There was some lake-effect snow in the air by the time Josh Harkness arrived at the condo shortly after six o'clock that evening, still in his state police uniform. He parked his squad car next to the two Chicago police squads sitting in plain view in the visitors parking lot, and so wasn't too surprised to see a Chicago cop on duty with Dominic at the front desk.
"Hi, Dom," he said. "Is everything all right?"
"Yes, sir," Dom said with a smile. "Matt and Mike are expecting you. Go right on up. They'll explain what's going on."
"All right." Josh extended his hand to the policeman before going to the elevator. "Josh Harkness," he said by way of greeting.
"Paul Sheridan. How you doin'?"
"Good, thanks. Catch ya later."
The young trooper strode into the elevator, the doors closed, and he was whisked up to the penthouse floor. The doors opened on feverish activity in the foyer, as the three kids "helped" Matt, Mike, Stan and Chris assemble three new mountain bikes. They had finished with one bike, sparkling as it sat on its kickstand just begging to be ridden, with two yet to go. Matt and Mike opened one of the remaining boxes, and Stan and Chris the other, as they pulled out the seats and handlebars which needed to be affixed to the bike frames.
Josh exited the elevator, and out of the corner of his eye saw a second Chicago police officer. The man had his hand on his service revolver until he saw Josh's "smoky bear" hat and his uniform.
Mike straightened up from his labors and noticed that their visitor had arrived. Putting down the wrench he was holding, he went over to greet him.
"Hey, Josh, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, bud!" he said, giving Josh a hug. "You beat the pizza delivery man. Guys, Josh is here."
When Mike stepped back after hugging Josh, he didn't like what he saw. The handsome, young police officer had dark circles under his eyes and looked as if he had lost weight since Mike and Matt had seen him last.
Matt and Chris each came over and greeted their visitor with a hug. Stan came over and was going to shake his hand, but at the last minute drew him into a hug, too.
"What the heck," Stan said with a laugh, "these guys have made me into a hugger!"
"Right on, dude!" Mike said, grinning at Stan. "You were a quick study, though. Josh, why don't you go on back to Matt's and my bedroom, and get some Levi's and a T-shirt out of my dresser. It's the first one on the right when you go in. There are some white socks in there, too, and find some sneakers in the closet. Get comfortable, and then get your ass back here and help us. So far, this little project has been like the blind leading the blind. Even on a simple job like this."
"OK," Josh said, laughing, and after greeting the kids, took off down the hall.
"The blind leading the blind, huh!" Matt said to Mike, feigning disgust. "Speak for yourself, Doc."
"Western civilization would crumble if it had to depend on our mechanical abilities," Mike said. "And you know that's true."
Matt acquiesced with a chuckle, and picked up a box wrench to finish tightening the handle bars on to the steering shaft of the bike he and Mike were working on.
Josh was back before long, but the bikes were assembled and sitting on their kickstands by the time he returned.
"Boys, you can look and you can touch, but don't sit on 'em yet," Mike told the kids as he put the tools back in the toolbox. "We'll buy your helmets tomorrow, and then you can start learning to ride tomorrow night, OK?"
"Maybe we can just get on 'em and get right off," Matthew suggested.
Mike gave him a look. "What did I just say?"
"Heck," Matthew said, and stomped off toward the den, followed by Kyle and Michael.
"I like it when you're the bad guy," Matt said, grinning at his partner.
"I know you do!" Mike snorted, and headed off to put the toolbox back under the kitchen sink.
Matt, Chris, Josh and Stan followed the boys into the den, trailed by the Chicago cop who was on duty. Chris and Josh sat down on the couch, and Stan laid claim to an easy chair. The police officer pulled a folding chair out into the hall, keeping his eyes and ears focused on the foyer and elevator. The boys started playing a board game they'd received for Christmas.
"You guys want a beer or something before the pizza gets here?" Matt asked.
"I thought you'd never ask. Heineken, please," Chris said.
"Me, too," Josh echoed.
"Me, three," Stan said. "Make mine a Bud, though."
Matt went over to the bar, opened the hidden panel to the refrigerator, removed four beers, opened them, and taking a swig from one, took the other three to Stan and the two young cops on the couch.
"So, Chris," Josh said, "you sounded like you were having a good time when you called me. How was Christmas?"
"It was great!" Chris said. "Except for one thing. Some weird guy kept rousting me out of bed in the morning before the sun was up to ride an ATV while everybody else ran. That was awful!" He gave Matt a quick glance as he sat down at the other end of the couch
"Seeing your expression when I woke you up was worth the trip," Matt responded. "What a lazy butt you turned out to be."
"I deny that," Chris said. "I'm a veritable font of energy when I'm allowed to get enough sleep. And I have the sunniest disposition you'd ever wanna see."
"Yeah, right!" Matt said. "How was your Christmas, Josh?"
"Quiet. Lots of family time, though, and that was good."
"You hit any parties or anything?" Matt asked.
"No. I guess I wasn't in the mood," Josh said. "How about you guys?"
"It was pretty much party, party, party the whole time we were in Pennsylvania," Chris said. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Mike come back from the kitchen. "I had to whip Mike's butt at pool more than once, and that was fun. He's such a loser."
Mike was standing behind the couch by then, and slapped Chris on the back of the head.
"Oh, sorry, Mike, I didn't know you were standing there," Chris said, laughing.
"I think I liked you better when you were bedridden," Mike kidded him.
Just then, the phone rang. Matt answered it. The pizza guy was downstairs.
"Thanks, Dom," Matt told the doorman. "Did you get pizza and something to drink?" He paused. "OK, then, send him up." He put the phone down. "Mike, let Mary and Linda and Andie know the pizza's here, will ya?" Andie was going to stay the night before going back to her dorm room the next day.
"Yep," Mike said.
Matt stood up and headed for the foyer, with the police officer shadowing him, unbuttoning the holster of his gun as they walked.
The elevator door opened, and a kid stepped out with five large boxes of pizza and a sack full of liters of soft drinks.
"What's with all the cops?" the kid asked, eyeing the police officer.
"They heard that people were being overcharged for pizza, so they started an investigation," Matt quipped.
"You're funny," the kid said, unamused.
Matt settled up with the boy and gave him a nice tip. The kid smiled then, and took off.
Mike came out and took the pizzas, and Matt carried the soft drinks.
"Boys, wash your hands," Matt said to the kids as everybody stood up and headed for the dining room.
"I should stay near the elevator," the policeman said.
"OK. We'll bring you some pizza in a minute," Matt told him. "There's a TV tray in the corner you can use, and you already have a chair."
Everybody stood around the dining room table until Mary, Linda, Andie and the little boys joined them, and then they all held hands around the table as Mike said grace. After everyone sat down, Matt piled a plate high with pizza, grabbed some napkins and an empty glass and a liter of Coke, and took them out to the officer in the foyer.
After everyone had finished eating, Matt and Mike and Josh helped clean up. Then the three of them went into the living room, closing the doors and leaving everyone else to their own devices. Stan, Linda, Mary, Andie and Chris sat down in the den to talk, and the kids went back to their board game.
Pulling easy chairs into a circle, Matt and Mike studied their guest for a moment.
"Josh, how are you doin'?" Mike said finally.
"If I tell you, you'll think I'm a real wuss," the young cop responded, sliding back in his chair and crossing his legs.
"No, we won't," Mike said. "We're not here to judge you. Believe me on that."
"I know. Well, I'm not feeling too good about things."
"You look tired," Matt observed. "And you look as if you've lost some weight. Are you eating and sleeping all right?"
Josh looked down at the floor. "No. I can't sleep, and I don't have much appetite most of the time."
"Are you getting any exercise?" Mike asked.
"No, not really. I just don't feel like doing much, to tell you the truth. Nothing gives me any pleasure. I can't read, and I can't even watch television for long without...well, thinking about my problem."
Mike nodded. "Just so we make a smooth transition from our last conversation, why don't you tell us again how you're seeing your problem."
"I'm queer, and I hate myself for it, and I don't stand a chance of being with the person I love. I guess that about covers it," Josh shot back without hesitation.
"We're still talking about Chris here?" Mike asked.
"Well, I agree that your situation is a little different from what many of us went through," Matt said. "I think most of us had a little longer period to adjust to our emerging orientation, to get used to it, I guess you'd say. You just kind of admitted the truth about yourself all of a sudden. Am I right on that?"
"More or less," Josh said. "I've been a little uneasy about my identity for a long time, but I was in complete denial about what I am. When I came out to Chris, I was also coming out to myself. Boom! I stopped hiding from myself. And I'm not handling it very well."
"Have you given any thought to maybe easing into things by going out on a trial date with some nice guy?" Mike asked.
"No," Josh said quietly. "Jesus God, what's gonna happen to me? I'm such a fucking mess." He put his hands over his face and began to weep noiselessly.
Matt pulled a fresh handkerchief out of his back pocket, and when Josh finally stopped crying and looked up, handed it to him. Josh wiped his face.
"Are you thinking about offing yourself?" Mike asked bluntly.
Josh looked at him, surprised. "The thought's occurred to me," he admitted. "How did you know?"
"I've been there a couple times," Mike said quietly. "Fortunately, my family was there for me, and gave me what I needed to get to a better place. Just like we're here for you now."
Josh wiped his eyes again with Matt's handkerchief, saying nothing.
"I'll tell you what, Josh," Mike said. "I don't think drawing out your feelings any further tonight is going to help you. I think you're pretty well into a clinical depression, and that's serious. This has to be dealt with before you can move on to working effectively on your challenges. I want you to know one thing, though. You're a strong person. I know you don't think so now, but you are. And down the road, I don't think you're going to be the kind of person who lets the issue of orientation define him and everything he does and everything he thinks about. I want you to hold on to that thought. As for right now, I want you to come and stay here with us for awhile."
Josh looked surprised. "You'd do that for me?"
"It's not a problem," Matt said. "Why don't you plan to stay here tonight? I'll go with you to your place so you can pick up your toothbrush and stuff."
"Do you have any sick time coming?" Mike asked Josh.
"Well, I think it would be good if you took tomorrow off, then, OK?" Mike said. "I'm going to have you see a doctor. He'll most likely prescribe an antidepressant for you. It may take a few days to kick in, so you probably should plan to stay here for at least a week until it does. Maybe you can start going to work the day after tomorrow if you feel like it, but we can play that by ear. Then I'm probably going to have you see a counselor. You need to talk to someone who's trained to help you in this area. Maybe a counselor who's gay."
Josh didn't say anything, and after a minute, the three of them stood up. First Mike and then Matt drew Josh into long embraces which the young man didn't resist.
"Now, are you guys gonna tell me why you have two Chicago cops here?" Josh asked after they unclenched and stood back.
"When I was in college, I was kidnapped for ransom," Matt explained. "I got away from the bad guys, and the guy who masterminded the whole thing blames me for his being sent to prison. He escaped last Saturday when he was being transferred from one facility to another back in Pennsylvania, and allegedly murdered some people not long after his escape. Tony Angelo thought we should have some protection here until we can hire some private security."
"Oh, man," Josh said, commiserating. "Well, now you'll have one more cop here for awhile," referring to himself.
"Yep," Matt said. "Let's grab a jacket for you, and go on over to your place. I can drive my new truck if you like."
"No, let's take the squad car. I don't think anyone will bother us then."
Matt nodded, and the three of them went into the den.
"Josh is going to stay with us for a few days," Mike told the family. "He and Matt are going to his place to pick up a few things."
"Cool," Stan said.
Chris looked at Josh's face, still a little red from his tears, but said nothing.
Matt went over to the clothes tree in the corner, grabbed his jacket, and shrugged into it. He handed Mike's jacket to Josh.
"Let me get my shield and my weapon," Josh said as he headed back toward Matt's and Mike's bedroom.
"I'll make up a bed for him," Mike murmured to Matt as they waited for the young cop to come back.
Josh returned, and he and Matt took the elevator down to the first floor and went out to the squad car.
By the time they returned an hour and a half later, Mike had bathed the kids, heard their prayers, put them to bed, made up a bed for Josh, and walked Breakers. Everybody except Mike had gone to bed. He was waiting for them in the den, watching the news.
"Josh, I inflated an air mattress and fixed it up for ya," Mike told their guest. "You'll be in with Matt and me tonight."
"That's an kind of an imposition on you guys, isn't it?" Josh asked.
"No, not really," Mike said. "We'll move you to another bedroom after you see the doctor tomorrow, if you want. Why doncha give me your weapon, and I'll have Chris lock it up with his so the kids don't get at it."
Josh didn't look too happy about that, but he complied, handing over his pistol.
Mike walked down the hall and knocked on Chris' bedroom door.
"Yeah?" Chris said.
Mike opened the door. Chris was in bed watching the news.
"Can I lock this up with your weapon?" Mike asked, holding the 9 mm pistol upside down by its trigger guard.
"Sure. Here's the key."
Mike took it and went over to the desk against the wall, and unlocked one of the drawers. He put the gun into it and relocked the drawer, handing the key back to Chris.
"Is there anything you feel you can tell me about Josh's situation?" Chris asked.
"Not really," Mike said. "He won't be going to work tomorrow. Maybe he'll talk to you. I hope he will."
" 'K," Chris said. "Whatever you're doing, Mike, thanks."
"Yep," Mike said. "See ya tomorrow, buddy."
Shutting Chris' door behind him, Mike went back to his bedroom after checking on the kids. Matt and Josh were just climbing into their respective beds. Mike went into the bathroom and cleaned his teeth. After rummaging through the medicine cabinet, he took a couple of over-the-counter sleeping tablets out of their package, filled a glass with water, and took them out to Josh.
"Take these, Josh. They're not much, but they're all we have to help you sleep tonight." The young cop sat up, popped them into his mouth without protest and washed them down with water. Mike took back the glass and put it on his bedside table. Then he stripped and climbed into bed with Matt, giving him a kiss.
"You wake me up if it's bad tonight," Mike told Josh. The young cop nodded and put his head down on the pillow. "We're gonna run in the morning, and I want you to come with us," Mike added before he turned out the light. Josh raised his head and nodded again.
"'Night, Josh," Matt said.
The three of them gradually went to sleep. All was silent except for Breakers' toenails, clicking along as he made his way into the room. He jumped up on Matt's and Mike's bed, lying down at their feet.
The clock on Mike's bedside table said it was shortly after 2 a.m. when he awakened to hear Josh quietly blowing his nose. As he lay there, Mike knew the man was crying softly, trying not to make any noise.
Mike switched on his lamp, and getting out of bed, picked up his boxers off the floor and pulled them on. Matt woke up and looked at him sleepily as Josh looked away from the light to hide his face.
"Josh, come over here and get in bed with us," Mike instructed.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah. I'm just passing on to you what someone did for me when my birth family were all killed, and I was hurting." Mike glanced over at his partner lovingly, remembering.
Josh stood up slowly and came over in his boxers, sliding into the middle of the bed. Mike turned out the light, got back into bed, pulled up the covers and held their friend gently as the three of them began drifting back to sleep. It seemed to Josh as if the body heat from the two young men on either side of him was entering into his very core, and he began to relax and allow his fevered brain to switch off for a few hours.
Mike's alarm went off at 5:30 a.m., and he reached over and gave the clock a smack, silencing it. The three of them lay there in bed, unmoving, gradually waking up. Finally Matt and Mike got out of bed, sporting wood and unembarrassed about it, and went into the bathroom. After relieving themselves, they cleaned their teeth side by side, and went back into the bedroom.
"Time to get up, buddy," Matt said to Josh as he put on his jock and running shorts. "I think we're gonna need sweats this morning," he commented, looking out the window. "It looks crisp out there."
Josh groaned, but did what he was told and got up and went into the bathroom. He was showing wood, too, and all indications were that he was well endowed. He used the toilet and then cleaned his teeth.
When he went back into the bedroom, Mike handed him a clean jock, running shorts, running shoes, athletic socks, some sweats, a knit cap, a pair of gloves, and a towel to put around his neck.
"Thanks," Josh said, stripping off his boxers and putting on his borrowed running clothes. When he was dressed and had laced up his shoes, Josh put his shield in the pocket of his sweat pants, and the three of them met Stan and Linda and Andie in the foyer.
A third shift police officer was on duty there, and they all introduced themselves to him.
"'Morning, Josh," Andie, Linda and Stan greeted the condo's newest guest.
"Where you guys goin'?" the cop asked them.
"We're running on the beach," Mike said.
"Captain Angelo ain't gonna like this," the officer said. "I'd go, but I ain't no runner!" His ample physique testified to that.
"Get me my weapon, and I'll put it in the inside pocket of my jacket," Josh suggested to Mike. "Er, your jacket, I mean."
"Your weapon?" the officer asked, not knowing he was a policeman.
"Yeah." Josh flashed his shield, and the cop nodded.
Matt went to Chris' door and knocked softly.
"Yep," Chris mumbled.
Matt went in, got the key to the desk from Chris, and retrieved Josh's gun.
"If we had an ATV," Matt told Chris in passing, "I'd have your ass out of that bed!"
"I know you would," Chris said, pulling the covers up over his head.
Matt took the gun out to the foyer, handing it to Josh. The young cop checked the clip and the safety, and then put the weapon into the inside pocket of Mike's jacket, buttoning the pocket down so his weapon wouldn't jounce out as he ran.
"Let's hit it!" Stan said, surprisingly enthusiastic for that time of the morning. They went down to the beach and did their stretches. Great plumes of steam emanated from their noses and mouths. A giant air mass from Canada dominated the city, and the temperature was about 15° F, but clear and windless.
The plan was to run their usual five miles. Two miles out, Josh started to slow, and Mike stayed with him, motioning for the others to go on ahead as he and Josh turned around and began a fast walk back toward the condo.
"Sorry," Josh said, panting. "I'm cramping your style here."
"No problem," Mike said. "If you haven't been running lately, you'll have to work back up to it."
The two of them continued their fast walk for awhile, checking behind them frequently, and when they spotted the rest of the crew coming up behind them at a fast pace, they began running again. Everybody finished together, did a cool down and some stretches, and went back upstairs.
After they showered and dressed in street clothes, Matt fixed coffee, scrambled eggs and bacon for everybody. The kids were up by then, sipping their orange juice, chattering away, and eating their breakfast like there was no tomorrow.
Leaving the dishes for Stan and Linda and Andie, Matt and Mike got ready to leave for school.
"Josh, I'll call you and tell you the time and place for your doctor's appointment," Mike said. "You can take my Blazer. The keys are on the pegboard in the den. They have a little plastic license plate on the key ring that says 'Blazer.'"
"OK," Josh said. "Thanks."
"Don't forget we have to be at the school at 4 o'clock," Matt reminded Mike and Stan.
"Yep," they both said.
Matt and Mike put on their jackets and caps, kissed the kids goodbye, grabbed their books, and took the elevator downstairs. Stan and a police officer would be taking the kids to school later that day on the way to his own classes.
The cop on duty in the lobby put Matt and Mike in the back of his squad car, and dropped them off at their respective schools before returning to the condo.
Mike telephoned Josh back at the condo about 9 a.m., and told him to go to the emergency room at Northwestern Hospital and talk with a Dr. Stearns as soon as he could get there. Josh did, and after a brief interview, the doctor, a friend of Mike, wrote him a script for an antidepressant with the option of two refills. Josh had it filled at the Hospital pharmacy. Understanding that he couldn't get relief from the black cloud hanging over his head any too soon, he popped one of the pills before he left the hospital to drive back to Matt's and Mike's place.
Chris was sitting in the den on the couch, drinking coffee and finishing the morning paper when Josh got back. Josh hung up Mike's jacket on the clothes tree and went over and sat down with his friend.
"You've turned into quite the man of leisure, haven't cha?" Josh said. "It must be nice."
"I'd trade places with ya in about 2 seconds," Chris responded. "Believe me on that."
"I know," Josh said. "I was just kidding. I know you haven't had it easy."
"From the way you look, you haven't either," Chris said.
"Do I look that bad?"
"You look tired and you look really down," Chris said. "Are you gonna tell me what's goin' on?"
"If I tell ya, you won't wanna look me in the face again," Josh said, looking down at his feet.
"I can understand why you'd think that," Chris said. "But just so you know, I've been going through a lot of changes in the way I see things these days. You can't be around Mike and Matt and the rest of this family for long and not be affected by the way they look at life."
"Tell me about it!!!" Josh exclaimed.
"So...? Talk to me!"
Neither of them said anything for a moment until Josh broke the silence.
"You remember our little conversation in the bar before you got shot?" he asked. "The night I had one too many and told you that I thought I might be gay?"
"Well, I really opened up a can of worms for myself. When I told you what I did, I was also admitting it to myself for the first time, really admitting it instead of pushing the thought away. And I'm having a hell of a struggle with the information. I don't wanna be queer, Chris. That's not what I want. I'm in bad shape. Mike sent me to a doctor friend of his today at Northwestern, and he put me on an antidepressant. An antidepressant, for God's sake! None of this is what I envisioned for myself when you and I were jocks together back in high school, playing football. Long story short, I'm in a world of hurt right now!"
Chris looked over at his friend. "There was a time when I would have told you that was more information than I ever wanted to know, and ended this conversation and probably our friendship. But after I attended Matt's and Mike's wedding at St. Stephen's, and after I had a chance to talk with their dad during Christmas, and as I've realized how much these two guys love each other and their kids and everybody else around here, I'm not making the same macho judgments about homosexuality that I used to. You've been my friend most of my life, and you're my friend now, and you're gonna stay my friend. I know that doesn't solve your problem with yourself, but I hope you believe that I love you, and that's not gonna change."
Josh's eyes looked suspiciously moist. "You can't even begin to know how much that means to me, Chris," he said quietly. "Under the circumstances, those are words I never thought I'd hear coming out of your mouth, that's fer sure."
"Hey, I don't claim to know what makes human beings and their relationships what they are," Chris said. "They're a big mystery to me in most respects. But I'm learning. Being with the Bromans over Christmas was a real eye opener for me. They aren't the kind of people that gush about things or wear their hearts on their sleeves, not that I've ever seen, anyway. But the men in that family, especially, amaze me, because if they love somebody; they damn well say so, whether the object of their affection is a man or a woman. And they're demonstrative about it, too, sometimes. There's nothing gay about it. I've never experienced anything like it before in my life. I don't think either of us has, Josh. I see Matt or Mike kiss Stan sometimes or their brother Jeff, and they kiss them back, and Stan and Jeff are as straight as they come. It kind of turns a lot of what I thought about 'being a man' on its head."
"Who is this person here in Chris' body?" Josh laughed.
"I know what you mean," Chris admitted, smiling. "You're going through some painful shit right now, but I just want you to know you can always count on me. There are going to be other people in your life that you're going to be able to count on, too, if you come out to them. I'm sure of that."
"I think it's gonna be one hell of struggle for me, Chris. I understand that. I just don't want the struggle about orientation to be my only focus in life, that's all," Josh said, echoing what Mike had said to him the night before.
"It don't think it will be, buddy. Maybe for a while, but not forever."
"That's what Mike told me last night. I hope he's right."
"He has a way of being right, I've noticed."
"As long as I'm being totally honest with you, I need to tell you one more thing," Josh said.
"Lay it on me!"
"This is difficult for me."
Chris said nothing, waiting for his friend to continue.
Josh cleared his throat. "Chris, I love you."
"But I love you more than just as my best friend."
Chris digested that information. "I know," he said finally.
"You know? How long have you known?"
"For a while. I guess I've been in some denial of my own about the vibes I was getting from you," Chris said. "But deep down, I've known for a while."
"I guess I didn't hide my feelings for you as well as I thought, huh?"
"I guess not."
"Do you think you could ever reciprocate?"
"I love you totally, Josh. As my best friend. But I don't think I can ever move into a physical relationship with you, if that's what you're asking. I don't think I'm gay. Not that I know of at this point, anyway. I just don't think it will happen. It's not in my playbook. But a lot of boundaries for 'things that could never happen' keep shifting around all the time. We should never say 'never,' I guess, but I'm saying 'never' for right now, if that makes any sense."
"You don't despise me now that everything's on the table?"
"Now that is something that's never gonna happen, bud. Your friendship over the years has meant so much to me. I admire you, Josh. I've always admired you for facing your challenges head on no matter what they are. You're tougher than you think. I've always admired you, and I always will. One thing I've learned from Matt and Mike is, eventually we have to thank God for what we are, for the way He made us, or we'll never be happy. I know that idea is a stretch for you right now, but I think you'll get there. I want you to be happy."
"You, too, Chris. Y'know, I've wanted to have this conversation with you for a long time now, especially since you got hurt. Thank you for listening to me and for caring about me. I think I've known all along you aren't gay. Selfishly, I wish you were. But believe me when I say I'm glad for you that you're not, because I'm beginning to understand what a bitch it can be to come to terms with yourself and live openly as a gay person. Or be gay and live it in the closet, for that matter."
Chris struggled to stand up on his good leg. "Getcher ass up, buddy," he said to Josh.
Josh did, and Chris engulfed him in a hug that lasted for a long time, kissing him on the cheek before he eventually let him go. "You're a man, Josh," he said. "And one hell of a good one!"
* * *
Father Curtis Rohm knocked on David Howard's open office door at St. Stephen's at about 8:30 in the morning. It was Father Howard's first day back, and he had offered the early mass that morning.
"Good morning, Father," David said. "Come in."
"I hope you have some coffee in here," the older priest said gruffly.
Father Howard stood up and walked over to his coffee pot, strategically located on a nearby bookcase.
"Coming right up," he said as he poured steaming coffee into a mug, added a little sugar and cream, and gave it a quick stir before handing it to the rector.
"How does it feel to be back in harness?" Father Rohm asked after taking a sip of coffee.
"It feels great!" David said, sitting down behind his desk again. "I really feel energized."
"Justice Broman called me while you were gone. He said the family was enjoying having you there in Pennsylvania, and that you seemed to be having a good time."
"It was one of the best vacations I've ever had," David said. "And I'm including a lot of college Spring Breaks when I say that."
"Good. I'm glad. You went down to see your parents first before you went out East, didn't you?" Father Rohm asked.
"Yes," Father Howard said, not elaborating.
"It was pretty bad. They've never forgiven me for not turning pro, or for becoming an Episcopalian, and worst of all, for taking Orders. I don't think they'll ever forgive me for becoming a priest. So conversations are kind of strained, as you might imagine."
Father Rohm nodded. "I know it hasn't been easy for you. Keep your parents in your prayers. You never know what lies down the road for you and your family."
"I know. How was your Christmas, Curt?"
"It was good. I enjoyed being with my family. Of course, Christmas always makes me think about young Curt and wonder if he's alive, and if so, where he is."
"I'm sorry," David said softly.
"That was why Justice Broman called me, actually. To talk about Curt."
"Yes. He said he had been wanting to do something nice for me since Matt and Mike were married here, and that he had come up with the idea of hiring a security outfit in Philadelphia that specializes in finding people who don't want to be tracked down, to find Curt."
"I hope you accepted his offer," David said.
"Yes, I did. Reluctantly. We shouldn't be getting rewards like that for doing the right thing for human beings in our care, you know."
"I do know. I also know that when an offer like this comes from Justice Broman, it's from the heart. This is a very fine man we're talking about."
"I agree," Father Rohm said. "I have a meeting later this morning with the president of the firm conducting the search. They're not wasting any time getting started."
"I'm happy about that. I hope you are."
"I am," Father Rohm said. "And a little fearful, I suppose."
"You pray for my family, and I'll pray for yours," David Howard said, chuckling.
"Listen, while you're here, there are a couple of things I need to fill you in on, concerning the Chicago Bromans."
"All right," Curt Rohm said.
"The first thing is, something happened to the Broman kids at St. Stephen's on the last day of school. I hope you won't be angry with me that I didn't tell you about it before now. Matt made me promise not to tell you until the holidays were over. He didn't want to worry you."
"Let's have it," the older priest said grimly.
"OK," David said. "On the last day of school before the holidays, I guess all the classes let out early, right at the same time the pre-schoolers usually get out. When Matt's and Mike's friend Stan arrived at school to pick up the three boys, two seventh or eighth graders--big kids--had them up against the wall pushing them around because they have two dads and no mom. The reason Matt talked to me about it was that the school office was closed for vacation before he called there, and he needed to ventilate a little."
"Were the boys hurt?"
"No. In fact, one of the little guys gave one of the bullies a bloody nose."
"Justice," Father Rohm said. "We aren't going to tolerate bullying at the school."
"I know," Father David said. "Matt and Mike and Stan are meeting this afternoon with Bob Fischer. They wanted to meet with him without coming to you first because Matt felt strongly that the principal should have first chance to address the issue. I hope everything will go the way it should. I'm sure I'll be talking with them tonight about the meeting."
"Good. Keep me informed. It will be interesting to see if Bob brings this matter to my attention at our next staff meeting."
"Yes, it will."
"All right, what's the other thing?" the rector asked.
"While we were all still in Pennsylvania, somebody from their state Department of Corrections called to say that a man who had kidnapped Matt in college and was later caught and imprisoned, is on the loose. There was a bus accident when he was being moved from one facility to another, and he escaped. This guy has it in for Matt and is apparently headed for Chicago after murdering some people along the way, so there are police swarming around Matt's and Mike's condo right now. They're going to be contracting for private security in the next few days to guard them and their kids until this guy is caught. That's scary."
"Yes, it is. Matt was kidnapped in college?" Father Rohm asked.
"Yes. For ransom. I guess Mike's actions were key to getting Matt back safely."
"I don't doubt that's just one more reason, among many, why Matt and Mike love each other," the older priest said. "Thank you for telling me." He studied his colleague for a moment. "Are Matt and Mike happy, David?"
"Deeply happy. We did the right thing for them, Curt. I don't think we'll ever need to have any regrets about that."
"Good," Father Rohm said, standing up. "Welcome back, David. Let's have a good year together here at St. Stephen's, shall we?"
"I'm counting on it," David said. On impulse he stood up and walked around to the older priest and embraced him.
"What's this all about?" Curt Rohm asked, surprised but smiling.
"Just something I learned from a very special family I spent some time with this Christmas. It boils down to this. If you care about somebody, don't ever be afraid to let 'em know it."
"God bless you, David. I know He has. And I hope you know I care about you deeply."
* * *
Mike was the last to arrive at St. Stephen's School for the 4 p.m. meeting. Stan and Josh had picked up the kids earlier, at 2 p.m., and driven them back to the condo. Matt had arrived back at the condo from law school about 3 p.m., and he and Stan had sat around around the den for a few minutes talking to Chris and Josh. When Matt and Stan had gotten ready to leave for the school, Josh said he would ride along with them. He retrieved his 9 mm service pistol again from under lock and key in Chris' room, and off they went. Josh went into the school with them when they arrived, but waited in a visitor's room as Mike, Stan and Matt walked on down the hall to the principal's office.
Before they went in, Mike stopped them at the door.
"All right, guys, let's be cool when we talk to this man. Losing it with him isn't gonna help the boys."
Matt and Stan nodded their agreement. They pushed open the door to the outer office, and Mike gave the secretary their names. She buzzed the principal, and a minute later his office door opened, and a moderately tall, thin man with a goatee and glasses emerged.
"Bob Fischer," he said, extending his hand as he walked over to them. His face was a mask. A pleasant, cordial mask, but a mask nonetheless.
Matt, Mike and Stan introduced themselves.
"Pat," Fischer said to his secretary, "please ask Denise Hodges to join us, will you please?"
The woman nodded, picked up her phone and punched in some numbers.
"Come in, gentlemen," Fischer said. "I've asked Dean Hodges, who's our dean of students, to join us."
Matt, Mike and Stan followed Fischer into his private office. He motioned them into three chairs in front of his desk as he continued around it and sat down in his own chair. Mike sat in the middle, with Matt on his left and Stan on the right.
Fischer's desk was clean, and his outbox was filled to overflowing with completed paperwork. Whatever his other gifts, Mike thought to himself, he is clearly proficient at that part of his job.
There was a knock on the door, and a plump, middle aged woman in a rust-colored suit, white blouse and brown hair in a tight bun came in. She was not smiling. Fischer introduced the three young men to the dean. She sat in a chair on Fischer's side of the desk, facing them.
The principal looked at Matt. "I appreciate your coming in to see us. I try to meet as many parents as I can. Unfortunately, most of the occasions are when something has gone wrong. Now, if I understood your phone call correctly, Mr. Broman, there was a problem involving your three boys on the last day of school before the holidays," he said, getting right down to business.
"Yes, that's right," Matt said. "Mr. Rosinski picked the boys up from school that day. I'll let him tell you about it."
"Before we get to that," Dean Hodges said, "may I ask what Mr. Rosinski's relationship to the boys is?"
"Yes," Matt said. "Mr. Rosinski and his fiancée' Linda Kosco are members of our household, and they help us take care of the boys because my partner and I are in graduate school. All of us are in school, actually. I think it would be accurate to say that the boys view Stan and Linda as an aunt and uncle."
Stan looked the dean and then Dr. Fischer in the eye. "That's correct," he said. "At any rate, I arrived at the normal pick up time for pre-schoolers, and Matthew, Kyle and Michael weren't in their usual spot beside the front steps waiting for me. I think all the classes were dismissed early that day for the holidays, so the front yard of the school was pretty crowded. There seemed to be a lot of yelling and shouting. I shut the car off and went over to the front steps to take a look at what was going on. Two big boys, probably seventh or eighth graders, had our three boys backed up against the building and were yelling at them and shoving them around. I went over and separated the combatants. When I questioned the big kids, they wouldn't tell me why they were bullying our boys. I pulled another kid out of the crowd, and he told me that our three boys were being bullied because they have two dads and no mother. No one was hurt physically, except one of our boys had given one of the big kids a bloody nose. That was about it. I put our three boys in the car and took them home."
"'Bullied' is such a strong word," Ms. Hodges said.
"Yes, it is," Stan said. "I used it deliberately."
"You know, so many times these insignificant altercations are just little bumps in the road as children become socialized," the dean said. "Do we adults really need to get involved in every little dust-up on the playground?" She looked at Matt and Mike.
"Let me make sure I understand you, Dean Hodges," Mike said slowly and calmly. "Are you suggesting that this 'insignificant altercation,' as described, was a legitimate part of the socialization process?"
"Not really," Fischer intervened, spreading his hands. He looked at Stan. "Did you get the names of the two boys?"
"No, I didn't," Stan admitted.
"How do you propose to identify them, then?" Dean Hodges asked.
"I think the more pertinent question is, how do you propose to identify them?" Stan shot back.
Mike put his hand on Stan's arm.
"Let me explain why we're here, Dr. Fischer, and conversely, tell you why we're not here," Mike said. "First of all, we're not here seeking punishment for the two boys who bullied our three kids, although I wholeheartedly agree with Stan that 'bullied' is the right word in this particular context. We are here, however, because the preponderance of clinical research suggests that school bullies face serious problems throughout their lives unless they receive help. Our intent in bringing this matter to your attention is to see that these two youngsters get that help.
"Second," Mike continued, "we're here respectfully to bring to your attention that there was no adult supervision in front of the school on the day of the incident. That doesn't seem to be good practice to me. Had there been supervision, this altercation would not have happened."
Dean Hodges started to say something, but the principal raised his hand and silenced her.
"And finally," Mike concluded, "we're here to ask for a copy of your written policy on bullying, and for your curriculum for training staff to intervene in bullying situations in a constructive manner and for teaching students the steps to take in coping with instances of bullying."
"I understand," the principal said. He turned to Ms. Hodges. "Concerning point number one, how do you suggest we identify the two boys responsible for this incident, Denise?"
"Dr. Fischer," she replied, "To begin with, I don't think we can use our records for such purposes. After all, student records and the pictures in them are confidential. We can't put the pictures in our records on display without breaching confidentiality. And we certainly aren't going to put our students in a lineup as if they were criminals!"
"What about providing us with the last yearbook the school published," Matt suggested. "You have one, do you not? Mr. Rosinski could look through it to see if he recognizes the boys."
Ms. Hodges blinked disapprovingly.
"Dean Hodges," Matt responded to her look, "with all due respect, I would hate to think that this issue would have to become a police matter in order to identify two kids who have a serious problem and need help. By legal definition, what occurred was an assault on our boys, after all."
"I think the yearbook idea has merit, Mr. Broman," Fischer said quickly. "And it's most certainly a public document."
"Good," Mike said. "Let's do that, then. If the pictures we're looking for aren't in there, of course, we'll have to look at viable alternatives to establishing the kids' identity. Now, with respect to adult supervision in front of the school after classes?"
"Who was assigned to front door duty the day we let out for vacation?" the principal asked Dean Hodges.
"I'm not sure. Occasionally nobody is available for that duty," she admitted.
"Having a staff member assigned and available out there is a must, Denise," Fischer said firmly. "From now on, I want you to notify me of any occasion on which we're unable to fulfill our responsibility to monitor students while on school grounds. If necessary, you and I will go out there ourselves."
"Yes, sir," the woman said.
"Moving on, then, do you have a copy of your policy on bullying that you can share with us?" Mike asked.
Dr. Fischer looked embarrassed. "I have to tell you that we have no written policy with respect to bullying, except for a statement that says it will not be tolerated."
"And I should add," Dean Hodges said, "that we've never needed more than that in the past."
"Then we are making a formal request at this time that such a policy be developed by the school and adopted by St. Stephen's Vestry," Mike said. "The Vestry is the equivalent of your school board, is it not?"
"Yes, it is," Fischer said. "I give you my word that I will discuss this matter with Father Rohm at our next staff meeting. I think we do need a written policy, including a definition of bullying and what the penalties for engaging in it are. It's overdue."
"I agree," Mike said. "I'll put a written, formal request for that to happen in the mail to you, Dr. Fischer. Just for the record."
"We would also request that a curriculum be devised by St. Stephen's School or purchased from the outside which details how staff and students will be trained in what constitutes bullying and methods of intervention," Matt said. "Mike, maybe you can put that in your letter as well."
"Good idea," Mike said.
There was a moment's silence as the five of them looked at one another.
"I have a yearbook you can take with you, Mr. Rosinski," Fischer said. "I'd like to have it back when you're finished with it, though, if you would be so kind." He swiveled around, removed a book from a bookcase behind him, turned back around, and handed it to Stan.
"Thank you," Stan said. "If and when I find the boys' pictures, I'll call you right away. And I'll bring the book back to you."
"I think we're in substantial agreement, then," Fischer said after another moment's silence.
"Yes, I think we are," Matt said. "I'm pleased about that. However, I do want to make one thing crystal clear to you, Dean Hodges, before we go. I sense that you don't think incidents such as the one we've been discussing are very important. Obviously we don't agree with that. I just want you to know that if there are any repercussions from our visit here today which affect our boys negatively, or retribution toward them from any source whatsoever, we will take that very seriously. Dealing with that issue would have to become our number one priority."
"We take our responsibilities to our students very seriously, Mr. Broman," Fischer answered before his colleague could speak. "There will be no repercussions or retribution with respect to your boys, we give you our word. Don't we, Denise."
"Yes, sir," she said, looking unhappy.
"I want to offer the school's apologies, and my own, for what happened to your sons," Fischer added. "This incident should not have occurred, and we're going to work hard to see that it doesn't happen again to any of our children."
"Thank you. We appreciate that," Matt said. "Now, there's one other thing I need to bring to your attention before we go. It has nothing to do with the incident we've been talking about. Currently, our family is under protection by the Chicago police department due to a threat to one of us from an escaped felon. There's an off duty state police officer waiting for us in a room down the hall as we speak. So, police officers will be showing up when our boys are ready to be picked up, at least for the next few days. As soon as we can arrange it, private security personnel will be dropping the boys off and picking them up. If we can arrange for the boys to meet the police officer or private security person in your outer office, we will appreciate it. I would feel more comfortable if the boys waited inside the building rather than on the street until the criminal the police are looking for is caught."
"That won't be a problem," Fischer said. "Anything we can do to coöperate, we will do."
"Good," Mike said. "Thank you for your time, sir."
At that juncture, everyone stood up and shook hands, and Matt, Mike and Stan left the building, picking up Josh on their way out to their car.
"How did it go?" Josh asked.
"Pretty well, I think," Mike said. "The principal is a reasonable person. But the dean isn't on our wavelength at all."
"Good job, Stanley," Matt added. "You kept your cool and made your points very well with the dean. I know you have deep feelings about this particular subject."
"Yeah, well..." Stan lapsed into silence.
They got in the car and began the drive back to the condo.
"Y'know, we're gonna hafta stop at a sports store before we go home," Matt reminded everybody as they drove. "We promised the kids we'd have helmets for them by tonight so they can begin learning to ride their bikes."
"That's true, my man," Mike said, smiling. "And I wouldn't wanna be us if we came in the door empty-handed." He put a big hand on Matt's neck and gave him a gentle shake.
They stopped at a store, and after looking over the selection of helmets, picked out three top quality ones for the kids.
Back at the condo, Matthew, Michael and Kyle were sitting on the floor of the foyer near their new bikes, just talking and looking at them. When the door of the elevator opened, the kids ran over to it as the policeman on duty stared at them vigilantly.
"Did you get 'em?" Michael demanded, catching sight of the package Matt was carrying.
"Well, hello to you, too," Matt said. "Yes, we got 'em."
"Yayyyy!" the boys shouted.
"Thanks, Dad," Kyle said.
"Why do I only feel popular when I come bearing gifts?" Matt asked.
"No, Dad, we really love you all the time," Matthew said seriously.
"I know you do, buddy," Matt said. "I was just goofin' on ya."
Matt handed the package to the boys and followed Stan, Josh and Mike to the coat rack in the den. A second later he heard the sounds of the boxes containing the new helmets being opened.
When Matt looked into the foyer again, the boys had the helmets on, two of them backwards.
"Michael and Kyle, turn those puppies around. You look like bubbleheads."
"No-o-o-o!" the two boys protested, quickly removing the new acquisitions and putting them on correctly.
"Perfect!" Matt said.
"When can we start riding?" Kyle asked.
"After supper," Matt answered. "We need to start fixing dinner."
"I think Grandma's already doing it," Michael said.
"I'll go see," Matt said, and started for the kitchen.
The boys were right. Mary was monitoring two chickens which she was roasting in the oven. Potatoes for mashing were cooking in a big pan of boiling water, and green beans in another.
Matt walked up behind Mary and put his arms around her.
"Have I told you lately how much we love you?" he asked her. "And appreciate everything you do for us?"
"No, but it's awfully nice to hear that, sweetheart," Mary answered. "Supper should be ready in about 15 minutes."
"Thanks," Matt said, kissing her cheek. "I'll go tell the troops, and I'll be back to set the table."
"That'll be a big help," the older woman said with a smile.
Matt relayed the time schedule to those in the den, and then, co-opting Josh to help him, headed for the dining room.
"So, tell me about your day, Josh," Matt said as he handed him a stack of plates for the table.
"It was good, really, but before we get to that, I just want to thank you for...well, for letting me get in bed with you guys last night. I know I'm a flaming wimp for needing to do that, but I really appreciated it. Last night was the first half-way decent night's sleep I've gotten lately. Which is surprising, since I was a queer sleeping between two hotties."
"You're welcome," Matt said, smiling, sorting silverware as he moved down the table, placing utensils beside the plates. "I know where you're coming from with the self denigration and all, but by the time Mike and I are done with you, buddy, we won't hear that kind of shit coming out of your mouth any more. Or if we do, it will be because you're kiddin' around."
"You don't need to be sorry. I know that's the way you feel about yourself right now. But that's gonna change for ya, I can promise you that. It's gonna take work on your part, but the day will come when I hope you realize what Mike and I do--that being gay can be a gift. The challenge of it unlocks insights for you about society and the world we live in. On another level entirely, it will give you the opportunity to know yourself and everybody you meet more deeply and completely than is ever possible for people who never have to struggle with this issue. I've found it to be a gift that demands a lot from you, sometimes your all, but it's still a gift."
Josh said nothing, but looked skeptical.
"Just remember this conversation a year down the road," Matt said. "Anyway, to get back to my original question, what did you do today?"
"Well, Mike had me go down and see a doctor friend of his in the emergency room at Northwestern Hospital. He gave me a script for an antidepressant. He said it would probably take a few days to kick in. I'm not keen on using drugs, but I am looking forward to feeling a whole lot better, I can tell you that."
"Good deal," Matt said. "Did you and Chris get to talk at all?"
"I was hoping you would. How'd it go?"
"Really well, actually," Josh said. "I told him what I never thought I'd be able to say to him. I told him that I'm in love with him."
"How did he take it?"
"He amazed the fuck out of me, he was so cool about it. I kidded him that somebody else must have taken over his body. He didn't bat an eye. And you know what a scary subject homosexuality is for most young, straight guys."
"It's scary for most straight guys, period, and even for some gays," Matt said. "The subject just raises questions that a lot of men don't want to deal with. So they don't, for the most part. Chris, on the other hand, is a very centered, very mature kind of guy, as you know. Not much scares him."
"You're right about that," Josh agreed. "It's like I'm getting to know a whole new person."
"Yep," Matt said, finishing with the silverware. He opened the door to the kitchen, and some good smells wafted into the dining room. "Mary, how long before I should call everybody for dinner?"
"Let's give the chicken about 10 more minutes in the oven, hon. I'm just starting to make the gravy. The potatoes are ready to mash, though, if you want to do that. The salad needs tossing, too."
"Josh, why don't you take on the potatoes and the salad, and I'll go get the kids washed up."
"You got it!" Josh said, and went into the kitchen, giving Mary a big smile.
After an excellent dinner, Matt and Mike and Stan cleared the decks in the foyer by removing the marble topped table sitting there to the bedroom hallway, and gave the boys their first chance to ride the new bikes. They ran alongside and held the bikes up as the kids rode around the foyer in large ellipses as the police officer on duty watched in amusement. Matthew, Michael and Kyle were excited and only reluctantly stopped riding after 30 minutes when their dads and Stan pleaded weariness.
"Y'know, training wheels might be an inspired thought," Stan said at the conclusion of the lesson, a little out of breath. "We already did half our run for tomorrow morning."
"You wish, dude!" Mike said. "But the training wheels idea is brilliant."
"Yeah. I'll see if I can get some tomorrow," Matt said. "Just remember, though, we're gonna hafta put the darn things on the bikes. Are you geniuses up for that?"
"Of course," Mike said. "Let the pain and frustration begin!"
They put the bikes on their kick stands, and the kids took off their helmets and went in to watch a little television with Chris, Josh and Linda before bed. Linda said she would give the kids their bath and hear their prayers, so Matt and Mike headed right for their room, needing to get in some study time. They both stripped down, put on gym shorts and hit the books.
About 11:00 Josh knocked on their open door.
"Uh, sorry to bother you, but where do you want me to sleep tonight?"
"Why don't you stay in here with us again, Josh," Mike said. "If you're comfortable with that."
"That's cool." The young cop came in, stripped to his boxers, and went into the bathroom to brush his teeth. He had a damn good build, Matt noticed yet again.
"Look in the medicine cabinet and take a couple of those sleeping pills again," Mike suggested.
" 'K," Josh said. When he finished, he came out of the bathroom and went to the air mattress, scooting under the top sheet and blankets.
"Is that mattress comfortable?" Matt asked.
"Yeah, it's fine," Josh said.
"Good," Mike said, getting up and turning off the overhead light. Going back to his desk, he repositioned his desk lamp so it shone away from Josh's bed. "If you have any problem sleeping tonight, wake me up this time, bud. I mean that. Don't make me kick your ass."
"Yeah," Josh said, smiling. He was asleep long before Mike and Matt finished studying, and this time he slept soundly all night in his own bed.
* * *
The following evening after supper Stan and Linda drove to St. Casimir's Parish to continue their pre-Cana conferences with the pastor there, Father Andrew Stralka, a pleasant, middle-aged and highly overworked priest.
They were surprised when the priest asked them if he could speak with them privately before they joined the rest of the couples engaged in the pre-Cana discussions.
"I'm sorry not to have raised this question with you before," the priest said. "But I was going over the informational sheets you submitted before we started these meetings, and I see that you both have the same address. Are you two living with each other?"
"Yes and no, Father," Stan said. "We help some good friends care for their three kids in their condominium, but Linda actually lives in a separate apartment from the rest of the living space. I have a separate bedroom in the condo, not in Linda's apartment."
"Father," Linda said, "if you're asking us whether we're being sexually intimate before marriage, the answer is, 'No.' Stan and I decided when we were first engaged that we would wait."
"I see," the priest said again, obviously a little doubtful. "The reason I raised the question is that the Church views chastity before marriage as one of the keys to a successful union, and the archdiocese is emphasizing that teaching."
"You don't believe us?" Stan asked quietly.
"I didn't say that," Father Stralka said. "But what would you think if you were in my shoes?"
"I guess I would think that the informed human conscience is the ultimate guide for each of us," Stan said slowly. "Surely you don't think that we want to begin married life by lying to a priest about whether we're screwing already or not."
The priest looked uncertain and perhaps a little offended by the frank language.
"Different addresses don't guarantee chastity, Father," Linda said, "anymore than the same address means a couple aren't abstaining. Are you saying that you won't marry us?"
"No, I'm not," the priest said. "Why don't you join the others for our session, and I'll consult with people at the archdiocesan office tomorrow about this matter and get back to you."
"Well, ultimately they're going ask you whether you believe us or not," Stan said. "That's the real question. Do you believe us?"
The priest hesitated, and finally said, "Yes, I believe you."
"That's all we needed to hear, Father," Stan said, smiling. "Common, Lin, let's join the group."
The three of them walked into the parish hall, and the session began.
* * *
Matt was on the matter of finding a Gung Fu master for the three boys to study with like white on rice. He made telephone calls to several martial arts establishments which claimed to teach the Shaolin philosophy and methodology, and finally narrowed the choices to two. After visiting both places, he settled on a martial arts school (kwoon) on the north side of the city, primarily because he was most impressed with the master there.
Master Kim was taller than many people of Chinese ancestry, standing about 5'10", wizened and wiry. He spoke heavily accented English. Matt noticed that he was wearing a red belt rather than a black belt with his traditional white karate uniform. When Matt asked him about it, Master Kim explained that although he held the top rank among black belt practitioners, red was accorded him because he was the senior master of the kwoon. He went on to explain that while the boys' first lessons would emphasize basic physical techniques, later ones entailed development of the inner, spiritual disposition of each student.
When Matt tried to sign the kids up, Master Kim insisted on meeting them and talking with them first, which also impressed Matt. This kwoon obviously did not take a cookie cutter approach to its students, nor did earning money appear to be its prime objective.
Matt and Josh took Michael, Kyle and Matthew over to meet Master Kim the very next evening, and the boys were duly enrolled. Matt bought them two white karate uniforms and white belts each, and a schedule was agreed upon for once-a-week lessons. Master Kim would be teaching most, but not all, of the sessions the kids would be in.
The boys were very excited, and Matt and Josh smiled all the way home as they listened to them chattering away in the back seat of the car, anticipating their first lesson. Matt couldn't help but reflect on what a great privilege it was to be a father to these boys, and wondered if Sarah would have enjoyed being a mother. That question could never be answered, of course.
When the five of them arrived back at the condo, the boys insisted on trying on their new garb, and Matt and Mike helped them get changed into their uniforms. After they were dressed, Matt took a picture of the three of them together, kneeling on one knee and trying to look tough. After he had printed four copies, he put a copy in the mail to his mom and dad and one to Grandma Hagerty. He was going to have the other two framed, one for Mike and him and one for Mary Bradford.
Josh was going to work every day by then, and Mike had moved him down to his own bedroom in the same wing with Stan and Mary. He was sleeping and eating well, and he had begun to see a counselor that Mike had recommended to him. Chris told Matt and Mike that superficially, anyway, Josh seemed more like his old self every day.
After he had been in the condo a week, Josh suggested to Matt and Mike that he was feeling well enough to move back to his own apartment. What he didn't say was that he was reluctant to leave the unusual family in the condo behind. When they talked about it, Mike told him that they would hire him to stay with them in the condo at least until Neil Anderson was recaptured.
"I should pay you to stay here, you've done so much for me," Josh said.
"That's not the way it works, bud," Mike said. "We're asking you to stay because we need your help, and that means you get paid. So please don't argue with me about it."
Josh acquiesced, and was glad to be there.
After conferring with Tony Angelo to develop a list, Matt had been busy talking with security firms in the Chicago area. Tony had been adamant that no consideration be given to the firm that had handled the release of the flyers seeking information on Sean Garrity's death, the place where an employee had leaked Matt's identity to Cliff Pietrowski. Matt agreed with that. After interviewing the heads of several of the finalist firms, and pending an answer from Chris Russo about the job offer he and Mike had made him, Matt hired a company to provide round-the-clock protection to residents of the condo. Matt, Mike and the boys would receive protection off-site as well. Matt made it very clear that if the company could not guarantee that only the best and most highly trained men (and women) would be assigned to the job, the deal was off. He was assured that that would be the case.
The day after Matt made the deal, Mike called Justice Broman at the Supreme Court in Washington.
"Hi, Dad. It's Mike. How are you?"
"Mike! I'm fine. I miss you guys, though. How are things going, son?"
"Pretty well, I think, although we're kind of disappointed that Neil Anderson hasn't been caught yet."
"I know," Justice Broman said. "I was hoping he'd be back behind bars by now."
"Me, too. But I really called to tell you that Matt hired a security firm, with Tony Angelo's recommendation, to provide 24 hour a day protection for me, Matt, and the boys. Everybody else can have a security man with them when they go out anytime they want one. I hadn't heard anything from your end about security, so I thought I'd call."
"I followed through on our little talk, don't worry about that. A written evaluation of your mother's and my situation regarding security when we're in Washington is due tomorrow, and I've asked them to send you a copy. If you don't have something in your hands within a couple of days, give me a call."
"Good, Dad. That makes me feel better. Now, how's Mom?"
"She's fine, Mike. She'll be here toward the end of the week. She's been working hard on Jeff's and Andie's wedding rings. She certainly did a great job on Andie's engagement ring, didn't she?"
"It's spectacular," Mike said. "I've never seen anything more beautiful. Give her our love, will you?"
"I will. How are the boys?"
"They're great. Matt enrolled them in a martial arts class, and he just mailed you a picture of the three of them in their uniforms. 'Cute' doesn't cover it, believe me."
"I can't wait to see them again. Are Mary and Chris doing all right?" the justice asked.
"Yes, they're fine. Mary seems to have her full strength back, and she's cooking most of our meals. That's a big help. And with any luck at all, Chris may be out of his casts in time for Stan and Linda's wedding. He's getting impatient."
"I'll bet. Has he given you an answer on your job offer yet?"
"No, but I have a feeling it won't be long. I have my fingers crossed. We need him, or somebody just like him, for the long haul."
"I agree. How's Aunt Carole?"
"Good," Mike said. "She really had a wonderful time at your house. She talks about it all the time."
"Are Stan and Linda OK?"
"They're fine, and looking forward to seeing you and Mom here."
"We're looking forward to it as well, Mike."
"Do you know when you'll be getting into Chicago?" Mike asked.
"I'm making the reservations tomorrow," Justice Broman said. "Your mother and I will call you while she's here this weekend and give you the details."
"Good, then," Mike said. "Dad, thanks for working on the security thing. You know I love ya!"
"I love you, Mike. Say hello to everyone, and kiss the boys for me. Thanks for calling."
As soon as Mike hung up the phone, it rang immediately. Tony Angelo was on the line.
After a few pleasantries, Tony got down to business.
"Mike, I needed to let you and Matt know that Neil Anderson has been spotted in the Chicago area."
Mike groaned. "Well, I'm not too surprised. We all knew he was coming in this direction. Where was he seen?"
"He robbed a bank in Evanston about two hours ago. No mask or anything. He just walked in with a scrawled note, showed the teller the handle of his gun, and walked off with about $10 thousand. Just disappeared. No dye packs were in with the money, unfortunately. This guy's more versatile than we thought, and he doesn't lack for guts, that's for sure. Our liaison with the Evanston police and the FBI says that the video tape leaves no doubt that it was Anderson."
"Well, I'm sure you know that Matt has our private security all in place. Any words of wisdom for us?"
Tony hesitated. "I don't ordinarily recommend this, but I think you and Matt should come down to the precinct and start the process for getting gun permits for the two of you. I'll sign off on them and expedite the applications."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. I'll tell you what. Why don't I stop up at your place on the way home from the precinct. You can fill out the paperwork for me right on the spot, and I'll walk it through the system tomorrow."
"I hate to have you go out of your way, Tony," Mike protested. "But if you're coming, can you stay for supper?"
"I'd like that. Marie is out on the West coast visiting her mother, so I'm 'batch-ing' it. Are you having anything good?" Tony kidded him.
"Chi mangia bene, mangia Italiano," (Those who eat well, eat Italian), is that what you're suggesting?" Mike asked.
"Since when do you know Italian?"
"Chris taught me that. I knew it would come in handy some day. And that's all the Italian I know."
Tony laughed. "OK, see ya in awhile."
Mike hung up, and then dialed Mary's room.
"You weren't by chance planning something Italian for dinner tonight, were you?" he asked. "Tony Angelo's coming for dinner."
"Well, you know what they say about great minds, Mike," Mary said. "Chris and I stopped over at Mama Maria's this afternoon, and I got Ricotta Gnocchi for dinner tonight. All I have to do is heat it up. I'll make garlic toast, and we have plenty of wine."
"Yum! My mouth is watering already, Mary. Thanks."
Mike went back to his and Matt's room and changed into Levi's and a T-shirt, and sat down to study until dinner time. It wasn't long before Matt arrived home from school and went on back to the bedroom. Putting his books down on their bed, Matt walked up behind his partner and put his arms around him as Mike sat at his desk. Neither of them said a word until Matt bent down and gently kissed Mike on the side of his neck.
"You're stirring up the beast, y'know," Mike told his partner, looking up at him.
"I know. I'll stop. But lie down on the bed with me for a minute, will ya?"
"Yep." Mike closed the textbook he was reading as Matt moved the books he had put on the bed to his desk. They lay down together, face to face. Not a word was spoken as Matt held Mike's face in his hands and caressed it.
"Is everything all right?" Mike finally asked. "You seem a little subdued."
Matt sighed. "I'm all right, I guess. I'm just tired of being worried about the Weasel, and I'm tired of all the security underfoot all the time. The whole situation is starting to wear me out. And this is just the beginning."
Mike pulled Matt to him and kissed him on the lips. "I know how you feel. I feel the same way. But shake it off, bro! We're gonna hafta tough it out, that's all. What is it you always say? Keep putting one foot in front of the other. We've been through tough times before. There's nothing we can't get through as long as we have each other. I know that's kind of a cliché, but it happens to be the truth."
"Are you scared?" Mike asked.
"I'm scared shitless for you and the kids and the rest of the family. I'm not scared for me."
"We're all gonna be OK, Matt. They're gonna catch this guy."
"I hope so."
"We're gonna be well taken care of. If Anderson fucks with us, he'll get himself blown away. Count on it! And I think you need some cheering up right now."
"How do you plan to do that?" Matt asked. "We don't have time to make love before dinner."
"What do you like most next to sex?" Mike demanded.
Matt looked at him for a long moment. "You don't mean...?"
"YES! A story."
Matt laughed. "Lay it on me! I'm ready! I'm more than ready!"
"Little Johnny was absent from school one day," Mike said.
"When he returned, his teacher said, 'I didn't see you in class.
What was wrong with you yesterday, Little Johnny?'
"'My Daddy got burned, Miss,' said Johnny.
"Taken aback, the teacher replied, 'That's a shame, Johnny. Was he badly
"Johnny looked at her.
"'They don't fuck around at the crematorium, Miss.'"
Matt groaned. "That was terrible. I never tell you jokes that bad!"
"You do, too!" Mike protested.
"You hafta pay, now!" Matt said.
"Don't I always?" Mike asked.
"You'll like this one. It has a doctor in it."
"Hmmm. It may be good, then," Mike conceded.
"OK. It seems that Little Johnny went to his doctor, quite worried,
and said, 'Doctor, you've gotta help me, I think I might be gay, can
you help me!?!'
"The doctor did a thorough examination of him and said, 'You seem
perfectly normal to me, I don't think you have anything to worry about.
I see no indication that you might be a homosexual. Why do you feel
you may be gay?'
"'Well, every time I look in the mirror, I get an erection!' Little
Johnny said anxiously.
"'That has nothing to do with being gay,' explained the doctor.
'That's just because you look like a pussy.'"
Mike had to laugh. "All right, we're even now," he said, pulling Matt closer to him and looking into his eyes. "I love ya, bad jokes and all."
"I can't imagine life without you, Mike. I'm blessed."
Facing one another, they lay there entwined, and within a few minutes both of them had dozed off.
That's the way Josh found them when he went back to their bedroom to tell them that Tony Angelo had arrived. He studied the two of them lying there for a long moment before knocking on the open door. He couldn't help envying their love, and wondered if he would ever be so fortunate.
Hearing the knock, Matt's eyes fluttered open and he slowly raised his head. "Hi, Josh," he said softly.
"Hey, Matt. I just wanted to tell you that Captain Angelo is here."
"We'll be right there," Matt yawned. He touched Mike's face gently, waking him, and after a minute they got up. Matt stripped out of his school clothes and changed into Levi's and a T, and they went down to the den and greeted their friend. He was still in uniform, badge and insignia gleaming.
"You're in luck on the Italian food, Tony," Matt told him right away as they shook hands. "Mary says we're having Ricotta Gnocchi from Mama Maria's tonight."
"I knew I could count on you, Matt!" Tony laughed, patting his stomach.
"We have to keep the Italians in our midst happy," Mike said, looking at Chris who was sitting on the couch with Josh.
"Pasta makes bones heal faster," Chris said. "It's a proven fact."
"Just one of its many fine attributes," Tony agreed. "But on a more serious subject, when do you want to fill out the papers for the gun permits?"
"What?" Matt said, looking surprised.
"I didn't have a chance to tell you," Mike said to Matt. "Tony thinks we should take out gun permits for concealed carry until Anderson is caught."
"I want a grenade launcher permit," Matt kidded. "That should give me a strategic advantage, wouldn't you say?"
"Yeah," Tony responded, "and leave the North Side in ruins. I had something more modest in mind."
"Matt can't be trusted with anything larger than a pea shooter," Chris said. "That's what my trained instincts tell me, anyway."
"Well, I think we can do better than that," Tony said. "I can get you on to a police range for practice, and you'll need to take a quick course on handling and storing firearms."
Matt looked at Mike. "Whadda ya think, babe? I'm not really wild about this idea."
Mike shrugged. "If Tony thinks we should do this, then I suppose we should."
"OK," Matt said reluctantly. "We'll fill out the papers after dinner, then. Speaking of dinner, kids, go wash your hands. We'd better start heading toward the dining room, or Mary will be looking for us."
They all went back to the dining room, where steaming hot bowls of gnocci were flanked by plates of garlic bread and bowls of green salad. Several bottles of newly opened, lightly chilled Riesling wine and a pitcher of milk for the boys completed the scene. They joined hands around the table as Mary returned thanks.
"Heavenly Father, we are grateful for the joy of family and friends as we gather around this table. We are blessed by you in having the people we love surrounding us, lifting our hearts as we seek always to do your will. Keep us all safe from our enemies and under the shadow of your wings. We thank you for your bounty, and ask you to bless this food to our use and us to your service, through Jesus Christ our Lord."
There was a lot of lively conversation that night which included the little boys. After everyone had eaten and thanked their cook, they stacked the dishes in the kitchen sink and all went back to the den in a great mood. Matt and Mike sat down at the desk with Tony and completed the papers for a gun permit with concealed carry privileges.
Matt hadn't had time to pick up training wheels for the kids' bikes, so after their food had digested somewhat, Mike, Matt, Josh, Tony, Stan and Linda spelled one another from running alongside the bikes as they gave the kids another riding lesson in the foyer. The boys loved every minute of it. The adults agreed, though, that training wheels sounded like a better option all the time.
Stan went through the St. Stephen's School yearbook after the riding lesson was over. The pictures of the two boys who had bullied Matthew, Michael and Kyle were there, as they had all hoped. Stan marked the proper pages with bookmarks, and promised he would call Bob Fischer the next day.
Tony Russo had so much fun with everybody, especially the kids, that he didn't leave the condo until after 10 p.m. Before he left, he had a quiet moment alone with Chris and Josh.
"I want you guys to stay on your toes," he told them softly. "I think Neil Anderson is coming after Matt and this family, without a doubt. You're both trained to defend people from assholes like Anderson. What you do when he gets here can spell the difference between life and death for these people and for their three little boys."
"Yes, sir," Chris and Josh said. The three policemen eyed one another somberly.
As Tony pulled out on to Sheridan Road to go home, had his eyes followed his headlights as they bathed the building across the street in light instead of watching the cross traffic, he would have seen a solitary figure standing in the doorway there, bundled up against the cold, peering up at the Broman apartment.
Thank you to all who have emailed me about WIO. It's much appreciated.
Upcoming: Jeff and Martha make an unexpected visit to Chicago, the men of the condo go out partying at Roscoe's, and Fr. Rohm gets a hint of good news about his missing son.
Thanks to Scott and ChicagoEric for reading over Part 7 before posting. My former email address at elnet.com is no longer active. My email address is now firstname.lastname@example.org .