... I pulled the blanket over us and then I melted into the boy I loved. Holding him like this was a deeper intimacy than I could have possibly hoped for. I had never felt so warm inside. I don't think he had ever been so loved. He was safe and secure within my arms. My restless nights came to an end, though I wish they could have lasted for just one more night. I didn't want to lose consciousness. I didn't want to miss a second of this experience. The warmth of love and acceptance made for a powerful sedative that I could finally no longer resist.....
My body was tired and was now in full sleep, but my mind and subconscious were not so quick to turn in for the night. As was often the case for me, my mind drifted off to a world of dreams. We were back in the old shack again, locked in embrace. The dream had freed my frozen tongue and I was speaking softly into his ear, telling him how much I loved him.
A smoldering ember from the earlier fear had crept its way into my slumber. Suddenly Chris was gone and it was dark in the old shack. I called out for him but he wasn't there. One moment, he was in my arms and the next moment, he had vanished. I stumbled out into the darkness. I suddenly felt very, very alone and the trees seemed to move into my path, grabbing at me as I tried to make my way toward a light off in the distance.
The distant light glowed, illuminating my way as I neared escape from the swaying trees. I lunged through the last defense of timber and fell forward, sprawling onto the open ground on the other side. Now I could see the source of the glowing light. Chris's house was engulfed in flames. Faceless neighbors stood on the perimeter of the property, motionless, watching the fire. I heard a familiar voice calling out for my help from within the inferno.
I tried to struggle to my feet, but I could not gain my balance and my movement slowed to a heavy crawl along the earth. I tried to scream out for him, but my voice and lungs betrayed me. Finally, I mustered a faint yell. I looked to each side; the faceless observers positioned evenly among the trees, now turned as if on command and walked slowly away from the fire. The heat of the flames was now melting the sweat from my face, but still I shook from an unexplainable coldness. I was shaking badly now, screaming his name faintly.....
"Matt!" "Matt, wake up! Wake up!"
My eyes opened. The bright orange flames had instantly been replaced by a soft white light reflecting in through the basement window, courtesy of a full moon. I was covered in a cold sweat. Chris was still shaking me, more gently now as I roused from my nightmare.
"Matt, it's OK. It was just a dream. It's OK." Chris was wiping my damp hair back from my forehead as he reassured me.
The sudden wake had disoriented me and I wondered if I had simply drifted from nightmare straight to fantasy. I lay propped against the back of the old couch and Chris was raised on his right elbow only inches separating us as he continued to stroke my head. The heat of the flames had been replaced by the softer warmth radiating from his body.
The relief of seeing him, whether fantasy or reality, was overwhelming to me. I leaned my head into him and took his lips into a tight embrace with my own, holding him there long enough to convince myself he was in fact real. A burst of my tears, and much needed breath, broke our kiss and my forehead fell down to rest on his shoulder. So many times, I had wanted to rest my weary head there.
The moment I had first admitted to myself that I loved him came racing back to my memory. That day, I was unable to speak the words that were somehow trapped in my heart. The fear of losing him was so fresh from the nightmare. It was time to speak the words clearly and with their full meaning. I lifted my head and looked him square in the eyes.
"I love you, Chris. More than anything in this world, I love you."
Release of the words brought a new release of my tears. Emotionally, I had exposed myself fully. The words had been spoken and there was no turning back. Technically, `I love you' might be a statement, but it may as well be a question, because it begs for a response. The few seconds immediately after such a declaration can be terribly lonely.
"I know Matt. I never doubted it for a second." Chris softly placed a hand to the side of my face and held me in his eyes. "Plus, you've been saying it all night." Sleep- talking was such a curse.
I saw a bright, proud smile flash across his face.
"And Matt, it sounded just as good the last time as it did the first." His thumb brushed across my lips before he moved in for a more affirming declaration of his own, kissing me more deeply than he had ever before, then pulling back again.
"I told you once that I didn't know what I would do without you. I meant it, Matt." He paused before continuing. "There have been times....."
His voice cracked and even in the faint light I could see his face tighten as he tried to keep his composure.
I missed the feel of his lips already and I smothered his with the warmth of my own, passing what strength I had left onto him. I squeezed him a little too tightly and I heard him take a sharp breath.
"Chris, I'm sorry. Are you OK?" I rose up again and away from him, making sure I wasn't putting pressure on any of his wounds.
"I'm OK, just really sore. You didn't hurt me, Matt."
But somebody did. I wanted to ask him why, but the terrified look in his eyes earlier had told me he didn't want to speak it out loud. It wasn't as if there was some logical or reasonable explanation to be offered. This was beyond explanation and beyond understanding. It was just wrong and could have no justification. I was so worried about him.
"Chris, promise me something. Promise me that you'll just leave next time. Call me, we'll come and get you. I don't want you to get hurt. I can't even stand the thought of him hurting you."
I didn't know if he would respond, but I had to tell him.
"I can take it, Matt." He said it with absolute confidence, and acceptance. I couldn't accept it so easily.
"You don't have to take it. It's not right, Chris! It's not even legal! He can't beat you like that and get away with it!"
"No, Matt. I know what you're thinking." He was shaking his head at me like I just didn't understand. "It's better that he take it out on me. He's gonna take it out on somebody."
Chris was locked in a house of horrors and I didn't know how to win his release. The helplessness must have shown heavily on my face. He reached out and pulled me back down against him, wrapping his right arm around me and nestling me easily into his side. I found a comfortable notch that allowed me to place my weight on my left shoulder and I softly rested my head on his chest with my right arm draped over him. The conversation had come full circle and once again all I could do was offer him the comfort of my skin against his.
My hand rubbed gently over his shoulder. I could feel his chest rise and fall with each breath. I could even hear his heartbeat, with the pace quickening ever so slightly. Tilting my head on his chest, I looked back into his still wide-open eyes. His eyes and lips seemed to be calling for me and I glided gingerly to meet them. The somber tone of our conversation had only deepened my desire to comfort him or at least to distract him.
Our kisses varied but were mostly soft. Kissing this way must come naturally, because I had no real prior experience before tonight, yet I seemed to know what to do. My mouth moved off his lips and dug under his chin in the softest spot it could find. An instinct that had lain dormant in me until now was starting to surface, and I wanted to provide him with more. My hand massaged its way across his toned chest, snaring a firm nipple between my fingers. Of all times, that's when it hit me.
"Chris, did YOU turn out the lights?" We hadn't bothered to flip the switch earlier. The only light that had been on was near the staircase. The couch was in a section of the basement that was shadowy even with the benefit of light. That light was definitely off when I awoke from my nightmare and I held my breath for his answer.
"No." His answer was short on words, but long on realization. We both tightened at the thought of having been spotted sleeping together on the couch. Our lips rested and my head returned flat against his chest. We both lay there wondering what this meant.
It had to have been my mom. Oh please God, let it be my mom. I'm sure she came back down to check on us one last time, probably to make sure it wasn't too cold. She might not have even made it down the stairs as there was a light-switch at the top of the staircase. I quickly conceded to myself that this was just wishful thinking. Still, I hoped it was my mom.
As I lay there basking in his warmth, I knew the time had come to be honest with my mom and dad. I wasn't a little boy anymore. I couldn't hide from them and I couldn't hide behind them. I wanted to be honest before, but I just wasn't ready.
"Matt, I don't want to make any trouble with your folks. They were so nice to me. It's getting late and if we fall back to sleep like this."
It was just a matter of common courtesy for him. I hated to admit it but he was probably right. Even if Chris had been the girlfriend my parents had once hoped for, we still wouldn't be allowed to sleep like this together and I knew it. My mom and dad really had made Chris feel so welcome and loved. They didn't deserve any disrespect from us.
"You keep the couch, Chris. It's a lot more comfortable than the bunk-beds."
There was no way I was having him move to a cold, hard bunk- bed. The thought of him wrapped up and warm in the cozy old couch was as comforting for me as it must have been for his bruised back and ribs.
As I pushed myself up, he surprised me by clutching the back of my neck and pulling me to him one more time. Our first kiss in the old shack was accidental and held no real passion, just understanding and acceptance and some deeper expression of love. The kiss we were now locked in still expressed love, but it was mostly fueled by deep passion and a growing desire for sexual exploration that was shared by us both.
When it was finally over, I was nearly unconscious from the depths it had plunged me to, and I was also highly aroused. When I stood up, it was impossible to hide the obvious. I stood there for a moment looking down at him, wanting to rejoin him and finish what we had started. Chris reached down and adjusted himself, grunting a little as he did it. His humor might have been the only thing to save us from ourselves.
"Down boy, down." He could have been talking to me or himself. Either way, we smiled and giggled together. He reached out with his bare foot and nudged me away to a safer distance, smiling with reluctance all the while. I sighed and resigned myself to the solitude of the bunk-beds. I had waited fourteen years, ten months, and three days. I figured I could wait a little longer, but not much longer.
The initial chill of the cold bed was starting to fade. The changing angle of the moon had directed a soft spotlight onto the old couch. The boy I loved was safe and secure, locked away in my basement for the night. Just seeing him lie there so peacefully brought so much relief to me. My mind drifted upstairs to find a fresh source of anxiety.
Just a week ago, my mother had revealed to me that my dad hadn't been forced to transfer here from California as I had assumed. He had asked for the transfer, with my mother's blessing and agreement that it was the right thing to do. When I pressed her to answer why, her response was "your father and I both very much want you to be happy".
My parents had uprooted us and moved all the way across the country because they wanted me to be happy. Or more to the point, they were obviously convinced that I wasn't happy before. So convinced and so concerned, that we wound up here as a result.
They had been right. I don't know how they knew or what instinct brought them to their decision, but they were right to make it. Why we wound up exactly here was a greater mystery with no answers. Fate must have had a hand in it all. I believed in God, but to credit him for bringing Chris and me together, I would also have to blame him for keeping us apart for so long. Fate was easier to credit and blame.
My mind continued in drift, but my eyes had never left Chris, still lying there peacefully in the fading light of the moon.
Six months ago, I was nearly 3000 miles from here in a culture that was polar opposites from the Deep South. I couldn't have imagined that someone like Chris or Tommy even existed.
My parents were all that I had then. Their rejection would have been the end of me because I had nothing else to cling to. I had protected them and myself by not testing their love or acceptance. Even now, I couldn't bear the thought of them rejecting me. I just couldn't believe they were even capable of that. Outright rejection seeming unbelievable, something short of that was much more emotionally plausible.
I flashed back to the night my dad thought he had it all figured out, assuming my emotional swings were because I had a girlfriend. He had been so proud at such a thought. My mom had bought right in on this little parental fantasy, spiraling me into a sibling nightmare in the process.
Chris hadn't pulled me away from them, but he had added a new dimension to me, revealing a new self within me. This new self saw my life and the world around me from a different angle. It had its own desires and its own agenda. My parents loved me and wanted what was best for me. My new self wanted that too, but without terms and limitations.
The idea of me in the warm embrace of another boy was not likely to produce those same parental reactions of pride and joy. A much more muted acceptance might be the best I could hope for. The new self within me challenged the assumption and asked the unanswerable question of why.
What was it about the idea of a girlfriend that made them so happy? Wasn't the ultimate goal for them my happiness, and wasn't the presumed loving relationship of a girlfriend just the means to that end? If I was happy, wasn't that enough? Did it really matter so much how I got there?
They had showered love and acceptance on Chris in a way that far exceeded my expectations. I had never been more proud of my parents. Could they shower the same love and acceptance on us as a `couple'?
Before, I would never have allowed myself to challenge the basis of their feelings. Now, I might have to challenge them. I felt torn between the love I felt from my parents and the love I felt towards Chris. My new self expected both loves and was pushing me to accept nothing less.
Still, the idea of disappointment in their eyes was powerful imagery for me. Their disappointment translated into an emotional punishment for something I had done wrong. How could love ever be wrong?
I felt like my mom would accept me fully. I even believed she would be genuinely happy for me. I also knew it would deepen her worries for me. I was much more uneasy about my dad. Why hadn't I been closer to him? Maybe I always feared he wouldn't love me as much and had always kept a little distance between us to soften the blow.
At least in my case, being honest with my parents was an option, no matter how painful it might be for them or me. I doubted that Chris even considered himself gay. He had been attracted to Katie, after all. Knots formed in my stomach as I contemplated if we really had a future together. The future held so much uncertainty.
The setting moon had bid us goodnight. The basement was now completely dark. Chris was making a faint snoring noise. I was thankful to hear it and for the reassurance that he was still with me. The night was almost over and I was finally drifting back to sleep.
When I woke, my eyes sprinted directly to the old couch. Much to my surprise, the warm cuddled body sitting upright didn't belong to Chris. My mom must have been keeping watch on me for some time, and she smiled as soon as my eyes opened.
"Hey" as I gave her a sleepy yawn and a stretch before looking around the room.
"He's upstairs talking with your father."
Now I was wide awake and not sure how to respond. Many possibilities raced through my gnarly noggin, severe bed- head having set in during the night. I feared the worst, but couldn't imagine that dad would talk with Chris before me. Who had turned out those lights?
"What time is it?" That seemed like the safest question to ask first.
"It's almost nine. Chris has been up for about an hour and a half. He and your dad were talking when I came down to the kitchen. I decided just to come and sit with you for a while."
What the hell had they been talking about for an hour and a half? Why was my mom sitting with me instead of with them? I crawled out of the bunk-bed and stumbled over to the couch, collapsing and then worming my way closely up against her. She wrapped her arm around me and tried to level my knotty hair. We sat quietly for a while with her stroking my head. I loved my mom so much. I pulled my head back a bit and looked her in the eyes. My face was silently pleading for her understanding. She sighed and smiled, but there was worry in her face.
"I love you, mom." Three times over the last day, I had spoken those three words. Many more times than that, if you count my sleep-talking with Chris. My dad had finally heard me say it just last night. I had finally heard myself say it to Chris. Mom had heard it many times before but the look in her eyes told me she had never appreciated it more.
Her hand pulled my head down to her shoulder and she planted a long slow kiss right on my forehead. After such a long rest, this old couch had come out of retirement to carry the weight of some heavy emotions over the last day.
"Mom, what are they talking about?" If it had to happen this way, then I was prepared to accept it.
"Oh, Matt. I think your father and Chris just have a lot of catching up to do. It's probably as good for your father as it is for Chris. They have some things in common, you know."
I remembered how softly my dad had spoken about his own father, recalling the pain and misery that alcoholism had brought to my dad's childhood. My dad was always putting forward a positive, upbeat image of himself. It really was part of his training and profession. There was so much about him I didn't know and it made me sad. Just as the realization entered my mind, another fresh realization followed it. There was a lot about me my dad didn't know either and I wondered if it made him sad too. My dad and I had spent too much time on the surface with each other. It was time to dig deeper and find out who we really were. I hoped we could both handle what we found.
"I've GOT to pee." I didn't want to go upstairs, but I had to go to the bathroom. Mother Nature was calling and she was being very loud.
I eased up the staircase, trying not to interrupt the conversation and also trying to steal a word or two with my ear. Slowly, I peaked into the living room. Chris and my dad were talking very quietly and I couldn't make any of it out. Both were leaning forward in their chairs, not looking directly at each other as they spoke. There was nothing relaxed about the body language. I had the feeling that secrets were being shared that only the unlucky would fully understand. I felt out of place and proceeded quietly to the bathroom.
Just as I came out, my mom came walking by whispering "pancakes" with a smile. That sounded really good right now. Chris turned and we made eye contact briefly before the phone rang and broke the moment. I was closest and picked it up.
The voice on the other end was a frightening intruder to our home.
"Is my son there?" Instantly, my eyes found Chris's again. His face dropped and it made sense to me in an instant. Chris didn't need to wait for me to tell him and he was on his feet and reaching for the phone.
"Hello." He was trying to cover, but we both knew better. So did his dad. "But I told mom!" No he didn't. "Well, just..." His jaw was clinched now and I could tell he was under verbal assault. "But..just." The conversation was over and Chris hung up the phone.
"I've got to go. I'm sorry, Matt." The news was devastating to both of us. Tears were swelling in his eyes as he walked past me down to the basement to gather his things. Almost absent mindedly, he added "My dad's on his way".
I forgot for a moment where I was and I must have looked surprised to my parents when I refocused on them. We all shared a look of shock and concern. One moment, things had been the way they really should be. The next moment, things were the way they really are.
I went downstairs to share a few more minutes with Chris.
"I know you did this for me, Chris." I had been so disappointed when I asked him if he was coming over. The look in his eyes two days ago had given me the true answer.
"I did it for me too and I wouldn't change it for anything in the world, Matt. He can beat the shit out of me again and I still wouldn't change it." Determination and conviction had already replaced the tears in his eyes.
He had never even asked his dad if he could come over. No doubt, he knew the answer in advance. His dad wasn't likely to let him too far out of his sight, at least until his most recent bruises healed. If I could have taken his beating and a hundred more in his place, I would have.
"Don't worry, Matt. He won't touch me for a while. He's not stupid enough to put me in the hospital."
His dad was a methodical abuser, having learned how to work his abuse into the system long, long ago. Abuse was less an angry reaction and more an emotional fix for him. Whether he had been born with this addiction, or developed it in his stockade days was more than I could know. I imagined he had extracted his fix from many who he believed `deserved' it.
Chris refused to wilt from the pain and abuse. Somehow, he just drove right through it. The boy I loved was so brave. Where did it come from and how did he summons it? It obviously wasn't hereditary, unlike his physical attributes.
He could be so sensitive and caring, able to oblige the smallest personal details to make someone feel special. Maybe he longed for those same feelings of appreciation and caring and just assumed that others would want them too. I certainly cared about him more than anything and appreciated him more than I could express. Maybe that was the deeper source of his attraction to me: I gave him the things he needed the very most.
Whatever he needed from me, I was willing to give.
He had changed back into his jeans before ever going upstairs earlier. It only took him a minute to gather his other clothes and bag. Now, he stood and waited. The minutes were counting down in his mind. He looked around the basement, then back at me. He was now shaking his head and was getting very antsy. I had to get my arms around him.
His old words came back to me and I whispered them in his ear. "Don't show him any fear." It had become the drumbeat for us two warriors. He squeezed me so tight I couldn't breathe for a moment.
"Matt. Please tell your mom and dad how much this meant to me. If I talk to them before I leave, I'll lose it. I can't afford to do that right now. I'm really sorry." He was grinding hard and trying to keep himself intact.
"I think they already know, Chris. But I'll make sure they do. Don't worry and don't be sorry for anything. The first time my folks mentioned having you over, my dad said he wanted to make sure you knew you were part of this family too." Now I was the one grinding and I didn't want to burden Chris with my own emotions right now.
I did want him to know just how welcome he was here. A frightening thought flashed through my mind: What if he wouldn't be welcome here anymore? If my parents knew the full truth about me, would Chris pay part of the price? Every choice seemed to bring a powerful new dose of reality back into the picture.
Just then, I heard the loud muffler of an old truck approaching our driveway. We had lost our earlier embrace but were all but leaning against one another. At the noise, I leaned in closer and was about to kiss him when I hesitated. His eyes scolded me for the pause, and he delivered his lips to mine for one last declaration. Fresh determination was on his face and he all but commanded me as he walked up the stairs "Don't worry about me." I followed close behind him.
A rude horn blew before we could even make it to the top of the stairs. My dad was about to open the door and introduce himself to Coach Briggs. There was a glare in my dad's eyes that I had never seen before and I waved him off before he made it outside. Chris politely nodded to my mom and dad, but his jaw was clenched so tight, he couldn't speak a word. My mom and dad smiled as reassuringly as they could and my mom waived before nervously pulling back her hand.
I stood at the door and watched Chris get in the old truck. He looked back at me through the passenger window as they pulled around the driveway. I felt myself melting as they disappeared out of sight.
"Matt, what just happened here?" My dad was both confused and irritated, but not at me or Chris.
Chris had been repossessed right before us, though stolen from us was more like it. Dad knew that something terribly wrong was brewing, but I couldn't answer him. The answer was more complicated than I could offer so quickly.
It was all I could do not to crumble right there in front of them both. I copied Chris's clenched jaw, put up a hand of surrender to my dad, and went back down to the basement in a silent retreat. I was afraid if I started crying now, I might never stop. I wrapped myself up in the blanket we had spent part of the night under together. The basement had regained its dreariness. Like me, it suffered without the energy that Chris brought to the room.
It wasn't long before I heard footsteps coming down the stairs. It was my mom and her eyes were red and wet. I didn't think I could possibly hurt anymore inside, until I saw her cry. She sat down on the couch with me. This was the way it normally was. My mom never backed away from my emotions. She was always the one to calm me from my nightmares, always the one dad sent to learn what he couldn't ask himself.
It was much to my surprise when I heard more footsteps coming down the stairs. John Jordan was no longer willing to watch his son's life from a safe distance. He pulled an old metal folding chair from under the staircase and pulled himself up a front row seat.
It was time. It was not as I would have planned it, but it was time. I took one last look at them, letting the images of their faces burn into my memory. It was the last time I would see their faces without the strain and burden of full knowledge I was about to place on them.
On a chilly late November Saturday morning, sometime between nine and noon, almost two months before a fifteenth birthday, Matthew Heath Jordan openly declared his love for Christopher Samuel Briggs.
It was time.
"I love him!" My face was so numb. I had to say it again to make sure it came out.
"I love him!" I heard it clearly that time. The tears were gathering, not that they ever had to gather from very far.
"And he loves me." He hadn't actually said the words, but I believed it. A small drip had appeared.
"His girlfriend ran around on him behind his back. She didn't love him. But I love him." The drip had become a stream.
"His mother is a drunk. His dad beats him, and probably her too. And I love him." The stream had become a torrent.
"He goes to bed every night in a hell-house, only to wake up there every morning. He's the bravest person I've ever known. And I love him." The torrent was now roaring.
"I love him so much! If I could give him everything I've got, trade places with him. I would. I wish he could have all of this. I wish he could have YOU. He `deserves' that, and I love him that much."
The emotional flood had escaped its banks. The overflow had channeled through one more set of eyes as my mom was now fully immersed right along with me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my dad's head drop. His eyes were now boring into the cement floor and his hands were clenched together, the white tops of his knuckles visible even through my tears.
It wasn't the look of support that I needed. He seemed disappointed, distraught or both. Instinctively, I felt the need to apologize for whatever I had done wrong.
"I'm sorry, dad. I am so sorry. I never wanted to disappoint you." Those words hurt me and betrayed the new self within me.
"Remember that night? You were so excited because you thought I had a girlfriend. I'm sorry it's not like that, dad. I'm sorry I'm not like that."
I was begging with him now and a part of me, the new self within me, was growing tired of it.
My dad looked up at my mom. "John." She simply spoke his name, but she also placed a hand on his as she said it. Their eyes held each other for a minute before my dad released her hand and stood. He walked slowly back toward the staircase.
I was devastated and I was angry.
"Dad?" I made my final plea. He kept walking, barely putting one foot in front of the other.
"DAD!" Much more insistent now, demanding a response. He kept walking.
"Don't turn your back on me, dad!" Now, I was indignant.
He walked to the underside of the staircase, moving aside several old unpacked boxes before reaching a smaller flat one. He paused to look at it warily before finally reaching down to pick it up. Once the box was in his hands, he finally made eye contact with me. There were no more mixed emotions in my father's face. He was simply distraught.
I was speechless, having exhausted all of my words and my emotions. My eyes moved from the box to my dad's face, then back and forth again. I didn't know what was in the box, but I dreaded its contents. Confused, I looked to my mother for some clue. She was looking at the box too, with a similar look of dread. Again, she made eye contact with my dad and I could see her trying to bolster him. What was happening here? Something in that box was connected to me, but I had never seen it.
My dad sat back down in his chair and removed the lid. I could see what appeared to be old family photos, several still in frames. Dad seemed to know exactly what he was looking for and when he found it, he paused and I could finally see a glimmer of tear gather in his eye. He held the photo in his hand for some time before finally reaching it out to me.
I had seen old pictures of my dad before and I recognized him easily enough. The other boy in the picture looked familiar too, but I couldn't name him. I looked up at my dad. My eyes were pleading again, but this time for an explanation.
"That's me and your Uncle Heath, Matt. He was 16 there and had just gotten his car. We were about to go on our first camping trip to Big Sur."
I searched both their faces.
"My brother and I were so close, Matt. I never thought we had any secrets from each other, but we did." My dad looked like he still couldn't believe it, even now.
"My own brother, and he couldn't tell me. Maybe it was because he was more like a father to me than a brother. I wonder if he thought he was letting me down somehow, or disappointing me. God knows, I had to depend on him like a father. When dad was drunk, it was always Heath that made sure everybody else was all right." Dad couldn't say it, but I finally got the connection. I had questions, but it was his turn to talk now.
He flipped through the pictures. I had the feeling he hadn't seen them in a very long time.
"Finally, in the last days of his life, he was able to tell me." Dad's eyes were now begging my forgiveness and understanding.
"Matt, your Uncle Heath died from the same epidemic that took so many lives in the early eighties, and even now. He was one of the early victims. We didn't know what to call it then, but we knew he was very sick."
Pain was radiating from my dad's face. His memories had been packed away like the old box of pictures, but never forgotten.
"I was angry, Matt. I'm not proud of it now, but I was even angry at Heath. I was angry that he didn't believe in me enough to trust me. I was angry that I couldn't help him. I was angry at him for getting sick. I was angry at him for leaving me. I was angry at some faceless person somewhere out there who had killed my brother and I was angry at others like him. I was so angry at his funeral that I couldn't even cry, and my own sister won't talk to me still because of it."
My dad had to drop his eyes back to the floor. Small dark splatters of moisture were collecting on the cold wet cement beneath him. These were tears that were a long time coming for him.
"I never told him how angry I was. I hope that he didn't feel it, but I fear that he did. I tried to do everything I could to make his last days comfortable for him. Really, I just tried to follow his example in the same way he had always taken care of us. One of the last things he ever understood me say was that I was naming my son after him. It was the last time I ever saw him smile. A few days later, he was gone. Once he was gone."
My mother had one hand stretched out to his shoulder, the other hand stayed behind for me. It was time for us to end the separation.
"Dad?" He slowly raised his head to look me in the eyes. "Please?" I reached out my own hand and made room for him on the couch with me and mom. He took my hand and I pulled him to us, sitting between us, no longer on the fringes or sidelines of our family.
He continued. "Matt, I had put him away for so long. I didn't know how to deal with it. It's been almost 15 years and I still don't know how to deal with it all."
Mom and I gave him all the comfort we could.
"You've always reminded me so much of him, son. He had such a strong spirit." His eyes had relocked with mine and an admiring smile had wrestled through the pain and guilt on his face.
"Matt, you will have to be patient with me. But you can know right here and now that I love you even more than I did yesterday and I will love you even more tomorrow." Those were the words I needed to hear more than any.
"I don't want to lose you too, son. Just trust me and don't shut me out. Whatever happens, we'll work through it together. Give me the second chance I need. I don't want you to ever feel the loneliness and pain my brother must have felt so much of his life." Those were the words my father needed to say more than any.
My coming out was his chance for emotional redemption, to himself.
I was in emotional shock. My lips had said so much and now my ears had heard so much. My brain was trying to sort it all out. My heart refused to get bogged down by the details, it understood the big picture and that was all that really mattered right now.
Mom's eyes told me everything I needed to know, not that I ever really doubted her. We were a family, and it was time. Well, we were actually one short of a full family.
"Matt, we've got to find a way to help Chris." That was my mother talking. She still had one more boy to worry about, though the two on the couch were doing a little better.
"Chris has been trying to get Peggy some help, but I think his dad won't hear it." My father knew Chris's mothers name, and I didn't. She had just been a nameless object of fear and disappointment to me.
"That's why he did it." I had been so open this morning, now my thoughts were leaking straight out of my lips.
"Why who did what, son?" My mother was fully engaged now. She could be a real bulldog when she needed to. The warrior had claimed his alliances.
I hesitated for the second time this day. Again, I felt eyes scolding me for it. There was no point in holding anything back now. Those days were over.
"Chris missed a day of school this week. I think his dad beat him up really bad the night before. I think that's why, because Chris was trying to get his mom some help." Confusion and new concern filled the room.
"Why, Matt? Why wouldn't his dad want her to get help?" My mom's question was one I couldn't answer yet.
My dad's experience offered a theory. "Most people use their addiction as an escape from something. At least, they think of it as an escape. Really, it's just another well disguised trap."
What was his mom trying to escape? Was that my clue? What about Coach Brigg's addiction to abuse? I wondered what he was trying to escape.
The only escape that was really important right now was Chris's. It had to be safe, and it had to be soon.