Plan B: A Degree of Difference

by Driver

Chapter 9

Sunday morning dawned cold and cloudy, and I woke up somehow knowing it before I opened my eyes. I was in a tolerably warm room and a cozy bed, next to a very hot boy, yet I felt snow on the horizon. When I blinked my eyes open, the cloudiness part was confirmed, and they were the dark, low clouds that usually preceded snow. I wouldn't know how cold it really was until later, but there was frost on the bottom window panes, so it had to be cold enough to snow.

On a normal Sunday, and in my own house, I would have just rolled over and gone back to sleep. That day, though, I figured I'd better get moving, because if there was any threat of a snow storm, my father would move the clock ahead to avoid driving in it. It was early, only six-thirty, but I came awake pretty fast after a comfortable night.

I slipped out of bed without waking Aaron, and went to the bathroom. When I was combing my hair and thinking about not shaving, I had to wonder about my facial hair. Aaron had only shaved twice in his life, and he was born the exact same day I was. I started shaving around my thirteenth birthday, and was shaving frequently by the time I was fourteen. Now, at fifteen, I had to shave every day, and a second time if I was going anywhere worthwhile at night.

I wasn't having it that day, though, no sir. It was a Sunday in November, and it looked like it would snow, and I didn't think a soul on Earth would care if I was clean-shaven or not, least of all me. I would put on clean underwear in deference to my mother, just in case we got in a car crash or something, but that was it. I wanted to slob out, and I was determined to do that.

Aaron was still zonked, so I packed up my things, looked around to make sure I had everything. Then I sat on the edge of the bed admiring Aaron before I woke him up. He was a happy person in the most fundamental ways. He could and did worry about things, but he expected happy outcomes like they were inevitable. He'd been pushed around and punched the day before, and he'd already forgotten it when I was still stewing in anger.

One night during the summer we were looking at a family picture album, and there was one snapshot of Aaron at age six or seven. He had this wide-eyed, happy expression on his face, while he stood there with his arms stretched as far as they'd go to either side. When I asked what that one was about, his mother leaned in and said, "Oh, I took that. I'd just asked Aaron how much he loved his brother, and he was showing me."

I choked up when she said that, but I'd learned for myself what a fountain of love Aaron really was. His loving nature worked well for him, too. You couldn't feel Aaron's kind of love without loving him back, nor his kind of respect for humanity without respecting him back. He was kind of unique in that regard, and right there I could find ninety percent of the reasons that I loved him so much.

That left another ten percent, and half of that was how he looked. Half of the rest was how he woke up in the morning, which I absolutely loved. He did it again, too, when I nudged him into wakefulness. He moaned, groaned, then smiled, as if there was an 'oh boy!' in there somewhere, and I truly believe he found one each and every time he got to face a new day.

His eyes blinked open, and he saw me, which made him smile even more. "Evan! What time is it?"

I looked at my watchless wrist and repeated an old joke of my father's, "Half past a hair and quarter of a wart." Aaron snickered, so it was okay, but I didn't want to become known that much as my father's son. It wasn't only old, it was lame.

I said softly, "I'm all packed up, Aaron. It looks like snow, so I'm sure Dad will come early."

Aaron looked at the window and said, merrily, "Looks like snow?" He grinned, "It looks a whole lot like snow."

I turned, and sure enough the white stuff was coming down like crazy. It made me smile because snow always did, and I ran to the window to look out. It had only just started, but things were already turning white, and there was something inside me that always loved the first real snow of the year. After that, I liked the big storms. There was no telling from year to year if we'd get any of those, but that first accumulation always held magic for me.

For Aaron, too, apparently. He knelt, squirming, beside me to watch, but then his bladder got the best of him and he hurried off to the bathroom

I thought he'd come right back, but soon enough I heard the shower come on. I stayed standing at the window watching the snow fall. It wasn't a blizzard, but it was coming down gently and coating everything in clean, new, whiteness, and I thought it was really pretty.

I decided to strike preemptively and make the first call, and my dad answered.

"Hi, Dad," I said. "Heh, I'm surprised you're not on your way."

"Evan," he said, "have I not mentioned to you that I do not like trusting my luck in the snow? Alton is clearing off his car as we speak." His voice softened, "How are you?"

"I'm fine, Dad."

"Evan, this is getting complicated, as if it wasn't already. I don't know if you heard, but they arrested that guy's kid ... that ... duh, duh, duh, ... dammit! Erasmus! That's his name! They arrested his kid, Evan!"

I said, "Yeah, I heard that. What's it all about?"

My father seemed to calm down, and I could picture my mother stroking the back of his neck, and home suddenly didn't seem hostile for that moment.

"I don't know," my father almost whispered. "Nobody knows yet, Evan" His voice suddenly wired up, "Are you sure, are you absolutely certain that you don't know those people from somewhere?"

"No, Dad. I swear, I never even heard that name."

"Okay," he said. "Listen, we were just about to eat when you called, so do me a favor and let me know when Alton and Bruce get there, and don't head back if this storm gets too bad. Promise me?"

I held the phone out and looked at it for a second. My father was treating me like an adult, and that was a first time thing. I smiled, "We'll be careful, Dad, I promise."

I've mentioned that my father was a tense person most of the time, but right then he seemed to relax. "Thanks, Evan. You thank those people from us as well as yourself, and tell Aaron we said happy Thanksgiving."

I said through my grin, "I will, Dad. I'll see you when I get there." Then I added more quietly, "I love you, Dad."

He paused for a moment, and his voice sounded choked, "I know Evan, and we love you. We'll work this all out. You just watch."

After I hung up and turned to Aaron, I had tears in my eyes and Aaron asked, "What's wrong?"

I tried to smile, but I was feeling kind of overwhelmed, and the tears wouldn't stop. I finally choked out, "You were right, Aar, right all along."

Aaron had seen me with tears in my eyes lots of times, but this was the first time he'd seen me when I just couldn't stop them. He couldn't tell, but I wasn't sad ... not at all. What I wanted to do was stand in front of my parents, hold my hands out as far as they'd go to the sides, and say 'I love you this much!' but the truth was that I loved them more than my arms would ever reach.

Aaron's dad had once told me that he could somehow see that I was a child of love. At the time, I wondered what he saw that I didn't, and now it was becoming clear to me. My parents loved me, no doubt about it. They were struggling with my gayness, but not on their own. They had found Pflag, they'd met Aaron's parents, and probably a lot of others by now that I didn't know about. They understood me as their son, and they always had. I'd socked them in the eye with a different dimension of myself when I said I was gay. I thought they'd hate me, and they didn't do that. I wasn't sure what I wanted, either. Should they say, "Yay! Evan's gay, just what we always wanted?"

I don't think so. It was me, my nature, and they struggled with it and tried to learn. I always wanted space to be myself, to get the clothes they hated but paid for anyhow, but I wasn't giving it back when they needed it. I resolved right then to do that, to be their son first and foremost, and their gay son only when it added something. That was no sacrifice on my part to start with, and I'd been selfish with them to be so impatient for their understanding.

I was spaced out, thinking about things and watching the snow from the window. Aaron appeared silently at my side. I started, but it was happy surprise. He giggled and kissed my ear, whispering, "How about breakfast at El Horno?"

I laughed, "Sounds fantastic! Do you have the hot sauce?"

Aaron snickered, "Well, I have my special sauce!"

Oh, God! That was funny, and I almost broke the window laughing. "You ... don't make me laugh like that, Aaron. Dammit!" I turned to him and leered, "Now you're gonna have to pull on this thing to get it hard again!"

Aaron smiled sweetly, reached over, and asked, "Like this?"

"Yes," I managed in the squeakiest, littlest voice that had come out of me in years.

It was Aaron's turn to laugh, and he pulled me toward the bed by my hand.

I was boned again, so it was fun again, and when I was close enough to the bed I dove into it, rolling onto my back and waiting for Aaron, who seemed a little surprised by my energy. Aaron could be a high-energy guy, too, I found out.

Afterwards, I took my belongings from the bathroom and packed them before going downstairs. I was a little surprised to see Harlan and Edie in the entry taking off their coats, light snow in their hair. They'd gone out for a little walk to celebrate the first real snow of the year, and Aaron and I decided to do the same thing.

We hurried into our coats and stepped outside, and it was already pretty in a fresh coat of white. There wasn't a lot of snow by any means, but enough to cover everything, and it was still coming down steadily. We walked a gentle figure eight out in the yard, and on the way back I wished I had a camera. Harlan's house was a handsome place to begin with, and in the snow it seemed almost like a mirage of colonial red emerging from a white world.

It was cold, though, and we didn't stay out very long. When we went in, we stomped our feet to get the snow off. Aaron's cheeks were red, and my nose was runny, and we both grinned at each other. I wiped my nose on the back of my hand, then we kissed, and I whispered, "I love you, Aaron. That was fun."

He kissed back, murmuring, "Mmmm."

"Hungry?" I asked.

Aaron nodded eagerly, and we went to the kitchen, where Harlan and Edie were drinking coffee and sharing the Sunday paper. They both looked up, and Edie pointed a finger up, saying, "I know! You're hungry, right? Now, how did I guess that?"

Aaron said, "Because you're very, very good at knowing things." He bopped my elbow gently, "Don't you think so, Ev?"

"Oh, yes!" I said, grinning. "It takes a very astute person to know when I'm hungry, since that hardly ever happens. I mean ... stops happening. I mean .." I nudged Aaron, who was giggling, "Help me out here, man. What do I mean?"

Harlan, without looking up from the article he was reading, said, "It means you're babbling, Evan. Please help yourselves, and make some for us, too."

"Harlan!" Edie cried, but Aaron already had his head in the refrigerator. We made French toast and bacon, and had it with real maple syrup that Harlan poured into a small pitcher from a gallon can. It was a lot thicker and a lot sweeter than your basic Log Cabin, and he ended up filling that little pitcher several times before we were done.

We'd barely put our forks down when the doorbell rang. I figured it was my brothers, so I followed Harlan, and I was right. Chris had come with them, which was a happy surprise for me. Harlan went back to the kitchen after I introduced everyone, and I said, "Welcome to my hideaway. Have trouble finding it?"

Alton shook his head and turned his attention to his surroundings.

They were all looking around admiringly, even Bruce, who normally paid as much attention to his environment as a grain of sand did. Chris whistled, and Alton asked, "How many rooms?"

"I don't know," I said honestly, "... lots."

"Nice," Chris breathed.

"How are the roads?" I asked.

Alton said, "Not bad. I didn't have any trouble. Is your stuff ready? It's still coming down out there, and I don't want any trouble."

I said, "I have to say goodbye, but I guess I'm ready. C'mon upstairs, I'll show you my room."

I led the way, pausing to show off the hot tub and the giant screen television in there, then went to my room. I had a duffle bag with my clothes, a small bag with my toiletries and some cd's, and two bags of Christmas gifts.

Aaron's bag was sitting there, too, but before anyone asked if it had to go too, Aaron walked in. Chris and my brothers were mildly surprised to see Aaron, because I hadn't yet mentioned that he was there, but they were glad to see him. After everyone talked for awhile, I looked at Alton and said, "Um, Al ... can I have a minute with Aaron before we go?"

He looked at me with those wise eyes of his and said, "Sure. Chris, Bruce, we're out of here!"

I'd gotten pretty good at saying goodbye to Aaron, from sheer volume of practice if for no other reason. We were good with it though, aware that there would be a next time, always a next time. We had phones and computers, and we had Hershey's Kisses. We had busy lives, too, so our minds were occupied when we were separated.

We joined everyone downstairs. Aaron said goodbye and went to call home for a ride. I faced Harlan and Edie to thank them, and I almost broke up. "Harlan, Edie ... I ... I don't know what to say. I really appreciate you taking me in like this, and I'm supposed to tell you that my parents do, too. I love your house, and ... I don't know ... you make me feel so special."

Harlan just smiled, and Edie said, "You're most welcome, Evan, and we hope you come back for another long visit."

"Under better circumstances," Harlan added. "We enjoyed it too, Evan, and I'm not just blowing smoke. You take care, and put all this behind you." He put a finger almost up my nose, "And you call me next spring. Your job is open, and I expect you to fill it."

I beamed, "Yes sir! I ... um, I'll need a place to stay."

Harlan smiled wryly, "There's a bulletin board in the office, Evan. You can always find a place to stay."

I grinned, shook hands with Harlan, got a hug from Edie, then we were out of there.

Alton and Bruce sat up front, and I sat in the back with Chris. It was good that he came. Chris had developed a sense about me, and I had it about him, and that sense told us when to be quiet, when to mix it up, and when to talk like magpies.

For the first few miles, he let Alton lead the conversation and tell me about the things that had happened at home, with Bruce adding things once in awhile. It was interesting to hear, too. I heard about the police investigation, which covered the whole neighborhood. That resulted in a lot of neighborly interest in us and our house that had never been displayed before then.

I heard about the Thanksgiving day football game, which our school lost in the last seconds after leading most of the game, then about Thanksgiving dinner with a boarded-up front room in our house, which sounded pretty gloomy.

Then Chris started, gently at first. He touched my arm to make me pay attention, then he asked quietly, "You're okay, right?"

"I'm fine," I said. "This is really weird, though." I had to smile, only because I loved that face so much. I know, I know, I call Chris ugly all the time, and he really is. Well, he really isn't, but if I went through life thinking he was cute, then I'd torture myself all the time. So I'd decided long ago that those clear blue eyes, the really nice skin, the short, dark blond hair, all that was ugliness personified. Aaron loved his mouth, and probably most people would, but not me. No. He had this wide, curvy, upper lip, and the part of his lower lip that showed wasn't nearly as much, so it always looked like he was smiling at something, or he wanted to be kissed. I spent an awful lot of nights wanting to kiss that mouth before I made it ugly in my mind.

Now I could just watch it talk, and ugly or not, it was entertaining.

Chris and I talked. We talked all the time, even more than I talked with Aaron. If one of us was demonstrably bleeding, or maybe had a bone sticking out through a pant leg, then we'd be serious. Not for long, probably, but serious just the same. In this instance, we'd used up our share of serious the night I got attacked.

Chris asked, "Did you see that house go up? Jesus fucking Christ! If I knew they were gonna do that, I could have tossed a nice pig in at the last minute. Just think! Right now I could have about a trillion Bacos!"

I thought that was really funny, but I'd laugh later. Instead I said, "You're gonna be a fat man, Chris, I swear it. You'd eat a whole pig?"

"I didn't mean all at once, dildo-brain. I was thinking a lifetime supply."

"I knew that," I said. "Listen, Chris. Did you learn any more about what's going on?"

He shook his head, "Not a lot. "Tom Fallon's brother knows the Erasmus kid, but I guess he's in shock or something, because he can't believe it's the same kid."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Evie, I don't know. Tom says he's just a decent, quiet kid. The dad's the crazy one, not Lee. Tom and his brother, and his parents, say they'll stand up in court any day of the week for Lee." He smirked at me, "We don't know enough here, Evan. The Fallons aren't exactly a bunch of loonies."

No, they weren't, and I wondered why they arrested the kid to begin with.

Bruce leaned over the seat and said, "If you're talking about Erasmus, I know who he is. Tom's right, I don't think he's a trouble maker. He's not too bright, maybe, but he's a good kid."

Chris and I looked at each other and snickered. Bruce saying someone wasn't too bright was a sign of absolutely nothing, except perhaps somebody with a life, somebody who didn't relax by laying down and predicting prime numbers.

"How do you know him?" I asked.

Bruce said, "He was at that computer camp two summers ago. I didn't really know him, but he was there."

I saw Chris about to say something, and he had that expression, so I elbowed him. He gave me an injured look, but I wanted to hear Bruce out. "Tell us more," I said. "What's he like?"

Oh Lord. That was like a trick question to Bruce, and his expression made that clear. I got specific, "Did he talk to people ... get along?"

Bruce smiled, "Oh, yeah."

"Did he tell stories, jokes?"

"Jokes, yeah. He was pretty funny sometimes."

"People liked him, then?"

Bruce screwed up his face, "Most, I guess. I don't know."

I stared. Talking to Bruce about people was never going to be an easy thing, and that became clearer every time I tried. "Bruce, this shouldn't be hard. Did he get into fights? Steal lunches? Get beat up? Or was he friendly, like you'd trade sandwiches with him?"

"I don't know, Evan. I don't even know what he brought for lunch, or if he bought it there."

Chris rolled his eyes and grinned, "Thank you, Bruce. You may turn around now."

Bruce looked a little wounded, but he turned to face forward. Before we could laugh, he turned around again, "That was two years ago! I'd do better now. I'm learning."

"Is it fun?" I asked seriously.

Bruce looked off into space, then almost smiled, "Yeah, I mean ... I guess so. People are fun."

That was a sea change coming from Bruce, and when he turned back around Chris and I didn't even make fun of him. Rather, we sat back and looked at each other. I was considering the possibility that my brother might become human after all, and that idea pleased me. I smiled over at Chris, who seemed to be studying me, and I asked, "What?"

He shook his head and said quietly, "Nothing. Well, it's something, but it can wait."

I knew what he meant, so for conversation's sake I said, loudly enough for everyone to hear, "I don't see why they'd arrest Lee Erasmus for the heck of it. He must have had something to do with it ... maybe a lot to do with it."

All eyes were on me then, Bruce and Chris staring directly, and Al's in the mirror. "I mean it," I said. "Munro is really smart. Donovan's no slouch, either, and he's kind of a softie. They have to be pretty sure that Lee's involved if they actually arrested him."

Alton asked, "Do you have a theory, Evan?"

"No," I said immediately. "I have no idea, but we'll find out. You know those guys, though. Do you think they'd arrest somebody for the heck of it?"

Alton said from up front, "No, you're right."

Bruce shook his head thoughtfully and turned around again. I looked to Chris, and he shrugged. "You're probably right, Evan. Does it make any difference now? They have the kid, and the father's a goner."

I sighed, "I know." I smiled at Chris, "I guess I'll know everything some day, huh? I don't know if I'm made right to deal with trouble like this."

Chris smiled, "Take some advice, Evan? I can see you've done well with this so far, so try to keep it that way. Worry about you, and not too much even then. That other kid has his own story, and you're not in it, not from your point of view anyhow. I don't know the game, and if you don't either, then it makes sense that it's a private one he played with his father." Chris eyed me hopefully, "Doesn't it?"

"Yeah," I said. Still, I don't know what it was, but I felt some connection with Lee Erasmus, even an affinity. Without knowing what he'd done or not done, I knew that his life wasn't his own, and that sucked to start with. Whether he'd led his father on to go after me, or if it was the other way around, I didn't really care.

Lee's life seemed so unfair to me. He seemed to have been dealt the low hand, that's for sure. Kidnaped and sexually abused at a young age, then his father does something nuts and spends time in jail. If it stopped there, it would have been too much by far, but now his father was dead, and he was arrested, and this part involved me somehow. I didn't know how, but I intended to find out. I already knew that the police, even the friendly ones, only told you so much, so I thought I'd have to do some things on my own.

I'd be talking to Donovan, and maybe they would let me in on what was going on. Otherwise, I'd see what I could learn on my own. I looked at Chris, and wondered if it was something I should leave him out of.

I hadn't been paying any attention to our ride. Suddenly, Alton was pumping the brakes like mad, and I looked out the front to see a car ahead of us doing a slow spin right in our lane. Our car stopped, but we were immediately struck from behind, then again, and again, and again. By the time we stopped getting pushed forward, we were only a few feet from the car that had spun out.

Alton cussed under his breath, and got out of the car to survey the damage. We all got out, and were quite surprised that there didn't seem to be any damage at all to Alton's car, while the one that hit him all those times was crunched up some in the front, and the back was pretty well stove in. There were four cars involved, and Alton's was the only one without a mark on it. Nobody had been hurt, so the drivers exchanged insurance information and got back in their cars. Alton walked around his car again, still surprised by the lack of damage. When he was getting back in, he patted the roof and muttered, "German engineering," which was moderately amusing, considering that his car was a Mazda.

Once we got moving again, Al started complaining about how slippery the road had become, and he was having problems both getting moving after lights turned green, and stopping when they were red. He finally pulled into a doughnut shop to wait for a plow or a sand truck to go by.

I called home to tell them what we were doing, and that we'd get there eventually, then went to the counter to order a coffee. This place wasn't part of a chain, so I took a look at their doughnuts and pastries just to see what they had. That was a happy mistake, because they had things they called doughnut pies, and they were huge and delicious looking. They, of course, had my favorite flavor combination of apple-cinnamon, so I got one of those with my coffee. It came on a paper plate, and must have weighed a pound, and it was still warm.

We sat at a table, each with a doughnut pie and something to drink, and compared our pies. Al had the same apple-cinnamon as me, while Chris had banana-cream and Bruce had Boston-cream. I'd gone in there not feeling hungry at all, but when I bit into that doughnut I knew I'd have no problem finishing it. It was like a giant jelly doughnut, except that it had actual pie filling inside, and the one I had was coated on the outside with cinnamon and sugar. It was absolutely delicious.

After about forty minutes, we saw the plows go by, and they were sanding as they went. I went back to the counter and bought two more pies for later, the ones like Chris and Bruce bought, because they said theirs were delicious, too. If somebody made pie that I didn't like, I hadn't tasted one yet, and I knew I'd like both of those. Besides, it was Thanksgiving weekend, and I couldn't see any better way of being thankful than helping to ensure that a nice place like that stayed in business.

The road back to Mt. Harman was okay after it was sanded. It was a long, uphill grade for awhile, and Alton had no problem. After we crested it and started downhill, the snow intensified, and it had obviously been snowing harder all along. There were about three inches on the ground already, and there were a lot of cars that had slid off the road. Alton kept slowing down, and by the time we got to town we were practically crawling, but we were in one piece and we did make it home safely.

When we pulled into our driveway, I got out and tested the snow, and it was just wet enough to make a decent snowball. In turn I got Alton, Bruce and Chris on the backs of their heads. Alton turned around and wagged a finger at me, saying, "Next time you can walk, Evan!" and hurried into the house. Bruce glared at me, like it hadn't been fun at all, then burst out laughing when Chris nailed me on the chin with a return volley. I ducked behind the car to make another, and I caught one right on the cheek as soon as I stood up, and spied Chris ducking around the corner of the garage.

Bruce looked at me, then put his hands up in front of him, "Oh no! I didn't throw that, Evan!"

Like that mattered. I threw it low, so it hit the front of his jacket instead of his head, and he turned and ran inside. That left Chris. We were technically even, but that couldn't work because I owed him one.

I didn't know where he was, though, only where I'd last seen him. I squatted behind the car and hurried together a small snowball arsenal, then I peeked up and waited for him to show. He didn't show, and he continued not to until I decided that he'd probably gone inside, which was flawed thinking. The next thing I knew, I got hit square on the ear, and with enough force that I could feel snow melting right up against my ear drum.

That didn't matter. Chris was laughing and making another snowball, which meant he came unprepared.

I cradled my snowballs in my left arm and ran at him, pelting him all over the head as fast as I could throw, until it was me who was laughing and him cowering. "It's the agony of defeat, Chris," I yelled as I nailed him with my last one. "Admit it, or prepare to die!"

He had no defense with snow, so he charged at me and knocked me flat on my back, landing on top of me. He was there grinning, and I smiled too. Chris pulled himself off me and got on his knees, holding his hand out to help me up. He said, "You're getting pretty good, Evan. You didn't miss a one, did you?"

That was a compliment of sorts. I asked, "How could I possibly miss, when I have all these fat heads to shoot at? No aim is required!"

Chris grinned, "Ooh, hisssss. The tongue of an adder!"

I laughed, "I'll give you and adder! At least I'm not a subtracter ... or a divider." I winced a little at my own words. "I guess I'll leave the multiplication to you."

Chris smiled broadly, which was his very best expression, and said, "And don't worry, honey, I'll do you proud!"

"I'll bet you do," I mumbled as we brushed off and headed inside. "You gonna name one after me?"

He nudged me, "I just might do that. Smiley's a pretty cool name."

We got just inside, and I said, "You're a pretty sick puppy, you know that?"

Chris nodded eagerly and said, "So you've said. Still, I like Smiley a lot better than Humphrey. I figure I'll go against the grain ... name all my kids Chris, and give them different last names."

I eyed him as we took our coats off. "You're serious? Can you even do that?"

Chris shrugged and smiled, "Hey, it's the parent's obligation to name their children. I don't think there are rules saying what you can name them."

I patted his shoulder, "Okay, Chris, but how would they even know they're related if they have different last names?"

Chris rolled his eyes. "I don't believe we're even talking about this, Evie. They'd all be named Chris! Wouldn't sharing a given name be a lot more meaningful than a last name?"

I shook my head and said, "I guess, Chris. Before you do it, though, you should wonder what they'd do if they ever lost each other's phone numbers."

My feet were wet, so I sat quickly to take my sneakers off, then I left Chris to ponder the name thing because my mother had appeared in the doorway. I smiled and went to her, and we hugged in silence for awhile, before she said, "Oh, Evan!" She patted me, "How are you taking everything?"

Okay, that was a weird question, and I had to think before I answered, "I'm okay, Mom. I saw what happened, and I know it somehow relates to me, but I was far from it. I don't know those people, and I don't know what they wanted, but I think it's all over now."

Her voice went really quiet, "Evan, we just watched you playing with Chris outside. You looked so happy. Was that real?"

I thought before answering. I was happy when they saw me and Chris, so I said, "It was real, Mom. I think about everything, and a lot of it's bad stuff, but I don't know ... I'm still happy. I haven't lost anything, and now I have Aaron, so mostly things are better. Yeah, this all scared me, and it still scares me to think about it, but that's not so bad. At least I know that if there's a next time, I'll know to fight back, and if I do that right it won't be me going to the hospital."

She said dryly, "Evan, somehow that doesn't make me feel much better. Still, you should fight back."

I said, "I have to Mom. Yesterday some punk socked Aaron practically right in front of me."

She said, "Oh dear, is he alright?"

I said, "He's fine. I guess it could'a been worse if I wasn't right there, but I was." I felt like I had to explain, "Mom, Aaron's not a fighter, but he's not that fragile, either. He's tough where it counts."

My mother was silent for a long moment, and then she whispered, "And you love him."

The way she said that, so confident and reassuring, brought tears right to my eyes. There was no misunderstanding her tone, and that meant my mother finally understood me. I squeezed her as she squeezed me, and the tears just flowed.

That had been the big thing ... the huge thing between me and my parents, particularly Mom, since I came back home. She'd resisted the idea that I was gay to the max, and mainly because she had no road map to show her the way. I didn't expect my parents to buy balloons and have a party when they learned I was gay, no more than they should have when I showed up on day one with brown hair. A trait isn't an event, isn't an accomplishment, it's just a trait. My smarts, my coloring, my size, my looks, they were all just traits, and gay was just another trait in my personal pile of them.

Now my mother understood that ... finally she understood it, and I was probably happier than I should have been, but I was very happy and comfortable right then.

When I paid attention again, my father was standing there watching us, an odd expression on his face. When he saw me look, he smiled, and said, "Hello, son. Welcome home. Again."

"Hi, Dad," I croaked. "Thanks for waiting up."

That drew a silence at first, then both of my parents got it, and they started laughing happily. All my life I'd been good about being on time to get somewhere, unless that somewhere was home. I was notoriously late for curfew, and our curfews weren't unfair at all. I was just bad at ending things and going home, and I'd been burned a million times.

One night I'd come home pathetically late. My Dad had been furious, and I'd used those exact words. It was around two in the morning on a school and work night, and I blithely thanked him for waiting up. That tickled his funny bone, somehow, and it became part of our family lore, complete with a dent in the dining room ceiling. I got grounded, of course, and every time I turned around, one parent or the other was saying, 'thanks for staying in', or 'thanks for not watching television' or something like that.

The words, 'thanks for waiting up,' had some meaning to us as a family, and there was both humor and profundity in there. Now I was using the words to a new purpose, and it was just as profound. My parents had hung in there, and now they got it, and I was their gay son. Still their son. Still their usually happy son, but now gay fit in there, too, and for all of us. That had been the missing measure for me, and it was suddenly there, and the hurt seemed to go with its coming. They'd waited up for me, just like they always did.

I felt really good right then, the best I'd felt since Bruce walked in on me and Chris so many months ago.

Not everything merited discussion, and this fit that bill pretty well. I was what I was, I'd be what I'd be. My folks had always known that, even encouraged it. Now there was a new dimension, and it affected what I was to some extent, but not what I could or would be. I'd never high-fived my parents, and I didn't start, but if there had ever been a time for it, it was right then.

My folks had faced the unexpected and unwanted news that I was gay. Now, after a few months, they were at peace with it, and my only worry was how much a topic of conversation it would become. If it was just gay, they'd leave it alone, just like they did sports. If it became political, there was danger, because they both followed politics. Otherwise, I could probably live to be ninety without ever again hearing that word escape their lips. Not because it was a taboo subject, but because it was something that didn't matter any more, and I felt that I was truly home again.

I talked with my dad for awhile, then went into the other room with my brothers and Chris, who were busy jeering at some movie. "What's on?" I asked, and Bruce said, "Hugh Grant! It's funny, Evan. This guy's worse than me."

I said, "I doubt that," while I sat between him and Chris. "You're hard to top, Bruce."

Chris elbowed me, and Bruce said, "Don't start, Evan. I'm impossible to top, because I'm not gay."

That surprised me, and I looked at him, "Oh yeah? Where'd you learn that term then?"

He didn't even blush, "I've been reading, Evan. The words come with the territory, and I might know more than you think."

I grinned, "You probably do, Brucie, you probably do. I haven't done any more than you've seen me doing."

I knew that was a mistake the moment the words were out of my mouth. Alton was startled, and he looked at me, then bore down on Bruce. "You knew? You knew all along?"

Bruce's face filled with fear, and mine probably reflected his pretty well. Alton was flustered, but that rapidly turned to anger, and he was seriously mad. His face got red, and lines that I'd never seen formed on his forehead. "You fucking idiot," he said slowly, his hands balling up into fists. He got up close to Bruce's face and asked, "What the fuck were you thinking? You let us spend all that time not knowing if Evan was dead or alive?" His hand came up before I saw it, and he smacked Bruce's face hard with his open hand. Bruce's eyes filled with tears at the shock, and the side of his face turned crimson.

He took a step back, his mouth opening slowly while he stared at Alton. "I didn't ..."

I put my hand on Alton's shoulder, but he shrugged me off angrily and headed towards Bruce again, so I grabbed his arm to hold him off. Chris positioned himself next to Bruce, who was cowering from Alton.

"Al," I said, emphatically. "Stop it, Al! He didn't know where I was, or even that I was going. It's my fault, not his!"

Alton turned his furor to me, "Shut up, Evan! You don't get it! You weren't even here to see what we were going through." He looked back at Bruce, "This jerk ... all he had to do was open his mouth, and we would at least have had something to go on." His voice turned sarcastic, "No, not Bruce, though. He keeps his secret while the rest of us make ourselves crazy looking for you."

I said, "That's not fair, Alton. Bruce didn't know more than anybody else. Do you really think things would have been better if he ran around saying I was gay? I've been home for almost three months, and Mom and Dad are just starting to believe it now. That's with me trying to convince them." I shook my head, "No, don't start this. You all would have freaked worse if Bruce started saying I was gay."

Alton stared at me for a second, his anger still right on top, then he whirled around and stomped out of the room, purposely brushing hard up against Bruce on the way out.

Poor Bruce didn't know what to do. He looked hurt and embarrassed, and he's hard to be around when he's experiencing an emotion that isn't anger or humor. He really surprised me when, instead of moping off to his own room, he sidled up to Chris for some comfort. I'd seen a little of that on my first night back, but not since. Yes, I was surprised, but it was a pleasant surprise to see my little brother finally warming up to other people.

Chris and I both talked to him, saying that we thought he did the right thing by keeping his mouth shut. Even at that, I didn't know how my parents would view it if Alton told them, but I didn't think he would.

I hadn't really seen Dad's temper flare since I came home, but it appeared that Alton inherited it. He was certainly carrying the torch that afternoon, and I hoped he forgot about things as fast as Dad did. I was looking for a long period without upset, but Trouble seemed to be my middle name lately.

I started thinking about food, and went up to ask if Mom was making dinner, or if we should just fend for ourselves.

She looked up, "I was going to reheat leftovers. Are you getting hungry now?"

I nodded, "Are there any .."

She smiled, "Yes, lots. I only ate a few, and you know the others."

I grinned, I knew my family. Mom and I were the only ones who would touch an onion, and she made the best creamed onions I ever had. The rest of them would pick onions off their food, even at McDonald's, but I loved them any which-a-way. I asked, "Need any help?"

She said, "No, I'll do it. Check my progress in about half an hour."

"Thanks, Mom," I said as I headed back to Chris and Bruce.

Bruce had gone off, and I flopped into a chair to watch Chris looking through videos for something to watch. I said, "Life would go on if we left that thing off, you know."

He glanced at me, "Yours, maybe. Not everybody's you, Evan. Not everyone can spend an hour on a pomegranate!"

Only Chris! When I was little, I was the first of my parents' children to have any degree of kinetic energy, and I apparently had it to spare. Before they learned the value of team sports, my mother somehow figured out that a pomegranate, nature's most labor-intensive food, could keep a boy with a sweet tooth quietly occupied for hours on end. It was messy, but there are trade-offs for everything, even a parent's sanity. I still loved pomegranates, and learned sadly that bigger fingers that were more dextrous were no faster than little, clumsy fingers at getting the seeds out.

"We need a new habit," I said. "Maybe we could take up smoking."

Chris chuckled, "I think that's supposed to be bad for you, Evan. Anyhow, it stinks. We should take up drinking if you want to do something new."

"I already tried that," I said.

Chris raised his eyebrows, "You? Mr. Health himself? Sure, Evan. Next you'll be telling me you gave up bagels for jelly doughnuts."

I remembered my breakfast and laughed, "Actually ..." then I wondered what I did with those extras I'd bought, and sheepishly decided they must still be in the car. I said, "I'll be right back," and hurried into my shoes and a coat, then went outside. It had stopped snowing, but it looked like it could start up again. There was about four inches on the ground, and I'd come back out to shovel it after we ate. Sure enough, my doughnut pies were on the back seat of Al's car. I took the bag, then put it on the hood while I made a snowball and put it in my pocket.

I went back in and straight to Chris. I hadn't considered the possibility, but when I pulled out a doughnut pie to show him, it was frozen solid, as was the other one, so I whacked the two together, making a muted 'clank' sound. "I got some extra bagels, Chris."

He just stared, reaching for one, which I handed to him. "One's banana cream, and the other's Boston cream, but I guess you have to cut it open to see which is which. They had labels in the shop."

Chris smiled and handed it back to me, "Who needs labels? How could you go wrong with that choice?"

I put them back in the bag, and got myself around behind Chris. "You can't go wrong, Chris," I said softly, just before I dropped that snowball down inside the back of his shirt and his undershirt.

Chris invented a new dance right then, he did, and it was a very active one suitable for boarding music. He was laughing and shirtless by the time he got the cold mess off him, and what was left of it fell onto the carpet to finish melting. Chris was quiet, so I knew he'd be getting back at me. When he made a lot of noise, then the noise was usually enough. When he was silent though, I knew I'd have to just wait until he tried something, then hope I could foil him.

It would be later, because my mother called us to eat. It was leftovers alright, so there were little amounts of certain things, lots of others. There was plenty of meat, gravy, creamed onions and squash, but not much left when it came to potatoes, stuffing and cranberry sauce. I snagged some squash first, because they didn't have that at Harlan's, and left the potatoes and stuffing to others. I didn't take much of the other hot things except those onions. The salad was fresh, and I dished up plenty of that.

We all ate together. Bruce and Alton were pretty quiet, but my Dad was in a good enough mood to make jokes, then crack open a bottle of champagne. The champagne was better than the jokes, and Mom and Dad drank all but the celebratory sips they gave the rest of us.

The dining room was where we came together as some semblance of a whole and civilized family. Bruce and Alton were harboring hostility toward each other, but they'd voice it later, somewhere else.

It was a smart thing my parents did at that table. We were there to eat, to share food, that was the primary thing. It was also the place to say good things if anyone had anything good to say. Bad wasn't allowed for the most part, unless events warranted it.

If anyone brought anger to the table, they were soon sent to the kitchen with their meal, to eat in solitude. That worked with parents, too, and anybody in a foul mood usually just came in to get a plate of food, then headed off to the kitchen.

A meal in that room was something to count on, to look forward to even. We had civilized meals there, with rules to keep it that way. That's where you'd hear funny things, important things, and nonsense. As a for-instance, I remembered a night the last spring, where I said, "You all know Kana, right? Well, his dad got one of those electric chain saws for his birthday, and today Kana sawed down their picnic table." That's an example of nonsense.

In a more serious mood, I brought up school, since I'd missed several days. I looked at my parents, "I'm going to school tomorrow, right?"

Dad nodded, "I don't see why not." He looked at Chris, "Things haven't changed there, have they, Chris? Has it gotten around that Evan was attacked?"

Chris grinned, "I think a few things may have changed since the last time I was in school." He sat up importantly, "For instance, there's one less house in town, and one less citizen. That house blowing up was on the news all over the country, and it's probably safe to assume that it was shown in places like Bangladesh and Camaroon, too." He flashed his very best, most ingratiating smile, "What I'm trying to say is that things may have changed since last week. To be more specific to your question, no, I haven't heard a word, not even at the game on Thursday." He smirked.

I wanted to applaud. That was a sarcastic answer a-la Chris, and he had this way of putting things so smoothly that his victims were unaware of the sarcastic part. I knew, though, and I was proud of him. He'd be insufferable later if he got away with it, of course, but he was a real pro.

My dad called him on it, though. "What are you saying, Chris?"

Chris said, "I'm saying that a lot has happened. People are talking all over town, so I don't know what they've figured out. Does it matter? Give Evan a note and send him back."

Dad smiled, and leaned back a little, assessing Chris once again, "You're slick, you know. You're also right, and it shouldn't matter now." He looked straight at me, "You go back to school. You'll see soon enough what people have figured out, and you'll have to play it by ear." I could see my father searching for the right thing to say, and it took a bit. He sighed, "Just be careful, Evan. So far as we know, only your drama coach knows what happened that night." He paused, thinking again, "Don't give things up easily, Evan. You'll be the best judge of what people do and don't know. If someone thinks they know something, don't confirm it at all, just play dumb."

I smiled, "Dad, if somebody thinks something, that means that half the school thinks the same thing, and the other half has heard it and thinks something else. Basically, if they've figured things out, then that's the way it is."

Chris butted in, "Yeah, don't ask/don't tell won't work. If they ask and you don't tell, then it's confirmed."

Dad considered that, then asked me, "You're okay with people knowing?"

I said, "Dad, this is about what went on as far as I know, not why it went on. I don't think it's any big deal. I'm hardly the first person to get beat up around that school. If people find out, then so what? That kid Lee is the one with the big problem, not me."

Dad nodded, "I suppose you're right," he said softly. "If it becomes a problem, don't try to be a hero, just go to the people in charge."

Conversation slipped into gentler things after that, and when it was time for dessert I had a little fun sharing my somewhat beat-up doughnut pies. They still tasted really fine, and I was impressed with just the idea of them.

When Alton left the room, he patted Bruce's shoulder gently, and I guess that was his way of making things right.

After we ate, Chris helped me with the snow outside, then we went to his house where I helped him. It wasn't big snow, and we didn't have a lot to shovel; two short driveways, and two walks between us.

It was nice out, because the temperature had dropped to near-zero. That kind of cold brought a certain clarity with it, and we were active enough to stay warm. I stopped in to see his folks and have a cocoa after we shoveled, then it was back home, alone on that frigid and gorgeous evening.

I hadn't thought about it, so when I got back home, I looked at the new bay window from the outside. It had been installed just in the nick of time, when I thought about it. Dad said it was different from the old one, but you couldn't prove that by me. Different is in the details, and I had never paid attention to the old one, so I didn't know what those were. The new window looked just fine the way it was, and you could tell, at least, that it was new.

I liked the idea of new, and I turned around and leaned back against the house for a moment. The whole area looked kind of new after a snow, and the freezing air was new, too. I really did feel all home again, like I fully belonged there this time, gay not withstanding.

I snickered to myself. The gay of me seemed to be in perspective for once, at least in my parents' eyes, which is where I needed that. What other people thought about me would be on a one-on-one basis.

My family mattered to me, and I stood there thinking I'd won a difficult battle. Bruce had gone from bad to good, or at least okay with me being queer. Alton was firmly indifferent.

My parents, and I froze my thoughts in the icy air thinking this, had come from being disbelieving to pretty damn cool in just a few months. I shivered, but stayed there enjoying the thoughts. My inheritance was already in me, not something I'd receive later. I was born with it, and it was the best kind. I was born of, and raised by, decent people, who strove to learn what they didn't understand. I was that something this time. I'll never see it from a parent's side myself, and I'm probably the antithesis of my parents in a lot of ways. They gave me their intelligence in big measures, but my athleticism was foreign to them, and my gayness was no less foreign.

Sports was a surprise that they weren't ready for, but my love for them didn't cost much, and they didn't have to participate, so they let me follow my own path.

It wasn't that easy with gay, because I wasn't like Aaron. I didn't come across that way, and I'd hidden my feelings since I figured them out. So, when I finally told people I was gay, it was me who had to tough it out and prove it.

The cold got to me, and I headed indoors, but with a smile on my face. My parents knew now, and they didn't hate me like I'd feared. When I left home, it had been based on a fear that was never realized. I didn't think I was wrong to be fearful, and I didn't I'd change my mind about that. I knew just so much about my parents back then, and with Bruce promising to expose my being gay, I didn't see any options. My fear was real, wrong or not.

Now it didn't matter, because I knew a lot more. Running off like I did may have been a dumb thing, and in most ways it was dumb, but maybe dumb pays off just as well as smart does sometimes.

The house felt positively sweaty after outdoors. I went up to my room and shed all my clothes except my underwear, then I sat on the bed and called Aaron. It was a newsy call, and kind of fun. We'd both had eventful days, and we spent most of an hour just talking about what we didn't know, then Aaron hit me with the blockbuster.

"Guess what, Ev?" he asked excitedly.

"What?" I smiled.

"I don't know what you'll think of this. My aunt Lilac wants you to come to her Christmas party. I mean, she wants you to come with me. I mean, she wants us to come together!"

That took some time to penetrate. "What?" I asked in a small voice.

"I'm serious, Evan. She called earlier, and she was pretty clear that we could come as Aaron and Evan, like ... like a couple."

"No shit?" I laughed. "What's going on now?"

Aaron giggled, "I don't know, I really don't." His voice became more dramatic, "Maybe she's hired assassins!" He lowered his voice to just above a whisper, "If we go, it will be at our own peril, at the risk of our very lives!"

I laughed, "That's good, Aaron, so I should wear like a bullet-proof vest?"

Aaron was lost in mirth, "At Lilac's? I think a bullet-proof stomach would be more useful ... unless, of course, unless she gets a caterer."

"What if the caterer is an assassin?" I asked.

"Then we're doomed on two fronts," Aaron said merrily. "My brother wants the phone, so say you'll go with me?"

"Tell me when, big guy."

"The Friday before Christmas. Justin says he'll pick you up."

I smiled, "Tell Justin I'll be waiting. And tell Aaron I love him right to death."

"Ooh, sweet Evan, and I love you, too."

When we hung up, I noticed my father just outside my door, and I had no idea how long he'd been there. He came into my room smiling, and sat at my desk chair. "Evan," he said very softly. "Evan ..." he sighed heavily. He pulled the chair closer and sat back on it, but now he could reach me, and he put a hand on my knee. "Evan, I think we ... your mother and me, have been ... Oh, God!" He looked in my eyes with an almost-smile, "Son," he seemed embarrassed, "Son ... I'm not good at this ... "

I looked at his eyes, and they were shining with moisture, and he tried again. "I love you, Evan, and your mother loves you. I don't know why that's hard for me to say, but it is, so I owe you thousands that never got said." His voice choked, "We're very proud of you, too, for all your accomplishments," He looked at the floor for a long moment, then right in my eyes. "We haven't been fair with you, son. When this gay issue came up, we turned it our way over and over again, and you were doing your best to be honest and open with us." He swallowed hard and looked down again, "That was our problem ... our myopia. I'm afraid that we've hurt you, and I really hate that thought." He lifted his eyes to mine, "You're tough, Evan, anyone can see that, but you don't need pain from your own parents. I don't know what else I can say. It's not an issue anymore. You are who you are, and it should be a simple courtesy on our part to acknowledge that. I'm sorry, Evan," he said levelly, "It shouldn't have taken this long. I'm sorry."

He had a hand on my knee already, and I put mine on top of his, and didn't say anything.

After awhile, Dad smiled and said, "Good night, Evan," and he stood. When he got to the door he turned around, "I forgot. Tomorrow, after school, either Donovan or Munro will be here to talk to you." He looked at me.

"Daddy?" and that came out before I thought of it, "Dad, I love you, and Mom, too." I smiled, "It's good that we say this, isn't it?"

My father came back to me, and I stood up to meet him. His eyes were the softest I could ever remember seeing them, and when he started to spread his arms, I fell right into them. That hug was a milestone for me, and I think it was for both of us. My dad wasn't a very demonstrative man, and it had been a long, long time since we'd hugged each other like that ... just because we wanted to ... just because it felt good ... just because we loved each other as father and son.

When I was alone again, I pulled on a pair of sweat pants and sat at the end of my bed with a kiss in my mouth. I smiled, picturing Aaron doing the same thing in his own room, and when mine was all melted, I got under the covers and waited for sleep.

I was home again, and this time I was glad of it.

My Plan B had never gotten off the ground, but the end result couldn't have been better if it was planned. I had other things to face now, both known and unknown. I didn't want things to get out of control again, and I knew I had to be more careful.

At home, I had no excuses. There was a computer, there were pads of paper everywhere, and there were pens and pencils galore. I'd go to school the next day and learn where I stood, and when I got home I'd start on Plan C.

End Plan B

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