DISCLAIMER: The following story is a fictional account involving a group of teenage boys, many of whom are gay and involved in relationships with other gay teens. There are references to and descriptions of gay sex in this story, and anyone who is uncomfortable with this should obviously not be reading it. All characters are fictional and any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental. The author takes full responsibility for all events described and these are not in any way meant to reflect the activities or attitudes of real individuals or establishments. The opinions expressed by the characters in this story are not necessarily the opinions of the author nor of the hosting websites. The author retains full copyright of this story, and of stories based on these characters.

Please note that this is the twenty-fifth in a series of short stories known collectively as Naptown Tales. The series of stories can be found on my GayAuthors Page and on the Naptown Tales Page at Awesome Dude. Slightly modified versions of some of these stories that are suitable for younger teens can also be found on the Altimexis Page at Codey's World. Please see the Introduction for important background on the series.

Winter Holiday

A Naptown Tale by Altimexis

As I looked down on New York City from two thousand feet, I almost felt like I was living inside a dream. Never in my wildest imagination could I have ever conceived of the life I was living today. Growing up, I'd spent most of my life in and out of foster care, in group homes, or on the streets. My mother was a crack-head, and she supported her habit the only way she knew how - by selling her body. Little Sammy Franklin was left to fend for himself. It was the only life I knew.

Unfortunately, my life had to get worse - much worse - before it could get better. It was the summer before last that my fortunes changed dramatically. That was the summer I met Trevor and Kurt, a couple of gay teenagers who became my foster brothers, and Gary, the guy who abused and raped me. Thanks to Gary, I'm now HIV-positive and will prolly have to take meds for the rest of my life, but the silver lining in the story is that after what happened, Kurt talked Trevor's parents into fostering me.

It only took maybe moments after meeting Lindsey Austin, that I realized there was a big difference between the words `Mother' and `Mom'. Lindsey was a remarkable lady. My biological mother gave me life, but after a few months, it was Lindsey that gave me the love, care, and attention I needed to become a happy person. Yeah, Lindsey had become my Mom and Rob had become the Dad I never had. They wanted me as much as I needed them, although, like I said, it took a while before I realized it. Even with all that, there was still a wall I couldn't shake - a bond that separated us - I was still a foster kid and they were just my foster parents. They were very, very special to me and, in spite of all the care and attention, even though I called them `Mom', `Dad' and 'Bro', deep inside there was a hole . . . I still felt like I didn't belong.

However, I can't believe how much my life has changed! Now I have a close circle of friends. My foster brother Trevor is seventeen, and a senior. His boyfriend Kurt just turned sixteen, but he's a sophomore, just because of when his birthday falls. Trev's the president of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance. Being a real computer geek, he's developed one kick-ass web site for the GSA. Kurt's father was the head pastor at the Hope Evangelical Covenant Church, but he skipped town when Kurt came out; he just couldn't handle the publicity of having a gay son.

Trevor's gonna go to MIT next year to study computer science, and Kurt's going into some special program at Boston University that'll let him start two years early. He's gonna study Sociology and then Theology. Kurt has a photographic memory - he can quote the Bible like no one I've ever seen. The big news is that Trevor and Kurt are getting married this summer. Hell yeah, they're young, but if those two aren't made for each other, I don't know who are.

Trevor and Kurt are best friends with another gay couple, David and Jeremy, who are both sixteen and going to the same high school. David's the Junior Class President, even though he's gay and this is the Midwest. In the part of town were I grew up, anyone accused of being a `faggot' got beat up, but David has a warm, outgoing personality that draws people in. He's also real sharp. You shoulda seen him in Washington when we were there on our Spring Break last year, when we met President Obama. Man, did David give the President a piece of his mind. Thanks to that conversation, both he and Jeremy ended up doing summer internships at the White House, and Trevor and Kurt paged in the Senate, too. David wants to be a politician, and my best friend, Paul, thinks he'll be the president some day, but more on that later. David and Jeremy are graduating early and will be going to Harvard to study pre-Law next year. I've been telling them they should get married at the same time as Trevor and Kurt - after all, they've been a solid couple for two-and-a-half years!

The rest of my friends, like me, are all in the eighth grade, and most of us are thirteen, although Cliff will be turning fourteen before the year ends. Cliff's another HIV-pos kid who was abused by Gary. He was taken in by Jeremy's folks the same way Trevor's 'rents took me in. Cliff's had a much harder time with his health than I have, however; in fact, he almost got AIDS over the summer. He's stable, now, but he takes a shit-load more meds than I do.

Brad is David's brother and Cliff's best friend. He's kind of the leader of the pack of us younger guys and is every bit as outgoing as David is. He's really a pretty amazing guy. Last summer, some idiot on a talk show tried to accuse David, Jeremy, Trevor and Kurt of running a gay prostitution ring out of their dorm room in Washington. The tabloids got wind of it, and then the mainstream press, and before long, Congress actually held hearings about it. Brad organized a convoy of fifteen busloads of kids from home to show their support against the accusations - I couldn't believe he actually pulled it off. His testimony along with that of the other kids literally saved the day. On top of everything else, he's even organized GSAs in all the district's middle schools. That's a gutsy thing for a straight boy to do.

Last of all is my best friend, Paul. When I first moved in with the Austins, I was way behind the other kids in my grade level, and I talked in pretty coarse street language with what Trevor called a Kentucky accent. At first, they put me in remedial classes, and they paired me up with another kid in Special Ed, Paul Manning, a kid with Down's Syndrome who lives on my street. Paul and I quickly became inseparable. We did everything together - we studied together, we talked about girls, and became jerk-off buddies. The amazing thing is that as I worked hard to catch up, Paul's grades soared too. He went to summer school right along with me, and we're both in regular classes this year. We study together, and we're both doing good.

Although Paul may be slow in some ways, he has a gift that most people who don't know him could never understand. For one thing, he's very sweet, loving, and affectionate. Many people would think he's innocent, but that's not really it - he seems to know who he can trust, and who he can't - it's like a sixth sense with him. He also has these weird premonitions sometimes. For example, when we were in Washington, out of the blue he said David was gonna be buried in Arlington Cemetery someday, just like President Kennedy. He even pointed out exactly where he'd be buried - it kinda creeped all of us out. 'Course there's no way to know if he's right - hopefully not for a long time - but it's pretty amazing in any case. He also said I'm gonna be a teacher, and you know, I never thought about it before, but I think he might be right - I think I'd really like being a teacher. It'd be a way for me to give back to other kids what the Austins, Trevor, Kurt, and all my teachers have given to me. When I was with my mother, in and out of foster care, I used to hate school, but now that I'm with the Austins, I couldn't imagine my life without an education. School's second in importance only to the love of my foster family and my friends - something I'd never known during those years with my mother.

Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the surprise that was to come with the next chapter in my life. I'd been with the Austins for just over a year. It was the week before Thanksgiving and just as we were getting ready to go to bed, my foster dad, Rob, took me aside and said, "Sam," (I'd been going by `Sam' instead of `Sammy' since the summer), "you're not going to school tomorrow morning, because we have an important date in court. Lindsey, and I didn't want to bring it up before because we didn't want to get your hopes up until we were sure everything was set." Smiling at me, he continued, "Son, we're going to family court tomorrow. We don't want to take any chances on losing you . . . ever . . . we want to adopt you . . . if . . . if you want to be our son."

My vision became blurry as tears came to my eyes. I couldn't help it. I could see that Rob was crying too. Lindsey took over and said, "Sam, in the year that you've been a part of this family, you've come to mean a great deal to us. I think you know that we treat you and love you the same as Trevor. You've come to mean a great deal to us, and we do consider you to be our son, just the same as if you'd been born to our family. We've never fostered you for the money we get from the state to care for you . . . actually we've been donating those checks to an AIDS shelter from day one." My jaw dropped open when she said that - I'd had no idea!

"Sam," Rob continued, "would you please agree to be our adopted son, to consider me your Dad, and Lindsey your Mom, and Trevor your brother?"

I was stunned. The Austins were adopting me. Me, Sam Franklin. I was going to become an Austin myself. Actually, as DAD explained it to me, that was one of the things I needed to decide, whether to keep my original name, or to take the Austin family name. Well that was an easy choice. My birth mother was too cheap or strung out to have even come up with a middle name for me. The name on my birth certificate was `Sammy Franklin' and nothing more. This was the perfect chance to change that - to give me a name that was more dignified.

I chose `Samuel Franklin Austin'. I suppose in keeping `Franklin' as my middle name, I still paid homage to my biological mother, even though she was a real piece of shit. It was ironic - I would still carry her family name, even though she'd abandoned me when she found out I was HIV-positive.

All this time, she was the hold-up to the Austins' adopting me. She didn't want me, but she was so apathetic that she refused to sign the papers giving up her parental rights. The Austins actually had to get a court order terminating her parental rights, and that's why it had taken so long for them to adopt me. If I'd ever had any doubts, I sure didn't now. They really loved me like one of their own. They were my mom and dad, and Trevor was my bro.

The court proceedings the next day were nothing more than a formality. The judge went over the papers, and then he asked me if I wanted to be adopted by the Austins, and I told her I wanted it more than anything in the world, and that was it. I was now their son - the hole was filled.

Lindsey and Rob, or I should say Mom and Dad, said they'd have a big surprise to discuss that evening, and then they dropped me off at school. Another surprise? Nothing could be better than what had happened in the last twelve hours.

When I went back to school, Paul asked, "Where were you this morning?"

"We went to court downtown," I said. "Lindsey and Rob adopted me!"

"No shit!" Paul practically shouted. "That is sooo awesome." And then he threw his arms around me and practically hugged me to death. Paul really loved to hug people.

A little later in the day, I ran into Cliff and Brad between classes. I could tell that Cliff was really down when he heard I was now officially adopted.

"Your turn will come, too," I said.

"It's not that I'm any less loved," Cliff said, "The Kimballs treat me like one of their own, Jeremy loves me as much as any brother could and Carlotta is a wonderful nanny." Yeah, the Kimballs had more money than anyone I knew - probably more than anyone else in the school. "It's just that they're always so busy. I know they want to adopt me, but they're just too busy to file the fucking paperwork. How's that supposed to make me feel?"

"Same way Jeremy does," Brad answered. "It's nothing I haven't heard via David."

"Like they say, money can't buy happiness," I said, "but at least you got a good home with people who care."

"Yeah, I know," Cliff said, "and Jeremy is pushing his parents to adopt me . . . it just hasn't reached a high enough threshold on their `To Do' list. Hope I don't have to die of AIDS for it to become a priority," he sighed.

"Cliff, don't say that," I gasped.

"It's not far from the truth," Brad chimed in, just as the bell rang.

I was sure glad the Austins fostered me - Cliff might have a lot more money and a lot more toys, but I valued the love and friendship in the Austin household much more. Besides, I was on the same block as Paul, my best friend in the world.

After dinner that evening, Mom and Dad - how cool to call them that and mean it - had the big announcement they promised.

Mom began, "Boys, first of all, you can't imagine how happy your father and I are to have the two of you as our sons. You've both made us so happy, and proud."

Turning to Trevor, she continued, "Trevor, I want you to know that we accept you for who you are, Dad and I have done a lot of reading, and a lot of thinking, and Kurt has set us straight . . . well, maybe that's not the right word . . . but he's corrected us a lot on what's in the Bible. We no longer view homosexuality as a sin. God obviously meant for there to be gays in this world, and you and Kurt have shown us what wonderful men you're going to be. We love Kurt as if he were our own, and we're thrilled that the two of you will be getting married. I think you'll both make wonderful fathers."

Trevor looked stunned. It was the first time his parents said aloud what I knew they felt inside. The tears flowed freely from Trevor's eyes as he hugged his mother tightly and said, "I love you both so much."

After Trevor finally let go, she turned to me and said, "Sam, you can't imagine how proud you have made us of you! You have worked so hard in school. Not only have you caught up to your grade level, but you've helped Paul catch up when no one thought he was capable of anything beyond learning a simple trade. It seems you're a better teacher than your teachers are. What happened in Washington over Spring Break surprised us all, however. Your reaction to art was so . . . unexpected. You discovered a whole new world out there, and we want to do everything to nurture it. The trip we took to Chicago over the Fourth gave us a chance to see first-hand how much you value the aesthetics of art. Believe me, Rob and I got as much out of seeing your growth and enjoyment of it as you did.

"We need to take advantage of our holiday time, and that means doing a bit more traveling than we've done in the past, but there are some outstanding art museums right here in the Midwest and there aren't that many years left for you to see them before you move on to college.

"This year we thought we'd do something a little different for Thanksgiving. Trevor, as you know, will be in Iowa with his friends attending Will and Brian's wedding."

"So what we're going to be doing," Dad continued with the conversation, "is to take a little trip to see some of the best museums in the area. After having Thanksgiving dinner at a fantastic place we know of . . . it'll be a dinner I'm sure you'll never forget . . . we'll stop in Detroit, where there are two outstanding museums . . . The Henry Ford Museum, which is all about cars and the car culture, and the Detroit Institute of Art, which is a world-class museum. The Diego Rivera murals alone are worth the trip. The next stop will be the Toledo Art Museum. Toledo's a tiny city, but their museum is one of the best. After that, we'll spend a couple of days in Cleveland at their art museum and at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's a lot to cram into four days, but it'll give you a taste of the wealth of culture available right here in the Midwest. Paul, of course, will be going with us."

I ran to Dad and threw my arms around him and hugged him, and then did the same with Mom. I couldn't believe they were doing all this for me, and including Paul.

"We're not finished, however," Mom said. "We have a whole lot more celebrating to do. Most cities around here have one or two major museums. Even the larger cities in America are not known for more than one or two major art museums . . . with two major exceptions, and you've already been to one of them . . . Washington, D.C. The other city that's known for its museums, art galleries and theater, is New York City. In fact, New York makes Washington look like a backwater when it comes to culture. There's no place in America that can match New York . . . perhaps even in the world except for Paris or maybe London and a few other cities," she said.

"New York?" I asked. "We're going to New York? Did you really say New York?"

"Yes," Mom answered, "I certainly did. Ten days during the Winter Holiday of seeing some of the greatest museums in the world, doing some Christmas shopping in some of the most famous department stores, seeing the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, taking in a Broadway play or two, and much to your father's dismay, standing in what will probably be the freezing cold to watch the ball come down in Times Square on New Year's Eve."

"Wow! I can't believe you're doing that for me . . . for Trevor and me . . . Can our friends go, too?" I asked.

"That's the plan, Sam," Dad said. "Call it temporary insanity, but we wouldn't think of taking you without inviting your friends."

"Who do you mean by our friends?" Trevor asked.

"The usual crowd," Dad answered. "Kurt, Paul, David, Jeremy, Brad and Cliff. Eight teenage boys supervised by a pair of thoroughly exhausted adults. Hopefully, nothing will happen at work to interfere this time around like it did at Spring Break. Hiring a guide at Spring Break worked out fine in Washington, where everything's pretty much confined to a small area, but it would never work for New York. We need to be there on this trip, by hook or by crook, but nothing's going to get in the way this time. If a client decides to infect all their systems with a virus because they're too cheap and too stupid to buy legitimate software, then let them fix it themselves, or they can just damn well shut the whole thing down until we get back."

"That's the spirit, Dad," Trevor said with a grin. He then got a real serious look on his face and asked, "Would it be all right if we invited a couple of other kids to go along on the trip?"

"Trevor, who is it this time," Mom asked.

"There are a couple of freshmen from the GSA who would really get a lot out of it. Their names are Billy and Rick."

"I remember them," I said. "They went to that other middle school over on Westlane Road."

"Wait a minute," Dad said, "you're talking about Billy Mathews, the quarterback of the freshman football team, and Rick's his boyfriend, right?"

"Yes sir," Trevor said. "They've been together for, like, four years as an out gay couple. Can you imagine coming out at age eleven? And they're African American. There are so few black gay kids at school who are willing to acknowledge it to themselves, let alone anyone else that they're gay. New York has such a vibrant African American gay culture and I thought it would be good for them to be able to see that. It might give us something we could use when we get back to kick off a campaign to help other black kids accept themselves and come out, and to recruit others to the GSA."

"So you have an ulterior motive, then?" Mom asked.

"You could say that," Trevor smiled.

"I'd need to talk to their parents," Dad made it clear.

"Of course," Trevor answered.

"Ten teenagers in New York . . . what in the world have I gotten myself into?" Dad asked himself as he shook his head.

"Well if you'd rather, you did say something about Paris." I said with a sort of whimsical look on my face. I don't know what had gotten into me. Until last spring, I'd never even been outside our own city before.

Laughing, Mom said, "Not this year, Sam, but maybe someday. It's hard to resist you when you get that look on your face," she admitted. Wow! I didn't expect that. "Let's stick to one trip at a time," she continued.

"Would you promise to take me to Paris if I learn to speak French?" I asked."

Laughing, Dad said, "Sam, I'd be delighted to take you to any country if you get an A at the end of the first year of taking the appropriate foreign language."

Turning to Trevor, I asked, "How many foreign languages do they teach over at the high school?"

"French, Spanish, German, Russian . . . you name it, they prolly teach it," he answered.

"Wow," I said with a laugh, "It looks like I'm gonna be majoring in foreign languages." I meant it, too. First I'd been bitten by the Art bug, and now I'd gotten an itch to travel and see the world. Yes sir, Sammy Franklin Austin was going places.

Yeah, our Thanksgiving trip to Detroit was certainly interesting. We started the holiday weekend with dinner at a place called Zingerman's Roadhouse in a little town called Ann Arbor, just outside of Detroit. Ann Arbor is where the University of Michigan is, and being a college town, it has all kinds of sick places. Zingerman's is like this really world-famous deli, but it's not the kind of place you'd go for Thanksgiving dinner. The roadhouse is like, this really crazy restaurant with a sweet menu and lots of types of barbecue and different shit. Man, I'd have never thought of having turkey barbecue with sweet potato chips and cranberry ravioli for Thanksgiving, but boy, was it ever good.

The Henry Ford Museum was located in Dearborn, a large suburb of Detroit. That place was really crazy, man. They had all sorts of old cars, old machinery, and even an old Holiday Inn motel room from back in the 1950's or 60's. They even had this circular prefab house that could be built in a day - they were gonna build thousands of them, but they only built a few, and this was the only one left. I guess people didn't want to live in a house that looked like a giant aluminum umbrella.

Detroit was a real eye-opener. I never saw so much wealth and so much poverty in one place. Man, there were some fancy sports stadiums and fancy buildings downtown, and some huge mansions out in the suburbs, but except for a few nice areas, the entire city looks like a third world country. Detroit makes the area where I grew up look pretty good, and that's saying a lot. It's not just a black versus white thing, either. Many of the nicer suburbs are African American, too. No one, regardless of race, likes to live the way they do in Detroit.

The early twentieth century was Detroit's heyday, when the automobile was king, and the best cars in the world came out of the `Motor City'. Yeah, back then, all the way until the stock market crash of 1929, they really went all out to make everything beautiful. There's never been a time like it before or since. 'Course they spent money they didn't really have, which is what caused the Great Depression, but there's nothing wrong with wanting to make the world beautiful.

We saw some amazing buildings in Detroit, including the Detroit Institute of Art, which had recently reopened after a major expansion. Man, the Diego Rivera murals inside were amazing. I mean, I'd grown up seeing murals painted on the outside of buildings in run-down neighborhoods back home, but these murals were on the inside of the museum, and they were freakin' huge, and detailed.

The sad thing about Detroit is that most of Detroit has been wrecked. There's miles and miles of vacant land where Dad said beautiful Art Deco buildings used to be. They stood vacant for years, became drug dens, some of them burned down or were burned down for the insurance money and the rest were cleared away in the name of what Dad said they called `Urban Renewal'. In some places, they built modern townhouses and the like, and it was only recently that they tried to preserve what was left. I was just coming to appreciate Art Deco architecture, and thinking of what had been lost almost made me cry.

One of the few buildings left standing was the original train station - a tall Art Deco building across from what was left of the old Tiger Stadium. All the windows were broken out of it . . . you could see straight through from one side of the building to the other. "It's like a monument to a time gone by," I said when I saw it.

"It's a monument to corruption is what it is," Dad said. "Corrupt unions, corrupt auto makers, and corrupt government. The Democrats pretty much have a stranglehold on this city - at least they did until that Kilpatrick guy went down for perjuring himself. He was stupid enough to use a city-issued cell phone to send sexual text messages to his chief of staff, and then tried to deny it when he inevitably got caught." Dad laughed aloud before he went on, "He should have known there'd be records of his conversations. I feel sorry for the mess he left behind for the new mayor to clean up.

"Just remember, it took a Republican mayor to clean up New York," Dad added with a smile.

"And a Republican president to dig us into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression," I countered with a smirk.

"I think you've been hanging around Brad and his brother too much," Mom said with a chuckle.

"I think there's prolly enough blame to go around on both sides of the aisle," I said with a laugh, "but what do I know . . . I'm just a kid."

"A pretty darn smart one," Mom said with a wink.

Yeah, Mom and Dad were Republicans, and I knew Trevor and Kurt leaned that way, but my good friends Brad and Cliff, like their older brothers, were staunch Democrats with a capital `D'. I wasn't sure what my best friend, Paul, was, if anything, and I wasn't ready to label myself, either. All I knew was that I could never vote for someone who supported abortion - otherwise kids like Paul might not be here - a thought that made me shudder. Although my feelings on abortion should have made me a Republican, when it came to just about everything else, from gay and women's rights, to the economy, I was much more of a Democrat, but I wasn't sure the Democrats were tough enough when it came to defense. And truth be told, I wasn't sure I trusted any of the politicians in Washington, Democrats or Republicans.

Well, it sure looked like David and Jeremy were going into politics, and maybe even Brad, too. Now those are guys I could trust.

I really liked the stuff we did in Detroit, but I was sure glad to get out of there. Toledo wasn't perfect, but it was much nicer than Detroit, and they had a really wicked art museum that was as nice as the one in Detroit - amazing for such a small city. Not only that, but they had all kinds of sculptures along the waterfront. We ate at this really sick restaurant - a beer restaurant, I guess they call it a microbrewery - they had beer tanks out in the open and everything, and the food was delicious.

Cleveland turned out to be my favorite Midwestern city next to Chicago. It was right on the lake, and they'd just put in light rail, and there were a lot of cool buildings. The art museum was sweet, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was way cool - even Mom and Dad liked it - and the Museum of Natural History was as nice as the one at the Smithsonian - at least I thought so. I know Cleveland has a bad reputation but, man, I liked it there. I really liked the campus of Case Western Reserve University, too. Paul had another one of his premonitions and said I was going to go to school there. That was fine by me.

We ended up spending an extra day in Cleveland, because there was a blizzard back home. It took Trevor and his friends an extra week to get home from Iowa, 'cause of all the snow.

God, I was sooo excited. We'd been circling for what seemed like hours - actually just over an hour according to my watch, which was nothing for holiday air traffic flying into LaGuardia, from what I'd heard, but I just wanted to be on the ground and in Manhattan, where all the action was. I'd let Paul have the window seat, so I was constantly leaning over his shoulder, and the both of us were staring out the tiny window next to his seat.

Man, New York was fucking huge! I'd never seen anything like it. Well, Chicago had been huge, too, but we drove to Chicago, and Chicago was less than half the size of New York. Seeing all the buildings of the New York City skyline, and all the bridges and the Statue of Liberty from the air was amazing. I couldn't wait to see them all up close. Now the Sears Tower may have been the tallest building in North America, and it was cool to go up in it, but as a building, it was nothing special. The Twin Towers must have had a fantastic view, but there was nothing special about their architecture, either.

Gazing out the window at the gems arrayed before me, the Empire State Building looked so elegant, lit up in red and green for Christmas. Now that was a building, but even the Empire State Building paled in comparison to the shorter, but far more elegant Chrysler Building. To me, the Chrysler had to be the most beautiful skyscraper ever built. Not that I didn't like modern architecture, too, but since our Thanksgiving trip to Detroit, I'd really fallen in love with Art Deco.

Man, New York City is a real WOW! I'd done some reading up on it before we left on our vacation, so I knew there are, like, five boroughs, as they call them, and I even knew that each of the boroughs is built on an island that forms a part of the Hudson River delta. Brooklyn and Queens, which is where the airport is, actually form the western end of Long Island, which is fucking huge. The Bronx is the only part of the city that's connected to the mainland. Everything else is reached by going over a bridge or through a tunnel.

When we visited Washington, we traveled around by Hummer Limo, which was really sick, but with ten of us teenagers and two parents, there was no way we could all fit in a Hummer, no matter how stretched it might be. I thought maybe we'd all go by subway and bus - in fact, I was kinda itching to check out the subways after all I'd heard about them, but Dad put the kibosh on that idea. After our little mishap in D.C. with Paul wandering off, there was no way we were going to travel by subway. Besides which, as Dad pointed out, with twelve of us and a one week metro fare of $27, it wasn't that much more expensive to hire a bus and driver for the week. Well, who was he kidding - maybe if he was talking about a Greyhound bus.

Anyway, we were met at the airport by our guide, Carlos, and our driver, Angel, pronounced on-HELL. Our conveyance was a twenty-seat Mercedes bus with all the bells and whistles, including a flat-screen TV built into the back of each seat, a small bathroom in the back and a small kitchen, complete with a microwave and a refrigerator, stocked with assorted drinks and snacks. Sweet!

Actually, Dad said we wouldn't be spending a whole lot of time on the bus at all, but at least we'd be traveling in style.

Once the luggage was loaded in the back, we headed over the RFK Bridge, which Dad said used to be called the Triboro, and drove down this highway in Manhattan called the FDR that ran right along the East River and even tunneled under some of the buildings along the way. Man, there were cars darting in and out, every which way. It was the most harrowing drive of my life! I thought the Test Track at Disney World was scary - this wasn't as fast, but you never knew when a cab was suddenly going to cut across all three lanes of traffic.

Finally, we exited the highway at 49th street and drove up to Park Avenue, where we pulled in front of this humongous high-rise Art Deco building that took up the entire block.

"We're staying at the Waldorf?" David exclaimed more than asked. Jeremy just grinned in response. "We're staying at the Waldorf?" David asked again. Jeremy just kept on grinning and David finally said, "I can't believe we're staying at the Waldorf Astoria."

"Surprise, boys," Dad said. "It's the Kimballs' present to all of you. The height of luxury . . . one of New York's most historic hotels, beautifully restored and fully updated . . . and we have a penthouse suite," he said with a wink.

As we exited the bus, I couldn't get over how ornate the building was. The doors were beautiful, with intricate designs. Passing into the lobby, it was like we entered another world . . . a world of millionaires and gazillionaires. Everything was marble and gold . . . and velvet and satin. I'd never seen anything so beautiful . . . so opulent - maybe a little gaudy, but it was magnificent.

"I think I'm gonna like staying here," I said. "This place is sweet. It's the most elegant place I've ever seen."

"It's the most elegant place I've ever seen, too, Sam," Jeremy said, "and that's saying a lot."

Paul went up to Dad and hugged him. I think it was his way of showing him how much he appreciated being here.

"At least it's part of the Hilton chain, so even with the long lines, with our Hilton Honors number, it shouldn't take us too long to check in," Dad said.

They had two bellhops gather all of our luggage from the bus and take it upstairs. Man, even the elevator doors were ornate and beautiful, but on the inside, the elevators were modern. Dad handed us each a keycard to our suite, and showed us how to use it in the elevator to access the penthouse floor. Geez, you couldn't even get near our floor without a keycard.

When we got off the elevator, it was like no place I'd ever seen. Not that I'd been in many hotels for comparison, but the penthouse elevator lobby was huge, with lots of stately furniture, and several copies of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal set out for folks to read. There were fine vases with real live plants and flowers in them. It was all very, very elegant. Everywhere you looked, it was decadent.

The bell captain who was showing us to our room seemed to know where he was going as he led us down one corridor after another. Soon we came to a large double set of doors that he opened with Dad's keycard to reveal a ginormous hallway - I guess they call it a foyer, that led to a living room with a couple of sofas, some chairs and the biggest TV I'd ever seen.

"Check this out," David called to his boyfriend from the window across the way. Jeremy slipped his arm around David's waist as they stood at one of the many living room windows, looking out at the view of the city below. Of course the rest of us had to run to the other windows and look at the view as well. David was right - it was breathtaking. We looked right out on Park Avenue and a couple of huge churches, and right across the way, a couple of blocks over, was Rockefeller Center. You could even see Central Park, which seemed to stretch for miles. Man, the view was something else.

I heard the bell captain chuckle and ask, "First time in New York?"

"For some of them, it is," Dad answered.

"If you'll give me a chance to show you around the suite, there'll be plenty of time afterwards to see the city the way it must be seen . . . at street level," the bell captain insisted. "It's a beautiful view all right, but to appreciate the real beauty, you have to go out there and see it."

"Oh believe me, that's exactly what we're here to do," Mom agreed.

Picking up a remote control off the coffee table, the bell captain showed Dad how to work the TV. It was a little complicated, 'cause you could order movies and video games and the like in addition to watching regular TV. Jeremy pointed out that they charged fifteen bucks to rent a movie that cost four dollars to rent on his Apple TV back home, but I didn't plan on staying inside and watching movies while we were in New York - that was for sure. Hell, this was the city that never sleeps and I sure wanted to see what that was all about.

Next, the bell captain showed us the kitchen and dining area, which was just off the living room and foyer. The table was way too small for all of us to eat at, at least not at once, but the kitchen was very modern and had a fully functional stove, an oven and a microwave. The fridge was stocked with all kinds of soft drinks, beer, snack foods and the like. The bell captain also told us we could order room service or pizza, twenty-four hours a day, right on the TV or using our computers. That was pretty cool, but Dad pointed out there were plenty of places to eat nearby that were also open twenty-four hours. Wow - I guess that's what they mean!

Finally, the bell captain showed us the bedrooms and bathrooms. Mom and Dad had a huge master bedroom suite with a king-size bed, a sitting room, a walk-in shower, a Jacuzzi and a closet that was bigger than my bathroom back home. Each pair of boys had a bedroom with a queen-size bed, a small private bath with a shower, a small closet, and a 42-inch flat-screen TV. The view from each and every one of the bedrooms was spectacular, so there was no fighting among us as to who got which room - we just kinda settled ourselves in.

A six-bedroom luxury penthouse suite at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City - I could only imagine what it musta cost. Something told me the Kimballs could have bought each of us a car with what they were spending on this place for the week-and-a-half we'd be staying here.

Just then, the luggage arrived and we all showed the bellhops where to put everything. Jeremy got a look of utter horror on his face when Dad got out his wallet and started to take out a twenty-dollar bill. Rushing up to Dad, he said, "Let me take care of this," as he quickly got out three fifty-dollar bills and gave one to each of the bellhops and one to the bell captain. Dad's eyes practically bugged out when he saw that.

After the bellhops and bell captain had left, Jeremy said, "I'm sorry if I embarrassed you like that, but it would have been worse if you tried to tip with anything less. When I saw you getting out a twenty, I knew you weren't up on what to tip. Keeping in mind this is New York; you really need to tip on the high side. The going rate is around five dollars per bag these days, and for the bell captain, about five dollars per person, but I figured fifty was close enough."

Dad started to open his wallet to pay Jeremy back, but Jeremy waved his hand and said, "Forget it, Rob, you're gonna need every penny you have in the coming days, and then some. For me, this is pocket change." Getting a sheepish look on his face, Jeremy continued, "I'm sorry, Rob, I know I probably sound like a spoiled brat sometimes. . . . I'd give anything for my own folks to be here, but you don't know how much it means to me to have you and Lindsey here. It's great that my parents are paying for all of this, but I'd be content to stay in a dive up in Harlem so long as we're together. Next to the Reynolds, you're my second parents."

Dad threw his arms around Jeremy in a tight hug. Paul came up next to me and said, "Rob's sure glowin' bright." Paul had long ago told me how he could see an aura of goodness around some people, me included, but it still kinda freaked me out a little bit. Today, even I could believe it, the way the love was flowing in this room.

"Cliff, don't you have to take your meds?" Mom asked.

With a tone of resignation in his voice and perhaps a bit of belligerence, Cliff answered, "Yeah."

"C'mon," Brad said, "I'll go with you."

For some reason, even though Cliff and I were the ones with HIV, it was Brad that was Cliff's best friend. Ever since it looked like David and Brad might move away last spring, the two of them had become inseparable. Maybe it was because their brothers were boyfriends - I dunno, but they stuck together like glue. Truth was, Cliff was a whole lot sicker than I was. He'd had sex with an HIV-pos girl without using protection, thinking it was safe, and ended up with a very resistant strain of the virus. My HIV, which was the original strain Cliff had, was pretty stable. I was down to taking a simple combination of pills I only had to take twice a day. Cliff had to take a ton of pills six times a day, and even then, his cell counts kept going up and down.

We all hated to think about it, but Cliff's HIV could turn into AIDS at any time. That's why we treated every moment with him as precious. I'd been through a lot in my life, so getting HIV was just another bump in the road. Cliff had had a good life growing up 'til he reached ten, when his 'rents were killed in a car crash. Then his whole world kept crashing as one bad thing happened after another. He didn't deserve all the shit in his life, and that's why we all wanted to see him adopted. Why couldn't the Kimballs get their act together?

Well, Cliff would be turning fourteen during this trip, and one thing we could do was to make sure he had one bitchin' good birthday.

After Cliff had finished taking his meds, we all gathered in the living room to discuss the itinerary for the week. With the 'rents sitting in two of the plush chairs, the four Reynolds-Kimball boys sharing one sofa and the four Austin-DeWitt-Manning boys sharing the other, and with poor Billy and Rick as the `odd men out', sitting cross-legged on the floor, Dad started laying out some ground rules.

"First of all, guys, there will be no going out on your own while we're in New York." That drew a solid round of groans from around the room.

"But Dad," Trevor countered, "Kurt and I have already been on our own in New York. It's the safest big city in America. You practically can't get lost here . . . it's on a grid system and it's sooo easy to find your way around, and people are so helpful . . . if you even look lost, ten people will stop and offer to show you the way."

"I hear what you're saying, Trevor," Dad said, "but it's a big city and there are too many bad things that could happen here. Besides, we have a packed itinerary and there just won't be time to go off on your own. There's so much to see and do here, and we're going to try to get to as much of it as we can. We have tickets to two Broadway musicals . . . this year's Tony Award winner, Billy Elliot, for which we have a surprise in store for you all, and the revival of perhaps the greatest musical of all time, West Side Story. We also have tickets to an off-Broadway show that I think you'll enjoy called Convenience.

"We'll be going to some major historic sites such as Ellis Island, Stonewall and of course Ground Zero, we'll do a little Christmas shopping, watch the ice skaters at Rockefeller Plaza, and the older boys will get to go clubbing in The Village." That got a round of hoots from the sixteen and seventeen-year-olds. "And of course there's Tim and Larry's wedding in Boston for some of you.

"Most importantly," Dad continued, "we'll be spending a lot of time at some really `radical' museums. The Metropolitan Museum is bigger than any museum any of you has seen before. The MoMA is legendary among contemporary art museums and then there's the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and others that are uniquely New York. And let us not forget that we'll be spending New Year's Eve in Times Square, which is less than a half-hour walk from here." We all cheered when he said that.

"New York is so beautiful this time of year," Mom added, "with all the Christmas decorations . . . it's magical. And if we're lucky enough for it to snow while we're here, which is a rarity in December . . . there's nothing more beautiful than Central Park after freshly fallen snow."

"So what's on the agenda for the rest of the day?" Trevor asked his parents.

"Food!" Paul exclaimed, causing everyone to laugh. Come to think of it, I was starving, so that prolly meant everyone was hungry. There were ten of us hungry teenagers to feed, after all. We'd left home at seven in the morning and grabbed some breakfast as soon as we'd passed through security, which was about 8:30, but with all the circling over LaGuardia, and the time it took to get into Manhattan and the time it took the Bell Captain to show us our suite and all, it was already past two in the afternoon. Man, no wonder my stomach was growling!

"Actually, we'd planned on eating around now," Mom said.

Almost as if on cue, there was a knock at the door and when Dad answered it, a guy was outside with a cart on which there were six large pizzas as well as four bottles of Coke and two of Sprite, and there was also a large bowl of salad. Wow!

"All right!" Paul practically shouted, making us all laugh.

Man, the pizza was some of the best thin-crust pizza I'd ever had. We all practically devoured it whole as Mom and Dad laid out a map of the city on which they marked all the sights we wanted to see and discussed with us how much time we might want to spend in each place and what order might be best for seeing things. I, of course, wanted to spend all my time at the museums, but Dad convinced me that I'd enjoy spending some time just seeing the sights, too. Obviously, this would be the first of many trips to the Big Apple for me. There was no way I could possibly hope to see it all in ten days.

After we'd all finished eating and going over the things we wanted to see, it was just after three in the afternoon, which still left plenty of time to do some sightseeing, even if we were all a little tired from flying and all.

"All right, guys," Dad said, "we have to hustle! We have a group reservation for the Empire State Building, and while the observation decks are open until two AM, it would be nice to get there before the sun sets, which is in just about ninety minutes. That's just enough time to get to where we're going, wait in line and get to the 86th floor, wait in another line and get to the 102nd floor and if we're lucky, we might still have a half-hour left to see the sunset."

Let me tell you, we didn't waste any time getting ready to go. We all headed for the toilets, then grabbed our sneakers and our cameras and headed straight for the door. While we were en-route, Dad got a call on his cell phone. That by itself wasn't unusual, but he sure seemed excited by the call.

As soon as he hung up the phone, he said, "Fellows, I've got some great news. The deal is that I contacted the Today Show to let them know we're going to be in town. It was kind of an afterthought, and I didn't even think to do it until Monday. I explained that it would be a chance for them to do a follow-up interview of Kurt and Trevor, as well as David and Jeremy, not to mention Brad. When I explained the circumstances of our travel, however, they decided they'd like to interview all of us. I know it'll kind of suck," he chuckled, "that you'll have to get up so early, especially when we're staying up for midnight mass, but this is something I don't think you'll want to miss."

There wasn't a closed mouth on the whole bus. We were all in shock. Man, how sick was this gonna be. We were all gonna be on TV!

Before we even had a chance to close our mouths, we were in front of the Empire State Building and Dad and Mom were ushering us inside. It was crazy - even though we had a group reservation with tickets, we still had to wait in line, and Dad had to buy the tickets to the 102nd floor separately on-site, which for some reason couldn't be reserved in advance. Finally, we got to the 86th floor and immediately got in line to go to the top. It was a long, slow-moving line and by the time we finally got to the 102nd floor, the sun was a giant red ball that was just barely above the horizon.

The view was spectacular. From so high up, Manhattan kinda looks like a boat - a very narrow boat - surrounded by water, with bridges serving as the gangplanks and skyscrapers serving as the masts. It was awesome. The trouble was, everyone was pushing and shoving to try and see everything, and before we knew it, we were shoved back into the elevator for the trip down to the 86th floor. The view from down there wasn't nearly as good, but at least we were allowed to spend as much time as we wanted down there. Too bad the sun had already set by then, but the view was still breathtaking as the city lights started to twinkle.

"The view from the Top of the Rock's just as good," Kurt said, "and they let you stay up there as long as you want."

"We'll see that tomorrow after the interview," Dad mentioned, and I sure was looking forward to it.

After we'd all had our fill of the Empire State Building, we got back on the bus and took a brief evening tour of the city, just to get a sense of where everything was.

For dinner, I thought we might go to some place fancy, but we were all beat and still pretty full from lunch, so imagine my surprise when we pulled up in front of a place called the Comfort Diner, located just a few blocks away from our hotel. It was a real authentic diner, too. Man, the last thing I expected to see was a real diner, right in the heart of Midtown, Manhattan, and Dad said there were lots of diners, delis and just plain good cheap eats in New York.

"You can spend a fortune eating out in New York for sure," he said, "but you don't have to. There are so many restaurants in New York and there's so much competition that New York's actually one of the cheapest places to eat out in America. This is real diner territory, too. We're going to take full advantage of all the wonderful, different kinds of food the city has to offer while we're here," he added.

Much to David and Jeremy's dismay, I ordered a burger and fries, as did Paul. I could never be a vegetarian the way those two could, but to each their own. Boy, was that burger good, too.

On the way back to the hotel, I overheard David say to Jeremy, as they held hands, "I'm proud of you, dude. I haven't seen you touch an ounce of meat since the summer."

Even in the dim light, I could see Jeremy blushing deep red as he replied, "Well, not counting your meat," he laughed, "there was that hot dog at homecoming."

"That doesn't count," David countered. "A hotdog at homecoming is tradition, but other than that, you haven't touched any meat or poultry since we ate at that Indian place in D.C."

"Nope," Jeremy agreed, "nothing but veggies and seafood, just like you. If I'm going to marry a vegetarian, I guess I'd better get used to it," he said as he gave his boyfriend a quick kiss.

"Speaking of which," my brother, Trevor, who was walking just ahead of them, turned around to say, "Kurt and I were thinking about what Will said when we were in Iowa. Why don't you guys have a double wedding this summer with us? I mean, you're our best friends, and you've been together even longer than Kurt and me, and the four of us are going to be living together in Cambridge next fall, so why not tie the knot when we do?"

David and Jeremy actually stopped dead in their tracks, causing a mini pile-up behind them as the rest of us had to stop. Finally, everyone started walking again as David started to answer. "I don't know. Jeremy and I always assumed we'd marry right after we graduated high school, but we also assumed that would be right after we both turned eighteen. Now that we've decided to graduate a year early, we'll only be seventeen and we never really even discussed the possibility of marrying before we're legal."

"Man, that's kinda scary," Jeremy said. "Not that I have any doubts whatsoever about marrying David . . . it's just that seventeen sounds awfully young to be getting married."

"I'll be only sixteen when Trevor and I get married," Kurt weighted in. "Sure, I'd never thought of getting married so young had it not been a legal necessity to avoid any questions in going off to live with him while still a minor . . . it was either get married, or seek emancipation, but Trevor and I know we're gonna be together for the rest of our lives. You guys have been together for 2 1/2 years, and you're six months older than me. If you're not ready to get married now, why would another year make a difference?"

"Is it even legal for us to marry at seventeen?" David asked. "Neither one of us'll be an adult."

"Massachusetts has no minimum age for marriage as long as a parent or legal guardian signs for each minor on the marriage certificate," Mom chimed in. When did she start listening in, I wondered. "And I have absolutely no doubt that any of your parents would object to your getting married this summer, boys," she continued.

"Wow, you've given us a lot to think about," David kind of said in a trance-like state as we entered the hotel lobby.

"That's an understatement," Jeremy seemed to agree as we reached the bank of elevators to take us to our suite.

To me, the answer was obvious. David and Jeremy had been a couple since long before the day I met them. I almost never saw them apart and I didn't know any two people who complemented each other so well . . . not even Trevor and Kurt . . . and they were as much in love as anyone could be. Dave and Jer were a perfect couple, and they were best buds with Trevor and Kurt, so why not get married at the same time? Oh well, it was their decision to make. I was just a thirteen going on fourteen-year-old kid. They were three years older, and it was their life, after all.

By the time we got to our rooms, we were all beyond exhausted. Paul and I sometimes liked to fool around when we had a room to ourselves, even though we were both straight, but we were way too tired to even think about it tonight. After we brushed our teeth and undressed, we were out like a light.

No sooner had our heads hit our pillows than it seemed Trevor was waking us up.

"Time to get up, bro," he said. "You too, Paul. We gotta get going if we're gonna be on the Today Show."

Man, I was having second thoughts about being on TV, although it was getting to be old hat for David and Jeremy, and even Trevor and Kurt had been on the Tube before, this would be the first time I'd been on live TV - and it was nationwide, no less. I could hardly pass this up.

"C'mon, Paul," I said. "Let's get a move on."

Trevor laughed at our exuberance, and was polite enough to ignore our morning wood as we made our way to the bathroom. He did make sure we knew to dress nicely, but not in dress clothes. Sweaters and khakis were to be the order of the day. They still wanted us to look like ordinary teenagers - not Jehovah's Witnesses - he explained. That comment sure got a laugh outta Paul.

After a nice breakfast in the hotel, we walked over to Rockefeller Center. Man, there was a whole procedure we had to go through just to get into the studio section of NBC, and then the makeup folks got started on all of us. I mean, I knew I had a few zits, but I didn't think they were noticeable or anything, but the makeup artists noticed right away and then some. They also applied powder to every exposed area of my skin. Geez. They didn't like the way I had my hair gelled, either, and practically ended up redoing my hair completely. When I looked in the mirror, however, I had to admit, I looked good. Real good.

It was a long time before they put us on the air, but when they did, they spent nearly a whole hour with us, which was really cool. I mean, this was Christmas Eve, after all and there were a lot of other things they prolly should have been spending the show on, but they spent it all on us. They spent a good deal of time interviewing Cliff and me about what it was like being abused at camp and about Kurt rescuing us. I couldn't say enough about the courage it took for Kurt to take my place as Gary's hostage, but Kurt said the same thing about my pointing the finger at Gary. They also talked with us about what it was like to live with HIV, and Cliff actually broke down and talked honestly about his mistake in having unprotected sex with Linda. I couldn't believe he opened up like that. I thought it was a very brave thing to do, but if it saved a few lives, it was well worth it.

The program then shifted to the summer scandal and the impact it had on our brothers' lives, and from there, the discussion turned to growing up gay, and Mom and Dad talked about what it was like to raise a gay teenager. They talked about how they were raised to believe homosexuality was a sin, but they realized if they didn't accept their son as he was, they would lose him, either through his leaving them, or through suicide. They also talked about how Kurt completely changed their opinion of God and the Bible with respect to being gay, and how much they loved their son's boyfriend.

Billy talked about how he and Rick had been boyfriends since they were eleven, challenging every stereotype about gays around. I mean, sure, Rick is effeminate, but he's black, and Billy couldn't be more of a jock - no one would ever suspect him of being gay. The way they held hands, right on national TV, it was so evident just how much they loved each other.

When Meredith Vieira asked them if they thought they'd get married someday, Billy answered, "Are you kidding? We've been a couple for four years now. I'd marry my little guy right now if gay marriage were legal back home, and if fourteen-year-olds could marry. Believe me, as soon as there's a way, we're getting hitched. Rick and I want the same rights that every straight couple takes for granted. We don't want a civil union, either . . . we want the real thing. Rick and I, of all people, know that separate but equal is inherently unequal. We want full spousal rights. We want to be able to adopt children and to raise them as our own, just as any other married couple can. We don't want to be treated as second class citizens . . . not because of our skin color, and not because of our sexual orientation."

Naturally, that led to a whole discussion of gay marriage, and of course Trevor and Kurt talked about their upcoming wedding, and how little a gay wedding differed from a straight one. Naturally, that brought up last night's discussion of David and Jeremy possibly joining in with them in a double ceremony. When Meredith Vieira asked if they'd come to a decision yet, David answered, "Yeah, we have . . . We've decided to do it!" That was a complete surprise to all of us - the way they announced their engagement on national TV - but after a moment of stunned silence, we all managed to whoop it up and shout out our congratulations.

David then talked about his debating President Obama - first about the issues of gay marriage and then gays in the military, which led to him and Jeremy being offered their internships at the White House. We all agreed that Obama wasn't doing nearly enough in support of gay rights, but then he did have a lot of other things on his plate.

Just as our time was ending, from out of the blue, Paul said, "It will change. Some day it won't make any difference if you're gay or straight." It was just like Paul to say something like that. Who knew where he came up with things like that, but he did seem to have a sense for them. I could only hope he was right.

When the program was over, we were all given a tour of the NBC studios, which was a repeat for Trevor and Kurt, who were given a VIP tour during their interview in the summer, but they both seemed to be happy to be seeing it all again with us. When we got to the Top of the Rock, the view really was awesome - every bit as nice as the one from the top of the Empire State Building - maybe even a little better, 'cause the view of Central Park was unobstructed.

"It sure looks different in the winter from the way it does in the summer," Kurt said as we stood on the top level, freezing our asses off and looking to the north, toward the park. "It's gray instead of green, but it's still beautiful nonetheless. It's a different kind of beauty . . . more of a stark beauty."

After we got back down and outside, we went on a tour of some of the other studios, both new and old, such as Radio City Music Hall, and we wandered around a little to look at some of the Christmas decorations. Mom made it clear we were going to wait to do our shopping 'til the next week, when everything was on sale and when things were a little less crowded. Besides, we'd already done our shopping and exchanged our gifts before we left on our trip. As far as I was concerned, I'd already gotten the best present of all - an adopted family that I loved with all my heart.

After having lunch at the Carnegie Deli, which everyone said was world-famous, and eating some of the best cheesecake I ever tasted, we spent the whole afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art, or the MoMA as everyone called it. Man, what a fucking incredible museum that was. It was filled with modern art. All kinds of modern art. Really, really sick art. That place was sweet. I could have spent the whole day there.

We spent the evening just wandering around the streets, enjoying the Christmas decorations and having a good time. Man, Times Square was a blast! I'm glad we were getting to see it before New Year's Eve, when it would be filled with tourists. Dad said we'd be sick of the place by the time we left, since we'd be seeing a couple of shows in the area. We had dinner in a place called the Brooklyn Diner, which was strange, 'cause it wasn't even in Brooklyn, but the food was outstanding.

I don't know how Dad arranged it, but we attended Midnight Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, which was, like, the main cathedral for the Catholic Archdiocese of the United States. It was reserved seating and all, and we had to have tickets to even get in. Imagine that - tickets to attend church on Christmas? And we weren't even Catholic! Maybe it had something to do with Kurt's Congressional Gold Medal, or maybe President Obama put in a good word, but Hell, half of our group was gay, and I knew the Catholic Church wasn't exactly enamored of gays, but there we were, all decked out in our Sunday finest. Man, I hated wearing a tie and stiff shoes but, boy, the place was incredible! The stained glass was beautiful and the gold trim was so ornate. It was wonderful to look at, but I couldn't help but think of how the money that was spent to build the place could have been used to feed the poor.

The service was long, but beautiful. There was a lot of Latin, which I didn't understand, and we couldn't take Communion, since we weren't Catholic. Trevor and Kurt, and my adoptive parents are very religious and seemed to get a lot out of the service. I've been thinking a lot lately about what I think about God and religion. I've literally spent hours talking to Trevor and Kurt about it.

What I've decided is that although I believe in God, I don't believe in organized religion - not that I don't enjoy going to Church - but I think religion is humanity's attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible. Yeah, those are my words, too. Kurt says I live by Christian ideals, and that's what's really important. I'll always believe in helping others and a fair opportunity for all God's children, gay, or straight, black or white, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or non-believer, and born or yet to be born.

Christmas is important to me for three reasons. First of all, it's a time to be together with family. Now I have parents who love me like they love their natural son, and whom I love more than anything, too. I have a wonderful brother and his boyfriend, who is like a brother to me. I have a best friend who is like another brother, and who will always be a part of my life, no matter how far apart we may live, and I am surrounded by wonderful friends. I'd never had that before I met the Austins.

Secondly, Christmas reminds us that we need to help others less fortunate than ourselves, and by that, I don't mean giving presents. Hell, I'd never gotten any presents myself until I came to live with the Austins. Yeah, I sure used to be one of those less fortunate kids, so I really knew what it was like to be in need, but it was rare that anyone ever helped me until Kurt talked the Austins into taking me in. Now I'm their son. That's the true meaning of Christian charity, and it isn't just something you do at Christmas, either. I've decided I'm going to do something with my life to help other kids, just the way the Austins have helped me. Paul said I'm going to be a teacher, and I have to admit that I can't think of a better way to give back what has been given to me.

Finally, Christmas is special because it means time off from school! Not that I don't like school - actually, I love it now that I'm in a good school and I'm really learning. But we all need a break now and then and after the events of today, spending time in New York is a dream come true.

After celebrating midnight mass at what was prolly the most famous cathedral in America, we walked back to our hotel . . . one of the most famous hotels in New York, and man, I was out like a light as soon as my head hit the pillow. Mom and Dad let us all sleep in for Christmas and since we'd all exchanged our gifts before we left on our trip, there was no real hurry to get up anyway.

You can imagine how surprised we all were when we got up to find there were stockings hung up in the living room area of our suite with our names on them. Inside, we all found a candy cane, a chocolate Santa, fifty-dollar gift certificates to Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy's, where we'd be shopping next week, and a twenty-dollar iTunes gift card, too. What teenager wouldn't like that?

The biggest surprise of all was how much we were able to do on Christmas Day in New York. Back home, most everything would be closed on Christmas, but in New York, there were a lot of shops and restaurants that were open. New York has so many different ethnic groups and with Jews, Muslims, and Asians making up a substantial part of the population, it almost felt like we were on another planet.

We took our little bus to Chinatown and had something called Dim Sum to start our day. I'd never had Dim Sum before, but it was amazing. It was a feast! The servers kept coming to our table with carts filled with different kinds of food. Everything was more like appetizers, but we could take as much as we wanted of it. They had dumplings of all kinds - steamed, fried or boiled and filled with seafood, meat or vegetables. They had spring rolls, eggrolls, moo goo gai pan, all kinds of soups . . . they even had some sushi. They had some weird things, too, like pigs' feet and things I'd rather not know what they were. All you had to do is point to what you wanted and they gave it to you and added the cost to your bill. I certainly wasn't hungry when we left that place. That was for sure.

Walking around Chinatown afterwards was a real trip. It felt more like being in a foreign country than being in America. All the signs were in Chinese as far as the eye could see, with English translations under the Chinese signs if even that, and there was far more Chinese being spoken than English. David explained that there are hundreds of Chinese dialects spoken in China, but Mandarin is the official language and that was mostly what we were hearing. He went on to say that in the South of China, such as in Hong Kong, most people speak Cantonese, although the government was trying to change that, and in Shanghai, people speak Shanghais, which is actually closer to Japanese than Chinese. People in Tibet of course speak Tibetan, but the Chinese government was doing everything it could to crush Tibetan culture.

It was amazing to see all the shops in Chinatown, open on Christmas Day, doing business as usual. It was a whole other culture and even though the shops sold a lot of junk that was largely oriented toward tourists, the experience made me want to go to China. I wanted to see the real thing. I wanted to travel. Suddenly, the Midwest, and even America seemed too small for Samuel Franklin Austin.

From Chinatown, we walked to the Lower East Side, which was more diverse, being a mix of Jewish, Hispanic and African American cultures, among others. The dominant group was decidedly Orthodox Jewish, however, and there were a lot of Kosher restaurants and shops, all of which were open, or at least would be open until the sun started to set, since it was Friday and the Jewish Sabbath would begin at sunset.

I'd never known Jewish people before moving to the north side of town and living with the Austins, but now I had several Jewish friends, all of them belonging to the Reform or Reconstructionist denominations. I never really gave much thought to them being Jewish - they looked and acted pretty much like all my other friends and other than some of them not eating pork or their taking off on certain holidays, their being Jewish never really came up. There were a few Orthodox Jews back home who went to my middle school, but most of them went to the Hebrew Academy, same as most Catholics went to the Catholic schools.

Never in my life, however, had I ever seen a Chassidic Jew. I guess most of them lived in sections of Brooklyn from what Dad said, but there were sure quite a few of them in the Lower East Side and the first time I saw some of them, I couldn't help but stare. It was a lot like the first time I saw some Amish folks back in our home state. At least the Amish were friendly, but these Chassidic people sure seemed to keep to themselves. They were all dressed in black, and even the kids wore these hats with wide brims and they had hair with side curls that hung down their face. The men had long beards. It looked like something right out of that old movie, Fiddler on the Roof.

New York is a microcosm. That's the word I was looking for. There are all kinds of people living together in New York. All different races, ethnic groups, gays and straights, all living together, mostly in harmony on a small group of islands. If it can be done in New York, why not the whole world?

From the Lower East Side, we walked past City Hall and down Wall Street, which was pretty much deserted, to Ground Zero, which was far from deserted. It seemed like a lot of people had the same idea we did. The whole area was fenced off for construction of the new `Freedom Tower', which was so far behind schedule, it wasn't even funny, but that didn't stop people from coming to see the spot where so may people died on September 11. Even after all these years, all that remained was a big empty space.

Dad explained that construction was being held up by the families of the victims - no one could agree on the memorial design, even though one had been selected and approved. There was still so much controversy, and there was controversy over building a new World Trade Center. I'll tell you, nothing was more moving than just seeing that big empty space. It really drove home what happened there - to think that two of the tallest buildings in the world used to stand on that sight, and they came crashing down, killing all those people - a big empty space was the most fitting memorial I could imagine. Maybe they should just make the site into a big park like Central Park. I'd been to the Sears Tower, and it was nothing special. Big skyscrapers seemed so `third world' these days, anyway. We had nothing to prove anymore. The whole world knew that New York was a great city, even without having the world's tallest building. But maybe that was just the way I thought. In any case, it sure put things in perspective.

After seeing Ground Zero, we walked down to Battery Park and toured the area. We'd be coming back on another day to take the ferry to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, but it was a quiet, sunny day and, surprisingly, not all that cold. There were several memorials in the park, including a 9/11 memorial, a WWII memorial and a Korean War memorial. The coolest thing was this big, round, stone fort that was actually a national monument. It was called the Castle Clinton National Monument, and it was built a couple of hundred years ago to protect the city against attack.

The coolest monument in Battery Park to me was nothing more than a couple of rocks - a small round rock on top of a flat rock. It was simple, but it was what it stood for that really got to me when I read the plaque next to it. It was from the country of Norway, in memory of all the Norwegian merchant marines that were stationed in New York during World War II. I never thought about their existence before, let alone about what they had to do, but thinking about it made me shiver. Can you imagine having your country invaded and your family living in occupied territory under constant threat from an enemy force? You're out on the high seas and you're all that's left of a link to freedom for your countrymen - other than the resistance, that is. I couldn't begin to imagine what that was like. Norway was such a tiny country, too, but they took on the Germans with such bravery. That was another place I was going to have to visit some day.

When we all started to get hungry, our little bus came to pick us up and we went to a place called Katz's Deli on Houston Street. Now I thought 'Houston' was pronounced the same way they pronounce the city in Texas, but boy, was I wrong about that! In New York, they pronounce the street House-ton. Go figure that out. Anyway, when we walked into the deli, Mom and Dad got a funny look on their faces and David and Jeremy just burst out laughing, followed by Trevor and Kurt. When I asked what was so funny, Trevor explained that a famous `orgasm' scene in a movie called When Harry Met Sally was filmed there. Now that was something I was going to have to see!

In any case, I'd never had Jewish food before, and neither had Kurt, it turned out, 'til he had some in Washington last summer, so when Trevor, Kurt, David and Jeremy returned from Washington, I got my first taste of it at a place up in Carmel called Shapiro's. Let me tell you, I was immediately hooked. I'd never even had lox before, but matzo balls, potato pancakes, gefilte fish - all that stuff tastes great.

Today I realized that what I'd had back home was nothing more than a cheap imitation. At Katz's, we feasted on matzo ball soup, cheese blintzes, potato latkes, knishes, bagels and lox, beef brisket (for the meat eaters among us), kugel, and of course, New York cheese cake. I could barely walk when we were finished. That was some meal!

We all went back to the hotel afterwards to rest up and we managed to rent When Harry Met Sally on Pay Per View. It was a movie that came out in the 1980s with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, and it was actually pretty cute for a `chick flick'. The fake orgasm scene at Katz's Deli really was funny as hell, too. After we went to our own bedrooms, Paul and I had our own orgasm scene - just a little fooling around, and nothing fake about it.

The week between Christmas and New Years' Eve was packed with stuff. There wasn't a moment we weren't doing something. One thing I was really glad for is that I got to spend two full days at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yeah, one day would have never been enough for me. Hell, two wasn't even enough, but at least it was a decent start. I was sure glad Mom took me there for a second day while the gay boys were attending Larry and Tim's wedding up in Boston. Dad took Paul, Brad, and Cliff to the Bronx Zoo. I hear the zoo was really nice, but I just couldn't pass up a chance for another day at the Metropolitan.

Man, the Metropolitan Museum was awesome! It was like all the art museums I'd ever visited combined. We did something really cool - I guess it's the latest thing in the top museums now, but we'd never had the time before - we rented these audio sticks. You just go up to a famous painting, and you key in the number that's next to the painting, and a man or a woman tells you all about the artist and the significance of that painting. It was sooo cool. I really learned a lot going to the Metropolitan on that second day, just with Mom. Don't get me wrong - I love both Mom and Dad equally, but I really came to appreciate Mom that day for how smart she is - we really bonded.

When we stopped for lunch, Mom asked me, "Sam, I've been noticing how much you've matured this year. It's not just that you and Paul are in regular eighth grade classes, but you really seem to have grown up a lot since the summer. You seem so much more self-confident, and you hardly ever use your street language anymore. In fact, if anything, you use bigger words than Trevor does, and he's got a nearly perfect GPA, and a nearly perfect score on his SAT.

I couldn't help but grin as I answered her. "Funny you should mention it, but Ms. Perkins, my guidance counselor, wants to meet with us when we get back. She thinks maybe I should switch to all accelerated classes next semester, especially in English and Reading. You know how I've been reading at least one . . . maybe two books a week since the summer?" Mom nodded at me. "I can't help myself . . . I have this hunger for knowledge and can't get enough."

"That's a wonderful thing, Sam," Mom said, "and it's obvious you're very, very smart, but reading alone wouldn't account for your progress in school."

Looking down at the table, I admitted, "You're right, Mom. Ms. Perkins says I have a twelfth grade vocabulary. That's why she says I should be in accelerated classes. She says I should be in classes that challenge my intellect."

"That's nothing to be ashamed of, honey," Mom beamed. "You should be proud of yourself. I think it's wonderful! Didn't you want to get into the Advanced Placement classes next year?"

"Yeah, I did," I agreed, "but I don't want to be separated from my friends, especially Paul."

"I know, sweetheart," Mom said as she placed her hand on top of mine, "but you should be in with other kids who'll challenge you to do better. And besides, there's still no reason why you can't study with Paul after school, and help to tutor him."

"Yeah, I know that," I acknowledged, "and I will. I'll always help Paul, no matter where I am, even when I'm in college. Paul's my best friend, and I love him like a brother, but there's more," I said as I took a deep breath. "Ms. Perkins thinks I might be able to go into tenth grade next year, but I don't want to do it, Mom. I don't think it's a good idea. I'm still only thirteen years old . . . well fourteen soon. If I skip a grade like that, I'll be in with fifteen and sixteen-year-old kids. Then maybe next year, they'll want me to skip another grade again. I'm still a kid. I may be street smart, but I know what it is to grow up too fast. I did it once before and I don't want to do it again. I want to stay with my grade level, with kids my own age.

"I'll take the AP courses and I'll continue to read a lot, and maybe I'll take early graduation like David and Jeremy are doing. Maybe I'll even do what Kurt's doing and try for a special program that lets me start college at sixteen if I'm ready for it by then, but I'm not ready to move up now. I need to be a kid a while longer, Mom. I finally have a real family, and I need to enjoy being a part of it, and a part of my friends' lives as a normal teenager."

Noticing a tear running down Mom's cheek, I suddenly got scared and asked, "Mom, what's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong, Honey. It's what's right. Sam, with all that's happened to you, I still can't believe the incredibly fine young man you've turned out to be. I thank God every day for bringing you into our lives." Now I was the one crying.

Besides the Metropolitan, we also went to the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, the International Center of Photography, the Frick Museum, the American Museum of the Moving Image, which was located in Queens, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which was a real eye-opener, the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Historical Society, the Studio Museum, which was up in Harlem, and the Cloisters, which was way up north, with stunning views of the Hudson. We even managed to work in a second trip to the MoMA. I know not everyone in our group appreciated seeing so many museums in such a short time, but I was in heaven. There were a lot of other, smaller museums I would've loved to have gone to if there'd been more time.

As much as I loved art, the absolute highlight of the trip was going to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island was nothing like I expected it to be. It really put things in perspective - how all our ancestors came over all those centuries ago; at least those of us that didn't have ancestors indigenous to the Americas or from Africa or Asia. I couldn't imagine what it was like to leave everything behind to come to a new world - on the other hand, I really could. I'd made a fresh start on life with the Austins.

Walking up all those steps inside the Statue of Liberty sure took the wind out of all of us. Mom and Dad waited down below, but all of us kids made the trek. The stairway was a double helix, just like DNA. That was sooo sick.

We must have eaten every kind of food imaginable while in New York. I thought I knew all the different kinds of ethnic food types there were, but boy, was I naïve! Truth be told, I only knew of Italian, French, Chinese, Thai, Japanese, Greek/Mediterranean, Indian and Jewish. I didn't know that Vietnamese and Cambodian could be so different from Thai, or that Lebanese, Persian or Turkish could be distinct from general Mediterranean, or that Northern Italian could be so different from Sicilian, or that there could be so many different kinds of Chinese food.

The biggest surprise was going to the Nigerian and Ethiopian restaurants we went to. We sat at low tables on the floor and ate with our fingers! Well, it wasn't really with our fingers - we used this very dense, kinda soggy, kinda spongy bread that came rolled up and we used it to scoop up the food from communal plates arrayed in the center of the table. There were a few meat dishes, but most everything was vegetarian, and absolutely delicious. It was like nothing else I'd ever tasted - slightly spicy - but magical. I was in heaven.

"I think I read a review of an Ethiopian restaurant back home," Mom happened to say. "It's called Abyssinia, and it's on 38th street," she said. "It got a very good review as I recall."

"We've gotta go there," I immediately chimed in. "I love this stuff."

"Would you like to go there for your fourteenth birthday?" Mom asked.

"Could we?" I asked in return.

"We'll take you anywhere you want," Dad answered.

"Then definitely, let's go there," I decided on the spot.

Speaking of birthdays, we celebrated Cliff's birthday in style on December 28, so I have to backtrack a bit to talk about it, but I can't talk about Cliff's birthday without talking about the Broadway shows we saw while in New York. There's just no way to describe the wonder of seeing a Broadway musical on Broadway itself. I mean, Mom and Dad had made it a point to take us to some musicals since Trevor and I got back from our trip to Washington over Spring Break, particularly after we raved about seeing The Civil War at Ford's Theater. Don't get me wrong - I loved seeing each and every one of those musicals, but I guess there's only so much they can do when they take a show on the road. On Broadway, however, they were free to build much more lavish, elaborate sets. The performances kept me on the edge of my seat - not wanting to miss any detail. It was a feast for the eyes, a delight to the ears, and a major drain on the wallet. I noticed that with booking fees and tax, each ticket cost about $180! I was sure glad it wasn't coming out of my allowance.

It was interesting that the music for all three musicals we saw - two on Broadway and one off-Broadway, were written by gay men. Kurt was sure right about one thing - some of the most creative people in history were gay - and we sure saw an example of that during our time in New York.

I had to agree with Mom and Dad that the music from West Side Story was just about the best of anything I'd ever heard before, and the plot was something I could really relate to, having lived on the street and witnessed gang violence first hand. It wasn't 'til afterwards that David explained that the plot actually came from Shakespeare's play, Romeo and Juliet. Man, now I was going to have to read Shakespeare.

The off-Broadway musical Convenience was a light-hearted comedy about a young gay man coming out to his mother, who was also trying to find a way to gently let him know she was getting remarried after twenty years. It was a lot of fun, and the music was really great.

When Dad said we were doing something special in conjunction with seeing Billy Elliot, he wasn't kidding. For one thing, it was Cliff's fourteenth birthday, so we went out first to dinner at a Japanese restaurant, which was Cliff's favorite kind of food, and had some of the best sushi I'd ever tasted. We didn't have birthday cake at the restaurant, however, as we were told this would come later.

After dinner, we were whisked away by our bus to the Imperial Theater, where we were taken right to our seats without having to even stand in line with everyone else. Our seats were right in the center of the front row of the `orchestra' level. How Mom and Dad managed to pull that one off, I didn't know. The show was simply outstanding. It was a long show - nearly three hours, including the intermission, and Elton John's music was sensational. I could see why the show was nominated for fifteen Tony Awards, tying the all-time record. There were three kids - all accomplished ballet protégées - who alternated playing the leading role. Ours was magnificent. He certainly deserved his Tony award for best actor.

The show had a dark theme - it was, after all, the story of a boy growing up in a depressed coal-mining region of England during the infamous 1980's mining strike, and of his desire to do the impossible - to become a ballet dancer of all things. I guess it was a wonderful movie, and I'd really wished I could have personally thanked Elton John for turning it into such a wonderful musical - one that deserved the ten Tony Awards it received, including best musical of 2009. Little did I know that I would get my wish.

It seemed that my parents had written Elton John with our story - Cliff's story and my story, as well as that of my brother and our friends. They particularly emphasized the difficult time Cliff was having with his HIV and that his survival was uncertain, and asked if there was any way the famous rock star could manage to be in New York for Cliff's birthday and the holiday season. The long and short of it is, we didn't pay for those tickets, much as my parents tried to insist, and instead they ended up giving the money they'd planned to spend on the tickets to a private AIDS foundation instead. We got to meet the cast in a private party after the show, including all three of the leading actors.

I wondered if any of the boys might be gay as I saw them talking to David, Jeremy, Trevor and Kurt, but then I realized how silly of me it was to even think that. They were just ordinary teenage boys who happened to have enormous talent, and I shouldn't let myself be swayed by the same old stereotypes. How many fifteen-year-old boys could boast a Tony award anyway? After a while, a huge birthday cake was brought out that someone said was baked by one of the finest bakeries in New York, and we all sang Happy Birthday to Cliff, led by none other than Elton John himself. It was truly a night none of us will ever forget.

For sure, we were having a great time in New York for our winter vacation, but it was rapidly coming to a close. We got to see some fantastic museums, to see three incredible musicals, and to shop the after-Christmas sales at the flagship stores of some of the finest department stores on the planet. Sadly, as long as ten days sounded when we started out, it was all too quickly coming to an end. All that was left of our trip was spending New Year's Eve in Times Square - something Dad kept trying to talk us out of - and a trip to The Village for the gay boys so Billy and Rick in particular could see what it was like to live openly as gay men - African American gay men. Trevor wanted to get ideas on how to improve the membership of black kids in the GSA back home, and David and Jeremy just wanted a chance to go out clubbing before they went home.

Me, I was just excited as all get out about being in the center of things to watch the ball drop. 2009 was about to be history. Intellectually, I knew that 2010 wasn't really the start of a new decade - that wouldn't happen until 2011, but there was something magical about watching a new year start that ends in a zero, and I was going to be in the city, in the place that all Americans watched when they celebrated the start of the New Year. How incredibly sick was that?

Dad said we all needed to get a very early start if we wanted to be anywhere near Times Square. Otherwise, we'd have a better view of the ball dropping from our hotel room television. Since our hotel was only a half-mile away, it wouldn't take long to walk there at all, but still, we weren't taking any chances. After a morning and part of the afternoon spent shopping, we set out from the hotel just after four o'clock, figuring that still left us eight hours until the ball dropped. Still, it was already getting toward dusk, which should have been a big clue that it was later than we thought.

The first clue that our journey wasn't going to be straightforward came when we approached the first police barricade, literally, a block from our hotel, and had to make a long detour away from our planned route. In fact, the closer we got to our destination, the further we had to detour away from Times Square, and the thicker the crowds got. This was not a good sign. Finally, more than an hour-and-a-half later, when we were almost within sight of our destination, we reached yet another barricade with no obvious way to get there from where we were.

Dad asked a police officer how in the world we were supposed to get through to Times Square. The officer replied that the only way through was by subway. The city, it seemed, was trying to encourage the use of mass transit and to discourage people from driving in, parking, and walking in on foot.

"So we could take the subway, but we can't walk from our hotel room, just a few blocks away?" Dad asked.

"That's right," the officer answered, "but you're welcome to use the subway station right over there," he suggested, pointing to a stairway with green globe lights protruding from the sidewalk, just a few feet away. "There's another exit on the other side of this barricade," he noted, pointing to a similar stairway across the way. He then put up his hands defensively and said, "Hey, I didn't make the rules."

Laughing, Dad said with a laugh, "Well, I understand the Metropolitan Transit Authority's pretty nearly broke. I guess we can do our part to help them out tonight."

We all then descended into what was a whole other world . . . a part of New York that I'd secretly been wanting to see all along, but thought we'd never have the chance to see. I would've liked to have actually ridden on a subway car, but at least I was getting a chance to see a little bit of the subway system, and one of the biggest stations at that - and I wasn't disappointed.

Man, was the Times Square/42nd street station ever a maze! There were brightly tiled tunnels going every which way, and there was a band down there playing music, and people were throwing money at them. Hell, I gave them a dollar - they were pretty damn good! The New York subway wasn't glitzy like the one in Washington, but it wasn't as sterile either. This one oozed life. You could feel the difference. Anyway, it took Dad no time at all to purchase twelve farecards for all of us, since no one was standing in line or anything. People were arriving, not leaving, after all. It was a shame to have to spend twenty-seven bucks, just to pass through the station to get where we were going like that, but it was a drop in the bucket in the scheme of things. It's funny, but twenty-seven dollars used to be a lot of money to me, but now it wasn't all that much. I was going to have to remind myself that to some people, it still was a lot of money, and to never forget to think about those less fortunate than myself. I must never forget where I came from.

It sure felt good to get back out in the open, but man, did it get cold once the sun set. Unfortunately, we weren't able to get as close to Times Square as we would have liked, but it was close enough to see the ball, and that was doing pretty well from what some people around us said. Some people near us said that by the time things got going, there would be people stretching out for miles behind us. I guess we were lucky to get there when we did, although by the time we got situated, we still had nearly six hours to go until midnight.

One thing that surprised me was that a lot of the shops and restaurants were closed. We were kind of counting of them being open for dinner. Fortunately, there were a lot of street vendors selling food at inflated prices, so we sure didn't starve. There were also a lot of vendors trying to rip us off selling souvenirs, but we weren't about to fall for any of that crap. Unfortunately, the pickpockets were also out in full force. We'd been warned about this and deliberately had left everything we felt we could, back in the hotel room, but we still needed to keep some cash with us, and we didn't feel it was safe to be without our cell phones in case we got separated from each other, particularly after our experience with Paul at Spring Break. We kept all these things inside our jackets, and that seemed to keep our valuables from prying hands. In spite of our precautions, Dad had the small pocket camera he brought with him snatched right from his hands between shots. At least his good camera was back in the room. The one that was taken was inexpensive, and he decided not to even bother reporting it.

As it got close to midnight, we could just feel the excitement of the crowd building. We were all psyched and ready to kiss 2009 goodbye. Before long, we were all counting down, "ten, nine, eight," right on down to, "HAPPY NEW YEAR!" Everyone was shouting and screaming and kissing, and there were fireworks going off overhead.

I kind of got a little jealous of all the couples who were kissing. Trevor and Kurt; David and Jeremy; Billy and Rick; and of course Mom and Dad were all kissing. Brad and Cliff had girlfriends back home, but the closest thing Paul and I had to girlfriends were the girls we met at Disney World over the summer, and they lived in Chicago. We'd kept in touch with them and promised to visit over Spring Break, but that was still a long way away. But what the hell - Paul was my best friend and he meant the world to me. I wasn't about to kiss him or anything, but he was right there next to me, and wrapping him in a bear-tight hug while we jumped up and down, screaming our lungs out seemed like the most natural think to do. I noticed that Brad and Cliff were doing exactly the same thing.

There was so much energy in Times Square that night and we danced until three in the morning. There were only boys in our group, other than Mom, so I danced with Trevor, then with Kurt, and with Paul. I guess I danced with just about all the guys before we finally decided it was time to head back to the hotel. At least by the time we all left, the barricades had been removed, so we didn't have to go through the subway. It took a while because of the crowd, but it was an easy half-mile walk. Man, that was one night I'd never forget on a trip I'd never forget.

We slept 'til noon, and then ate a large lunch at the hotel - more of a dinner actually, before heading out to Greenwich Village. Mom and Dad offered to split up and plan an alternate itinerary for us straight boys, but we were all a little curious, and so we all went. `The Village', as New Yorkers called it, was nothing like I expected it to be. It looked like something more out of nineteenth century England to my way of thinking. It really did look like a little village with its quaint row houses and shops and its narrow streets, right in the middle of Manhattan.

It wasn't all gay, either, the way I was expecting it to be. There were lots of straight people there. The main thing was that everyone was young. Somehow we ended up drifting into the Apple Store in SoHo, which stands for `South of Houston Street', and playing around with the latest MacBooks, iPods and iPhones, which was not at all why we were there, but it was just so easy to window shop in The Village and in SoHo and we were all having a great time.

When the sun started to set, we found an underage club with a sports theme and mostly young, African American boys, so naturally Billy and Rick wanted to check it out. Mom and Dad found a bar nearby and said we could call them when we wanted to leave. The club had a minimum age of sixteen, but seeing as we were from out of town and it was the winter holiday and all, the owner decided to make an exception for us.

"I'll even make an exception for most of you being white," he said with a smile, which made us all laugh.

"Will you make an exception for some of us being straight?" I asked.

He looked back at me kind of funny and replied, "Now your friends over there," pointing to Cliff, Brad and Paul, "I knew right away that they're straight, but you I had pegged as being bi from the moment you walked in. Tell me I'm wrong."

All I could do was shrug, thinking about what had happened with Gary. Although the same thing had happened between Gary and Cliff, too,

I still sometimes wondered about my sexuality. I knew I wasn't gay the way my brother was, but I had a nagging feeling I wasn't completely straight either and although I wasn't bothered by the thought of being gay or anything, having the club owner confront me like that and say he thought I was at least bi shook me up a bit.

But then if that's what I was, perhaps I should just accept it and not worry about it.

Anyway, Billy and Rick really seemed to be in their element. It was kind of wild to see that there were other young black couples just like Billy and Rick - I don't mean just that they were black, but that one of the pair was buff like Billy and the other effeminate like Rick. I'd never seen Billy and Rick so happy before in all the time I'd known them. They were really fitting in for the first time in their lives, you know?

So Trevor managed to wedge himself into the conversation and asked why it was that so few African American teenagers were willing to come out. That started a general discussion on why so few teens felt comfortable coming out in the first place, and on what it was about being black and gay that made it particularly scary to be out in America, particularly in Middle America. Everyone it seemed had something to say. What made things different in The Village was critical mass. Here in New York, gay African Americans felt free to be themselves. There weren't very many other places in America where they could enjoy the freedom to be themselves.

Trevor pointed out there had to be around a hundred black brothers and sisters in our high school and another 25 in each of our three middle schools back home. That certainly qualified as a critical mass, if only they could get the courage to come out in the first place. The key was to realize they were all there for each other. In the end, everyone felt that the best approach might be a citywide African American pride festival, highlighting some major talent. If they could get some major league athletes like one of the Manning brothers to sponsor it, that would go a long way to dispelling myths about gays and blacks being mutually exclusive groups.

As it got later and the music got louder and the beat faster, the couples started pairing off and dancing. Yeah, I got hit on a few times. I'd known since about the age of twelve that girls, and some guys found me attractive. Gary sure did, but for the first time since going through that horrible experience, being hit on by other boys didn't freak me out. After what the owner of the club said about me being bi, I decided to go with the flow, and while I'd have much rather been dancing with girls, I found myself enjoying the evening.

Maybe I am a little bit bi, but I'm pretty sure I'm much more straight than gay. Whatever I am, for the first time in my life, I feel comfortable with myself. I still live under the shadow of Gary to be sure, and I'll still probably need counseling to deal with that for some time to come, and of course there's still the fact that I'm HIV-positive, but now, all of that seems insignificant.

Now, I have loving parents that mean the world to me. I have a wonderful brother, and my brother's boyfriend, who will soon be my brother-in-law; they're both two of the smartest guys I know, but then they say I'm one of the smartest kids they know, which is really amazing, considering where I was just a short time ago. I have a terrific best friend who means the world to me. So what if he has Down's Syndrome? He may be a little slow, but he's incredibly smart in other ways.

Lying in bed with Paul on our last night in New York City, Paul said something a little bit scary. He said my `passion' for helping kids was going to make me do a whole lot more than just be a teacher. He said I'd teach for many years, but I'd go on to do more, and I wouldn't be satisfied until I'd done all I could, and the world would be a much better place because of it. I couldn't imagine what he meant by that and I decided it wasn't worth worrying about when I wasn't even out of middle school, yet.

This was a time to be savored. We'd just spent ten of the best days of my life in New York City. Our Winter Holiday was coming to a close, but I wasn't sad, 'cause I knew in my heart that this was only the first of many trips I'd be making to this incredible city. Hell, for all I knew, I might end up living here, or going to graduate school here or something. I knew I'd be back, and that was more than enough to give me the strength to return to our ordinary lives in the `middle of nowhere', as we often called our hometown.

Home was home - family was family - it was my solid base. These people would prepare me for the future and my home would be the place where I'd grow up, but I was quickly coming to realize that I was destined to see the world and be a bigger part of it.

New York City was certainly one of the most magnificent cities in the world. London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Moscow, Tokyo, Beijing, Sidney, Rio - someday I would see them all . . .

The author gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of David of Hope in editing and Alastair in proofreading my stories, as well as Gay Authors, Awesome Dude and Codey's World for hosting them.

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