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Mathew Figures it out

Chapter Twelve

Another uneventful weekend felt like yet another missed opportunity to spend time with Chris. This was really starting to grind away at me and I was beginning to fray around the edges. I had spent so much time not knowing how he really felt about me and never believing that we could be together. That time of doubt had passed. He still hadn't said it out loud, but there was now no doubt in my mind that he loved me. Although it was careless, his surge of passion for me before the basketball game had also let me know just how much he wanted me and had triggered a desire within me that couldn't be fulfilled fast enough.

For the first time in my life, I was having blatant sexual fantasies. Girls had never stimulated me that way and while I had always been aware that boys were appealing, I had never focused on one boy with the specific thoughts going through my mind now. Despite my solo efforts, it seemed like I was in a condition of tireless arousal. Chris's athletic frame and good looks had never been lost on me, but at times they were now taking complete control. The boy I loved was beautiful and easy to desire that way.

The fantasy was always mixed with a proportional dose of reality. The same arousing image of his shirtless chest also stuck me with pain and fear because my mind's eye also saw the bruises on his back. I still often thought of the silent tears streaming down his face as we sat in the old shack in the woods out behind his house. My hopes, fears and desires had become familiar acquaintances with each other, always traveling in the same circles together.

In homeroom this day, I retold the story of our last second victory the week before. Tommy wasn't a big sports fan, but he could appreciate the drama of it all. I didn't tell him about the drama before the game. I was afraid that would be more than he could appreciate.

Through my morning classes, my mind was still captive to the distractions that had taken it hostage. I knew I couldn't drift like this forever, but I was powerless to stop it at the moment. Maybe it was showing on my face too because I had noticed an odd stare or two from people who otherwise never looked my way at all. I could have sworn I even heard a giggle pointed in my direction after some mumbled whispers. I had managed to walk the school grounds in virtual stealth mode before and the new attention struck me as alarming. Maybe my newfound celebrity as a basketball `star' was responsible, but deep within me; I feared it was something else.

As usual, Tommy and I sat together at lunch waiting for Chris to show up.

"Tommy, tell me everything you know about Jay Henson."

I guess the question seemed out of place and a curious look came over him. "I think you already know he's a loner. Nobody I know has really ever talked to him. Even in middle school, he was so quiet and shy. I've never said more than two words to him myself."

"What about his parents?"

"He lives with his mom. She's always been real quiet like him. I don't think he really has a dad or at least not one that's ever shown up around here. He doesn't have any brothers or sisters."

The wheels in my mind were churning. "How old is his mom?"

"She's a lot younger than my mom. I don't really know but she must have had him when she was pretty young. She works at one of the factories in town. They're pretty poor, I guess. They just keep mostly to themselves."

Now, the wheels were really churning. No, it couldn't be, could it?

"Why did Chris and Jay fight?" There were so many dots and so few connections.

Tommy squirmed a bit before finally answering "I don't know, Mattie. I really just don't know. Some people thought it might have had something to do with Katie, but I just don't know. They were all a grade above me then. Nobody has ever seemed to care about Jay. I don't think anybody ever really thought that Chris needed a beat him up."

"You told me somebody tipped off his dad that it was going to happen. Somebody had to know why? Who saw it happen?" Poor Tommy was under intense cross-examination.

"I don't think anybody saw it happen. We were in middle school then, but they didn't fight at school. I think they met up somewhere out in the woods. They only live about a half a mile apart, you know?"

Yeah, I knew that all right. Seeing Jay Henson's black truck on my first bus ride home with Chris had confirmed that much already. The rest of this story was getting more flimsy by the second.

"Tommy, this whole story has just never made any sense to me. Why would they want to fight? Somebody has to know why!"

He could tell I was frustrated. I was tired of spinning in the same circles over and over. It was important for me to understand what happened. So many bad things seemed to evolve from that one episode in Chris's life. His parents had dumped him into some type of emotional rehab center where he had spent almost a full month, including Christmas. Chris had shown me a softer side of his emotions, but this notion of him being so emotionally unwell fit him no better than the label of violent. This just wasn't the same boy I knew and loved, who had showed so much emotional strength and so much physical restraint.

Whatever happened then had forged some bond or allegiance within him for Katie. He said she "had really been there for me" and he stood by her even as she was sneaking around, kneeling in front of Ty Wilson. Chris would still be with her now if not for me.

I remembered the pained way Chris had looked at the old photos in his house and how it had struck me that he hadn't been in the room that contained them for two years. Why? What haunted him so much? I remembered how he had pulled me away from the photos as if afraid they might hurt me too if we lingered in their presence any longer. The smiling faces in the photos were unfamiliar to me in real life and I wondered if his parents had ever been those people at all.

He seemed particularly haunted by the condition of his mother and I felt like he held himself responsible in some way. In his most emotional time of despair he had whispered to me "so many things are already broken" and "Everything will never be all right. I've screwed so many things up. My mom.." What did he mean by that? It seemed like he blamed her slide into alcoholism on himself.

Then there was the abuse. He had simply accepted it. Did he also feel like he `deserved' it somehow? Could he ever believe that he deserved better?


"Mattie, are you OK?" Tommy had finally roused me from my self-induced trance.

"I'm sorry, Tommy. Sorry. I've just got a lot on my mind, as usual. I didn't mean to give you a hard time with those questions. There are just so many things that don't make sense to me."

He gave me a worried look I had seen from him before. Somewhere inside him, Tommy must have wondered why I would choose a love that was so difficult and complicated when choosing him would have been so easy in comparison. But we don't really choose the ones we love this way. Love makes that choice for us.

When Chris caught up with us, I was more than content to let my weary mind and eyes rest on him quietly for a while. He gave his own dramatic recount to Tommy of how I made my wild dive for the loose ball and tossed it to him for the winning basket. To hear him tell it, we practically had the whole thing planned out ahead of time. Just like in fishing stories, some creative license is assumed in such circumstances.

Basketball practice that afternoon was preceded by an odd moment in the locker room. An older boy I didn't know by name had still been dressing from his last period phys-ed class when I arrived to change for practice. He looked unnerved by my presence and made a hasty exit shortly after I started to undress. This was too many odd things for one day.

Our practice was sloppy and Coach Hill was highly pissed about it, canceling the last session rather than continue to "put up with our shit". Though it wasn't a friction, there was an air of separation between Jeff, Mike and Chris. I had noticed the same on the return bus trip after the game. They had taken sides with us in the incident with Billy Jacobs, but I think we had tested the limits of their allegiance. They wouldn't be the last to be tested.

With at least thirty minutes to spare before anyone would arrive to pick us up, this was our longest period of time alone since the night he spent at my house. It was a cold early December night and we walked around the empty campus buildings and found a dark secluded spot against a wall out of sight from the maze of concrete walkways.

"Practice sucked today. Everybody seemed so flat." Chris wasn't a happy leader at the moment. He expected more from his team.

"Yeah, I kept noticing weird things today. Have you noticed anything?" I hoped it was just me being paranoid, but it wasn't.

"I'm not sure what's happening. Something is up though." I think we both knew what it was, but we couldn't bring ourselves to fully admit it.

There was a moment of silence between us and I used it to listen closely for anyone who might be approaching. A healthy amount of caution was now firmly implanted in my brain. Reassured by the quiet and secure in our darkened spot, I reached out and wrapped my arms around his waist and took him into a warm embrace. My chin rested so comfortably on its favorite spot between his neck and shoulder. His hands went underneath my jacket and rubbed up and down the outside of my sweatshirt, inadvertently exposing the bottom of my lower-back to the cold air. It was so good to feel him in my arms again even if for just a few minutes.

I whispered into his ear "I've really missed this" before wetting my lips and kissing his neck playfully. He rotated his neck to the side giving me better access to a soft spot previously just outside my reach.

His cold hands moved to the front of my waist and ran straight up the inside of my shirt, lifting it enough in the process to deliberately expose a very taut pair of nipples to the cold air, rolling them in unison with a thumb from each hand and sending me lunging backwards giggling and pulling my shirt back down.

"I'm not some little schoolgirl." I was still giggling, sounding very much like one in the process.

"Oh, you're not? We'll have to make sure about that later." His eyes called me back to him and I gladly obliged them. We kissed tenderly both knowing that anything else would go unfinished, before sliding back into the earlier embrace for another minute. We knew better than to push our luck again and we eased off into a relaxed lean against the old wall and resumed our conversation.

"How much longer are you grounded?" I desperately wanted him back in the safe refuge of our house.

"I don't even know. We're not exactly talking right now. He didn't even ask me if we won last week." He frowned and shrugged his shoulders in dejection.

"How's your mom?" I couldn't pretend like she didn't exist. If he had any hope of regaining a parent, it was her. Right now, it seemed like a long-shot at best.

His eyes dropped straight to his feet and he shook his head slowly, barely moving it from side to side. I raised my hand to the back of his neck and rubbed what comfort I could into him there.

"I think about you a lot. I hope you know that." His words were pointed to the ground as he still hadn't lifted his eyes. Finally, he looked me straight on again and continued. "When I'm at home, I think about you and I wish we were together. But I don't wish you were there with me, you know?"

He wouldn't wish that on me, or probably anyone else for that matter, but I would be there with him every night if it were an option rather than have him face it alone.

"Things are going to get better, Chris. We've got to keep believing that. Someday, it'll come true." It was hard for me to even believe it myself, but I had to stay as optimistic as I could for him.

"I'm not so sure about that. I've got a bad feeling, Matt." I nodded my head. We had come as close to admitting it as we could. A cutting breeze chased us back to the gym before our rides finally showed up and we made our ways home for the night.

My mom always asked about Chris at every opportunity. Between the two of us, we had the worry-market cornered. Dad did his share of worrying too. He was going out of his way to ask me how I was doing each day and he made sure to give me a firm hug each night when he got home from work. I couldn't have asked for anymore support than I had. In some ways, I felt guilty that I couldn't share some of that support with Chris. While I had everything, he had nothing at all.

When sleep took me this night, I tried to reach him in my dreams but my subconscious wouldn't cooperate. Or maybe it was protecting me from the nightmares that more frequently plagued me. Either way, I spent the night completely alone.

Sometimes you can just sense when bad things are about to happen. The next morning was one of those times. The emotional high from last week's basketball game had finally faded. The reality of living life in a state of purgatory had set back in. Still, there was something new brewing out on the horizon. I couldn't see it but somehow I knew it was there and I knew it wasn't good. The little warrior within me stood fully alert. His time was growing near.

Mom was edgy this morning on our way to school. I wondered if she could sense it too. It was a very grey overcast day with a cold wind blowing out of the north. For a moment, it reminded me of my old school back in Sausalito. We had many grey days there this time of year, but none this cold.

My first clue was very early in the day. Walking through the courtyard I noticed another odd stare or two. Was I just being paranoid? Something felt different.

My second clue sent shockwaves running right through my soul. Tommy was giving me a look like I had died. It all suddenly felt very surreal to me and I wondered if I was still in a dream and this was some twisted dream-state funeral where I was being paraded through the school grounds for all to pay their last respects. He picked up the disturbance in my face and for the first time in our friendship, Tommy Johnson looked away from me. Stunned, I collapsed into my seat in front of him and pondered exactly what was happening here. The light pat on my shoulder told me he had caught himself. I turned in my seat and picked up his eyes again; they seemed to be sending both apology and condolences.

The cold grey wind blowing over our little campus today was also a foul wind of rumor. I clinched my teeth and silently shook my head in regret. The rumor had the added potency of truth and I knew it couldn't be stopped. It could have come from Jeff or Mike, though I found that hard to accept. I had the greater suspicion that the fruits of our victory over Billy Jacobs had quickly spoiled into the rotten payback of retribution.

Was Chris feeling it too and how would he handle it? Suddenly, a haunting voice spoke inside my head, pulling an old memory from the archives for added terror: "Matthew, there's not much that goes on at that school that I don't know about. You remember that." Oh fuck! Now I was nearing a full-blown panic. Other words from Coach Briggs also filled my head. "Pansies and degenerates."

I closed my eyes and tried to block out everything that was now rushing through my mind but it just wasn't possible. Homeroom was over and I thought of walking to the school office and calling my mom to come and get me. It wasn't a lie to claim I was sick because nausea had in fact taken me over. Just off the main walkway, I leaned hard against the cold red-brick wall and tried to gather myself. More eyes were finding me and staying with me longer. I found myself gasping for breath and the desire to run to the office and make that call was now almost overwhelming.

Two things stopped me and the first took me by complete surprise. It was just a simple nod but there was previously unseen understanding in Jay Henson's eyes. As he moved on from my view, I spotted Chris off in the distance. I could see the strain on his face and I knew I couldn't leave him here alone. We were in this together, for better or worse. His eyes met mine and we locked worried stares. I realized I was still leaning hard on the side of the building and I stood straight up to at least give him some indication that I was OK. He smiled very faintly but the smile couldn't break completely through the concern.

It turns out that my misery had more company than I realized. Katie Barnes was a lonely figure now days. Her break up with Chris had led to her dismissal by the shrewd king-in-waiting Ty Wilson. Without a cover, he simply wasn't willing to risk his social fortunes for the girl who lived in a trailer. Her fall from grace had exiled her from the exclusive circle of friends she had so coveted. Based on the dark expression on her face, she had taken it all pretty hard and was searching her own soul for the answers. I couldn't escape the irony of our fates. Finally, I felt genuine sympathy for her.

I tried to find some courage within me and took what little I could from my experiences of the past year. Only twelve months ago, I was a very lonely and sad boy roaming the hallways of my middle school in Sausalito. No one really bothered me because no one seemed to even know I was there. With a change of locations and introduction to new friends, my life had now changed so much for the better. No matter how painful these struggles would become, I would rather be in them with my friends than in no fight at all and all alone. Just as my location had changed this past year, it would change again in a few more years. High school wasn't forever after all, but it might as well be today. The question of the moment was who would still be my friend?

In truth, I had seen some of this coming for the last two days. I just didn't want to believe what I saw. You can always notice when people look at you differently. To have one person do it isn't noteworthy, but I had noticed it at least three times over the past two days. A sporadic outbreak of whispers and stares had now become a full epidemic.

When I entered the cafeteria for lunch, I couldn't bear to look across the floor full of tables. Too many narrowed eyes and too many whispers were seated there. There was no sign yet of Chris or Tommy and I sat down alone at our normal table along the outer perimeter. Tommy was first to enter and I saw him glance in my general direction as he went through the line. My heart was starting to pound uncontrollably at the mere thought of his rejection. Tray in hand, Tommy made his approach and I breathed rapidly with each step he took. My Tommy never flinched and when he took his seat beside me I had to cover my face for fear of everyone seeing me leaking tears.

"Mattie, they never liked me anyway. Let them say what they want. I don't give a shit."

"Tommy, I don't want to drag you into this. It's not fair to you. It's not your fight."

I couldn't have produced a more sour reaction on his face if I had tried. Of all the things I could have said, this seemed to hurt him the most.

"Mattie, if it's your fight then it's my fight too. No matter what, you can count on me because I'm on your side. I told you this already, you know."

I couldn't help by chuckle just a bit. There was nothing funny here; it was just so relieving to hear him say it again. I still didn't know if Tommy was gay. I knew that he liked me and I knew I wouldn't be able to shield him from my fight.

"I know, Tommy." The look of appreciation in my eyes said the rest.

Across the way, I noticed one lonely set of eyes watching us but they weren't casting any accusations. Katie looked down quickly when she noticed the return of my stare. I imagine she wished she had a good `low-life' friend like Tommy right now.

Chris was running a little late and I was growing concerned. I couldn't really blame him if he ditched on lunch, but a part of me would be very disheartened. Everyone would now be watching us and looking for confirmations to the rumors. It might be easier for both of us just to not be seen together at all.

Just then, the face I had been watching for entered the cafeteria. Ten minutes earlier, I had entered with my eyes lowered and my shoulders no doubt a bit slumped. Chris was going to have none of that approach. He reached up and re- tucked his baseball cap, but his eyes and chin stayed high and he seemed to be making his own silent statement to the lowered whispers and stares that filled the room. I glanced around watching the other kids watch him. Several of them were shooting each other surprised glances. I don't know what they (or I) had been expecting, but they weren't getting any apologies from him. I had seen this look from him before and it was communicating the same thing it had told to Jeff Billups during our pre-game run-in with Billy Jacobs. The look said `you better stand with me on this one'. Not everyone would, but Chris wasn't going to let them off easy.

His boldness only made me love and admire him more. It also made me want him more in the ways I hadn't had him yet. One thing was for sure; I was completely and totally his. If he wasn't going to back down, then I damn sure wasn't going to either. The day that started with me wanting to run home into the arms of my mother was starting to take on a different feel.

Why should we let them define us? Only we could give them or lend them that power. How would they define us anyway? They might be able to make their normal garden-variety insults stick to just me, but Chris would quite obviously define himself. Some of his first words of courage came back to me. "Don't show him any fear." He wasn't going to show any of them any fear.

Given the right opportunity, the truly good people and your true friends will normally do the right thing. As Chris exited the line and started across the floor, Jeff Billups and Mike Rogers stopped him. When Jeff extended his hand, I could almost read the words from his lips. I could definitely make out the words "I know" coming from Chris's lips. At least, now I could feel confident that the betrayal of trust hadn't come from within our own teammates. This gesture from Jeff and Mike wouldn't change the rest of the school and it didn't even mean that they agreed with us, but they didn't oppose us and that was enough for now. Looking around the room, there were plenty who would oppose us. Of most concern was the particularly disdainful look on the face of our junior king Ty Wilson.

Ty likely knew he wasn't the best athlete at our school just as he likely knew that Chris was. Ty was a stand-out on a mediocre football team. Basketball was below him somehow, so he didn't play. Every school has a Ty Wilson; our version was highly skilled at being shrewd and manipulative. I thought back to his reaction to Katie's tears of guilt in the auditorium that day and how he had so masterfully maneuvered his cock between her quivering lips. Sensitivity wasn't very high on his list of personal traits. I think he took sinister pleasure in knowing that it was Chris's so- called girlfriend that had serviced him so well and for so long. I wondered if it was even possible that some of Katie's appeal to him had been lost when she broke up with Chris. I definitely didn't want me or Chris to wind up in his crosshairs. There was too much potential trouble there.

Chris finally joined Tommy and me at our table. I had never told him that Tommy knew about me. I also hadn't had a chance to tell him that I had come out to my parents. Aside from our brief time after practice the day before, we had no personal time together to have these types of long intimate conversations.

"Hey, Tommy." Chris nodded to him. "You sure you want to be sitting with us today?"

Again, Tommy looked hurt and he turned his eyes to me after they had sufficiently scolded Chris. I jumped in.

"Chris, he knows. He's known for a while now. Known about me, I mean."

This was uncomfortable for me. I had tried to protect Tommy from any intimate details that might hurt him. Still, I had turned to him in my times of need as a friend. I had tried to respect Chris's own privacy and feelings. I had never discussed with anyone whether he was gay, bi or any other label. I didn't want him to think I was talking about him behind his back, but Tommy wasn't blind about what was going on.

"Man, this is so fucked up and it's all my fault." Chris turned to me with anguish and regret in his eyes.

"I'm sorry Matt. I'm really sorry." He could put up a good front for the crowd, but he didn't need any fronts with me. The raw emotions were always just under the surface.

I think Tommy felt like he was intruding on a private moment and he stood up ready to leave and give us some space.

"Where the fuck are you going?" Chris startled him with the question.

"I thought...maybe you needed some talk." Tommy stammered his reply.

"I trust you Tommy. Besides, it's too late for privacy. The whole fucking school is talking about us already. You might as well hear the truth at least. Sit down. Please."

Tommy obliged and took his seat again. Though rough around the edges, Chris had given him a welcome endorsement.

"Chris, what are people saying, exactly?" I still didn't know, though I could imagine.

"They're saying we got caught making out. That little pussy Billy Jacobs spread it around. I was afraid this was going to happen but I didn't think it would happen so fast." He paused, removing and then re-tucking his cap again, fidgeting with it nervously.

"Can't we just deny it? I mean, nobody knows what happened." My words were just a gut reaction but I knew better.

"We could deny it." Chris acknowledged the possibility, but then resolve retook his face. "But we're not going to. Fuck `em! Let them believe what they want. We don't have to deny anything and we don't have to admit to it either. It's none of their damn business and no one is going to come right out and ask about it. Let them whisper and look all they want to. Jeff and Mike are the only ones who probably know for sure, but they won't talk to anyone about it."

"But Chris..What about your dad? I'm really worried he's going to find out. That scares me more than anything else. What would he do?"

This was my deepest fear. What would he do? By the look on his face, it was Chris's deepest fear too. I was sure he had thought of this already, but hearing me say it seemed to bring the fear much closer to reality for him. The resolve in his face quickly melted into despair and dread. Maybe he hadn't thought about this yet. Maybe he couldn't bring himself to think about it. It took him a couple minutes to finally reply.

"I'll tell him it's just a big lie that Billy Jacobs told to get back at us for kicking their ass. I can't tell him the truth, Matt. I just can't." There was definitely fear in his eyes now.

"Hell, I don't want you to tell him the truth. I was afraid that you might, though."

"Why did you think that?" Disbelief was on his face.

"I'm just scared, Chris. You seem so strong about all of this. I watched you when you came in the cafeteria. I could tell you weren't going to take any shit from anybody."

"I'm not going to take any shit from anybody in here, but my dad's a different story. He might..." I could see his chest rising and falling more rapidly now and his face was contorted with fear and concern. Tears were trying to form in the corners of his eyes.

"Oh fuck..I've got to get out of here!" He couldn't make eye contact with me. There was too much there he didn't want me to see. He stood quickly and took the nearest way out of the cafeteria, leaving me and Tommy exchanging startled looks.

Chris was only human and he carried a burden in this that I didn't have. He had lived here his whole life and people knew him. People knew his family too, even though they weren't particularly well liked. My own family had no roots here and whatever we feared, we didn't fear what others would think of us. I didn't carry any pressure in this from my parents. Chris was practically carrying the weight of the world, or at least of the South, on his strong shoulders. At this moment, it was more weight than he could bear.

As I stepped outside the cafeteria to find him, something new and unusual hit me, literally. Pellets of sleet had started falling from the darkening grey sky and were now bouncing all over the walkway. We didn't get sleet or snow in Sausalito, California. The moderating temperature of the Pacific Ocean just wouldn't allow it so close to shore at sea level. An amazing thing happens when it sleets or snows in the South; the entire community mobilizes in an effort to get the hell home as quickly as possible. The morning's rumor-mill had been temporarily shutdown by the gleeful reaction to this sudden storm.

I found him stopped along the same route he had taken an earlier day on his way to the baseball field dugout. On that day, I had found his trust for the first time and he had opened up and shared himself with me as a true friend. As I approached him, my mind reflected on how far we had come and just how little I knew about him on that earlier day. This time, the weather had made him pause and he stood in the back of the gym looking out the back door at the quickly accumulating sleet.

"They'll send us home soon." He said very flatly. Going home was always better later than sooner for him. He leaned forward and rested the top of his head against the glass window inside the door frame. Again, his stare had dropped to his feet and the lid of his baseball cap was pressing down over his eyes.

I wanted to grab him and hold him but I feared our exposure would do much more harm than good. Instead, I just called out to him softly. "Chris."

"I don't know if I can do it, Matt. I'm not sure I can go back home." He was nearing a breaking point and I didn't know what to say. I knew I couldn't let him go like this.

"Don't. Don't go home. Come home with me." The idea sounded dangerous, but suddenly everything sounded dangerous. I couldn't let him go home like this. Whatever had happened in his past was still eating away at him, somewhere deep inside him. We had never talked about it but I had to try and reach him.

"I'm calling my mom and she'll come pick us up. Go home with me." I was right beside him now and had my left hand on his shoulder. "Just go home with me."

"My dad will freak out Matt."

"You can't keep doing this, Chris! I know you're not telling me everything. I know you're trying to protect me from knowing somehow. But I already know and I can't bear to watch you just take this over and over again." I was pleading through the tears now running down my face. I was at my breaking point too.

His eyes rose up to me. It was all laid open for him to see. The love, hope, fear and desire were all intermingled into one tormented face.

"Oh, Matt. Don't, please don't. I love you too much to see you cry like that for me."

The boy I loved more than anything in the world had just told me he loved me too. I had convinced myself that I didn't need to hear it. It was a lie that I had believed until this moment, for now I realized just how much it meant to me to hear him say it. He had seen me cry before. It was hard not to see me cry since it seemed like I was always doing it. The first time had been when I first silently admitted in my own heart that I loved him. Then it was a single disobedient tear that streamed down my face, but he saw it and I think he knew even then. This time, the same deep spring of emotions had revealed the true depth of my love for him and in turn confirmed his love for me.

"Call your mom, Matt. If the weather eases off, I'll need to get back home later tonight. He's going to be really pissed, but I don't care anymore. He's always really pissed, so what's the difference. I just can't go there right now. I just can't."

I didn't want him to ever go back but I knew it wasn't that simple. If I only helped pull him back from the edge a bit, that would be victory enough for today.

My mom came as quickly as she could. Most of the afternoon appointments at her office had started to cancel anyway. There was already a line of cars building as parents were rushing to pick up their kids before the roads got too bad. School buses were lining up too. A full scale evacuation was in order. All because of a half inch of sleet. The weather did seem to be worsening and the sleet kept coming down heavier and heavier. Chris had made sure to avoid his dad but he also made sure he knew where his dad was so he could stay well out of his sight. Whatever his latest scheme was, I didn't want to know. Teachers had to stay until the school grounds had cleared, so his dad wasn't going anywhere for a while yet.

Chris slid into the back seat and stayed tucked into the corner. I saw my mom's eyes narrow and I'm sure she was onto us, but she stayed in character and we all relaxed a bit once we were safely out of view of the school. She was being very quiet and a couple of looks she cut my way confirmed that she was definitely onto us. The looks I cut back at her confirmed for her that this was more along the lines of a prison escape and not a bank robbery getaway. Granted, it was all moral grey area but life is lived in shades of grey, not in black and white.

The roads were very drivable but the sleet had continued to pelt down for over an hour now. The landscape was appropriately turning grey. Snow would have been much prettier, but sleet was supposedly a more common weather phenomenon here. Mom said it was supposed to end as snow later tonight, so some hope for a white topping still existed.

We got home around two o'clock in the afternoon. My mom quickly pulled me aside in the house and just stared at me for an explanation. No verbal question was necessary.

"It's important, mom! I can't explain everything right now because it would take too long, but trust me, it's important. It's very important."

I could dodge my way around the truth on most things if push came to shove. But on the most important things, I had always tried to tell the truth; maybe not always the full truth and maybe not always as soon as I should have, but sooner or later, the truth. My mom took me on faith that whatever she had become an accomplice to, was worth the risk.

"Chris, are you all right?" Maybe it was the way she asked it. My mom had a way of delivering a question. Maybe it had been so long since his own mom had bothered or been able to ask, but the question hit Chris hard.

His face crumbled and he slowly shook his head no. My mom went into full mothering mode and gave Chris a big motherly hug of support. I had experienced this hug many times and my mother's touch possessed great healing powers that communicated love and caring better than anyone. I left him in her good hands and went down to the basement to see if it was tolerable. It wasn't. It was very cold down there since we didn't have the heat turned up. I turned the heat way up and went back upstairs.

"Mom, the basement is freezing. I turned the heat up and we're going to be in my room for a while. OK?" My look told her we needed some time alone to talk.

"Did you boys get a chance to eat lunch?" Always the mother.

"Yeah, we're fine mom. We'll be back down after while."

I lead Chris upstairs to the warm confines of my room. He watched my hand turn the door-lock before his eyes met mine again. Looking out the window, we could see that the sleet was still coming down hard and there was now a solid coat of pellets covering the driveway. It wasn't deep enough to cover the grass and the green tips protruded from the surrounding grey making for an unfashionable clash of colors.

"Your mom is so great. I really like her, Matt." He looked so sad and then he continued. "My mom used to be more like her. She was never as cool as your mom, though." His voice was soft and it wasn't easy for him to talk about her. This was the most he had said to me about his mother. He had opened up to my dad, but they had something in common here.

My room wasn't huge. Besides my bed, there was only a chair by a small desk with my computer. I led Chris over to the bed and we both sat there.

"When did she start to change, Chris?" I had tried to ask this some time ago with no success. This time, he had brought up the subject and I hoped to learn if he actually felt responsible for her slide.

"My mom has always fought with alcohol, but she had been better for a long time, until I got so screwed up a couple years ago."

His lips were quivering. That time in his life had been the unapproachable subject between us but I had to tear down that wall. It was the wall keeping a part of him captive inside; a part that I had to free somehow. He tilted his head away from me. There was embarrassment and shame in his eyes and he couldn't bear for me to see it. I kicked off my shoes and slid up the bed, resting my back against the head- board and I gently tugged at his arm guiding him into a sitting position in front of me on the bed, with my legs extended around the outside of his. I placed a pillow behind my back for extra cushion against the bed-framing and then I leaned us both in a more comfortable tilt backwards. His face was shielded from me now and I wrapped my arms around his chest from behind and snuggled my chin into his neck. I had made myself into the outline of a human couch for him.

"Chris, can you tell me what happened? Nothing you tell me would ever make me love you any less. You know that, don't you?"

He responded by first extending his hands down each side of my outstretched legs. "I was in an institution, Matt. My parents put me there because my dad thought I was crazy. Maybe I was crazy or maybe I still am for all I know."

I wondered if this was where the betrayal began. I was convinced that there were in fact crazy people living in Chris's house, but he wasn't one of them.

"Just talk to me." I whispered it in his ear and wiggled my nose and lips back into the side of his neck giving him much unspoken reassurance.

"They said I beat up Jay Henson so bad I almost killed him. Funny thing is I can't remember any of it. I've tried, but it's just not there. The doctors said I was in denial about it. The more they talked to me, the crazier I felt. I still can't believe I did that to him. They said I must have just snapped and then blocked it out of my memory. I got so depressed while I was there. The longer I stayed, the worse I felt. They gave me a lot of drugs. They even gave me shock treatment, Matt. I guess I must have been really fucked up. I had never been depressed before. It just scared me so bad and I didn't think I belonged there."

I had no idea. I knew there were great depths to the suffering during this part of his life, but I had no idea just how deep they had been entrenched by this experience. Chris wasn't `crazy'. That much I believed not just with all my heart but with all my intellect as well. I was no psychiatrist, but considering all that he faced now in his life, how could anyone have been more stable or more restrained. It didn't make sense to me and I refused to believe it.

"Chris, do you even remember why you were going to fight Jay?"

"We weren't going to fight. Why did you think that?"

I hesitated, partly out of surprise and mostly out of confusion.

"Well, the talk is that you two were going to fight and someone tipped off your dad about it."

There was a long silence. It dawned on me that he might not know what the `talk' was about his own past. This wasn't the type of thing that people discussed to your face. He hadn't had a true best friend before me to discuss this with. Surely, Katie had told him some of this at some point along the way.

"That's what people say?" His shaking head dislodged my chin from its resting place.

"We never intended to fight. I do know at least that much. We got to be friends over that summer. Nobody really knew that though, I guess. Katie was always clinging all over me when school came back in that summer. You were the first friend that she didn't chase or scare away."

If he only knew the full truth on that one, but I could understand how the presence of Katie had made Chris less approachable by anyone not up to her social standards. Ironically, she had more in common with Jay than she had with her chosen friends.

Chris continued. "I knew Katie would give me a hard time and he was so quiet, we just never hung out at school. Plus, my dad had always told me to stay away from him because he was trouble. If I heard that once, I bet I heard it a thousand times while I was growing up. He said Jay was all into drugs and stuff. That was a bunch of bullshit though. Jay wasn't into any of that shit. He was only fourteen when we started hanging out that summer. I'm a few months younger than him. Even though we had always gone to school together, I had never talked to him. We ran across each other deep out in the woods behind my house one day that summer. He was out with his dog just walking around. There wasn't much else to do around here during the summer. Hell, I was doing the same thing. His dog came over and started sniffing me all over and we laughed about it. I realized he was an OK guy. I don't know what my dad's problem was, but then I never do."

"So you two kept hanging out some together after school? I mean, you're practically neighbors, at least by country standards."

"Yeah, we got sort of close." He didn't seem sure he wanted to elaborate on that. I decided to help him along.

"What do you mean close? Like really good friends?"

Chris pulled my legs into a knee-bend on each side of him and hooked an arm around each of my knees pulling me tighter into him.

"Matt, we were kind of curious about certain things. Please don't be hurt by me saying that. I mean I didn't even know you then." He tugged at me tighter still and I responded with a soft kiss to the side of his neck.

In a strange way, it did hurt me a little even though my intellect told me it was silly to feel that way. It is strange how sometimes the mind can't convince the heart, just like sometimes the heart can't convince the mind. This was two years ago and I was still three thousand miles from even meeting Chris for the first time. At least now, I understood the odd bond between myself and Jay better. I still didn't understand why Chris had hurt him and it puzzled me that he didn't know either. There was nothing in his words about Jay that indicated any menace or violence.

"The old shack, right?" I had noticed his hesitation when we had entered it together that rainy day. That was the day that changed our relationship and a day that would change my life forever. I had entered that old shack in doubt and with my own hesitation of heart. It was the first time I stood up for Chris and let him know how much he meant to me. It had been the genesis of everything that had happened since between us. When I stepped out of the old shack that day, I had a mission and purpose in life. I still hadn't won back the life of the boy I loved, but I was still bound to die trying if necessary.

"You knew, huh?" I couldn't see his eyes, but I could imagine.

"I knew there was something about that shack. I never guessed anything about you and Jay though."

"I just don't know what happened. We must have been fighting because I wound up knocked out. I still can't remember much about it, but small bits and pieces flash into my mind sometimes. I just can't make the pieces fit together."

"What are the bits and pieces?"

"We were at the shack fooling around. Then the next thing I can remember is opening my eyes and seeing a blurry flash of Jay lying face down on the ground outside the shack. He wasn't moving. I was lying on my side just a few feet from him and my head was bleeding. I couldn't keep my eyes open and I passed out. Later, I can recall seeing a sheriff's deputy talking to my dad. I thought I was floating just above the ground, but I was in a stretcher and just didn't realize it yet. I faded back out as they put me in the ambulance. Sometime before the hospital, I opened my eyes again and could see Jay lying across from me in the ambulance. That's the last thing I can remember. It's taken a while to remember all of that. The pieces don't come in order, they just pop in and I have to place them wherever they seem to fit."

He took a long pause. It had to be traumatic just to recall it all again. He really didn't understand what had happened. His own memory wouldn't give him enough clues to make sense of it all.

"There was never anything real serious between us, OK? You need to understand that. I liked Jay but we were never in love or anything like that."

"Chris, don't worry about what I think. I told you, nothing you say is going to make me love you any less. I just want to know what happened so I can try and help you. I don't want any secrets between us."

"I've never talked to anybody about this before, Matt. It's hard to say some of it out loud, even to you and I feel like I could tell you anything. A part of me wants to hide it from you so it won't chase you away. More than anything, I'm afraid I might hurt you somehow because I still don't know why I hurt Jay."

"I trust you with my life and I believe in you. You would never hurt me that way. I don't believe you could hurt anyone that way." I didn't believe it. In order to believe it, I had to deny everything else I now knew about him. I just wouldn't do it anymore.

He leaned out from my chest creating enough separation to turn his head and look me squarely in the eyes now. His eyes were wet, but there was new energy in them. He had taken renewed encouragement from my belief in him. His eyes moved to my lips and he made a slow ascent to reach for them with his own. I met him half way and we locked in a long exchange that pulled us both away from the fears and trials of this day.

Pulling back just barely enough to speak, he said "I don't want to think about it anymore right now. Please."

He had opened up and shared so much. He trusted me and he loved me. I didn't want him to think about it anymore either. I just wanted him to find some place of calm and happiness, beyond the reach of his dad or the old memories that haunted him. At least I had the foresight to lock the door this time.

I closed his lips with my own again and we resumed our exchange. I loved the taste of him. Our tongues wrestled for control but neither wanted to subdue the other. I moved my mouth off of his and worked my way into a favored spot just between where his cheekbone ended and his ear began, before returning back to his lips for more. I could never get enough of this. My hands were rubbing his chest and stomach, but I couldn't feel him. This had to change and I hooked the bottom of his shirt and pulled it up towards his head. He was enjoying a special moment with my bottom lip and took an extra second before giving me just enough space to pull the shirt completely over his head and tossing it to the side. Finally, my hands had full access to his warm, soft skin.

He groaned lightly as my fingers brushed over his nipples and swerved to the sides, then pressing up on his firm pecs and coming all the way to the top of his shoulders and rubbing deeply into them. When my hands started their next descent, he turned his head out and stretched back out into me with his head and chest. With his face pointed away, it gave me access to new places on the side and back of his neck and my mouth tenderly explored each inch of him there. His back had bowed and he was pressing his torso into my hands, his body begging me for more. My right hand segued down to his right thigh, and then moved back up through the center hooking his excitement and grasping it through his jeans. I felt him shiver at the contact but again I felt frustrated by the restriction of the material between us.

My left arm was extended around him, giving my left hand roaming access to his belly and chest. My left thumb toggled playfully at his outie belly button and he released a shivered breath with a hint of laughter to it. My right hand was dexterously unhooking the top button of his jeans before pinching the zipper and sending it down in a screaming fury. I found myself thinking `slow down' but this only applied to my motions. I had no intention of stopping now. My eyes were still closed and I was completely wrapped up in the warmth my lips had found on the right side of his neck and shoulder. Still, my lips needed more feedback and my left hand reached up to tilt his mouth back to an angle that allowed me to wrap over it again.

This all made for the perfect physical expression my emotions had been looking for. When my soul was joyous it found expression through laughter. When my soul was filled with pain or despair it found expression through my tears. Now my soul was filled with love and it found its own expression through the pleasure my body was extracting from Chris.

My right hand wrapped around his arousal and made skin-to- skin contact through the loose buttons at the front of his boxer-briefs. The hand quickly released several buttons and tried to wrangle him through the opening. The cloth strained from the pulling and pushing but ultimately the dimensions just wouldn't accommodate his escape. Finally, I gave up and slid my hand around and under the elastic band before securing him in my grasp. Our kiss was interrupted as the sheer pleasure of the feeling convulsed him into leaning his head straight back once again, his face pointed skyward. My right hand was not use to the generous proportions it was now holding and it pulled him free of the cloth and out into to the open air to share the new experience with my eyes. Knowing he was exposed, they focused on him in full glory for the very first time. The sight of him like this propelled my own arousal against the constraints of my jeans and into the bow in his back. Feeling it there, he let his weight back down against me and maneuvered the small of his back for maximum effect.

I watched him intently, pawing him up and down with long strokes. It was far too short a time before he tightened and I could almost hear his teeth clinch as he tried to suppress the volume of his pleasure. He must have sensed the rising force about to project from him as he placed his open hand a few inches in front to deflect the launch. He held his hand there as a shield for several seconds and the pool collecting on his belly told me it was a good thing he did.

Afterward, I continued to kiss him playfully on the neck for a minute or two. My first feelings were a mixture of relief, excitement and joy. I was happy to have achieved this with him but maybe even more relieved that I was able to perform at least in this basic way. Excitement was definitely still with me but I wasn't interested in reciprocation right now. The feeling of joy at knowing that Chris had this emotional and physical release was plenty of reciprocation for me.

I wiggled myself free and got a towel to clean him off with. He wasn't able to move for fear of leaking himself all over the bed. I sat back on the bed beside him and when he had finished his eyes turned up to me. He reached out and pulled me down to him and kissed me deeply again and I felt his own hand roaming across my belly.

"I'm OK, Chris." I sat back up and gave him a satisfied smile.

"No way. I could tell you were pretty worked up too." He paused somewhat confused. "Is something wrong?" Now he looked concerned.

"No, it couldn't be better. I don't think anything could top the way I feel right now. I just want to let it settle in, you know?" My words drew a look of amusement and surprise from him.

"So that was all just for me?"

"No. I promise you it was for me too. I got as much out of it as you did, probably even more. It means so much to me to see you happy like this right now. So really, it was for both of us."

He responded with a last tender kiss and the words "You're too good to me, Matt."

"No Chris, you `deserve' it."

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