The rest of this school day proved to be anti-climactic. Between classes, I kept my eyes peeled trying to catch a glimpse of Chris and Katie in case she decided to break the news today. I was very nervous and it was affecting my thinking. This wasn't the sort of news you broke casually between classes. If she was capable of doing it this quickly, then she was even colder than I had given her credit for. Today wouldn't be the day as the final bell finally sounded and I watched Katie ride out of the student parking lot in her older friend's car.
Basketball tryouts started on Monday and I only had a few days left to get ready. Chris and I had made plans to practice for a while this afternoon in the school gym since his backyard court was still too muddy from the recent storms. A couple of other boys who knew Chris had the same idea and showed up in the locker room around the same time we did. This was also the last week of football season and there would be no trip to the playoffs this year, as usual. Still, the sounds of full-contact practice could be heard from the nearby field. For the seniors, this would be the last week of their careers and they were savoring every moment they had left. It was a beautiful fall afternoon in the mid fifties, perfect football weather.
Jeff Billups and Mike Rogers were both sophomores like Chris. Both had played on the JV basketball team with him as freshmen last year and both looked like players. Mike was taller, at least 6'3'', lanky with a bushy head of black hair. Jeff was a couple inches shorter than me at maybe 5'7", quite wiry and with blonde tips radiating from his close buzz cut.
Inside the locker room, I was feeling the same nervous twinges I always felt in the presence of other boys getting undressed. I had no desire to repeat the embarrassment of the church boner incident. If there had been an eleventh commandment, it would probably have read "thou shalt not sprout a big Sunday church boner". Judging by the heat I was feeling in the locker room, I might be closer to the fires of hell than I had imagined. As I slipped off my jeans and slipped on my gym shorts, I made sure my eyes didn't slip from the grimy grey patterns of the cement floor. For added protection, I imagined the sour faces of oversized church ladies looking disappointedly at the `slim' portions of their super-sized value meals. That seemed to do the trick and we exited the locker room and gathered in the gym without embarrassment.
The old gym made for a wonderful athletic theater. Our sneakers sounded the squeaks that can only be produced by an old shiny and freshly waxed maple hardwood floor. Pullout bleachers lined both sides of the court with cement block walls extending high into the rafters topped off by old roll- out windows that must have been rusted shut for years. The sound of basketballs and squeaky sneakers in an empty gym pumps adrenalin into a player's veins, even an inexperienced one like me.
I picked up a definite deference to Chris from both boys. As a threesome of teammates, it was obvious who the leader was in the group. Both politely nodded and introduced themselves when Chris announced me as his "best buddy Matt" and told them he had been working with me to get ready for tryouts. He suggested that we all get loose then play some two-on- two. The boys nodded again and Chris and I headed toward one goal to get loose while they headed to the goal at the opposite end.
"You OK? You're not feeling nervous are you?" Chris could sense the intimidation I was feeling.
"I'm OK, a little nervous, but OK." I was more than a little nervous. I thought back to how understanding Chris had been on the first day we had practiced together in his backyard. These boys seemed nice but they wouldn't afford me the same compassion, even though I doubted they would show any disrespect in front of Chris. "Chris, just take the lead and don't let me get embarrassed out there." He was already comfortably in the lead role and gave me a strong smile and a stronger squeeze on the shoulder.
At he touched me, I felt a twinge of guilt about speaking with Katie behind his back. There was pain ahead for him and it seemed terribly wrong somehow that I knew it and he didn't. A part of me also felt responsible, even though I truly believed I had done the right thing. Still, you never know for sure and I certainly couldn't predict the full consequences of my actions. I desperately wanted to just tell him myself so I could be there to help ease his burden, but I knew that couldn't be. Knowledge could sometimes be a terrible burden unto itself.
I longed to be alone with him. Chris opened up so much when we were alone and I wanted to believe it did him good. We hadn't spent any quality alone time since leaving the old shack three days earlier. In some ways, it seemed like we had never been there at all, but then I had been so absorbed in the drama that had started yesterday with Ty and Katie in the auditorium. I had resolved to never doubt Chris again, but I felt some surprise that our embrace and kiss hadn't affected his reaction to me at all. Surely it meant something to him? It had inspired me to take on his soon to be ex-girlfriend. My wondering came around full circle back to guilt just as the bounce-pass he threw me bounced its way right into my stomach, doubling me up in momentary discomfort.
"Bud, I thought you saw that coming. You were looking right at me. Just relax and breathe." His hand was firmly massaging my upper back trying to resuscitate the wind into my lungs. I straightened up, glancing across the gym at Jeff and Mike to see if they had observed my embarrassment. They seemed to be distracted enough in their own warm-up routines and I smiled sheepishly at Chris before nodding that I was OK.
"My mind was wondering off somewhere." Breathe in, breathe out. "Sorry, it wasn't your fault. I just need to concentrate." I was lucky that Chris's passes were very accurate. A misguided lower pass might have done the Jordan family jewels serious damage.
Chris quickly worked me into a rhythm that allowed me to regain some composure and confidence. He amazed me with his ability to bring the best out of the athlete within me. It was going to be really interesting to watch him interact with the full team. I sensed that Chris was the rare great athlete who could raise the performance level of those around him through some indefinable inner-quality he possessed. It was no coincidence that Michael Jordan was his idol.
Eventually, we made our way toward Jeff and Mike and worked into some two-on-two games. Eleven points was the winning number. The way Chris played it, each goal scored as one point and then after the first ten goals, you had to make a free-throw for the final point. If you missed the free- throw, you dropped back to five points. Chris believed in trying to reproduce real game pressure in practice and the free-throw was his way of doing it. Miss that freebie, and you tumbled down the ladder.
When the game started, Chris assumed an entirely different personality than I was accustomed to seeing. This was more than just a confident Chris. He snapped into a focus and determination that seemed to produce purpose in every movement of his body. I had completely underestimated just how easy he had taken it on me during our lone one-on-one practice session. Still, my own abilities were lifted by his presence, and embarrassment didn't locate me easily in his company.
Chris reminded Jeff and Mike some of the same basics he had drilled home with me. Ever the competitor, he wanted to win our little practice games, but more than that, he wanted to develop his teammates for the season ahead. It occurred to me how disappointed I would be if I didn't make the team. We worked for a good two hours before the gym finally got so dark we couldn't see well enough to continue. The old lights were expensive to burn and we didn't dare turn them on just for our benefit.
Chris's dad had stayed late preparing test paperwork for the quarterly exams on Monday. "Oh shit!" I thought to myself, Chris has got to pass that algebra test Monday. I would have to make sure that Tommy and Chris worked extra hard on prep time for the rest of the week. This might require some weekend work as well.
Earlier in the day, I let my mom know the change in plans and she arrived dutifully to pick me up a few minutes after five o'clock. Chris and I had just sat down outside the gym when I saw her car pull in the parking lot. I had hoped she might be a few minutes late so I could finally spend a few minutes alone with him, but it wasn't to be. We did our customary hand clasp and parted ways for the night.
"You're awfully quiet." Mom was right. I was quiet. I had been in crisis management mode all week and I was finally settling into a mild state of shock from it all. I also missed Chris even though I had just been with him for two hours and had seen him every day this week.
"I'm just thinking, is all." There was plenty to think about, all right. If Katie kept her end of the bargain, tomorrow would be the day, and Chris had no idea it was coming. It dawned on me that this wouldn't help his concentration for the tests Monday. Suddenly, the feelings of dread and guilt started piling up on top of each other, weighting me down in the process.
"How is Chris doing, Matt?" My mom just never ceased to amaze me. Sometimes I was sure she could read minds. I wasn't sure I wanted her reading mine, although in some ways, it would make things easier if she could. I wasn't going to explain the whole sordid Katie affair, so I gave her the executive summary instead.
"I think his girlfriend is about to break up with him, but it would be for the best. Still, I'm worried about how he will handle it." That seemed to summarize it quite well, without the juicy details that Tommy had so enjoyed.
"Poor Chris. He must think that no one in the world loves him right now." The words hit me hard. Was that even possible? I loved Chris, he had to know that. Didn't he? The thoughts must have produced odd contortions on my face.
"Matthew, are you sure you're feeling all right?" She reached over and ran her palm against my forehead with concern written over her own face.
"I'm just really tired, mom. It's been a busy week." That was the understatement of my young lifetime.
"Why don't you ask Chris if he wants to come over Friday after school? He can spend the night and go home late Saturday afternoon. He can stay even later if his parents don't mind."
I simply looked up at my mom and smiled. She knew the perfect medicine for a weary heart.
"Mom, would it be OK if we slept in the basement. We've got that old couch and the bunk-beds down there. With the TV and fridge, it's almost like a little apartment. My room's nice, but it's not big enough for both of us and I don't want to stick him in a guest room." She smiled back at me. My enthusiasm was contagious.
We really did have a nice basement, though I didn't spend much time there. Dad had always said it would come in handy someday when family visits. When that day might happen was anybody's guess. We had barely heard from any of mom's family since we had moved here. My grandma was not particularly happy that we moved away from her and I think she held it against my dad. That made twice in his life that he'd stolen my mom away from her. My mom's older brother, Uncle Ted, had called a time or two making sure everything was going OK. He probably wished there was still someone else back home to help deflect my grandma's attention. She was soon to turn eighty-two and could be a really tough old bird when she wanted to. Like me, she was a big Giant's fan and now that baseball season had ended, I'm sure she was getting bored and ornery. Dad had a younger sister, but they had never been close. I don't think they had even spoken since Uncle Heath died and that was before I was born.
Mom and I waited until seven-thirty, but finally gave up and ate dinner alone. Dad finally made it home at eight-thirty. I was studying when he came in. I had to give a book report on `Grapes of Wrath' tomorrow and had elected to read the `Cliff Notes' on this one, which I had sneaked away and purchased at the mall bookstore while shopping with mom one day. Plus, I had seen the movie at least three times. I was too busy saving the world to read a book that big.
Dad quickly bought into the basement idea and said we "needed an excuse to straighten up down there anyway". We agreed to do that tomorrow night and he promised to be home a little earlier.
I was completely jazzed about the idea and went down before bed to take a fresh peek and see just how much work needed to be done. It was a little cool down there and I quickly decided we would need to turn up the heat a bit.
The basement had always seemed so lonesome and dreary to me before, but now it captivated my imagination with new possibilities. In one corner, there was the old ping-pong table we never used. In another corner were the old bunk- beds. They were built into the basement by the previous owners and just needed sheets and pillows. The TV was ancient, but it worked. The couch was long ago demoted to the garage in our old house and was lucky to have been picked for the move across country. Still, it had a wide base and was very comfy. The blankets my mom draped over it hid the worn spots and gave it an even cozier feel. There was a giant cream colored bean-bag that looked like a rotten melon of some sort. The old fridge wasn't even plugged in, but I saw no reason why we would need it. The downstairs guest bathroom was conveniently located beside the door leading down to the basement. All in all, it really did pass for a little apartment. I smiled with renewed enthusiasm and made my way to bed for the night.
Sleep had never been difficult for me before. I had always suffered from nightmares and often spoke in my sleep, but I could always find sleep quickly. Lately, sleep wasn't coming so easily. The night before was horrific and the images of Jay Henson and his collie were still floating around in my head. There was such uncertainty for tomorrow and I was far too nervous for a restful sleep. In between nods, I thought only of Chris.
The next day started with the same fears that had carried over from the day before. After a painfully long morning, it was lunch time again. I wondered what Katie had planned. When Chris showed up in his usual routine, I started to get a little restless. What if she simply chose to do nothing at all? Would she call my bluff?
Tommy was really getting into this tutoring experience. In typical Tommy fashion, he had prepared detailed study notes for Chris and he was working through the finer points like a little professor. Chris was well focused and seemed to be finally getting it. He was plenty smart, though math wasn't his strong suit. I could relate.
When the final bell of the day rang, I was nearly panicking, wondering what I would do next. I couldn't believe she had played me this way. How could she? She didn't.
"Matt, buddy I'm sorry." Chris didn't like breaking our plans. "Katie has been bugging me all day about getting together and talking. I don't know what's up with her. She's probably gonna chew me out for something I don't even know I did. Please don't be pissed at me. We'll get in a good practice tomorrow. OK?"
Boy, he had no idea what was coming. Pain and guilt again covered my face and he winced, mis-interpreting my discomfort.
"Chris, it's OK. Don't sweat it. We got in some really good work yesterday. You go do what you need to do." I forced a smile and placed a hand on his shoulder. I didn't want to let him go, but I knew the time had come. Just as he started to turn around, I remembered something else. "Chris, wait! I want you to come over to my house Friday night. You can spend the night and we'll take you back late Saturday or maybe even Sunday if your folks don't mind. My mom suggested it and I really want you to come."
He looked unsure. "Matt, I'll have to ask my dad. He's been all over me about my grades." I had an idea.
"Have you told him about Tommy helping us out? You should tell him. You can also tell him we're doing a study marathon for Monday's test." I raised my brows and smiled. Chris returned the look. A plan had been born.
"I'll do that Matt. He just might go for that one." With that, he smiled and left me. As he did, my smile turned upside down and I swallowed very hard not knowing what I had led him into.
Watching him walk away sent a strange painful sensation all through me. I felt a cold chill. I could only hope that Katie was gentler with him than she had been with me. I had feared it would play out this way with him stranded from me for a night alone to contemplate what it all meant. I resolved to call him later tonight under the guise of asking if his dad had agreed to let him come over Friday.
I looked up from dinner to notice my mom eyeing me as I flicked at my food. I couldn't even pretend to be anything less than concerned. I propped an elbow on the table and rested my chin against my fist, never losing eye contact with her. Guilt completely engulfed me and I had to look away. I felt guilty about Chris. I also felt guilty for holding so much back from my mother. Earlier in life, I would tell her anything without hesitation or reservation. Life was more complicated now. I knew I could trust her, but I also knew it would worry her if she knew too much. Still, I felt guilty for depriving her of the chance to help me. I know she could sense that I was holding back on her. She narrowed her eyes a bit and gave me a patient smile that I was unable to return.
My dad had promised to try and get home earlier tonight, but it was nearly eight and he was still a no-show. I couldn't stand being in the dark anymore and I carried the cordless upstairs to call Chris and see how he was doing. The voice on the other end of the line was barely coherent and I assumed I had dialed the wrong number and quickly hung-up. I paid better attention this time, but the voice on the other end was the same, only a little louder this time.
"Can I speak to Chris, please?" I all but begged. It was obviously his mother. I could hear the phone pull away from her face and my heart nearly stopped when I heard the muffled yells of anger off in the background. "Chris!" I yelled his name into the receiver but no one could hear me. I could hear her fumbling the phone around before a final click followed by a dial-tone, sounding eerily like a flat- line on ER.
"What the fuck is going on over there?" I whispered to myself. I felt panic. The yells had to be coming from his dad. Maybe he was yelling at Chris's mom again. That had to be it. Maybe he was mad that she answered the phone in her mumbling drunken state. I may have only agitated him more by calling back. I looked nervously down at the phone as if afraid he might burst through it and plop right into my room.
I sighed and fell over onto my bed, curling myself up into a tight ball. I felt that same chill again. Tears started forming in my eyes. I didn't want to cry, but I had no choice in the matter. The frustration overwhelmed me. Being a fourteen year-old in an adult's world had never felt more helpless. I didn't hear the knock on my bedroom door.
"Matt, you in here?" My dad had finally made it home and was now standing in my bedroom doorway. When I made eye contact with him, his face melted with concern. "Matthew, what's wrong?" He walked over and sat next to me on the bed. I couldn't answer him right away. "I'm sorry, son. I tried to get here sooner." He was now rubbing my shoulders trying to relieve his own discomfort as much as mine.
"I'm all right." It was possibly the most obvious lie I had ever told. "I'm not mad at you dad. I've just got a lot of other stuff on my mind." I straightened up and wiped my eyes. I didn't like crying in front of my dad.
"Talk to me Matt. What's wrong?" I wouldn't even know where to start and I tried to avoid the question. It occurred to me that Chris's dad probably never asked him what was wrong. The guilt I felt earlier now extended to my dad as well. He really did want to help me but I wasn't ready to let him.
"I'm all right dad, really I am. I'm just tired." I was sitting completely up in bed now with my legs folded underneath me. The look in my dad's face conceded rejection and he gave me a final pat on the shoulder and finished me off with a kiss on top of my head as he stood.
"I know I haven't always been around when you needed me Matthew, but I hope you know how much I love you and I hope you know I would do anything in the world to make you happy." There was a moist glimmer in his eyes as he spoke. His declaration renewed my emotions, freezing me for a moment. As he turned to leave my room, I called his name.
"Dad! I know, OK. I know." Deep inside me, I did know. I also knew how much I loved my dad but it was harder for me to say it for some reason. I never struggled to tell my mom how much I loved her, though we were always alone when I said it. The warrior knew this would be his toughest, but most important alliance. Without it, the battle simply could not be won.
Again, sleep avoided me for yet another night. It came and went, but never stayed for long. The emotions of the days and the restlessness of the nights were combining to wear me down. I could feel the drop in my energy the next morning. The warrior's heart was strong but his frame was growing weary.
Just before leaving for school, my mom said she wanted to show me something. Dad was long gone, having left for work much earlier. She opened the door leading down to the basement, flipped on the light and led me down the stairs. Everything had a sparkle that I hadn't seen two days before. My dad had kept his promise and did the extra work himself without my assistance, working late into the night in the process. I sighed and shook my head in amazement. Dad had even gone to the trouble of hanging a couple of old posters we had never unpacked from the move. The large print of Dwight Clark's famous touchdown catch from Joe Montana against the Cowboys was displayed prominently on the side wall. I chuckled as I imagined the reaction from Chris. That hadn't been a favorite moment for his beloved Cowboys.
"I feel terrible, mom." It was wonderful of my dad to have done all of this, but I did feel terrible to have made him do it alone.
"Matthew, your father wanted to do this for you. It made him feel good, so don't you feel bad about it. He wouldn't let me help either."
I just sighed and kept shaking my head. If my dad had been there at that moment, he would have finally heard an unreserved declaration of my love for him.
I was late for homeroom, having looked everywhere for Chris and never finding him. I did run into Katie, but she made eye contact with me only long enough to look away. She didn't give me her normal scowl. Her expression was far too distant to communicate any comment or emotion. I had earlier accepted that she would become a walking ghost to me and it hadn't taken her much time to adapt to that new role.
"Tommy, have you seen Chris this morning?" I asked without even thinking to greet Tommy first. My mind was completely preoccupied.
"No Mattie, I haven't seen him. Sorry." The disappointment on Tommy's face wasn't limited to his inability to provide me with the information I needed.
"Tommy, I'm sort of a wreck today. Just bear with me OK?" My frown of concern provided the explanation that my words couldn't piece together. My worry became Tommy's worry and we sat quietly for the rest of homeroom.
By lunchtime, my concern was multiplying by the minute and I still hadn't seen Chris. I thought of asking Katie how things went, but a deal was a deal and she had evidently kept her end of the bargain. I decided to do the same. A final search at lunch still provided no results and I knew there was only one other option to explore. I gathered myself and set off to Coach Brigg's room. He ate lunch there alone each day, having stopped mixing with the other faculty long ago.
"Excuse me, sir." I didn't feel excused by the cold greeting my interruption brought from him. He didn't reply and looked up at me with narrowing eyes and a raised chin.
"Mr. Briggs, is Chris here today? We've been studying each day at lunch for his algebra test, and I couldn't find him today." He didn't break from his icy stare.
"Chris wasn't feeling well and he stayed home."
Unintentionally, my own eyes narrowed a bit at this reply. More questions raced through my head, but none of them dared their way to my tongue.
"Oh. Well please tell him I said I hope he feels better soon." Bullshit, I would tell him my own fucking self and I went straight to the school payphone deciding to bypass the free phone I could have used in the main office.
The boy that answered the phone sounded like some reduced version of the boy I loved.
"Chris? Buddy, are you OK?" I could hear him breathing but there was a long pause before his reply.
"Hey Matt." I had never heard it so unenthusiastically from him and it sent shivers of fear down my spine. Finally he continued. "I've got a bug or something. I'll be OK. I'm just sort of out of it right now. I'm taking some medication."
"Chris, you don't sound OK at all. What's wrong?" I feared so many things at this point. Had Katie told him about our conversation? That wasn't part of our deal. Was he just simply devastated from the breakup? Maybe my mom was right and he really did feel like no one loved him right now. I definitely didn't buy the `bug' bullshit.
"I'll be OK Matt. Don't worry about me, bud." He was still very flat, but at least a shade warmer.
"Just know I'm thinking about you, OK? I'll get my mom to bring me by later and I'll check on you."
"No! No, that's OK. Don't go to that bother. I'll be all right. I'm sure I'll be at school tomorrow. Thanks for thinking about me." He didn't want me there. Why?
"Well, all right then. I'll at least call you tonight and see how you're doing."
"Matt, let me call you when I can find a good time. OK?" He didn't want me to call either. After last night's attempts, his idea sounded like a better plan. I only hoped he would call.
"Well, OK. I'll let you go. Get some rest. Please do call me later if you can." There was pleading in my voice.
"I'll call you Matt. I promise, OK?" His promise was more than good enough for me. I took some heart in his commitment, but I was in deep pain over the mystery of what he was feeling.
"Thanks Chris. I'll talk to you later. Get some rest." I hung up the phone. I wanted to say more. I wanted to tell him I loved him, just so he would know for sure that someone did. This conversation had been so awkward. At least I knew he was alive, but I didn't know if he was well. To the contrary, I confirmed that he wasn't well at all. I just didn't know how bad things really were for him.
The rest of the day dragged on forever. Tommy caught up with me after the final bell.
"Mattie, did you ever find Chris?" I'm sure he could tell by my expression that I hadn't.
"No. His dad told me he was sick today and stayed home." I had been no more convincing with Tommy than Chris had been with me.
"Mattie, why don't you come home with me? My mom's going to be here soon to pick me up. Just a short visit and then we'll get you back to your house."
I didn't want to say no. I had been neglecting Tommy and it was just one more thing for me to feel guilty about. I had pulled him into my plot to help Chris and he had given himself without asking for anything in return. Tommy was such a good friend and I was growing to rely on him more and more. I accepted his offer and was relieved to have his company for a little while.
Betty Johnson was a true southern lady. In her mid forties, she spoke with an elegant but deep southern drawl and her facial expressions sang in concert with the words from her mouth. My brief earlier introduction to Tommy's dad had also revealed a warm personality. That Tommy himself was so warm and engaging was no longer a mystery to me. It was simply in his bloodline.
"Tommy just talks about you all the time, Mattie. It's so good to finally make your acquaintance." Tommy was blushing now. I politely accepted the reality that Tommy's entire family would likely call me `Mattie'.
I got an equally warm greeting from Tucker, the family chocolate lab retriever. Even southern dogs were nicer than the ones I had experienced in California. Things were just different here, and I had to admit I liked it - or at least most of it.
The Johnson house was old and it had a warm feel that matched its inhabitants. The deer-head mounted over the fireplace stuck out like a sore thumb, but I understood it in the greater context of what hunting meant here in the south. I took a minute and called my mom at work letting her know where I was.
Tommy's room was nothing like mine. First, it was extremely neat. Tommy was one well-organized little pack rat. There were lots of pictures of fish Tommy had caught and various birds and beasts that he and his dad had `bagged'. I eye- balled him warily as I looked at some of the pictures.
"I'm mostly into fishing now." He offered as if to apologize for the earlier transgressions against nature's other creatures.
His mother prepared some iced tea for us and we wondered out into the backyard toward a large barn on the far side of the property that had escaped my view in the earlier trip.
"Oh, you're kidding me!" Tommy had horses, three to be exact. I was in awe of horses. I had never ridden one, but I loved all the good horse movies. Tommy's folks evidently owned a considerable amount of land judging by the large fenced pasture that extended as far as the eye could see off to the right side of the barn. To the left were the open fields and forest that extended down to the old creek.
"We ride almost every weekend. There are some great trails running down by the creek and across the hills on the other side. I've been riding a horse forever." I believed it.
The more I learned about Tommy, the more I appreciated just what his life as a southern boy was all about. Horses, four- wheelers, hunting and fishing, a good dog like Tucker: it just all fit together. Tommy had all the coordination to be a good athlete. I still didn't understand how he had escaped that interest.
We propped ourselves up on the fence, drinking our teas and watching the horses graze. Tommy got sort of quiet and I felt a question building up within him. He could come across as simple sometimes, but the workings of his mind were anything but. It was time for me to be honest and face the realization that Tommy was onto me. His math and intellectual skills had advanced past 2 2 a long time ago. I had already accepted that I could trust him and now it was time to back that up with actions.
"It's obvious isn't it, Tommy?" I cast my eyes on him reflecting the hope that my trust would find his understanding. He smiled, a little surprised at the question, but he understood it all the same. It was the same reserved smile he had given me down by the creek the morning after our fishing adventure. The look suited him as well today as it had that morning.
"Probably only to me, Mattie." The smile faded and the earlier look of concern took over his face. "I'm worried about you."
I knew he was. We were starting to understand each other on an unspoken level. Still, I had to know exactly where I stood with him.
"I'm worried about me too, and I'm really worried about Chris. I'm even worried about you." He was surprised and puzzled by that part. The worry for me and Chris was obviously well justified, but why him?
"Why would you be worried about me?"
"Tommy, you're like the brother that I never had." I noticed that he blinked hard when I said it. "I couldn't take it if you didn't want to be my friend. I didn't ask to be this way, it's just the way I am and it's not easy! I just can't pretend to be something I'm not, but I understand if it's more than you want to deal with. It would hurt me really bad, but I would understand."
It was getting hard to see him through the fresh tears in my eyes. This was a moment of truth between us and the possibility that Tommy might reject me shook me to the core. Again, my eyes pleaded for his understanding and for his acceptance.
"Mattie, I'll always be your friend." Those words sent my face into full quiver. "You've been nicer to me than any of the boys I grew up with. I wish you had moved here a long time ago and I hope you never leave. You don't have to worry about me."
Tears were now fighting each other to run down my cheeks. His eyes were moist too, and he looked over at the horses again allowing us both some limited privacy.
I grabbed my shirt near the shoulder and wiped away enough tears to allow me to see clearly. Why did I have to cry so much? While we were talking, there was one more thing that I needed to know.
"Tommy, when we were camping out, you asked me some questions." I watched him closely for any sign that I was making him uncomfortable. His eyes stayed on me and he never flinched. "Were you just asking me questions or were you trying to tell me something?"
He still didn't flinch but his eyes trailed away and I could tell he was gathering an answer. He seemed to be working hard to get the words in the right order.
"I'm not really sure what I was trying to do, Mattie. I think I was trying to let you know it was OK. Part of me is trying to figure some things out too." He paused for a minute, but was obviously still processing more of the answer.
"Tommy, you don't have to explain or answer that. I felt bad because I might have gotten a little defensive that night. I just wasn't ready to talk then. There are things I still can't say out loud now. It's just really difficult and I don't always understand what I feel or know what to say." I wanted him to know that I understood confusion full well. No one should have to explain something so personal that they don't even understand it themselves.
"I just don't know, Mattie. I think girls are attractive but I've never had a girlfriend. I never really thought about boys that way, until I met you."
How could I be so blind? Somewhere within me, I had to know that this was happening. Had I just ignored it because it didn't fit my master plan? The thought that I could be so selfish almost made me nauseas. I had been so focused on Chris that I never saw this one coming. I honestly wasn't sure what I had or hadn't done but I felt the need to apologize.
"Tommy, I've been so blind. It's taken me so long to be honest with myself about too many things. I think I fell in love with Chris on the first day of school. He was the first person here to speak to me and somehow I just knew. But it took me a lot longer than that to actually admit it to myself. And now what am I doing?" I threw my arms up in the air and shook my head.
"Did I break him and Katie up because I thought it was the best thing for Chris? Or did I do it because it was the best thing for me? I've been running around getting you to help me and not being honest enough with you about what I was doing." I shook my head in more self-disgust.
I really was starting to wonder just what the fuck I was doing. Everything was clearer before. Now things were getting blurry. The lack of sleep and emotional fatigue were ganging up on me and had robbed me of clarity.
"It's all right, Mattie. You don't have to apologize to me." Tommy was showing a depth and maturity that I had failed to fully appreciate before.
"So you talked to Katie?" This was the first time he and I had been alone in several days and I didn't even realize he didn't know.
"Yeah. I did it two days ago during lunch. I think she broke up with him yesterday after school. I didn't really leave her any choice."
Tommy paused and continued to gather words.
"I don't know how it will turn out, but I think you did the right thing. She shouldn't have been running around behind his back. Someone really could have gotten hurt, or worse."
He was right. Hell, I was right. Tommy just confirmed it for me. I forced a smile in appreciation for his confirmation.
Tommy continued. "But I'm most worried about you. I like Chris. You're right, he really is a good guy. I can understand that even more now that we've spent some time together. I'm just afraid that you will get hurt, Mattie."
It hurt me just to hear someone else say it. I had acknowledged the possibility to myself and I had resolved that I would deal with the consequences, no matter what. Still, hearing it from Tommy pierced my confidence a bit.
"Just be careful, Mattie." This warning was starting to wear thin on me, even coming from Tommy. "But you can count on me, no matter what. I'm on your side."
Tommy's acceptance and loyalty were an emotional safety-net for me. His friendship was more than I `deserved'. I didn't ever want to do anything to hurt him and I now knew that would be more difficult with the full realization of his feelings for me.
We sat on the fence exchanging looks of appreciation before we finally jumped off and made our way back toward the house. Tommy reached out and placed a hand on my shoulder. I turned to him and smiled, glad to have him by my side. He smiled back, but the concern lingered in his face. The warrior was still weary, but at least now a little less alone.