NOTICE: This story contains sexually explicit material involving members of the same sex.  If this offends you, or if, for some reason, it is not legal for you to read this, then please leave.  This is a work of fiction.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is completely intentional.

Comments and criticisms are very much appreciated.  Please email me with any thoughts, rants or praises.  Flames will be ignored, of course, but most emails will gain a response.


Everything's Eventual

by R.H. Lee

Chapter 7:

A Family Affair


    Miguel and Ryan signed up for the costume contest, putting down their names for the judges in case they couldn't be recognized, which was worth extra points.  They didn't have to put Scott's name on the sheet, because he was only part of the costume.  They busied themselves during the two weeks before the dance learning, to sew patches over rips and tears in the donkey costume.  Having bought enough brown fabric, they fashioned a robe for Scott to wear and made a beard out of doll hair found in the same shop as the brown fabric.

    On the night of the dance, the three boys got ready at Ryan's house.  Frank and Sheila had a good laugh over the donkey costume.  Mitch was already gone to his own Halloween party, so they didn't have to put up with any snide comments from him.  Miguel was already wearing the donkey's front legs.  They were baggy with knobby knees and round black hooves made from hockey pucks.  He held the rear legs while Ryan stepped into them.

    "What have I done do you, that you have struck me these three times?" he asked, rehearsing the line that he'd soon have to ask Scott when the costume contest began.

    "Because you have abused me. I wish there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you!" cried Scott, holding in a laugh for the first time after saying the line.

    Ryan and Scott lowered the donkey's neck over Miguel's head and then Ryan bent over and grabbed Miguel's waist while Scott draped the donkey's body over him, and then a striped wool blanket formed a biblical looking saddle.  The two boys crouched as Scott climbed on Ryan's back, eliciting an "Ohh" from Ryan as his weight settled.  Then they walked a few steps in the living room to give Sheila and Frank a good showing of what was to come at the dance.

    Scott whacked Ryan with his stick, not meaning for it to hurt the way it did.  "C'mon, you old donkey! Let's go!"

    Sheila laughed at them and Frank just shook his head.  He couldn't believe that they were doing this.  He didn't even know how they'd come up with the idea.  When he was a teenager, he and his friends had dressed up as zombies and walked around their school talking about brains, imitating the zombies from Night of the Living Dead.

    Frank drove the trio to the school once they'd taken off the costume.  He listened to them laughing and talking about what their friends would be wearing.  They had kept their costume a closely guarded secret from the rest of their friends, and Frank wondered if any of them would understand what it was that they were depicting.

    In the parking lot, the costume was reassembled.  Miguel led the way across the lot and Ryan, with his arms propped on Miguel's waist and Balaam on his back, followed.  He could see the ground passing below him, then the steps up to the gymnasium, and finally the gym floor.  The party was well underway as they entered, and the reaction from all of those present was instantaneous.  Gasps, applause and cheers could be heard as the Miguel led them through the gym.  Luckily, they'd arrived just moments before the costume contest, and they were the first costume called.

    Mr. Aldritch, the head judge announced them.  "First up, Balaam's Ass!"

    The crowd laughed as Scott whacked Ryan with the stick and grew quiet when Miguel said, "HawHEE! What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?"

    Scott hit Ryan again, and Ryan vowed to seek revenge later.  "Because you have abused me! I wish there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you!"

    While the crowd laughed, Miguel replied, "Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden, and . . . you know, taken you places and stuff?"  He was clearly forgetting his lines.

    They walked back and forth across the platform, repeating the same scene as Balaam beat his donkey senseless, and then Mr. Aldritch helped Scott off the donkey, and he led the boys off of the platform.  They stayed in costume for another half-hour to let the judges get the full effect, and so that no one really knew who was under the donkey.  They were sure that their friends knew, but not too many others did.

    Then Scott took off the wool saddle and the donkey's back, and Ryan and Miguel stood up.  Miguel took off the donkey's head, and he and Ryan smiled at each other.  They were drenched in sweat and Ryan's side was still smarting from the beating he'd received from his little brother, Balaam.

    Nathaniel joined them with Robin by his side.  They were dressed as King Henry and Ann Boleyn.  They laughed at Ryan as he slowly massaged his side and glared menacingly at his younger brother.  Scott smiled from ear to ear.  He was completely happy with his performance.  After all, he wasn't the one who had forgotten his line.

    Travis, Jeff and Nathan were dressed as The Three Musketeers, and Robin admired their costumes.  They all walked over to the punch table and commented on every costume they saw.  There were at least a dozen Hulks and maybe more Pirates in the crowd.  Miguel was happy to notice that there were no other donkeys, horses or zebras.  It was clear that their costume was the most original.

    They gathered with the rest of their classmates as the winners were announced.  Mr. Aldritch, lover of pregnant pauses, stepped up to the microphone and greeted the crowd.  "Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to thank you all for keeping your costumes tasteful. We've got a few prizes to hand out here, let me see," he said, pausing as he read from the sheet of paper in his hand.  "Third place goes to Tom Sheffield and Megan Clowser as Raggedy Ann and Andy. We have a twenty-five dollar gift certificate to The Olive Garden for those two." He let the crowd applaud them as they walked up to the platform to receive their prize.

    "Second place goes to Robin Morris and Nathaniel Patterson as King Henry and Ann Boleyn. We have a fifty dollar gift certificate to Applebee's for them."  Another pause while Robin and Nathaniel walked up to the platform to receive their prize.  The irony was not lost on Nathaniel as he accepted a gift certificate for dinner in the very restaurant that he worked for.

    "And in first place, Ryan Houser and Miguel Rodriguez with Scott Houser as Balaam's Ass. Now I should tell you all that if you would come to church on Sunday, you would know all about Balaam, but to keep this going, I'll announce their award. For these creative youngsters we have a one hundred dollar gift certificate to Best Buy."

    They both promised to let Scott shop with them when they used the certificate.  He was just happy to have helped them win.  It was decided that since Scott was the only eighth grade student there, he could stay as long as his older brother was there to watch out for him.  There were several games set up in various parts of the large gymnasium, and Scott had a blast.

    The next day was Robin's birthday party.  Her birthday was actually the preceding Tuesday, but she'd decided not to celebrate it on a school day.  Instead, she'd had a private dinner with her father and Nathaniel that night.  Nathaniel wanted to make sure that she had something a little more special to remember her birthday with, so he and Ryan got together and planned a little surprise for her.

    Coordinating the surprise with the rest of their friends was a bit difficult.  First, Ryan had to make sure that Nathan had Saturday off, and though he didn't, he only had to work that morning, so he would be home before five.  Miguel was actually no problem at all.  His biggest obstacle was deciding what to buy for Robin.  That left Travis.

    Travis was very excited about the party, and he'd already gotten Robin a present.  He told Ryan that all he needed was a ride to the party.  Ryan made sure that Nathan could pick Travis up on his way to get Jeff.  Ryan would already be with Nathaniel, so he didn't need a ride.  Miguel would still be with Ryan, so he had a ride too.

    Nathaniel had booked a table at The Olive Garden, Robin's favorite restaurant.  He'd made sure that there were provisions made for the group, and he'd selected an ice cream cake (since Robin didn't like regular cake) and made sure that the waiters could bring it to the table at the proper time.  So, at four-thirty, Nathaniel picked Miguel and Ryan up at Ryan's house.  He dropped them both off at the restaurant and went to get Robin.  He'd told her that he was taking her out for dinner, but he hadn't told her that everyone was going to be there.

    The table was set with menus already at each place setting, and Ryan and Miguel were given sodas to drink while they waited for the rest of their group to arrive.  Nathan, Travis and Jeff joined them shortly after Nathaniel had left to pick up Robin.  They stacked the presents that they'd bought for Robin on the table next to them, which Nathaniel had arranged to be provided just for that purpose.

    Ryan had selected his gift carefully.  He'd wanted something that Robin would like, but at the same time, he wanted it to be something that would make her think of him every time she looked at it.  He'd asked Sheila to help him pick out a bracelet for Robin.  He knew that purple was her favorite color, so he'd asked the jeweler to show him bracelets with amethyst stone settings.  He'd finally chosen a February birth stone bracelet with six amethysts and a cut crystal.  The bracelet was white gold with three amethysts on each side of the cut crystal.  Her birthday wasn't in February, but the bracelet was really nice, and the stones were her favorite color.

    He wondered what it was that Travis had gotten her.  The box was rectangular, but too big to be a shirt box.  Travis wouldn't tell, though.  He said that everyone would just have to wait and see when Robin opened it.  He was very excited about the present, but he wasn't budging on what it was.

    Miguel had told Ryan that he didn't know what to get Robin, so Ryan suggested a gift certificate.  When Miguel asked where it should come from, Ryan told him anywhere other than Wal-Mart or Meijer's.  They'd both laughed about that, and Miguel had spent fifty dollars on a gift certificate from Famous Bar.

    Nathaniel had already given Robin a gift, so all that was on the table from him was a card.  Jeff had also only brought a card, and Ryan didn't know if there was money in the card, or if Jeff had already given her a gift.  There was a smaller box from Nathan on the table, and Ryan already knew what was in it.  Nathan had told him that Robin was always complaining about the music on the radio, so he'd gotten her an MP3 player with his discount.  It had a feature that allowed you to use it with a car stereo by going to a specific AM station and placing the player no further than five feet from the face of the stereo.

    "Everyone is here!" said Robin as she and Nathaniel walked up to the table.  She was smiling from ear to ear as she sat down at the table.

    The waiter came to the table shortly after that to get Robin and Nathaniel's drink orders, and he had to wait until after each of them had finished wishing Robin a happy birthday.  Once he'd gotten the order and left the table, Nathaniel started to pass Robin her gifts.  Ryan noticed the ring on Robin's finger.  It was also white gold with an amethyst stone.  He looked at Nathaniel and received a nod, indicating that it was, in fact, his gift to her.

    "I hope you like it, Robin," said Travis as Nathaniel handed her his present.  "I couldn't think of what to get you, so I just got you something that I thought you'd like."

    "Thank you!" she said after opening the box to reveal a purple teddy bear.  "He's cute!"

    "Now you have someone to snuggle with!" laughed Travis.

    "This is from Nathan," said Nathaniel as he passed her the next gift.

    She opened the box and smiled as she looked inside at the MP3 player.  Nathan explained how to use it in her car, and Robin thanked him.  "Now I don't have to listen to irritating music all the time!"

    When she got Ryan's gift, she was speechless.  She held the bracelet up and looked at Ryan for a few minutes until he said, "I know it isn't your birth stone, but I wanted a purple stone."

    "It goes with the ring, too," added Nathaniel.

    "I love it," she said.  "I just can't believe you got this for me."

    "Well, I had trouble thinking of just what to get for you," replied Ryan.  "I've never really bought presents for friends before."

    "Now I have a full set," she said, showing him the necklace around her neck that matched the ring and bracelet almost perfectly.  "Jeff gave me this on Tuesday."

    "Well, I guess we think alike," said Jeff, smiling at Ryan.

    "You can use that to buy something else to match the rest of your birthday jewelry," said Miguel, smiling at her when she opened his card and pulled out the gift certificate.

    Right after that, the waiter arrived to take their food orders, and Nathaniel talked to him privately about when to deliver the cake.  They talked about Halloween while they waited for their food to arrive.  Robin kidded Miguel and Ryan by calling them both asses.  They took the playful jibes in stride, though.

    While they ate, Nathaniel told them about the party that he was trying to organize for his adopted grandparents.  Nathaniel, being from Australia, had no extended family in the US, and he'd heard about an elderly couple that lived up the street from him.  A neighbor had told his mother that the couple were grieving the loss of their only daughter.  She'd been killed in a car accident with her husband and two year old son just a few weeks before the conversation had taken place.

    Nathaniel started mowing their grass for them and doing odd jobs around the yard, and he'd gotten close with them.  He told his friends that they were about to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and he was trying to put together something special for them.  He knew that they both liked Jazz music, and his father had helped him get them tickets to the Jazz Club's show on the night of their anniversary.  He was going to buy them a cake and take it to them the day before.  He planned to give them the tickets then.

    "I'm also going to be putting in their storm windows for winter next weekend," he told them.  Jeff and Nathan offered to help.

    Then the cake arrived, and Robin smiled at them.  She noticed the purple roses on the cake, and she was happy that there was only a single candle in the center.  The group sang "Happy Birthday" to her, and she blew out the candle.  Each of them had a piece of the cake while Robin told them everything she'd gotten from her parents for her birthday.

    Ryan helped Nathaniel clean up the wrapping paper and put it all in the waste can provided for them.  Robin was happy with all of her presents, and she thanked Ryan again for her bracelet on the way to drop Miguel off at the dorm.  Ryan was tired by the time they dropped him off at home.  He assured Robin that he would be ready Monday morning and then went into the house and straight to his room.

    Ryan, Miguel and Scott were the talk of the school on Monday.  Everyone asked how they came up with the idea for the costume, and a lot of people that Ryan didn't know started to talk to him.  It all died down after a while, and things returned to normal for all of them.  Class work got harder, and for some of them, the jobs they had demanded more and more of their time.

    The constants were the Thursday afternoon study sessions and Miguel spending every other Friday night at Ryan's.  More than ever now, Robin and Ryan were questioning Miguel's sexuality.  Robin had gone so far as to ask him about girls that he liked during one of their study sessions, but Miguel had dodged the question quickly and countered, asking her how long she and Nathaniel had been together.

    Jeff was fairly certain that Miguel was straight, and he told them that every time they brought it up.  Nathan had no opinion on the subject at all.  The two of them had been spending an awful lot of time alone lately, and Ryan and Robin wondered if they were getting tired of the Miguel debate.  They calmed it down for a while to see, and sure enough, Jeff returned to the Thursday study sessions.

    They started Christmas shopping a week before Thanksgiving, and they all decided to hand out presents with Miguel on their last Thursday study session before the Christmas break.  Miguel would be going home to New Mexico for Christmas, so they wouldn't have a chance to give him the gifts they'd bought him before the holiday.

    Three days before Thanksgiving, Rhonda Happel, Mitch's mother, came to visit her son.  Ryan wondered why she bothered, if she didn't want her son to live with her in California.  Mitch didn't seem very happy to see his mother, either, and the two spent an awkward night together.  After dinner that night, the whole family sat at the dining room table, talking.

    "Ryan, Mitch tells me you've been helping him with Algebra," said Rhonda.  "That's really great."

    "I just taught him an easier way to look at, and solve the equations," replied Ryan.  "I was helping my friend Travis, and Mitch needed a little help, too."

    "I think it's great that you two are starting to get along so well," she said, smiling at both of them.  Ryan and Mitch looked at each other, but neither said anything to that one.

    "Rhonda, how long are you staying in town?" asked Sheila.

    "Well, I wanted to stay straight through to Christmas, but Val has work, and I don't want to be away from the house so long," she explained.  "I was thinking about taking Mitch home with me for Christmas."

    "I'm not going back to California," Mitch said quietly.  There was no mistaking the tone in his voice, though.

    "Mitchell, don't argue with me about it," said Rhonda.  "We want you home for Christmas."

    "No you don't," replied Mitch.  "You just want to make me go so you look good with all of your friends. Val surely doesn't want me there. He never did before."

    "I'm not going to sit here and argue with you about this in front of everyone, Mitchell," said Rhonda.  "You are going back to California with me for the holidays and that's all there is to it."

    Mitch got up and walked out of the dining room.  Everyone heard him stomp up the stairs, then his door slammed shut, and the music that they hadn't heard in so long started up.  Sheila was about to go up and talk to him, but Frank put his hand on her arm, stopping her.  He wasn't sure that now was the right time to chastise Mitch for playing his music.  He thought he had an idea about what might have been wrong in California.

    "Rhonda, how do Mitch and Val get along?" asked Frank.

    "Well, it's hard for them," replied Rhonda.  She was clearly uncomfortable talking about this.  "With everything that's happened and all . . ."

    "What exactly happened in California?" asked Sheila.  As she asked the question, the music stopped.

    "Well, you know that Mitch got into trouble a lot," said Rhonda.  "He tried to blame his problems on Val."

    Val Lemke was Rhonda's live-in boyfriend.  He was also the reason that Rhonda and her husband had divorced six years earlier.  Frank had met the man on four separate occasions, and he hadn't liked him on any of them.  Something about the man just rubbed him wrong.  He couldn't put his finger on what it was, but he'd decided then that he just wouldn't be friendly with Val at all.

    "How exactly did he try to blame his problems on Val?" asked Sheila.

    "Well, you know how he is," replied Rhonda.  "He told the school that Val liked to hit him and stuff like that. Of course, none of it was true, and I told the school that. He even said that I had hit him a few times, but I've never hit my son in his life."

    "Well it's very clear that Mitchell doesn't want to go home with you for the holidays, Rhonda," said Frank.  "Are you sure that there isn't a little truth to what Mitch has said about Val?"

    "Frank, Val yells a lot, but he never hits Mitch," replied Rhonda.  "I don't know what Mitch has been telling you, but Val does not hit him."

    "Mitch hasn't been telling me anything about Val," said Frank.  "In fact, we haven't even heard Val's name mentioned since Mitch moved in here."

    "Well, then," she said.  "If Val really was hitting Mitch, don't you think he'd have told you about it? Every time I talk to Mitch on the phone, I hear how wonderful you and Sheila are. If you two are so wonderful to him, why wouldn't he tell you about Val hitting him?"

    "I don't know anything about psychology, Rhonda, but I do know that your son does not want to return to California," said Frank.

    "Well, that's just too bad," replied Rhonda.  "I am his mother, and he is going home with me as soon as I leave."

    She got up from the table and walked out of the room.  They heard her going up the stairs and just a few minutes later, they heard her yelling at Mitch.  Ryan looked at his parents, wondering what had actually just happened.  Frank sighed, and Sheila shook her head.  Neither of them knew what to make of the information they had just learned, but Frank knew that he and Mitch were going to have to have a private chat before Rhonda took her son home for the holidays.

    As it turned out, Frank didn't get to talk to Mitch about it.  Rhonda kept a close reign on her son all the way up to Thanksgiving Day.  At dinner that day, Mitch was sullen and quiet.  Rhonda was short with everyone, but she wasn't exactly rude.  It was clear that she had made up her mind about Mitch returning to California, and nothing any of them had to say about it would change the fact.

    It was Ryan that Mitch finally talked to.  He surprised Ryan by knocking on the attic door in the middle of the night that night.  Ryan opened the door to find Mitch standing there with tears running down his face.  He stepped aside and let Mitch walk up the attic stairs.  Following him, he wondered just why Mitch had come to him.  It was clear that he was beyond upset.  Ryan had never seen Mitch cry before.

    "Ryan, I won't go back to California with her," he said once they were safely behind Ryan's closed bedroom door.  "I'll run away."

    "Mitch, I don't know exactly what's going on between you and your mother," said Ryan.  "But it would only be for the holidays."

    "You don't get it," said Mitch.  "It isn't my mother I'm worried about. Val hates me, Ryan."

    "Your mom said that you tried to blame your problems on Val," said Ryan.

    "Oh sure!" he spat.  "Believe whatever she told you. Did she also tell you about me telling the school that Val liked to use me for a punching bag?"

    "She said that you accused him of hitting you," said Ryan.

    "He didn't hit me, Ryan," said Mitch.  "He broke my damned nose for me. Hitting me wouldn't have been so bad. But he broke my nose and called me names. Every day there was something I'd done wrong in his eyes. My music was too loud, it wasn't the right kind of music, or I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."

    "Did you tell your dad?" asked Ryan.

    "My dad?" Mitch laughed bitterly.  "My father couldn't give a rat's ass what was happening to me just so long as I'm not happening to him."

    "Mitch, talk to my dad . . ."

    "What's Frank going to do for me?" asked Mitch.  "He hasn't said boo to my mother since the night she got here. I got a slap in the face over that night. My mom said that she might not even let me come back here after New Years. I'm not going, Ryan."

    The next morning, Mitch was in his room when Rhonda went to collect him.  He'd even packed for the trip. Ryan wondered just what last night was all about.  He'd said he would run away before going to California, but yet, he hadn't done that.  He was completely silent during lunch, and he didn't say anything during the drive to the airport.  He simply sat in the back seat with his mother, staring out the window at the passing scenery.

    At the airport, Mitch didn't say anything at all while they waited for the flight.  Ryan noticed that he also didn't look at any of them, either.  Ryan was starting to get a very bad feeling about all of it.  He'd never seen Mitch so quiet before.  The look in Mitch's eyes was impossible to read, because Ryan had never seen it before, either.

    The whole way back to Springfield, Ryan thought about Mitch and his silence.  He wanted to tell his dad about it, but he didn't know what to say.  He couldn't just say that he thought something was wrong, because Mitch had been quiet.  He needed more, but there was nothing for him to find now that Mitch was gone.

    The entire weekend was bad for Ryan, because he was worried about Mitch.  Ryan didn't hang out with any of his friends, and he spent a lot of time in his room.  Scott came to him a few times, trying to get him to come downstairs and watch a movie, but Ryan begged out of it each time.  His father was worried about him, too.

    Frank was also just as worried about Mitch as Ryan was.  Unlike Ryan, though, Frank hadn't attributed Mitch's silence to any problem other than the fact that Mitch didn't want to go back to California.  He was more concerned over the conversation he'd had with Rhonda the night she'd arrived.  It was clear to Frank that Rhonda was covering for Val, but Mitch's track record with the truth wasn't all that great.  So, Frank had to make a decision.  Should he believe everything that Mitch had apparently told his school in Sacramento? Or should he chalk it up to another ploy for attention?

    At school on Monday, all of Ryan's friends noticed that he was quiet and withdrawn, Robin cornered him right before lunch to ask him about it.  She didn't understand his sudden silence.  She didn't know anything about what had happened in Ryan's house over the Thanksgiving holiday, and she didn't even know that Mitch was gone.

    "What's wrong with you?" she demanded as they were walking into the cafeteria.

    "What do you mean?" asked Ryan, evading the question poorly.

    "You've been quiet all day long," she replied.  "You didn't answer anyone's phone calls over the weekend, either."

    "I've just been thinking," he replied.

    "About?" she coaxed.

    "Mitch," replied Ryan with a sigh.

    "What about him?" asked Robin.  "Did he do something?"

    "Not exactly," said Ryan.  "He went to stay with his mom in California for the holidays."

    "So?" she asked. "Why is he sticking in your mind?"

    "I'm worried about him," replied Ryan.  "He came to my room Friday night. He was crying, and I'd never seen him cry before."

    "Mitch was crying?" asked Robin.

    "Yeah, Robin, he said that his mom's boyfriend is mean to him," said Ryan.  "I didn't know what to think about it until the day he left for California with his mom. I'd never seen him so quiet."

    "What do you mean?" she asked.

    "I mean quiet, Robin," he said.  "Mitch didn't talk, sigh, grunt or any of his usual annoying habits. He just sat there and stared at the walls or the floor."

    "That doesn't sound like the Mitch I know," she agreed.

    "And his eyes," said Ryan.  "I don't know how to describe them, but it was like they were empty."

    "Have you talked to your parents about this?" asked Robin.

    "No, but I hear them talking about Mitch themselves," said Ryan.

    "Well maybe they're thinking of what to do," said Robin.  "Assuming that there is anything wrong."

    "What do you mean?" asked Ryan.

    "Well, Mitch is good at pranks," she replied.  "You told me that, remember?"

    "Robin, this wasn't a prank," he said.

    He got the same response from each of his friends when he talked to them about it.  This was exactly what he'd expected, which was why he hadn't discussed it with any of them until Robin stopped him outside of the cafeteria.  The fact was, Mitch really was good at pranks.  He'd pulled a few since he'd come to live in Springfield.  Ryan had told each of his friends about Mitch's antics, so they were completely justified in their thinking.

    As the days passed, Ryan became increasingly more worried about Mitch.  Two days before Christmas Vacation was to begin, he finally talked to his father.  He'd been pushing the idea of going to his dad about Mitch around in his head for weeks.  He wasn't sleeping very well, and he was having trouble concentrating.

    "What's on your mind, Ryan?" asked his father the third time Ryan walked into the dining room, looked at him and started to walk back out.

    "Dad, I think something's wrong," he said, sitting down across from his father.

    There were papers stacked in several piles on the table.  His father had been working on a few things, and he had another stack of papers in front of him.  He had thought he would just leave his dad alone until he was finished with what he was working on, and he'd only been coming back into the dining room to check and see if he was finally done.

    "What do you think is wrong?" asked Frank, putting the papers he was going over down in front of him and giving his son all of his attention.

    "Well, it's about Mitch," said Ryan.  "He came to my room the night before he left, and he was crying."

    "Crying?" asked Frank.  "What did he say to you?"

    "Well, he said that he would run away before he'd go back to California with his mom," said Ryan.  "And he told me a little about what Val has done to him in the past."

    "What exactly did he say?" asked Frank, growing more and more concerned with every word that his son spoke.

    "Well, he talked about telling the school about what was going on," said Ryan.  "He said that his mom made him out to be a liar every time, and that's why he got into trouble all of the time. He said Val broke his nose once, too."

    "But he didn't run away," said Frank.

    "No, but do you believe what he said about Val?" asked Ryan.

    "Well, you heard what Rhonda said about it," replied Frank.  "She said he was lying."

    "But, Dad, he didn't sound like he was lying to me," insisted Ryan.  "He sounded like he was scared."


    "Did you see him the day they left, Dad?" asked Ryan.  "Did you really see him? I mean, you didn't hear him, because he never made a sound all day long. But did you look at him? Did you look at his eyes?"

    That was all Frank had to hear.  He had looked at Mitch's eyes that day, and he knew that look very well.  It was the look of someone who felt trapped.  He cursed himself for not acting on what he'd been thinking.  It shouldn't have taken Ryan coming to him to get him motivated.  He went to the kitchen and called Sacramento.

    "Yes, Val?" he said into the phone as Ryan listened.

    "This is Val, who the Hell is this?" was the reply.

    "This is Frank Houser," said Frank.  "I'm calling to talk to Mitchell."

    "Mitch? No. That boy doesn't get phone calls," said Val.  Frank could tell from the slur of his words that Val was drunk.

    "I wonder if I could speak to Rhonda instead?" said Frank.

    "You don't need to talk to Rhonda, either," said Val just before he hung up the telephone.

    "Sheila," called Frank as he looked at Ryan.

    "What's wrong?" she asked, coming into the kitchen.

    "I need Mason's number in Seattle," he replied.  "You have it written down somewhere, yes?"

    "Yes, but what's wrong?" she asked.

    "Just please get me the number," he said.  "I'm worried about Mitch."

    She left the room, and Ryan watched as his dad dialed numbers on the telephone.  He listened to his father talk to someone about temporary guardianship, and he asked what rights that entitled him to exactly.  Ryan didn't understand what his father was doing, but he kept quiet.  He just hoped that Mitch was all right.

    "Here's the number, Frank," said Sheila as she came into the room.  "What's wrong with Mitch?"

    "Thank you," said Frank before hanging up the telephone.


    "I called to talk to Mitch, and Val wouldn't let me talk to him," explained Frank.  "When I asked to talk to Rhonda, Val hung up. He sounded drunk, and Ryan is worried about Mitch."

    Sheila had Ryan tell her exactly what he'd told his father, and then they listened while Frank talked to Mason Happel on the telephone.  Then, when he got off the telephone, they watched him walk out of the kitchen.  Sheila heard him going up the stairs a minute later.  She looked at Ryan for a second before she followed him.

    Ryan watched as his father came back through the kitchen, carrying a suitcase.  He paused to hug Ryan before walking out of the house through the door that connected the house to the garage.  Ryan looked at Sheila when she came into the kitchen.  She walked over and picked up the telephone.

    The next day, at school, Ryan was even more distracted than he had been before he'd talked to his dad.  Sheila had told him and Scott that their father had flown to Sacramento to meet Mason.  She said that they were going to bring Mitch back home.  He didn't know what was going on in Sacramento, and apparently, neither did Sheila, because she didn't tell him anything else.

    When he, Nathaniel, Robin and Miguel walked into the house after school, Sheila wasn't home.  Scott went directly to Scott's house to do his homework there.  The four of them sat at the dining room table, and Ryan passed out bottles of juice.  They started in on Chemistry, but Ryan's mind wasn't on the topic.  He was more worried than ever now.  With Sheila gone, he didn't know if his father had called or not.  He was happy when she walked into the house.

    "Ryan, come to the kitchen with me for a minute," she said, passing the dining room.

    "What's going on?" he asked as soon as they were in the kitchen.

    "Your father called this afternoon, and I've been to see a lawyer," she said.  "Mason had papers drawn up that give him sole custody of Mitch. Rhonda signed them when he and your father got there. Now, Mitch is not going to live with his father, though."

    "I don't understand," replied Ryan.

    "Well, Mason is flying home with Mitch and your father in the morning," she said.

    "Why not today?" he asked.  "If they have Mitch, then why don't they just get on a plane now?"

    "Well, Mitch is in the hospital, and hasn't been released yet," she said.  "He was admitted last night for observation, and your father said that the doctor assured them that Mitch would be out of the hospital today. I haven't heard from your father again, so I don't know if he's been released or not."

    "Why was he admitted for observation?" asked Ryan.  "What's wrong with him?"

    "Ryan, all I know right now is that he had some sort of head injury when Mason walked out of the house with him," she replied.  "Val is in jail, and Rhonda isn't talking to any of us. That's all I know right now."

    "Can't you call Dad?" asked Ryan.

    "No, sweetheart, I can't," she said.  "I know you're worried about Mitch, but he'll be here tomorrow. Now he wouldn't be too badly hurt if they were going to let him out today, so you need to get back in there and study. Do you have a test in the morning?"

    "Yes," he said, thinking that he would surely fail the test.

    Surprisingly, however, after taking the test the next morning, he felt sure that he'd done very well on it.  Robin and Nathaniel both said that it was one of the easiest tests that they had been given in that class.  At lunch that day, Mitch was the topic of their conversation as each of Ryan's friends wanted to know all that he knew.  He told them the same things that Sheila told him.

    It had already been decided that Miguel would not be spending the night that weekend.  He was leaving for New Mexico the following morning to spend the holidays with his family.  Ryan talked to him all throughout the gym class about his family.  Miguel told him that he wasn't really excited about going home for the holidays.  He told Ryan that his family was very strict, and he wouldn't be allowed to call anyone in Springfield.  Ryan told him at the end of class that he would think of him the whole time he was gone.

    On the way home, Ryan was mostly quiet.  He answered every question that Robin asked him, but he volunteered nothing.  He was worried about Mitch, and he hoped that Mitch was back.  When they turned the corner onto his block, he could see that his father's car was in the driveway, so he knew that they were home.  He quickly said goodbye to Robin as he got out of the car and raced to the front door.

    "Where's Mitch?" asked Ryan when he saw Sheila in the hallway.

    "He's in bed, Ryan," she said.  "He's sleeping, but he said that he wants to see you when he wakes up. I'll let you know when he's awake. I'm about to go check on him."

    "Where's Dad?" he asked as she was starting up the stairs.

    "He's in the dining room, talking to Mason," she said.

    "Hey, Ryan," said his father as he walked into the dinning room.

    "What happened?" he asked, sitting at the table beside his father.

    "Well, he's got a broken arm and a slight concussion," said Mason.  "I want to thank you for making your dad aware that Mitch was worried. If you hadn't said anything, we wouldn't have known that Mitch was in trouble."

    "Val did this to him?" asked Ryan.

    "Yes, and Val is in jail," replied Frank.  "He won't be able to hurt Mitch anymore."

    "Is Mitch going to be moving to Seattle with you?" Ryan asked Mason.

    "Well, that's what your father and I are discussing," replied Mason.  "You see, I'm just not prepared to take on a teenager right now. Mitch will be seventeen soon, and then he'll only be a minor for another year. Rhonda signed the custody papers that I'd had drawn up just before leaving Seattle, so I have full custody of Mitch."

    "But he isn't going?" asked Ryan.

    "No," replied Frank.  "We're going to go to see my lawyer on Monday."

    "Why?" he asked.

    "Well, since Rhonda no longer has custody of Mitch, our guardianship agreement isn't valid," said Frank.

    "We're going to draw up a new one on Monday," added Mason.

    Sheila came back downstairs and let them know that Mitch was still sleeping.  She said that she'd have to wake him in another hour to take his medicine.  The three adults talked about the guardianship agreement, and Ryan went to his room to do his homework.  He didn't really have to do it that day, because school was going to be out for two weeks, but he wanted to be doing something.

    When Sheila came up to tell him that Mitch was awake, he was in the middle of reading a chapter in his History book.  She told him to be as quiet as possible and speak softly, because Mitch's head was hurting.  She also told him about the cast on Mitch's arm, and asked that he not act too alarmed by Mitch's condition.

    "Hey," said Mitch softly when Ryan entered his bedroom.

    "How are you feeling?" asked Ryan as he took the desk chair and sat beside the bed.

    "My head hurts," replied Mitch.

    Sheila hadn't told Ryan about the black eyes or the split lip.  Mitch looked like he'd been thought a war, and Ryan felt bad that he'd waited so long to say anything to his father.  He'd known that something wasn't right, but he just hadn't put it all together in time to stop Mitch from having to go through what he had.

    "Your dad says that you're going to be living with us until you turn eighteen," said Ryan.

    "Yeah, he asked me what I wanted to do," replied Mitch.  "I told him that I wanted to stay in Springfield. I don't even know my dad that well, Ryan. I've only seen him maybe seven times since I was ten years old."

    "I'm glad that you're staying, Mitch," said Ryan.

    "You sure?" asked Mitch.  "I know I've been an ass to you and Scott."

    "Are you going to do better?" asked Ryan.

    "I'm going to try," replied Mitch.  "You know that I didn't really mean what I said about your friend Travis. I'd just never known any gay people before, and I was always told that it was dirty and wrong."

    "Well, I can't really tell you what it is or what it isn't," said Ryan.  "All I can say is that it's wrong to judge people that way. You should look at who they are and not what they are."

    "Yeah, that's the same thing that your dad told me," he replied.  "Can I ask you something?"

    "Sure," said Ryan.

    "Your friend, Miguel. Is he gay, too?"

    "That's a question we've all been asking each other lately," chuckled Ryan.  "We don't know."

    "I know that Jeff and Nathan are," said Mitch.  "I could tell by the way that they look at each other."

    "Well, you just have to understand that people are people, Mitch," said Ryan.  "It doesn't matter who they choose to love or what kind of lifestyle they live. They're no different from you."

    "Ryan, are you gay, too?" asked Mitch.  "You don't have to tell me, but I think I already know."

    "Are you going to use it as another reason to hate me?" asked Ryan, all but admitting that he was.

    "Ryan, I don't hate you," said Mitch.  "If it weren't for you telling your dad about me coming to your room the night before I left, I don't know what else would have happened to me. Val hates me, Ryan. I never knew why, but he does."

    "People like Val should be locked away from everyone else," said Ryan.  "I can't believe your mom let him do this to you."

    "Yeah, well, my mother isn't much better," he said.  "She's the one who always called me names when I didn't do what she wanted me to do. Val was just the muscle behind the voice."

    "Just give my friends a chance, Mitch," said Ryan.  "They're really easy to like, and you couldn't ask for better."

    "I'll try, Ryan," said Mitch.  "But right now, I just want to make sure that you and I are good."

    "We're good," said Ryan.  "I better get back downstairs for dinner. Do you want me to bring you anything?"

    "No, my dad's going to eat up here with me, so he's bringing me some food," said Mitch.

    "Alright," said Ryan.  "I'll talk to you later."

    "Ryan," said Mitch as Ryan was about to walk through the bedroom door.  "Thanks."

    For the entire first week of Winter Break, Ryan checked on Mitch at least twice a day.  He brought him books to read, movies to watch, and sometimes just sat and talked to him.  He learned that Val and his mom used to call him a queer all the time, so he knew that was where his attitude toward Travis had come from.

    Robin came to see Mitch on Tuesday, and Ryan was almost as surprised as Mitch was.  She said that even though he'd been an ass to her, she wanted to make sure that he was doing all right.  He apologized to her for the way he'd acted toward her, and Ryan hoped that Mitch would really try to be better toward his friends.

    Mitch was finally allowed to get out of bed and join the family by the end of the week.  He was disappointed that he couldn't go outside and play in the snow with Ryan and Scott the first day it snowed.  Scott and Ryan had never actually seen snow before, so they were really having a ball, throwing snowballs at each other and just horsing around.

    His father had agreed to send money every month to help take care of him, and he'd even agreed to pay the tuition to send Mitch to Westlake with Ryan and Scott when second semester started.  Mitch would be going back to school with everyone else on January 3rd, but he wouldn't be able to participate in gym, and he'd have to have help with his work, because he'd broken his right arm, and he was right handed.

    On Christmas Eve, all of Ryan's friends came over to pass out the gifts that they'd bought for each other, and Mitch was surprised when Robin handed a gift to him.  He couldn't believe that she'd bought him anything after the way he'd talked to her each time he'd seen her before he came back.  She had bought him a sweater, and the very act had left him speechless.

    The next morning, it was Scott that woke the house up for a change.  He was up at five in the morning, ready to tear into the presents under the tree in the living room.  Sheila made him wait until after breakfast, and then they all went to the living room to open their gifts.  Mitch was surprised to find several gifts under the tree for himself.  His father had sent six, and the other five were from Frank, Sheila, Ryan and Scott.  Almost all of them were winter clothes, and he was thankful for that, because the temperature outside had dropped steadily since he'd gotten back.

    He sat alone in his room for most of the second week of his vacation.  He thought about all of the things he'd done to Ryan and Scott, and how well they'd been treating him since he'd come back.  Ryan spent as much time with Mitch as he could, and Scott even sat with him, watching a television movie about Christmas.

    Ryan spent a lot of time out with his friends, and Mitch had plenty of time to think about things.  He was going to try to at least be friendly to Ryan's friends and not say anything rude to Travis.  After kicking himself about acting like a jerk, he figured out that he really had nothing against gay people.  His attitude had been Val's, and that made him feel sick inside.  Looking back, he saw many things about himself that he'd learned from Val, and he'd always swore to himself that he would never be anything like him.