked over to the checkout, looking around for Aaron on the way, but I didn't see him. I paid for the book, then looked around some more for Aaron while I brought it to gift wrap. While they were wrapping it up, I climbed halfway up the stairs, where I got a pretty good view of the whole ground floor, and there was still no Aaron, so I figured he'd gone to the second level.

It was harder to look around up there because the racks were more like in a library. I didn't see him right away, so I went part way up the next stairs to look.

I'd just turned around to look when I heard Aaron's voice from above, and he wasn't talking to me. He sounded worried, frightened even, when he said, "Leave me alone! I didn't do anything."

I started up the stairs, but I heard Aaron make an 'Oof' sound before I took two steps, then I was running. At the top I looked right, then immediately to the left, and there was Aaron against the wall, bent over and clutching his stomach while two other boys taunted him to fight back. They weren't big by any means, and were probably younger than us, but it was still two against one, and I was suddenly seeing red. One of the kids was poised to hit Aaron again, and I snagged his wrist, bending it backwards until the rest of him followed it, and he stumbled into the opposite wall. The second kid's jaw dropped, and I made a threatening fist that I shook at him. "Come on," I said, "try me!"

He backed off, so I grabbed the first kid by the front of his jacket and pulled him to where his nose was almost touching mine. "Tell me," I threatened, "what the fuck you think you're doing, then tell me why I shouldn't throw you ass-first down those stairs."

He sneered, but I could tell he was scared, so I just shoved him back hard. He fell, and I turned my attention to Aaron, who was on the verge of crying. I hadn't seen Aaron like that before, and my heart broke for him. I felt a sudden rage, and if those kids hadn't already slunk away I might have followed through on my threat about the stairs. I turned back to Aaron, and my anger subsided as quickly as it had come on. I hugged Aaron to me for a minute, then we picked up our things and went into the men's room.

Aaron wiped his eyes on a paper towel, then combed his hair. He sighed mightily at his image in the mirror, then turned sadly to me. "Thanks, Evan. They're punks."

"What happened, Aar?"

We started walking out. "I came in to go to the bathroom, and they came in right after me. I was peeing, and one of them stood next to me, and the other one said I was checking him out, then they started pushing me around. I told them to leave me alone, then that kid with the red hair just punched me." He tugged at my sleeve so I looked at him, and we both stopped. Aaron smiled shyly, "The rest was all you, Evan." He blinked his eyes, "My hero."

I smiled back, "You're okay, then?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. I'm out of money and I'm tired, though. Can we just go home now?"

"Sure," I said. "We need a way to get there. Are there cabs?"

Aaron nodded, "We can call a cab, it shouldn't be much."

I asked the lady at the cash register if she could call for a cab, and she did, only asking where we were going once she had them on the phone. Then we stood outside until it came. It was dark by then, and there were pretty lights on all the lamp posts. I'd learned to like the town of Riverton during the summer, and even then I liked it a little more each day. It was a town of neighborhoods for one thing, and I liked that part. The thriving downtown made it a throwback to another era, but I really liked that it was there. The commercial center of the town was owned and run by local people, not some single corporate entity from who-knows where. Some of those people wanted a highway to come there so the town could grow, but a lot of others didn't want it, because they liked the town the way it was. I definitely agreed with the second group.

Our cab showed up after about ten minutes, and we were soon back to Harlan's house. On the way to the door I said, "Not much longer, Aaron. Two months, then we can get our permits, then another month and watch out!"

Aaron nudged me and grinned, "I get busted when I watch out. I think I'll just get my license."

I stopped, "You were peeking? Peeking at a pecker?"

The door was locked, so Aaron knocked, then he said, "It was just a casual glance, Evan, and I didn't think I was being spied on."


"Pervert, yourself"

I snickered, "I know, huh?" and the door opened to reveal a smiling Edie.

"Hi, boys! How was your shopping trip?"

We each held up a laden bag with each hand as evidence of our productivity. Edie smiled her approval, and we put everything down to take our coats off and hang them up. Aaron said, "Evan rescued me from two brutish troglodytes in the bookstore."

Well, that set me off in a high-pitched, wheezing giggle, while Edie played it cool, asking, "Really? We have troglodytes in our bookstore now? Please tell me you're talking about the campus co-op!"

That was off-the-wall enough to get Aaron laughing, too, and Edie said, "Harlan and I are going out to eat, so you're on your own for dinner."

"Okay," I managed to say, still snickering. "Have fun."

We headed upstairs with our loot, and Aaron noticed my cell phone in the middle of the bed. He picked it up and looked, mumbling "Lots of messages," then he turned to me. "Evan, you're really avoiding this whole thing, aren't you?"

I nodded, "Yeah, I am. I used to think it was just a little character flaw. I mean, I don't like trouble." I looked at him, "You don't think it's turning into a major failing, do you?"

Aaron sat on the bed and gaped at me. "Failing? That might be the word. Evan, somebody tried to kill you last week, and now he's dead, and in between a whole family got kidnaped, and a house got blown into little, bitty bits, and the whole world saw it on television."

I looked at the phone beside Aaron and I felt guilty. I really did. I'd been avoiding the best I knew how to, and the incipient reason was that I didn't want to deal with it.

The real reason, which was harder to face, was that I was afraid of the whole mess. I didn't want to deal with it, because I didn't want it to be happening.

I sat down heavily, my hands in my lap. "I hate it, Aaron. I hate that those kids thought they could just beat on you today, that somebody cut me up, that people die for this. It's ... I ... I feel better when I turn my back to it." I hung my head, "I can't do that anymore, can I?"

Aaron said softly, "You can if you want, Ev. I just don't think it's trivial, that's all."

He was right, and I smiled at him. I wasn't responsible for what had happened before, when those boys got killed. I wasn't responsible for getting beat up, then our house shot up. I wasn't even responsible for Leonard Erasmus killing himself and blowing up that house.

I was doing the wrong thing, though. I was grasping for time with Aaron ... hours, minutes, even seconds. Those other people, the ones I was trying so hard to ignore, were doing what might ensure me a lifetime with Aaron, and I suddenly felt very small and selfish and stupid.

"Give me the phone, Aar. You're exactly right."

It didn't really take that long. Something over an hour on the phone had me good with everyone, and up to date on things, and it didn't really hurt at all. Well, some of the information was evil.

I learned that Lee Erasmus, fourteen years old, was arrested that day. He was charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault, kidnaping, use of a deadly weapon, and about a half-dozen conspiracies. Most of those charges arose from the assault on me and the assault on our house the next day, but the kidnaping charges were from Thanksgiving and his own family.

I didn't like hearing it. The news had shown a picture of Lee when he was around ten, and he looked like a perfectly average, happy kid. Then the rug came out from under him, and he must have felt like his world just fell apart. He went through a compilation of horrors, then his father went to prison, and now, for reasons only known to them, they tried to tag-team on me.

I wondered if there was anything left in life for a kid like him. Aaron and I talked about it, and we just couldn't come up with answers because we didn't know that family.

We decided to sort it out in the hot tub, and I cringed when I saw the black and blue mark on Aaron's tummy. "That little bastard," I said. "What the fuck did he think he was doing?"

Aaron smiled sadly and stroked my shoulder, "A lot less than the guy who came after you, Evan. I'm okay."

We slipped into the water, and the heat took our voices away at first. When we got used to it, and the noise of the bubbles, I think we both forgot what we were talking about.

We both felt better and more relaxed after our soak, and we pulled on sweat pants and went downstairs. After poking through the leftovers to see what was there, Aaron took sliced turkey and warmed it up in gravy. I made some toast, and we had hot sandwiches that were delicious. We washed them down with milk, because we both felt weird about drinking so much wine lately. We nuked the rest of the mince pie for dessert, and had that with more milk.

It was our last night in that house, our last night together, and we spent it relaxing in the kitchen. Our food was good, and we ate it all, but neither of us was very hungry so we really took our time eating it. The kitchen was warm and cozy, and the only thing that bothered me about being shirtless was that I kept seeing the mark on Aaron's stomach where that kid hit him.

On one level I wished I'd hurt the guy who hit Aaron, but I was glad that I didn't do it. I wished that I'd talked to him and his friend, got an idea of what was in their heads, but I didn't, and that was a missed chance when I looked back on it. They made me angry for what they did, and I blew my top for a second, but only for a second. I didn't like them, but I didn't hate them, either.

A lot of people seemed to take it on themselves to punish anyone who was a little different, and I always thought that was the stuff losers do. I found myself wondering if doing things like that is what turned people into losers. It was common enough to see a guy sneering at someone else, but too often it was because of a personal trait, or even a disability. What was that about? I'd been taught to be compassionate when I saw someone weaker than me, and it bothered me when I saw someone taking advantage of a weakness, or even ridiculing it.

Aaron stirred, and it reminded me that I'd have plenty of time on my own to contemplate the universe, but precious little to love the guy I loved. My folks were coming for me the next day, and Aaron had to go home, too, so it was our last time together for awhile. That, at least, didn't worry me anymore. This might be a long separation, what with Christmas coming and family things to do. I'd miss Aaron, for sure, and he'd miss me, but we no longer worried about getting back together. We'd become good at making that happen, and in about two months and two weeks, we'd both be eligible to get drivers' licenses.

I got practical for a few minutes. I went upstairs and got the gift I'd bought for Harlan and Edie, then I filled out the card and pushed it back under the tree for them to find on Christmas. Aaron had followed me, and he helped me word the card, then we sat in that room after lighting the fire.

I got that bit from my father, the love of the fireplace. He was a tense man most of the time, but when it was time to light the fire, then he could relax. Well, he'd relax if the fire actually burned, otherwise there would be a new level of tension until it did.

Aaron and I were there on the sofa, side by side in just sweat pants. I loved lots of skin with Aaron, and since summer it didn't happen a lot, not until we came to Harlan's and his hot tub. Now Aaron was damaged, and I leaned in to kiss his boo-boo, which got him giggling, then I went lower.

He squealed, then said it came out in letters again, and the damdest thing was that I knew what those letters said, and I agreed. I loved Aaron just as much as he loved me ... every which way, and if he was ever not part of my life, then I'd surely die.

Side by side again, warm by the fire, I said, "It's funny, isn't it? Last year it was another Thanksgiving, with football and relatives and a big meal. Now .. I don't know, Aaron, I really don't. I'm changed. I'm in love, and I'm changed because of you. I feel so much more ... I don't know, intense? Is that a good way to put it, that I feel intense?"

Aaron said kind of dreamily, "It's a good way."

I poked his rib, "I'm serious, man! It's hard to concentrate with all this going on, but ever since I met you I feel like a different person." I kissed his nose and lowered my voice, "I never had anyone to love before, not this way. It's complicated, Aar, but loving you makes other things feel different by their own nature. I think I'm inclined to try harder than ever, because now I have you to please, too, and I want to please you, to impress you, whatever you call it."

"Why for me?" Aaron asked.

I shrugged, "I don't know if it's really for you. Maybe it's for me, maybe it's just because of you, but I want things to be so perfect, then things I can't control get in the way." I sighed, "I don't know, I just want so much to be what you want." I touched his hair, "Don't even say anything, Aaron, I'm just talking, not making sense."

He laughed humorlessly and quietly, "I know what you mean. If it helps, I don't think you're perfect because you're trying to be. I don't get that feeling, anyhow." He giggled, "You are perfect, you know, and I mean that. If you're trying, you should stop, because it's not making any difference in what I see." He snickered, "It's love, Evan, and I have it every bit as badly as you do. I think all we can do is let it happen and hope that it lasts."

I just looked at Aaron for the longest time, churning over what he'd said. I liked what I heard, and I tested it to see if I got it right. "Okay," I mumbled, "It's not about if we love each other, it's if we have to do something special to keep it going." I snickered, "This already sounds really stupid, because the answer just came to me."

"Explain?" Aaron said with a wry smile on his face.

I smiled back at him, "Aaron, my feelings for you started the first time I saw you. It was your looks at first, but we talked too, and I don't think there was any real likelihood I wouldn't like you. I'm feeling dumb right now, because I fell in love with the Aaron I first met and got to know. I'm guessing, but you probably fell for me the way I was those first few days."

Aaron didn't respond, and after a moment I looked at him. He smiled meekly, "You're doing well, keep going."

I grinned, "No contribution from you?"

He shook his head, "You finish first, then I'll say my part, okay?"

"I don't have anything to finish, Aaron," I said. "I love you, and I'd probably have to hit you if you tried to change anything about yourself. When I was talking about me, I didn't mean I was trying to change myself, but just to be a better me. That's what I meant when I said I was being stupid. I can't be a better me for you, only for me!"

Aaron stared at me for a second, then broke out in a smile, "Awesome!" He leaned back and held the smile, "You know, you're right with this, Evan. I wanted so much for you to like me at first, and when you did ... I don't know ... I almost didn't believe it. You were like my dream come true that first night, and you were okay with me being gay, then bam! The next night you said you were just like me, and Evan, those words are still music to me. You could have said the same thing lots of ways, but saying you were anything like me, much less just like me ... that's like the defining moment of my life so far." He smiled again, "Evan, if you can be a better you, then go for it. I try to learn, too, to be better, or smarter, than I was the day before. Just know this, and I'm being as sincere as I can. I already love you Evan, and you can't change that. Perfection comes with love, so there's nothing you have to do on my behalf"

I basked in that, smiling. "We never argue really, do we?"

Aaron thought, then said, "Well ... maybe not argue, but we don't always agree."

I had to think about that, and said, "That's half-true. You push me sometimes, Aaron, but it's more like you're right than that we disagree."

He said lightly, "I'm always right, Evan. That's something you should know."

I said, "You know, whenever someone says they're always right, I always think brat."

Aaron snickered, "Even adults?"

"No, when it's adults, they're just assholes."

Aaron didn't say anything, so I said, "Elitists, that's what they are. I don't like being talked down to by elitists, and I don't know if I'll ever get used to it."

Aaron laughed, "I can see it now. Unaccustomed as he is to being talked down to by elitists, Evan has been let go once again from a high-paying position in the recycling industry. Head hanging low, he passes through yet another landfill exit gate. He wonders, at long last, if just maybe his old friend Aaron was right when he told him to deal with it."

"Aaron," I threatened, "What are you talking about? You never told me to deal with it."

Aaron's eyebrows went up. "No? I thought I did. I'll tell you now, then. Um, deal with it!" He relaxed back into the sofa, hands crossed behind his head, and he spread his legs a little. "See, Evan? I trusted you to learn, and you did. You can handle elitists now, and you can thank me for that."

I was shocked. "Elitist scum?"

Aaron brightened visibly, "Yes they do, Evan! Elitists cum just like regular guys." He started to lean forward, an evil smile on his face, "Just so the lesson doesn't get forgotten, let me prove that last point. Er, I mean with you being the regular guy."

I smiled, "You owe me anyhow."

Aaron pulled back, "Whoa, whoa! What's this owe stuff?" He was grinning, "I owe you? When did that start?"

"Tuesday," I laughed.

Aaron asked, "Last Tuesday or next?" then he gave up. "Never mind, let me see this thing." He snickered once more, "Just keep in mind that you're playing the regular guy, and I'm the elitist. We'll compare notes later."

Afterwards, after I'd regained my power of speech, I gasped, "Point taken, Aaron. Point well taken."

He snickered, "Thanks. It means all the more to me coming from the voice of a pro."

I looked at him, a happy smile forming on my face, "What's with you tonight?"

He shrugged, "I don't know. I just feel an all-night kiss coming on, so can we go to bed?"

Bed sounded good, so we straightened up the room, turned everything off, and headed upstairs. We talked a lot, and fooled around a lot, and managed to escape learning anything useful entirely.

It was fun being foolish like that. We were alone and it didn't hurt anyone, and we both loved making each other laugh.

Comfy in bed, we laughed even more, and not as quietly as you might imagine. We did that until Aaron thought it was time to try an all-night kiss. That was a prospect with merit enough to consider, but it didn't work that well in practice. We could have kissed all night if we didn't plan to, but with it in mind, all we could do was giggle, so Aaron upped the ante.

"Where's your bag of kisses, Evan? If all you're going to do is giggle, at least you can giggle in chocolate so it tastes good."

I feigned hurt, "I don't taste good?"

"Don't start. You taste fantastic, but we should try different flavors just to see what it's like."

I could make Aaron's face out in the darkness, because a few things in the room gave off little bits of light. His eyes were shining, so I knew he was enjoying himself, and I decided to go along. A little chocolate never hurt anyone, and sharing some might be fun.

I got up and found my bag of kisses, then unwrapped two of them and set the bag on the night stand. "How do we do this?" I asked.

Aaron said, "Mmmm, put one in your mouth and give me one. Let it melt for a second, then let's kiss."

"Oooo-kay," I said, and handed him a chocolate. Then I popped the other one in my mouth, and it didn't take long before the taste of chocolate was everywhere. I wasn't quite ready yet, because the pointy part was still there, and that was trouble sometimes. I worked the candy around so the flat part was on the roof of my mouth, and I rubbed the pointy nub with my tongue until it was vague, then I leaned towards Aaron, and our lips met.

Well, funny! Try tonguing somebody while trying to keep control of a piece of candy at the same time, and when he's doing the same thing. In a flash, both candies were in Aaron's mouth and all I had was the taste of it.

Aaron smiled and said, with a mouthful of candy to make it unclear, "I got your candy."

I laughed. "Are you sure? I just cleared my throat, you know."

Aaron instantly spit both bits of chocolate out of his mouth, and they hit my cheek. "Why'd you do that?" I cried.

He was reaching the other way for the lamp, and when the light came on we both winced. When we were used to it, there was a big brown smear on my pillowcase, and the two pieces of kisses were on my shoulder. Aaron ate them down quickly, and said, "Get up, Evan. We have to wash this pillow case."

"Tonight?" I asked, surprised.

Aaron looked exasperated as he pulled the pillow out from under me. He held it close to my eyes and said, "Look at it, Evan! There's a big, brown stain on it!"

"So?" I asked. "It'll keep."

Aaron's voice leveled. "Evan, think about this for a minute. I know we're staying with enlightened people, but just the same, I don't want them seeing brown stains, or any stains, on our bed linens." He started to giggle, "Especially brown ones, though. This is a pillow, Evan! Anywhere would be bad enough, but a pillow? I'm sorry, but this is getting washed right now. You go to sleep, I won't be long." He pushed his own pillow towards me, "Here, use this."

Well, I was still laughing five minutes later when Aaron came back with a wet, but spotless, pillow case. He hung it over a chair back to dry, then gave me a look that said, 'done', even though he didn't open his mouth.

When he was climbing back into bed I asked, "Still want to kiss all night?"

Aaron sighed, then he snickered, "The best laid plans, huh? Let's go back to the old way. We'll kiss now, then sleep all night, then have a kiss when we get up. What the heck do you know when you're sleeping, anyhow?"

I leaned over to kiss Aaron, and it was a lulu as kisses go. "You're so smart, Aaron! You know, if it was my idea I'd be trying to make it work 'til doomsday."

Aaron smiled, "I'm easy. It sounded like fun, and it was kind of fun, but I think we should finish the chocolate first."

I kissed his cheek, then cuddled up until we were both comfortable, then I said, "This is the best, don't you think?"

"Second best," Aaron whispered.

I kissed at the air, falling asleep. "I love you, Aaron."

"Mmmm," he sighed happily.

Continued ...

Comments or Questions? Use the Message Board

© Copyright, 2003, the author. All rights reserved.