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Mathew Figures it out

Matthew Figures It Out – Chapter 20 ‘The Long Path To Peace’

Matt watched his parents pull out of the driveway and realized that he and Chris had the house to themselves. The full reality of Chris moving away was settling in and Matt could no longer deny it to himself. As he turned away from the window and stared back across the quiet house, he let his mind drift into a new arena of fantasy. Chris had taken a seat on the good-couch in the living room and Matt watched him from behind. Chris’s arm stretched out on top of the backrest, the other hand manipulating the remote control with the satellite TV channels flicking by as he looked on in wonderment at the variety; Chris wasn’t accustomed to such a large selection of distractions. Matt leaned against the wall and smiled to himself for a moment - a resentful smile, the kind your face makes when it realizes that fate is simply teasing you. He closed his eyes and let the fantasy unfold before him.

The house in his imagination wasn’t very big; in fact, it wasn’t a house at all – just a small apartment. That was really all he and Chris could afford but it was cozy and it was THEIR place. It was home, now. He felt himself walk through the front door – Chris just home ahead of him – already plopped down on the couch and relaxing a bit. A warm embrace was soon to follow - as it always did when they found the relief of each other’s company at the end of the day. Soothing conversation would ease their spirits; just small talk about trivial things and a recounting of the day’s blunders. Talk would continue over a meal thrown together in their own kitchen; a meal of their own choosing and creation, not always so tasty but getting better with more practice. Maybe there would be a glass of wine or something else adult to drink - money permitting. The evening would end comfortably on the couch in a warm entanglement of arms and legs, with eyes lazily watching TV. He could almost feel the warmth…

“Matt,” Chris spoke softly, now standing right before him.

As his eyes reopened, Matt realized they weren’t in that cozy apartment of their own. They weren’t adults in control of their own futures. Instead, they were still only kids and still subject to the rules made by the grownups in their lives.

“Matt, what are you doing?” Chris placed a hand on each side of Matt’s waist, reclaiming him from the future that might never be. Matt leaned into him and tucked his head into that familiar spot between Chris’s shoulder and neck. Closing his eyes again, Matt drifted back into the fantasy for a minute longer. Chris had caught on and was more than content to join him there now.

“I don’t want to leave you, Matt,” Chris whispered softly.

“Don’t go. Just don’t.” Matt stood straight up and looked Chris right in the eyes. “Stay.”

Matt’s eyes pleaded at first, then - seeing the answer reflected on Chris’s face – they cast a charge of betrayal at Chris in return.

“Matt, please. Please understand this isn’t what I want to do. Do you really think I WANT to leave? You know I don’t…You know that, Matt!” Chris couldn’t hide the frustration. He couldn’t please anyone in this, not even himself.

Matt felt the tears welling up, but he pushed them back this time. Familiar words of encouragement came back to his worried mind. “Don’t show him any fear,” Chris had told him on an earlier day. Maturity was coming slowly, but surely, for young Matthew Jordan. Chris saw Matt’s jaw clinch and his head nod. Matt even tried to force a smile but that was a bit beyond his reach yet.

“I know, Chris. I know… I know.” Matt’s eyes held Chris for a moment before flinching away. It wasn’t easy for him to lie to Chris, and pretending to understand was most definitely a lie.

“Chris, I just want it to be us. You know? I’m so tired of your…” He hesitated, realizing it sounded selfish, but he couldn’t hold it back. “I’m tired of your fucked-up family! Your dad tried to kill us, and now your mom has sobered up enough to take you away!...FUCK!!! This is so fucking unfair to you…AND to me!”

Chris’s eyes fell to the floor. He couldn’t refute Matt and this was nothing he hadn’t thought to himself.

Matt saw the pain on Chris’s face, but his frustrations were still pouring out. “This just can’t be happening, Chris! I came here for a reason, I know I did. This couldn’t have just been an accident or some coincidence. We were BROUGHT together! And now everybody is trying to tear us apart! Your parents. Hell, probably this whole county, if the truth be known! Fucking Billy Jacobs tried hard enough! That fucking dickhead! Everybody at school…” Fear flashed across Matt’s face as he thought about school. Chris looked up just in time to see it.

“I hadn’t thought…” Chris couldn’t finish the sentence. He hadn’t thought about it. Now, he shared in Matt’s fear. “Matt, if anybody there messes with you, I’ll come back and kick their ass so hard!” Doubt came to his face. Chris knew it wouldn’t be that simple and he knew someone would mess with Matt and he knew he wouldn’t be there to protect him.

“I’ll be OK. I’m not worried about anyone at school.” Matt WAS worried about the idea of a world without Chris in it, but it had nothing to do with reprisal.

After all, Chris had been there from the first day. Their first chance encounter by the lockers had set in motion all of the events that had followed, including this move. An old familiar pang of despair suddenly crept back into Matt’s psyche. It was a pang he hadn’t felt since moving here from California. Things seemed to be coming full circle, again. He needed Chris’s protection, all right, but not in a physical sense.

“Matt.” Not realizing it, Matt had backed away from Chris and was leaning against the wall again. Chris had to reach out and pull him back closer and Matt’s eyes snapped to attention, hearing his name spoken.

Matt threw his arms around Chris’s neck and pulled him as tightly as he had ever pulled before. Still, he knew his hold wasn’t strong enough to keep him. It was only one boy against the rest of the world; hardly a fair fight.

Chris planted a single warm kiss on Matt’s neck. Soon, it became an outbreak of soft smooches. “We’re here by ourselves, you know?” The whispered invitation into Matt’s ear brought a giggle in return.

“Well, Chris, not exactly. We seem to be under guard.” Chris pulled back and looked at Matt, trying to figure out what the hell he was talking about. Matt pointed down the long hallway to the large glass window that extended nearly to the base of the floor in the kitchen. There, a set of curious puppy dog eyes looked on, indeed, keeping watch on the boys.

Chris broke into a broad grin and both boys enjoyed the moment of relief. “You don’t think he would tell anyone, do you?”

Matt loved to see Chris smile. “He just might. Maybe my parents had a little spy camera installed in that special collar.”

Chris’s eyes widened with mock suspicion. “Good thing Digger slept outside last night then.”

Matt released a large laugh and let his head fall into Chris’s chest before rising up to look him in the eyes again. There was mischief in Matt’s eyes. “Chris, there is something I would like to try, something I’ve been thinking about.”

“A fantasy?” Chris was intriqued.

Matt’s eyes went somber again and he answered honestly. “Yeah, I guess you would have to call it that.”

As usual, Chris picked up on the change in emotion. “Anything you want, Matt. Anything.”

Matt pushed a smile to his lips and took Chris by the hand leading him back into the living room. After some maneuvering and twisting around, under Matt’s direction, they were finally in position.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” Chris asked before proceeding further.

“I’ve never been more sure about anything.” And Matt couldn’t have been surer in his reply. “Here, you pick.”

Chris took the remote control and resumed his earlier channel surfing. Matt’s fantasy was now complete and they pretended to be grownups for the next hour, lying comfortably on the couch (in a real living room, not hidden away in some basement) in a warm entanglement of arms and legs, with eyes lazily watching the TV. He could feel the warmth, for this time - at least for a moment - it was real.

The sound of car door slamming in the driveway brought the enchantment to an abrupt end. Chris jumped, nearly tossing Matt onto the floor in the process.

“They’re not supposed to be back this soon…” Matt had scurried to his feet and was watching his mother approach rather hurriedly toward the front door. The look on her face was one he had seen on occasion, but never on a good occasion. She was pissed, for sure. John Jordan trailed behind and he didn’t look much happier.

When Joanna entered the house, she made only glancing eye contact with Matt and Chris. Matt could tell she had been crying. This was rare, for Joanna Jordan controlled the emotional pipes better than most men – definitely better than the younger Jordan. She forced a grim smile in the general direction of the boys and headed straight for the shelter of the bedroom.

John, ever the marketing guy, tried to spin the best explanation he could. “Your mother’s not feeling well, Matt.”

“She’s been crying, dad. Mom doesn’t cry. What’s wrong?”

“The holidays do that to people, son. This is your mom’s first Christmas away from home in a very long time. Let’s just give her some space and she’ll be OK.”

This registered pretty high on the bullshit meter for Mattbut he grudgingly accepted it anyway. He had to remind himself that they really weren’t “home.” As he thought about it, he also realized his mom didn’t have any close friends here yet. His parents had traded a great deal on his behalf and he wondered if it had been worth it.

Matt eyeballed his dad suspiciously and walked by him toward the bedroom. John just shook his head and smiled as best he could; he hadn’t expected Matt to do anything else.

After a few soft knocks on the bedroom door, Matt entered and saw his mom standing by the window, looking off in the distance. “Mom?”

Joanna’s face still showed stains from a few tears, but she had stemmed the flow and regained control - just as she always did. Matt put his arm around her shoulder and gave her a squeeze; his eyes looked into hers as he tried to decipher it all. Joanna felt the questions coming and decided to redirect the momentum.

“How is Chris holding up?” She also redirected a few stray strands of hair on Matt’s head as she asked.

“He’s frustrated…We both are. I hate his parents…well, his mom. But I hated his dad too.” Matt’s words brought a frown to Joanna’s face and he looked down. “I’m just being honest, mom.”

“Hate can consume you, Matt. It might surprise you to know that I felt the same way about your dad’s father when I was much younger. But I look back at it differently now.”

Matt locked eyes with her again, discovering a new bond between them. “What makes it different now?”

“Well, you see people in black and white terms when you’re younger. We tend to sum people up too quickly. People are much more complicated than that, son. They’re never as evil, or as good, as they appear to be. It takes a while in life to really appreciate that. You also learn not to give up on people so quickly. There’s something you have to understand about Chris’s situation: he doesn’t want to give up on his mother. You can understand that, can’t you?”

“If you were his mother, I would understand it a lot better.”

“But Matt, Chris loves his mother just as much as you love yours.”

“So, it doesn’t matter what type of parent someone is. Your children are stuck with loving you? That’s even more unfair than I thought.”

“Son, your dad loved his father. In the middle of all the things that hurt him so badly, there were some good memories too. We all want to – need to – love our parents. This is hard to explain, but your dad loved his father, he just didn’t liKE him very much. There’s a difference. I’m sure Chris loved his father on some level, even if he didn’t like him very much, or at all. And I don’t think Chris has given up on his mother. He shouldn’t, Matt. He wouldn’t be the boy you loved if he could give up on her that easily.” Joanna let go of a lingering tear.

“I still hate her. He might not be able to, but I can.” Matt’s eyes turned cold. Joanna sighed, knowing it was more than he could understand without the perspective of experience.

“Come on, Matt.” With Joanna in the lead, they rejoined Chris and John in the living room.

“I’m supposed to be back home by three. Melanie needs me to help her go through some old stuff at the house.” Chris didn’t like delivering this reminder but it was necessary. He turned to John. “Would you mind running me into town before I go home? There’s something I need to take care of.” Chris didn’t offer further explanation and John politely agreed all the same.

Chris went back down to the basement and started to gather his things. Matt followed close behind and felt a wave of panic sweep through him. He had to remind himself that they still had a few more days left, but just a few.

“What day, exactly?” Chris knew what Matt was asking.

“December 27th. We’re driving up on Sunday. Melanie says we’ll come back a few weeks later and get the rest of our stuff, what little there is to keep.” Chris choked out the answer to Matt’s question.

Matt frowned. Seven days weren’t nearly enough. Christmas would be ruined, as would his fifteenth birthday - falling just one week after Chris’s departure. But those were minor emotional offenses compared to the deeper sense of loss starting to take him over. Now there was a definite date – and no more vagueness to seek false comfort in. Reality had now officially and inescapably set in, with full force, and Matt dropped into a sitting position on the old couch. His stomach was churning and his face had gone pale. Chris saw the despair on Matt’s face and took a seat beside him.

“Matt, I’m sorry. I’m just so sorry. Don’t hate me for this. I couldn’t take that…” Chris’s words drew a quick turn of the head from Matt. Chris’s fear was impossible for Matt to even imagine, but the emotion in Chris’s eyes proved that at least he believed it was possible for Matt to hate him.

Surprising himself, Matt held it together. He seemed to be coming into some late inheritance of his mother’s ability to regroup. But then it had always been easier for him to pull himself together for Chris’s sake. Something about Chris’s vulnerable side just brought out the best in Matt.

“Don’t ever, EVER think that, Chris. I could never hate you. I knew I loved you before I could even admit it to myself. And I always will love you. I think we found each other for a reason. I don’t want to say it was God, maybe it was, but something brought us together. There was a reason, Chris. There had to be.” Chris took Matt’s hand and entwined their fingers together.

“I think you saved me, Matt. Do you remember the first time we really opened up and talked to each other? Not just about sports and stuff, but really talked?”

“Of course I do. I remember it like it was just yesterday. Really, it was only six months anyway, but it seems like a lifetime ago.”

“Matt, I don’t think you know just how bad off I was then. I felt like I was losing my mind. Katie had me so confused. My dad had me completely fucked up. I had just put Jay aside and pretended like he never existed, like I had never been there with him in that shack. I felt responsible for my mom becoming a drunk again. She had started right after I got out of the hospital. I still do feel responsible for that…And then you showed up.” Chris paused to look Matt over, taking his free hand and rubbing it across the side of Matt’s face before resting it on his neck.

He continued. “I saw you in the hall that morning and I thought ‘who the hell is he? I’ve never seen that boy before.’ But I knew I wanted to get to know you, right from the start. I knew, Matt. I just knew that we were going to be friends. You didn’t know me. You didn’t know my dad or any of the rumors about me. Maybe I just saw a chance to make a fresh start with someone. And I thought you were cute as hell, but that was beside the point.” Both boys exchanged warm smiles, and stares through dampened eyes. “I had a girlfriend, after all, but you were my best friend right then and there. You just didn’t know it yet.”

“Yeah, you HAD a girlfriend,” Matt teased in reply before adding, “But I knew, Chris. I knew, too. We got off to a shaky start, but when you laughed and put your hand on my shoulder, I think I knew.”

“You saved me, Matt, and I don’t think I can do this without you.”

“You won’t be without me. You’ll never be without me again, because I’ll be thinking about you every day. We’ll talk. We’ll email, or chat. We’ve GOT to get you a computer.”

Chris frowned. “But we won’t be able to do this.” He leaned in and kissed Matt softly on the lips.

“I’m really going to miss that. How did it go again?” Chris replied by leaning in again, lingering a little longer this time.

“Yeah, I’m definitely going to miss that. But I’ll miss seeing you most of all. I’ll really miss that feeling I get every time I see your face.” Matt stared extra hard, making yet another still image for his mind to fall back on during the times to follow.

“I’ll be getting my license in two months. I think it’s about a six hour drive from Richmond, but I’ll make it every chance I get, Matt. You came all the way across the country for me. This is just a little ways away by comparison…We’re not over. I mean, you don’t want us to be over, do you?”

“What? We just got started! Hell no, I don’t want us to be over! But if you do, just tell me!” Matt could barely tolerate the idea of separation, but he had never considered it an end to their love.

“NO! No, Matt. Calm down.” Chris planted another soft kiss on Matt’s worried lips. “I don’t want us to ever be over. We won’t be separated forever. I’ll be on my own one day. And I made you a promise. I won’t break it.”

“Never again,” Matt recalled the words Chris has spoken to him in church the day of Robert Briggs’ funeral. He had accepted these two words as a vow between them, a vow that brought him warm reassurance.

Matt thought back to the conversation with his mom. This wasn’t just about him. Chris was torn on this; torn between two loves – and only one of his own choosing. “Chris, I don’t want you to feel bad. You’ve got nothing to be sorry about. You saved me too or maybe we helped save each other. But I know you’re worried about your mom. I want her to be all right, Chris. I know you’re trying to be there for her.”

Several tears made rapid escape from Chris’s lids. This time, Matt leaned in and delivered a long, forgiving kiss. When he started to pull back, Chris gripped him around the neck and pulled him back, their faces pressed against each other cheek to cheek.

“I love you so much, Matt.” Chris poured the words softly into Matt’s ear, bringing a tighter embrace in return.

Finally, they eased away from each other and Chris double-checked to make sure he hadn’t left a stray sock behind. All items accounted for, he grabbed his carry bag and made a last look around the basement – this time he gathered a few sentimental things for his mind.

“What do you have to take care of in town?” Matt asked.

Chris sighed and gathered his thoughts, unsure how to explain himself. “Just something that needs to be done.”

“Sort of a ‘none of my business’ type of thing?” Matt looked unsure.

Chris smiled. “No, I want you to go too.”

Matt decided he had asked enough questions about it and they made their way back upstairs and waited for John to escort them. Joanna was waiting for them in the living room.

“Chris, you’re coming back here before you leave for Virginia, right?” Joanna’s words were more of a strong suggestion than a question. The look on her face didn’t leave room for an answer of ‘no.’

“Yes, I would like to if you don’t mind.”

“I will only mind if you don’t come back. Now, come here.” Joanna summonsed him with her arms and Chris melted into her.

Matt observed the pain on his mother’s face and finally realized that this was like losing a son for her. Her earlier emotions made more sense to him now, though he had no clue what had triggered the strong outbreak.

John joined them but Joanna wasn’t ready to let go yet. Chris didn’t appear to be making any attempts to break free, himself. When Joanna finally released him, she gave him the parting gift of a light kiss to his cheek. Still looking on, Matt fought back tears and continued his new string of success at wrestling his emotions.

The threesome of boys and man exited to the driveway and were soon pulling away. No one ever saw it, but Joanna Jordan finally let her full frustrations release themselves. She had held back as long as she could and even longer than she should have.

“Chris, where are we going?” John was a willing chauffeur but he wasn’t a psychic.

“Do you know where the city high school is?” John nodded a confirmation. Chris pulled a small note with hand-written directions on them from his wallet. “If you can head for there, and then we’ll make a right on Stonewall Street just past the main entrance to the school.”

John gave him a curious look. The little mill-town of Concord was very small by comparison to its larger neighbor Charlotte, and like any town, it had parts that seemed to have been forgotten – or neglected – by the rest of the community. As part of John’s marketing job for the bank, he had to know where the “money” in the community was. He knew very well that there was no money in the part of town Chris was describing and he was less than comfortable with this trip.

Once in town, they made several turns and crossed a bumpy set of railroad tracks. This was all virgin territory to Matt’s eyes and it was part of small-town Southern life he had no idea existed. Old factories that looked they should have been closed down 100 years ago were still in service, seemingly held together by nothing more than rust. And Matt saw something else he was unaccustomed to: Blacks and even a few Hispanics. The county high school was almost pearly white, as had been Matt’s old schools back in Sausalito.

The city high school didn’t look much better than the old factories but at least had an outer structure of red brick in place of the rusty metal. Parking lots were in obvious need of patching and things in general just had a look of decay about them. The overcast skies didn’t help the setting much either.

Chris directed John back onto a busy side-street. “Right in here is where my mom had her accident.” John bounced Matt a worried glance off the rear-view mirror; Matt had insisted Chris take the front seat.

Looking at his notes, Chris announced, “Look for Morningstar Lane and take a left.” Soon they were turning left. Hidden behind the harsh outer shell of the inner-town, they came across long rows of very small wood houses. John recognized these as old mill houses, built by the textile mills many decades before. They were hardly stellar in appearance and they were most definitely aged but still looked well cared for none the less. Most of the small back yards also served as tiny garden spaces during the spring and summer months.

“Sixth house on the right,” was Chris’s last direction. He didn’t seem as sure of himself now that they had spotted it. Every house had exactly the same simple design and there were already two cars jammed into the small driveway.

“Chris, what are we doing here? I need to know what’s going on.” John parked on the side of the street. His curiosity, and patience, had finally been exhausted.

Matt saw a familiar kind face peer out from behind a curtain, and it all came together at once for him.

“It’s OK, dad.” Matt reassured him, but Chris was looking like he needed some reassurance of his own. He had spent all of his courage getting here and now he wasn’t sure he had enough left to finish what he’d started. He sat for a moment frozen in the front seat. Matt reached a hand forward and placed it on Chris’s shoulder.

Chris took a deep breath and opened the car door. He took a shaky step toward the house and stopped, turning to look back at Matt. The question was in his eyes and he didn’t need to speak it aloud. Matt exited the back seat, telling his dad one more time, “It’s OK. I know what he’s doing.” John sat nervously by, still unsure what they were up to. His nervousness increased when an irritated-looking man in his twenties appeared on the small front porch. But his apprehensions fell aside when he too saw a vaguely familiar face appear, joining the younger man on the porch and then scolding him back into the house.

“Let them boys alone, they ain’t nobody up to no trouble here.” Olivia’s voice was heavy with black Southern drawl, but it commanded instant respect and obedience. Her face was filled with its own curiosity and she exchanged reacquainting nods with Matt. They hardly knew each other well, but Olivia had been around the block enough times to know when someone was being genuine with her. During their brief encounters together in the hospital - Olivia caring for her injured grandson Michael, and Matt caring for Chris - Matt had struck a bond with her. A bond based not on any commonality of society or culture, but based on a more fundamental sharing of common human decency.

Chris walked up to the front porch steps with Matt right behind. His voice was shaky. “Ma’am, I was wondering if I could come in and speak to you for a minute.”

Olivia’s eyes went from Chris’s face to Matt’s and back to Chris again. She opened the front door and went in ahead of them, holding the door open long enough for them to take her lead. Her husband, James, was sitting up on the edge of his recliner and his eyes widened on the appearance of the two teenage white boys entering the tight quarters of his living room. Chris’s face was not unfamiliar to him. James followed the local sports scene closely enough, reading the local paper every day. Chris had appeared there on the sports page more than once and, most recently, after the last second lay-up to beat the cross-county rivals led by the reviled Billy Jacobs.

Very recently, Chris’s dad’s picture had been on the front page of the paper and that story hadn’t escaped James’s or Olivia’s attention either. The news of Robert Briggs’ death hadn’t been received with any glee here. Olivia and James were used to disappointment of their own and they took no twisted pleasure in the misery of others. Olivia had commented to James at the time, “That poor Briggs’ boy wasn’t much luckier than our Michael when it came to his folks.”

Chris’s knuckles were white from the death-grip he had on his own palms, and his voice was still a bit shaky. “How is Michael doing?” The question seemed to ease the tension for everyone.

Olivia replied. “He’s making progress. It’s been hard on him but he’s starting to get a handle on it all. He’s just got to keep his spirits up.”

“Grandma, who is that?” The hidden voice seemed to have plenty of spirit at the moment.

Olivia motioned Chris and Matt to follow her and only a few steps were needed to reach the entrance of the bedroom. Michael’s eyes met Chris’s. This wasn’t their first introduction, as they had competed on the basketball court once. The city high school was larger and not part of the same athletic conference but both schools still competed in the same local Christmas tournament.

Michael looked Matt over but it wasn’t necessary to identify him. He knew who Chris was and he knew who Chris’s mom was – or what she had done to him. It was always classified as an accident and Peggy Briggs was not legally drunk at the time but Chris would always feel like it could have been avoided. His mother might not have been at fault in the eyes of the law but she was still to blame in his eyes.

Chris seemed to be getting a little steadier. “I called the hospital several times checking up on you. They said you came home last week.”

Michael nodded. “So you came by here just to check on me, huh? Or maybe your momma sent you over here. I bet that’s it. She’s probably feeling a little guilty.”

The bitterness, though understandable, brought a sharp look of rebuke from Olivia. Michael looked away and out the window.

“My mom’s a drunk. She doesn’t even know I’m here.” Chris responded flatly. He didn’t blame Michael for being resentful. In fact, he understood it all too well. “The reason I came here was to say I’m sorry. I feel like this was really my fault, in a way. It’s a long story, but I’m just really sorry…” Turning to Olivia, he continued. “And I’m sorry for the things my dad said in the hospital. I know you heard him. My dad could be really hateful sometimes, well, most all of the time. I wanted to say something then, but I just couldn’t.” Chris paused, lost in his own words and reflections.

Olivia had a lifetime of experience with resentment and disappointment. In her seventies now, she had seen her opportunities for resentment evolve from a childhood where she was - officially by law - a second class citizen on into an adulthood where the official became unofficial but still felt the same. She had picked her share of cotton earlier in life, not as a slave, but as a low-wage farm worker. Later, she took jobs in the mills until that work ran out during the eighties. James had followed the same path and neither had opportunities for education. Her largest disappointments in life were delivered by her own children. The list of blames for why her children disappointed her was long but, in the end, she mostly held her kids responsible for their own faults. Olivia was never one to forgive the waste of self resulting from addiction and she had taken Michael in as a young child and raised him after realizing that her own daughter would never become a suitable mother.

All of this made Olivia sympathetic to Chris’s circumstance. Michael might not realize it, but Olivia knew he had plenty in common with Chris.

Chris’s eyes were pointing to the floor. He had said what he came to say and he never expected a feel-good ending to it. Now, he was caught in some emotional paralysis not sure where to go next. Olivia searched his face and spoke softly.

“Son, I preciate that you would come here like this. Do you hear me?” Chris nodded. “I really do preciate it. But son, it ain’t your job to go around carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders like this. It ain’t good for you. And you’re carryin somebody else’s burdens. They ain’t even yours to start with.” Chris’s eyes rose to meet Olivia’s. Matt could see a tremble in Chris’s lips.

Olivia continued. “What your daddy said in that hospital ain’t your fault to go being sorry for. You ain’t him. You ain’t your momma either. They their own people and you just worry about the things that you’ve gone and done. You don’t need to be toting these things around no more.” Olivia looked over at Michael, who was now looking at her; she didn’t take her eyes off him, but continued speaking to Chris. “I promise you I don’t want my boy toting around the things that his momma and daddy done.”

Chris hadn’t come here seeking forgiveness or a pardon. He only came seeking peace within himself. Peace wasn’t Olivia’s to give, but her wisdom pointed a path to where it could be found.

“Thank you.” Chris gritted his teeth, eyes now glossy with tears, and extended a hand to Olivia. ‘My how times have changed,’ she might have thought to herself as she took Chris’s hand in hers and issued one last act of grace.

“There’s a good spirit in you. I can see it clear as I can see you standin here in fronts of me. Son, let these things go. They will only hurt you, only hold you down. Believe me, I KNOW.”

Michael had his own last words for Chris. “Hey! You gonna see me again out there on the court. Next year, and I ain’t going to cut you no slack then either.”

Chris smiled in an admiring way that real athletes smile at each other. “You’re the best player in this county and next year you’ll STILL be the best player in this county.” Chris saw no point in mentioning his move to Virginia. If Michael could use his presence as motivation for a full recovery, then Chris wouldn’t deny him the source.

Michael had the last word. “All right, man. You can butter me up, but I STILL ain’t gonna cut you no slack either. You just wait and see.” Chris distinctly remembered that Michael didn’t cut anyone any slack. He hadn’t exaggerated or over-complimented him by what he’d said. He felt sure Michael would, in fact, be the best player in the county again, sooner than later. The two competitors called it a truce and both longed for a day that might never come.

John Jordan was relieved to see Chris and Matt emerge from the house. He was anxious to find out what this had been about, though he had enough time to figure most of it out.

Matt gave Olivia a deep smile of appreciation. She replied, “Matthew, you try and be more careful. You hear?”

“Yes ma’am. I’m trying harder all the time.”

Olivia breathed out a low laugh and shook her head in response. “Are you boys gonna be all right with that strange white man sitting by himself out there in the road?” Olivia hadn’t managed to live this long without a sense of humor.

John saw her smiling in his direction and he issued a replying smile and a small wave of his hand. Olivia waved back and laughed again, still shaking her head. “Lord have mercy. If the good Lord didn’t give us the white folks to laugh at, what would we do?”

The ride back to Chris’s house was much more somber. Finally, Chris broke the silence. “Thanks, Mr. Jordan, for the ride into town…” He paused, and looked ready to say more but clinched his jaw instead and turned to stare at some far off point out the car window.

“You’re welcome, son. It was no trouble at all.” John gave him a supportive pat on the knee and the rest of the trip was made in complete silence.

Matt wrapped his arms tight together and sat rigid in the back seat. The anger and resentment helped quell the tears, at least. He imagined a quick detour back to his own house. There, they would pick up his mother – and Digger – before making an escape to some unannounced destination with Chris in tow – willingly or not. They’d crisscross over the country, dodging the law at every turn, refusing to give in or give up. It was just the stuff of idle fantasy, and Matt realized they would have to take Tommy too, for he would not be happy being left behind. Neither would Matt be happy leaving him behind. In the midst of his despair over losing Chris, for however long it might be, Matt found some familiar measure of comfort in knowing that Tommy hadn’t yet deserted him too.

John glanced at Chris, then at Matt. He thought back to an earlier conversation – one that hadn’t gone at all as expected or as hoped. He felt for Melanie; she had been in obvious embarrassment, even shock, at the things her mother had said. His mind drifted back to his own miserable father and how helpless it was to be alone with him at his worst times. He thought of his late older brother, Heath, who was always there to lean on. John took more strength from Heath than he was able to give back in return. He glanced at Chris again, finding him still looking out across the passing fields; still right beside him, but already so far away. Then he focused on the rear-view mirror again to see a sullen Matt, his eyes empty and cold. As they neared Chris’s house, Matt twitched and started to tense-up even more.

As they pulled down the driveway, the rarely-seen Peggy Briggs was walking back toward the house. She never looked in the direction of the car and soon she was inside again. Chris made no immediate move to get out, but then he sighed and opened the car door. Matt got out too and they exchanged an extended version of their customary hand-clasp, along with sad stares, before Chris turned to walk away. Stopping almost at once, he wheeled back and waved to John, saying a loud “Thanks.” John waved and forced a smile, but the smile fell from his face as soon as Chris turned away. This second departure from the Briggs’ house today was no happier than the first one.

Matt grudgingly took Chris’s place in the front seat and his eyes stayed glued on Chris until his form was finally taken by the house. With body language that reeked of discontent, Matt curled against the car door and made grim faces at the passing homes adorned with their tacky lights and Christmas trees.

“Son, exactly what happened back in town?” John asked.

Matt was in serious reflection mode and he pondered the question before answering. “When I first met Chris, he was really confused. I guess he still is. Me too. Maybe we all are… He’s always carried a lot of guilt about his mom and all. I think he’s still trying to make peace with everything that’s happened. Do you remember Olivia from the hospital?” John shook his head. “Well, the boy Chris’s mom hit was her grandson.”

John looked over at Matt and focused on him between glances back at the road. His son really was growing up. The physical development hadn’t escaped the notice of a proud father but it was the more subtle things that caught John’s attention now days. Matt had always been a deep-thinker, and often very emotional too. As John soaked in one last good look, his son just seemed older.

He considered Matt’s observation about Chris. John thought about his own guilt carried all those years after his brother had died of AIDS. Sometimes, the path to peace was a long one. John hoped Chris’s path would be shorter and easier than his own.

Matt added, “He’s still the bravest person I’ve ever known. He just wanted to say he was sorry. He knew he couldn’t make things right, but he wanted them to know…I don’t think Michael really appreciated his being there, but I think it meant something to Olivia.”

As they continued down the road, the tacky Christmas lights became less-muted against the fading twilight. Heavy clouds were bringing an early return of winter’s night. Matt’s thoughts stayed with Chris. The boy he loved had been worth it all and he refused to give up now. Time and distance had brought them together once…









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