Far From Home

Authors Note: Standard disclaimers apply here... If it illegal to read about homosexuals and any physical expression thereof, then go away (though there isn't any sex yet... so if that is what you are looking for, then it might be best to move on). This is my first time writing fiction, and I appreciate feedback.

I have managed to put together a website for the story. Check it out at http://www.crosswinds.net/~charlatan. I hope you like it. Let me know what you think... I enjoy getting email.


from last time...

Ryan was crying at this point. He picked up a tissue and blew his nose before continuing. "I only hope... I only hope that... in the time you have left that you realize what an amazing person he is. I know what it's like to lose someone you care for without getting a chance to tell them that you love them. It isn't a fate I'd wish on anyone. And I'm sure it isn't something you want to carry on to wherever your journey leads you.

"I wish I could say that I hate you. But I can't. I don't think Charlie does either, or he wouldn't be here. But I do know one thing. I love him, and if you weren't such an ass, you'd see that you love him."

I walked up behind Ryan. "I love him too, dad."

Chapter 10

Ryan jumped out of his chair, startled at my entrance. "Hey... how long have you been there?"

I walked over and wrapped my arms around him. "Long enough," I whispered. "I never thought I'd be telling you 'I Love You' in front of my dad, even if he is unconscious."

"There's a first time for everything," he said, kissing me squarely on the lips. We were interrupted by someone clearing their throat.

"Come on in Sam," I said. I leaned close to Ryan's ear and whispered, "I never thought I'd do that in front of dad either."

"No hanky panky in the hospital," she announced.

"Yes Nurse Ratchet."

"Hey Charlie, where's your mom?" asked Sam.

"She went down to the cafeteria a few minutes ago to grab a bite to eat."

"I just called my mom. She'll be over here in a few hours. She stopped by the church to speak with Father Robinson. Dad's asleep on the couch in his office."

"Sam, would you mind staying with here with my dad? I want to go check on mom."

"Sure," she said. "Go on, she needs you." I grabbed Ryan's hand and led him to the elevator. We got a few strange looks from some of the nursing staff, but I didn't pay any attention to them.

Mom was one of the only people in the cafeteria. She was sitting by herself at a table near the window. Ryan offered to go get us some coffee. I told him to pick up some food and a hot tea for mom. I walked over to the table and rested my hands on her shoulders. "How're ya holdin' up?"

She motioned for me to sit. "Better, now that you're here."

"Ryan went to get us some coffee and tea."

"How's your father?"

"No change. He still hasn't regained consciousness." I saw a nurse walking towards us. She knelt down next to mom.

"Laura, Dr Velasquez told us what happened. Are you okay?"

"I'm managing." Ryan appeared with a tray of our drinks and a few bagels. "Jeanie, I don't think you've met my son Charlie. And this is Ryan, Charlie's boyfriend."

I don't know who was more shocked—Ryan, Jeanie, or me. "Jeanie works with me in the NICU." She fidgeted for a second before gingerly shaking our hands.

"Um... well Laura... if you need anything, come see us on the fifth floor."

"Goodbye Jeanie," said mom as the nurse scampered off. My mom turned around to see both Ryan and I giving her strange looks. "What?"

"Mom... I mean... wow."

"Charlie, if these last few days have taught me anything, it's that I need to appreciate what I have. And that's you. Now Ryan, I know that we haven't formally met yet, so... tell me about yourself." We talked for a little while, telling her much the same story that we told Sam's mom. But this time there weren't any tears—I think all of us were tired of crying.

"I'm going back upstairs. I'll see you two later," she said.

She started to walk away. I ran after her and gave her a hug in the middle of the cafeteria. "Thanks Mom." After my mom disappeared I returned to the table and sat next to Ryan.

"Dude, I don't know who took my mom away and replaced her with this person, but I'm sure glad they did."

"She seems to be taking us rather well."

"Yeah." I grabbed a bagel off the tray and started spreading on the cream cheese. "Uh, Ryan?"

"Mmm?" he said, swallowing his coffee.

"Can I ask you a question?"

"What do you wanna know?"

"Well, upstairs, when you were talking to my dad, you said something about loosing someone that you loved... and not getting a chance to say that you loved them."

Ryan looked at his coffee, concentrating on the plastic stir stick. "I mean—if you don't want to talk about it..."

"No, it's okay," he mumbled. "His name was Mitch. He was in my Honors Government class during my senior year. I'd seen him before but never got to know him. A bunch of us met at a Denny's one night to study for a test. One by one people started leaving, and he and I were the last ones left. We put away our notes and started talking about nothing in particular.

"We came to a lull in the conversation and he wanted to know if he could ask me a personal question. Mitch was never one to sugarcoat anything, so he flat out asked me if what he heard was true. Did I try to kill myself when I was a sophomore.

"I was a bit taken aback by the question. It wasn't widely known that I'd done it, but Mitch was one of those people that you felt instantly comfortable with—like you could tell them anything. So I thought, 'What the hell?' and told him. The next question was naturally 'Why?' So i told him that too."

"In for a penny, in for a pound, eh?"

"Yeah. He got really nervous when I told him, but eventually he revealed that he was gay too. We stayed at Denny's for a little while longer just talking, and after the test, he asked me out. We dated for about four months. He would always come over to my house because his parents didn't know he was gay. His dad was a Pentecostal minister—pretty hard-core conservative. But my parents knew, so my house was a safe place.

"He came over one Friday. It was late April. I had had a bad day and was in a really bad mood. We got into an argument about something trivial; I don't even remember what it was about. It escalated into a pretty intense screaming match and I told him to leave.

"Monday morning at school, one of our guidance counselors came on the intercom and told us that Mitch had been in a car accident the day before. It had rained that weekend and he blew a tire and skidded into a tree. He died instantly.

"I don't remember much after that. My dad had to come and pick me up from school. He told me that I wouldn't, or couldn't, move from my desk. The rest of my Senior year was a blur... just kinda going through the motions.

"It took me a long time, but I eventually realized that it wasn't my fault. Only then did I visit his grave—I didn't go to his funeral. But the day I went to see him I apologized for getting in the fight, and I told him I loved him."

I reached across the table and held his hand. "Thank you Ryan."

He looked up from his coffee for the first time since he started telling me the story. "No problem," he said. "Let's get back upstairs.

The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. I had a pretty long talk with Momma T that evening. Even in light of my mother's recent change of heart, I still felt more comfortable discussing my problems with Sam's mom.

So we sat on the rooftop of the hospital for two hours... and I came to a few conclusions. One, that my dad had made some mistakes—a real no brainer there. Two, that his mistakes came from beliefs that he had held his entire life. And three, that somewhere deep inside, that he still realized that I was his son, and that he still loved me.

Perhaps it was wishful thinking—imagining the best of a dying man. But it did give me a reason to be there, and that is something that I had been searching for since my mom showed up at my doorstep. My god, that was just over 48 hours ago... it seems like weeks.

We spent the evening at Sam's house, and when Ryan appeared downstairs the next morning, he had a sour look on his face. "Who are you and what have you done with my boyfriend? The Charlie I know is supposed to sleep in until noon so I can be there when he wakes up."

"Sorry pookie, but I figured it was my turn to make breakfast." I handed him a plate of sausage and eggs. "Now hurry up and eat."

"Why? What's the rush?"

"Because I'm taking you and Sam to the airport in two hours. You've got the 11:00 flight back to Atlanta."

He dropped his fork on the table and got up from his chair. "Charlie—"

"Ryan, before you start, just listen to me for a second. I love you and I really need your support right now. I couldn't have made it these last few days without you. But you've got to back. You've got school. You've got finals."

"No I don't. I just have to give my presentation for my independent study project."

"And when is that?" He stood there, looking like the wind had been let from his sails.

"Thursday," he mumbled.

"That's right. And you need time to prepare for it. And Sam has exams on Wednesday and Thursday." He looked at me, still trying to show he was unconvinced. "Listen... I may be a bit fragile right now, but I'm not going to break. I've got support coming out the wazoo. I'll be allright. I had a long chat with Sam's mom last night and I figured out why I need to be here."

"And what does Sam's mom and dad have to say about this?"

"Who do you think bought the tickets?"

"Damn," he said, finally admitting defeat.

"Face it. You're outnumbered." He pulled me into a strong hug, perhaps thinking that if he didn't let go I couldn't take him to the airport. I pulled back and brought my hand to his chin, aligning his eyes with my own. "Ryan, I love you. Don't worry. We'll talk every night. Now eat up. I'll go wake up Sam."

"Ya know that if I was upset, she'll be furious."

"Don't worry. Sam's mom is coming with me to tell her."

The three of us left for the airport an hour and a half later. It was an emotional farewell, and when Ryan disappeared down the jetway leading to the plane, a part of me wanted to run after him. I didn't however. My cell phone started ringing as soon as I pulled into the hospital parking lot.



"Ryan, where in the hell are you?"

"On the plane. I'm using the AirPhone. I just wanted to call you and tell you I loved you."

"Ryan, how much is this call costing you?"

"Um... hold on. Lemme look. Uh... about nine bucks a minute."

"Ryan!" I exclaimed. "Listen, I love you but I'm hanging up now. Call me when you land."

"Okay. Bye."

Dad's room was pretty much as I had left it, except there were flowers. After inspecting the tag I saw that they were from Anita and the MIS department at the bank. Mom was dozing in the chair next to dad's bed. I decided against waking her up and went out into the hallway to make a phone call.

"Momma T? It's Charlie."

"Hey Kid. Did Sam and Ryan get on the plane?"

"Yup. I'm back at the hospital now. I was wondering if you were busy."

"Well, I'm just finishing up some revisions on a chapter. I should be done in half an hour. Why?"

"I've got a favour to ask."

"Mom? Wake up."

"Hmm? Oh there you are. When did you get back?"

"'Bout half an hour ago. I didn't want to wake you until I had to."

"Why? Has something happened?"

"Nope, but you're getting out of here. Sam's mom is coming to take you to a late lunch and go shopping. It's a girl's day out. She'll be here in ten minutes."

"Charlie... I can't. I mean, what about your father?"

"I'll stay here. Mrs. T. has her phone with her if I need to get in touch with you. I'll be fine." I saw her start to speak up in protest. "Nope! Not another word."

"Charlie, I can't go out like this. I look terrible!"

"Now you don't. You look fine."

Sam's mom came in a few minutes later. "Hey all. Laura, are you ready to go?" I pulled her out of her chair and picked up her purse.

"She's ready."

"Okay Charlie, we'll be back around eight or so. And just in case you get bored I brought someone along to keep you company."

"Hey Charlie!" I heard from behind me. I turned around and saw a rather attractive man with a mess of dark curly hair piled atop his head.

"Seth?" I yelled out. "What are you doing here?"

"I flew into Washington this morning for a publishing conference. It doesn't start until tomorrow, so when I rented my car, I drove down here. I've gotta go back tonight."

"We'll leave you two to chat," said Sam's mom as she led my mom from the room.

"Okay now. Who is this Ryan I keep hearing about?"

"Is there a Charles Ashby here?" asked a nurse who had just appeared at the door.

"That's me."

"Here you go." She handed me an arrangement of two-dozen red and white carnations. I pulled out the card.

"To Charlie, whom I love with all my heart. And by the way, when did I get to be 'pookie'? Forever, R." I handed Seth the card. "That's Ryan," I said.

"He sounds like a real keeper to me!" My stomach decided that this was the moment to make its presence known. "And it sounds like someone's hungry too. How about I run over to China Moon and get some lunch takeout?"

Seth came back about half an hour later and we sat down to eat. I started telling him about Ryan, and he told me more about Patrick. We were still talking when our moms returned at eight o'clock. "Wow Mom! You look great!" I said. Apparently Sam's mom took her out for a complete makeover. She had a new hairstyle, tasteful but simple makeup, and a new summer outfit.

"Oh Charlie, It's nothing." But I could tell she was feeling a little better. She had a bit of a glow about her. "Seth, thank you for keeping my son company."

"It's no problem ma'am. We were just swapping stories about our boyfriends." Mom got a strange look on her face but quickly hid it.

"It's okay mom," I said. "Seth is gay too."

"Oh no.. I mean..." she smiled. "I didn't know."

"Well I owe Seth a dinner now, so how about I leave you and Mrs. T. here and she can tell you all about it." My phone started ringing and I retrieved it from my pocket. "Hello?"

"I love you," said Ryan.

"I love you too."

"Guess where I am?"

"Istanbul?" I joked.

"I'm about to get onto the interstate. I got a mobile phone."

"Why'd you get a mobile phone?" I asked.

"So you could get in touch if you needed to... and so I can call you and tell you I love you whenever the mood strikes me," he said.

"Ryan, you are such a sap."

"Hey!" he protested.

"And I wouldn't have it any other way. Now what's your number?"

"That's a good question. I know they wrote it down somewhere," he said. The thought of Ryan driving down the interstate with a cell phone in one hand and looking for a scrap of paper scared me a little. "Here it is! Got a pencil?" I found something to write with and took his number.

"Got it babe. Now start paying attention to the road and get off this phone. Love ya Pookie." I pushed END and looked over at Seth.

"He sounds like a keeper," he said.

We decided on a pizza place across from the hospital. The place was packed with hospital staff, but we managed to get a table after a short wait. Seth started the conversation after we had ordered. "So how's your father doing?"

"He's had a few close calls and he hasn't woken up since he collapsed on Friday. Your dad says it doesn't look very good."

"And how are you holding up?" he asked.

"As well as can be expected. Did your mom tell you about my mom?" He nodded as he sipped on his beer. "I about had a stroke in the cafeteria yesterday when she introduced Ryan as my boyfriend." Almost on cue my phone started ringing. I looked at the caller ID and recognized the phone number.

"Ryan," I answered. "I love ya, but you just talked to me twenty minutes ago."

"How'd you know it was me?"

"The marvels of technology, dear."

"Well I just wanted to tell you that I got home okay. No cell phone-related injuries on the interstate."

"I'm glad you're home safe. I love you."

"Love you too," Ryan said as he hung up the phone.

"Is he sweet or what?" I asked Seth.

"Yeah, you two are giving me a toothache."

"You're just jealous," I joked. "Actually, I think we're all sappy like this because we're both pretty new at this. Ryan had a boyfriend in high school, but that was a long time ago, and I've never really dated much."

Our waitress came with our food and we both dug in. I picked up the tab for dinner, ignoring Seth's protests, and we walked back to the hospital. Mom was by herself when we made it to dad's room. "Seth, your mother told me told me what you and Sam did for Charlie over Christmas. Thank you for being there... when we weren't."

"He's a good kid, and he'd have done the same for me. Besides," he said, ruffling my hair, "I've always wanted a little brother."

"Your mom left a little while ago. She told me to tell you to stop by the house before you go back to DC tonight."

"Thanks. I need to go ahead and get a move on. Registration for the conference starts at seven in the morning. Charlie, call me if you need anything, and come visit Patrick and I if you get a chance."

After Seth left, I managed to convince my mom to get a good night's rest. She didn't want me staying up with Dad, but I was wide-awake. I practically had to shove her out the door and down the hall to the extra room we had. I went back to Dad's room, sat down, and started reading a book I'd brought with me that morning: J. R. R. Tolkein's Fellowship of the Ring. Nothing like a good fantasy to distract you from reality. I was about a hundred pages into it when my phone rang. This was a phone bill I didn't want to see. I looked up at the clock and saw it was almost midnight.

"Hello?" I answered.

"Can I just tell you how adorable your boyfriend is," said Sam.

"Why? What happened?"

"Okay—get this. He showed up on my doorstep an hour ago in his pajamas. He looked like a lost puppy dog."

I smiled. "I know that look. He can get anything he wants to with that look."

"He said he couldn't get to sleep and asked if he could stay in your room, since he couldn't stay with you."

"Can I talk to him?"

"Nah, I checked on him a few minutes ago. He's out like a light."

"Aww... how sweet."

"Oh it's just dripping in sugar. You should have seen the death grip he had on his teddy bear. And he's got his new phone on the pillow next to him in case you call." Were it physically possible, I would have melted right there. They would have had to clean me off the floor with a towel. "Charlie, I swear, if you don't marry that boy, I will!"

"Hey, he's mine! And you had better not tease him when he wakes up tomorrow!"

"Who, me? No, seriously though, I won't. I promise," she said. "I've gotta run though. I need to get another hour's worth of studying in for finals before I turn in."

"Love ya."

"Who wouldn't?"

"Smartass! Bye."

After I hung up I got some coffee and went back to reading my book. I put it down when a nurse came in to check on dad's IV. "Good morning," she said.


"It's almost 4:30 a.m. I'd call that morning." I glanced at my watch and confirmed that the nurse was right. "You look a little tired. Why don't you go get some fresh air."

"You sure?" I asked.

"Go on, I'll stay with him. Just don't be gone too long."

"Thanks, Ms.—"


"Thanks Betty. I'll be back in fifteen." I walked down to check on mom. She was sound asleep. I refilled my coffee mug and headed up to the roof. It was a little chilly for an April morning, but I've always been a cold weather person. God knows why I'm living in Atlanta. When I returned to the room, Betty was casually flipping through a People magazine.

"Welcome back," she said.

"Thanks for staying with him. I really appreciate it."

"No problem. I'm at the nurse's station until seven if you need anything else."

And once again I was alone with Dad. I picked up my book but put it down after a few pages. Even though I was wired from the coffee, my eyes were tired. I flipped on the TV, but all I could find were infomercials and reruns of I Love Lucy. I turned it off and walked out to the nurse's station.


"Yeah hon?"

"Do you have any Visine by any chance?"

"No, but I've got some contact rewetting drops in my purse. Here ya go." I took the plastic bottle from here and doused my aching eyes. After a few seconds of blinking they started to feel a little better. I thanked her profusely and went back to dad's room.

What does one do in these situations? If you watch the movies, there is always a scene where someone talks to an unconscious person in the hospital bed. Ryan had done it. Mom had done it. I guess it was my turn. Here goes nothing....

"Hey dad. I don't know if you can hear me or not, but I guess I've got some things to say. The first thing I want to say is... I'm sorry. I'm sorry that our family had to fall apart.

"Now before you can derive some satisfaction out of that, let me tell you what I'm not sorry for. I'm not sorry I'm gay. I'm not sorry that I'm in love with the greatest guy I've ever met. And I'm not sorry that I'm not the person you wanted me to be. That's your problem.

"You always pushed me, dad. Pushed me to be the high school athlete, pushed me to be at the top of my class, and pushed me to be the person you were at my age. And when I didn't live up to your expectations, you made sure to let me know.

"I guess if I were to give you the benefit of the doubt, I could say that you did all that because you wanted what was best for me. All you managed to do though was to push me farther and farther away from you.

"And then there was Christmas... when you really found out I'm not the person you wanted me to be. Stellar performance there dad. Well, despite your asinine behavior, I'm still here. And for the first time in a long time, I'm happy.

"And that should be all that any father would want for their kid...."

Once again, the room was filled with silence, pierced only by the recurrent beeping of the heart monitor. I sat there staring at dad, unaware of the passing of time. Mom came in at 6:00 a.m. Despite my objections, she forced me to bed. I claimed I wasn't tired, but as soon as my head hit the pillow I was in dreamland.

I next saw myself as a little kid. I was running around the back yard of our house in Ohio. I remember the day—it was my sixth birthday. All I wanted for my birthday was a Transformer action figure and a tree house.

One of dad's clients was a contractor, and as a personal favor, he had agreed to build my fortress in a tree in the back yard. I watched in awe as the construction workers hauled in two by fours and plywood. Several hours later my secret base was complete. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

The next thing I saw was something that happened several months later. It was October. I was in my tree house, and there was a war going on. Transformers versus G.I. Joes. Things were looking bad for America's favourite soldiers, when suddenly the Go-Bots came to their rescue. Just when things were getting good, I heard my mom calling for me.

"Charlie, dinner is ready. Come on inside."

"Aww mom! I'm in the middle of a war! Optimus Prime is about to attack the Go-Bots!"

"Well tell them to take a time out. They can finish after you've eaten your dinner."

"Mom!" I whined. "Can't it wait!"

"Charles Ezra Ashby, get down here right now!"

Oh crap. She used all three names. She really meant business. "Okay mom, I'm coming." I picked up my favourite transformer. "Now Optimus Prime, I've got to go eat dinner. You've got to wait until I'm done before you can attack the Go-Bots."

"Charlie? Charlie?" my mom called out. I felt myself being lightly shaken. "Charlie?"

I opened my eyes and was a bit shocked to find myself at the hospital in the extra room. I turned over to see Sam's mom "Charlie?"

"Yeah, I'm awake. What time is it?"

"It's half past ten."

"Aww, Momma T! I just went to bed four hours ago," I said as I rolled over.

"Charlie, you need to get up." Her voice was barely a whisper. I rolled back over and saw the solemn look on her face.

"He's gone." I said. She nodded. "When?"

"About twenty minutes ago. His heart stopped and they couldn't get it started again."

"Where's mom?" I asked, trying to hold back the emotion.

"John is with her. She's in the room." I got up from the bed and followed Sam's mom down the hall. Mom was sitting down in the chair. She looked totally catatonic. Sam's dad was kneeling next to her. I tapped him on the shoulder and took his place. Mom didn't even notice—she just sat there staring into space.

I took her hand. "Mom?" Nothing. "Mom, it's me, Charlie. I'm here." She turned her head and looked at me. "I'm here mom." I reached up and put my arms around her. She didn't move at first, but after a few minutes she wrapped her arms around me and started crying.

"It's okay mom. Let it out." She cried on my shoulder for the better part of an hour. I did my best to console her, but I'm not sure if I did much good. When her crying tapered off I offered her a tissue to dry her eyes.

"Thank you, Charlie," she said. She looked at me for a few seconds. "I'm sorry that you and he couldn't... talk."

"Mom, it's okay," I lied. "It's okay. Why don't you go get home and get some rest."

"No. I can't. I have to..."

"Mom. I'll take care of the arrangements. Go home. You're worn out. Go get some rest." I turned around and saw Sam's mom standing in the doorway. "Momma T, will you take her to your house, please?"

She nodded and took my mom from the room. I realized after they left that I had no idea what to do in the way of arrangements. I'd never had a close family member die before except for my grandfather. I went up to Sam's dad's office and asked for advice. He volunteered to take care of it for me.

We decided on to have a wake on Friday and the funeral on Saturday. That would give enough time for Ryan and Sam to make it back to Virginia. While Sam's dad called the funeral home, I called to airlines to buy them a ticket. After that I called Ryan's mobile phone.

"Hello?" he answered.


"Charlie!" he practically yelled. "Did you get my gifts?"

"Yeah. Thank you. I heard you had a little trouble sleeping last night."

"Um... a little," he said. I could hear his bashfulness through the phone. I didn't say anything for a second. "Charlie, you still there?"

"Dad died this morning."

"Oh my god. I'm so sorry. Are you okay?"

"I will be. Mom's a mess. Sam's mom took her home a few hours ago. I got you and Sam a ticket to fly up here late Thursday night."

"What time—wait, let me get a pen." I read him the flight information from the notes I'd taken. "Got it. Thursday night at ten, arriving into Richmond at half past eleven. Are you sure you're gonna be okay?"

"Don't worry about me. Just get on that plane. And good luck on your presentation."

"I love you Charlie."

"I love you too."

I sat on the back porch swing and looked through the window. Everyone was inside. I don't know much about wakes, but apparently the tradition is to sit around talking about the good times... recounting fond memories. A lot of Dad's colleagues from the law school were there, along with several college buddies I hadn't seen in years, and some relatives who had been equally distant.

I got rather tired of the "Charlie, you're a young man now! I haven't seen you since you were knee-high to a grasshopper" sentiments, so I took refuge out here. I'd been out here for twenty minutes. Predictably, Ryan came out looking for me.

"There you are. I've been looking all over for you." The concern in his voice lightened my somber mood.

"Yeah, I felt like being by myself."

"Would you mind some company now," he asked, sounding a bit hesitant. I scooted over on the swing and made room for him.

"I know I've asked you this a million times, but... you okay?"

"Fine," I said, rather flatly.

"No you're not."

I had to laugh a bit at that. "You know me too well, Mr. K."

"Do you wanna talk about it?"

I thought about it for a second. I always like to stew on my own problems for a while before sharing them with someone else. I get a chance to work through them first without bothering anybody. But I had no problem talking to Ryan. He somehow got an all-access pass. On some levels that frightened me, but on others it made me love him even more.

"I just... I don't know. I expected more out of this whole experience. Ya know... like in the movies."

"You wanted your dad to wake up, apologize profusely for his behavior, tell you he loved you, and go riding off into the sunset... that kind of thing?"

Wow. Talk about hitting the nail on the head. "Well, it would have been nice."

Ryan shifted positions and signaled for me to lie down. I put my head in his lap and he ran his fingers through my hair. "I'm sorry it didn't happen like that. I'm sorry y'all couldn't work things out. I know I can't replace your dad, but I'm here for ya. Sam is here for ya. And a whole slew of people are here for ya."

"It's not the same though. I mean, I cut him out of my life, then come up here and invest so much in hoping that things will get resolved somehow...." I stopped to pick a piece of lint off my jacket. "I just feel like I've wasted my efforts."

"Charlie, you're efforts haven't been wasted. You and your mom have made some rather unbelievable progress towards repairing your relationship, and from what you've told me, you seem closer now than you ever were. That's got to count for something!"

He had a point. I guess there was a silver lining to this dark cloud after all. "Pookie, how do you always know the right things to say?"

"Gift from God."

"And so modest too!" I joked.

"You ready to go back inside?"

"Yeah, but I swear, if another long lost relative pinches me on the cheek, I'll go postal."

"Relax. Leave them to me," he said with a devilish grin. "And Charlie, I know it sounds cliché, but 'What does not kill us makes us stronger.'"

"Thank you Confucius," I said, sticking my tongue out at him. I put on my game face as Ryan and I went back inside. Things were much the same as when I left. I spotted mom sitting in the corner; she was talking to one of dad's rather odious brothers, and she had a thoroughly uninterested look on her face. I got her attention and waved her over to join us. She excused herself from my uncle's presence and walked over.

"Thank you for saving me there. I thought he'd never stop talking!"

I gave her a hug. "How're ya holdin' up?"

"I need a drink."

"Say no more." I took her hand and dragged her into the kitchen. Ryan followed close behind and took at seat at the kitchen table. I got up on a chair and opened the cabinets above the fridge. After some digging, I produced a bottle of vodka.

"And how did you know that was there, Mister?" she questioned.

"He's not as innocent as he looks, Mrs. Ashby."

"Ryan, my name is Laura."

"Yes ma'am—I mean... uh... yes Laura."

A quick survey of the fridge produced a half carton of orange juice. As I was mixing my mom's drink I heard a new voice behind me. "Oh Laura, I'm so sorry for your loss." I cringed. It was my mom's aunt Lydia.

Lydia is that relative that you hope won't be at the reunion. I once heard my mom describe her as, "the aunt who shows up just before lunch and leaves just before it's time to do the dishes."

I turned around to face Lydia. "Oh! Can this be little Charlie? What a handsome man you've become!" Her hand left her side on a trajectory that led it to my face. Surely enough, she pinched me on the cheek.

When she was done, Ryan got up from his chair, walked over to me, grabbed my face, and planted a huge kiss squarely on my lips. This was something that always amazed me about Ryan. He was quite shy, but he'd do some of the most outlandish things at the drop of a hat. When he was done he stood next to me with a goofy grin on his face.

"Lydia," said my mother. "I don't think you've met Ryan, Charlie's boyfriend?" Ryan extended his hand to greet her. The look on her face was precious.

"Well my word! Of all the things!" she said, storming out of the kitchen. Mom started laughing—cackling was more like it. Ryan and I soon joined her. Sam appeared at the kitchen doorway a few seconds later.

"What is all the commotion about? And who was that lady in the bad dress and fake pearls that just went storming out the front door?" This only served to add fuel to the fire. It took several minutes for us to calm down enough to tell Sam the story.

"Welcome to the family, Ryan," said my mom. "You have no idea who much we can't stand our aunt Lydia."

"Well mom, you know she was bound to show up," I said. "We had free food."

"Oh my! That made the evening worthwhile!" Mom downed her screwdriver and the four of us headed back into the living room.

Ryan didn't get a chance to repeat the theatrics of the evening, and by eleven, all of our guests had departed. I decided to sleep in my own bed instead of going back to Sam's house. It proved a touch difficult trying to fit two people on a twin mattress, but we managed.

The next day was the funeral. It was relatively short, which I was quite thankful for. First, I didn't want to be there, and second, it was unbearably hot. We went to Sam's house afterwards and had dinner. She made something amazing that I couldn't identify—I just knew it tasted good. My mother and I convinced her to let us clean up and do the dishes. We stood over the sink as she washed and I dried.

"So what are you gonna do now?" I asked her.

"Charlie, I'll manage."

"Are you sure?"

"I'll be fine. Honestly in some ways, I'm relieved. I know that sounds bad, but our marriage started to fall apart after Christmas. In fact, I almost left him that night you went to jail. And while I really do miss him, I don't miss the fights we got into. Honestly, had this not happened, I don't think we'd have lasted much longer."

"Mom, I'm so sorry," I said, tears forming in my eyes.

She put down the casserole pan she was working on. "Charlie, you have nothing to be sorry for. It's not your fault he was such a jackass sometimes."

"Still though...."

"Nope. Not another word." She handed me the casserole pan and went to work on a rather stubborn serving dish. "When are you heading back to Georgia?"

"I don't know. How long do you want me to stay?"

"Charlie, you have a life and a job to get back to. And I'm heading back to work on Tuesday. Why don't you head back the day after tomorrow."

"Are you sure?" I asked.

"Life goes on, Charlie."

Hey folks, sorry for not getting this out earlier... it has been on my website since last friday, but I've not had the time to revise it and send it here. This chapter tips me over the 40,000 word mard and ends what I've come to envision as Part I of the story. The next chapter begins Part II. So worry not, the story is not over.

Thanks again to everyone who has written me. Your words of encouragement have provided some real inspiration. Part 11 will take a little longer, as I've not finished writing it yet... but I hope to have it out before too long.

Feedback is always welcome and appreciated.