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Mathew Figures it out

Chapter Thirteen

The sudden flurry of large white flakes were the first this California boy had ever seen in person and they made quite an impression. I rose from the bed and gravitated straight to the window, standing there completely mesmerized by the sight. There was a chill radiating from the glass and I crossed my arms, rubbing my own shoulders for warmth.

Chris eased in behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist, resting his chin in the curve of my neck much the same way I had done with him earlier on the bed. He was still shirtless and his warmth was intoxicating. I felt my eyes closing as they submitted to the relaxed comfort of his embrace. Memories of the first time I had watched him embrace Katie poured back into my head. Her reaction then was much the same as mine now.

So much had happened since then and many of memories flooded through my mind. I thought back to the moment Chris had leaned against me on the old stump behind his house. At that time, I could never have imagined all that would follow. Now, I couldn't imagine ever being without him again.

The sound of the ringing telephone jarred me into full sobriety and my body jumped with shock, dislodging me from his embrace. It seemed to take my mom forever to answer it and I turned and locked eyes with Chris, both our faces flinching with each additional ring. As if guided by some instinct within me, I leaned forward into him for one last soft kiss and just held my lips on his for a moment, closing my eyes.

I was relieved to hear mom call my name instead of Chris's and my eyes opened with my lips still resting ever so gently on top of his. His eyes were open too and it was hard to bring the moment to an end.

"Matthew!" My mom yelled a little louder this time.

I rattled the doorknob, forgetting it was still locked, before opening the door and replying "I'll pick it up in here! Thanks."

As I picked up the cordless, I watched Chris out of the corner of my eye as he bent over to retrieve his shirt from beside the bed. The sight of fresh bruises on the left side of his ribs brought my arm to slow-motion, stopping the receiver short of my ear. A faint and familiar voice was penetrating the open air prompting me to bring the phone closer.

"Mattie." There was a frantic tone in Tommy's voice and he didn't pause for my reply. My eyes caught Chris's as I continued to listen. His face tightened as he could see the look of dread drawing itself across my face.

"He's here Tommy, with me." My shaky voice brought a reaction of alarmed confusion from Chris.

"What is it?" Chris wanted to know and he wanted to know right now.

Tommy continued in my ear before my final reply "I'm sure my mom would appreciate that. We'll see you soon."

I hung up the phone but my eyes never left Chris. He was covered in fear and bewilderment and I could see him trying to put together the small clues in his mind. I didn't want to be the one to tell him, but I had no choice.

"Chris, your mom has been in an accident." With my words, his mouth fell open and his face lost all expression. "She's at the hospital in Charlotte. I don't know how bad she's hurt." This was so hard and I was breathing heavily with my heart racing away in my chest. "Tommy's dad is going to come over in his Jeep and take us up there. Your dad's already on his way there now."

His eyes closed and his head dropped, but not before I saw the first tear run down his cheek. His mumbled tone was barely audible. "What happened?"

"Her car ran off the road in town. One of Tommy's cousins is a first-responder and that's how Tommy's mom found out."

Tommy's cousin had also said that Chris's mom was unconscious when they sent her off in the ambulance, but I didn't know what that implied and I wasn't about to try and interpret it. Chris's head was still hanging straight down but was also starting to slowly shake from side to side. I had been frozen by the shock of the news and had left him standing there without support. Just as I moved to embrace him, he started to mumble again, freezing me in my tracks.

"I knew..I knew something like this was going to happen. DAMN IT!" His shock was quickly turning to anger and he yelled out the last part. I was sure my mom heard it too. He then spoke the question I hoped would stay unasked. "No one else was hurt, right? At least tell me that.. Matt?" He raised his head and the pain on my own face was reflected in his eyes.

"Matt?" His lips moved but his eyes were now begging me not to tell him the truth. I swallowed hard.

"Her car jumped the curb and went across a sidewalk." I was choking the words out now and didn't know if I could bring myself to finish. I knew where this was headed and that the weight of it all was going to wind up squarely on his shoulders. Still, there was no turning back. He had to know the whole story or at least all of it that I had been told.

"The car hit a boy on the sidewalk. He's at the hospital too. That's all I know, Chris."

His hands went to the back of his head and he doubled-over from the pain the words had brought him. Softly, he was moaning ""

Just as I touched him, he quieted, but he was beyond consolation. He was receding again and I could feel him drifting away from me. I felt like he was distancing himself for the safety of others. In his mind, bad things just seemed to happen to anyone who got close to him. My hand was on his back, but there was no longer any warmth there.

I heard a soft tapping on my open bedroom door and turned to see my mother standing there in obvious concern. I had to let her know what was happening but I didn't want Chris to have to hear the words again. Walking out into the hallway, I pulled the door closed behind me and gave him some shield from my conversation.

"His mom's car ran off the road and hit a pole. But first, it went over the sidewalk and hit a boy walking home from school. They're both in the hospital. Tommy told me all of this and him and his dad are coming over to take Chris to the hospital because Chris's dad is already on the way there now. Mr. Johnson has a four-wheel drive and he didn't think it would be safe for you to take the car since the roads are getting bad. I'm going with them, mom. I can't let Chris do this alone."

Mom had one hand over her face and she reached out with the other and patted me on the shoulder.

I didn't want to ever have to tell this story again. I knew it wasn't my fault, but I was still filled with guilt from the pain my words had caused Chris.

"Do you know how bad they're hurt?" I nodded my head no.

"Poor Chris. How much more of this can he take?" I think my mom's question had already been answered. He couldn't take any more. He had already reached his breaking point before the latest bad news.

I didn't want to leave him alone too long. When I reopened the door, he was sitting in the corner of my room with his back to the wall. His knees were tucked and his eyes were fixed straight ahead. I wasn't sure if he had regained his composure or simply lost the ability to compose himself in any way at all. I decided the latter when he didn't acknowledge my reentry to the room. His regression seemed complete. Whether he had taken safe distance or provided it, the distance was there all the same.

My mom looked in and I knew she wouldn't be able to walk away from this. It just wasn't her nature to look the other way. She came in and kneeled down on the floor in front of him. His eyes lifted just enough to meet her but his face remained emotionless. There were no more tears to give; they had evaporated along with their source.

"Chris." My mother said his name as softly as could be done and still have it heard. Just as softly, her hand went to his cheek. I shuddered at the realization that even my own mother's magic touch couldn't raise him from his hiding place. I could see a steady rise and fall of his chest, but no other outward signs of life were revealed. My mother knew he was still there, and she spent several minutes just looking into his eyes and silently communicating with the boy trapped inside.

Selfishly, I wondered if I would ever have him back again.

The thick clouds and heavy snow had brought an early darkness onto the neighborhood. There was little sound of traffic and I wondered where my own dad was. I wished he were here right now; he might be the only one that knew the path to reach Chris. The sound of the vehicle entering our drive was not familiar and I looked out the window to see Andy Johnson's SUV. The headlights revealed a thick white coating on the ground and still more heavy snow streaking downward through the reflection of the beams.

"Chris, they're here." I reached out my hand to help pull him up, but he never looked at me as he stood on his own and moved toward the door. His shirt was still un-tucked and his sneakers still lay near the bed. "Chris! Your shoes and coat!"

He stopped and sat on the bed long enough to pull on his shoes. Again, he forgot his coat and I caught up behind him and gently held his shoulder, bringing him to a stop and practically forcing his limp arms into the sleeves. His eyes fell onto mine briefly, but there was no communication in them.

I was so busy worrying about him that I almost forgot about my own necessities. When I turned back to get my coat, my mother was standing there holding it up and I eased into it and gave her a look that told her just how lost I was too.

The short trip from our front door to the SUV brought me into direct contact with snow for the first time. The sound of it packing underneath my steps was a new revelation to my ears. The spectacle of it all just didn't fit the pain and trepidation I was feeling inside. On any other day, a first snowball fight would have been in order, but the warrior was in a different kind of fight now.

There were no formal greetings with Tommy and his dad; only grim acknowledgements. The ride out into the snowy countryside was painfully quiet and gave my mind its first chance of the afternoon to catch up on everything that had happened. It didn't seem possible that the first sexual experience of my life had taken place such a short time before. The recollection was so out of place with the moment that my mind quickly pushed it aside and moved back through time to earlier events of the day.

The day had started in an ominous fashion. Chris had said that he "knew" something like this was going to happen. Maybe I knew it too, or at least I knew that something bad was about to happen. On top of our most current misery was still the reality that awaited us again at school. It seemed trivial in the grand scheme of things right now, but someday it would seem much less trivial again. Like it or not, that was still our world and we would have to live in it again soon. In the middle of the thought, it hit me and hit me hard. How would I feel if it were my mother in that hospital and I had no idea how she was or even if she were still alive?

The late realization almost made me sick to my stomach. I had only looked at Chris's mom as some object of disappointment. Until my dad had told me, I didn't even know her name was Peggy. I still didn't know what she did for work or anything else meaningful about her. But to Chris, she was HIS mother. While I had never believed in her, he had never stopped believing in her. Other than fear, I wasn't sure there was an emotional bond with his dad, but his mother was different. I had made the mistake of grouping them together as parents. They were part of the same family, but very different people with different problems.

Earlier today, I had asked him for the first time how his mom was doing. I hadn't done right by her and as an extension I hadn't done right by Chris. This only compounded the guilt I felt for having had to break the news to him about her accident. Again, selfish fear set in and I hoped he wouldn't hold it against me.

It's strange how we piece together links in our minds and how sometimes the links build a path to understanding. Even though I never met him, I always resented my grandpa Jordan for the pain he had put my father through. In truth, his alcoholism was a sickness that eventually claimed his life, but I faulted him for it just the same. I looked at Chris's mom in much the same way. I didn't know her, hadn't made the effort to try to, but I resented her for the pain she caused Chris. I was so caught up in my judgment of her that I had looked right past Peggy as a person. In my mind, she wasn't only guilty of some portion of Chris's pain, but also of my dads; a guilt by association due to her disease. The resentment I carried against the grandpa I never knew was transferred over to her. It wasn't fair to hold her responsible for more than her fair-share of misery and I now could only hope it wasn't too late for me to right the wrong I had committed.

My dad was fighting his own struggle to right a wrong. Until I came out to him and mom, he had never been forced to put a face on the prejudice he had carried against those who he held responsible for taking his brother from him. When the face he was confronted with was that of his own son, he resolved to confront his own demons. He would do right by me and as an extension finally do right by the memory of my Uncle Heath.

Chris's words flowed back into my head. He had opened up and revealed at least one mystery while he was still unable to resolve another. I couldn't keep the thoughts of him and Jay together from hurting me. He had assured me that they were never serious, but something intimate had happened between them. As for the unresolved mystery, I had my own idea what had happened. Finding a way to prove it would be another thing. There are wrongs in this world that can never be fully righted.

The snow was beginning to lighten up a bit but the roads were already covered and there was no clear indication as to where the road stopped and the ditches began. The silence in the Jeep was overwhelming, but I could think of nothing appropriate to say. I recognized the outskirts of the city and assumed we would be at the hospital soon enough. I thought of praying for Chris's mom and the boy she had hit, but couldn't bring myself to do it. It just didn't seem honest considering I couldn't recall the last time I had prayed for anything. One glance at the absent look on Chris's face changed my mind on the subject and I silently and earnestly prayed the best I could remember how.

We finally arrived at the hospital and Andy let the three of us out in front before finding parking. It dawned on me that this must be awkward for him considering his history with Coach Briggs, but it seemed like the Southern way to put old grievances aside in a time of crisis. We waited for him in the lobby. When he entered a few minutes later, he quickly surmised that we hadn't asked about Peggy's condition and he quietly checked with reception before joining us.

"Chris." Andy patiently waited a moment for Chris to snap into focus. "Chris, your mom is in critical care up on the sixth floor. Your dad is probably up there in the waiting area. Let's go on up and find out how she's doing. This is a fine hospital and your mother is getting the best of care." He gave Chris a reassuring pat on the shoulder as he spoke. Andy Johnson was a kind man and he delivered each word with soothing compassion. I wished it could have been him to deliver the initial bad news to Chris; hearing the strength and understanding in his voice made me feel even more inadequate about my own attempt.

On the elevator ride up, Tommy and I made our first significant eye contact of the evening. Virtually any expression would have been inappropriate to the moment, but I held his eyes long enough to let him know I was glad he was there.

The doors slid open and we walked down the hall. Tension was building in my body and I feared for the worst. I watched Chris closely for some sign of emotion, but still saw none. Then suddenly, I saw his eyes narrow and an angry look that cast blame took him over. Turning my own eyes straight ahead, I quickly found the object of his attention; Coach Briggs was menacing the hallway up ahead just outside the waiting area. He must have detected the approaching intensity and he threw up a shielding scowl and squared his shoulders head-on to meet us.

Andy Johnson was the first to speak. "Robert, how is Peggy?"

Robert? Coach Briggs didn't seem whole enough as a person to deserve a first name. He rudely deflected Andy's inquiry with his scowl, and looked Chris over seriously before latching onto his arm and pulling him to the other side of the hall. If he was trying to deny us the courtesy of her basic medical condition, he wasn't doing a very good job of it since we could hear everything he was saying. He had a voice that pierced anything in its reach.

"God damn it, she's gone and done it this time!" Those were the first words out of his mouth. "We're probably gonna get sued out of this deal" were his second words; I guessed it was important to him to establish her as to blame before he got to the legal wrangling.

"HOW IS SHE?" Chris said it loud enough for everybody on the sixth floor to hear him; his frustration had quickly boiled over.

His dad cast a wary eye around the hall before answering. "I tell you right now, you better lower your fucking voice with me!" He spewed it more than he said it. "She got banged up really hard when the car hit the utility pole. The doctor said she had a severe concussion and she has a lot of swelling but they think she'll come out of it."

`They THINK she'll come out of it?" Chris said it much less casually than his father had. The full reality of uncertainty was now setting in. He stood there in stunned silence for a few minutes.

"What about the boy she hit?" Chris's question brought an audible hiss from his father.

"It was some god damn spook on his way back to the projects. He had no fucking business being out there." Hate has a distinctive tone to it, making it easier to distinguish from just plain old prejudice. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two heads turn and I imagined that the older black couple sitting near the door in the waiting area had developed a keen ear for this tone during their years.

"Oh, right. Yeah, he had no business being on the sidewalk!" Chris was incredulous and very animated; his hands were flying in the air and his head was shaking. "I mean, didn't he know that's where all the abused drunk women drive?"

His dad's response was lightning-quick and the clap of an open hand on the side of a face ricocheted down the hall. The same hand instantly changed forms into a sharply pointed finger and the next words out of Coach Brigg's mouth were camouflaged well enough to avoid our detection. When he had finished his delivery, he pushed past Chris and briskly marched down the hall and out of sight. Affable Andy Johnson was left in a not-so-affable frame of mind and he turned to follow Coach Briggs down the hall.

I was in a complete state of shock. I knew that what I had just witnessed was extremely mild in comparison to what went on behind closed doors. Still, it shook me to my core; more because of the emotional violence than the physical slap.

I could now add "spook" along with "pansies" and "degenerates" to the growing list of those Coach Briggs considered below himself. For a man like Coach Briggs, it was very important that he have someone to place underneath him; someone to cushion himself from that longest of falls to rock-bottom in life. It really didn't matter what group he deemed fit for his insults. He had long ago given up on any illusions of crawling his way up in life. In the end, all that really mattered now was that he could keep his heals buried into someone else's back and feel safe in the illusion that he was at least better than someone, anyone.

Chris kept his back to us and didn't move from his spot. I wanted to go to him, but something told me he needed to reclaim his own space first. I looked back at the couple in the waiting area; the older lady was still watching Chris through the glass-framed entrance that ran along the hallway near the door. I saw her eyes blink several times in a row and her head shake.

There was almost nothing that I could do, but there was one thing. I went into the waiting area and took a seat next to the lady. Looking around the nearly empty room, I surmised that she could help me with the information Chris needed.

"Ma'am, excuse me. Would you know anything about the boy who was hit by the car?"

She looked me over skeptically and I couldn't blame her for doing so, all things considered. "That young man is our grandson and who are you?"

"Ma'am, I'm not really anybody. But that boy there in the hall is my best friend in the world." Oh, boy. Here we go again. My bottom lip quivered and I had to bite it into submission. My eyes quickly clouded over, but I tried as hard as I could to restrain them. As usual, I failed. She didn't need further explanation. Her large brown eyes had gathered everything about me that she needed to know.

"You can tell your friend that our boy is gonna be fine. Right now, he's in surgery. His hip is busted up pretty bad and he's gonna have a lot of work ahead of him to get back right after this thing, but he'll be fine. God's gonna stay with him and he'll be just fine. You go tell your friend that."

"Ma'am, what's his name?"

"His name is Michael. My name is Olivia."

Olivia was a lady who just radiated goodness and positive energy. She looked to be at least in her sixties and maybe even pushing seventy. I couldn't even imagine the things she had seen in her lifetime. After the events of the last few days at school, I was starting to be more sensitive to the issues of prejudice myself. If my body ever managed to equal Olivia's longevity, I hoped that I could have a spirit like hers to match.

"Thank you, Olivia. By the way, my name is Matthew." Olivia managed to extract a ragged smile from my face before I rose to deliver the news to Chris.

He still hadn't moved. I stood in front of him and tried to make eye contact, but he wouldn't join me. It hurt me deeply to see him like this. It also hurt me that he would isolate me from his pain; denying me the opportunity to try and help him. It was no comfort to me that he might believe he was protecting me in some way. Unable to draw a response from him, my eyes drifted over his shoulder and I could see Tommy standing nervously in the background. My eyes finally found a partner, but Tommy looked down quickly.

"Chris, the boy has a broken hip. He's in surgery but his grandmother wanted me to tell you he would be fine." Finally, he looked me square in the eyes. Somewhere deep inside, he was trying to tell me thank you, or at least that's what I chose to believe. I rubbed my right hand on his shoulder and desperately wanted to just take him in my arms but his eyes fell away again, leaving me only inches from him but very alone.

"I'm sorry, Chris." It was the best I could do and it was painfully honest. "You want to sit down?"

He didn't and instead he moved down the hall beyond the view of the waiting area and leaned himself against the wall. He didn't invite me but I decided to move with him anyway. At this point, all I could do was to be there for him in case he tried to pry himself free from his shell. I motioned for Tommy to come join us and the three of us took positions along the wall.

My eye picked up a familiar swagger moving down the hall and the sight sent my spirit soaring outward leaving a trail of goose-bumps down my arms. I had never been so glad to see my father. We needed him. Even a snowstorm hadn't chased him from work early and for once I was glad since his office was within easy reach of the hospital. I gave him a restrained smile and a subtle nod to my left where Chris was standing.

Tommy was the first in line and dad gave him a kind smile and a soft hand brushing across his arm as he passed. For me, there was a knowing look of pride and love that I had seen more often in recent weeks. Chris was too deep in distraction to have seen him coming, but when dad squared himself and placed a hand of top of each of Chris's shoulders, I saw his face start to quiver and heard the words "I tried" leak out of his lips. He had tried, but I feared he would never live down the guilt of not succeeding in getting his mom some help. The opposition had been too strong and he never really had a chance.

"It's going to be OK, son." With my dad's reassurance, Chris finally broke just enough to lean into him and rest his forehead on dad's shoulder. I could see him shaking but he was trying to avoid a complete collapse. My dad's soft words "I know, son. I know" were whispered just loud enough to hear.

Beyond understanding and reassurance, there was nothing more that could be offered. The damage had been done and now the consequences were left to be struggled with. This wasn't going to end tonight; not for Peggy Briggs; not for a boy named Michael who was just trying to get home from school; and not for another boy who just simply wanted a real home but couldn't seem to find one.

"Briggs family?" A relatively young doctor poked his head inside the waiting area. Chris's dad was nowhere in sight and I had the feeling that Andy Johnson was giving him a long overdue piece of his mind. Chris still had his head buried in my dad's shoulder. Not knowing what else to do, I gingerly raised my hand the next time I heard the call "Briggs family?"

The doctor offered a warm smile and made his way toward us as he looked down at his charts. He looked up at my dad and asked "you are Robert Briggs?" Merely the ridiculous thought of it sent cold chills down my spine.

"No, no. I'm not sure where Mr. Briggs went. This is his son Chris." Hearing my dad speak, Chris lifted his head to look at the doctor.

"Chris, your mother is resting well right now. If you'd like, we can get you in to see her for just a moment, but she is under sedation and won't be able to respond to you. OK? Listen, she has a lot of swelling around her head. That's normal with her type of injury but you just need to be prepared for that, OK?" The doctor spoke in the slow exaggerated way that some doctors do, but the basic message was `don't be shocked by what you see'.

Chris nodded his understanding. I'm sure he didn't want to see her this way, but he likely felt bad about refusing any opportunity to be by her side, even if she wouldn't know he was there. The doctor told us where to wait and said a nurse would be out in a few minutes to take him back. As we waited, I grew more edgy.

The prospect of Coach Brigg's return had me nervous, even in a hospital of all places. Our dads had never met but I guessed it would be inevitable. Still, I didn't welcome it at all.

Finally, the doors released and a kindly nurse emerged and called Chris by name, motioning for him to step through. He hesitated, drawing a sympathetic look from the nurse. Then his head tilted slightly toward me and I felt his left hand latch onto my wrist. He then proceeded through the doors with me in tow right beside him. I don't think he realized just how hard he was gripping me, but I ignored the building pain and kept a quiet stride with him. The nurse informed us that we would need to keep back six feet from the bed and that we could only stay a few minutes. Chris almost ran into the back of her when she stopped as he had failed to recognize the woman lying in the bed in front of us.

There lay the swollen form of his mother, unconscious with a large tube down her throat, and a frightening array of monitoring equipment hanging over her head. His hand loosened its grip around my wrist just enough for me to slide my arm up and take his hand in mine. I watched his eyes as they moved over her and I saw his lips mouthing out a silent and involuntary "I'm sorry" in her direction as tears sprang from deep within him and escaped down his face. I applied a light squeeze to his hand and he squeezed back much harder. I was helpless to do any more for him and I choked back as many of my own tears as possible; not wanting to cause a distraction during his short time with her.

It seemed like we were there an eternity, but the nurse was leading us back outside the unit just a few minutes later. As we neared the door, our hands separated and we were met on the other side by the images of our dads standing on opposite sides of the hall. Finally, they had met and I was relieved that it was over and that I had no memory of their first encounter.

I refused any attempt at eye contact with Coach Briggs. He picked up stride alongside Chris and the two of them separated from my dad and me as we walked down the hall, partially because my dad was pulling at my arm and holding me back. I gave him a questioning look and he responded by stopping altogether.

"Matt, Chris's dad made it pretty clear to me that we've got no business being here."

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Surely, my dad wasn't going to be bullied around like this. He could see the familiar look of indignation in my eyes and quickly added "Just give them a little space, son. We're not going anywhere, but let's not aggravate the situation by crowding them either." My old man wasn't a softie after all; he was just much wiser than me.

Up ahead, the crowding issue was starting to resolve itself. Chris and his dad were locked eye-to-eye in an argument that was getting loud. I clearly heard Chris say "We can't just leave her up here alone!"

His dad fired back. "There is nothing we can do for her! The doctors have already said she is sedated and she probably won't be conscious for another day or two. It makes no sense just to sit around here and wait!" Coach Briggs wasn't the sentimental supportive type. I don't know if he even still loved his wife; it was hard to make the case that he loved anyone. It was harder still to make the case that anyone even liked him.

"I'm not leaving!" Chris on the other hand was the sentimental supportive type. He had been nearly catatonic when we came in the hospital, but he was willing to rise up and fight before he'd let his mother be left here alone.

"Then your ass can just stay here! You seem to get around pretty good for a little shit that doesn't even have a car! I'm going home." With that, his dad turned and marched out. The dull retreating thud of his boots hitting the polished floor was music to my ears.

Once again, Chris was left standing alone and rattled by yet another tirade. Once his dad was safely out of sight, Chris muttered "what a fucking asshole!" As he spun around in his tracks, he saw us approaching. He winced at the realization that my dad was watching this play out.

"Come on son (his other son). Let's go down to the cafeteria and grab a sandwich if you think you can eat something. I imagine there are some recliners in this building somewhere. We'll find us a few later and get as much rest tonight as we can." Chris watched my dad speak as if he couldn't understand what he was saying. He was bewildered by it really. Or more likely, he was simply bewildered by the comparison.

We ran into Tommy and his dad back near the waiting area. My dad thanked Andy for his courtesy and told him that we were staying the night and wouldn't need a ride back home in his SUV. I saw the look on Tommy's face and I knew he was unsure if he should stay or go.

"Tommy, go on home and get some rest. There's nothing you can do. There's really nothing I can do either, but I just want to be here for Chris. Really, go home. It was great of you to have your dad bring us up here. There's no way we could have gotten here without your help. You've been so great."

Tommy deserved so much better. He had been maturing right in front of me over the past few weeks. Looking back, I couldn't believe I had underestimated him so. I really hadn't been completely truthful to old Olivia when I told her Chris was my best friend in the world. Chris took a unique place in my world that didn't fit any conventional category, but Tommy was my best friend and secretly I wanted him to stay. Until Chris pulled me in to see his mother with him, I wasn't even sure I was any value here to him at all. Tommy probably felt the same way about me.

"Ok then, if you're sure Mattie." He still wasn't sure but he reluctantly turned and walked down the hall and out of sight with his dad.

I felt a little less sure of myself when he vanished. This day had been both the one I didn't want to remember and the one I didn't ever want to forget all wrapped into one. It had definitely been too much and I was ready for it to end.

Chris asked if he could borrow change to make a phone call. It struck me as very odd because I couldn't imagine who he would be calling. I didn't have any change but my dad pulled out his calling-card and handed it to Chris. I lingered behind as he sought out a payphone. I figured if it were any of my business, he would let me know.

He was on the phone for at least fifteen minutes and my curiosity was fully peaked. I was starting to discover that I had a jealous bone or two in my body and it wasn't something I was happy to find out about myself. I had been alone for so long and now that I finally had someone, I feared that I might cling too tightly and smother him. It was hard for me, because I really did want to cling to him and know every single detail about every single thing. I didn't want to control him but I did want to be fully involved. There was a fine line in there somewhere. I had always heard older people talk about how you had to `manage relationships' but it seemed like the challenge was just in managing me.

When Chris came back to us he had obviously been crying again. He handed the calling-card back to my dad and told him he would definitely pay him back for the long-distance call. Sometimes, a jealous instinct can blind us from the things that would otherwise be so clear.

"I called my sister to let her know about mom. Melanie is going to get here as soon as she can, but the weather will probably slow her down. She lives in Virginia." His delivery was very flat and the courtesy of his explanation seemed to have exhausted him.

I recalled the photo of her I had seen on my first trip to his house. His only direct mention of her had been after my first embarrassing remarks about his father being a hard- ass. Not knowing yet that Coach Briggs was his dad, I had asked if everyone in town was named Briggs. I'll never forget his reply: "Nope, Matt. Actually since my sister moved away, there are just three of us. Just me, mom and DAD." I could have died from embarrassment then, but now it didn't seem so embarrassing.

We had never discussed Melanie again. She had been so non- existent; it had never seemed odd to me that we didn't talk about her. Now, it suddenly seemed very odd. Why did she move away? A better question was why wouldn't she move away? Who, in their right mind, would have stayed if they had a choice?

My dad gave me a good squeeze. I had wanted his earlier focus to be on Chris; because Chris needed it so much more. Still, it was good to feel his hug. I needed it too. Just as we continued toward the hospital cafeteria, I got one more thing that I needed. I saw Tommy get off the elevator and I gave him a big smile. He had made it all the way to the parking lot, but he never felt right about leaving and decided to come back. I was so relieved to see him again and I felt stronger just knowing he was there. Once again, he had come through for me.

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