We all made our way down toward the hospital cafeteria. Hospitals are so oddly intimate; the open door to a room reveals a suffering face that we would normally never see. Some were here to be healed and some had come here to die and just didn't know it yet. Out of deep recess of my subconscious, the image of Jay Henson bursting into the vet's office that night popped into my mind. For most, seeing the balance of existence delicately tilt between life and death would bring them closer together. Not for the Briggs family; even here, there was no healing grace for the injuries that separated them.
Chris was starting to look like just a shadow of his former self. All emotion had been drained from his face and his trademark charismatic energy was long gone. Earlier in the afternoon, I held him in my arms and brought him to a physical and emotional release that we had both longed for. It didn't seem possible that the same boy staggered ahead of me as we drifted down the hallways. I felt a warm stare and turned my head to see a familiar look of concern on Tommy's face. The three of us had been locked in some twisted emotional trinity for too long now. We needed a sign of hope but there was none to be found.
My dad encouraged Chris to try and eat something. "You've got to try and keep your strength up, son. We've got to stay in this for the long-haul, ok?"
Chris weakly nodded and forced down another bite of his sandwich. He looked nauseas and rose quickly, walking off toward the restrooms. I watched him walk away and started to follow him when my dad spoke up again.
"Matthew, just wait…..Give him a little bit of space. He probably needs that right now even more than he needs your support. He'll be ok….." My dad's face showed a look of remembrance that convinced me of his wisdom. Being patient is hard when it requires you to watch someone you love suffer, knowing there is just simply nothing you can do to stop it. I thought I had felt helpless before, but now I knew what it really felt like and I never wanted to feel this way again.
Chris was gone for quite a while and my patience was growing thin. Finally, he re-emerged but he walked along the outside edge of the cafeteria wall avoiding us as he made his exit. Just as he made his way out, I noticed his eyes widen and he made an awkward and sudden change in direction that took him toward the exit in the main lobby. This movement startled me into motion and I followed him. As I too exited the cafeteria, I caught the figure of Olivia coming down the hall and I could only assume that Chris couldn't bear to meet her face-to-face. I gave her a nod that I'm not sure she even saw and then I continued after Chris.
He was leaning against one of the columns supporting the elaborate canopy that shielded the main entrance from the weather overhead. The snow had stopped falling and a bright moon was trying to break free through the thinning clouds. It was so quiet, you could actually hear a few loose snow flakes skirting across the top of the ground driven by a steady cold wind. Under any other circumstances, this would have been a beautiful night. I didn't know what to say so I decided to say nothing at all. I took a position opposite from him and gave him plenty of space. It seemed so inadequate to his needs. To make it worse, I could seem him shivering and I so wanted to wrap my arms around him.
My mind raced trying to think of something useful to say. I played out the questions silently in my head; "Are you OK?" That wouldn't do, of course he wasn't OK; "I'm sorry." That just seemed so pathetically unhelpful, bordering on selfish; "Everything will be all right." I didn't even believe that one myself. Still, the silence was too unbearable and I had to say something.
"Chris, I don't know what to say or what to do…….I wish I did, but I don't….. I just know that I love you."
My words were lost, or stolen, along with the unrealized beauty of this snowy night and along with the warm energetic boy I loved so much. He had drifted off farther than I had thought. As the word 'love' escaped my lips, his head started shaking from side to side. His eyes never moved, staying locked straight ahead off in the distance.
"Don't love me." He could only say it once but his head continued to shake as if to silently repeat himself over and over.
His words may have been meant as a warning to protect me. In his mind, this might have been the equivalent of throwing himself in front of a stray bullet to save me. The immediate effect was a paralyzing one on my brain and on my heart. He may as well have told me not to breathe, for as long as there was life in my body, I would love him involuntarily and unconditionally just as I would continue to breathe; one act was no more voluntary than the other.
He turned and walked back inside but I didn't follow him this time. His words were still ricocheting off the insides of my head and they stayed there most of the next two days having not been replaced by any new ones since Chris had stopped talking altogether. There was no eye contact either, just a cold empty shell that resembled the real Chris less and less with each hour that passed by. His mother's condition improved enough for her to move into a normal hospital room; a fact I learned by checking on her at the main desk. However, Chris continued to deteriorate with no improvement in sight.
I needed him. It was a fact that was never in doubt. On the day I first realized to myself that I truly loved him, he had told me "I don't know what I'd do without you."
Why would he do this to me? Why would he do this to himself? He did need me and I could help him, but he had cut me off completely. Was he trying to drive me away? Was this his plan to 'save' me? Long ago, I had decided not to give up on him. I would wait him out no matter how long it took. Sooner or later, he would come back to me. I just knew it, or at least I had to believe it.
I hadn't slept for two days, except for an occasional tortured nap. In the best of circumstances, you can't really sleep in a hospital and these were far from the best of circumstances. Each round of impending sleep was met by a new wave of delirium as my mind and heart could not find peace with each other. I hadn't changed clothes or showered since arriving and my mom and dad had finally had enough.
The roads had cleared and my dad was coming by after work to pick me up and take me home. I had protested, but I no longer had the will or energy to win. I did get assurances from my dad that I could come back after a night's rest in my own bed. Tommy had spent the first night but his dad had picked him up the next morning. Coach Briggs had come and gone several times, still refusing to spend a night here. The last night was really hard since it was just me and Chris and he still wasn't talking. Where ever his spirit was, I didn't know how to reach it. Instead, I just kept his frame company in the hopes that the spirit might return. I had regretted my insistence that mom and dad stay at home and I wished that one of them had been here with me. Doing this alone was too hard.
Now, it was late in the afternoon of the third day and I had spent the better part of eight hours virtually alone. Doctors, nurses, cleaning people and such all made their way around me. I saw the now familiar face of Olivia a time or two and I stopped her to ask how Michael was doing.
"He's doing a little better each day, but we've got a long road ahead." Her courage wasn't quite as strong today, but was still there in abundance.
"He'll be OK. I just know he will." My words brought the same ragged smile to her face that hers had brought to mine a few days earlier.
"Why thank you Matthew. He is a strong young man. You know he's a basketball player too, like your friend. My husband James pointed out to me that he had seen your friend in the paper recently; something about a last second shot to win a game. How is he doing?" I couldn't help but notice that she had twice now avoided asking about Chris's mother. All things considered, I didn't blame her.
I didn't answer right away about Chris. Better memories had flooded my head and I could see the look on his face as he pulled me up out of the stands after I had made my wild pass that setup his heroics. Olivia probably didn't know about that part of the story, just as she couldn't know other parts as well.
"Matthew?" She was giving me a very curious look of concern.
"I'm sorry. I'm just so tired." I had to look away from her. Even though she was really still a stranger to me, I found it very hard to lie to her. "He's doing the best he can. He'll be OK."
"Well, you take care of yourself too." With those words, she broke company with me and I wandered down to the front lobby to wait for my dad.
As I waited there in the main lobby, a young woman caught my eye. She looked familiar, but I knew I had never seen her in person. We briefly made eye contact and it was the eyes that gave her away for sure. Chris's sister had finally arrived, though she had no idea who I was. Maybe she could provide him the strength that he refused to accept from me. It seemed to be the most I could hope for right now.
I saw my dad come in and I caught him before he made it to the elevator. He looked surprised to see me in the lobby.
"Let's go dad. Melanie just got here and they probably need some time alone."
"All right, Matt. Let's get you home. I know your mom is anxious to see you." Dad could see right through this by now. I knew Chris was going through hell and I knew I had done everything I could to help him. Without Chris's acknowledgement or support, it was just too hard to be there. To be totally honest, I wanted to be home again and, even more than that, I wanted to see my mom. I wasn't giving up, but I had to have a break.
As we made the drive home, dad turned his full attention to me. I could see the concern in his face, but this time it wasn't for Chris. "He's probably very confused right now, Matt. He's had to deal with the possibility of losing his mother, even though she should recover. Everything has been turned upside down on him. I'm sure he feels like he let her down somehow; like he should have saved her from this. He's just carrying too much weight on his shoulders."
I had to remind myself of my own realizations during the ride up to the hospital three days earlier. I couldn't even imagine seeing my mom lying there like that. Chris had the added trauma of somehow feeling responsible for it. Strangely, reminding myself of this made me feel better and worse at the same time. It reminded me that this wasn't about anything I had done wrong, which made me feel better in some selfish way. It also reminded me what this really was about, which quickly made me feel worse because I still had no idea how to help Chris.
"I don't know what to do to help him, dad. I don't think he even wants me around. He's pushing me away."
"He probably just doesn't know how to accept your help right now. Even though he might not show it, I'm sure he appreciates that you're there for him. Whatever else is going through his mind, most of all, he's very scared. Just don't expect too much from him."
"Thanks, dad." He didn't realize just how deep my thanks went. There are pivotal times when our fragile emotions can be manipulated so easily and used against us. In his pure expression of understanding and sympathy for Chris, my dad had helped right me emotionally. He could have just as easily used the opportunity to infect the moment with bitterness toward Chris. His honesty was as true an expression of love for me as he could ever make and I was thankful for it, not that I ever expected anything less from him.
Our house looked very different with so much snow around it and the lawn was still completely covered. For a brief moment, I wished that the snow would permanently stunt the grass so I would never have to mow it again, but the amusement of that thought quickly left me.
I was surprised and more than a little disappointed that mom didn't greet me at the door. She had been upstairs and hadn't made it down in time but she made a bee-line straight for me and I only got two steps inside before she wrapped me up.
"I probably smell terrible." I barely finished the sentence before my eyes started to well up with tears. Mom squeezed me a little harder and I heard her sigh. There was only one other pair of arms I would rather have been in, but the longer she held me, the less I was sure about even that.
"And I look like a rat." I did. It was true and I didn't like it one bit. I could feel a layer of grungy crust on me that I couldn't get washed off fast enough.
The warm water of the shower almost put me to sleep standing up, but the dull thud in the back of my head helped keep me awake. It may have been partially from a lack of rest, but the pain seemed to be rooted deeper than that. Through all of the problems and dramatics, I had spent the last few weeks always lifted by reassuring thoughts of Chris. There had been plenty of challenges but I felt like we were in them together. For the first time in a long time, I felt separated now; separated not just from Chris, but from a part of myself.
The snow had sent us home early from school on Tuesday and cancelled Wednesday and Thursday outright. Classes were back on normal schedule tomorrow but I wasn't going. I wasn't ready to go back. If I could just survive next week, then we had two weeks off for Christmas break. Maybe everyone would lose interest in us by the time break was over, but I doubted it. Then there was basketball; how would the team react now that the rumors had made their way all throughout the school. Right now, I didn't even know if Chris would play again. I didn't want to let Coach Hill down, but I had no interest in playing if Chris wasn't there. Suddenly, so many things were uncertain. The dull thud in the back of my head was getting stronger and all thoughts led back to Chris.
I decided that I should call Tommy and let him know I wouldn't be at school. I didn't want him to worry and I also wanted an excuse to talk to him. Betty Johnson answered the phone and we exchanged greetings before she handed me off to Tommy.
"Hey, Matt. How's everybody doing?" I felt better already just hearing his voice, but I missed being called Mattie. Maybe the serious circumstances called for something more formal or maybe Tommy was growing out of his Mattie phase. I hoped I hadn't heard it for the last time.
"Hey, Tommy. Chris's mom is doing better. They moved her out of critical care and into a room. His sister finally got here this afternoon."
"How's Chris doing? He seemed to be taking things really hard."
"He is taking it very hard. It seems like everybody is getting better but him. He's just crawled up inside of himself somewhere….he hasn't said a word to me in two days….."
Tommy was silent for a moment. I didn't want to make him have to listen to me go on and on about this. It was bad enough that I had to deal with it, but it wasn't fair to ask him to as well.
"Listen Tommy, I'm not going to be at school tomorrow. I'm so exhausted and I'm just not ready yet, you know? I feel bad about you going alone. I feel like Chris and I have let you down and I want you to be careful. If anybody gives you any trouble….well, they'll have to deal with all of us." I didn't need any more uncertainty, but I had just found it in my fear for Tommy. I didn't really think anybody would hurt him, but he had put himself in harm's way for us and now we weren't going to be there for him.
I continued. "I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate you. I haven't said it nearly enough, but I've always felt it. You're my best friend and I'd be lost without you. I hope you know that." He couldn't see the tears running down my cheeks, but my mom could. I looked up to see her standing patiently in the hall outside my room. She had come up to tell me that dinner was ready. I didn't motion her away or close the door and I didn't try and hide what I was feeling. This was all part of me and I wanted her to understand.
Tommy was still quiet for another moment before he replied. "I do know, Matt. Thanks for saying it. You know I'd do anything for you, right?"
"Yeah, I know. I think you've already proven that. I want us to spend some time together soon, just me and you. Maybe after everything calms down a little bit, OK?"
"OK, and don't worry about me. I might not be very big, but I'm wiry."
I burst out the sort of raw and uncontrollable deep laugh that can only be produced under circumstances of extreme exhaustion and anxiety. I laughed so hard that my earlier tears of sadness were overrun by new tears of relief. My body was definitely happy to have the moment of diversion from all of the pain and stress it was suffering.
"You are wiry, but your dad was right, you should weigh 300 pounds! You eat more than Sky and Stryker combined!" The family horses had nothing on Tommy in the appetite department. The change in subjects had brought comfort, but not for long.
"I'm going back up to the hospital tomorrow. I'll call you tomorrow night. Be careful Tommy, really." Our short conversation was over and so was my short respite from stress.
Mom was still standing there with a supportive smile. "After dinner, you're going right to bed and get some rest." She threw an arm around me and we walked downstairs together.
Our dinner was quiet and what little energy I had left was fading fast. I knew mom and dad had questions but they could see I was beyond the ability to answer them. I labored my way back up the stairs and collapsed face down on my bed. I wasn't alone the last time I stretched out there, and my eyes closed with the thoughts of more pleasant memories.
Later, dark formless images worked into my mind and interrupted my sleep on several occasions before finally relenting and allowing my body some measure of recovery. When my eyes opened again, it was very bright out and I instantly fretted with the assumption that I had no way of getting back to the hospital to check on Chris. I had meant to get up and ride into town with my dad on his way to work but I was definitely too late for that. I was relieved to hear movement downstairs that could only mean my mom had stayed home today. I rumbled downstairs and found her in the kitchen.
"You look a little more like yourself today. I was pretty worried about you last night."
She had reason to be worried about me but today was a new day and maybe this would be the day that Chris's emotional fever would break. My concern for him never rested and it didn't take my groggy head very long to realize just how much I missed him.
"So you played hooky today too?" I gave her a tired grin as I asked it.
"Well, my boys aren't feeling very well. Somebody's got to take care of them." I knew she felt bad about not being there the first night. I knew I felt bad about her not being there the second night, though it was my fault for talking her into staying home. It might have been the wrong instinct to keep her away, but I wasn't sure it was best for Chris to see mom right now. She cared greatly about him and he responded well to her, but it just might be too awkward and I didn't want to prod him emotionally anymore than he already had been. I think Chris really did wish that his mom was more like mine; I knew he had to wish his dad was more like mine. Regardless, he didn't need any more guilt related to his own mom.
"Mom, maybe you could just drop me off at the hospital. I can ride home with dad again this afternoon. Chris is feeling so much guilt about his mom…." My face tried to express what my words were failing to explain.
"I understand." She gave me the obligatory smile of someone who had to accept second place. "Tell him I'm thinking about him."
"I will." This felt really awkward, but I still thought it was best.
We arrived at the hospital around eleven in the morning. I gave my mom an extra-long smile as she pulled away and I felt regret the moment she was out of sight. After making a quick sweep of the cafeteria to make sure Chris wasn't there, I took the normal path to the elevators and across to the small waiting area on the seventh floor where Peggy had been relocated the day before. The waiting room was equipped with one recliner, two small chairs and a tiny TV, but it held a strategic position between Peggy's room and the main elevator. I waited patiently hoping to eventually spot Chris coming or going.
Around noon, Chris and Melanie walked right past the waiting room on their way to the elevators. Indecision overtook me and I decided not to approach the two of them. I was starting to feel very out of place and it was making me uncomfortable. Maybe I had no right to feel this way, but I couldn't help or change the way I felt. Everywhere, there seemed to be obstacles that stood between us. Just a couple minutes later, Melanie came back down the hall alone. Again, we made eye contact and she even flashed me a reserved smile. I would have sworn that she thought she knew me.
I didn't waste any time getting downstairs, pausing only briefly in the hallway to nod to one of the cleaning ladies who always grinned at me. I was definitely getting way too familiar with this hospital. A quick sprint to the cafeteria found Chris with his back to me in the far corner. He wasn't eating and his body language spoke "approach with caution." He was sitting down and slumped forward, with his elbows on his knees and face propped on his hands. I felt myself hesitate, which only furthered my discomfort. I knew he wasn't mad at me but there was something uneasy between us. I needed for that feeling to pass.
Quietly, I took a seat across the table from him. His eyes met mine for the first time in more than two days and I saw his face brighten. Then, almost as if he caught himself, his face resumed its dark tones and posture. He wasn't responding to me naturally and I feared what it all meant.
"Hey." I started small, mainly because I was too uneasy to try and say anything significant.
"Hey." His response was the minimum and was delivered without the reassurance of eye contact.
One word had been volleyed between us and I already needed a break to regroup. Where was he? Combined with the earlier response of "Don't love me," I knew he was much further away than the width of the narrow table separating us. I decided to try being quiet for a few minutes in hopes that he would start the next exchange. He didn't and the uneasy feelings had moved into the territory of outright tension. My puzzlement was bordering on resentment but I was trying to follow my dad's words about not expecting too much from him right now. Again, the silence was too unbearable for me.
"How's your mom doing?" I did care and it seemed rude not to ask.
"Her swelling is down and she is conscious. They think she'll be OK to go home in another week." He didn't sound excited about it.
"That's great news." It should have been.
"No, it isn't. She wasn't legally drunk when the accident happened."
"I don't understand." I still didn't understand why it wasn't good news that she was going home and I also didn't understand what 'legally drunk' meant.
"She had alcohol in her system, but it wasn't enough to charge her with drinking and driving. With the icy roads, this will just be written up as a weather-related accident."
It snapped together in my head. Chris didn't want her to come home; he wanted her to get help. Without the edict of a DUI, she could continue to deny the true seriousness of her problems. I felt the sinister influence of his father involved here as well, pushing to get her home as soon as possible. The Briggs house held too many secrets; one of its captives being gone for too long must have been terribly distressing for Coach Briggs.
He still hadn't looked at me again. There was more lurking underneath the surface than he was letting on. His face, body, voice-tone and everything else about him screamed of defeat. He had given up. I just didn't realize yet how complete his surrender was.
I saw movement in his face. His eyes had narrowed and he looked to be in real physical pain.
"You've got to let me go, Matt." I wasn't prepared to understand the true meaning of what he said.
"Yeah, you probably want to get back to Melanie and your mom. I'm just going to hang around and if you need me for anything, I'll be here." My words brought a wince to his face and a quiver to his lips.
"No…." He was struggling to continue. "You've got to let me go……before you get hurt….."
"What?" My ears were rejecting him and protecting me. I refused to understand him.
"I'm dragging you into a hole…a hole you'll never get back out of. You've got to leave now before it's too late. You deserve so much better." His face was distraught and he still wouldn't look at me.
"You don't know what you're saying! You're under so much stress right now and I know you haven't been sleeping….There's too much courage in you Chris. You're the bravest person I know! Don't give up!" I was speaking in a panic, desperate to find the right combination of words.
"You think I'm brave?" His eyes cut across mine just briefly. "You want to know why all of my bruises are on my back?....It's because I'm all curled up in some corner! I'm too much of a coward to face him, so I lay there and take it and just wait for it to end…."
I was speechless. The imagery of it made me so angry at his father that I couldn't find my voice.
"I'm weak like my mom and who knows how much of my dad is inside me, just waiting to lash out again. Matt, if I ever hurt you………." His eyes were filled with fear.
"You're not your parents, Chris! You'd never hurt me! I just don't believe it." I didn't believe he could hurt me but I couldn't seem to convince him. The mystery of his own past was rising up and filling him with self-doubt.
"Jay didn't believe I could hurt him either. The doctors said I snapped….." He was shaking his head violently. "Nothing makes any sense to me. I really do think I'm crazy. Just go home Matt. Please just go home!"
He was in so much pain. I had an overwhelming need to just take him in my arms; I had to reach him and give him strength. I spoke to him in a softer voice, trying to find a tone that would calm him.
"Chris, please. I do love you. Don't tell me not to, because I won't listen. Things will get better. Don't give up. I'm not going away, you won't drive me away. I need you, Chris."
"No. I can't! I just can't! I can't let you, Matt…." His voice started in a mumble but was quickly rising in intensity. I moved around the table and reached out to him.
"NO!" He swung out knocking my arm away and throwing me off balance enough that I fell against the wall. It wasn't much of a jolt physically to me, but emotionally it couldn't have done more damage to him. The fear and confusion in his eyes turned to horror and disbelief. His hands raised and he banged his clenched fists against his forehead. Memories he couldn't recall about the incident with Jay were now being substituted with the very fresh and real memories of me being knocked away.
In my mind, he was wounded and cornered and I had reached out to him too soon. He didn't lunge at me in aggression, but rather in confusion and fear. In his mind, this only confirmed his reasons for pushing me away and renewed his fears that he could hurt me. My words and actions had failed him miserably and completely.
"I'm OK." I tried to feign a smile as I straightened myself up but even that came out wrong.
He spun around and faced the opposite direction, no longer able to look at what he had done. The ruckus had already attracted plenty of attention in the cafeteria and I feared the appearance of security any second.
"I'm sorry, Matt. Please go home." His voice was muted with anguish and he slowly walked away not looking back. He was devastated and I could find nothing to pull him back. I seemed completely out of sync with him and my own feelings of devastation were taking me over.
I called out to him but he kept walking. The hand he had knocked away was my best attempt to grab him and save him from his own fall; watching him stride away from me felt like watching him tumble downward, disappearing into some murky abyss. My body went numb and I feared that I would never get him back again. At that moment, I hated his mother and father for their twisted conspiracy of dysfunction that had robbed Chris of the will to fight and the hope required for love. I hated fate for having been so cruel as to place him with such a vile excuse for a family, and I hated fate for bringing him and Jay Henson together. My mind reminded my tormented heart that fate had also brought Chris and me together. The warrior within me had been beaten today. Could he rise up to fight again another day?
Sure enough, security showed up and an old guard was pointed back to where I now sat collapsed in my chair. I assured him that there was nothing to be concerned about and that we had been "goofing around" when I lost my balance and stumbled as I was prone to do. He let me know that "horse-play" and disturbances in general were not allowed and I doubly assured him that it would not happen again. After he finally left, I sat idly for a considerable amount of time. I had nowhere else to go and I wasn't sure I could make my shaky legs carry me to the cafeteria exit.
Eventually, I drifted out to the main lobby and took the same seat I had occupied the afternoon before. It was almost three o'clock and I decided to wait for my dad rather than call my mom. If I called her, I'd have to explain the whole story. I'd probably have to explain it sooner or later anyway but, right now, later suited me better than sooner. The full shock of my exchange with Chris was starting to settle in and I realized just how clueless I was about what to do next. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wasn't going to give up on him.
As I sat there, I thought back to the first time I had seen the pain in his face, the first day he ever opened up to me. That same look of pain had been there many times since and it always seemed to trace back to that one mysterious day that changed his life. Tommy had helped fill in some details but he didn't know the full story. Chris had filled in more details but he couldn't remember the full story, only the bits and pieces that had come back to him. I used Chris's own pieces of memory to build the puzzle in my head. I could see the shack where Chris and Jay had met up for whatever it was they were doing. These thoughts made me very uncomfortable, but I had to figure this out. Why would Chris attack Jay? Chris had already admitted that they were doing stuff together but it sounded mutual. I couldn't see Chris having a reaction and attacking Jay for being gay. I didn't even know if Jay was gay. A couple of thirteen year-old boys who were maybe jerking each other off wasn't necessarily a 'gay' thing in my book. What would have made Chris snap? If he did this thing, there had to be a reason but no matter which way I looked at it, I could find no reason. Chris had described opening his eyes and seeing Jay lying unconscious on the ground. How did Chris get unconscious? Tommy said someone tipped Chris's dad off about the fight, but Chris said there was never any plan to fight; that much, he could remember. If there was no fight planned, then there couldn't have been anyone to tip it off. Then how did Coach Briggs……
The guilty image of Coach Briggs in my head had taken real-life form and was now crossing the floor of the lobby. He caught me in the corner of his eye and cut me a nasty menacing stare which he held until finally disappearing into the elevator.
Who had the ability? Who had the motive? Who could have covered it up? Chris also had a recollection of his dad talking with a sheriff's deputy. But why would Jay have been silent? What could he remember? His physical injuries had been much worse than Chris's and it was very possible he had no recollection of the events at all. I had to find out what he knew. What if my suspicions turned out to be true? Chris couldn't possibly be allowed to live in the same house with a man who would commit such a violent crime. Would his mom have known? His dad would have been the only person who would have told her and I couldn't think of any reason why he'd want her to know. This would have been a secret that couldn't be trusted in too many hands. Somehow, I had to get Jay Henson to talk about this. The path to saving the boy I loved ran straight through the boy who disturbed me most and ended at the feet of the man I most feared.
I replayed the events over and over in my mind, trying to recall any lost details that might provide further clues. I closed my eyes to block out the distractions around me and I envisioned the way I thought the day in question might have really gone down. An unfamiliar voice broke my concentration.
"Matthew?" Melanie was standing in front of me and I found myself so startled by her presence that I failed to answer her. "You are Matthew, aren't you?"
"Yes." Her beautiful eyes were such a contrast to the darker visions that had filled my head just moments before.
"I'm Chris's sister….."
"You're Melanie. I know." I didn't mean to interrupt; the words just blurted themselves out. I smiled as best as I could in an effort to be polite but my face was tired and uncooperative, having been worn out by the emotions of the week.
"Chris has mentioned you in his letters to me." Her warm smile reflected appreciation for whatever he had chosen to say about me. I thought to myself "letters?" I guess it was cheaper than calling or maybe there were other reasons.
"I'm glad he has found such a good friend he can depend on." Her eyes trailed down to the floor. She looked guilty, but I had no idea of what. Why was she reaching out to me?
"I'm glad you're here. Maybe you can help him. I've just never seen him like this….How long are you here for?" My question deepened the guilt on her face.
"I'm leaving now. I was on my way out when I spotted you, again." She didn't lift her eyes from the floor. How could she leave now? She had only been here two days. Her mom still had a long ways to go and what about Chris?
"You're leaving?" This wasn't welcome news at all and I was willing to plead with her if it would make any difference. "But….."
"I can't stay. There's just no way I can make it work. I gave up on my parents a long time ago. I haven't been back in so long. I hoped they had mellowed enough to change, but they're still the same." She didn't admit it but she had abandoned Chris in the process of giving up on her parents.
"How did they get so screwed up?" She might be leaving again, but I could tell there was more she wanted to say. There was definitely more that I wanted to hear. Melanie paused, but not from any hesitation to answer the question; she was reflecting and trying to articulate a summary from a lifetime of history with her parents.
"They were just always the wrong people for each other. My mother, on her best days, was just magical. Then, just as quickly, she would fade. With the right combination of alcohol and mood swings, she could give my father a good match. I swear they just fed off of each other's turmoil. They're both so stubborn. My mom grew up with abuse, so it was normal to her. In some screwed-up way, I think it was even comforting to her; it was what she was most familiar with." Melanie fidgeted nervously with her hands, wringing them together. "Dad is harder to explain. I've never understood him and I don't think I ever will. Before he got so bitter about life, he was actually quite the charmer. Mom is seven years younger than him and she was beautiful when they married." She didn't smile at this recollection and I think I understood why.
"What made him so bitter?"
"Someone always had it better than my dad. He was always ranting about this and that, just consumed with envy. If he had invested that wasted energy into something productive, maybe he could have had more. I don't think my dad is any different than many men. He led a very ordinary life and never accomplished anything of distinction. Some men pour themselves into their families and try to create a better future, but he was always so consumed with resentment."
Coach Briggs own words came back to mind "What a waste".
She had much more to say. "He's a smart man, much smarter than he looks; graduated college believe it or not, went there on a baseball scholarship. My dad's family was dirt poor and he could never have afforded school if it hadn't been for baseball. He got drafted into the Army and he always resented it for stealing his chance at a baseball career. He had a very tough job in the Army. Just like my mother, I think it brought out the worst in him. When he got kicked out of the Army, he knew he had to make a living, meager as it might be. He used his education and baseball experience to get a job here. I guess he was tolerable enough then, to the people that didn't know him very well." She knew him much better and I figured she never found him very tolerable at all.
The floodgates had been opened and it was obvious that Melanie had been waiting to talk about this for a long time. "Most children fear that their parents will split up." She shook her head. "Not me. I used to pray that one of them would leave, either one, it really didn't matter. It would take a team of psychologists to explain why they stayed together. The only love in that house was a love for spite and revenge."
This was explaining a lot but not brining me any comfort or hope.
"Melanie, are you married?" I was building my way up to a bigger question.
"Well, I was once." More head-shaking. "Let's just say I've got a genetic defect when it comes to picking a spouse."
Now for my real question; one that I feared either answer to. "Would it be possible for Chris to come and live with you?" I didn't know how I would exist without him, but I'd face it if it would save him. If I had to give him up to set him free, then I would. I didn't even sense the tears as they left my eyes, but I could feel the stray drops hitting my arms.
"Chris wouldn't leave. He's not as jaded as I am; at least, not yet. He hasn't given up on mom and I imagine there might be other reasons he wouldn't go." She raised her eyes and looked deeply into mine as she said the last part. "You really do care about him, don't you?"
"Yeah…." It was my turn to look at the floor and I tried to keep the contortions on my face to a minimum. I couldn't protect him here nor could I find him safe passage away. It all was just leading to a deeper understanding of how hopeless this truly was.
"Matthew, there's something about Chris you probably don't know. I want you to know because it's something I'm going to tell him after mom gets back home and things settle down for a while. I'm not sure how he's going to take it and I'm going to trust you in hopes that you might be able to help him when the time comes. He has a right to know."
She had my full attention. I saw her take a deep breath and her mind was searching for the right place to begin.
"My mother could be a very spiteful woman. Like I said, my dad was quite the charmer in his day." Still more head-shaking; Melanie had all of the pieces to her past put together and she didn't like what the puzzle revealed. "Mom wasn't stupid either, she knew something was up and she must have even known with whom. I was only eleven and we had gone to town to do our weekly shopping. I'll never forget the look on her face though; it's one of those scenes that burn an image right into your brain. We turned a corner in the store and there was this younger woman….Their eyes met and the younger woman moved her hands down to her belly, like there was some way to actually hide the truth that was on display there. I could tell she was pregnant, but it took me a few years more to figure out the whole story. My mom never said a word about it. She just stormed out of the store, practically dragging me along the ground by the arm."
"It was Jay's mom." As I said it, her eyes lit up with fear and shock.
"Chris knows?" She assumed it was the only way I could have known.
"No. Well, I don't think so. We've never talked about it." My mind drifted away. He couldn't possibly know, or at least he wouldn't have known at the time when Jay and him….I returned my full focus to her. "I didn't know either, not for sure. I had my suspicions based on a thing or two I've heard. No one has ever told me about it outright. I don't think anybody at school knows."
Tommy didn't know. If anyone else did, they knew better than to spread it considering that Coach Briggs would likely catch wind of it. No one seemed to like him, but no one wanted to cross him either.
"Nobody ever said anything around me. I wish I had never put it together because I've never forgiven her." She was starting to lose me.
"Forgiven who?" Why would it matter if she forgave Jay's mom or not.
"Not long afterward, my mom was pregnant too. I didn't realize it at the time, but I just know she did it to spite dad; or maybe she did it to try and guilt him into staying around. I doubt that he would have left her anyway; they took too much pleasure in each other's misery. The reason I can't forgive my mom is because she brought another child into that house. It was the cruelest thing anyone could possibly do to a child. I'll never forgive her for doing that to Chris…..He was only six when I left home. As soon as I was out of high school, I moved in with a friend and worked my way through college. I always wanted to be a doctor but community colleges don't have medical schools, so I became a nurse instead." She took a moment to catch her breath and gather her thoughts. She was starting to ramble a bit, but I'm sure it was good for her to let it out. It wasn't her intention, but she had managed to convince me that there was absolutely no hope for Chris in that house.
She was ready to wrap things up. "I wanted you to know this so that someone here can understand what really happened. I hope it will help Chris understand better what happened between him and Jay." Unknowingly, I gave her a confused look when she said this and she reacted to clarify it for me.
"I assume you know about what happened between Chris and Jay, right?" I nodded in answer to her. I wondered how much she really knew.
I replied "I know how the story goes". She had shared so much with me but I wasn't about to reveal any of my theories with her or anyone else until I talked with Jay.
"Maybe it will help Chris to understand things better. It doesn't surprise me that there would be conflict between them; they've been in conflict since the day each was conceived…… .They didn't even call me to let me know he was in trouble. I had to read about it in a letter from Chris after he got home."
"Matthew, I want to give you my phone number. If anything ever happens….If you think I can help, please call me." She patted me gently on the arm and walked away to resume the life she had made for herself. The Briggs family had plenty of guilt to spread around and Melanie carried her fair share.
I couldn't blame her for accepting the story she was told. Not everyone had the same motivation as I did to look at it differently, or maybe I was just delusional. Not knowing for certain was the hardest part. Melanie was right; Chris and Jay had been in conflict since the beginning. I could even accept it if all of the bad history had led to some confused violence. I could accept it but I just didn't believe it. A part of me did blame her for leaving him. In saving herself, she had left him behind. Chris wanted me to do the same; to save myself and leave him behind. Instead, I renewed the vow I had made to myself after we had left the old shack that day: I would win back the life of the boy I loved or I would die trying. The warrior prepared for the final conflict.