Copyright 2010 by Ernesto66. All persons, places, things and events mentioned within this file are fictional, and no inferences should be made regarding their relationship to reality by readers, regardless of how they are represented. The author is responsible for, but not liable for, errors in regard to continuity, geography, weather, the public record, contemporary events, hairstyles, language and his own bad judgment. This story includes descriptions of adult homosexual men in sexual situations. If you are not of legal age to read this, then don't. If you are of age but somehow offended by such material, what the fuck are you doing here?
This file is freely shared, and the author encourages its distribution, dependent on proper attribution to him and only him. The file remains his intellectual (!) property and its unattributed use anywhere outside its orginal forum will result in harsh words to the offending site's host, as if there's anything they'll do about it.
I gratefully thank, and dedicate this story to, authors around the world who inspired me by posting their work online, most especially the two known as Ardveche and Ricardo Cabeza. It was in trying to emulate their beautiful stories that I first sat down to start my own, and writing "Homecoming" went a long way toward helping me through the hardest period of my life.
Thanks as well to my husband David. I started "Homecoming" before I even knew him, and although he had no idea I was writing it (at work), with his love and support he greatly influenced its direction.
Contact the author at email@example.com.
Chapter Two: Scenes From a Mall
Thirty miles outside of Indianapolis, Michael's stomach was growling for food, and it snapped him out of his funk just as he passed a sign for the upcoming Edinburgh exit. If he kept drifting off into these thoughts, he realized, he'd either find himself in Louisville much sooner than expected, or dead behind the wheel out in the highway median.
He needed to stop, eat something and get his head together. The outlet mall up ahead would be the perfect opportunity.
In five minutes the mall appeared to the right of the highway. Although it had changed names, added and subtracted stores countless times over the years, it was still basically the same place. Acres of shopping spread over the middle of the Indiana plain. It made a good spot to stretch your legs, stop for lunch and, if you were in the mood to hunt for a bargain, pick up anything from pots and pans to clothes, perfume, china or toys. He'd been there enough times to know that a lot of these "seconds" sold for more than you'd pay at the Circle Center in Indy, but it was still fun to browse through the shops and people-watch.
He slowed the Wrangler and exited I-65. At the first light he turned into the parking lot and slowed, considering his options. A variety of fast food restaurants sat between the mall and the town's main drag. He picked the closest store, Arby's, and got a large chocolate shake at the drive-through. Did he have time to stick around?
It was still early in the day, he thought; it looked like the weather might hold a while longer. Clouds like clumps of gray wool hung low overhead but hadn't started to snow yet. What the hell. He pulled onto the mall's ring road and circled the parking lot to the far side, then cut across and found a space within walking distance of the two or three stores he liked best. The first flakes to fall would be his signal to take off, he just had to watch for them. It would be easy enough; the front of every store in the mall was a window facing outside.
He opened the car door and the warm interior air was sucked outside. God damn, but it was bitter out here, more like January than November. The wind whipped across the road and pushed Michael back against the car for a second. His face and hands stung, exposed to the open air. Maybe this trip hadn't been such a good idea after all. The weather could change any minute, and then he'd be stuck in limbo between the cities. It wasn't as if he was really expected in Louisville. Who would miss him if he didn't show up at all?
He decided to take a chance and wander around there for a while, then make up his mind. It was reassuring to know that if he wanted he could avoid the funeral altogether and be back home and under the covers in forty-five minutes. He'd already called in sick, and he was sure due a vacation. It was very tempting. But...
That can wait, he thought. As long as I'm here I'll shop. Followed by: God, you are gay. Nature descends and your best response is to go out and buy things.
He accepted that and moved on.
Michael spent the next half hour, hands deep in jacket pockets, strolling from store to store but not buying anything. His last stop was always the music outlet, which usually had a good selection of imports and marked-down albums. In twenty minutes he walked to the counter with two hundred dollars' worth of CDs, mostly older rock and pop he'd never had the chance to get. On the bottom of the pile were compilations by Tchaikovsky and Stravinski.
The older man at the cash register, who'd been the only other person in the store the whole time, rang up his purchases. He cocked an eyebrow at Michael's selection of Erasure, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Annie Lennox, Travis, New Order and a greatest hits collection by the Pet Shop Boys, but when he came to the classical music he spoke up.
"This has to be the most eclectic selection I've ever seen carried out of here. I have to ask, is this all for one person?" He waved the price scanner over the jewel boxes like a wand.
Michael grinned, flattered. The man probably had ten years on him, and was undoubtedly flirting, but he had an infectious smile. "One person with like fifty different moods a day," he answered. "Stravinski and Tchaikovsky were the two most energetic composers I could think of. I've got a trip to Louisville ahead of me and I need to stay awake."
"Oh, gosh, I haven't been down there in forever. I commute here from Indianapolis with a friend who works around the corner. How is that little city these days?"
Michael felt his smile freeze a little. "I live up north myself. This'll actually be my first time back in twenty years. Twenty-two."
The man's own expression faltered as he saw the reaction his question caused. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to pry... Here you go." He printed out the receipt and pushed it across the counter with Michael's debit card and a pen.
"It's all right. With one thing and another I haven't been back. Family issues. You know how it is..." Michael glanced up at the salesman's nametag as he signed the slip of paper. "Really, it's okay, Barry."
Their eyes met for a second as Barry busied himself stacking the CDs into a plastic bag with the store's logo on it. "It would be nice to go back someday and visit. I wish I could."
"Well, it's only an hour and a half away..." But Barry suddenly seemed preoccupied with a rack of colorful keychains beside the register. Yeah, maybe he did know how it was. Michael took up his stuff and started for the door.
"Mr. Shelton-" Barry called.
Michael stopped. "Sorry?"
"If you think about it, stop by on your way back and tell me how your visit went. If I'm in, I'd really like to know. Maybe I will go down myself, when the weather warms up again."
At the door a harried-looking woman pushed in, an Arctic breeze following close behind her. Barry stood by the counter, still fussing over the keychains, not quite looking his way. Michael sincerely replied, "If I can I'll do that. Thanks." And left.
Since the mall facilities were just opposite the music store, Michael crossed to the Wrangler and dropped his bags on top of the mess in the back seat, then headed for the restrooms. No sense waiting to pee. He went through the double doors and started down a long hallway lined with photographs of the mall and display racks filled with brochures advertising more interesting attractions nearby.
The bathrooms were just past the public service kiosk - now empty - at the far end of the hall. As he passed the desk the deserted hall echoed his footsteps. Spooky, like "Dawn of the Dead." He guessed that between the hour of the day and the weather, there still weren't many shoppers (alive or dead) out yet.
He pushed through the men's room door and made for the stalls. Some of the urinals were stuffed with paper and looked backed up, so using one of the toilets seemed like the safer option. Since the place was empty he didn't bother to turn the latch, just nudged the door closed with his shoulder. It took a minute to relieve himself and he was reaching over to flush when he heard angry voices raised outside in the hall. The men's room door banged open and he instinctively shrank further into the stall.
"Come on, T. And you, get in here." Michael rolled his eyes at his own reaction - it was only kids. Teens, twenties at the most, fooling around. He relaxed and zipped up.
"Over there, asshole. You think you can fuck with us?" There was a thud and a muffled cry as something smashed hard into the wall opposite Michael's stall.
Oh shit. He turned in time to see a flash of bright blue go past the crack in his door.
A second, higher-pitched voice shook, "I swear I wasn't messing with you-"
"Shut up, faggot. T, go stand by the door. Do what I say. Watch for anybody comin' down the hall. I'm gonna give this little fuck what he wants." There was a struggle of some kind and another crash, this time down by the floor. "Sit there, you cocksucker."
Michael's blood suddenly ran cold. God, if there was anything in this life he feared, it was to be the victim of a bashing - to witness one would be almost as bad.
Jesus, what a cowardly thing to think! Of course he had to get out there, do something. But what? His heart began to pound at the thought of getting into a fight. How many of them were there? He couldn't see anything beyond the inch of space in the doorway.
What if they have weapons? I have a wallet, keys and gum in my pocket. Oh and don't forget, a roll of toilet paper right here. Well, now I feel better.
He knew there had to be at least two of them, boys, one ahead of him and another to the right by the restroom door, plus their victim, wherever the hell he was. Probably on the floor. Pulse racing, he eased as close as he could to the front of the stall and peered out.
There was someone in a bright blue school jacket not two feet in front of him. "I know what you want, little girl," the figure leered in a suggestive voice. Michael flinched and held his breath. He was close enough to read the tag hanging out the back of the jacket. If the guy realized he was in here he was dead. He'd lose the advantage of surprising him from behind and become another target. What was the plan? Because from here the guy looked to be Michael's size or even bigger.
"What'd he say to you, Terrance? `Where's the-'"
"'Do you-all know where the men's room is?'" came a mocking falsetto from the right. "Like we wasn't ten feet from the big sign says `Restrooms.'"
"A faggot and blind too. Well, you tell me if you can see what I'm gonna point you toward in a minute, cocksucker. Point toward you, I mean." The kid over by the door chuckled.
Christ, this was awful. The main guy, the closer one, sounded really angry, like he was about to go off in any direction. Michael's palms were starting to sweat. He hoped the boys' victim, still unseen, could maybe get up and be some help if he showed himself and evened the odds.
"Better hurry up and do it, man. No tellin' how long you got..."
"Shut up and watch the door, T. You'll get yours after me. Okay, gay boy. Know what? Long as we're in the little boy's room, I gotta piss like a racehorse. Burns like a motherfucker. Been holdin' it an hour. How about I piss all over you first, then you suck my dick for me? You like that? Suck that piss right out of there, then somethin' else too. Mmmm, salty." Michael tensed as the figure outside took a step up and stood, legs apart, just in front of the urinals. On the tiles between his feet he could now see a pair of legs, scrambling to get out from under him. "Sit still, bitch." The figure swing his arm and there was one last thud. The legs clenched and stilled.
The figure fumbled at his waist as Michael heard a zipper pulled and a belt buckle clink. Jeans loosened and slid down a bit. Michael squeezed his eyes shut and in a second heard liquid splash on clothing and tile. "Whoa, almost missed ya. See that? You got me hard just thinking about you lickin' my stick. Another minute and I'll be hittin' the ceiling. You think you can wrap your lips around that? 'Cause it gets bigger. You wanna a little taste now?"
God, give me strength. Now or never.
He swung the door open as quietly as he could, crossed the space in two steps. Blue jacket, bare hairy white ass, bare thighs, pants, work boots. Between the legs he just caught a pair of scared shitless eyes widen. The jacket was just moaning "Oh, you gotta get you somma this, T..."
No going back now. Michael grabbed the back of the guy's head and shoved it into the wall with a satisfying crack.
"Fuck!" he screamed. "Terrance!" Michael moved as fast as he could. The other one would be here in a second. He got as close to the boy as possible and snaked an arm under his arm and around to the back of his neck. It was a terrible half-Nelson but it worked because with his feet spread and his pants around his knees the boy had no leverage to work with.
"I'll kill you, motherfucker! Terrance, get in here!"
Sure enough, the other kid skidded around the corner and stopped at the sight of the two them dancing by the urinals. Terrance was a wide-eyed black teenager, in a letterman's jacket of the same bright blue. He was obviously waiting for his orders, but Michael wanted to make sure he didn't get any. He knew this one would try to elbow him into letting go or grab him with his free arm, then the other would run up and it would all be over. When a hand shot back his way he grabbed the two middle fingers in his fist and pulled back, hard. "Oh, fuck! Help me, you asshole!"
Terrance took one step but quit when his friend shrieked at the pressure on his wrist.
"Not another move."
Michael made his voice as level as he could while breathing so hard. "I'll break his hand, believe me." The black kid froze, but the boy in his arms was wrestling like a trapped animal, trying to shed his jacket and get free. Michael tugged him awkwardly backward into the middle of the room, to throw him off-balance again and to get a better look at their victim.
On the floor between the urinals was a pale thin kid, another teenager, scruffy dark hair askew, dazed-looking. He didn't seem to be seriously hurt but he was bleeding a little from a dark welt on his forehead.
"Are you all right?" Michael's voice sounded surprisingly steady. The third kid rubbed his head gently and ran a hand over his front. Michael noticed that his sweatshirt and jeans were slick with piss. Jesus.
"I'm fine." It was hard to judge his reply from the flat tone; he could have been sarcastic or serious or just too tired to come up with a better answer. He was having trouble getting a foothold on the wet tile, trying to lift himself up between the fixtures.
"Stay put. I'll help you up in a minute." The kid looked too weak to go much further on his own anyway.
Michael, however, was ready to move. He jabbed one knee into the back of his captive's and shoved him forward. As he fell Michael let him out of the headlock but firmly twisted the captured hand back between the boy's shoulderblades. "What's your name, fuckwit?" The boy shuffled along until his pants tripped him and he cracked both his knees on the floor, catching himself short at the next urinal.
"Oww! Fuck you's my name!" he shouted. Michael glanced down at his profile. He was every midwest highschool's quarterback: blond, good-looking in a generic jock star way, too many muscles. All the girls' dream date. And yet. He'd been incredibly lucky to catch him the way he had - any other day and these two hoods would have beaten him to a pulp in the stall.
"You look at the position you're in, pants around your ankles and crying like a pussy on the floor, and the position I'm in, huh? Then tell me who's going to be fucking who today." The two boys exchanged looks. Terrance blanched, looking like he was done waiting and ready to cut and run. "Hey, you! What's his name?"
"Great. I'm mall security. You, get lost and don't think about stopping. Carl and I are going to talk a second." The kid took off like a shot. His footsteps echoed down the hall all the way to the outside door. It banged once and there was silence again.
Michael took a good handful of hair with his free hand and forced Mr. Varsity's head down toward the bowl of one of the urinals. He had to catch his breath to make himself heard. God he was winded. "Listen good, Carl. I have known more guys like you than I ever wanted to, and I'm pretty sure I know what your problem is." Carl stiffened under him. Had a nerve been struck, or was he just afraid of getting dunked? "But that's between you and your conscience. You go two-on-one with someone half your size and drag me into it, then that's my business.
"I'm not going to call the police on your ass, because me hitting you just now was as wrong as what you were doing. I get too enthusiastic about my job. We're even. But if you'd gone any further you'd be in serious trouble.
"So think about today the next time you get the urge to prove to somebody that you're a man and no queer. And think about this while you're at it. Another queer - me - bent you over, with your bare ass in the air, screaming for mercy like a five-year-old girl, and let you go. Maybe.
"Now I want you to tell my friend here you're sorry and that you'll never pull any shit like this ever again." Carl started to speak; Michael jacked his arm up two inches higher to make sure he was listening. "Nothing smart-ass. Make me buy it."
Carl squealed for a moment at the extra pressure, then cried, "I'm sorry, I'm fuckin' sorry! I won't do it again! Please let me go, mister! You said you'd let me go."
"Yeah, yeah. Very sincere." Michael glanced over. The other kid was hardly listening anyway. He had curled up and was hugging his arms to his sides, shivering in the open air of the restroom. During the struggle Michael had worked up a sweat. As it began to evaporate off him he realized how cool it had been in there all along.
"Get your jacket off."
"This is my fuckin' letterman-" Carl's protest ended as Michael dunked his head in the urinal. He came back up sputtering, a chunk of toilet paper stuck in his ear.
"Be thankful I'm not making you give him your shirt and pants, you asshole."
"Fuckin' fine. Jesus! Just let me out of here!" He shrugged the jacket off one shoulder and Michael let go of his hand long enough to take it off him. Keeping a heavy foot on the floor between Carl's knees, pinning his bunched jeans down, he carefully tossed the jacket over the shivering boy.
Okay, mister brilliant. Now, let this one loose and he'll turn around and beat the living shit out of me. How do I get out of this?
"I'll let you up now, asshole. See, I've got my cell phone right here-" he patted his own jacket pocket "-and the security office is right around the corner. So you're going to crawl over to the door and leave, just as fast as your friend deserted you. And don't come back to this mall again. We'll be looking for you."
"Fine. Let me go!" Beaten, Carl jerked out from under Michael's foot and half-crawled to the door with as much dignity as he could muster. Michael watched the muscles in his meaty ass sticking out from between his shirttails, the blond hair on his legs, maybe a glimpse of balls and dick swinging down between...
God damn. Go get laid soon, Shelton.
Nursing his injured wrist. Mr. Quarterback stood unsteadily and pulled his jeans up, tucked his flannel shirt in the best he could. He turned in the doorway and glared at the two of them. "You don't know nothin' about my problems, man!" He pointed at Michael with a shaking finger, sounding on the edge of tears.
Oh, shit. Don't flinch. Stand your ground, Michael thought. With a pang he noted the ugly wound he'd caused over the boy's eye. "I know more than you might think, `man,' and maybe you should talk-"
"Fuck you! I ain't no faggot." He abruptly turned and disappeared down the hall. The door hissed shut.
Feeling like he'd been holding it about an hour, Michael slowly let out a jagged breath. "Funny you knowing how come tastes salty then, huh?"
He was on the verge of collapse, but there was still the matter of this third kid. He crouched in front of him, trying to avoid slipping in the mess on the floor. Wary eyes watched him from under a shock of dark hair.
"Can you walk?" The boy nodded, so Michael let him put an arm around his shoulder and slowly, gently, lifted him to his feet. He shifted the jacket about so it hung around his neck.
"Here, stand in front of the hand dryer, you'll freeze if you go outside wet." The boy positioned himself in front of the machine, holding his shirt out toward it, until Michael palmed the button. Once it was on, though, the hot air coming from it produced a smell from the kid's clothes that made both their noses wrinkle. Michael turned away and rolled up a wetted paper towel to put on that cut.
"Ugh. Let's get out of here," Michael suggested as he dabbed the cut. "You can wait in my car and get warm, and I'll go to one of the stores and get you a new shirt and pants."
This was met with a frown from his companion. "Huh-uh. You've done enough for me already. I'll change later." He had an intense voice, for such a slight frame. Well, at least it was more than two words. The kid stood his ground and hit the button again when it stopped. Obviously he was ready to wait out the odor until he was dry.
Michael wouldn't give up. "I can't just leave you here. At least come with me to the car while I call the police and report what happened. Don't worry-" he'd seen the look of panic on the boy's face when he mentioned the law "-I'll leave you out of it and report everything anonymously. I know it was embarrassing, and we've both got places to be. What do you say?"
The whir of the dryer was his only answer for a while. Finally, the kid said "You lied about being security, didn't you? I don't even know you. Why should I get in your car, forget let you buy me clothes?"
Fair enough. Michael had been so busy playing Indiana Jones, he hadn't had time to really look at the person he'd rescued (if you could call it that). Now he took a moment and realized that this "kid," while thin, was about six feet tall. Enough to look him in the eye. Judging by his manner and the timbre of his voice, he was probably sixteen or seventeen, maybe even older. Hardly a kid.
Yet by the same token his long black hair was haphazardly cut, his outfit - grungy sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers - seemed thrown together, and there was an uncertainty to his attitude that made him seem younger.
Michael started to reply just as the door beside them opened with a bang. They both jumped at the sound and at the arm which swung up to keep the door from shutting. An elderly man stood in the doorway, comically startled at the sight of the roughed-up man and the bedraggled boy standing there in the restroom. A white-haired woman, presumably the man's wife, peered suspiciously around him from the hallway. He pulled her to his side and let the door close.
Michael couldn't help it; he turned around and suddenly burst out laughing. The more he thought about the couple's alarmed looks the funnier it seemed. He bent over, holding his sides until his eyes began to water and his stomach hurt from laughing. If there was ever a time to collapse that was it. He slid down the wall to a squat and waited, hoping once it stopped being funny he wouldn't just start crying again.
Oh, my god... I guess I'm just relieved I made it through the last fifteen minutes in one piece. Hold it together. You can do it.
In a moment the jag had passed and he looked up to find the kid standing silently in front of him. The dryer had quit making noise. Michael sniffled and slowly straightened his legs till was standing. "I didn't mean to go psychotic on you. It's only temporary, I swear."
"Okay," he relented. "You're right. You don't know me. I'm Michael Shelton." He held out his hand.
The boy seemed to think about it a second, then wiped his hand on the seat of his jeans and shook with him. "My name's Jeremy Duffy. Glad to meet you... I guess." He stepped back again and put his hands into the pockets of his new jacket. "Do you mean psychotic like crying, or psychotic like when you went postal on those guys?"
Michael crossed his arms and answered the kid- uh, Jeremy. "Either, both. I'm not in the habit of losing it the way I just did, but I'm also not in the habit of jumping into fights and trying to save people. I've been really worked up this morning, and I guess it finally caught up with me."
"Adrenaline, I know. You scared me," Jeremy admitted.
"Well, I'll tell you a secret: I was scared pretty shitless myself. All I have in my pocket is a pack of gum. My cell phone's in the car, and dead, I meant to charge it when I took off but I forgot. And I have absolutely no idea where security is around here." The boy's bright-blue eyes goggled in surprise. "I'm really sorry, I had to bluff him. He'd have beaten the crap out of both of us otherwise."
"You..." This seemed to baffle Jeremy. "I thought you at least worked here or something. You could've gotten us both killed!"
"I know. But believe me, I would never have let him hurt you. I've been beat up before myself."
"That's not what I meant. You could have stayed in there and they'd never known. Why would you do that for a stranger like me? And lie about being gay, and, and... Go out of your way to do all that?"
The look of puzzlement on Jeremy's face sobered Michael. He shot back, "I'll be honest, for about a millisecond I considered staying quiet, but if you really think I could have stood by while those assholes gangb- um, beat you up, then you really shouldn't be getting in my car."
Was he going to get mad at this one now? The kid- No, Jeremy-
Fuck it, The Kid.
The kid was only asking a question, and Michael honestly didn't have an answer other than "Why the hell wouldn't I?" And the gay thing-
No need to muddy the water. "As for lying, well your friend Carl needed his shit thrown back at him."
"He's not my friend!"
"Whatever." Michael needed to relax, count to ten, but wanted to just get out of there and back to the car. "Oh well. Just thank God above that you avoided walking fifty feet with me, while I go report you almost got fu- Got raped." He jerked open the door, expecting to see the old couple still standing there, but they'd left. Time to go.
"Everyone you meet isn't trying to screw you over, Jeremy. I'm not. And just because I felt sorry for you doesn't mean-" He sighed. "Forget it, never mind. Just... Watch yourself. Be careful." Finished, and feeling as lame as hell, he turned around and started down the hall.
Put your head down and head for the door. What the fuck was that about? Watch yourself, and that way no one will have to save you - isn't that what you wanted to say? Learn to defend yourself, Jeremy, like I did years ago. Be a man. Use your wits, use your damn fists, fight back. Get tough. Be a man. You won't need me, you won't need anybody.
Almost to the door.
"Mister? Mr. Shelton?" Michael stopped. He'd been so wrapped up in his thoughts he hadn't heard the boy's footsteps hurrying behind him.
"What?" He answered without turning and facing him, so Jeremy deliberately walked around until he was between Michael and the entrance doors. The football player's big jacket hung on his shoulders like it was on a wire hanger. The boy squinted at him and took a deep breath before going on.
"I'm sorry. I meant to say thank you for helping me out. I didn't mean to be ungrateful by what I said. So... Thank you. A lot."
Michael sighed. He was struggling with the unexpected emotions - mostly anger, surprise surprise - the fight in the bathroom had stirred up. The week at work, the call last night, it had been building all along. He was angry with his boss, his mother, that asshole Carl, himself (mostly himself) and now with this kid, who was only trying to figure out why someone he'd never met would take his side. Which was truly fucking sad.
Well, he had a few questions himself, starting with why everything in life had to be so fucking much trouble.
"Have you ever felt like you were going crazy, Jeremy?" he asked, and chuckled weakly. He glanced through the glass to the parking lot outside. Snow had begun to fall. Great.
"In the past twenty-four hours- Hell, the past twelve hours..." He shook his head. "I've laughed, I've cried, I'm living a Lifetime TV movie.
"A lot of stuff is going on and I feel overwhelmed. I don't know why I'm telling you this." He rolled his eyes and tried to play it off, but the kid was still listening.
"No, go ahead. My therapist says it's good to get things off your chest."
What the hell. Michael took a minute to choose his words carefully. "I feel like there's a big knot inside my chest. The knot is everything I can't control, and it's choking off everything that, um, that's inside me. All the things that make me myself. When they can't get through, then they change me from the inside out. On days like today I can feel the knot getting bigger and tighter. I can feel it changing me, and... I can't for the life of me untie it." Jesus. Well now we're clear about that.
"I'm sorry, that sounded ridiculous, but I'm an artist, I don't write copy."
Jeremy reacted enthusiastically, practically stuttering, "No, that's perfect! I mean, not perfect, no. That describes how I feel, almost all the time. You want to be happy, but it's like at the same time you don't dare try, really. Be-because you can't just `be' happy, it takes so much work, and there are all these things in your life, like the people you know, and you being happy might not be what they want. You worry about everything. That's why-"
He suddenly clammed up, like he'd said too much. "That's the reason I, uh, followed you up here. Because, uh..."
"You were worried about me? Me and my karma?" Michael said with a smirk.
"I think I know what karma means, but I'm not sure. Are you making fun of me?"
"No. Not at all - just myself. You'll know what karma is one day, when you need to." He briefly wondered what the kid might have been about to say. "Look, for whatever reason, please let me help you out with the clothes, or drive you home or something." He pointed at Jeremy's forehead. "I have a first aid kit in the car, at least put something on that cut. I'll call the police, report those guys, and we can go our separate ways. Okay?"
Jeremy nodded, and then totally surprised Michael by coming up to him, throwing his arms around him and hugging him tight. The top of his head rested against Michael's cheek. He returned the pissy hug, then gently pried the boy off and led him toward the door. "Oh, one more thing."
"Don't call me Mr. Shelton. That's my father." Jeremy nodded. "You can call me... Mrs. Shelton."
Jeremy laughed once, like a hiccup, and Michael smiled despite himself.
For the very first time he felt good that he was making the trip. Even if absolutely nothing else went right the rest of the weekend, he'd done one thing to lighten this kid's load. Hearing him laugh was reward enough for whatever might be coming. "I'm joking. Call me Michael."
"I never call adults by their first name. Almost never. Maybe my daycare teacher. But since you said to."
They walked to the door and peered out. Fat white flakes were drifting from the sky and beginning to pile up against the curb. Michael's Wrangler was just about the only car in sight.
"I'll find a pay phone and make this call, then we'll get you patched up and home. Unless you've changed your mind about the clothes..."
"No, thank you. Oh, wait, I forgot my... Where are they?" Jeremy anxiously peered down the hallway until he spotted something lying on the floor ten feet away. He ran over and retrieved whatever it was, then returned. When Michael looked, Jeremy was wearing a pair of gold wire-rimmed glasses. The difference in his appearance was striking. Instead of obscuring his features like most frames would, these enhanced them, complementing the shape of his face and magnifying the intense blue of his eyes. He wasn't bad-looking in a dorky way.
Jeremy blinked at him and said, "What?"
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-"
"They're pretty stupid, aren't they? I always wanted contacts, but the ones for my prescription are too expensive. The big guy knocked them off me before. I thought I'd lost them."
"No, I like them. They make you look... Older. And smarter." Oh yeah, great save. No wonder they don't let you write copy. "Anyway. You in car. Me on phone. Ready?" Michael wrapped his jacket around himself tighter and pushed open the door.
Outside, the sky was a strange rolling mix of gray and green, what he'd always called Steven Spielberg clouds. The wind smelled like a wet blanket laying over everything. It seemed to actually be darker than when he'd gone in, but at least the wind had dropped and lost its biting edge.
A few other shoppers wandered from store to store in the mall, glancing at the sky and looking uncertain whether to stay or leave. In the parking lot and over on the highway drivers had begun to turn on their lights. The fallen snow crunched like sand under their shoes as they crossed and got into the Jeep.
Michael turned the key and started the heater. "I'll be back in ten minutes. I can trust you with my car, right?"
Jeremy settled back in his seat and chirped, "Sure. And thanks again... Michael."
Michael smiled uncertainly, got back out, muttered "Jesus, my life" under his breath, and went in search of the nearest phone.
In fifteen minutes, he was back. It had taken longer than he thought to find a phone they'd let him call from in one of the stores, then more time to describe the attack, explain to the police why neither he nor the boy wanted to come forward. When the sergeant who took the message understood what the nature of the crime had nearly been, she said she sympathized and would be in touch with mall security to see that they'd watch for the pair if they showed up in the future.
When he walked back he saw there was no one in the Jeep's front seat.
Michael's first thought was that Jeremy might have let the seat back or put his head down to rest after their ordeal, but as he opened the driver's door and slid in the engine was off, keys in the ignition - and it was plain the kid was gone.
Well, at least the car's still here. That's something. But the kid? Could you have been any more obvious, staring at him like that? After that big speech about how not everybody wants something in return.
I guess he was just taking care of himself, like you wanted, right? Idiot. Plus the way you spilled your guts to the little nerd. He must have thought you were even crazier than he is.
Michael let his head rest on the wheel for a minute and waited to see if there were any more stray emotions bobbing around in his head he should deal with before he took off. No sense in losing it again on the way and having to pull over in the middle of a snow-clogged interstate.
It occurred to him that Jeremy might have heard him say "Jesus" and thought it somehow referred to him, or just freaked out at being inside a stranger's car, but in the end it didn't matter. He was gone. Michael could cry about it. He could drive around looking for him and waste more time. Or he could buckle up and drive to Louisville. He wasn't responsible for Jeremy and he couldn't help how he reacted; the important thing was that he'd been there to stop those boys from hurting him.
It was funny, but what he really felt was relief. His responsibility to the kid was over and now they'd get on with their separate lives.
Michael sighed, lifted his head and started the engine. Amazing. It didn't seem possible, but the dashboard clock said it was only a quarter to ten. He switched on the lights, making the snow swirling outside shine in the gloom like confetti. As the heater warmed up, he could still smell the sour odor from the boy's clothes. He hoped it would eventually disappear - just like he had.
Pulling onto the ring road, he skirted the mall and stopped at the Mickey D's by the main entrance. With a supersized meal on the seat beside him, he gunned the engine and sped off toward 65 and his distant hometown. If the weather didn't get any worse, he could be in Louisville before noon.