So this is what a hangover feels like? I awoke to the sounds of nature. Nature is very enthusiastic in the early morning. By all indications, Mother Nature was definitely a morning person. Tommy was already up and had walked down the creek several yards. He was sitting on one of the big rocks a few feet inside the creek, the same formation of rocks that slowed the water in front of our campsite and made this such a good fishing hole. He was sitting there peacefully, looking out into the water flowing just below his feet. I don't think I had ever noticed Tommy sitting still and looking peaceful. He always seemed to be hyper and was always talking. Nature seemed to suit him very well. He looked as natural a part of this setting as the trees, hills and water that surrounded him. Seeing him like this made me wonder again what had been on his mind last night when I had been so caught up in trying to deflect his questions. Maybe he wasn't trying to ask me anything at all. Maybe he was trying to tell me something. I tried to replay the transcript in my mind, but the after-effects of the alcohol seemed to be blocking out key parts. To this point, we seemed to get along so well even though our experiences and interests were so different. Maybe that's why we got along so well, both being different and interesting to each other. Tommy was very interested in the outdoors, hunting, and fishing. He had shown little interest in sports. I was very interested in sports, but had no prior experience with the outdoors, at least not in the customary ways of a southerner. I always thought I was smart enough to get by, but Tommy really was a genuine brainiac. Maybe we had something in common that I had overlooked. I stood and watched him for several minutes before making my way down to meet him.
"Hey bud, how long have you been up?" I asked him quietly and warmly, feeling a little bad to disturb his peace.
"I've been up for an hour or so, I guess." He didn't turn to make eye contact with me, staying focused ahead on some rock out in the water. It was very unusual for him not to make eye contact and he sounded a little down.
"Tommy. I want you to know how much I appreciate you bringing me down here. This is such a beautiful spot and so peaceful. I've never really experienced anything like this. I've had a blast and I hope you'll ask me to go camping with you again soon." Tommy always needed encouragement and I meant every word I said. I had spent too much of my life alone and I wasn't going to let my new friend go unappreciated. Tommy turned his head and smiled at me, not a wide, over-excited smile, but rather a very restrained and very deep smile. It was a look that suited him well. I don't think Tommy had ever seemed more handsome to me. "I mean that, Tommy. You mean a lot to me." He blinked quickly a couple of times as I spoke the words. The smile on his face didn't get wider, but I feel like it did get even deeper.
"I'm glad you moved here Mattie." He didn't seem to know what else to say, but the words he chose were enough.
"So you gonna teach me to drive that 4-wheeler?" I resurrected the same mischievous look I had given him the day before.
"Sure, Mattie. I guess we need to start getting things together, so there'll be plenty of time to show you around. There is a low spot in the creek just downstream. I'll drive us across there and then we'll explore the other side for a while. If you go straight back across that hill (pointing to the far side of the creek), you start to get into the big stand of woods in behind Chris's house. It's probably three miles from here." That surprised me. I would have sworn we were nowhere close to Chris's house. It was another strange thing about the rural south. If you could only go in a straight line, everything would be much closer together. Unfortunately, there weren't very many straight roads around here.
"Sounds good to me, Tommy." With my approval confirmed, he stood and we made our way back upstream to the campsite. When he covered up the dead fire with his little pile of excavated dirt, I giggled at him making another reference to Smokey the Redneck Bear. He was very efficient and we quickly had everything packed and made our way back through the thick patch of trees to the 4-wheeler. When we reached the opening, he pointed to the middle of a field and I saw three small deer gallop off toward the trees on the far side. I smiled at him and shook my head, again amazed at the nature that surrounded me.
The noise of the 4-wheeler engine and the bounce of the ride weren't nearly as `exciting' as the day before. The mild hangover we were both experiencing took care of that. Tommy dashed down the side of the creek cutting in right where the low spot in the current was. A natural barrier of embedded rocks just upstream slowed the flow of the water, creating a shallow channel that couldn't have been more than one foot deep. Tommy took it very slow across the creek, careful not to get us too wet as he followed a path that I couldn't even see. Once on the other side, we shot up the hill rather quickly. I whooped and hollered a bit out of nervous excitement, the ride feeling like a roller-coaster at times. Finally we hit another clearing and after some careful instructions from Tommy, I took the wheel.
"Wow, Tommy this is fun!" This was the first time I'd ever driven anything with a motor. We didn't even have a riding lawn mower to cut the grass. I'd have to mention that to Coach Briggs the next time he commented that my dad must be doing "pretty well for himself". We were going very slowly, but Tommy still found it necessary to firmly grip me at the waist, almost tickling me a time or two. I decided not to gun the engine the way he had the day before, for fear of sending him tumbling off the rear of the 4-wheeler. I drove around the edges of the trees for ten minutes or so, occasionally diving into an open trail leading into the woods. After a while, I let the 4-wheeler come to a rest and asked Tommy to take over again. I wanted him to finish his tour and we weren't making very good progress with me driving. We flipped positions and I grabbed him by the waist, intentionally goosing him and bringing him to a giggle.
We rode for another few minutes before Tommy slowed and turned his head back to me telling me Chris's house was that way, pointing again out through the trees. Just ahead, I saw what looked to be an old run down cabin or shack and pointed it out to Tommy. He made a path toward it and we stopped for a short rest and exploration.
"That old shack has been back here forever. I think some old couple used to live out here many, many years ago. No one has lived in it since I've been riding these woods."
I could see why. The tin roof was dark brown with rust and the windows were all busted out, only traces of glass remained around the edges of the frames. The structure looked to be barely standing, only surviving by what little spine was left in the old timber. The shack couldn't have been more than half the size of a garage. It was hard to believe anybody had ever called it a home. I looked in through the window. It wasn't trashed as bad on the inside as I would have imagined, and had an appearance that suggested that someone still occasionally called it home.
"Tommy, are there any homeless people around here?" Where I was from, this would be a real find for a homeless person, a virtual mansion.
"No, we don't really have any homeless people that I know of. Guess there could be some old hillbilly redneck using it as a vacation home." He smiled at his little joke. I smiled back and shook my head.
We again boarded the 4-wheeler, retracing our path back across the creek and then back toward Tommy's house, arriving with fifteen minutes to spare. My dad was supposed to pick me up at noon. To my surprise, he was already waiting, standing in the Johnson's front yard talking with Tommy's dad and admiring their big John Deere riding lawn mower. I found myself hoping that Tommy's dad got a commission for referrals from the John Deere dealer. Maybe he would convince my dad to buy us (me) a mower like that. He and Mr. Johnson seemed to be getting along quite well. I was glad because my dad didn't have any friends here outside of work. Neither did my mom for that matter. Sometimes I forgot that all of our lives had been uprooted by this move.
"Hey there boys!" My dad was always upbeat, always projecting a positive image. I guess marketing people were trained to be that way.
Tommy launched up and off the 4-wheeler immediately stretching his hands as far apart as possible and proclaiming "Mattie caught the biggest old monster catfish that's ever lived in Deadman's Creek." The look this drew from my dad's face was priceless, a look of stunned disbelief and curiosity that eventually turned into an amused smile and chuckle. Tommy just stood there patting me on the back, proud of me and of him for delivering on his promise that he "always" caught fish.
As we all laughed, I introduced Tommy to my dad and Tommy did the same for me with his dad. Andrew Johnson, or `Andy' as he insisted, seemed to be a very laid back man with a bright red face and a warm smile. Andy and my dad concluded their small talk with a firm handshake and a smile. I turned to Tommy and felt a strong urge to hug him, but instead we slapped hands together and I playfully dropped my right shoulder into him, smiling appreciatively and telling him again what a "blast" I'd had. If our dads hadn't been there, I might have even given him a kiss on the cheek.
"Tommy seems like a nice boy." My dad wasted no time giving his approval as the car made its way out the long driveway. "His dad is a math professor. I wouldn't have guessed that." My dad was always quickly guessing about people, trying to sum them up. I figured that was another side effect from his marketing training. I knew Tommy's dad was a professor, but I was encouraged to hear it was for math. I only hoped that teaching was in Tommy's genes because Chris would need the help if we were going to realize our hopes of playing basketball together this season at school. I thought back to Chris's dad's tirade that night, wondering if he was more embarrassed for himself than he was irritated at Chris. I guess a teacher's son wasn't supposed to fail at algebra, or maybe anything else.
"So you hooked a big one, huh?" Other thoughts came to mind before I finally realized my dad was talking about fishing.
"Yeah, it really was a huge fish. It had to be at least three feet long and it took me almost an hour to reel him in." It was really only twenty minutes but creative license was always assumed when telling a good fish story. My dad caught me wincing slightly and asked if I was feeling faint again. I briefly considered confessing our adventure into alcohol, but decided to keep that information back instead. "I've just got a little headache this morning. It's hard to get a good night of sleep out in the woods, you know." I said this assuming my dad had never been camping and had probably never spent a night in the woods. Every day, we learn new things about the people in our lives if we only bother to listen.
"You know, son. I loved camping when I was your age. After my brother got his car, we'd take weekend trips down to Big Sur for hiking and camping. Those giant old trees have stood in that forest forever it seems. I think it's one of the most beautiful places on earth." My dad always wore a sad smile when remembering old times like this with his older brother. Uncle Heath died young, never making it to his thirties. It was some type of hemorrhage I think, my dad never talked about it in any detail. I tried to picture my dad at fourteen, running around the rugged stretch of California coastline below Monterey and Carmel. I wished my uncle were still alive. I never knew him, but I wish he were still here for my dad. Dad lost his parents before I was born, my grandmother to diabetes and my grandfather mostly to alcohol. I was glad he had a brother when he was young. I envied him that. I tried to picture myself and Tommy making our way over that same rugged coastline.
"Matt, do you know what Big Sur means?" I was clueless. "It's Spanish for `the big south'." He was now looking at me as if about to make some wise observation, which in some ways he did. "It's kind of funny, me and your uncle hiking around `the big south'. Now you're doing the same with your friend Tommy here in `the old south'." I nodded agreeing with my dad. I wasn't sure I fully understood what he was saying, but it was enough for me that it meant something deeper to him.
"Dad, what do you know about the Presidio?" My dad never served in the military but he was very knowledgeable about all things San Francisco.
"Well, Matt. You know, it was once a huge Army base. There was a time in World War II when Americans living on the west coast were genuinely afraid of an invasion. The military built up large bases up and down the western shoreline." It was more information than I needed, but educational all the same.
"What's a stockade?" I decided to be more specific this time. My dad looked at me like parents of teenagers sometimes do, accepting long ago that there was probably no bigger point to these types of questions.
"A stockade is a military jail or prison. As I understand it, the Presidio had a particularly rough stockade. It seems like they had a bad riot of some type not long before it shut down in the seventies." He glanced at me briefly, almost ready to ask but deciding to be patient.
"What's a pansy?" This question emptied his patience and now he had to ask.
"Matt, what are you talking about?" Now he was the clueless one.
"I heard someone say the word. I don't know what it means." I tried to look innocently ignorant.
"Did someone call you that?" He thought he was onto something, but `that dog wasn't going to hunt', as Tommy liked to say.
"NO! I heard someone talking about a stockade and pansies. I was just trying to understand the connection." My dad looked a little relieved and was now prepared to answer my question.
"Some people, intolerant people mind you, use the word `pansy' as slang for `gay'. You might have heard someone mention that word in connection with stockades because the military use to lock up gay men. They still might, I guess. I've never quite understood the whole `don't ask, don't tell' policy."
"Pansy is slang for gay?" I still didn't know what a pansy actually was. I knew that queer meant different, degenerate meant you were some type of pervert by unclear standards, fairy meant..well, I wasn't sure but somehow I still understood it, but pansy I just didn't get. Come to think of it, I didn't know what faggot meant either, but I decided to take things one insult at a time. "So, you don't know what a pansy is either?" I turned the question back to him again. I could smell the wood burning, but the old furnace in his head just couldn't get hot enough to cook up an answer. I loved getting my dad like this. There was just something naturally fun about making a `marketing guy' speechless. All of his training and powers had finally failed him. I smiled. He just looked at me very confused.
"Son, is there a bigger point to all of this?" He couldn't resist the question.
"No dad, you know there never is." I couldn't believe he even asked. Of course, there really was a bigger point this time, but I added it to a growing list of things I chose not to share with him or mom. I suddenly felt much older than my fourteen years. Lying and hiding truths seemed like such a grownup thing to do.
Mom never let me get inside the house. She was out the front door as soon as she heard the car pull in. You would have thought she hadn't seen me in years, greeting me with a big hug and then just holding me for what seemed like an eternity right out in public for everyone to see. I glanced around to make sure no other neighborhood kids were watching.
"It seems as if our Matthew is quite the natural fisherman." It dawned on me that I preferred Tommy's introduction to this fishing story, so I spread my hands as far apart as possible and tried to tell it just like him.even leaving in the part about Deadman's Creek.
"Deadman's Creek?" My mom was starting to catch on to my little omissions and exaggerations.
"Mom, it's not like anyone actually ever died there!" I looked over at my dad and shook my head, like I couldn't believe she would even make such a ridiculous association. The force of last night's nightmare briefly came back to me and I was quite sure that the DVD version of `Deliverance' wouldn't be on my Christmas wish-list this year. I was also sure I would never watch another movie with Ned Beatty without thinking of Tommy.
We enjoyed tuna-salad sandwiches and chips for lunch at the Johnson household this Saturday. I missed Chris but I wasn't sure I looked forward to seeing him. Thoughts of my later nightmare also came back to haunt me. I wondered if he would look different, if I would be able to tell. Losing his virginity would surely have some effect on him, I thought. Or maybe he would still technically be a virgin. That might be more comforting for Katie, but it wasn't more comforting for me. I was losing my appetite and left half my sandwich behind. My mom volunteered to drive me over, almost unable to leave me again so soon. Just as I reached to open our front door, my dad made a very unwelcome announcement.
"Matt. I just wanted to give you a heads-up. We'll be going to church tomorrow morning." We NEVER went to church. My parents weren't atheists or anything, they just weren't exactly religious. I didn't even know what religion we were.
"What?" I didn't see any need to explain the question.
"Son, it won't kill you to go to church this one time. It might even be good for you." That second part really pissed me off. I decided to bite my tongue, or else I might be spending the afternoon at home. "The bank wants all the executives to get more involved in the community.." I hoped my dad made better presentations than this at work, or we would never be able to afford one of those big John Deere lawn mowers like Tommy had. "It's part of our community outreach program. Lots of local businessmen go to church, son. We need to go as a family, to get acquainted with the rest of the business community. It was my ideal, after all." It was his ideal - after all. My dad wanted to pimp out his family for the bank, at church of all places. I wondered what ever happened to that idealist who made hiking and camping trips deep into those old growth trees at Big Sur.
"Dad, don't be such a sell-out!" The outrage was genuine. The timing was a little risky. I decided to try and find some common ground between us. "One time! That's what you said, right?" My dad was guilty on both counts. He was definitely being a sell-out and I think he knew it. I would give him his "one time", but that was it. I held up one finger (no, not THAT finger) and looked him dead in the eye, before calmly turning and walking out to the car. I didn't see it, but my mom repeated my actions right behind me.
"One time" she said, then dropped her hand and walked out to join me. I loved my mom. If my dad was going to find religion, looks like he would have to do it alone. Me and mom would keep staying home, getting up late, eating pancakes, and reading the Sunday papers like we always did.
"I know it seems sometimes that your father only thinks about work, but he does love you very much Matthew. He wants to make sure you have a good education and a good future." So this was all for my benefit, huh? I wasn't buying it.
"It just seems like everything is about him, mom. When the bank made him transfer, did he ever think about us? He's good at what he does, right? He could have gotten another job. He drags us all the way across the country and now we've got to pretend like some nice church family just so he can make new contacts?" I was shaking my head in disappointment with body language that would have made a sailor blush. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in building our arguments that we wall ourselves off from the truth. My mom got very quiet, looking at me as if unsure how to respond.
"Matthew, the bank didn't make your father transfer here." She paused for a moment, making sure I understood exactly what she said. "Your father asked for the transfer. It's what he wanted to do. It's what we both wanted to do." She paused again, alternating her glances between me and the road. She was trying to give me time to figure part of this out on my own.
"Why did you want to move?" I still wasn't getting it. This was all major news to me. We were nearing Chris's house and I pointed her to his driveway. "You don't have to pull up to the house. You can just let me off here at the end of the drive." Instinctively, I wanted to shield her from the Briggs family, Chris included. I didn't want any mother's intuition kicking in just yet. Before I got out of the car, I gave her a final puzzled look, begging for an answer. "Why did you want to move, mom?" She looked at me in a very satisfied way and with a warm mother's smile that tells you just how endless a mother's love can be.
"Matt, your father and I both very much want you to be happy. You go have fun with your new friend. I'll pick you up at five." As she backed out of the drive, I could barely lift my hand to faintly wave goodbye. How blind had I been? I was so convinced that my dad was only thinking about himself and his career, with my mom just cruising along for the ride. In truth, they had only been thinking about me. I had always tried to hide my sadness, to shield them from the pain I felt. I was young and na^Ėve enough to think that it was possible to do such a thing. It wasn't. I was such a sad case that they had to move three thousand miles to give me a fresh start. No wonder they were so happy to taxi me all over the rural south. Their plan was finally coming together.
I turned from the road and faced the house I had visited for the first time just two days before. The sky was overcast and the wind was rustling a few early autumn leaves along the ground. The house looked much darker than it did before, even sinister somehow. The old trees that earlier stood out against bright blue skies, now hulked around the smallish house as if guarding some secret inside.
There was no outward sign of life. I made my may toward the garage side entrance and hoped to find Chris out back somewhere. I had seen very little of him the day before and I missed him. At the same time, I didn't want to see him, still unsure how I would feel with the firm knowledge of his conquest from the previous night. I had to remind myself that I had no right to claim any jealousy. Chris never signed up for this, after all. The dark feeling of dread this house produced in me served as a reminder as to just how much Chris needed me. "Show him no fear." His own words were now my motto. Just as I was about to knock, I heard his voice.
"Matt." Chris had emerged from the trees behind the dog pens. I walked back out of the garage to meet him in the backyard.
"Hey Chris." I still had to smile at him warmly. The emotion that missed him had won the battle.
"Hey, bud." Chris seemed subdued. He wasn't walking with the bounce I had expected and the conversation paused very briefly making for an awkward moment between us.
"We're still on for this afternoon, right?" I wanted to make sure there wasn't a change in plans. Suddenly, I felt out of place. In truth, my return to this house was more uncomfortable than I could admit. My discomfort mixing with the conflicted emotions I had right now. Chris looked at me unsure of how to answer, maybe searching for a way to ditch me. I wondered if he was even glad I was there.
"Matt, would you mind if we don't practice this afternoon?" He wasn't comfortable asking the question, but he asked it anyway.
"Chris, it's no problem. I should have called and double- checked with you first. Let me call my mom and have her pick me back up. We'll do it another day." I was trying to help him out, to make it easy on him. I had been defensive from the moment I had stepped out of my mom's car. All of the homecoming rituals had gotten the better of me. Katie had gotten the better of me. In many ways, life had gotten the better of me. My parents moved me three thousand miles and dropped me right into the life of a boy I now loved, but who couldn't possibly love me back the same way. To make it worse, maybe Chris didn't really need me after all. My old friend `doubt' was crowding his way back into my life. Chris looked hurt and it shook me back into focus.
"Matt, I don't want you to go." As he said it, almost subconsciously he reached out for me, just momentarily grabbing the bottom of the windbreaker I was wearing before releasing it and letting his hand fall nervously back to his side. "I'm just not up for basketball today. You think maybe you could hang around and we could just talk for a while?"
Would I never learn? Doubt is such a powerful emotion, and so persuasive. Self-doubt is the supreme leader of the larger doubt-underworld. Self-doubt tells you that someone special can't possibly love YOU. It tells you that someone attractive can't possibly be attracted to YOU. It tells you that no friend worth having would possibly have YOU. Self- doubt picks at those around you, tearing them down, just to get back at YOU. Self-doubt was my oldest friend. It had always been there for me when no one else was. Make no mistake, self-doubt was feeling a little neglected and was definitely jealous of my new friends. It was time for me to pick between my friends. Right then and there, I knew I would never doubt Chris again. Maybe he would hurt me, physically or emotionally or even both. Maybe he would even kill me, but I would let him before I would ever doubt him again. It was time to believe. If I could believe in him, maybe I could even learn to believe in myself.
"I'm sorry Chris. I just thought maybe you wanted some time by yourself. I'm sure you're pretty worn out from a big day yesterday and all the homecoming stuff." `Stuff' was code for the stuff I didn't want to think about, but `homecoming' was the word that made Chris grimace as I said it. "Is everything OK Chris?" There was so much in his life that wasn't OK. I didn't want to assume what was troubling him.
"Matt, let's take a walk down into the woods where we can have some privacy. My dad is out right now but he might be back any time now. Mom is inside sleeping." I wondered if that meant she was inside `drunk'.
"That sounds good to me Chris. I've been practically living in the woods this weekend." He cheered up a little when I said this, smiling at me with a curious look. It seemed like no one would readily accept me as an outdoors type. I told him the whole story, well almost the whole story. I didn't tell him about my dreams. He agreed that I had caught the biggest catfish in Deadman's Creek, and he laughed out loud when I told him how the old cat sprayed us as he swam away. I even confessed that Jack Daniels had corrupted me. He was most surprised by that and I thought it might have hit a little close to home for him right now. I quickly moved into the nipple story.
"I don't think a nipple would grow back" he declared and I agreed.
Then I shared with him my secret plans to enlist Tommy as his algebra tutor. He brightened again and for a while as we walked aimlessly through the woods, it seemed like everything was back to normal with us. The wind was starting to gust and he tucked his baseball cap down a little tighter on his head. I felt a drop or two of rain and Chris surged ahead of me waving me on behind him. As we crossed the top of a short hill, I saw where he was headed. The old shack looked different in this light and from this angle, but it looked pretty inviting considering the alternative of getting soaked, as the rain was starting to settle in.
Chris stopped at the front door, or what was left of it. He seemed unsure if he still wanted to venture inside, looking back at me as I arrived just behind him.
"We're getting soaked" I observed and I pushed past him and into the shack. He walked in slowly behind me looking around as if to make sure we hadn't rattled the old shack into collapse. The baseball cap had effectively sheltered his head, but the water had deflected off the cap and onto the shoulders of his loose navy sweatshirt, soaking him unevenly around the tops. My windbreaker had shielded my body, but my cap-less head was nearly soaked. The rain was loud beating against the old rusty tin roof. Old boards creaked beneath our feet, some of them probably rousing from a decades old sleep. What had once been a crude fireplace was now a sticky maze of spider webs and a floating graveyard for the flying pests that had been entrapped there. We spotted an old shelf that had been built into the rear wall structure and was just low enough to serve as make-shift seating. We both sat down and gingerly leaned back against the old timber wall, resting more comfortably once we realized the wall could support our weight.
Chris was very quiet, his head thrown back as he peered out the broken window on the far wall. He seemed to be gathering his thoughts and I decided not to disturb the process. I tried to imagine the couple who had lived here once. This place was from a forgotten era, when people had horses and didn't need roads. The creek was within walking distance, but it was a pretty good trek. I guess it wasn't like they had anything better to do. The daily routines of life in the hills probably wouldn't have left a lot of time to contemplate boredom. The people who had lived here must have coped with a great deal of solitude in their lives as there was no evidence of other shacks nearby. They would have lived largely by their own code, with society virtually unable to monitor or influence them. I seriously doubted there were many `alternate' lifestyle couples back then, and it seemed a terrible waste of opportunity.
When I glanced back over at Chris, it took a second for what was happening to register with me. Water was now leaking from the corroded nail holes in the tin roof, but the moisture on Chris's face wasn't produced by a leaky roof. His expression hadn't changed and he was still locked in a stare with some unknown point through the broken window. Tears were very quietly and very steadily flowing down his face. I had never seen anyone cry so effortlessly. I wondered if he even realized he was doing it. My eyes were completely transfixed on his face. I couldn't have been more paralyzed had it been blood flowing from his eyes instead. I knew he was conscious because he occasionally blinked. It was the most painful thing I had ever witnessed. I had seen an old movie once where a deaf girl was screaming madly. The director had shot the scene without sound for extra effect, just a young terrified girl silently emitting tormented screams that no one could hear, not even her.
Chris had courage. No one could stand in his shoes and keep walking every day without it. Parts of the mystery were now solved in my head. His father was a harsh, unforgiving man, probably made much bitterer as age robbed him of his natural resources. Chris was very human and he was a fifteen year old teenager. He was going to make mistakes, sometimes very big ones. With a better fate, he would at least have the love and support of a mother to fall back on. Chris didn't have a better fate. He had a broken down drunk for his mother, though I sensed she had once been there for him when he needed her. I doubted that made her current sad state any easier for him to endure. Chris was a very attractive boy with many appealing features. At least he should be able to enjoy the support and fond affection of a mate, but even here fate had apparently cruelly teased him. Whatever Katie had once meant to him, it was obvious that she had largely moved on to other interests, no matter what had happened last night. Again it seemed to fall back to me. I felt like I was probably the most dependable thing in his life right now, yet I had no idea how to help him. Sometimes we help ourselves and others most when we stop thinking and let instinct take over.
Chris stood and walked to the middle of the old floor, still looking outside and never changing expressions. Still, the flow of tears had clearly not subsided. There was no speech I could make, really no words alone that could bring him back from this place he had drifted off to. He had to know that I believed in him and I had to let him know. I stood and stepped quietly behind him, putting first one and then both hands on his shoulders from behind. His shoulders were quite wet and he felt cold under my hands. I gently squeezed and released the muscles between his shoulder and the base of his neck, not trying to rouse him, but making sure he understood that I was there and very aware of his pain. What I knew I couldn't tell him with words, I hoped to be able to communicate with touch. He was so stiff and so cold. I stayed very gentle, trying to move my hands on his shoulders to the rhythm of the words I couldn't say. I had closed my eyes, trying my best to channel anything I could through the senses of my touch. I didn't see or hear his left hand move. When he placed it on top of my right hand, I feared he was quietly telling me that this communication wasn't welcome. When he squeezed the top of my hand firmly, I saw his head buckle slightly for the first time. I knew I had reached him. He was making barely audible sounds now, more the sound of irregular short breaths. He turned to his right, never letting go of my hand, now facing me straight on, his left hand cupping my right before both hands dropped clasped together to our sides. His eyes were staring me chest high, as if he were ashamed to look me in the eyes in this condition. I took my left hand and slowly ran it up underneath his chin, ever gently pushing his chin upwards until his eyes met mine. I wanted him to have the reassurance that his tears and emotions were being returned in full. The faces were different but our emotions were mirrored together, indistinguishable. I held his chin in place for a moment, making sure it would support itself there before releasing it. He didn't hold anything back. The emotions in his eyes were more powerful than ever. I returned my emotions in kind. No words had been spoken, they were inadequate and unnecessary. We stood there together for what seemed like an eternity sharing our pain, holding one hand. My free hand had moved from his chin to a comfortable spot on the back of his neck, a familiar spot I had found before. His free hand raised and hooked itself on my outstretched arm, resting there in its own warm comfortable spot. Our hearts had grown frustrated with our minds, finally deciding to bypass the less necessary organ and link directly together via our eyes. Our eyes stayed locked, never drifting. As if following an order that had been issued directly from somewhere deep within me, I expanded my hand around the back of his neck, pulling him closer to me. Our lips didn't meet right away. Instead, our heads and shoulders interlocked in embrace. Our eyes had proved unable to carry the full message our hearts wanted to deliver, and now our bodies were meshed directly together with seemingly every pore and sensor being used for the full transmission. Still no words were uttered, but more was said than could ever have been spoken, and more was understood than could ever have been explained. I rested my eyes now and squeezed him hard, my hands rubbing up and down his back, not trying to arouse him, just trying to sense him, to join him in some way. I could feel Chris shaking and his breathing was still irregular. His head lifted from the tuck on my shoulder and I lifted my head in turn to rejoin his eyes. As we did this, our heads brushed gently, our faces rubbing against each other, sending his cap tumbling from his head in slow motion to the floor. Our tears mixed and our lips brushed each other also, pausing at the realization before involuntarily retracing their movements and joining ever so softly. This was not a deep kiss of passion, but rather a soft, quiet and pure expression of love, acceptance and understanding. Our minds, fully disengaged and excluded, sat quietly in place on top of our heads, yielding the moment to this final expression of the hearts. In unison with no true lead movement, our lips moved away from each other and our eyes rejoined to provide final unspoken confirmation of what had taken place. The tears were still flowing, but the emotional source had changed. Love had wrestled the pain and doubt, and had won. Love always won, when given the chance to fight.
There would be plenty of time later for our minds to comprehend the realities made so clear by our hearts. Our eyes grew weary and we shifted back to the full embrace, locked together in a silent motionless dance, our heads tucked firmly together on each others shoulders and necks. The rain was still falling overhead, hitting the old tin roof in some vaguely familiar rhythm. I wondered that in the long history of this old shack, if a better dance had ever been accompanied by a finer song.