The black hearse wended its way around the circular drive in front of Old St. Paul's Church, its tires crunching in the heavy frost on the ground, and stopped at the front entrance. It was followed by several dozen cars. The tower bell tolled sadly as car doors began popping open. Six of Mike's swim teammates gathered at the back door of the hearse under a cold, gray sky that promised snow.
The funeral director slid the casket halfway out. The six young men donned gray gloves, grasped the rails, and walked the casket up the front steps to a rolling catafalque. They paused briefly while an embroidered white pall was put over the casket, and then, preceded by a crucifer and the priest, rolled the coffin toward the altar as the organ played softly and the priest intoned scripture. The family followed behind the casket, looking devastated. Seated on either side of Matt, Mrs. Broman and Martha held his hands after they filed into the front pew.
Once the casket was properly in place in the chancel, the priest filled the thurible, censed the altar, and began the Mass of the Resurrection for Michael Andrew Berman Broman, departed and now ready to be commended to Almighty God.
* * *
Matt awakened with a start and sat bolt upright in bed, tears streaming down his cheeks. He shook off the terror of his dream, and reached over to feel for Mike. He was there beside him, breathing slowly and evenly until Matt's touch woke him.
"Matt? What's wrong?"
"Nothing, buddy. Go back to sleep." Matt bent down and kissed Mike on the side of his head.
" K." Still very weak, Mike was soon snoring softly.
Matt waited until he was sure Mike was asleep again, and eased himself out of bed. He went into the kitchen, microwaved a cup of milk to warm it, and sat down at the kitchen table.
The last week, prior to Mike's release from the hospital, had been horrendous in its stress and tension. And yet there had also been the joy of rediscovering the love and support of family in time of need.
The Bromans had arrived at the hospital from home to find Matt at Mike's bedside, distraught and exhausted. They immediately set up a schedule so that one of them would be with Mike at all times, 24/7, except when he was being bathed, medicated, or the bed changed. When the head ICU nurse objected at having family underfoot all the time contrary to the rules, Mr. Broman had a private chat with her. She immediately grasped the logic of it all, and acquiesced.
Jane Broman had wanted to stay for the first shift, so after she was gowned, masked and at Mike's side, Matt led the way back to the coach house with Jeff in the truck, as his dad and Martha followed in their car. They carried the luggage upstairs, and Matt put his dad in the spare bedroom, and he and Jeff prepared to sleep on the floor in sleeping bags so that Martha could have Matt's and Mike's bed. Martha tried out the couch, and said she wanted to sleep there, so Matt and Jeff took the bed. Jeff watched a little TV, but Matt was so tired he went to sleep immediately, setting the alarm clock for 5 a.m.
When the alarm went off, he put on a robe and went into the kitchen. Mr. Broman was already up. Matt made him some eggs and toast and coffee, and they went over to the hospital together so Matt could bring his mother back to the apartment. He saw to it that she ate breakfast, and then she went to bed.
So began seemingly endless days of catching meals on the fly and changing shifts at Mike's bedside. Slowly, over the next four days, Mike began to respond to the family that surrounded him with love and concern day and night. His medical indicators began to improve.
Dr. Saxton told Mr. Broman that he was amazed by Mike's turnaround in such a short time, given the fact that he had been very close to death. The doctor also said that it was a good lesson for people in his line of work--never underestimate the power of love to stir a patient's will to live.
The Bromans left for home the day that Mike was released from the hospital. Matt had already gone over to Mike's dorm room, and picked up his shaving kit and other essential things. He felt a little guilty that he hadn't told the family about the rift between Mike and himself, but decided at that point that it was nobody's business but their own.
Before the family left, Matt took each one of them in his arms and thanked them for their love and kindness. When they were gone, he wept that he had had no better way than that to express the gratitude he felt for what they had done for Mike. And for him. He felt that they had saved Mike's life.
Dr. Saxton took Matt aside for a few minutes as Mike was being readied to leave the hospital. He told Matt that the period of recovery from meningitis could be prolonged, and discussed a multitude of possible complications: hearing loss, brain damage, epileptic seizures, changes in eyesight, violent temper tantrums, aggression, mood swings and learning difficulties. He said he wanted Mike in for a follow-up exam every two days for the two weeks after he left the hospital, and that Matt should make an appointment for him to have a hearing test as soon as possible.
When Matt heard the doctor's spiel about potential problems, he wondered momentarily whether he had made a mistake keeping him at school rather than sending him home with his folks. A few minutes of reflection, however, confirmed for him that Mike was his responsibility, and that it was best that he took care of him himself. Dan Smith, Mike's swimming teammate, had offered to spell Matt at the apartment for the first few days when Matt had to go to classes, and Mrs. Wilson, their landlady, agreed to sit with Mike while Matt was at wrestling practice. Things seemed pretty well covered.
Mike's homecoming was low key on the outside, but very emotional for both boys. Mike looked over everything, and felt a deep sense of contentment to be back.
Just the short trip from the hospital had exhausted Mike, and Matt put him to bed.
"Mike, do you want me to sleep in the other room?" Matt asked. "Then I won't be waking you up. You need your rest."
"No, please stay here with me. I've been dreaming about having you in bed beside me since I moved back to the dorm, and I'm not even talking about sex. Please don't leave me. I'll even let you sing to me and tell me jokes."
Matt laughed. "I'm on you like glue, bro. You're really gonna be tired of me by the time you're well."
"No way. I've missed you so much." Mike's eyes teared up. "I know we need to talk about some things."
"Yeah, we do, but when you're feeling better, not now, K?"
"Now, what do you want for supper? I'll get you anything you want."
"Would a small steak be too much trouble?"
"I'll go to the store right now. I thought you were gonna say pizza. What else should I buy?"
"Well, soup, canned stew, and some ice cream, peanut butter if we don't have any, stuff like that. Maybe we can order pizza tomorrow night."
Matt knelt down beside the bed and gave Mike a big hug.
"You got it, Mikey! I'll be right back. Don't go away! I'll give you a shower when I get back, K?"
"I'm so glad to be back here with you, I may never never leave this apartment again," Mike laughed. "And a shower sounds great!"
Matt went to the store, and when he got back a half hour later, Mike was sleeping.
Matt went into the kitchen, threw a couple of medium sized potatoes in the microwave, and when they were nearly done, put some small steaks in the broiler. He made two small salads. When he judged the steaks were medium rare the way Mike liked them, he put them on plates, cut Mike's steak up for him, split the potatoes and put sour cream on them, and took Mike his meal with a bottle of A-1 sauce and a glass of milk.
"I smelled the steak," Mike said, awake and with a big smile. "This is really nice of you, Matt, thank you!"
"We gotta fatten you up a little, bro. You look a mite puny."
They sat together on the bed, eating supper and watching TV. After the rerun of New York Undercover they were watching was over, Matt pulled Mike out of bed and took him into the bathroom for his shower. He stripped him down and put him on the scale.
"Man, you lost about 10 pounds the hard way," Matt told him.
Matt got undressed, and they got in the shower together. Making sure Mike didn't fall, Matt washed him tenderly top to toe, and then just held him in the warm spray.
"I've sure missed looking into those baby blues," Matt said.
"Same here, bud. But I prefer your baby browns, myself."
When the water started to cool, Matt helped Mike out of the shower and dried him off, watched while he cleaned his teeth, and then took him back to the bedroom.
"First, some ice cream for dessert, and then I'm gonna give you a back rub, OK?" Matt told him. "You've been lying on your back a long time."
"I think I'm just gonna stay sick if this is what it gets me," Mike responded.
Matt chuckled and went for the ice cream.
After they ate, Matt put Mike on his stomach, warmed lotion in his hands, and rubbed his neck, back, buttocks and legs for almost 20 minutes, accompanied by Mike's grunts and groans of satisfaction.
"I feel like a cooked noodle, I'm so relaxed," Mike said when Matt was finished.
"Good. That should help you sleep better. Do you want fresh boxers, or are you going to sleep naked?"
"I'm fine the way I am. Matt. . .I love you so much. You and Mom and Dad and Jeff and Martha saved my life. I know it. I was a goner. I could feel it coming until you all were with me. I. . ." Mike began to cry.
Matt took a tissue and wiped Mike's face, knowing that Mike's emotional state was in part the aftermath of the meningitis.
"Don't cry, bud. I love you, too. Who would crave my singing and jokes the way you do? We all love you, and couldn't do without you."
Mike smiled, and not more than 30 seconds later, he was asleep. Matt covered him carefully, kissed him, and went out into the living room to study. When he finally went to bed beside Mike, he felt complete again for the first time in many weeks.
* * *
Before he went to classes the next morning, Matt called all Mike's professors, explaining that Mike had just been released from the hospital due to a case of meningitis, and asking for make-up assignments and any special help that might be available so that he could catch up. Matt was given the names of two tutors, and said he would call them.
Mike's swim coach already knew that Mike had been hospitalized from Bob Dalton, Mike's swim teammate and former roommate in the dorm, and sent his best wishes and said he wanted him back at practice as soon as the doctor released him.
Dan Smith showed up before Matt left for class, and said he would stay with Mike until noon. Matt fixed breakfast for all three of them, woke Mike up, and they all ate together in the bedroom. Matt gave Mike his robe, and Dan was taking Mike to the bathroom as Matt ran down the stairs to the truck to go to class.
Matt attended the two classes he had that morning, and hightailed it back to the apartment. Dan and Mike were kibitzing and watching TV. Matt thanked Dan, who left to attend one of his own classes.
Mike seemed a little more alert than the day before, and very cheerful.
"Mike, do you want to shower now or later?" Matt asked.
"Now would be great, if you have the time. A shower would feel good."
"You got it, Mr. Man. Let's go."
Matt helped him out of bed, and took him into the bathroom, once again getting in the shower with him so he didn't fall. After the shower, he dried him off and gave him his meds, and then put him back in bed.
"Ready for lunch?"
"Yeppers. I'm actually hungry."
"How about some soup and a sandwich?"
"Sounds good to me."
"Coming up," Matt said, and went into the kitchen.
Ten minutes later they were slurping soup and eating lunch meat sandwiches.
After they were done, Matt took the dishes and put them in the dishwasher, and came back to the bedroom.
"Mike, how do you feel today?"
"Better. I feel stronger, and I can actually put two thoughts together without passing out."
"Good. You need to let me know when you can study again. Your profs gave me the name of a couple of tutors, and I want them to come in and help you when you're ready."
"Outstanding! Thanks, bro." Mike paused. "Matt, I don't think you can keep up this kind of schedule, trying to study, and wrestle, and taking care of me and the apartment and doing all the shopping. Don't you think I should go home, or at least to the University clinic, until I can pull my own weight?"
"No. I thought it over, and I want to handle as much of this as I can. You're my responsibility," Matt responded.
"I feel so bad about this. I know I set myself up to get sick because I felt so bad about our situation. And now you're the one who gets punished by having to wait on me."
"I thought we settled this early on in our relationship. We're here for each other! Didn't we?"
"Well, yes, but. . ."
"There are no buts, except for your big butt! K?"
" K." Mike started to cry again. "What's the matter with me, why am I crying all the time?"
"One of the aftereffects, of meningitis, Mike." Matt went on to list some of the psychological aftereffects, but for the moment skipped the potential physical problems that could result from the disease. He figured Mike had enough on his mind right then.
Over the next week Mike got stronger, although he stayed in the apartment except for his doctor appointments. Dr. Saxton reported that Mike's hearing test showed no loss of hearing, and there were no signs of any other permanent damage as a result of the meningitis. Other than a few mild mood swings, Mike appeared to be home free, much to Matt's relief.
Matt's schedule, on the other hand--attending his own classes, going to wrestling practice, chasing down Mike's class assignments, coordinating people to stay with Mike when he wasn't there, studying, cooking, cleaning and doing laundry for both of them, was definitely wearing him out. Still, Matt was glad he had made the decision to keep Mike at their apartment, and from his demeanor when he was around Mike, no one would have suspected how stressed out he was.
Mike continued to improve, and the second week after his release from the hospital, the doctor cleared Mike to begin attending classes and to watch swimming practice, but not to swim. His teammates gave him a warm welcome back. The third week he was allowed to get into the pool for some light swimming.
One night as they were going to bed, Mike turned on his side and looked at Matt.
"Matt, are we back on track enough that you'd feel OK about making love? If we don't do it soon, I'm gonna hafta start looking for farm animals!"
"Are you sure you're horny?" Matt laughed.
"Horny? Monica Lewinsky looks good to me! I haven't even had sex with my right hand since we split up."
"Mike, I miss your body so much, but you know we have some work to do before things are right between us."
"I know that, and I'm not trying to avoid the issue. I want to rebuild what we had, even better. And if you don't want to have sex now, I'll stay celibate for you as long as it takes."
"No, I want you. I love you, and I miss being close to you that way. I haven't had sex since we split up, either, and I want to."
Taking that as acquiescence, Mike rolled Matt on his back in the bed and proceeded to nibble and lick Matt's nipples until they were engorged. Slowly, Mike began to lick Matt's flawless skin all over. Mike then rimmed him repeatedly as Matt began to groan and leak precum from his rock-hard cock. Taking his tongue out of Matt's ass, Mike inserted one finger, then two, and finally put the head of his dick in after lubricating it with his own precum. Working his way in slowly with Matt's legs over his shoulders, Mike fucked him to orgasm with deliberation, massaging Matt's prostate repeatedly in the process. Matt came so explosively he hit his own face, and then flooded his chest with semen as Mike loosed his own load inside Matt. Mike lapped the cum from Matt's face and chest eagerly after pulling out.
Afterward, they cuddled and nuzzled one another, kissing softly. Drifting off, Matt clung tightly to Mike as they lay facing one another, feeling satisfied and relaxed. Mike gently stroked Matt's face and hair for a long time after Matt was asleep.
* * *
The next night the two boys set aside the last half hour before they went to bed to talk about their relationship, and decided they would do that three times a week until they they understood everything they could about Mike's being unfaithful to Matt.
They sat on the couch, cross legged, facing one another. Both were a little uncomfortable, feeling their way through unfamiliar territory.
"Well, bro, since this was my idea, let me start," Matt finally said, looking Mike in the eye. "I want you to know first of all that I didn't suggest doing this so we could pick at a painful wound. I just think it's important to talk about it because the biggest problem we can have--one that could break us up for good--is if you can't forgive yourself for what happened. I forgive you completely and I love you as deeply as I always have. But if you can't forgive yourself, you'll end up resenting me, I just know it. So wherever we go from here, how you feel about yourself and what happened is fundamental. I wouldn't bother to bring this up if I didn't know you have high standards. Have you really forgiven yourself?"
"No, I haven't," Mike said. "I'm having a very hard time doing that. I don't know how to do that. I betrayed what I believe in, and I hurt you. I don't know what to do about it."
"Were you ever going to tell me what happened if I hadn't seen you?"
"Yes, I would have. I acted like a louse, but I'm not a liar. I would have had to tell you."
"Why did you do it, Mike? Are you attracted to Mark?"
"No, Mark is just a friend. He doesn't hold a candle to you in any way."
"Because you're so perfect and so fucking complete as a human being, Matt. I feel like I'm nothing compared to you. Sometimes I feel swallowed up--like I don't have an identity. I think I got it on with Mark just so I'd know I had some identity that didn't depend on you, as pitiful as that sounds. I admit it was nice to be wanted by someone outside of our relationship. Maybe I did want to hurt you, but I didn't consciously plan it, and I'm ashamed it happened."
"Reality check, Mike. You're physically beautiful, you're a gifted athlete, you're compiling a brilliant academic record, even the macho males on your swim team care about you and protect you from being gay bashed, and you're part of a loving family. You've got it all, man. And I've always felt you were a full partner in this relationship--you've certainly set me straight on things often enough when I was wrong. What's this bullshit about feeling inferior? I'm really surprised."
"I don't know what to tell you. Everything you say about me is true, I know, but I feel like I'm in your shadow. Tell me what I should do."
"I don't know. And if I did have the answer, and you did what I said, it would just confirm in your own mind that I have the answers and you don't."
"Common, Matt, I'm floundering here. I need some help. I don't want it to be over between us. We've always said we couldn't make it without each other. Well, we probably could, but from my perspective it would be hell, judging how I felt when I was living in the dorm again without you."
"Well, I can tell you what I do when I have trouble forgiving myself for something, but it may not be right for you. I go to confession."
"I can't get absolution for being gay."
"Being gay isn't what's bothering you, is it? If it is, we've got a bigger problem than I thought."
"No, you're right. I don't think being gay is a sin, or having gay sex in a committed relationship is a sin. But the church thinks the sex part is," Mike said.
"If you feel you betrayed our relationship and that's what you can't forgive yourself, then that's what you need to confess. Being gay or having gay sex doesn't have anything to do with it. You don't need to talk about what's not bothering your conscience, although I know the church says different. If we're wrong on that, God will sort it out later."
Mike looked at Matt thoughtfully.
"Why don't you think about it, and we'll talk again in a couple of days," Matt said. "But I think it's an important issue for us to put behind us before we move on to how you're feeling about yourself."
" K," Mike said. "Thanks for letting me be honest with you without getting mad at me and pushing me away."
"That's not in the cards, bro!"
They went to bed and made sweet, gentle love, and then lay there for a long time just holding each other before they drifted off to sleep.
Two nights later, a half hour before bedtime, they were back on the couch, facing each other.
Mike started. "I've been thinking your suggestion to go to confession, and I think it's a good idea. Tomorrow's Saturday, so I'll go tomorrow afternoon. Do you think I should go to Canterbury or Newman?"
"I don't think it matters. Either one. I want to ask you something, though. Do I need to be going, too, for anything I've done to make you feel bad about yourself in this relationship?"
"No, Matt. It would be so cool for me if I could blame you in some way for what happened, but I can't honestly do that. The problem is inside me."
"I guess I don't get it, as I told you last time we talked. You and I are equal in so many ways, and you're ahead of me in some."
"Well, for one thing, I never had the family support you had when I was growing up," Mike said. "I had my mother to confide in, but I didn't have the same security that you had in your family. I'm not trying to blame my problems on my family--they were what they were--but I honestly think you had a leg up on me. There's so much love in the Broman family I can't believe it even now--and I've been the recipient of a lot of it since I was adopted. My dad was never around enough to be a role model for me, and he wasn't all that warm a person around family, anyway. Kind of withdrawn. When he did talk to me, it was to criticize. Again, he was what he was, but I still feel bad that he never once came to a swim meet to watch me swim, and he even missed my graduation. That didn't make me feel too cool about myself, I admit. We were strangers, and that hurts me to this day."
"I admit I was incredibly lucky to have been born into the family I was. I'm thankful. Your situation with your dad doesn't sound cool at all. But you and I are only 19 years old, for gosh sakes. We don't think about it a lot, but we're still growing up. The things that made us what we are, are very real, but we're not set in stone yet. You must know that Mom and Dad saw some wonderful things in you, or they wouldn't have adopted you. They aren't stupid, and they're pretty good at reading character. I guess what I'm saying is, you're what those who love you are seeing, not as you're apparently seeing yourself-- as somehow deficient."
Mike looked at Matt with big eyes.
"So, you're saying I need to be listening to today's messages, not yesterday's," he finally said.
"Yeppers. Exactly! You're such a quick study," Matt said with a twinkle in his eye. He moved forward, laid Mike back on the couch, and lay on top of him, face to face.
"See," Mike joked, "here you are on top again. This confirms my worst suspicions about this relationship."
Matt picked him up, and lay down again, this time putting Mike on top of him.
"There!" Matt said, holding his face and kissing him. "Mike, my heart is so full of love for you. Please don't give up on us or on yourself."
Mike cried a little, and finally said, "Not gonna happen, my bro. Not gonna happen."
They dropped off to sleep that way for awhile until Matt woke up and carried Mike to the bedroom, undressed him, and put him into bed. Climbing in beside him, Matt offered a prayer of thanksgiving for Mike, for his recovery from meningitis, and for their family.
The next afternoon, true to his word, Mike went off to the Newman Center to make his confession. When he came back to the apartment, he was calm and serene. He sat down beside Matt, who was studying on the couch, and took his hand. Saying nothing, he put his head next to Matt's, and they sat there quietly. In a few minutes, Mike got up and went into the bedroom, where he changed into sweats and fired up the computer to check his e-mail.
Later as they fixed supper togther, Matt asked how confession went.
"Really well, I think," Mike said. "I confessed what was on my conscience, and was absolved. I feel good about it, but I still want to continue our conversations about the two of us. I've learned some things. I feel as if I have a new lease on life. I think our relationship is stronger than ever. I hope you feel the same way."
"I do, Mike. I think it's a good idea."
The next week, out of the blue, Mr. Broman called early one evening while they were studying. Matt answered, and they exchanged pleasantries as Matt inquired after the family.
"Matt, get Mike on the other phone," Mr. Broman said, finally.
"OK. Hold on." Matt put his hand over the receiver. "Mike," he yelled, "Dad wants to talk to us."
" K," Mike said, and Matt heard a click as he picked up the other phone.
"Hi, Dad, how are you?" Mike said.
"I'm well, Mike. The question is, how are you?"
"I'm feeling better all the time, Dad. I want to thank you and Mom and Jeff and Martha again. I'd be dead now if it weren't for you all. Seriously."
"I don't know about that, Mike, but you know we wanted to be with you. We're just relieved you're doing so well."
"Boys, I've been thinking about next summer. You know I've always thought it was a good thing if you worked. And I don't think it's hurt you any. But as I look at what you've been through the last couple of years, your mother and I decided maybe you need to take this summer off and take a trip or something. Would that be all right with you?"
The boys were speechless.
"You have a deal, Dad," Mike finally said. "That would be so great, and we'd try to see some worthwhile things, believe me."
"Thanks, Dad. That would be outstanding," Matt chimed in.
"Well, your mother and I wanted you to have something to look forward to at the end of the school year. Matt, you haven't had a summer off since you were 14. Mike, I don't know how long for you. But that's the proposal, in a nutshell."
Excited, Matt and Mike thanked their dad again profusely, and sending love to everybody at home, hung up.
"Oh, man," Matt said, "I'm so pumped! And surprised at Dad, I might add."
When Mike joined him in the living room, Matt picked him up and swung him around the room. "How will it feel to be a man of leisure in a few months?"
"Kickass, bro! Where we goin'?" Mike asked with a big grin.
"Shit, I don't have a clue. We'll get out a map, I guess. And oh, the singing and the jokes we'll enjoy along the way!"
Mike stopped smiling, causing Matt to grab him again and rain kisses on his face. They ended up in a pile on the couch, laughing and tickling each other.
* * *
The call from their dad had energized both boys, and they looked forward to summer. Mike was attending all his classes by this point and working with his tutors every day, and was back swimming full-out and feeling good. Matt was so full of joy and energy that he was sparking his teammates to wrestle well above their abilities. Talk on the team was that he would be selected team captain next year. And the fact that Matt and Mike were screwing like minks every night and thoroughly enjoying each other didn't hurt their general attitude.
The only cloud on Matt's horizon was his pre-law class. The professor was great, but Matt's section was taught twice a week by a teaching assistant by the name of Neil Anderson, whose distinctive nasal tone and supercilious attitude drove everybody in the class up the wall. He would go out of his way to embarrass and humiliate the weaker students when they would stumble on answers, something Matt couldn't abide. He always treated Matt with respect, though, and seemed to want to get to know him better, something Matt intuitively resisted. Had Matt been less conscientious, he would have cut that class as frequently as possible without a second thought. But being the bulldog he was, he forced himself to go. Matt called Neil "the Weasel," and it seemed to fit him. His long nose, thin, asymmetrical features and blotchy, flaking skin were a fit complement to his personality.
Midterms were fast appoaching. Matt was confident, but because of the time he had lost from school when he was sick, Mike was worried despite the intensive tutoring he was getting. Neither Matt nor Mike had failed to make the Dean's List since they metriculated, and Mike was fearful he wouldn't make it this time. Both were burning the midnight oil getting ready for their tests.
It seemed as if the exams came and went in a flash, and even Mike felt he had been overly pessimistic about his chances of doing well. And then it was time for spring break almost before they knew it. They talked about going to Aspen for some late winter, early spring skiing, but decided since they were going to be gone all summer, that they would go home. They also decided that they would bring Mike's bike back to school so they could do some spring riding when the weather broke.
The time Matt and Mike had invested over the past weeks in talking about their strengths and weaknesses as individuals and as a couple had borne rich fruit. Both of them felt that their relationship was stronger and more loving than ever, and looked forward every day to the time they could spend hanging out together, tormenting one another, studying, and making love. They were aware of a balance they had achieved as a couple that they had not been aware of before.
Tests over, they packed up the truck and were on their way home, feeling exuberant.
"I miss Jeff and Martha," Mike said as they drove out of town. "We gotta do some things with them this vacation."
"I miss 'em, too. And we hafta get Jeff prepared for his role as a slave if he's gonna live with us."
"You better watch it. I bet he's really buff by now. He might knock you on your butt, dude!"
"In your dreams, Mikey, in your dreams. And don't think you can hide behind him if I need to punish you for one of your many lapses in good taste, bud!"
"My lapses. I could write a best seller on your peccadilloes, spaz boy!"
"'Peccadilloes,' you say! You used a big word, bro, and big words are forbidden in a redneck pick-em-up-truck like this. That's punishable with, now let's see, what would be fitting? Yep, that's right, a joke!"
"I don't suppose there's anything I could say or do to stop you," Mike groaned.
"No, it's inevitable, like the sun coming up, or my gettin' wood when I look at you. You know. Destined. You'll like this one. It has confession in it."
"A priest is in a church on Saturday afternoon, hearing confessions.
"A man walks in and kneels down and begins his confession - 'Father,
has been two weeks since my last confession, and these are my sins. Last
night I had sex with Nookie Green.'
"'That is your sin?'
"'You are forgiven. Go out and say one "Our Father."' The man leaves.
"Soon, another enters and kneels. 'Father, it has been one month since
last confession. These are my sins. I have had sex with Nookie Green
every week for the last month.'
"The priest thinks to himself, This Nookie Green woman is fairly popular
with his male parishioners... 'Those are your sins?'
"'You are forgiven. Go out and say three "Hail Mary's."' The man leaves.
"Soon, another enters and kneels down. 'Father, it has been six months
since my last confession. These are my sins, I have had sex with Nookie
Green twice a week for the last six months.'
"This time, the priest has to ask - 'Who is this Nookie Green?'
"'Just a woman I know, Father.'
"'Very well--you are forgiven. Go out and say ten "Hail Mary's."'
"The priest closes the church for the evening and leaves wondering who
this Nookie Green woman is . . .
"The next morning, the priest is up in front of his congregation saying
mass. The doors fly open in the back of the church and in walks this
woman, a tall redhead with long gorgeous hair, a green sequin dress,
green sequined heels and a green hat with a long green feather coming
from it. She walks straight up the aisle and sits down in the front pew
right in front of the priest, her knees apart. The priest cannot help but
stop and stare.
"He finally catches himself and leans over to ask the altar boy,
'Pssssst.. . . Is that Nookie Green?'
"The altar boy takes a long look and says, 'No, Father, I think it's
reflection off her shoes.'"
Mike looked out the side window, smiling, and then turned back to Matt with his face a mask.
"That has to be at the top of the bad joke list. Where's the Spanish Inquisition when we need it?" Mike asked.
"Spanish Fly, you say."
"No, you heard me."
"Mikey, I'm feeling those negative vibes again. What have I told you about that?"
Just then the radio station they were listening to began to play 'N Sync's Bye Bye Bye, and Matt began to sing along.
Mike made a face. "How can such cute guys perform such trash?" he asked Matt. "And how can you sing it?"
"Hehehe. I do it for you, Mikey, all for you, out of the kindness of my heart."
"Well, be cruel, and stop. I can take it."
"You should just admit you love my singing, and we'll go from there. I could be in a singing group. I have the talent and the voice for it, you know."
"Yeah, the Backalley Boys. Your trademark could be garbage cans crashing together as you do your tunes."
"You have such a cruel streak, dude. I'm hurt. But every artiste has to endure insults. We grow through our pain."
"You're a pain, and you know where. Could you be quiet now? I hafta pray," Mike said with a sly sideways look at Matt.
"Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God." Matt said.
"Now that's beautiful! What is it?"
"It's from the Psalms--Forty-something, I can't remember."
"You amaze me sometimes with what's tucked away in that little pea-brain of yours, bro."
"Speaking of pee, I hafta stop at the next rest area. How about you?"
"Yeah, me too. Maybe they sell earplugs. I'll pay big bucks."
They continued putting each other down until they took the next ramp off the interstate into a rest area. Matt went to the rest room while Mike filled up the truck with gas, and then Mike went in. They met in the food service lobby, and had a snack before starting out again.
As they were moving toward the on-ramp with Mike at the wheel, Matt did a double-take as they went by the parked cars. He thought he saw his teaching assistant from pre-law, Neil Anderson, in one of them with a bunch of rough looking guys, but they were past the other car so quickly, he couldn't confirm it. I'm losing it, he thought to himself. I'm seeing the Weasel everywhere.
Back on the interstate, Mike didn't spare the horses, and in an hour and a half, they were pulling into the Broman driveway. As usual, the front door burst open and the truck was surrounded with family and staff by the time it rolled to a stop. Mike got a lot of special hugs and kisses, and Mrs. Brighton's eyes were full of tears as she held him tight.
The boys grabbed their luggage out of the truck bed, and everyone started for the house just as a clap of thunder sounded, and it began to rain. Running the last few steps, they all made it inside the hallway just as the storm hit with full fury.
"That's what I like--home in the nick of time," Matt said. "Reminds me of when I was dating in high school and had a curfew. I was always right on time then, too. Hehehe."
"Liar, liar," Jeff said. "I should know--I used to have to cover for you with Mom and Dad!"
"Now the secret's come out," Mrs. Broman laughed, "when it's too late to spank him."
"No, Mom, Jeff and I can hold him and Martha can spank him," Mike suggested. "Just give us the word."
"All right, you guys, no rough-house, now!" Mr. Broman said. "You two go get settled upstairs, and come on back down, and we'll talk."
Matt and Mike went upstairs, unpacked and put away their clothes. When they were done, Mike held Matt and gave him a good long kiss.
"I gotta make up for all the smooches you gave me when I was sick," he said. He reached down and squeezed Matt's crotch. "Aha, just as I thought! You got wood, boy! What are we gonna do about that, do you think?"
"You stud! You bring out the beast in me!" Matt said. "We're not gonna do anything about it right now. Wait 'til I get you in bed, though!"
"Shoot, you can't get it up after the clock strikes 8 p.m. It'll be another night of sexual frustration for me, I can tell."
Mike broke away, and ran out of the room and downstairs, with Matt in hot pursuit. They entered the library out of breath. Mike moved Mr. and Mrs. Broman apart on the couch so he could sit between them.
"I'm sorry to break you two up, but I need to sit here. I have to tell you that your Matthew has been mistreating me terribly, especially on the trip home. I almost jumped out of the truck to escape! I need protection!"
"And you wouldn't be havin' a little of the devil in you, too, would you?" Mrs. Broman asked, simulating an Irish accent.
"I used to have, but Matt made me go to confession last Saturday, so now I'm pure. Very pure! He still has the devil in him, though. I know that for a fact! Look at his eyes!"
"Matt, is this true? Have you been abusing our convalescent, here?" Mr. Broman put a protective arm around Mike.
"Absolutely not true, Dad," Matt said. "I was even quoting Scripture on the way home to try to help this boy. Wasn't I, Mikey, and don't lie!"
"I thought it was Wiccan philosophy, isn't that what you said it was?" Mike shot back.
"All right. I've heard enough. I pronounce you both morons," Mr. Broman said, laughing. "College has helped you torment each other in a much more literate way, I'll have to say that. You're giving me second thoughts about letting Jeff go to school anywhere near you two."
"Jeff, what have you heard about that?" Matt asked.
"I got accepted at the University," Jeff said. "And I got a baseball scholarship. Cool, huh?"
"That is so great, man! Congratulations!" Mike said, and got up and shook Jeff's hand.
"Outstanding, bro!" Matt said, following suit. "Our offer is still good on the room, too."
"Just out of curiosity, Jeff, how many schools accepted you, anyway?" Mike asked.
"Oh, I don't know," Jeff said, blushing.
"Seven," Mrs. Broman said. "Don't be so modest, Jeff. You've earned the right to blow your own horn a little."
"Wow," Matt said. "That's fantastic, Jeff!"
"Martha, when you're ready to join us at school, we'll build on to the coach house so you can have your own room," Mike said. "I'll help you civilize your brothers, the beasts!"
"That's a lost cause," Martha said. "If Mom couldn't do it, there's no hope. It's too late. I think I read that the hardwiring of the brain is complete by age 5 or so, so there's probably no hope for any of you. You're men! "
The three boys said, "Ouch!" simultaneously, and laughed.
The family went on to talk about midterms, life at school, and what had been going on at home. The evening passed quickly and pleasantly. About 10 o'clock the youngsters stood up to excuse themselves and go to bed.
"I just want to tell you all how much I love you, and how much I appreciate what you did for me when I was sick," Mike said. "I know I was dying when you came down to school, and that your prayers and being with me brought me back. Being part of this family and sharing your love have made up for everything bad that's ever happened to me. I don't know how I could have been so lucky." He started to weep, and embarrassed, turned to leave.
"Come here, Mike," Mrs. Broman said, and made him sit down again. She folded him in her arms, and kissed his face.
"I'm sorry. I just wanted you to know how I feel," Mike said.
"We know, dear. And you've had a tough time," Mrs. Broman said.
"Mike's going to be fine, Mom, but he's still recovering from the meningitis," Matt explained. "It leaves his emotions a little raw sometimes."
"I know. That's why we're so glad you came home for your break instead of running off to Lord knows where for vacation. We're going to take good care of our Mike while he's here."
"Thanks, Mom." Mike kissed her, and left to go upstairs.
Matt lingered. "He's right. I really think he was gonna die until you came down to school. We owe all of you a lot," he said. He kissed his mom and dad good night, waved at Jeff and Martha, and followed Mike upstairs.
When Matt went into their bedroom, Mike was sitting on the side of the bed quietly. Matt went over and sat beside him, and hugged him.
"You're my sweet boy, Mike, and I love you to death," Matt said.
Mike was surprised--they rarely used endearments for one another. They lay back on the bed with their arms around each other, legs dangling.
"I feel so stupid when I can't control my emotions around people," Mike finally said.
"Don't worry about it," Matt said. "You're recovering right on schedule, and none of the really terrible things that can come from meningitis have happened to you. You're doing great."
They held each other tightly, and then got up to take a shower together. When they went to bed, Matt made gentle love to Mike, and they fell asleep, entwined.
The boys spent the week and a half that they were home bumming around with Jeff and Martha, catching up on movies, listening to music, swimming and working out. Matt made an effort to keep their vacation pace slow for Mike's sake.
It was too cold for a motorcyle ride, but they made arrangements to get a ramp so they could load Mike's bike into the truck and take it back to school for spring riding, and just in case they decided to spend their summer of leisure traveling by bike instead of taking one of the trucks. They had about decided to spend the first few weeks of their summer at Mike's condo at Snowmass, and were looking forward to experiencing spring in the Rockies. After that they thought they'd go out to Vancouver and travel south along the Pacific coast through Washington, Oregon, and California to Mexico. They thought they'd at least go down to Ensenada. They were starting to get more and more excited about the trip now that they were actually making plans.
Spring break over, they added their luggage to the CBR in the truck bed, said goodbye to the family, and were on the road back to school by midmorning. They were in a great mood due to their summer plans, and were listening to music and having their usual verbal jousts, Mike at the wheel.
"Mikey, Mikey, Mikey, I'm really glad you're feeling better because you've gotten spoiled while you were sick. I'm gonna hafta take you in hand and get you straightened out," Matt said as he reached over and squeezed Mike's neck.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, I think you have been taking me in hand on a regular basis. That was you, wasn't it? It felt like you. I'd know those fat, fumbling fingers anywhere."
"Oh, oh, negative vibes here. And you know what that means."
"No! This is my truck. I don't have to listen to this!"
Matt started singing, "Bye, bye Miss American pie, took my Chevy to the levy, but the levy was dry. . ."
"I've heard you sound better when you're gargling in the morning than you do right now singing."
". . .and this will be the day that I die. . ." Matt sang louder.
"Lord, take him quickly and stop this squawking in my ears," Mike said.
"All, right, now I'm really insulted. You have to be punished with a good joke," Matt came back.
"No, I'm begging you. . ."
"You'll love this one, Mikey, it's a travel story. . .
"A man and a woman were driving down the road arguing about
his frequent infidelity.
"Suddenly the woman reaches over and slices off the man's
pecker. Angrily the woman tosses it out the window of the
"Driving behind the car is a fella in a pickup truck with his 10 year
old daughter chatting away beside him. All of the sudden, the pecker
smacks the pickup on the windshield and flies off.
"Surprised, the daughter asks her daddy, 'Daddy what in the
heck was that?'
"Not wanting to expose his 10 year old daughter to sex at such a
tender age, the father replies, 'It was only a bug, honey.'
"The daughter gets a confused look on her face, and after a
minute she says, 'Sure had a big dick!'"
Mike struggled to keep a straight face.
"You know, your jokes just keep getting worse. When are you gonna hit bottom?" he said.
"You're just jealous that wrestlers have a joke repertory, and swimmers don't," Matt said.
"We don't need a repertory. We just look at our sorry wrestling team, and that's all the humor we can stand!"
"Bad vibes again, Mikey. But I'm gonna give you a sporting chance. If you can tell me the answer to this question, no more jokes or singing from me on this trip, OK?"
" K, what's the question?"
"What do you call an Alabama farmer with a sheep under each arm?" Matt asked with a big smile of triumph already on his face.
Mike was quiet for a minute, and then said, "A pimp!"
Matt's smile disappeared. "You dufus! How'd ya know?"
"Ha! Just because swimmers have the good taste not to tell bad jokes doesn't mean that we don't know any! I win, nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah, silence is golden!"
"Stop gloating! If you weren't driving, I'd give you a hickey that would take six months to heal."
"More promises, no delivery! I've heard all this before."
They continued bickering back and forth until they hit the next rest area on the interstate, where they stopped and got gas and grabbed a burger and fries.
As they left, this time with Matt driving, Matt looked in his rearview mirror and throught he saw the Weasel again, in the same car as before with a bunch of guys, but couldn't be sure. He didn't see them again once they got back on the interstate.
They arrived back at school without incident and unloaded their luggage. They didn't have a ramp to unload Mike's motorcycle, so they drove a short way into the countryside, found a ditch of the right depth, backed the truck into it, and drove the bike off on to level ground. Mike drove the truck, and Matt the bike, back to their apartment.
Things were soon back in their old routine, except that Matt and Mike were getting more and more excited about their upcoming trip. They pulled up maps on their computers and continued to make plans for what they hoped would be the greatest summer of travel ever. The anticipation kept them energized as the school year wound down.
* * *
One night Matt was coming out of wrestling practice and was walking alone toward the truck, when a rusty old blue van pulled up next to where he was parked. He neared his own truck and turned to unlock the driver's side door, when the van's side door slid back suddenly and somebody put a black hood over his head. Myriad hands grabbed his arms and legs and hustled him inside the van. He felt his limbs being bound tightly as the vehicle pulled away. He could hardly breathe inside the hood. There had been no chance to signal the campus patrol. Matt was furious as he lay on the floor of the van, being jounced around. Whether this was gay bashing or only a prank, someone was going to pay dearly for it.
One of Matt's teammates, coming out of the gym about 30 seconds after Matt, witnessed what had happened, and called the University City police. He wasn't able to give them any information on the van other than it was a Chevy, dark blue and rusty, no windows on the sides, no license plates. The first uniformed policemen on the scene radioed what information they had to the central station, and an all-points bulletin was put out by Dispatch on the van. Patrol cars watched the main streets out of town for the vehicle. The uniforms also sequestered Matt's truck, and sent for a tow truck to take it to the police impound just in case something inside it would give them a clue about what had happened.
Meanwhile, Mike had arrived back at the apartment from swim practice before Matt got home, as usual, and was sitting in the living room reading when a knock came at the door. Mike thought Matt must have misplaced his key, so he opened it, and was surprised to see a stranger standing there.
"Hello, I'm Detective Ray Stans. You must be Matt's brother, Mike." Stans showed his badge.
"Yeah, I'm Mike. What's wrong?"
"May I come in?"
They went into the living room, and Mike motioned the detective to a chair.
"Mike, let me get right to the point. One of Matt's teammates says he saw Matt being grabbed up by a bunch of guys in an old blue van tonight after wrestling practice. Have you seen him?"
"No! He's usually home by now, too. What's happened to him?" There was fear in Mike's voice.
"We don't know. We have an all-points bulletin out on the van, and I'll be very surprised if they can get out of the city without being spotted. Has Matt received any threats of any kind recently?"
"Not that I know of. The gay bashing incidents have dropped off to practically nothing here on campus for the time being, and I don't know why anybody else would bother him. This can't be happening!"
"Let's not get too worried yet. This may turn out to be a prank," Stans said. "I'd like to have another phone line and a tracing apparatus installed here in your apartment just in case it's something more. Is that all right?"
"Yes, please. You think he's been kidnapped, don't you?"
"It's too early to make that judgment, but we want to be ready for any eventuality. Don't be upset. We're going to get Matt back, and catch the guys who took him."
Mike got up and began to pace up and down the living room. "Do you think I should call our dad and mom?"
"Why don't you hold off for a couple hours, and let's see if you're contacted. If nobody calls, then you call your family."
"OK. Isn't there something more we can do now? I'm getting scared."
"Give the patrol cars a chance to spot the van. Meanwhile, I'll get the technical crew in here with another phone line and the tracing equipment," Stans said.
Within a half hour, the apartment was crawling with technicians installing another phone line, recorders, and a box that supposedly would provide an instant trace on incoming phone calls. They had everything installed in about 30 minutes, and everyone left except Detective Stans and two technicians who manned the equipment.
Mike made some coffee for the policemen, and walked around the apartment nervously until 10 p.m., when he called home. Mrs. Brighton told Mike that Mr. and Mrs. Broman had left for London just that morning on business. Matt didn't tell her why, but said he needed to talk with them right away. She said she would call them at their London hotel when morning arrived over there, and have them telephone him. Mike thanked her, and hung up.
Mike went to bed about midnight, really frightened for Matt. The bed felt empty without him as Mike inhaled his lover's scent on the sheets. He asked God to bring Matt safely back to him and the family.
There were no calls all night, and the only call early in the morning was from their mom and dad. Mike gave them all the information he had. They said they were cutting their trip short, and would fly into University City as soon as they could. Their fear for Matt was palpable, even over the phone.
About 11 o'clock that morning the telephone rang, and the technicians immediately started the recording equipment. The trace started the minute that Mike picked up the phone.
"We have Matt. You want him back?"
"All right. You have Daddy Warbucks get together $50 million in bearer bonds and cash for his little boy. We'll call again with instructions for delivery."
The phone went dead.
Stans turned and looked inquiringly at the technicians.
"Cell phone," one of them said. "Tower One. Not far from the center of town. That's as much as we can give you right now."
"Get more, and get it fast," Stans ordered. "The clock's ticking, here."
"I'm going out for a few minutes, if that's all right," Mike said to Stans. "I have something I gotta do."
"OK, but get back as soon as you can. We don't know when they might call again."
" K," Mike said, and went out the door after snatching up his wallet.
When he got to the bottom of the stairs, he realized he didn't have the truck. He went into the garage, and fired up his bike. First he went to a cash machine, and withdrew $1000 on his American Express card with no trouble. Then he headed for the airport.
He parked in one of the lots, and climbed off the bike, chilled to the bone. He hunted down the office for small, private plane flights, and asked if he could rent a pilot and helicopter, saying that he remembered seeing a nice little Bell 427 on its pad the last time he was there.
"You got money, kid?" one of the guys in the office asked. "The bird costs $250 an hour."
"No problem," Mike said. "Gotcha covered."
"Where do you want to go?"
"I'm looking for a certain vehicle. I want to start in the center of the city and fly in concentric circles until I locate it," Mike said.
"It's your money. Let's go," the pilot said.
They went out to the pad and the pilot took the tethers off the rotor paddles. They climbed into the cockpit, the pilot in the right seat, Mike in the left. The pilot threw some switches, and after a humming sound, the rotor began turning, throwing moving shadows on the ground as it wound up. They sat on the pad for 10 minutes while the engine warmed up and the pilot went over a checklist.
The pilot looked over at Mike as they buckled themselves in, and stuck out his hand.
"John Davis," he said.
"Mike Broman," Mike responded as they shook hands.
"What's goin' on, Mike?"
"My brother was kidnapped last night from the university. I'm looking for the van they took him in."
"That I'm doing this? Nope."
Davis shrugged. "OK, let's go up and look around."
He cleared them with the tower, pulled up on the collective and moved the cyclic forward. They rose a few feet, tilted forward, and cut across the airfield as they climbed and flew toward the center of town.
"What kind of vehicle are you looking for? I'll watch for it out my side, too," Davis said.
"A dark blue Chevy van, rusty, no plates. I don't know how much detail we can see from up here, but that's all we know at this point."
"All righty," the pilot said. "Here we go." And he began to make gentle, clockwise, circular sweeps around town.
They finished with the center of town, the university and the older residential area in about an hour, doing a thorough job and sometimes going back over the same area twice if a vehicle looked at all similar to their target.
"Where'd you learn to fly, John?" Mike asked.
"Nam. I was a warrant officer in search and rescue."
"Wow. Lots of experience, then."
"Yeah. These birds are so expensive to fly that we're not certifying a lot of new helicopter pilots today. The stick time is too expensive. So us old timers are still holding down the fort."
"I can see why," Mike said. "I bet you saw some things in Nam!"
"Sure did! I never expected to make it home, to tell you the truth."
They were now flying over a bunch of factory buildings that had once been on the outskirts of town, but had been gradually encompassed by new housing developments, and eventually been abandoned for newer, more modern structures.
They were flying over one such abandoned building when Mike thought he saw a dark shadow under a sheet metal canopy at a one-bay loading dock. He asked John to go around again so he could take a better look. Davis identified the building as an abandoned broom factory, closed down for the past 10 years or so.
* * *
Matt had continued to fume as the van bounced through the now-dark streets of University City, but it was a short and leisurely trip, wherever they had gone. Within 10 minutes they had stopped on what seemed to be a downward incline. Matt's arms and legs were grabbed again and he had been carried out of the van, still hooded, and from the sound of his captors' footfalls, into some huge space. He was placed in an old wooden armchair, and his arms and legs re-tied to the chair. Someone took off his hood, but it had been too dark to see much.
He had heard his abductors talking behind him, and one voice had stood out, even at a whisper. It was the Weasel's nasal tones that he heard. Matt hadn't let on that he heard anything, though, let alone that he knew someone who was involved in this incident.
The night had seemed interminable, although his captors had fed him hamburgers and released him from the chair long enough to relieve his bladder against the wall. Some kind soul had even thrown a blanket over him, and he got some sleep after he said his prayers, asking for rescue for himself and protection for Mike and their family.
As dawn had arrived, Matt could see a little more of where he was being held. It looked like an abandoned factory building. It was totally empty and swept clean. Ten I-beams ran down the center of the huge space, each one supporting a continuous catwalk 50 feet up with a skylight in the roof above it. A few of the sections of the skylight were cranked open a foot or so. The sun was shining, and the sun-warmed spring air floated around the huge room. The entrance to the building was 75 feet or so from where Matt was sitting.
One of Matt's captors showed up with an Egg McMuffin and some orange juice, fed him, and let him urinate again.
Later in the morning, Matt heard a helicopter flying around outside, and thought to himself that it would be too good to be true if they were looking for him.
He asked the guy who was guarding him if he could take a leak again, and was released from his chair. The other men were all huddled together down toward the entrance to the building, talking. Matt emptied his bladder, and on the way back to the chair, on impulse, sprinted suddenly to the closest I-beam and jumped up on it. Using his hands and feet, he began to climb rapidly toward the catwalk above. His nearest guard jumped and made a grab for him, but Matt punched the man's hands until he let go and fell back to the floor. Expecting to be shot at any minute, Matt reached a rusty old ladder which reached halfway down the beam from the roof, and easily ascended the rest of the way to the catwalk. None of his captors seemed to be in good enough shape to climb an I-beam, at least not quickly enough to reach him anytime soon, although one had made it up about 15 feet.
Matt ran down the catwalk to an open section of the skylight and wedged his way under it, rolling out on to a broad expanse of roof. Now the question was, how was he going to get down? There was a 75-80 foot drop to the ground, and his captors would undoubtedly find a way to the roof before long. Maybe, he thought to himself, he had outsmarted himself.
* * *
The helicopter had made another circle and was approaching the abandoned factory again when Mike and the pilot saw Matt roll out the skylight window and sprint to the edge of the roof, looking for a way down. Mike recognized Matt's athletic jacket immediately.
"That's my brother, John. Pick him up!"
Another figure rolled out of the skylight, and began running toward Matt across the roof. A puff of smoke came out of a black object in his hand.
"I can't land down there, Mike. The roof of that old building won't hold this bird!"
Mike put his hand over John's hand on the collective and pushed down gently. The holicopter dipped momentarily, then continued to hover.
"Put this thing on the deck, John! We're not leaving him here! We're going down there one way or another!"
Their eyes locked and no one blinked.