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  1. A Christmas Story. Jamal, a young boy, discovers the miracle of Christmas by facing three challenges given to him on his journey to Bethlehem.
  2. Chapter 1

    Jamal and the Three Challenges Jamal lay sleeping on the dirty straw bed in the hovel he shared with his mother, sister and two brothers. His lanky body was twisted as his little brother lay curled aside his body. He was restless from the dream that was disturbing his sleep. His eyes fluttered as he suddenly awoke. He listened carefully as he thought he heard an unusual rustling noise coming from outside. The bleating of the goats warned him that danger might be near. He cautiously unwrapped himself from around his brother’s sleeping body and arose. The small room was dark. Only a small beam of light from the overhead moon shining through the dirty window provided him a path through the sleeping bodies. He slipped his robe over his body and placed his sandals on his feet. He looked around to make sure that everyone was asleep and safe before making his way to the door. He carefully opened it as the hinges were old and worn and they tended to squeak from the dust that had accumulated on them over the years. He crept outside and peered around the small shack that had been his home for sixteen years. He was the eldest son and it was his responsibility to protect his family. It was a duty he neither questioned or objected. The moon shone down as he made his way to the shed that housed the three goats, a cow and many chickens. They provided the food for his family. Without them, his younger brothers and sister would have no food for the morning meal. He moved his way cautiously toward the dilapidated building. He could hear the animals stirring inside. As he approached the door, he could see the image of a tall man. He snuck behind the door and waited for him to exit so he could pounce upon his back. His knees trembled as he waited. He’d never had to deal with a thief before. It was not customary where he lived. If a neighbor needed something, they simply had to ask. It would generously be given to them. He crouched down when he heard the shuffling of feet approaching the door. When the figure silhouetted the doorway, Jamal sprang, taking the figure to the ground. “Wait!” The figure let out a shout. “I come to mean you know harm.” Jamal arose from the body, but kept a tight grip on him. “Who are you?” Jamal asked. The figure before him was an elderly man. His face was withered with age. He gasped for air as he lay upon the dirty ground. “It’s not important,” answered the old gentleman as he sat up and brushed the straw from his tattered garment. “But you are stealing our food,” Jamal said. “My family will not be able to eat.” “I stole nothing,” insisted the gentleman. “I was merely looking for a place to sleep for the night.” He stood and shook his garment. “You see,” he said. “I have taken nothing.” “Where are you going?” Jamal asked as he took the old man’s arm and helped him to sit upon a bale of hay. The old man looked into the sky at a star shining high overhead. Jamal was surprised he had not noticed it before. The old man pointed his gnarly finger upward. “I’m following that star,” he answered. “Something wonderful will happen and I must go there.” “Why?” Jamal sat down before the man and crossed his legs. The old gentleman looked around as if to see if they were being watched. He then put his thin finger to his mouth, indicating he was about to whisper a secret. Jamal waited breathlessly for him to respond. The man’s eyes lit up as he spoke. “I am on my way to Bethlehem to witness a miracle.” “A miracle?” Jamal’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Can I go with you to see it?” The man smiled and then put his finger to his mouth. “Shhhh,” he said. “It is not for everyone to see. Only the chosen.” Jamal’s shoulders dropped in sadness. He had been told of miracles all his life and he finally thought he had his chance to see one. The elders talked of the dead rising to their feet. He had heard stories of lepers being healed in the marketplace. But to him, they were mere stories. He wanted to see one so he would know they did indeed happen. The old man put his hand on his shoulder and smiled. “Did I tell you that you could not witness the miracle?” Jamal shook his head. “But you said it was only for the chosen.” “It is,” he old man replied. “But those who are chosen must first pass three challenges on their way to Bethlehem.” “Three challenges?” Jamal leaned nearer the man. “What are they?” The old man laughed. “It is not for me to say. If you are chosen, then you will indeed see the miracle.” “What do I have to do?” Jamal asked worriedly. “How will I know?” The man smiled. “You will know when you know.” “What does than mean?” Jamal asked. “It sounds like a riddle to me.” “It is a riddle,” smiled the man. “As old as mankind itself.” He sat back down on the hay. “I am thirsty. Can you fetch some water for this old man?” Jamal told him to wait while he picked up a bucket that was hanging nearby and ran to the well. He looked into the sky and peered at the shining star above. It seemed to be twinkling brighter than any he had ever seen before. “What is the miracle this old man speaks of?” He wondered. When the bucket was filled, he raced back to the shed. The old man was gone. He ran outside and looked down the deserted road. He ran to the back of the shed but there was no sign of him. Jamal shrugged his shoulders and headed wearily back to the dilapidated hovel. When he awoke in the morning, he couldn’t get the words of the old man out of his mind. What was the miracle he spoke of, and what were the challenges a person must endure to witness the miracle? Surely a poor boy like him would be unworthy of such a feat, but his soul burned with curiosity. His mother was gathering eggs from the hens’ nest when he walked outside. “Jamal,” she hollered. “Come milk the goats.” He got his small stool and bucket and began his morning chore. “Mother?” He said as he milked the largest goat. His mother was tossing hay before the goats. “Yes, Jamal.” Her voice was soft and smooth, much like her appearance. She was a small woman. Jamal towered over her. His teen body had grown a foot over the past year. “Do you believe in miracles?” She stopped before him. “Why do you ask? Did you have a dream?” “No,” he replied. She listened patiently while he explained his encounter with the stranger inside the shed where they were now standing. When he finished, she turned and shooed the chickens into the yard outside. “He was just a silly old man,” she replied. “He was probably here to rob us.” Jamal jumped to his feet and stood before her. “No, Mother,” he replied. “It was more than that. There was something about him. And the miracle he spoke of.” Jamal began to become excited. “Something special is going to happen.” His mother clicked her tongue. “The words of an old fool.” She turned to go outside, but Jamal stood before her and grabbed her thin shoulders. “I want to go to Bethlehem,” he announced. “I want to see the miracle.” “That’s a three day journey!” She exclaimed. “A young boy like you can’t travel by himself. The roads are filled with robbers.” “But I must go,” he pleaded. “I want to see the miracle. If I go, then maybe the miracle will make our lives better.” He held up the bucket. “The little ones won’t have to go hungry.” “It’s nonsense,” she remarked. “I forbid this.” “But Mother,” he took her hands and held them. “What if I go and witness the miracle. Just think how much better our lives can be.” He looked at the ram shackled building in which they lived. “What if the miracle will give us a better home for you and the young ones.” “What if you get killed on the way?” His mother replied angrily. “What good will that do us?” “I must try,” he pleaded once again. “Please let me go.” He squeezed her hands tighter. “No!” She insisted. “You will not go to Bethlehem.” She turned and stormed from the shed. Jamal sat on the stool and began milking the smaller goat. His mind was filled with thoughts of the miracle and the effects it could have on his family. Since his father had died three years earlier from disease, he had watched his mother struggle to maintain the family. He was able to bring in food by working odd jobs for neighboring farms, but it was never enough. Too many times he listened as the young ones cried themselves to sleep from hungry stomachs. He went about his daily chores with sadness. He wished his mother would change her mind. He would never disobey her and set out on the trek without her permission. The sun was setting as he sat under a large tree thinking about the miracle that now would never be. He was startled when his mother walked up and awakened him from his reverie. She sat down and looked worriedly at him. “This means a lot to you?” He nodded his head. “I know the miracle will happen,” he said. “I don’t know what it will be, but when it happens, I will ask it to do good for our family. I will ask for food so the little ones don’t go hungry. I will ask for clothing, so our bodies will be clothed properly.” He looked down at the tattered gown his mother was wearing. He looked at her with tears in his eyes. “I’ll ask that you be happy,” he said softly. “I want to see you smile again.” She took his head and placed it in her lap. She wept as she ran her fingers through his long, black hair. “You are so young,” she cried. “You always think the world can be a better place. Someday you will grow old like me and realize that change never comes.” Jamal lifted his head and stared into her eyes. “At least I have to try.” He wiped her tears away with his finger. “May I, Mother?” He hugged her tightly when she nodded her head. Jamal departed on his journey to see the miracle early the next morning. The roosters were beginning to crow as the sun appeared on the horizon. He tiptoed across the room so as not to awaken the young ones. He took the sack off the rickety table. It was filled with enough provisions to last him several days. He then walked over to the straw mattress his mother slept on. Her eyes were open and filled with tears. Jamal knelt down and kissed her softly on the cheek. “Goodbye, Mother,” he whispered. She waved him away with her hand. Before leaving, he took one last look around the room and sighed. He closed the door and began his trek down the dusty road. He headed in the direction where he had seen the shining star the night before. His journey was arduous. A storm appeared suddenly in the afternoon and he had to hide under a large tree until it passed. Wet and cold, he journeyed on. Several times he had to leave the road and hide in bushes for fear that advancing travelers may rob him. When darkness fell, he found a comfortable spot in a small copse near the road. He felt he could safely sleep because fallen branches might warn him of impending danger. Through the trees he could see the bright star casting a warm glow on the ground below. He imagined the wonders of the miracle he hoped to witness. He fell asleep seeing the smiling faces of his mother, brothers and sister. He awoke with the dawn. The star had disappeared, replaced by a warm sun. He continued his long journey in the direction of the star. The sun was high above him when he wandered upon a woman sitting beside the road. She was curled into a ball, moaning softly. He approached her apprehensively. “Are you alright?” He asked. She looked up. He was startled by her appearance. Her eyes were sunk into the sockets of her face. Her skin appeared rough and scaly. “Leprosy,” he thought silently. He had seen it often in the withered bodies of villagers where he lived. She held out her hand to him. “I’m hungry,” she said weakly. “Do you have anything to eat?” He clutched the small sack he had over his shoulder tighter. He had been on the road two days and his provisions were rapidly disappearing. He had not rationed his food properly and he had eaten too much the first day. If his journey lasted many more days, he himself would be left hungry. “I do not have enough food for you,” he replied nervously. She looked up at him pleadingly. “But you have food?” He nodded his head. “Please share it with me. I have not eaten in four days.” She started to cough violently. He watched as she wretched out a small volume of spittle. She looked back up at him pleadingly. “Please?” She begged. Jamal studied her for a few seconds and then sighed. He sat down beside her and opened his sack. He took out a small loaf of bread and broke it in half. He then handed it to her. She grabbed at it and started eating hungrily. Occasionally, she’d look over at him and smile slightly. He then reached into his sack and pulled out a few of the remaining dates he had. He handed them to her. Again, she ate them hungrily. Jamal stood. “I must go now,” he announced. She looked up and smiled. “Bless you, My Son,” she said weakly. “May your journey be filled with success.” He looked at her questioningly. He had never mentioned to her that he was on a journey. For all she knew, he might have been a local returning to his home. She waved him off, and he turned and began back down the solitary road. When night fell, he found solace in a small barn by the side of the road. He covered himself in straw in case the home’s owner would come out and find him lying there. Once he was comfortable, he opened his sack. Little remained, just the half loaf of bread and a few dates. “I shouldn’t have given the old woman my food,” he thought. Then he remembered her withered body and the sad expression on her face. He pulled off a piece of the bread and took out two dates. “This will have to do,” he said softly to himself. “At least I won’t go hungry tonight.” After eating, he buried himself in the straw and fell asleep. The sun was peeking over the horizon when left the barn. He stretched lazily and yawned. “I should reach the destination of the miracle tonight,” he thought. From what some of his neighbors had told him, it would take him three days and two nights to reach the village of Bethlehem.” His feet were sore and blistered from his shoddy shoes as the sun began to set in the west. Ahead of him he could see the village of Bethlehem. Candles were flickering in the windows as he approached. He looked upward at the star. It was shining brighter than it had the two previous nights. It lit up the village with its glowing beams. As he walked toward the town, his heart began to pound with the excitement of finally witnessing the miracle he had spent three days seeking. As he approached, a beam came down from the sky and cast an eerie glow on a nearby structure. He walked slowly toward it. The silence of the night was disturbing to Jamal. It was as if the world had stopped existing around him. Then the silence was interrupted by the crying of a baby. The star’s beam glowed brightly on what he now recognized as a small barn. He neared it cautiously as the small child continued to cry. When he was just a few feet away, the old man who had been inside his shed appeared. “You made it,” he said with a warm smile. “I knew you would.” Jamal’s eyes widened. “How did you know I would come?” “Because you are one of the chosen ones.” Jamal fell to the old man’s feet and started weeping. “I’m not one of the chosen,” he cried. “You said the chosen had to face three challenges.” The old man stepped toward Jamal and patted him on his shoulder with his withered hand. “You have.” Jamal looked up and looked through misty eyes at the elderly gentleman. “How?” He whispered almost inaudibly. “I did nothing.” The old man started laughing. “Oh, sweet innocent youth. How wonderful you are.” He took Jamal by the shoulders and helped him to his feet. “Your first challenge was hope.” He said. “You looked into tomorrow and saw a brighter future for your family. You were able to change the mind your doubting mother with your unselfish dreams.” He smiled warmly at Jamal. “Not once did you ask for anything for yourself.” “And my second challenge?” “Charity.” The old man announced. “I don’t understand,” replied Jamal. “Of course you don’t,” said the older gentleman. “Giving freely without wanting is in your gentle nature.” Jamal gave him a puzzled look. “The old woman,” He stated. “You shared your food unselfishly with her when you knew it meant that you yourself would go hungry.” “But she was hungry,” insisted the young boy. Tears welled up in the old man’s eyes. “If only everyone was as innocent as you. Time hardens man’s hearts and turns them into cold shells.” “But that’s only two challenges,” said Jamal sadly. “There can’t be any more remaining.” “You passed the hardest challenge of them all,” replied the man. “How?” Jamal asked. “What?” The old gentleman pointed to a stone wall. “Have a seat,” he said. They sat down and the man turned to him. “You believed a total stranger when he told you of a miraculous event that was about to take place. Not once did you question me or doubt what I was saying.” He took Jamal’s hands and held them face up. “You took hope,” he raised his left hand, “and charity,” he held his right. He then put them together. “And you kept your faith.” He looked sadly into Jamal’s eyes. “What is man if he doesn’t have faith. What good is a tomorrow if he believes in nothing?” He pointed to the small barn. A ray from the star was shining brightly upon the door. “Go witness your miracle, My Son.” He pulled Jamal up to his feet. “You have faced your three challenges and earned your tomorrow.” Jamal walked to the door and pulled back the tattered curtain. Inside was a mother holding a child. A man was standing nearby keeping vigilant guard. The woman looked up and motioned for him to come closer. Jamal fell to his knees and crawled to the small baby she was holding. He wept openly when the child looked up at him and smiled. The miracle happened many years ago. Today Jamal is an old man. He sits with his legs crossed on a thin blanket inside his house. His grandchildren play joyfully around him. Occasionally, a stranger will appear at his door and ask to hear about the miracle he witnessed as a boy. He tells them in a soft voice about the baby he saw that night. They listen in amazement as he describes the star’s beam on the door. And they sit in awe as he speaks of the old man and the three challenges he faced. Before they depart, his words have remained unchanged throughout time. “Follow steadfastly your hopes and your dreams. Give charitably to those who are less fortunate than you. And most importantly, keep in your heart a resolute faith that there will be a brighter tomorrow. Go in peace.” The End
  3. Chapter 4

    “Ladies and Gentlemen. We are now descending and will arrive in less than five minutes. Please fasten your seatbelts. Thank you for flying with us.” It had been a long flight. I looked over at Tina and she was staring out the window. She had said hardly a half-dozen words to me during the four hour flight home. She was still upset that I hadn’t answered my phone for hours when she called to inform me of my father’s death. He had suffered a massive heart attack while mowing the yard earlier in the day. According to my mother, the medics said he was probably dead before he hit the ground. He had suffered a couple of minor heart attacks over the past several years, but his death was still unexpected. I talked to him on the phone last week, and he sounded tired. He had retired a few years earlier, and he had developed a passion for playing golf. Mother said he spent more time at the country club than he did at home. When I talked to him, he had just finished eighteen holes and was in the club house drinking a martini. Little did I know it would be the last time I would speak with him. My mother was waiting in the lobby of the airport when we arrived. I was surprised to see Star sitting beside her. I was astonished by my mother’s appearance. She looked old; much older than I remembered her looking last Christmas when Tina and I had last visited. She stood and rushed into my arms when she saw us walking down the long corridor as we disembarked. She buried her head into my chest and cried. “It’s just me and you now, Gene,” she whispered softly. I held her as she sobbed. Star came up and rubbed her gently on her back. Tina stood back, apparently unsure of what to do. Star looked amazing. She seemed so full of poise and grace. She had matured into a beautiful woman. She was like a sister to me, and we had always welcomed her into our home as if she was one of the family. “Hello, Gene.” She stood on her tiptoes and kissed me on the cheek. “I’m so sorry.” She then turned and hugged Tina. I walked over to the turnstile and retrieved our luggage. I was trying to balance four pieces when Star walked over and took two of the lightest. Tina put her arm around my mother and led the way out of the terminal. She and my mother had always been very good friends. I think it was their desire for my mother to have grandchildren that bonded their relationship. It was always after our visits home that Tina would insist that we try and have children. Our arguments would last for several months before she would final relent and realize that I would never want children. “Is everything all right?” Star asked. She looked at Tina and then back at me. “Same old, same old,” I laughed nervously. Star and I had had many long conversations about my relationship with Tina. Since she was one of the few people who knew what had happened in high school, I felt more comfortable talking to her. The ride home was surreal. I felt like a stranger in the car. Tina sat in the back seat and tried to console my mother. Star sat in the passenger’s seat and stared at me out of the corner of her eye. I glanced over a few times, but she would look quickly away. Cars were parked up and down the street when we arrived. No one had parked in the long drive, so we were able to drive up to the front of the house. As we got out, several people came out and greeted us. Most were unfamiliar to me. I found out later that they were dad’s golfing buddies and members of the lodge he had attended for over forty years. Some I remembered seeing when I was a teenager. However, since I had moved two thousand miles away, I had lost contact with all my parents’ acquaintances. I was glad, though, that my mother had a lot of support from friends. I was overcome with guilt because I felt I had abandoned her over the years, and she and my father lived a life unknown to me. Visiting for two weeks every couple of years at Christmas now made me feel like a stranger in my former home. I spent the next hour walking around the house and mingling with the mourners. People told me how sorry they were for my loss, but it seemed like empty sentiments. Most of them knew that I was estranged from my parents after I left high school and attended college. My mother understood why I left. She had forced me to seek counseling after that incident in Billy Joe’s barn, and she was aware of the struggle I had with my sexuality. She felt that having children might strengthen my marriage to Tina and make me a better husband. I would usually leave after our visits and head for the nearest bar when I returned back home. It would take me months to dissuade Tina from my mother’s influence. I walked around the house trying to find some place to get away from the strangers who kept approaching me and offering their condolences. Somehow, I found myself in my parents’ bedroom. I closed the door and plopped down exhaustedly on the bed. I closed my eyes for a minute. When I opened them, I noticed a familiar picture on the wall. I walked over, took it down and clutched it to my chest. It was a picture of Allen and me. He was seventeen, and I was eleven. My father had taken it just as we had sledded down a large embankment behind our house. We had toppled over, and I was pinned under Allen. His face was full of laughter, while mine contained a painful grimace. Tears welled up in my eyes as I remembered that cold, December afternoon. I think it was one of the last times I saw Allen laugh, at least until Joey came into his life. I was still staring at the picture when Star tiptoed into the room and sat quietly beside me. She took the picture from my hands and held it. She laid her head on my shoulder and muttered softly, “I miss him so much.” “He loved you like a sister,” I remarked. “When the world turned away from him, you remained right by his side.” When she began to cry, I put my arm around her and pulled her nearer to me. It was several minutes before either of us said anything. Star wiped the tears from her eyes, and then looked at me and laughed. She reached up and wiped my eyes dry. “We look like two big babies,” she smiled. “I guess some things never change, do they?” I laughed. Just then there was a soft knock on the door. Ticker poked his head in and saw us sitting beside each other. He walked over, and I stood. He embraced me tightly, as only he could do. “I’m really sorry, Gene,” he said sympathetically. “If there’s anything I can do.” I nodded, and he hugged me again. “I guess we should go back downstairs,” I suggested to Star. I took her hand and led her from the bedroom with Ticker trailing behind us. As I descended the stairs and entered the living room, I stopped suddenly. On the other side of the room, Joey was talking to my mother. There was a young boy standing beside him, and Joey had his arm protectively around his shoulder. ******** “I’m really happy, Allen.” It was Sunday afternoon. For the past five years I have come to Allen’s graveside and placed fresh flowers in a vase beside his tombstone. Today, they were red and white carnations. “He’s a great kid,” I choke back the words. “You’d love him. And now he’s my son, our son. Can you believe it? We’re dads.” I know it sounds funny, but I want Allen to share my excitement. I want my happiness to be his happiness. When I sit in front of his grave, I always feel he is with me. I can feel his love surging inside me. For several years, it was the only thing that sustained me. “I wish you were here with us,” I say tearfully. “Nicky would love you. You’re both so much alike, so full of life. But I guess you already know that.” I carefully rearrange the carnations, making sure that they are perfectly set according to color- red, white, red, white. Actually, it is more because of nerves. Something has been troubling me for the past year. “Listen, Allen,” I begin. “I don’t want you to think that just because Nicky has come into my life that I love you any less. I know that since he’s been with me that I don’t think about you as often. But my love for you has never diminished.” I sit quietly and listen to the gentle wind blowing through the trees just behind me. Then I know. “You wanted to see me happy. You always told me you didn’t care that I love someone else, as long as I love.” I start to smile. “Just how much did you have a hand in bringing Nicky to me?” A chill goes up my spine as I close my eyes and hear Allen laugh. I rise to my feet, kiss the marble headstone and walk cheerfully to my car. Allen’s love will forever be with me. I know that in my heart. ******** “I need to talk to you, Doc.” Douglas Campbell paced nervously around my office. He walked over and closed the door. “This is important.” Douglas, the senior class president, had stopped me in the hallway the day before and asked if he could schedule an appointment with me. I assumed he had something he wanted to discuss about graduation at the end of May, but his nervousness indicated that it was something unrelated to a class activity. “Would you sit down and stop pacing around the room,” I laughed. “I’m getting dizzy watching you.” He stopped in the center of the room, and for a moment I felt he was going to burst into tears. He walked over, pulled a chair up to my desk and leaned forward. “Can we talk, like private? Man to man?” He was whispering, afraid that someone in the outer office might hear. “Of course, Douglas,” I assured him. “Anything you tell me will be confidential. That is, unless you confess to murder or something.” I laughed and tried to make the situation lighter, but he merely frowned and rolled his eyes. “You know that Jason and Travis are trying to form this gay group here at school?” He waited for my response. “Yes,” I replied. “I was the one who suggested it. I’ve wanted a gay-straight student alliance here for quite some time.” He stared me in the eyes. I could tell he was struggling to say something. Finally, he sighed and said, “I want to join it.” Tears welled up in his eyes as he again awaited my response. “That’s great, Douglas,” I said excitedly. “Jason and Travis will be thrilled. Your leadership skills will be invaluable.” He slumped down in his chair and let out another sigh. “There’s a problem with that.” He fidgeted in his seat, again carefully measuring his words. “I don’t think you understand.” He paused before continuing, “I’m gay.” “I see.” I sat back in my chair and studied him for a minute. “You’re not out?” Tears fell from down his cheeks as he shook his head. “They’re so excited about this,” he replied. “They’re going all around the school trying to get other kids involved. I’ve been in the closet since I was thirteen. But just watching them being proud of who they are... I don’t know...it makes me want to... I don’t know... maybe come out or something.” He put his head in his hands and wept quietly. I got up, walked around the desk and placed my hand on his shoulder. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay,” I assured him. “I know that.” He turned and looked up at me. “But I’m the class president. What would people say?” “Even class presidents can be gay,” I smiled. He seemed to relax a little. “Do your parents know?” “I don’t know,” he replied. “I think they may suspect. I’m eighteen, and I’ve never really had a girlfriend. My mom has thrown out a couple of hints the past couple of months. I think she wants me to tell her.” I gently squeezed his shoulder. “Douglas, I’ve met your parents. They are wonderful individuals. I don’t think they’ll think any less of you if you are gay.” “But I’m an only son,” he replied sadly. “So was I,” I responded before I realized what I had said. He swirled around in his chair and stared up at me. “Doc,” he said disbelievingly. “You mean?” I pulled up a chair and sat beside him. “I told you that anything you said would be confidential,” I said. “I expect the same respect from you.” “You have my word on that,” he kissed his finger and crossed his heart. He leaned toward me and asked seriously, “Tell me how you handled it.” I gave him a very condensed version of my high school experience, leaving out the sordid details. I trusted him, but I didn’t think it was important that he know all the depressing aspects of my teenage years. Besides, I was trying to get him to feel comfortable about accepting himself. My past experience would have depressed him. “But you said your parents kicked you out of the house,” he said worriedly. “What if my parents do that to me?” “The point I was trying to make, is that my parents weren’t good parents,” I replied. “Your parents are caring and supportive. They love you deeply. I’ve seen the pride in their faces when you are involved in some school activity.” “I still don’t know.” He sat back with a worried look. “What if they’re not proud of me anymore once I tell them?” “I’ve been around a long time,” I assured him. “I’ve become a pretty good judge of people. I think you being gay won’t affect your parents love for you.” He sat back and shook his head. I could tell he was really struggling with his emotions. “I have an idea,” I said. “Are you willing to take a chance and come out to Jason and Travis?” I watched as his mind began to comprehend my suggestion. “I think so,” he replied apprehensively. “Are they out to their parents?” “Yes,” I replied. “They told me they were. Maybe talking to them about it will help you make a decision.” He nodded his approval. “When should I talk to them?” he asked. “How about now?” He thought for a minute and nodded his head. I got on the phone and called my secretary. “Delores. Would you check and see what classes Jason Thompson and Travis Armstrong are in right now. Then contact their teachers and ask them to report to my office.” Ten minutes later, Jason and Travis peeked their head in my office. Their eyes widened when they saw Douglas sitting in the room. “Gentlemen, come in.” I cheerfully waved them into the room. “I think you know Douglas Campbell.” Both boys walked over and shook Douglas’s hand. “He has some things he’d like to discuss with you.” I walked over to the door. “I’ll leave you boys alone for a while. Ask my secretary for a pass back to class when you finish.” I then closed the door and walked away. I strolled the hall whistling a tune I had heard earlier on the car radio earlier in the morning. I returned to my office about a half hour later. The three young men were leaving and talking animatedly as they walked down the hall. Douglas turned and saw me approaching. He gave me a wide grin and a thumbs’ up as Travis put his arm around his shoulder and led him away. ******** When I arrived home, I immediately sensed that something was wrong. Star was sitting alone in the family room. She was holding a tissue in her hand and wiping tears from her eyes. My heart started pounding. Since I didn’t see Nicky anywhere, I was afraid something had happened to him. “What’s wrong?” I asked nervously. “What’s happened?” She stood up and walked over to me. “Mr. Albright is dead.” I felt immediately relieved that is wasn’t Nicky, but it didn’t minimize the sorrow I felt. Mr. Albright had become an extremely good friend over the years. When I met Allen, I instantly hated him for how he had treated Allen. His stepfather’s homophobia had caused Allen to leave home, leaving him virtually alone in the world. If it hadn’t been for his mother, Allen would not have survived those earlier years. His bitterness had also turned Gene against him. Gene lived in constant fear that his father would find out that he too might be gay. It took several years of counseling for him to deal with his father’s influence. But when Allen became sick, and we decided that he would return home to die, it was his stepfather who provided strength to all of us. He never left his bedside, and he was with us both when Allen took his final breath. Mr. Albright took care of all the final arrangements that Allen and I had planned in advance. Not once did he question any decision we made. He even had his personal lawyer check over our joint banking account to prevent anyone from challenging my legal status. Mr. and Mrs. Albright were frequent dinner guests, and Nicky and I were often asked over to dinner at their home. They adored Nicky, and they treated him as if he was their own son. On several occasions, we argued over them buying him things that I had told him he couldn’t have. It wasn’t because he couldn’t have them, but I expected him to earn them. They, however, would merely appear one night and secretly give them to him when I wasn’t watching. I sat down, numb from the news of his passing. It took me several minutes before I could respond. Star sat beside me, holding my hand and gently rubbing it. “Does Nicky know?” I asked. I knew Mr. Albright’s passing would be very difficult for him. He was extremely close to him and thought of him as a grandfather. Star shook her head. “No,” she said. “I thought it was best that you tell him.” “What happened?” All she had told me was that he had died. She explained how Mrs. Albright had gone out into the yard and found him lying dead with the lawn mower still idling. “How is she?” “She’s holding up,” Star replied. “This was so unexpected. They were drinking coffee together in the kitchen just a half hour earlier. She said he was cheerful, and there was no indication that anything was wrong. Gene and Tina are flying in from California.” She looked at her watch. “They will be arriving soon. She asked me to drive to the airport with her to pick them up.” Star and I stood. She leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. “You’d better go tell Nicky. Come by the Albright house later. Ticker and I will be there, and I’m sure Gene and Tina would like to see you again.” I walked her to the door and watched as she got in her car and drove away. I let out a deep sigh. I then turned and headed up the stairs to Nicky’s room. What do you say to a kid whose life had undergone so many changes over the past two years? He had formed bonds and placed unconditional trust in his new family. Now one of those bonds was broken. How does a thirteen-year-old boy deal with such a loss? Even though I knew Nicky was mature beyond his young years, he never ceased to amaze me. I guess losing his mother at eleven had strengthened his character. He cried when I told him of Mr. Albright’s death. However, his main concern was for me. He was worried how the death of Allen’s father would affect me. Like him, he knew that I had no family, or at least one that I could claim. The Albright’s had become my surrogate family. I had told him about Allen’s death and how Mr. Albright had been a source of strength and comfort to me following his loss. “You gonna be okay, Dad?” He asked worriedly as he put his head on my shoulder. Tearfully, I leaned over and kissed him on his forehead. “You know I love you, don’t you?” He smiled widely. “Yeah,” he giggled. “I kinda figured that out.” I pulled him into another hug. “Why don’t we go out to dinner,” I suggested, “and then we’ll stop by the Albright home. Aunt Star and Uncle Ticker will be there. You can also meet your Uncle Gene. He’s Allen’s younger brother. You haven’t met him yet.” He asked, “Isn’t he that blonde guy in the football jersey?” I had forgotten that I had shown him the picture of Gene when he played on the high school football team. Mrs. Albright had given it to Allen when he once asked for a picture of Gene. It became one of Allen’s favorite pictures. “Yep,” I said. “However, I’m sure he doesn’t look like that today.” I hadn’t seen Gene in a couple of years, but the last time he visited he still looked remarkably handsome. The years had been kind him. While I seemed to always grow older, Star and Gene were like Peter Pan. They never seemed to age. ******** After I saw Joey talking to my mother, I retreated without them seeing me and headed out onto the back deck. I sat by the pool and listened as the water bubbled gently along the sides. A few minutes later, the door open and Star walked out and approached me. She handed me an iced tea, and then she took the seat beside me. “Are you all right?” she asked softly. “I know how hard this must be for you.” “Yeah, right,” I answered sarcastically. Star gave me a quizzical look. To be honest, I really didn’t care that my father was dead. I had spent years in therapy trying to undo the psychological damage he did to me. Parents can go to jail for physically abusing their children, but no one says a damn word when a parent destroys a young child’s mind. I had grown to hate him since I was a teenager. I had struggled with my sexuality at an early age. Then I saw how he treated Allen. He destroyed him. I knew that if he ever found out that I shared the same traits, he would disown and destroy me also. So, I spent years in therapy, and I eventually denied that I was gay. I was gay, however, but I hid it so deeply and placed it in a box- never to be opened. But then Joey came into my life. I was immediately attracted to him, but I could never confess it to him or myself. It killed me when he met my brother and they became lovers. They were so happy-so damned happy. I was almost destroyed again. So, I ran. About as far away as I could go. Two thousand miles on the other coast. I married and lived a life I grew to hate. All because of him. If only I had Allen’s strength. Most people found him weak, but to me he was like a god. He stood up to that beast- my father. When Dad called him a fag, he said, “Fuck you!” Fuck you! He really said that to my father. Of course, Dad put him out of the house, but he stood his ground. I was so proud of him. Years later, when Allen lay dying, Dad tried to make amends. Allen was too sick to care, and Joey found it admirable. But to me, it was the old man trying to find absolution. He needed to seek forgiveness before it was too late. Allen gave it to him. But what about me? Did he one time try to make amends with me? He didn’t even care. The times Tina and I returned home to visit during holidays, he hardly said anything to me. In his eyes, I had become the prodigal son. But when I saw Joey tonight, all the old hurt resurfaced. Joey could have been mine if Dad had been more tolerant and understanding. If only he hadn’t hated so much, then I could have told Joey how I felt about him. I did once; one dark night and with too much to drink. I kissed him on that porch. The kiss that almost destroyed my life. That kiss, if Dad had discovered, would have destined me to a life of loneliness like it did Allen. Ironically though, Dad’s actions were the beginning of a chain of events that eventually brought Allen and Joey together. Allen once told me how he and Joey met- two lost guys on a bridge with nothing but despair. Two guys on a mission to end their lives, only to be brought closer together. A mission that ruined my only chance at love. “Gene?” Star’s voice shook me from my somber thoughts. “Who was that boy with Joey tonight?” Star was watching me thoughtfully. After an awkward minute, she spoke. “I guess you haven’t heard yet,” she responded. “That’s Nicky, Joey’s son.” I looked over at Star in disbelief. “His son?”
  4. December 1st is World AIDS Day

    Thank you, Wesley, for posting this. Ryan White was a brave young man. His struggle with AIDS came at a time when most of America saw the disease as a scourge on the gay community. He became the spokesman for a disease that many showed little concern for, and his battle had a profound impact on changing attitudes concerning the AIDS epidemic. Ryan White (1971- 1990) For more information, you can go to his website: http://ryanwhite.com/
  5. A Christmas tradition for me each year is attending the ballet, The Nutcracker. My favorite number from the ballet is the Pas de Deux. Written by Tchaikovsky, it is to me one of the most moving pieces of classical music.
  6. Chapter 3

    “I wasn’t sure you’d come,” said Rodney as I walked nervously into his hotel room. “I’m not sure myself why I’m here,” I replied as I took a seat in the overstuffed chair in the corner. Actually, I did know. I needed to know if I had wasted the past twenty years following false feelings. Did Pandora’s Box exist? In my fear to open it, would I really find something inside that didn’t apply to me? Just because I had liked Joey back in high school, and then felt a desire, no a need to kiss him, did it mean that I was gay? Perhaps it had just been teenage infatuation. I read an article once that boys often go through stages in which they experiment with homosexuality. In some cultures it was even encouraged. But that doesn’t explain my intense feelings for Joey. Even after he and my brother, Allen, became a couple, I still felt a desire to have him. I think even Allen sensed it. When Tina and I would visit during the holidays, he would sit and watch me carefully. In the back of my mind, I always felt I posed a threat to him. Another thing that worries me, and is perhaps the reason for my drinking, is the fear that Joey may not share the same feeling for me that I have for him. What if I have wasted all these years pursuing a pipe dream? Not once in all the years following that kiss, has Joey ever acknowledge it. It’s not like it isn’t meant to be spoken about. It is as if he has completely forgotten about it. And that hurts. Deeply. That kiss almost devastated my life. It could have caused a rift between me and my father. It almost ruined my reputation at school. It didn’t only because Joey took the heat for what I had done. After he did that, I thought maybe he did it because he felt something for me. However, I came to realize he did it only because I was Allen’s brother. And he loved Allen, not me. “Why don’t you come sit beside me?” Rodney interrupted me from my thoughts. He patted the bed beside him. “I told you earlier, I don’t bite. That is, unless you want me to.” I looked at him and let out a sigh. I was beginning to question my reason for coming to his room so late at night. Earlier, I had felt a need to prove something to myself. I wanted to cross that bridge and prove to myself that I could face the demons who for so many years have tormented me. Rodney was a willing and very able suitor. He didn’t repulse me like so many other men have done in the past. I didn’t feel dirty when he touched me. I had thought that perhaps this could work. Suddenly, I had serious doubts. When he saw that I was unwilling to move, he got up from the bed and walked over to the dresser. He opened a brown paper bag sitting atop it and pulled out a bottle of bourbon. “Tada!” he exclaimed as he lifted the bottle into the air and waved it at me. “I thought we just might need an ice breaker.” He unwrapped two cups from their cellophane covers and poured us each a drink. He walked over, handed me the drink and then sat down in the chair beside me. “Are you all right?” he asked. The tone of his voice didn’t sound as if he was concerned about me. He was more worried that he would not be able to get me into bed. I looked over at him and nodded. He was smiling and trying to seduce me with his charm. He was extremely handsome, and any other man would have been honored to have been in his company. We sat quietly, sipping at the liquor in our plastic cups. He took one last sip and finished its contents. “I’m going to bed,” he announced. He walked over to the dresser and removed his watch. He then toed off his shoes and unbuttoned his shirt. I watched him strip as he revealed a firm and toned body. He had on a gray pair of boxer briefs which showed the outlines of a very large cock. There was a wet spot where precum had formed. He looked at me and then pulled off his briefs. His cock sprung from its tight confines. I heard a gasp come from my mouth when it lurched upward. He smiled demurely before going over to the bed and lying atop it. I watched as he rested his head back and closed his eyes. His grabbed his cock and began to stroke it slowly. I could feel my own cock growing hard within my pants. He looked over and said, “I feel a little awkward here like this. Why don’t you join me?” I stood and slowly walked over to the bed. I sat down and stared at his nakedness. His eyes met mine as he slowly continued to stroke his cock. I watched intently as droplets of precum formed on its tip. It was the first time I had let myself enjoy another man’s naked body. I had seen many over the years in locker rooms, but I had always abided by the cardinal rule: Never, ever look at another guy like you wanted him. So, most of my curiosity had been satisfied by quick glances. Now Rodney lay before me completely naked, begging me to enjoy him and wanting me to want him. He reached out and ran his hand across my thigh. I let out a gasp. I could feel my heart pounding inside my chest. I stopped breathing when his hand grasped my erection. “Nice,” he muttered as he began to stroke me. He then took his other hand, grabbed mine and pulled it to his hard cock. I tentatively wrapped my hand around it. I slowly masturbated him as he stroked mine through the material of my pants. My cock was as hard as I had ever felt it. Then he did something unexpectedly. He leaned up suddenly and tried to kiss me. He grabbed the back of my head and pulled me toward him. When his lips touched mine, I sprang from the bed and looked down angrily at him. “What’s wrong?” He asked as he sat up in bed and looked worriedly at me. “I thought you were enjoying it?” “Why did you have to kiss me?” I shouted. “No one kisses me, but...” I suddenly stopped when I realized what I was about to say. “Sorry, Man,” he apologized. “I guess you only kiss your old lady. A lot of guys are like that. I should have asked first.” “It’s not Tina,” I replied as I went back to the chair and sat down. I buried my head in my hands. Suddenly, I stood and announced, “I have to go.” “What?” Rodney rose from the bed and walked towards me. His cock was still hard, and it swayed from side to side as he approached. For the first time that evening, I felt repulsed. “You can’t leave me like this.” He grabbed his erection and pulled on it. “Look, Rodney,” I apologized. “I thought I was ready for this, but I was wrong. I can’t go through with this.” “Did I do something wrong?” He approached me, put his hands on my shoulders and attempted to pull me towards him. I stepped back and pushed his hands away. “I have to go.” I tried to walk around him, but he grabbed my arm. Instinctively, I lifted my hand to hit him. He raised his hands to block my punch. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I was wrong for coming here.” “Fuck you!” he shouted as I headed for the door. “You’re one crazy mother fucker.” I slammed the door shut and didn’t hear the rest of his ranting as I ran down the hall towards the elevator. ******** CONGRATULATIONS, NICHOLAS CARPENTER! I stood proudly with my arm around Nicky’s shoulder. We were reading the enormous sign that Star had made and hung over the fireplace mantle. I looked over and saw tears in his eyes. He looked at me, threw himself into my arms and cried. John Foster, my attorney, had called me earlier in the day and given me the good news. I left my office at 1:30 so that I could pick Nicky up when he got out of his school. He stopped abruptly when he exited the wide doors and saw my car parked out front. I almost never picked him up at school, except on a few rare occasions when he had gotten sick. I exited my car and approached him. I watched his lower lip begin to quiver and then tears formed in his eyes. He knew why I was there. We had been waiting for weeks to hear from the adoption board. When I smiled at him, he dropped his book bag and leapt into my arms. “Dad,” he cried as I whirled him around in the air. “Yes, Son.” I put him on the ground and we again hugged. “Come on.” I grabbed his hand and led him to the car. “This calls for a celebration.” We drove to a nearby Baskin Robbins, the ice cream store with 31 flavors. I think Nicky sampled about half of them. He was holding his stomach and moaning when we left. “There’s my boy.” Ticker stepped up beside us and ruffled Nicky’s hair. “Aw, Man!” he yelped. “Now I have to go comb it.” I laughed as he ran off to the bathroom. “I’m so happy for you,” remarked Ticker as he pulled me into a bear hug. “I can’t believe it went through so quickly,” I replied as I stepped away from him. I rubbed my shoulder from the pain of his hug. “John told you that you had nothing to worry about,” he assured me. “I know,” I replied, “but I still wasn’t sure.” Just then Nicky went flying by with Booger chasing after him. Booger is Jeffrey, Ticker’s twelve-year old son. He and Nicky are the best of friends. When Nicky first came to stay with me, Jeffrey was a regular visitor until Nicky became more comfortable being in the house with me alone. “Stop it!” Nicky squealed. Ticker and I laughed when Booger put his finger in his nose and tried to wipe it on Nicky’s shirt. “Dad!” Nicky screamed. “Make Booger quit wiping his snot on me. That’s gross!” He squealed once again, and then tore off through the kitchen and out into the yard. Minutes later, he and Jeffrey were wrestling around on the ground. “Jeffrey!” Star hollered from the back door. “I want you to stop it.” He looked innocently at her, and then turned and picked his nose as Nicky went running around the front of the house. “Boys!” She huffed as she walked into the den where Ticker and I were standing. “I swear they’re going to put me into an early grave.” Star was as beautiful as ever. She is one of those women who seem to age gracefully. Long gone were her girlish features. She had blossomed into a very attractive woman. She reached down and grabbed my hand. “Let’s take a walk.” We left the house and strolled down the street. I knew where we were going. There was a nearby park with several isolated benches. Allen, Star and I used to spend a lot of time there just before he died. He loved being outside in the fresh air, and the short walk was good for him. We sat down on a bench far away from the kids playing on the playground equipment. Mothers were running around frantically trying to keep their child from getting hurt. We laughed as one mother tried desperately to pull her son from the parallel bars. Star reached down and squeezed my hand. “Big day, huh?” She looked over and tears formed in her eyes. “Yeah,” I replied as tears started falling down my cheek. “I didn’t think I’d ever be this happy again.” She held me as we cried softly into each other’s shoulder. She pulled away and wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “You deserve to be happy, Joey. You’re one of the kindest, gentlest people God ever put on this earth. What you’ve been through, and then to still have a heart of gold is amazing.” She reached out and gave me another hug. “Nicky’s the best thing that’s happened to me,” I said. “There was a time a few years ago that I wasn’t sure I’d make it. When Allen died, a part of me died to. Nicky has given me a reason to want to get up in the morning.” “He’s a wonderful young man,” she replied. “He’s very lucky to have you as a father.” “Father,” I laughed. “Can you believe it? Me a dad.” Tears welled up in my eyes. “I wish Allen were here to share this moment.” I put my head on her shoulder and sobbed. “Don’t, Joey.” She raised my head and stared into my eyes. “Allen’s been dead five years. Don’t you think...?” I stood up and began to walk away. Star trotted up beside me and grabbed my arm. “Star,” I replied angrily. “Let’s not have this conversation right now.” “But Joey,” she responded sadly. “You need someone.” “I got Nicky,” I insisted. She put her arms around me and pulled me into a hug. “And I’m happy for you,” she said softly. “But you still need someone. Nicky can provide a son’s love, but you need more than that.” “I don’t need more than that,” I said as I pulled away. “We’ve been over this a thousand times. I don’t want anyone else. Just drop it, Star.” I walked away and headed back to the house. “All right,” Star said apologetically. “This isn’t the right time. I’m sorry.” I turned and faced her. “I know you mean well,” I replied softly. “But honestly, I’m happy with my life. I’ve got Nicky and my job. I couldn’t ask for more.” “All right.” She stood on her tiptoes and kissed me gently on the cheek. I sighed, knowing that this wasn’t the end of the conversation. She was determined that I needed a man in my life, and she wasn’t going to be satisfied until there was one. The only problem was, I didn’t want anyone else. I hadn’t even thought of a man since Allen’s death. As far as I was concerned, it was a subject I didn’t want to discuss anymore. Things hadn’t changed when we arrived home. Jeffrey was still chasing Nicky around the house and pointing his finger at him. Nicky was shrieking in a high-pitched tone that sent chills down my spine. “Nicky!” I shouted. He came to an abrupt stop. I pointed to the sofa. “I want you and Booger, I mean Jeffrey, to sit down and stop acting like little children.” “But, Dad,” whined Nicky. “No, buts.” I pointed again to the sofa. “Sit.” They both walked dejected to the sofa and plopped down in it. I was immediately rewarded with angry looks from both boys. Ticker walked over and threw his large arm around my shoulder. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.” “What is it?” “I had a young man in my third period, Travis Armstrong, approach me after school.” I started to pull away, but Ticker tightened his grip around my neck. “Ouch!” I screamed. He then bent me over and gave me a noogie. He hadn’t done that to me since high school. He lifted me back up, and then gripped my neck tightly. “It seems you suggested that I be the class advisor for some gay-straight alliance group you want to form at school.” “Yeah,” I responded as I attempted to pull myself away from him. “About that.” “Come on, Joey,” he whined. “What made you volunteer me for something like that? You know I don’t have the time.” I looked over and gave him the saddest face I could muster up. “And then there’s the kids,” he continued. Again, I frowned and pretended to cry. “I have to pick them up after school and then help them with their homework.” I frowned harder and started to whimper. I knew I had him when he started to smile. “Look, Ticker,” I said. “Who’s better qualified to do it? After all, your best friend for over twenty years is gay.” “What are you guys talking about?” Star asked as she stepped up and put her hand on Ticker’s arm. “He wants me to be the advisor for a gay-straight group at school.” Ticker looked at Star, expecting her to side with him. “That’s wonderful!” she shrieked. She leaned in and kissed him. “I’ve read about those groups in a few magazines. They really help break down the barriers of homophobia at the schools where they exist.” “So,” I asked. “What about it?” I raised my eyebrows and waited for him to respond. He looked back and forth between me and Star. “You won’t take no for an answer, will you?” We both shook our heads. “All right, then.” Star leaned in and kissed him. I walked over and gave him a hug. He pretended to pull away, and then he pulled me into another bear hug. “Umph,” I moaned. I pulled away and smiled at him. “You won’t regret this.” “I know,” he replied. “I was in the teachers’ lounge yesterday when Coach Arnold came in ranting about gay students at Southwestern. I can’t wait to see the look on his face when he finds out they are organizing.” “Thanks again, Ticker.” I leaned in and hugged him again. “This means a lot to me.” “Mom!” Jeffrey jumped from the couch screaming. “Nicky just wiped his nasty booger on my pants.” He ran from the room and into the bathroom. I was going to chastise him until he gave an evil grin, waved his finger into the air and announced proudly, “The best defense is a good offense.” Ticker, Star and I couldn’t contain our laughter. We were later able to coax a still angry Jeffrey from the bathroom so that we could attend dinner at a downtown restaurant. It was one of Nicky’s favorite places. He loved pizza, and they had the best oven-baked pizzas in town. Even Jeffrey couldn’t resist. By the time the evening was over, Nicky had crashed. I tried to awaken him, but I ended up carrying him from the car to his bedroom. I helped him get undressed and into bed. I kissed him gently on the forehead and then got up to leave. “Dad,” he whispered sleepily. I walked back over and sat down on the side of the bed. He sat up and threw his arms around my neck. “I love you.” “I love you too, Son,” I replied tearfully as I kissed him once again on his forehead. He rested his head back on his pillow, and within seconds he was sleeping peacefully. ******** I felt cheap after leaving Rodney’s hotel room. I wondered if this was how a teenage girl felt after letting her boyfriend feel her up in the backseat of a car. Most importantly, I was disappointed with myself. My mind had been screaming all night not to put myself in such a situation, but I had let my curiosity win out. My cell phone had been ringing endlessly all evening. It was Tina. There were seven text messages, but I didn’t bother to read them. I knew what they said. They always said the same thing- I’m sorry. What did she have to be sorry about? I was the one who had ruined our relationship. I was the one who didn’t have the guts to face the truth. I was the one who lived a lie day after day. Yet she always ends up apologizing to me. I think I resent Tina for that. If she would just realize the fuck-up I am and leave me, then at least one of us could salvage some happiness in our lives. There were numerous times I considered telling her the truth, my secret. But every time I would get up the courage to tell her, she would bring up the subject of having children. We’d then end up in an argument. I can’t count the number of times I looked at her and wanted to scream, “I don’t love you! I love Joey!” I love Joey. Jesus. Even the words hurt. Love. What in the hell do I know about love? I denied myself love years ago. I even told him how I felt about him, but then I dismissed it as quickly as the words came out of my mouth. If things had only been different. If my old man hadn’t been such a prick. I saw how he treated Allen, and I couldn’t be rejected like he was. I wasn’t that strong. It would have killed me. So, I followed Dad’s lead and turned against Allen. I had loved him- worshipped him as a small boy. Then I watched as his life crumbled away, and I didn’t say anything. I was too young and vulnerable. I was hiding the same secret. Then he met Joey, the boy I’d had a crush on since the seventh grade. My world came crashing down. I had to sit by and watch as they developed a relationship that I wanted to have. Then came the kiss, and my world did fall around me. What happened after that is a vague memory. I can recall going to Billy Joe’s barn with the sole intent of killing myself. Ironically, it was Joey who saved my life. My mother learned the truth that day, and we guarded it closely so that my father would never find out. Only years later, as Allen lay dying, did my father finally reconcile and accept his and Joey’s relationship. He grieved for years after Allen died. I guess the guilt of how he had treated Allen consumed him. My mother tried to get me to talk to him and tell him that I too was gay. However, life has a way of going beyond points of no return. It’s like you cross over a bridge and can’t go back again. How had that bartender say it? You can’t cross a bridge to yesterday. Against my mother’s warnings, I married and tried to live a life that wasn’t meant for me. As much as I was disappointed with the direction of my life, so was she. I know she means well, but it bothers me to be told I’m hurting Tina. I know I’m hurting her. I can see it in her eyes every time I look at her. Damn phone. It won’t stop ringing. As usual, I’m sitting at a bar stool nurturing a drink in my hand. The waiter just announced that it was last round. “Another?” he asks. I nod and hand him my empty glass. “Here.” He pushes the filled glass back to me. I sip it and again listen to my cell phone ringing. “Why the hell don’t you answer that?” The bartender says angrily. “It’s been ringing for the last hour.” I sigh and open the phone. “Hello?” “Gene. Thank God,” cried Tina. “I’ve been trying to get you all night.” “What’s wrong, Tina?” Her voice was quivering. “Your mother called,” she sobbed. “Your father died a couple of hours ago.”
  7. Here is my favorite Christmas song. This is Libera, a group aged seven to sixteen from South London.
  8. Today is Worlds AIDS Day. World AIDS Day takes place on the 1st December each year. It’s an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness. Founded in 1988, World AIDS Day was the first ever global health day.
  9. Chapter 2

    The two boys across from me were sitting uncomfortably in their seats. Jason Thompson unconsciously reached down and grabbed Travis Armstrong’s hand and squeezed it gently. He quickly let go when he saw me look down at their intertwined hands. “It’s all right, Boys,” I assured them with a gentle smile. “Are you going to suspend us?” Travis asked with tears in his eyes. Jason placed his hand on Travis’s knee and squeezed it. “Why should you be treated any differently than other students?” A look of relief appeared on their faces. I looked down and reread the disciplinary note that Coach Arnold, the gym teacher, had angrily thrust into my hand the previous afternoon. “I demand these boys be expelled!” He had shouted as he paced angrily around the room. Earlier in the day, he had caught Jason and Travis kissing in the locker room after all the other boys had left. According to the report, both boys were dressed, and it was apparent they were leaving the locker room when the incident occurred. I had been more upset with Coach Arnold’s reaction than I was with the boys’ behavior. When he referred to them as fags, I reacted immediately. I informed him that he was being given a written reprimand, and I ordered him to take a sensitivity class that the school district offers on Saturday mornings. “That’s outrageous!” he shouted. “I’ll be damned if I do that!” “If you don’t,” I remarked calmly, “then you’ll be given a one-day unpaid leave of absence.” “What!” He approached me as if he was going to hit me. “Those faggots kiss in the locker room, and you’re going to discipline me?” “That will be two sensitivity classes,” I announced angrily. “Would you like to go for three?” He tried to stare me down, but I defiantly stood my ground. I had been dealing with homophobes like him all my life, so I was prepared for his reactions. After a minute, he turned and stormed out of the room. “What’s this goddamned world coming to?” he muttered angrily as he slammed the door behind him. “You have the same punishment as any other students who exhibit inappropriate conduct that violates the school code,” I informed Jason and Travis. Jason asked, “Two nights of after-school detention?” “Yes,” I replied. “But that can be waived.” “Waived?” Travis asked. “How?” I thumbed through their records on my desk. They waited nervously while I read through them, looking up occasionally. “You are very impressive students,” I finally spoke. “Marching band, tennis team and reporters for the school newspaper. You seem to be very active in extracurricular activities.” “Yes, Sir,” Travis replied. “It keeps us out of trouble.” “Obviously not enough.” Their faces turned red with embarrassment when they realized that I was referring to the kissing incident. “Perhaps you need another activity.” “Another activity?” They asked in unison. I sat back in my chair and put my hands behind my neck. I smiled when Travis reached down and held Jason’s hand. It was obvious they felt relaxed around me. “For some time, I’ve wanted to form a Gay-Straight Student Alliance here at Southwestern,” I informed them. “I think I’ve found the perfect students to help me organize it.” “Are you serious?” Travis released Jason’s hand and sat on the edge of his seat. I could tell he was interested in the idea. “Are you both out?” They looked at each other and then nodded, “Yes, Sir.” “To your parents also?” I knew I couldn’t ask them to take on such an assignment if it would risk trouble at home. “Yes, Sir,” responded Jason. “We’ve been dating for two years. We told our parents when we realized we were in love with each other.” “Wonderful,” I said. They grinned and reached again for each other’s hand. I pulled out a desk drawer, took out a packet and handed it to Travis. “I’ve done some research and I’ve contacted the State Board of Education. This is everything you’ll need to start a chapter here at Southwestern.” I watched as they looked over the material. “I don’t need an answer right now,” I said. “No, Sir!” Travis replied excitedly. “We’ll do it!” Jason nodded his head in agreement. “Do you think there will be other students who would be interested?” Both boys began laughing. “Dr. Carpenter,” laughed Jason. “Do you have any idea how many gay and lesbian students there are around here?” I smiled. “Well, I haven’t taken a survey lately.” “Don’t worry,” Travis assured me. “We’ll probably have one of the largest chapters in the state.” Jason pointed to a page. “It says here we need a faculty advisor. Do you think you could do it?” I sat back and laughed. “I don’t have enough time to do all the things I need to do now. I’d love to, but I just can’t.” Both boys disappointedly slumped back in their chairs. “If you don’t do it,” responded Travis sadly, “then I doubt we can get anyone else. Who is going to help a bunch of gay kids?” “He’s probably going to kill me,” I answered apprehensively, “but why don’t you ask Mr. Wendelmeirer?” “Giant?” Travis asked excitedly. I had to repress a smile. “He won’t if you call him that,” I chastised him. “I’m sorry,” he replied. “I have Mr. Wendelmeirer for American Literature third period. He’s a cool teacher. Do you really think he’ll do it?” “You won’t know until you ask him,” I said. “However, I think you can rely on him.” “This is great!” Both boys jumped from their chairs and hugged one another. They then came around my desk and wrapped their arms around me. “You’re the greatest, Dr. Carpenter,” said Travis. “We can’t wait to get started on this.” “You have my complete support,” I assured them. “If you encounter any problems from anyone, and I mean anyone, student or staff, then you come to me.” “Thanks, Dr. Carpenter,” Jason replied appreciatively. “What about the detention?” Travis asked. Jason nudged him in his side. “Umph.” “I think we can forget about that,” I smiled. “But be more careful in school. Keep your amorous behavior behind your bedroom doors.” I laughed when they began to blush. They gave me another quick hug before leaving my office. I watched them talking animatedly as they walked down the hall. I felt satisfied that one of the goals I had set when I became principal was finally going to happen. ******** “Mr. Albright, I think we have a serious problem.” I was sitting across the desk from Mr. Solomon Jefferson, CEO of Amalgamated Biotech Research Laboratories. An hour earlier, I had been called by his secretary and told to report to his office. “We have seen an eight percent drop in sales in your division the past two quarters.” He pushed a folder across his desk to me. I took it and thumbed through it. I was familiar with the numbers, but I didn’t want to appear to be to dismissive. Phil Hanson, my sales analyst, had shown me the figures a few days earlier. I looked across the desk at the tall, domineering man. ABRL was one of the most profitable prescription drug distributors in the country, and it was only because of the proficient reputation of the man now glaring at me. “What’s the matter, Gene?” he asked in fatherly tone, even though he was three years younger than me. “At one time you were my most ambitious salesman.” I tried to hold his gaze, but I looked away, reading the various plaques on the wall. My office was also adorned with achievement awards, but they had been declining over the past couple of years. I heard papers being turned as he continued to thumb through the folder. “You missed two major meetings,” he continued, “one in Los Angeles and another in Chicago. It cost our company millions when the contracts were awarded to one of our biggest competitors. Would you like to explain that to me?” What was to say? I had gotten drunk the night before in a bar, and after staggering back to my room, I fell asleep and missed my appointment. While I slept, the company took a major loss. After several more minutes, he shut the folder. “I think you need a vacation,” he stated. I looked up only to see a disappointed look on his face. “I’m appointing Sarah Livingston to take over as interim regional manager.” “I don’t want a vacation,” I insisted. “I’m in a slump. We all go through it.” “But they don’t cost the company millions of dollars,” he responded sharply. “I’ve made my decision.” I knew it was senseless to argue with Solomon T. Jefferson. I had sat in too many meetings and observed his stubborn determination once he had made up his mind on a matter. To argue would only cause more ire and the possibility of losing my job. “How long a vacation?” I asked dejectedly. He sat back in his chair and interlaced his hands behind his head. “Until you sober up,” he replied adamantly. I looked at him in amazement. I had always thought my drinking was something unknown to others. Around my coworkers I only drank in moderation. It was the long, lonely hours on the road that I drank heavily. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked challengingly. He pulled out a desk drawer and pushed another folder across the desk. With shaking hands, I reached for it and began scanning through the report. “You had me followed?” I asked angrily. Mr. Jefferson looked defiantly at me. “You were costing the company millions,” he explained. “I had to know why.” I looked back down at the report. It had dates and locations of bars I had frequented. Even I was amazed at the frequency and duration of my drinking episodes. There were several pictures of me sitting in a drunken stupor on a bar stool. “Take a couple of weeks,” he said. “Check into a rehab center and get yourself dried out. You’re too good a salesman to lose to the bottle.” I slumped down in my chair as I weighed my options. My first thought was to quit. I was angry that he had hired someone to follow me around the country and take pictures of me in bars. But then I realized that no one would hire an alcoholic who had cost his last employer millions of dollars because of his drinking binges. I also thought of Tina. We were living rather comfortably. I had little else to offer her other than stability and a certain social status within our community. I realized her reputation as an attorney would be tarnished by having an unemployed, alcoholic husband. I sighed and rose from my seat. I extended my hand to Mr. Jefferson. “Thank you, Sir. I’ll do what I have to do.” I wasn’t sure of the meaning of those words, but he seemed satisfied. “Take a couple of weeks, Gene,” he replied. “See a doctor and get some counseling. I’m sure they’ll get to the bottom of why you feel the need to drink.” His words stung. I released his hand as if I had been electrocuted by a surging bolt of electricity. He gave me a puzzled look. Bottom of why I need to drink? Need to drink? Did I need to drink? If so, why? I drank to forget, but I had hidden the reason away to the back recesses of my mind. A kiss. It was just a stupid kiss on a night twenty years ago. One kiss. Yet it was that kiss that obsessed me. Tormented me. That one kiss had ruined my life, but it also gave me the greatest memory. A cherished memory. A lonely memory. Tina was home when I arrived. As usual, she was in her office going through legal briefs. “Hi, Honey,” she smiled as I stuck my head in the door. I entered and sat down in the leather wing back chair in the corner of the room. “What’s wrong?” she asked. I only entered her office when something pressing was on my mind. Normally, we’d avoid each other until dinner time. “How would you like to go on a vacation?” I tried to sound upbeat. “You’ve wanted to go to Spain for years.” She sat back and stared at me. Like Jefferson earlier, I could tell she was trying to figure out what had brought on my sudden suggestion for a vacation. I’d spent the past four years trying to find excuses not to go. “What happened?” “What do you mean, what happened?” I asked indignantly. “I asked you if you wanted to go to Spain. Christ, you’ve been after me for years to go. I thought you’d be happy.” “Your secretary called earlier.” I noticed a look of disgust appear on her face. “She told me about your meeting with Mr. Jefferson.” “That bitch!” I spat. I stood and approached Tina. “She couldn’t wait to let you know, could she?” “It wasn’t Miss Evans fault,” Tina replied. “She mentioned that you had a meeting earlier with Mr. Jefferson, and I coaxed it out of her.” “Always doing a cross-examination, huh?” I asked angrily. “So, you know I’m a failure.” I sat down and placed my head in my hands. She walked over and placed her hand gently on my shoulder. “You’re not a failure, Gene.” “Yes, I am!” I stood and shouted. “I’ve been a failure for years.” I walked over to the window and looked out across the manicured backyard. “I’ve failed you, the company, and myself.” I walked over, took her hands in mine and looked into her eyes. “I’ll always love you, Tina. No matter what happens." I then turned and left the room. I could hear her shouting my name from the front door as I got in my car and sped away. “Here.” The bartender pushed a drink in front of me. It looked like a gin and tonic. I was still holding a similar drink in my hand. “I didn’t order that,” I responded. “I’m still drinking this one.” I held up the glass and showed him that it was nearly full. “The guy over there did.” I looked on the other side of the bar. A guy, perhaps in his early thirties, smiled and held up his glass. “Tell him I don’t want it,” I replied as I shoved the drink back to the bartender. He shrugged his shoulders, moved over to the other side of the bar and said something to the guy. I hate this bar, but I find myself coming here often. It’s called the Mr. G’s, a gay corner bar. The clientele is an older crowd, and they don’t attract the younger men. I don’t know why I’m drawn to it, but when I’m really depressed I find myself here. I guess it’s my way of reminding myself just who I am. There’s the sound of soft jazz playing in the background. I discovered that if I just sit at the bar, I lose myself. That is, until some guy approaches me and tries to hit on me. Just like the guy who ordered me a drink. I don’t know why I come here. I’m not looking for anything, or anyone. I’ve turned down countless guys simply because they aren’t him. I can’t imagine being with anyone but him. It’s a strange feeling. I know I’m gay, but I don’t want to be with other men. Only him. I am repulsed when another guy approaches me, places his hand on my ass and then asks if I’m looking for some fun. I remember the softness of his lips, and I feel I would betray him to be with someone else. “What’s the matter?” I am startled by the deep voice speaking next to me. “I thought you were drinking gin and tonic.” “I’m not interested,” I said rudely. I’m hoping he’ll get the hint and leave me alone. I look over at him. He’s an attractive guy, not like most of the men who approach me. They are usually about twenty years my senior. A couple even had the nerve to offer me money to have sex with them. “Rodney Graham.” He extended his hand to me. I tentatively shook it. “Gene Albright.” “I really don’t bite,” he laughed. “But I will if you want me to.” His smile is infectious. His teeth are perfect and glistening white. His face is tanned and handsome. I would guess he’s probably a few years younger than me. He has brown eyes and short, light brown hair. He has on an expensive tailored suit, and his silk tie is loosened. He seems confident, but not arrogant. “Well, Mr. Gene Albright,” he smiled. “How about that drink?” Our eyes meet, and I can see a playful glimmer coming from them. “Sure,” I relented. “Why not.” “Good.” He motioned for the bartender. “Hey, Dwight. How about another drink for my friend, Gene?” The bartender raised an eyebrow. He seemed surprised that I’m letting someone buy me a drink. I sat nervously as he let his eyes roam over my body. “How come I’ve never noticed you before?” “I don’t come in here often,” I offered. “Wifey let you out tonight?” He grabbed my hand and held up my ring finger. I pulled my hand quickly away. “Not exactly,” I replied indignantly. “It’s all right,” he assured me. He held up his hand I showed me his wedding band. “I’m sneaking out tonight myself,” he laughed. “Does she know?” “Know what?” “That you mess around?” “I don’t mess around,” I answered defensively. “Sure, Buddy. Whatever you say.” The bartender returned with our drinks, and we sat quietly for several minutes. Finally, Rodney turned and faced me. “Look, Gene,” he apologized. “I’m sorry if I offended you.” He let his eyes roam over my body again. “It’s just that good-looking guys like you don’t come in here too often.” “Thanks,” I replied appreciatively. “Look, Rodney. I’m not looking for any action.” “Who said I wanted any?” His brown eyes bore into mine. “You looked like you could use a friend. Maybe I judged you wrong.” He started to rise from the bar stool. I grabbed his arm and pulled him back down. “I’m sorry.” I said. “It’s just been a bad day.” “How about telling me about it over dinner?” I hesitated before answering. My initial reaction was to reject his offer, but I felt comfortable being with him. Maybe it was the fact that like me, he was married. Maybe it had something to do with him saying he wasn’t interested in having sex with me. I was surprised when my mouth uttered, “Yes, sure.” A wide smile appeared on his face. “Good.” He reached down and grabbed my hand. I pulled it away quickly. “Sorry,” he apologized when he realized that he had gone too far. As we were walking out of the bar, he started to put his hand on my back, but he quickly removed it. For some reason, I didn’t think I would have minded if he had kept it there. I found dinner enjoyable. We ended up at an upscale steak house downtown. I had followed him in his car, and we parked in a parking garage nearby. On the way to the restaurant, I couldn’t help but notice that he always seemed to want to touch me. Our conversation started out getting the usual pleasantries out of the way. Rodney owned one of the largest car dealerships in the area. He had inherited it when his father had a heart attack two years ago and was forced by his cardiologist to retire. “You’re the guy who does all those crazy commercials on television?” “Dressing up like a sheik and saying you’ll find an oasis at Graham Ford is not crazy.” “Yes, it is,” I laughed. “I have to admit, though, I did find the commercial extremely hot.” “Oh, really?” He raised his eyebrows flirtatiously. Rodney also told me that his wife’s name was Greta. She was German. Like me, he had met her in college. They had been married twelve years, and he had two daughters, nine and eleven. “Does she know you’re gay?” I asked. “She suspects, but I think she really doesn’t want to know the answer,” he confided. It made me wonder if Tina felt the same way. She had to wonder why I know longer found her sexually appealing. I guess the last thing a wife would suspect is that the man she loves is gay. Rodney looked at his watch. “It’s almost midnight. Why don’t we go across the street and check into the Marriott?” “I can’t do that,” I stammered nervously. “Besides, don’t you have to get home to Greta?” “She’s visiting her sister,” he replied. “She took the girls with her.” “I really have to go.” I started to get up, but he grabbed my arm. “Look, Gene,” he pleaded. “I’ve really enjoyed your company. You’re the first guy in a long time I’ve enjoyed being around. I just don’t want the night to end.” He watched me fidget nervously in my seat. “Wait here,” he said as he walked away. He walked about fifteen feet, pulled out his cell phone and began talking. After a minute, he walked back over and sat down. “I’m leaving now,” he announced. “I’m going over to the hotel. I just reserved a room. He took out a pen and wrote on his napkin. He folded it and placed it in front of me. “Here’s my room number.” His eyes met mine. They were filled with anticipation. “I’ll be up about another hour.” He called the waiter over and paid for our meal. I insisted on paying, but he refused. “You can buy next time,” he replied slyly. “That’s the only way I know I may see you again.” He rose, and I watched as he walked across the street and disappeared inside the double doors of the hotel. I walked back to my car and headed out onto the street. I was about six blocks away, when I turned right and circled back downtown. Before I realized it, I was standing nervously before Room 342.
  10. A sequel to Brittle as a Bird. Joey's life has changed very much since Allen's death. So too, has Gene's life. Tormented by the past, Gene has estranged himself from his family. An incident will bring him back into Joey's life. Will he once again be able to find the love he so desperately wanted years before? Can a bridge be crossed to a distant past?
  11. Chapter 1

    Jesus, how did I get into this mess? Another hotel bar in another lonely city. “Another drink, Buddy?” I look up from the empty gin glass I had been holding in my hand. “Sure,” I say bemusedly. “Why not?” “Yeah,” he says likes he’s probably said it thousands of times to thousands of empty souls, “Why not.” He reaches behind him and pulls down a half empty bottle of Beefeater. “On the rocks?” he asks. “Straight up,” I respond. He pours it and pushes the glass to me. I look at the clear liquid, hold up my glass to him and then swallow it. I cough slightly as it stings the back of my throat. He watches me and then refills my glass. “Bad day?” “Bad life,” I respond. I again hold up the glass and move it toward my lips. He grabs my hand and pulls it away. “Slow down,” he warns. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough, Buddy?” “Not yet,” I say with melancholy. “I still have memories.” I wince as the gin makes its way to my stomach. “Forget it, Man. You can’t cross a bridge to yesterday.” He offers his words as a man who has dealt with his share of lonely drunks. “Nope,” I say as I push the glass towards him for more. He pours another drink, but this time only fills the glass half way. I hold it up and salute his wisdom. “You can’t cross a bridge to yesterday.” Again, the gin stings going down. I pay the tab and then head back to my hotel room. Several people stop and ask me if I am all right as I stagger back to my room. I look at them blankly before moving on. Their reaction is always the same. They shake their head, click their tongue and whisper under their breath, “Filthy drunk,” as they walk away. It is always a race to the toilet. Sometimes I win, sometimes the floor wins. After kneeling in front of my porcelain friend for several minutes, I undress and fall into the cold and lonely bed. “Gene Albright,” I admonish myself. “You’ve got to pull yourself together.” I fight a drunken sleep as I try to give myself reasons to wake up and face another day. This time sober. But in the end, before sleep overcomes me, I know I’ll be sitting again tomorrow in another hotel bar in another lonely city. In the distance I can hear a phone ringing, but I don’t know if it’s the one beside my bed or some adjacent room. Unsure, I pick up the receiver to the black phone next to my bed. “Hello? Who is it?” My words are thick and slurred. “Have you been drinking again?” I can hear the disappointment in her voice. A million times I’ve promised I would stop drinking, and a million times I’ve broken that promise. “Who me?” I laugh nervously. I know I’m hurting her, but I can’t help myself. My hurt is more overwhelming, and drinking lessens it- at least temporarily. “You promised me, Gene.” As her voice cracks on the other end of the phone, and tears begin to fall down my face. “I’m sorry, Honey,” I weep into the phone. I place the phone back on the receiver before I slip into another drunken slumber. However, sleep is only temporary. Damn nightmares. I lurch forward gasping for air. I look at the clock. It is 4:21. It’s always the same dream. I’m running, and I can’t stop. I start off quickly, but then ends like I’m in a slow-motion picture. I’m running and running. Darkness surrounds me. I have no idea where I’m going or where I’ve been. I’m running into the darkness, or away from it. I’ve never been able to decide. With my body wet with sweat, I crawl out of bed and head to the bathroom. I turn on the shower, remove my underwear and stand under the cold water. It soothes me and awakens me from my drunkenness. The chilling water flows over my body as I lean my head back and wipe it across my face. I take the soap and lather my muscled torso. At thirty-eight, I’m proud of my physique. I’ll never understand how it hasn’t been destroyed by years of alcoholism. Since high school, I’ve worked out regularly. But as I get older, those visits to the hotel gyms are becoming less frequent. However, right now I’m able to maintain a nice build. Once out of the shower, I look at the chiseled face in the mirror. My hair is still blond, and my eyes are a bright blue; that is when they are not bloodshot from the gin. I stand and stare into the mirror. I smile weakly, but even I can see the sadness behind it. It’s always there. Not the smile, the sadness. It’s been a long time since I’ve smiled. Don’t misunderstand me. I smile a lot. But the smiles are for others to see. They are outward smiles that I share easily. The smile I give to Tina when I return home from a week’s journey on the road. A smile to the coworker who praises me for another big sale. A smile to a client who appreciates my ability to close a sale. And the smile to the friendly bartender who fills my glass with gin. But where is my smile? The one I reserve for myself. That smile disappeared years ago. It’s buried somewhere in my yesterday, never to be resurrected again. I blew my one chance for happiness years ago, and I’ve resigned myself to a life of sadness and disappointment. One word. That’s all it would have taken. If I had only walked up to him and spoke, it would have made all the difference in my life. But I was afraid. My father had made sure of that. I saw what he did to my brother. If I had spoken to him, then I would have had to admit something to myself. But now it’s hidden, and like Pandora’s Box, it can never be opened. I opened it once, and it almost ruined my life. It’s seal tightly and kept in a secret place. The only problem is- that secret place is my heart. And it’s killing me to keep it hidden there. No amount of gin can keep it from emerging from its concealed compartment. ******** “Hi, Honey.” Tina walked from the kitchen to greet me in the foyer when she saw my gray Mercedes pull into the driveway. “Hi, Dear.” I gave her a perfunctory kiss on the cheek. She forced a slight smile, turned and walked back into the kitchen. I placed my luggage on the marble floor and walked over to the bar in the den. I reached for the gin and began to pour a drink. “Isn’t it a little early to start drinking?” Tina stood in the doorway looking disappointed, as usual. I looked at the clock on the wall. It is 10:47. “Are you going to start again?” I shouted. Her bottom lip began to quiver. She turned and headed back toward the kitchen. “You promised,” she mumbled. I emptied the liquor into the bar sink and headed into the kitchen. “I’m sorry,” I apologized. “It’s been a long week.” “That’s always your excuse.” She turned and looked at me with tearful eyes. Tina is a beautiful woman. She has long auburn hair that she keeps cut short and feathered back very stylishly. Her green eyes, now moist with tears, accentuated her flawless complexion. We met my sophomore year in college. I was a running back on the football team, and she was a cheerleader. She told me that she fell in love with me the moment she laid eyes on me. She unashamedly pursued me. It became a joke in the locker room of the amorous attention she doted on me. At first, I tried to dissuade her advances; but then other team members began to become suspicious at my attempts to avoid her. After several months of being pursued, I became the captured insect within the Venus flytrap. It is there I have resided for the past eighteen years. I’ve tried several times over the years to walk away, but I can never find a reason to justify such an escape. Tina is the perfect wife. She’s beautiful, smart and loyal. I have no doubt of her love for me. I just wish I didn’t doubt my love for her. Actually, there is no doubt. I don’t love her. I don’t think I ever really have. I care about her deeply. That’s why I’ve stayed around for eighteen years. But love her? Unfortunately, not. We stopped being intimate two years ago. I developed severe bronchitis and coughed constantly. Instead of keeping her awake at night, it was decided that I should move into the guest bedroom for a few weeks until I recovered. Weeks turned into months, and now into years. Tina has begged me to return to the master bedroom, but I always find excuses. At first, she would creep into my room and curl up in bed beside me. On several occasions, she would fondle me in an attempt to arouse me. However, I would turn over and lay on my stomach. Finally, she gave up. She no longer enters my room. I really don’t know why she stays with me. If she had treated me the way I’ve treated her, I would have been gone a long time ago. However, she loves me. I know that. And it makes me feel all the more like a piece of shit. But how do I tell her that I find making love to her repulsive. For the last year we did have sex, I would always imagine it was him I was making love to. When I’d close my eyes and kiss Tina, it was his lips I would remember. The soft, gentle lips I kissed over twenty years ago on that farmhouse porch. Then I would open my eyes and realize that it was all wrong. So, we don’t make love anymore. “How was your trip?” Tina walked into the den and sat down beside me. She reached over and gently stroked my arm. I smiled, turned my head and rested it on the back of the sofa. “Like the last trip, and the one before that,” I sighed. What was there to share? I’d been working for the same pharmaceutical company since I graduated from college. I was a regional manager, and I traveled extensively. I was in charge of distribution to most of the major hospitals west of the Mississippi River. Drug research was a very profitable and ever-changing business. New drugs were becoming available almost weekly, and it was my job to secure lucrative contracts with major institutions. I was compensated handsomely, and we lived a very luxurious lifestyle. We lived in an estate development in Southern California amid multimillion dollar homes, although ours is small by comparison. We purchased it ten years ago for half a million dollars. It is now valued at four times that. It contains four bedrooms, a pool and half an acre of landscaped grounds. Because of my travels, we have caretakers overseeing most of the work. Tina is a very successful attorney with a partnership in a law firm. Unlike me, she works a nine to five job. She spends a lot of time at home- alone. She has been after me since we married to have a family. She desperately wants children before she is too old to bear them. Having children is one of the things that terrifies me. I feel it isn’t right to bring children into a loveless marriage. I know if we do have a family, I would have to assume more responsibility. It would become impossible for me to deal with. I know that someday there is a possibility that Pandora’s Box might be opened, and I don’t want innocent children to have to bear the burden of what I myself can’t bear. “What’s wrong?” Tina looked over worriedly as she raised her hand and ran it over my closely cut blond hair. I walked over to the bar and reached for a bottle of bourbon. “Do you have to drink right now?” Tina asked. “Can’t we talk?” “Talk about what?” I shouted. “Are you going to bring up the subject of children again?” The expression on her face turned from concern to hurt. I watched as tears welled up in her eyes. “Damn it!” I shouted. I turned and headed for the front door. Tina called out my name as I slammed the door shut and rushed to my car. ******** “Your ten o’clock appointment is here, Dr. Carpenter.” My secretary was standing in the doorway with a small woman standing behind her. “Thank you, Delores,” I said appreciatively. “Show Mrs. Dawson and Crystal in.” The woman walked into my office and timidly took a seat. A rather large girl angrily entered and plopped into a seat in the corner. She crossed her arms defensively and gave me a penetrating stare. “Thank you, Mrs. Dawson, for coming in,” I said. “Do you understand what I told you yesterday on the phone?” “I didn’t call Mrs. Ross a bitch!” Crystal shouted out. “And if I did, it’s only because she is one!” “Crystal!” Mrs. Dawson rose and approached her daughter. “You will not talk like that!” The girl crumbled into the seat and began to cry. “No one listens to me,” she sobbed. I let out a sigh. Another day at work; or in this case, at school. As principal of Southwestern High School, my old alma mater, it was just another challenge I had to face. Another misunderstood teenager screaming for attention. Now in my second year as principal, I had dealt with numerous cases like this. “Mrs. Dawson, may I speak to Crystal alone for a minute?” I took the woman’s arm and led her from my office. I then pulled up a chair and sat before the emotional girl. “Everyone hates me, Dr. Carpenter,” the girl wailed. I held out my arms and she collapsed into them. For the next few minutes, she cried as I comforted her. She then sat up and wiped the tears from her face. We spent the next fifteen minutes talking about her feelings. “I guess you’re going to suspend me?” Crystal asked as she hung her head dejectedly. “Can you think of an alternative?” I asked. She thought for a minute before responding. “I guess I should first apologize to Mrs. Ross,” she offered. “And?” I asked. She thought another minute. “Apologize to my mother?” A puzzled look came over her face. She could tell by my expression that I was waiting for a proper answer. “And?” A blank look filled her face. Suddenly, her face lit up when she realized the answer. “Community Service?” “Bingo,” I smiled. Students knew that service to others was important to me. I generally preferred it over suspensions or detentions. “How would you like to do it?” “Can I volunteer to help Mrs. Ross after school for a week?” “I think that’s an excellent idea,” I agreed. “I’m going to leave and ask your mother to step in. I think you owe her an apology.” Mrs. Dawson entered my office, and I closed the door. Several minutes later they emerged, arm in arm, with tears in their eyes. They waved to me as they left the office. “I don’t know how you always manage to do it, Dr. Carpenter,” responded Delores admiringly. “You’re a miracle worker.” “Not a miracle worker,” I replied. “Just someone who believes in the good nature of people.” I headed out of the office and walked through the quiet corridors in search of students who had decided to cut classes. I love my job. It had been a difficult decision for me to leave the classroom five years ago and pursue my doctorate degree in education. Ticker and Star had been instrumental in making that decision. They kept insisting that I could do more good as a principal than I could as a teacher. They convinced me that I would have the opportunity to touch more lives. Until I assumed my current position last year, I never believed that it could have been true. The bell rang, and students emerged from the classrooms. Suddenly, I was surrounded by hundreds of students pushing their way to their next class. “Hey, Doc!” Douglas Campbell, senior class president, raised his hand to give me a high five. I slapped his hand, and he walked off laughing. Two freshmen came tearing down the hall chasing each other and trying to knock the other to the ground. “Powers and Grisholm!” I shouted. “Get your butts over here and give me twenty-five.” Students started laughing as the two young men timidly approached me and began doing push-ups. When they finished, they started walking quickly to class so as not to be late. “And don’t run in the halls again. Next time it will be fifty.” “Yes, Sir!” They turned and shouted in unison. I laughed when I saw them begin running to class as soon as they turned the corner and thought they were out of my view. I went back to my office, sat in my chair and closed my eyes. I was in need of a little ‘me’ time. I try to get it whenever I can, but it is not often. I had been resting only a few minutes when I heard a tap on the door. I looked up, and Delores was looking sheepishly at me. “Sorry to disturb you, Dr. Carpenter,” she apologized, “but Nicky is on line two.” “Thank you, Delores,” I sighed. I reached over and picked up the phone. “Dad!” shouted Nicky into the phone. “Can I go over to Xavier’s after school? Please?” A smile crept on my face. “Aren’t you supposed to be in class?” I admonished him. “I asked Mr. Holland if I could go to the restroom,” he explained as only a thirteen-year old boy could rationalize the urgency of the situation. “You got permission to go to the restroom just so you could call me and ask if you could go to Xavier’s after school?” “Yeah,” he answered excitedly. “Can I, Dad?” Again, I smiled. “Do you have any homework?” I asked, already knowing the answer. “How do I know,” he replied. “It’s only second period.” “And you should be in class.” “Can I, Dad? Please?” he begged. “He’s got a new video game, and he’s challenging me to play him. I wouldn’t be asking if it wasn’t important.” “You have to do dishes for a week, and ...” “Thanks, Dad!” He hung up before I could finish. I shook my head as I hung up the phone. That was Nicholas James Kennedy, Nicky, as he likes to be called. Two years ago, I came into possession of this bundle of energy quite by accident. Nicky is thirteen- going on thirty. He’s a typical teenager going through puberty. His voice cracks at the most inopportune times, like when he’s trying to talk to a friend on the phone. He stands in front of the mirror in search of the first hairs over his lip to appear. He’s a handsome, young man, standing about 5’6” and weighing 130 pounds. He has shaggy, long brown hair. We are constantly arguing about the length. He has dark brown eyes which twinkle when he’s excited. And he gets excited often. Nicky came into my life when I was working on my doctorate degree. I had taken a sabbatical from teaching. To make ends meet, I was working on weekends at a health center on the west side of town. Around midnight one night, a frail young woman entered right before closing with a small boy in tow. I immediately recognized her as a crack addict and prostitute who turned tricks in the neighborhood. The boy was crying, and upon a closer look, his body was filled with cuts and bruises. As we attended to his injuries, his mother disappeared through a back door. We summoned an ambulance and the boy, who I later came to know as Nicky, was taken to the hospital. He clutched desperately to me and refused to go with the medics unless I was permitted to go with him. At the hospital, it was determined that he had been battered and physically abused. The police were summoned, and he was able to make a statement. A boyfriend of his mother had been hitting him for the past three months when his mother was out on the streets late at night. On this particular night, he had tried to fight off the man and was severely beaten. His mother came home in time to prevent serious injury. She then brought him to the center. Four days later, while he was still recovering in the hospital, his mother was found dead in an alley from a drug overdose. Unable to find any next of kin, it was determined that Nicky would be placed in the custody of the state and then put into foster care. It broke my heart when they told him the news. He grabbed me and cried uncontrollably. The next day I contacted an attorney. Two days later, I became Nicky’s foster father. I cried that first night he came to stay with me and asked if he could call me ‘Dad.’ Four months ago, he asked me if I would adopt him. He said he wanted his name to be Nicholas Carpenter. I contacted my attorney, and we immediately began the process. I was afraid that being gay might prevent me from adopting Nicky, but my attorney assures me that there is nothing to worry about. I’ve gone through extensive interviews, as has Nicky. If all goes well, he’ll be Nicholas Carpenter in a few weeks. We had a long talk the night he asked me to adopt him. He had seen pictures of Allen in my bedroom, but we had never sat down and talked about him. I took him into my room and opened a large scrapbook I had put together over the years. That night I told him I was gay, and I told him about the loving relationship I had shared with Allen. Before it was over, we were both holding each other tightly and crying. I wanted him to know about my past, so nothing would be disclosed during the adoption hearings that would be uncomfortable for him to hear. When I asked him if he still wanted to be my son, he grabbed me tightly and told me I would always be his dad. “Hey, Dad!” Nicky came bounding into the kitchen with his usual teenage exuberance. “What’s for dinner? I’m famished!” He walked over and lifted the lid to the pot on the stove. “Mmmm.” He gave his approval to the spaghetti boiling on the stove. He then walked over and hugged me. He stepped back and frowned when I ruffled his hair. “Aw, Man!” he moaned. “Now I have to brush my hair again.” “Well, if you’d …” “I’m not getting a haircut!” he shouted. I started laughing. Truthfully, I like his hair long. I find it amusing to walk past his bathroom and watch him carefully brushing it and pushing it away from his eyes. However, I would never tell him that. “Who won the video game?” By the frown on his face, I knew the answer before he told me. “Xavier’s a cheater,” he replied angrily. “He told me he’d never played it before, but his sister told me later he’d been practicing all week. He kicked my ass.” His eyes widened, and he grabbed his mouth. He knew I didn’t approve of foul language in the house. “I’m sorry, Dad,” he gasped. “That slipped out.” “Turn around.” “Why?” He slowly turned, keeping a careful eye on me. He squealed when I lifted my foot and kicked him in his butt. “I kicked your ass for cussing in the house.” He started laughing and ran out of the kitchen. A few minutes later, I heard the shower running upstairs. “Dinner’s ready!” I shouted about twenty minutes later. Within seconds he came bounding down the stairs, two at a time. Dinner is our time together. School takes up a lot of my time, and I often return in the evenings for meetings and sporting events. However, I always make sure I am home so that we can eat together. Most of our conversations are spent on his activities in school. I question him on his teachers, what he is learning, and homework he has brought home. Often, he’ll bring his books to the table and begin his homework as soon as we finish eating. We sit together, and I will help him if he needs my assistance. Nicky is extremely intelligent. He was identified with learning disabilities in the third grade. Most of it had to do with his home life. Because of his mother’s nocturnal activities, he was unable to sleep more than a few hours each night. As a result, he often was too tired to pay attention in class. Once he was out of that environment, he began to blossom into a bright, intelligent boy. Each day he reminds me more and more of myself when I was in school. My proudest moment is when he was inducted into the Junior National Honor Society earlier in the year. I was putting the dishes in the sink when he announced, “I’m going to my room and play my guitar for a while.” As smart as he is, however, he isn’t musically inclined. Many nights I am happy to return to school, rather than listen to him strumming off-key as he practices. After a year, his musical skills haven’t improved. “Wait a minute, Mister.” He stopped dead on his heels and turned. “What?” I handed him the dish towel. “Remember,” I stated gruffly. “Dishes for a week. That was the deal.” “You gonna hold me to that?” he asked with amazement. “I thought you were just kidding.” I gave him a stern look. “Does this look like I am kidding?” I couldn’t contain a smile when he made a stupid face. “Yep,” he laughed as he threw the towel back at me and ran from the room. “Kids,” I huffed as I turned and started drying the dishes in the sink.
  12. Chapter 20

    I'll be posting the sequel to this story, A Bridge to Yesterday, after the Thanksgiving holiday. It will follow Gene and Joey's life after Allen's death.
  13. Brittle as a Bird is now completed. I hope you have enjoyed it.

    1. Page Scrawler

      Page Scrawler

      Hey, Ronnie. :hug: What plans for the next one? :)

    2. Ronyx


      A sequel to Brittle as a Bird- A Bridge to Yesterday which will follow the lives of Gene and Joey. I'll start posting it after the Thanksgiving holiday.

    3. Page Scrawler

      Page Scrawler

      Nice! :D And I hope you have a good holiday! :hug:

  14. Chapter 20

    “This is breathtaking!” exclaimed Allen. We were standing on the shore of Sullivan Lake. I was standing behind him, as the setting sun silhouetted his naked body. I don’t think I had ever seen anything so beautiful. I walked up, put my arms around him and caressed his soft skin. He had put on weight over the past few months, and his body was firm and lean. He looked now as I imagined him in high school. “Mmmm,” he purred as he pushed himself against my rapidly growing cock. We’d made love twice, but I was ready to go again. I reached down, grabbed his hard cock in my hand and stroked it. “I love you,” I whispered in his ear. He turned, and our erections pressed against each other as we kissed. He led me over to the blanket and we lay down, him on top of me. “I never thought I could ever feel this way,” he said as he kissed me again. We had spent the past two hours making love. Our bodies had melted into each other, and we had shared a love that had been repressed for years. When he entered me for the first time, tears of joy ran down my cheeks as I thrust my body against his and begged for more. When he pulled out, I immediately missed his closeness and the togetherness we had shared. For months, I had been afraid that when we made love, our feelings would be diminished because of his health. However, it made them greater. I think because we weren’t having sex with wild abandon, and we did have to be safe, it made us go slower, and thereby intensifying our feelings. After slowly stripping me, he had roamed his tongue sensuously over my body. There wasn’t a part of me he didn’t explore. It was something I had never experienced. Before, my main motive had been to get a guy off, collect my money and go home. With Allen, however, I wanted the feelings to last forever. We touched, kissed and licked each other’s body for an hour. I was literally begging him when he finally rolled a condom over his cock and penetrated me. When he pulled out and came on my chest, it only took about five strokes of his hand before our cum was mingled together. Afterwards, we lay back and looked skyward as we came down from our emotional high. After resting, we ran to the lake and played together as little children. I kept grabbing him and pulling him into the water. It wasn’t a playfulness, but a need. I wanted my arms around him. I needed to feel his warmth. And I desired to express my love for him. When we had rested, he led me back to the blanket and then I made love to him. Again, we entwined our bodies as I entered him. He whimpered and moaned as I thrust into him. I literally saw stars when I later erupted on his chest. “God, Joey,” he muttered as he straddled me. He leaned in and kissed me. I grabbed his cock and began to slowly stroke him. He threw his head back and moaned. Minutes later, he shot another small load onto my chest. “Come on.” I grabbed his hand and pulled him to his feet. We ran together and jumped back into the lake to wash ourselves off. It was now that we were standing side by side watching the setting sun. “I wish today never had to end,” I remarked. He turned and looked at me. “I was just thinking the same thing,” he replied. “This has been the best day of my life.” He took my hand and squeezed it. We returned to the blanket and sat naked as the sun disappeared over the horizon. We dressed and then headed for home. Home was his apartment. I had been staying there regularly since I was working at the cleaners below his apartment. I would usually return a couple of days a week to Ticker’s house, but those times were becoming less frequent. Now that our love had gone to a new level, I was looking forward to spending my evenings sharing his bed, instead of sleeping on the sofa. On the way home we stopped at the bridge where we had first met. Now, it seemed years ago. We looked over the side at the rapidly flowing water. Neither of us said a word for several minutes. Allen turned and looked at me. “This is where it all began,” he said thoughtfully. “Who knew months ago, that two lonely guys looking for a way out would meet and fall in love?” “Things have really changed since then,” I replied as I took his hand and held it. “You told me that day to jump, and I did.” He gave me a puzzled look. “I jumped right into your life.” “I’m glad you did.” We embraced and kissed. In Allen’s arms, the lapping of the water against the banks sounded peaceful and soothing. ******** ‘6’ “Would you hold still.” Star was trying to straighten my tie. We were in the lobby of the arena where our graduation ceremony was getting ready to take place. “I’ve never worn a tie before,” I complained. “I feel like I’m being strangled.” “You have to look good, Joey,” she reminded me. “You are giving a speech.” She reached up and straightened the sashes that were draped around me, indicating that I was a member of the National Honor Society. Ticker walked up and whistled. “Don’t you look good?” He reached out and straightened the cap on my head. I smiled when I saw the gown he was wearing. The largest size available was an extra-large, so it was snug around his large body. “Do you have your speech?” Star asked worriedly. I reached into my back pants pocket and showed it to her. I had been working on it for two weeks. For years, I had planned to give a speech filled with hatred for the students who had tormented me. But the past year had been a different experience. I still wasn’t popular, but students treated me with respect. I think Gene had a lot to do with that. Even though we weren’t good friends, he did socialize with me occasionally at school. Other students followed his lead and treated me better. I hadn’t heard the word fag. As if on cue, Gene walked up and put his hand on my back. “You ready, Mr. Valedictorian?” I looked at him and nodded nervously. By being valedictorian of my senior class, I received a full scholarship to the local state college. I had been saving the money I made working, and I was set to begin in the fall. Gene had been accepted on an athletic scholarship to a university in another state. Star had been accepted to the same school I was attending. Ticker had applied, but he still hadn’t received a confirmation. I kept telling him not to worry. However, he was afraid if he didn’t get accepted, then he and Star would have to attend different schools. “Ladies and Gentlemen, please line up.” Mr. Walters was running around nervously trying to get everyone in their proper line. Since I was valedictorian I was to lead the others into the arena. “Good luck,” said Star as she tiptoed to kiss me on my cheek. Ticker and Gene reached out and shook my hand. “Show time,” I laughed nervously. Mr. Walters walked over and pulled me out of line. “Can I talk to you for just a second?” He led me about ten feet away from the other students. “I may not have time to tell you later,” he said as he stood before me. “I’ve never had a student I have been more proud of. There was a time when I was afraid I wouldn’t see you standing there in line.” Both of us were blinking away tears. “But you stuck in there, and tonight is your night. I really wish you all the best that life has to offer.” I reached out and threw my arms around him. “Thanks, Mr. Walters.” I whispered in his ear. “Thanks for being here for me.” He squeezed me tightly, and then I walked back and took my place in line just as the first bars of Pomp and Circumstance began to play. I was nervous as I approached the podium. Mr. Walters had announced me with a glowing introduction. It surprised me when my classmates stood and applauded. I became overcome with emotion when I looked into the stands and saw Allen sitting beside his mother. He was smiling down so proudly at me. Tears filled my eyes when he gave me a thumb’s up. Since we had rehearsed the graduation exercises several times, I was able to easily find Ticker and Star. Whenever I needed encouragement to continue, I would look down at them for strength. “As we stand here tonight looking down the road to a new beginning, let us not forget the roads we’ve already traveled. Nor let us ever forget the people who walked beside us on the journey to where we are today.” As I was completing my speech, I was looking around the filled arena. Suddenly, a lone figure captured my attention. I squinted to make out the figure. It was my mother! She had attended my graduation. Choked with emotion, I was able to conclude my speech and returned to my seat. Once there, I broke down in tears. A girl to my left put her arm around me and held me as I cried. I had regained my composure by the time my name was called to receive my diploma. When Dr. Hatfield placed it in my hands, I held it up and waved it for my mother to see. I watched as she wiped tears from her eyes. After the recessional, I left the lobby without talking to anyone and ran to the bleachers, searching for my mother. I finally saw her just before she was ready to exit the doors. “Mother!” I shouted. Her body tensed when she heard me call out her name. She turned and looked down as I approached. “I’m glad you came,” I said softly. She looked up at me with a tear-stained face. She stiffened when I leaned forward and hugged her. She kept her arms to her side. She looked up at me as tears began to roll down her face. “I’m proud of you, Joey.” She opened her purse and fumbled around inside. She pulled out an envelope and handed it to me. “I was hoping I could give you this.” I started to open it, but she stopped me. “Open it later. I have to leave. Your father doesn’t know I’m here.” She touched my arm gently, and the she disappeared through the door. I put the envelope in my pocket and returned to the lobby to find Ticker and Star. Gene’s parents had reserved a table at a very expensive restaurant for a post-graduation celebration. Later, alone in Ticker’s room, I opened the envelope. It contained a debit card to a savings account in a local bank. My mother had written me a note telling me how proud she was of me. She said she had been saving small amounts since I was five, and she had deposited the money periodically in a savings account in my name. She wanted me to use the money for my college education. The account contained $13,367. ******** ‘35’ The Epilogue “Happy Birthday, Mr. Carpenter, Happy Birthday to you!” Twenty-two smiling fifth graders were standing around me singing very off-key. In front of me was a large cake with my name on it. Instead of placing thirty-five candles on the cake, they had one large candle- a big yellow Mickey Mouse figure. “Blow it out and make a wish,” one of the students shouted. They giggled when I sucked in a breath of air and held it for as long as I could before finally blowing out the candle. Another student asked, “What did you wish for?” “If I tell you, it won’t come true,” I responded. “Here, Mr. Carpenter.” Angela, one of my students, walked up with a present hidden behind her back. “Open it up. It’s from all of us.” I couldn’t help but smile at the anxious looks on their faces. To add to the excitement, I took longer than usual opening the gift. They had given me a coffee mug that read, World’s Best Teacher. “Thank you,” I said appreciatively. “Now I have to go out and buy glasses that say, World’s Best Students. They grinned and giggled. “Cake and ice cream!” hollered out a student’s mother. She winked at me when the students ran over to the table, grabbed a plate and started devouring the cake. “Thanks. Now I’ll have to handle twenty-two kids on a sugar high all afternoon,” I laughed. She replied, “If anyone can handle it, you can.” After eating, I dismissed them to go to the playground for recess. One of my colleagues had agreed to supervise them while I took a break. She said it was my birthday gift from her. Of course, I had to promise to do the same when her birthday rolled around in a couple of months. I walked over to the table and looked down at the remaining slices of cake. I turned the gold band on my finger as I thought back to when I had my first birthday party at Ticker’s house when I was eighteen. My world had changed a lot since that time so long ago. I lost Allen two years ago. He got sick with the flu and ended up in the hospital. He developed pneumonia, and he was put on a respirator. Years earlier, we had drawn up living wills. It was his wish to die peacefully at our home if that moment ever came. I was holding his hand when he took his last breath. His stepfather visited him about three days before he died. It surprised me when he walked into the bedroom and looked sadly down at Allen. Allen looked up and forced a weak smile. I quietly left the room. When I returned later, his stepfather was sitting on the bed rocking Allen in his arms. He never again left his side. After Allen died, Mr. Albright got up, walked over to the window and opened it. He then turned, came over to me clutched me in his arms as we cried together. Allen defines who I am today. His love and overwhelming support made me the man I became. Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything. I guess because we both knew that our time together was limited, we lived each day fully and never wasted a precious moment. Ticker and Star tell me it’s time to move on, but I’m not ready for that yet. Allen was my life for fifteen years, and his love is wrapped tightly around my heart. I want it to stay there, at least for a little while longer. I know I’ll probably love again someday, but to do that means I’ll lose a part of Allen. Right now, I’m not ready to let him go. I cry myself to sleep each night, but they are not tears of sadness. They are tears of joy. I’m glad I had the chance to love, to experience a life with Allen, as brief as it may have been. I may love again, but I’ll never love as deeply. Allen is still with me. I know it each time I look up into the sky and see the stars at night. He’s the warmth I feel on a sunny day and the chill on a cold, winter night. He’s the smile on a stranger’s face, and he’s the giggle of one of my students. He taught me how to feel life and make the most of each day. Because of that love, I can get up each day and face life without him. I know he would want me to. So, when I return the smile to a stranger, I share it with him. When I am amused by a child’s giggle, he’s there with me, smiling as well. Allen will always be a part of me. Ticker and Star married three years after graduation. They were going to wait until they finished college, but they couldn’t bear being apart for so long. I was the best man at their wedding. The big lug dressed up nicely. I cried when Star walked down the aisle holding her father’s arm. I don’t think I had ever seen anything more beautiful. I am the godfather to their two children. They have a nine-year-old daughter named JoEllen. Her name is a combination of mine and Allen’s name. She is beautiful like her mother, but then again, I’m prejudiced. She calls me Uncle Joey. They have a seven-year-old son named Jeffrey. After all the years I’d known him, I didn’t know that was Ticker’s middle name. Star wanted to name him Albert, Ticker’s actual first name; but Ticker said he’d always hated his name, and he didn’t want to have his son be stuck with a name he himself didn’t like. It doesn’t matter anyway, because everyone calls him Booger. I’ll let you figure that one out. Ticker is also a teacher. He teaches English at the same high school we attended. He’s put on even more weight since then, so the kids have affectionately named him Giant. He loves teaching, but kids today are more difficult than when we were in school. He comes home exhausted most nights. Star works for an interior design company. She majored in computer programming; but after a few jobs that she found boring, she ended up doing something she really enjoyed. She helped decorate our home. She and Allen conspired and kidded me about having a pink living room. At first, I threw a fit until they started laughing. She ended up giving us a pink flamingo figurine which we put on a table in the foyer. It is the first thing people see when they enter our home. I attended the local state college and decided to get a degree in elementary education. I think that day I helped Ticker with his math, and he said I’d make a good teacher, made me realize that was what I really wanted to do. I had received a master’s degree in school administration, and I was working on my doctorate when Allen died. Everyone is trying to convince me to go back and continue my education, but I really want to remain in the classroom. I feel it is where I am needed most. Gene went to California to play college football. He did very well. He was scouted by a couple of professional teams, but he was never drafted. Instead, he remained there and married a girl he met while attending college. Today, he works for a pharmaceutical company as a regional manager. It allows him to do a great deal of traveling. We usually see him and his wife, Tina, at Christmas each year. On a few of those visits, they stayed at our home. They have no children, although it was obvious Tina wants a family. Allen told me once he didn’t want children because he didn’t want to bring them into a bad situation. He never explained what he meant by it, but I’m sure I understood. He still looks remarkably handsome. It is as if time doesn’t affect him. But inwardly, he seems hollow. I look into his blue eyes and I see the reflection of sadness. He has everything a man could want, yet he appears to have nothing. His life has become an empty shell, and he seems resigned to accepting it. He flew back for Allen’s funeral and stayed with me. We sat up all night talking. He told me he was envious of what Allen and I had shared. After talking with him, I realized he had locked his heart away and denied himself love and happiness. I felt pity for him, realizing he got up each day and did what was expected of him. He had lived his entire life like that, and he had resolved to continue doing so. It seems like such a tragedy. He still calls occasionally, but our conversations usually depress me. I hope that someday he’ll be able to live happily, but I don’t think he will. “Watcha doing, Mr. Carpenter?” Eddie interrupted me from my thoughts when he came bounding in the room and looked up at me. I smiled when he reached out and ran his finger along the cake pan, scooped up the leftover icing and licked it clean. Eddie had been an introverted student who I took under my wing the first day of school. He is rather small, and he is an easy target for the larger boys. With his long brown hair that covers his forehead and his big, beautiful brown eyes, he is rather effeminate in his appearance. At the beginning of the school year, he sat in the back of the room and isolated himself from the other students. When I would look back at his little body sitting drooped over in his seat, he reminded me of another boy who twenty-four years earlier had shut himself off from the world. Slowly, I tried to include him in our classroom activities, and I was able after several weeks to gain his trust. His trust was cemented the day I saw a larger boy push him into a wall and call him a fag. Without mentioning names, I spent an hour that afternoon with my students sitting around me on the floor explaining to them about discrimination. I explained that there were words that weren’t acceptable to call each other, and that bullying others was something I wouldn’t tolerate. At the end of the day, when the other students had left, Eddie came up to me and wrapped his small arms around my waist. He held me for a minute, burying his head into my chest before turning and leaving out the door. Nothing was said, but I understood everything that wasn’t said. I thought how different my life would have been if someone had taken the time when I was his age to stop other children from picking on me. After that, I carefully watched how other students treated him, and I would only interfere if I thought someone had violated the rules I had laid down that day. Eddie had over time, moved to the front of the class, and he is one of my better students. I know teachers are not supposed to have favorites, but I can’t resist the charms of my brown-haired, brown-eyed little Eddie. “Happy Birthday, Mr. Carpenter.” Eddie put his small arms around me and gave me a hug. Suddenly, he pulled back and said, “Wait a minute. I made you a present.” He ran over to his book bag and pulled out a piece of paper. He ran back over to me with a wide grin on his face. “I made this for you last night,” he said timidly as he handed me the paper. “It’s a birthday card.” Tears welled up in my eyes when I saw what he had drawn. It was a picture of him holding my hand as we stood before a beautiful rainbow. THE END This story is dedicated to the memories of Danny and Jamaal, two special people in my life who died during the writing of this story. Read the sequel to this story: A Bridge to Yesterday

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