Chapter 7
A Personal Hell
by Julien Gregg
2003-2004 Julien Gregg

This story is about homosexual teenagers.  If you are offended by this kind of story, then you shouldn't read mine.  If it is not legal for you to read erotic fiction where you live, then you should not read this story.  If you have questions or comments, email me.  You can also visit my webpage.  There isn't much there yet, but soon there will be exclusive content.  This story is copyrighted, so please do not duplicate it in whole or in part without permission.

"What's going on?" I asked as we walked up to Vince and Mike.  I noticed that Vince couldn't look me in the eye, and Mike just stood there with a sad, pity filled look on his face.  My stomach started to rumble, and I thought that I might throw up.  "Answer me, please."

"Tommy," said Vince, but he faltered.  He put his head down, and his shoulders slumped.

"Mike?" I asked, trying hard to keep calm and failing.

"Its your mother, Tommy," Mike replied.  "You need to come with us. Both of you."

I felt my knees buckle, and Steve's arms went around me.  I looked at Mike, pleading silently for him to tell me that my mother was all right.  What could have happened to her? I didn't even want to think about the answer to that question.  She was fine the night before, and I hadn't even seen her before leaving for school.

Mitch came out of the office with a paper for Mike, and when he looked at me, I saw tears in his eyes.  That caused more panic than Vince and Mike's pity filled looks.  Something had happened to my mother, and they still hadn't told me what it was.  I wasn't so sure that I wanted to know what it was, because I had this stupid thought that if they didn't tell me what had happened, then it wasn't true.

I don't know how I followed them to the car.  If it hadn't been for Steve's arm around me, I know I never would have made it.  Mike drove out of the parking lot with Vince in the front seat and Steve and I in the back.  I stared out the window, refusing to let myself feel anything.  I told myself that my mother was fine, and this was some kind of mistake.  I kept playing back the last conversation I'd had with my mother the day before.  She was fine then.  I wanted so badly to just go back to yesterday and live in that day forever.  It was silly, I know.  They hadn't told me what had happened, but judging from the looks on their faces and Mitch's tears, I knew it had to be really bad.  I just couldn't make my brain accept it.

"Where are we going?" I asked when I saw that they missed the turn that would head us toward the house.  I heard Vince let go of a choked sigh, and I felt my stomach rumble again.  I think I knew where we were going, but I wanted so bad to be wrong.

"Tommy," said Mike from the driver's seat, but he stopped.

"We're going to the hospital, aren't we?" I asked as I felt Steve take my hand.  I turned to look at him, and I didn't like the fear and compassion in his eyes.  For some reason, I felt that if he looked like that, then this wasn't just another dream like the one I'd had the night before that I couldn't remember.

"Yes," said Mike.  "Now, I need you to be strong, Tommy. Can you do that for me?"

"What's going on?" I demanded a little louder than I'd intended.  "What aren't you guys telling me? I'm not stupid, you know? I saw the looks on your faces, and Mitch looked like he was ready to cry. What happened?"

"Oh, God," moaned Vince, and I wanted to punch him for it.

We pulled into the parking lot of Mercy General Hospital, and the panic I had been feeling, building inside of me got worse.  My stomach rumbled again, and I knew that I would throw up soon.  My entire body felt strange.  Anger was gripping me, too.  I was angry with all of them for not telling me what was happening.  I had a pretty good idea that my mother was inside the hospital, and I also understood that this meant that something bad had happened, but why weren't they telling me?

"Tommy, I need you to be strong now," said Mike, turning in his seat to look at me after he'd turned off the ignition.  "Your mother is in surgery right now, and we're going to be waiting for her when she wakes up. Now, don't look at me like that. Its going to be ok."

"What is going to be ok, Mike?" I demanded.  "You haven't even told me why she's in surgery to begin with. You'd better start talking, damn it. I'm not a moron. Vince is ready to fall apart, Mitch looked like he was ready to cry at any minute, and you can't even look directly into my eyes. What happened to my mother?"

"There was a shooting at the courthouse," he said still not looking in my eyes.  "Your mother was shot in the back of the head, and they took her to surgery as soon as we got here to remove the bullet. The doctor says that it doesn't look good, Tommy."

"Oh my God," I moaned, leaning into Steve.  "Is she going to die?"

"I don't know," he replied, and I could hear the honesty in his voice.

We got out of the car, but Steve had to help me.  All of the strength had left my body, and I knew that if he hadn't been with me, I never would have been able to get out of the back seat.  He held my hand as the four of us walked through the parking lot, and I refused to look at any of them.  This couldn't be happening.  My mother was a lawyer, not a cop.  A shooting at the court house just didn't make sense to me.  How could anyone get inside a guarded court house with a gun?

In the elevator, Vince and Mike wouldn't even look at me.  We rode up to the third floor in silence, and I hated them all for it.  I needed to hear that my mother was going to be fine.  The rational side of my brain told me that they couldn't say that to me, because they didn't know if she would be all right or not.  That didn't stop me from being angry with them for not saying it, though.  I despised the silence almost as much as I hated the sad and worried looks on their faces.

The elevator opened on an empty hall that looked so much like every other hospital hall in the country.  The smell of disinfectant and rubbing alcohol was in the air.  The white tiled floor shined, and I could see the reflection of the fluorescent lights as I stared down at it.  Pictures of the head nurse and a few doctors were on the wall directly across from the elevator, and I wondered if any of those pictured were taking care of my mother.

I let Mike, Vince and Steve propel me forward until we came to a waiting room.  That was when it finally sunk in that my mother had really been shot and was now in surgery.  Inside that waiting room, Sharon, Shirley, Tom and a few others I didn't know were sitting in chairs, drinking coffee and looking miserable.  They all looked at me with a sick mixture of pity and compassion, and it made me want to scream at them.  Luckily, no one said anything to me.  They just went back to staring at the floor or into their coffee cups.

I sat with Steve across the room from everyone.  Vince sat on my other side, but he didn't say anything to me.  I just held Steve's hand and prayed to God to make this a horrible nightmare and wake me up.  God wasn't in a very giving mood that day, because the nightmare went on uninterrupted.  We were really sitting in a hospital waiting room, waiting for news about my mother's surgery.  She was having surgery to remove a bullet from her head.  Someone had shot my mother.

Suddenly, her actions of the past week came back to me again.  She'd been almost in a panic for a few days, and even Mike was nervous about something.  Was this it? Was this what they were so worried about? My mind raced, and my heart sank.  My mother had been worried about something like this happening to her, and she hadn't even told me about it.  I don't know what good it would have done to tell me, but I felt that she should have at least warned me.  At least if she had, I wouldn't have been so shocked.  That was a stupid thought.  I'd have been just as shocked, and I would have felt just as numb even if she had told me what was going on.

Time seemed to stand still, but I knew that it was still moving.  I knew, because my butt began to feel the effects of sitting on a plastic chair.  My hand was sweating in Steve's grip, and my stomach continued to rumble.  No one got up to refill their coffee cups, and I noticed that most of them were still full.  The coffee must have been cold, but none of them even attempted to warm their cup.  I went back to staring at the floor and silently begging God to make this a dream.

Cheerful music played over the speakers in the ceiling, and I resented it.  I couldn't think of any reason why anyone in the world should be cheerful at a time like this.  My mother was fighting for her life in an operating room filled with strangers, and they were playing cheerful, mind numbing Muzak over their speakers.

It dawned on me that by that time, I was the only one in the room with dry eyes.  Everyone was silently crying, and each of them stole glances at me off and on.  I knew that they were all expecting me to break, but I wasn't going to.  My mother would want me to be strong, so I would at least pretend to be.  Inside I was in turmoil, and my stomach continued to threaten to empty its contents at any time.  There wasn't much in it to expel, though.  We'd had cereal and toast for breakfast, and I hadn't eaten a thing at school.  I hadn't made it to lunch before I was pulled out.  It was after that thought that I noticed the dull ache of hunger in my stomach along with the rumbling nausea.

I looked up at the clock and saw that it was after one, so I knew that my stomach was reacting to the fact that I had missed lunch.  Then it occurred to me that we'd been sitting in that waiting room for a long time.  Why hadn't anyone come to give us any news? Was the old saying, "no news is good news" true? I didn't really believe that.  My mind kept coming up with all sorts of negative reasons for why no one had come to the small waiting room filled with people that were waiting to hear anything about my mother.

I went from staring at the floor to staring at the clock.  I watched the second hand move around the face of the clock, ticking away the seconds as my mother's surgery went on.  How much longer would it be before they came to tell us anything? Was I really prepared for what they would tell me? I didn't even know if I was even ready to deal with the actual shooting.  I still kept trying to convince myself that I was dreaming.  It was a pointless fantasy.  I knew that, but I couldn't let go of it.

Mike suggested that Steve and I get something to eat, but neither of us wanted to leave that waiting room.  When he told us that he would go and get us something, we agreed to eat, but I didn't know if I could actually do it.  Sure, I was hungry, but my stomach was still threatening to expel what was already in it.  I didn't know if I could eat anything with my stomach feeling like that.  I'd probably throw it up.  He left the waiting room to get the food, and Steve's grip on my hand tightened.

I gave him a small smile and then went back to staring at the clock.  I noticed that everyone began to fidget a bit, and I imagined that they were almost as tired of waiting for news as I was.  I wished that this would just go away again.  It was a stupid wish, and I knew it would never be granted, but I couldn't stop it from crossing my mind just about every time the second hand on the clock made its way completely around the clock.

It was after two now, so I knew that all of my friends were now out of school.  Nick, Jeremy and Ben would be wondering what was happening, because Steve had driven them to school.  That's when I remembered that Steve's car was still in the parking lot of the high school.  I was about to say something to him about it when a doctor walked into the waiting room.

He was an older man with steel grey hair showing under his surgical cap.  His eyes were the color of the sky, and they were filled with sympathy.  I didn't like that look at all.  I could tell by the way he looked at us, that his news wasn't good.  I just prayed a rapid prayer that my mother at least live.  I had no idea what kind of problems she would have, but living without her wasn't something I was prepared to accept.  I stood up when his eyes fell on me.

"Are you Thomas Porter?" the doctor asked, standing in front of me and Steve.

"Yes, Sir," I replied.  "How is my mother?"

"We had to remove a bullet from the back of her skull," he said softly as the rest of the people in the waiting room gathered around us.  "She lost a great deal of blood, and there was severe damage to the brain. We did everything we could, but our efforts weren't enough. I'm sorry, Mr. Porter, but your mother didn't survive the surgery."

I fell backward, and thank God the chair was there.  I slammed hard into the chair as tears finally started to run down my face.  My mother was dead.  It just didn't seem real.  How in the world could she be dead? It wasn't fair.  So many thoughts like this ran through my mind as I sat there.  Steve stood there, looking down at me with tears running down his face as well.  Vince was sobbing in the chair next to mine, and I couldn't even look at them.

Then, my stomach stopped rumbling.  The rumbling was replaced by the worst pain I'd ever felt.  It felt as if someone had reached into my body and gripped my stomach in their fist as hard as they could.  Without even a warning, the contents of my stomach leapt out, and I barely had time to lean forward before I vomited.  Even before the first stomach convulsion could subside, I was gripped by another one so powerful that it knocked me to my knees on the floor in front of my chair and more vomit shot from my mouth.  I thought that it was impossible to keep vomiting after only eating a bowl of cereal and two pieces of toast, but my stomach convulsed over and over again.

Pain like nothing I'd ever felt before ripped through my insides as my stomach forced more and more vomit out of my mouth.  I was horrified when I saw blood in the vomit.  There was nothing left for me to throw up, but I just kept retching and gagging.  I was aware of a howling sound and was horrified to discover that it was coming from me.  The sound broke with each convulsion of my stomach.

The doctor knelt beside me, and I could feel his hand on my back.  He was saying something, but I couldn't hear him.  My stomach continued to heave, and my vision was suffering.  Darkness flowed around everything that I could see, and my lungs started to burn.  Gasping for air that I got very little of, I finally gave up the fight and let unconsciousness claim me.

When I opened my eyes, I was confronted with the same ceiling tiles that I'd stared at for a while in the surgical waiting room.  Only this time, I was lying down, and I didn't feel the hard floor under me.  Then I became aware of the horrible pain in my midsection.  There also seemed to be a cold, lifeless weight over my abdomen.  It didn't take me too long to figure out that I was in a hospital bed.  An IV needle was in my hand, and I could see a nurse standing beside my bed.

"We're giving you an anti nausea medicine as well as a pain killer to stop the pain in your stomach," she said softly as she turned to look at me.  She used a cold, damp washcloth to wipe my brow.

"What's lying on me?" I asked in a cracked and hoarse voice, and the effort assaulted my throat with pain.

"Don't try to talk too much," she instructed.  "Your throat is very raw from the bile. There's an ice pack on your stomach."

"My mother?" I asked, knowing the answer already as tears began to run again.

"I'm so sorry, Mr. Porter," she said.  "Try to rest. The doctor will be in to talk to you shortly."

I let my head fall back on the pillow as the anguish of my mother's death washed over me again.  My stomach rumbled, sending massive bolts of pain through my abdomen, and I was terrified that I'd start throwing up again.  Then the pain killer began to work enough to make me sleepy, and I surrendered to its pull.

When I opened my eyes again, it was very dark in my room.  I looked out the window, and I saw that it was also dark outside.  The pain in my abdomen gripped me again, and then I discovered the button stick in my hand.  I pushed the button with my thumb, and I could feel the warmth of the painkiller flowing into my wrist.  I tried to keep my breathing normal, thinking that it wouldn't be long and the painkiller would do its job.  I just wished that I knew what had happened to me.

I must have fallen asleep when the painkiller took effect, because the next thing I knew it was morning.  There was another nurse standing beside my bed, and the ice pack was gone.  I knew, because my midsection wasn't cold anymore.  My stomach felt worse than ever, though.  I tried to press the button on the stick, but it wasn't in my hand any more.  I looked at the nurse to ask why.

"We can't have you getting addicted to the drug," she said softly.  "Your doctor has changed the drugs, and the new one will be given when the pain is intense."

"Its intense now," I said with a cracked voice.  My throat still hurt, too.

"Well, I can't give you anything for a little while," she said, looking at the clock.  "I'll come back with the medicine in about an hour."

"Hungry," I said, surprised to realize that I really was hungry.

"Only ice chips, one at a time," she said, producing a spoon that she used to scoop an ice chip out of a paper cup on the stand beside the bed.

When she put the spoon to my lips, I used my tongue to take the ice chip into my mouth.  I was disappointed that it melted so quickly, and when I swallowed it, I was in agony.  The nurse must have noticed the discomfort in my face, because she wiped my brow with the cold washcloth again.  I wondered how long it would be before I could swallow without so much pain.

"What happened to me?" I asked as she put the washcloth back into the basin of cold water.

"I'll let the doctor talk to you about that," she said.  "I'll be back in a little while with your pain medicine. Try to rest."

Rest.  What a taunting word to use on a person in pain.  How did they expect me to rest with my stomach in turmoil and my throat on fire? Was she serious? I wanted the other painkiller, so I could just go back to sleep.  The drug induced sleep didn't even allow me to dream, and the longer I was awake, the more I thought about my mother.  That just made me want to cry again.

It was six-thirty in the morning, and I wondered what Steve was doing.  I wondered what everyone was doing.  What I wondered most about was my mother's body.  What had they done with her body? Was she alone? Was she scared? These thoughts brought more tears, and I knew that she wasn't in her body any longer, but I couldn't stop thinking about it.

I looked around the room and noticed that I wasn't in a private one.  There was another bed on the other side of the room, and someone was sleeping in it.  I could see the person's dark hair under the sheet that was pulled almost completely over his head.  I wondered why he was in the hospital.

The question of his identity was soon answered when he moved slightly in the bed and uncovered his head.  The boy in the other bed was Jason Cox:  would be assassin.  It was also when he moved in the bed that I noticed that his wrists were cuffed to the rails.  Perversely, I hoped that someone had hurt him in jail.  I hoped they had hurt him bad.  Then I had another perverse thought.  Was he the one who had shot my mother? Was that possible? Yes, it was possible.  After all, he'd tried to stab me with a knife just a few weeks earlier.  He very well could have been the one to shoot my mother and take her life, robbing me of my only family in the world.

Hatred filled me, and my stomach lurched with it.  This time, I embraced the pain, because it bolstered my hatred.  Without the luxury, or horror, of proof, I hated him for my mother's death.  I couldn't be absolutely positive that he'd killed her, but it had been someone like him.  Suddenly, I didn't think that my previous hope that he'd sustained severe injury in jail was so perverse.  In fact, I felt justified in hoping that he'd been harmed in jail.  I only wished that I could have been the one to inflict the harm.

This was an avenue of thinking that I had never allowed myself to travel upon before, and part of me was sickened by it.  The part that loved my mother, however, was uplifted by it.  I knew that I had to be very careful with this kind of thinking, though.  I didn't actually want to turn into a cold and heartless person.  My mother would not have been proud of me if that happened.

When he turned his face toward me, I saw the bruises that covered most of it.  His usually attractive features were swollen and broken.  It was clear that his nose had been broken by the bandage that covered it and most of his face.  When his brown eyes opened and focused on me, first there was recognition, and then there was fear.  That fear made me feel almost wonderful.

He didn't speak to me, but he snapped his gaze away from me so fast that I heard his neck pop, and his entire body stiffened in pain.  I smiled at the thought of it as the door to the room opened, and a doctor came in.  He took one look at Jason, and the curtain between our beds was pulled closed while he examined him.

The nurse came in shortly after that, and she came over to my bed to give me another ice chip.  I swallowed this one with just as much pain as the first, and suddenly, I wasn't so happy about seeing Jason in pain.  My own pain made me pity him for his.  The nurse again wiped my brow with the cold cloth, and then she took my temperature.

"I don't want to be in the same room with him," I said when she was writing my temp on the chart she carried.

"With who?" she asked, looking at me over the chart.

"Jason Cox," I said hatefully, ignoring the pain in my throat.

"You mean the patient in bed b?" she asked.

"That's right," I said coldly.  "He tried to kill me in December. He brought a knife to our school and tried to stab me with it. He was sent to jail for it, and I don't want to be in the same room with the boy who tried to kill me."

"Calm down, Tommy," she said, checking my pulse.  "I'll speak to your doctor about it. I promise."

"Where is my doctor?" I asked.

"He's doing rounds, and he'll be in here soon," she said.

I watched her walk out of the room, and then Andy walked in.  He gave me a sad smile when he saw me, and I tried to return that smile, but I knew that it didn't look real.  I was still swimming in hatred for Jason.  Andy came over to the bed, pulling the folding chair close and sat down.  He didn't say anything for a few minutes, and I didn't know if I really wanted him to say anything.  I didn't trust myself not to break down if he mentioned my mother.

"Tommy, you look flushed," he said when he finally spoke.  His expression clouded with concern.  "What's the matter?"

"Jason Cox," I said, pointing at the closed curtain.

As I spoke, the curtain was pulled back by the doctor.  The man smiled at me before leaving, and I'm sure I glared at him.  He had to have heard me telling the nurse about my history with Jason, but he didn't seem to care about that.  My blood boiled with rage.

"Just a minute," called Andy, getting to his feet.  He followed the doctor out the door, and I could hear them talking in the hall.

A few minutes later, both of them returned with another doctor.  I recognized the second doctor as the doctor who had given me the news about Mom.  Seeing him brought back the staggering truth that my mother was dead, and I started to cry.  He came over to my bed and began to examine me.  He looked at my throat, pushed on my stomach, and shushed me when I called out from the pain.  My stomach was very sore, and my throat was on fire again after my verbal reply.

"Your friend tells me that you and the patient in the next bed are not friendly," he said.  "We'll move you to another room, but I assure you, Mr. Cox can not hurt you. He's cuffed to his bed."

"He's supposed to be in jail," said Andy from behind the doctor.

"He was brought here from the jail after being assaulted," informed the other doctor.  "I assure you that he can't hurt anyone right now."

"It doesn't matter if he can't hurt him now," said Andy.  "With everything that Tommy's going through, the stress of seeing Jason in the bed next to him all of the time won't do his recovery any good."

"I agree," said my doctor.  "We'll have you out of this room in just a few minutes."

"What's wrong with me," I asked, wincing from the pain talking caused in my throat.

"You suffered from a violent bout of nervous emesis," he said.  "The muscles around the stomach contracted so violently that it caused you to vomit continually. Your throat is swollen from the assault brought upon it by the acids of your stomach."

"How long does he have to stay here?" asked Andy.  "When can we take him . . . home?"

"Well, we're giving him anti nausea medicine through the IV," said the doctor, who's name I still didn't know.  "I think as soon as he can eat solid food and keep it down without the aid of the medicine, he can go home."

"How long will that take?" asked Andy.  "We have some very important business to attend to in the next few days."

"I understand that," said the doctor, "but he won't be able to attend to anything if he has another attack."

Then the nurse came in, scowled at Jason, and injected a syringe of pain medicine into the IV tube, and not long after that, their voices faded, and I went to sleep again.  It didn't last all that long, though, because they woke me up when they came to move me to the new room.  This time, Steve and Ben were standing in the hall with Shirley.

"Hey, Bud," said Steve in a weak, sad voice.

"Tommy," said Ben as they wheeled the bed past them.

The new room was right in front of the nurse's station, and the perk was that it was a private room.  The doctor informed me that it was the only other room available on the floor, so it wouldn't cost us anything more.  That's when I started to worry about how I would be able to pay for the hospital bill.

Steve, Ben, Andy and Shirley came into the room then, and I tried to hide my face, because I didn't want them to see me cry.  I didn't succeed, though, because Shirley and Steve rushed over to the bed taking both of my hands.  Once they touched me, the agony of the situation became almost unbearable.  I hated it that so many things were driving the point that my mother was dead home to me.

"I love you, Tommy," said Steve as he kissed my fingers.  "I love you so much."

"Go ahead and cry, sweetie," said Shirley.  "Let it out."

I tried to tell her that I didn't want to let it out, but I couldn't even make my mouth form words.  Steve gripped my hand tighter, and I sobbed even more.  She was gone, and I would never see her again.  How in the world was I supposed to deal with that? She was all I had in the world.  I had no other relatives, and now I was truly an orphan.  The pain of losing her was so crushing that I didn't know if I would even be able to stand it.  Thankfully, the nurse came in and injected another syringe into the IV tube, and I wasted no time fighting the drug as it tried to put me to sleep.

When I woke up again, Nick was standing beside my bed.  His face was streaked with tears, and he cried harder when he looked into my eyes.  I didn't know if I would be able to say anything, but I reached over and took his hand.  He collapsed into a folding chair, but he didn't utter a sound.  I hadn't realized that my mother's death was affecting everyone who knew her.  I felt guilty for that.

"Nick," I said, expecting the pain in my throat to return.  I was surprised when it didn't.  It seemed at least one part of me was getting better.

"Tommy, I tried to get them to let me stay here," he said.  "My mom and dad made me go home with them, but I came back with Vince this afternoon. You were sleeping, so I just stayed quiet."

"Thank you for coming," I replied.

"You can come and live with me, Tommy," he said, and then we were both sobbing.

Vince came in and made Nick go back to the waiting room, and then Shirley was standing beside my bed.  She was trying not to cry, but I couldn't stop.  My world was crumbling with every memory of my mother that flashed through my mind.  She was gone, and I was alone.  I had my friends, and Steve would be there for me, but I was all alone in a real sense.  I didn't know where I was going to live now.  Andy had asked when I would be able to go home, but I'd heard the way he'd hesitated on the word home.

"What am I going to do now?" I asked Shirley through my tears.

"Oh, honey," she said, leaning down to kiss my forehead.  "You're going to be fine. I promise."

"She's gone," I moaned.  "My mom is gone."

"Tommy, I'm so sorry," she said.  "Don't worry about anything. We'll take care of everything."

"I want to go home," I sobbed.  "I don't want to stay here anymore."

"You have to stay for a little while longer, Tommy," she said.  "If we take you now, your stomach could get worse."

"I feel better," I lied.  "I don't want to stay here."

"We'll talk to the doctor," she said.  "As soon as he says you can go home, we'll get you out of here."

She kissed my forehead again and then sat down in the folding chair.  I turned my head, feeling only a light trace of the pain in my throat, and stared at the wall.  She hadn't understood what I meant.  Yes, I wanted out of the hospital, but it was my home that I wanted to go to.  I didn't want to have to move.  I wanted to live in my house where I could always remember my mother.

The nurse came in and injected another syringe of that lovely pain medicine into the IV tube, and I floated on the brink of sleep for a few minutes.  The last thing I saw before my eyes finally stayed shut was Nick and Steve coming into the room.

I woke up at four-thirty.  Steve was reclined in a recliner beside my bed, and there were cards and flowers everywhere.  The thing that held my gaze was the teddy bear that Steve had won at Magic Land right after we'd met.  He'd given the bear to me that day, and I'd kept it.  He must have gone back to the house and got it for me, because it was sitting on my tray table.

As I stared at the bear, a nurse came in to take my temperature and check my pulse.  I whispered to her that I was very hungry, and she said that the doctor had left instructions that I was to have a liquid diet for that day, and he'd elevate it if I had no problems.  My stomach was still hurting, but not nearly as bad as it had when I'd first woke up the day my mother died.  I hoped that I could keep the broth and juice down, so I could have something real to eat.  The thought of that made me feel guilty.  I felt like I should be more miserable than I was, because my mother was gone.

She came back with a bowl of what she called chicken broth.  I called it hot water with a hint of bad flavor, but even though I didn't like the taste, I drank it.  She warned against drinking it too fast, so I slowed down.  That only made the bad taste linger more, but I complied with her orders and got through the bowl.  I wanted more, but she shook her head.  When I tried to voice my desire for more, she shushed me and pointed at Steve.

"He refused to leave last night," she whispered.  "His brother tried to make him, and there was a scene. We dragged the recliner in here about midnight, and he's been sleeping almost since he put his body in it."

"He's my boyfriend," I said not even thinking about what she'd think about that.

"I know," she said, smiling at me.  "He loves you very much."

"I love him, too," I said, letting my eyes rest on his sleeping face.

She left us alone, and I watched Steve sleep for a few minutes before, not quite full from the bad tasting broth, I drifted off to sleep again myself.  It wasn't Steve I saw when I opened my eyes the second time, it was Vince.  He was sitting in the recliner, looking at me quietly.  When he saw me looking back at him, he blushed and averted his eyes.

"I didn't mean to wake you up," he said softly.

"You didn't," I replied.  "I'm hungry."

"Well, I don't know what they're allowing you to eat so far," he said.  "Its almost nine, so I think you've missed breakfast, though. I can go and ask the nurses to find something for you if you like."

"Thank you," I said as he rose from the recliner.

"Steve and Ben are in the cafeteria," he said before leaving.  "They'll be back up pretty soon."

"Ok," I said as he walked out the door.

It was nice that they were all here for me.  I knew that Steve had fought to stay with me all night, and that made me feel a little better.  Ben must have come with Vince, but I wondered where Shirley was.  She probably had to go to work, so I didn't think about it too much.  My mother replaced her in my mind, and I started to cry again.

"Hey," said Steve when he came in.  As soon as he saw me crying, he rushed to the bed and sat on the edge.

"I'm sorry," I said, turning my head away from him.

"Sorry?" he gasped, turning my head back to face him again.  "Tommy, you have nothing to be sorry about. You go ahead and cry. I've been crying forever."

"What am I going to do now?" I asked.

"You're going to grieve," he said.  "There's nothing wrong with that, Tommy."

"That's not what I meant," I sighed as he took my hand.  "I meant, now that she's gone, what am I going to do? Will they put me in a foster home?"

"Well, Shirley said that you're going to live with her and Tom," he said.  "Nick wants you to move in with him, but I want you to stay home with me."

"That's what I want," I said.  "Can't I just stay at home?"

"Of course you can," said Shirley as she came into the room, startling both of us.  "No one ever thought of making you leave your house, Tommy. Tom and I are going to be your guardians. Its what your mother wanted, but you don't have to move. Andy wants to move in with you at your house. Is that all right with you?"

"What about Steve and Vince?" I asked.

"What about them?" she asked, smiling.  "I thought they already lived there."

"So you won't make them leave?" I asked stunned.

"Why on Earth would I do that?" she asked.  "Besides, the house belongs to you now."

"It does?" I asked.  I supposed that was probably true.  I just hadn't thought about anything like that.

"It sure does," she said.  "We'll meet with Mike when you're feeling better, and he'll tell you everything you need to know, ok?"

"Frank and Doug were here last night," said Steve when I started to tear up again.

"I was sleeping," I sighed, grinding the tears out of my eyes with my fists.

"They didn't care," he chuckled.  "They left cards and stuff. I think all of the football team has been here. Each one left a card."

"I see the cards," I said, glancing at the cards on my tray table.

"Wendy and Marcy sent flowers," he said.  "Maria, Mark's sister sent flowers, too."

"That was nice of her," I said.  "I've never met her."

"You will," he said.  "She's been helping us out at the house."

"Oh," I said.

We stopped talking when the doctor came into the room.  He smiled at everyone and made a joke about me finally being awake when he came in.  It seemed that he'd checked on me four different times, and for two of those, I had been asleep.  He asked me how I was doing on the liquid diet, and I told him that I had only had one bowl of broth, but I was starving.

"I'll bet," he chuckled.  "I think one of your friends is heating up another bowl. This time it'll taste a bit better."

"Are you sure?" I inquired disbelievingly.

"Oh, I'm certain," he said, laughing out loud that time.  "I handed him a salt shaker as I passed him."

"Thank you," I said with a little genuine excitement at the idea of salt.

"We can start you on some pudding and maybe mashed potatoes as early as this after noon," he said, looking at my chart.  "You held the broth down, and since that was given to you at about four this morning, I think that shows that you're not going to have another attack."

"Thank you," I said.  "When can I leave?"

"Tomorrow," he said.  "I want one more night to monitor you. How is your stomach?"

"Feels like I got hit in the gut by a football player," I said, smiling.

"About normal for what you've been through," he laughed.  "Any nausea?"

"No, but the medicine is probably stopping it," I said, glancing at the IV in my wrist.

"Nope," he said.  "That medicine was only used the first night. You've been without it for a while."

"Oh," I said dumbly.

"And, Tommy," he said from the door on his way out.  "Tell the football team that they can only visit in groups of three, ok? They were all over the ward last night."

"Got it," I replied, smiling.

Vince came back with the bowl of broth a little bit after the doctor left.  I had to admit that salt did the broth a world of good, and it didn't taste nearly as bad as the first bowl.  At lunch time, I had a bowl of pudding that tasted kind of bland, but it was a welcome step up from the broth.  By supper time, I was graduated to mashed potatoes, and they were a thin slice of Heaven.

Tom and Mike showed up with Nick and Jeremy around six that evening, and Mike, Shirley and Tom sat in folding chairs in my room.  Mike asked the boys to go to the game room or something, so they could talk to me privately.  I knew then that I wasn't going to really enjoy our discussion.  They'd come to discuss my mother.

"Tommy, first let me tell you how glad we all are that you're feeling better," said Mike.  "You gave us a scare."

"Sorry about that," I replied.

"Don't be," said Shirley.  "Just get better."

"Planning on it," I said.

"Well, I guess I should tell you that we've taken care of all of the funeral arrangements," said Shirley.  "Steve helped out a great deal."

"Wh . . . when is the funeral?" I asked as a lump formed in my throat.  I really didn't want to deal with this.

"Friday evening," said Mike.  "Visitation will be tomorrow night and Friday morning. The doctor says that we can take you home tomorrow morning, so you'll be able to attend the visitation."

"I've already told you that Tom and I will be your guardians until you turn eighteen," said Shirley.

"But you will go on living in your house," added Tom.  "Andy will be moving in with you, Steve and Vince."

They all had things to tell me, but none of it was easy to listen to.  Mike informed me that the firm had taken out a life insurance policy for my mother, and she'd named me as the sole beneficiary, so I'd be contacted about that soon.  Then there was the life insurance that Mom had bought herself.  The firm had paid off the house, and it would be transferred into my name as soon as I could get to the offices.

What was most difficult for me to hear was that Mike had started the preliminary steps to filing a civil lawsuit against the man who had shot my mother.  He told me that her killer had been her client.  He'd been arrested on the spot, and he'd already tried to take a plea, but Mike didn't know the outcome of that.  What he said was that he planned to represent me in a civil suit against him.  The man's name was Charles Pink.  When he said his name, a chill ran down my spine.

"Now, we're going to put the insurance money into a trust fund," said Mike after he'd dropped the name of the man who'd killed my mother on me.  "We'll set it up so that Tom oversees the trust, but he won't be able to take any money out of it without your signature."

"I don't understand," I admitted.  "How much money are we talking about?"

"Well, the policy from the firm is for just over seven hundred thousand dollars," said Mike, stunning me into silence.  "The police your mother bought on her own is for another one hundred, fifty thousand."

"You'll be given an allowance out of the trust each moth," said Tom as my jaw dropped.  "We'll work out an amount later."

"You may want to invest part of the money, too," said Mike.  "That way, you can make more money with it."

"Sure," I finally managed to say.  I couldn't believe it.

"I want you to know that if you need anything at all," said Mike.  "I'll be right next door, and Sharon . . ."

"I'm sorry, Mike," I said quickly, "but Sharon can't help me."

"I understand," he said, looking down at his hands.  "But I'm here for you any time."

"So are we," said Tom.  "And Andy will be there for you, just like he has been."

"Thank you for letting me stay at home," I said as emotion cracked my voice.

"You don't have to thank us for that, Tommy," said Shirley.  "We know how much you want to remain in your house, and Andy thinks that we decided it was ok, because he offered to live with you, but that's not why. Vince is there, so we were never worried about supervision. We decided this, because its your house."

"I'm glad that Andy will be there, though," I said honestly.  Andy had been there for me for so long already.  I couldn't imagine not having his advice.

"Well," said Mike.  "We'd better get out of here and let the boys have some time with you. Nick is ready to tear my head off for making him leave earlier."

I got hugs from all three of them, and Shirley kissed me on the forehead again.  I was crying again, and I didn't know if I should even be happy about the money, knowing how and why I was getting it.  I wanted my mother back.  No amount of money would ever replace her.  How could I even enjoy one cent of the money, knowing that she had to die for me to get it?

I visited with Nick and Jeremy until Mike told them they had to leave.  I told all of them about where I'd be living, and that Andy was moving in with us, but I said nothing about the money.  I wasn't even sure how to tell them about it.  I knew that I'd have to tell them some time, because they'd said that I would receive an allowance out of it.

Jeremy told me what had happened to Jason in jail and why he was in the hospital.  It seemed that a group of inmates had attacked him and beat him until he was unconscious.  Jeremy said that he'd heard that Jason's mouth had got him into trouble.  They'd broken his nose, his jaw and six of his ribs.  I hated the sick thrill that hearing the news gave me.

Doug and Frank came with Peter and Marcy just before visiting hours ended for the day.  I was shocked by Doug and Frank's appearances.  They'd shaved their heads for some reason, and Frank got a kick out of it when I made him lean down, so I could rub his bald head.

"The whole team did it," laughed Doug.  "It seems pretty stupid now, but at the time we were all psyched about it."

"Why did you do it?" I asked.

"Its a football thing," laughed Ben from across the room.  Doug high fived him.

"So you get out tomorrow?" asked Frank.

"Doctor said tomorrow morning," I replied.  "That way I can go to see my mom."

"Tommy, we're so sorry about your mom," said Doug.  "She was a great lady."

"Thanks," I replied, fighting the tears that threatened to come.

A nurse came to run everyone off, but again, Steve refused to leave me.  He settled into the recliner and glared at the nurse.  She just smiled at him and winked.  Doug, Frank, Ben and Marcy said their goodbyes, and then Steve and I were alone in the room.  About ten minutes later, the nurse came back with ice cream for both of us.

"So you get to come home in the morning," said Steve.  "I'm so glad."

"Me, too," I said.  "I don't know how I'm going to react to seeing the house, though."

"I know," he said quietly.  "I'll be with you, though."

"I love you, Steve," I said as I started to cry again.

"I love you, too, Bud," he said, holding my hand.

"I hate this," I hissed.  "I miss her so much already."

"I know," he replied softly.  "I don't know what you're going through, Tommy, but she was like my mom, too. I miss her so much it drives me crazy, so I can imagine how you're feeling. Just don't be afraid to cry in front of me."

"I promise to try," I said.  "I still feel like an idiot for being in the hospital, though."

"Tommy, that wasn't something that you could control," he said quickly.  "I'll admit that none of us had ever seen any thing like that before, but it wasn't like you did it on purpose. The doctor said that your body simply reacted to all of the stress."

"Have you gone home even once?" I asked, changing the subject.  He was still wearing exactly what he'd worn to school on Monday.

"No," he said reverently.  "I wouldn't leave you here."

"Thank you," I whispered.

That night, I was plagued by terrible dreams of my mother calling to me from a place that I couldn't get to.  I tried so hard to reach her, but she just kept floating away from me.  She told me to be strong, and I promised to try, but I couldn't stop crying.  This was just too hard for me, and I didn't think I would ever be able to deal with it.

Bright and early the next morning, a nurse brought me a tray of very soft scrambled eggs and toast with no butter.  There was no salt or other spice on the food, but that didn't stop my ravenous appetite from enjoying the food that ordinarily would have been rejected.  My throat was almost completely healed, and my stomach didn't hurt nearly as bad as it had the day before.  These were signs that I would, in fact, recover completely.  For that, I was immensely happy.

Steve left me to get something to eat himself, and just after he left, the doctor came in.  He talked with me for a few minutes about what I should and shouldn't eat, physical activity and school.  He said that I was not to participate in physical education or sports for at least two weeks.  I was puzzled by this, but I didn't ask.  I did ask about working out, and he said that he wanted me to wait for at least a week, and I couldn't do any workouts without someone with me.  I informed him that Steve and I never worked out alone.

We talked a bit about my mother, and that brought the tears again.  Dr. Rizetti handed me a tissue and told me to have a good cry.  He said that my mother's surgery was one of the hardest he'd ever performed.  We talked for a while about what she was like, and by the time we were done talking, I wasn't in tears any more.  Remembering the good times was helpful, it seemed.  Before he left me, he handed me a card.  It was for a friend of his.  He said to call that number and make an appointment if I needed to talk.

By the time Steve came back to the room, I was dressed in my own clothes, and the IV was gone.  All that we had to wait for was Shirley.  I'd called her as soon as Dr. Rizetti left my room.  She said she'd be right there, so Steve and I sat with all of the cards, flowers and my bear, waiting for my ride back to the real world.

"How's your stomach?" he asked when he saw me rubbing my belly.

"You know how your gut feels after doing about fifty crunches?" I asked.  He nodded.  "About four times worse than that, but I don't have to move to feel it."

"God, Tommy," he said, cringing.

"Its better than it was, though," I said.  "When I woke up Monday, it was the worst pain I've ever known."

"But it is better?" he asked, looking at me with concern.  "Tommy, if it really isn't then maybe you shouldn't leave the hospital. I mean, watching what happened to you scared me to death."

"Relax, babe," I said, taking his hand.  "I'm going to be fine. Dr. Rizetti said that it was brought on by sever stress. He said that he doesn't think it will happen again."

"Tommy, you have the funeral to get through!" he said, standing.  "If what happened in the waiting room brought on what happened to you, then what do you think that will do?"

"I already know that she's . . . gone," I stammered as tears filled my eyes.  "It was the shock of hearing it when I'd convinced myself that she would be fine that did this."

"Oh, Bud," he whispered with tears in his eyes to match my own.  He came to me so fast, and his arms were around me.  "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to make you cry."

"Steve, you didn't make me cry," I said, holding him tighter.  "Losing my mother is the worst thing that's ever happened to me, and every time I think about it, I cry. You had nothing to do with that."

"But I didn't have to bring it up again," he said.

"Like you said, I still have the funeral to get through," I replied.  "But I know that what happened on Monday won't happen again."

"Are you boys all right?" asked Shirley from the door.  "I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"

"No, we're both fine," I said, turning to face her.  "I'm ready to get out of here."

All the way home, Shirley told me over and over that she would always be there for me if I needed to talk or anything.  She said that she'd made something for us to eat, and Andy had taken it over to the house.  There was plenty for supper later, too, and all we had to do was heat it up.  She was nervous, and she was trying to distract me.  I loved her for trying, but nothing could distract me from the thoughts that were running through my head.

I was about to go home for the first time without my mother.  Sure, I'd been there when she was at work, but this time would be different.  This time, she wouldn't come home late.  She wouldn't come home at all.  My mother was gone, and returning to the house was just another thing that was going to drive that point home to me.

The house didn't look any different.  It was the same two story white house with the wrap around front porch.  The yard was still covered with snow, and the walk and driveway were both shoveled and swept free of the white stuff.  Steve's car was parked in the driveway where my mother usually parked, and that was hard for some reason, but I tried not to think about it.

I took a deep breath as we got out of the car, and Steve was right there for me with his arm around my waist.  My knees were shaking, and I was surprised that my stomach didn't start to rumble again.  I admit that I had been worried about that just like Steve was before we even left the hospital.  However, what Dr. Rizetti had said was true.  He said that he believed that my problem was over, and that as long as I didn't agitate my stomach, I should be fine.

When I opened the front door, I was met by Andy.  He seemed to be just as worried about my stomach's condition as Steve was.  He led me to the living room and insisted that I sit down on the couch.  The living room, dining room and probably the kitchen were full of people.  Sharon and Mike were there along with Tom, Andy, Mitch and his wife and Peter's parents.  They were all doing something to get the house ready for the mourners that would be coming over.

Zeus raced through the living room to jump on my lap, and for some reason, just seeing him made me weep again.  I hugged the furry beast to me and sobbed like a baby, and instantly I was surrounded by Steve, Andy and Sharon of all people.  Each of them telling me that everything was ok, and that crying was natural.  I wished that they would all just shut up about crying.  I knew by then that I was never going to stop crying, and telling me it was ok was only driving me crazy.

Thankfully, they left me alone after a few minutes.  I just sat there and held Zeus to me.  He purred and went to sleep in my arms, so I knew that I wasn't bothering him.  I decided that if they were going to treat me like that every time they saw me crying, then I'd just have to work very hard to make sure that no one ever saw me cry.  I was tired of being treated like that.

I put Zeus in my spot after standing up.  I stroked his soft fur until he closed his eyes again, and then I went into the dining room to eat when Shirley called us in.  Not everyone could sit in the dining room.  Some of them had to eat in the kitchen, but I saw beside Steve in the dining room and ate a plate of mashed potatoes, a few carrots and apple sauce.  I still wanted to take it easy with food.  Even if I didn't have another attack like Monday's, I didn't want indigestion or anything like it.

After we'd eaten, Steve and I went upstairs to get changed for the visitation.  I didn't know if I was ready for that, but then how is anyone ever ready for something like that.  I knew that I wouldn't be able to keep from crying at the funeral home, but I wasn't going to let any of them try to make me feel like a baby, either.

Steve finally had to help me with my tie, because I was lost in thought and had screwed it up twice.  He gave me a reassuring smile and tied the knot in my tie with ease.  We were dressed in matching black suits.  I was wearing a blue tie, and he was wearing a red tie.  We took turns in front of the mirror again to brush our hair, and then we were heading down the stairs.

We'd already insisted that Steve would drive me, Nick and Ben to the funeral home.  Shirley and Sharon had objected, but I'd talked with Shirley about it, and she understood that I really needed to be with Steve.  Ben and Nick would be in the car for support, so she finally agreed to it.  Sharon was another story.  When she said that she didn't think it was a good idea, I glared at her.

"What makes you think I'm ever going to listen to anything you say?" I asked coldly.  "My mother is dead, Sharon. You can't take her place."

"Tommy," cautioned Steve with his hand on my arm.

"No," I said.  "After what she tried to do to us, I won't listen to a word she has to say. She can make Nick ride with her, but she can't even suggest anything to me."

"Come on, Tommy," said Nick's voice from behind me.

He and Steve walked with me to the car.  I silenced both of them with a warning glance as Ben came out to join us.  We drove to the funeral home in silence.  Steve kept glancing at me, but he didn't say anything.  I was fighting with myself to remain calm.  I had no idea how I was going to stop the torrent of emotion that was boiling inside me when I got there, but I had to find a way.  I couldn't stand anymore of the "its all right" looks and words from the adults.

We pulled into the back parking lot of the Manning And Farrell Funeral Home, and my resolve weakened.  The building was two stories tall constructed of white blocks.  Black shutters flanked each window, and black metal letters were above the side door, informing us that this was the family entrance.

We were met by a tall man in a black suite.  He had salt and pepper hair, and large brown eyes.  He had to be at least sixty years old, but his warm smile revealed that he still had his own teeth.  He introduced himself as Theodore Farrell and inquired as to who we were.

"I'm Thomas Porter," I replied, and he shook my hand.

"Right this way, Mr. Porter," he said, leading us to a small office.  "We've been waiting for you."

"You have?" I asked.

"We need your signature on a few of these documents," he replied, gesturing to papers on his mahogany desk.

"Mr. Farrell, I'm only fifteen years old," I informed him.  "I can't sign contracts."

"Your guardian?" he asked, looking past us and out the door.

"They'll be here in a few minutes," I replied.  "Right now, I'd just like to see my mother."

"Well, the casket is closed," he stated, looking at me with scrutinizing eyes.

"That's fine," I replied with a shaky voice.  "I'd just like to be in the room."

"Follow me," he said, getting up from behind his desk.

The parlor was very large.  The carpet was a cream color that matched the papered walls.  In an alcove at the front of the room was the dark coffin that housed my mother's body.  Looking at it gave me chills and made my heart ache so badly that I had to hold on to Steve to keep from falling over with grief.

Mr. Farrell showed us to a row of seats at the front of the room to the left of the coffin.  As the four of us took our seats, Shirley, Tom and Andy came into the room.  Mr. Farrell spoke with them for a few seconds before taking them to the office to sign the papers that I couldn't.  Andy came over to where we were and sat in the fifth chair.

"How are you?" he asked me before sitting down.

"I'm ok," I replied, hating the tremor in my voice that contradicted my statement.

"I'm here," whispered Steve beside me as he took my hand in his.

I sat there, remembering the drive from Tampa to Storyville.  She'd been so excited about the move, and she'd promised that we'd have such a great life in Storyville.  She'd told me that she had a great new job waiting for her, and we'd have a house of our own for the first time in either of our lives.  She'd always lived in apartments after her parents died, and her brother had taken their parents' house.  He'd died just four months after, and the house had been sold.

We'd stopped to see sights along the way to Storyville, and I remembered how alive she'd been.  Her laughter filled my head, and I smiled at the memory.  I remembered how excited she'd been to see the huge tower on top of the court house on our way into Storyville the night we'd arrived, and then she'd been even more excited when we'd walked through our house for the first time.

While I sat there remembering the past, several people filed into the parlor, and each of them came to me to tell me how sorry they were.  I don't know how I was able to reply with the proper responses each time.  I refused to let go of my memories even throughout all of the mourners trying to extend their condolences to me.

I saw Wendy and her parents sitting in the front row next to Shirley and Tom.  Sharon, Mike and Jeremy sat on the other side, and the entire football team had showed up as well.  I'd learned earlier that Doug and Frank had both agreed to serve as pallbearers, and a few other members of the football team were going to join them as well.

My mother was to be buried in Ashcroft Cemetery just three blocks from the high school.  I'd seen the cemetery so many times and never even considered that one day it would become the resting place of anyone that I loved.  Now I would think of her every time I went to school and passed the cemetery on my way.

I was almost completely in the here and now when Doug and Frank came over to say they were sorry and offer their help with anything I might need.  I gave them both a smile, but I'm sure that it didn't really reach my eyes.  This was getting harder and harder with each person that came to speak to me.

When Wendy came over, I stood and hugged her.  That was when I lost the battle with my tears.  I didn't sob, and for that I was thankful, but I did wet her shoulder with a stream of tears.  She just hugged me tighter.  She sat down with us, occupying the last of the seats in the family row.  She sat on one side of me, and Steve sat on the other.  Both of them held my hands, and I sat there and cried silently.

I saw Sharon watching us with concern on her face, but I didn't trust her, and I knew that if she came near me in the funeral home, I'd explode.  I whispered to Steve that he should keep her away from me, and he gave me a sad smile and nodded his head.  I sat back and breathed a sigh of relief.

People were starting to leave, and I realized that we'd been sitting there for almost two hours.  It had been Hell, and I wondered how I would make it through the morning visitation.  The funeral itself was something that I was trying hard not to think about, but it was getting closer and closer with each passing minute.  I didn't know if I'd even be coherent once it was finally time to really say goodbye.

I was thankful when Steve and Nick started to direct me to the door.  The time to go home and sleep had finally come.  It wouldn't be a peaceful sleep, but I'd accept it in any form at that time.  We were silent on the trip back to the house, and I was more than thankful that there weren't too many people there when we got there.  I told Shirley that I was going upstairs to take a shower and go to bed.

I started taking off my tie as we went up the stairs, and with every step I took, I cried harder.  I cried harder and harder until I leaned against the wall in the upstairs hall and started to sob.  Steve was there, and his arms were around me in a flash.  I sobbed into his shoulder as he held me tight.  He kept whispering soothing words to me, and I leaned on him.  I didn't know how much longer I could take this.

He led me into the bathroom and helped me undress.  I stood there, staring at him through my tears as he got the water going in the shower.  When he was satisfied with the temperature, we got in, and I allowed him to lather my body as I stood with my head under the spray.  I washed my own hair, and even through tears, I washed his back and lathered everything I could for him.  I love him so much, and I didn't want to become completely dependent on him.

"I love you, Tommy," he said as we were drying off.  "I'm sorry that this happened, and I wish that I could change it, but all I can do is be here for you."

"You loved her, too," I said, looking over at him.

"She was like a mother to me," he said as tears filled his eyes.  "She was a mother to me."

Then I was holding him while he cried.  We cried together for a few minutes, leaning on each other for support.  I felt like such a bastard for crying on his shoulder all the time.  I should have thought about the fact that Steve had lost her, too.  What kind of boyfriend was I when I couldn't even see past my own misery to be there for my boyfriend?

We went into the bedroom and slipped into the bed.  I ignored the pain in my stomach when I twisted my body into a better position to hold him.  We cried in each other's arms for what seemed like forever before sleep finally took us both.

Andy woke us the next morning for breakfast.  He told us he'd have everything ready in five minutes, so Steve and I got out of bed and dressed.  We said nothing to each other, but we tried to make sure that we were touching each other at all times.  We were drawing strength from each other, and I needed that just as much as he did.

Downstairs, I was happy to see that Andy and Vince were the only ones at the table.  Vince had red, puffy eyes, and I knew that Mom's death had hit him hard, too.  I reached for his hand on the table when I sat down and squeezed it.  He looked over at me with tear filled eyes, and I gave him the best smile that I could manage.  He tried to smile back, but it faltered before it was fully formed on his face.

Breakfast was an awkward affair with all four of us trying very hard not to cry.  Andy had made us scrambled eggs and bacon with toast and juice.  I ate the eggs, and even knowing that it probably wasn't a good idea, I ate the bacon as well.  No one even seemed to think about the diet I was supposed to be following.

We were just putting the dishes in the dishwasher when Tom, Shirley and Ben showed up.  I received a hug from Shirley, and Andy got a pat on the back by Tom.  They had coffee while we finished our juice, but no one had said a word.  This round of visitation looked like it was going to be even harder on us.  I was so happy that I had them all to stand with me.

Sharon, Mike, Nick and Jeremy came in a few minutes later, and the adults sat at the table while the rest of us went to the living room.  As I looked at my friends, it would have been so easy to think that we were going to a wedding or a dance by the way we were dressed, and I wished so bad that it was something like that instead of what it really was.

Like the night before, Steve drove me, Nick, Ben and, this time, Jeremy to the funeral home, but unlike last night, we weren't the first to arrive.  It seemed that several lawyers from the firm had come to show their respect that morning.  I stood there outside the funeral home, shaking hands with so many men and women I'd never even met.  I was freezing, and I was so thankful when Vince and Andy walked up and suggested that we get inside.

When Vince sat down in the front row, I didn't like it.  I walked over to him and asked him to follow me.  When I got back to the family row, I told him to sit down.  He looked at me for a second, but he finally complied.  I just thought that it was wrong for me and Steve to leave Vince in the front row.  That morning, Ben and Nick sat with their families, so it was just the three of us in the family row.  I actually thought that was they way it should have been.

That day, Mr. Farrell worked the room, trying to make sure that everyone was as comfortable as they could possibly be.  I was thankful the he kept most of them distracted enough to leave me alone.  I didn't know how many more people I could meet that day and still be civil.  I wanted to be alone with my family and grieve in private.

Family? Well, that's what we were.  Steve, Vince and I were a family.  Andy would become part of that family with him living with us, too, but at that moment, Steve and Vince were the only family that I had in the world.  All of the arguments, fights and spats were pointless really.  We were a family, and no matter how angry we got with each other, we needed each other.

I was disappointed when we got back to the house and found everyone under the sun waiting for us.  Shirley had arrived before us, and she and Andy were passing out plates of food as the flowers started to invade the dining room.  Everyone had sent flowers, and I understood why, but what I didn't understand was why they'd come to the house instead of the funeral home.  Sure, there were so many flowers at the funeral home already, but I didn't know why they'd start sending them to the house already.

Shirley answered that question for me without me even having to ask it.  When Steve and I walked into the dining room, she pointed at the flowers and explained that the funeral home couldn't handle any more flowers, and they continued to come in.  She said that many of the planters would be taken to her house if I didn't want them.  The majority of the flowers were just of the cut variety, and they would soon wilt.

Steve, Vince and I were each given a plate of cold food to chew on while we pretended to be happy to see so many people in our house.  We sat in a huddle on the couch and let the well wishers talk at us.  Every now and then Vince or Steve would glance at me, and we'd share a "please make them leave" look.  It was strange that even in a time of such crushing grief, we were bonding.  The bond would make us stronger in the long run, but at the time, we only saw it as really comforting each other.

The rest of our friends, and the entire football team, showed up around three that day, and even though I was tired of people, I was very happy to see them all.  Maria came to support Vince, and even Dustin and Keith were there.  I wondered what Dustin's father thought about that, and then I was surprised to see both of Dustin's parents in my dining room, talking with Mike and Sharon.

At five, we all started getting ready to head to the funeral home, and my calm shell cracked.  I wasn't ready for the funeral.  It had taken just about every ounce of my strength to get through the two visitations.  Steve must have understood, because his arm was even more supportive around me then ever.

We filed into the parlor at the funeral home slowly, and each step I took broke my heart a little more.  I was about to say goodbye to the most important woman in my life, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.  Tears started to fall before I even found my seat, and Vince was the one to stand in front of me and take me into his arms.

"We'll make it, Tommy," he whispered in my ear.  "I'm here for you, and Steve is here for you. We love you, Tommy. I love you just like I love my little brother. You are my little brother, Tommy."

I squeezed back, and brought Steve into the hug as well.  The three of us stood there clinging to each other while everyone got seated around us.  I didn't care what anyone thought about it.  I was being comforted, and I was comforting my lover and my brother.  We'd lost the most valuable member of our family, and we needed each other more than anything in that moment.

When we sat down, I held Steve's hand and Vince's.  We sat there, crying while a minister I'd never met before, read scripture from the Bible.  He said very kind and moving words about my mother, and then invited people to come and say a few words about her.  The three of us each got up and told everyone what she meant to us, but I couldn't tell you what anyone said.  I don't even remember what it was that I said.

Walking through the line to touch the coffin was another of the hardest things I'd ever done, and I wasn't surprised to hear a moan escape me as my fingers touched the pine wood.  My knees felt like they would buckle, and I was so grateful for Steve's hand on my shoulder.  I turned and walked into his arms as soon as we'd made it through that line.  He helped me to our seats, and we cried together while we waited for everyone to get through the line.

When everyone had filed out of the parlor, Mr. Farrell closed the doors and allowed us a few private moments with my mother.  We stood in front of the coffin, and my shell broke into a million tiny shards.  I leaned against Steve and cried like I'd never cried before.  He did his best to hold me up, but Vince had to help in the end.

This was it.  The time had come to say goodbye, and it was the hardest thing I'd ever done.  I knew that I'd see her again in Heaven, but that didn't sooth my aching heart.  It was so unfair, and I wailed against the unjustness of it.  My mother wouldn't be there to see me graduate.  She wouldn't be there to give me advice when I needed it.  A man named Charles Pink had taken my mother from me in the most cruel and heinous way imaginable.

When we got back to the house, I wanted so badly for everyone to leave.  I couldn't stop crying, and I was getting so tired of hearing that it was ok to cry.  Vince did his best to keep people away from me, and soon, Andy was working to do the same thing.  Steve and I tried several times to sneak off to our room, but each time we were stopped by someone wanting to express condolences.  It seemed like it would never end.

We finally just gave up and went back to the living room to sit on the couch with Vince and Andy.  Frank and Doug sat in the recliners, and they barked at people when they started to approach us.  That made me smile through my tears.  They were both turning into really great friends, and I wanted to do something for them to say thank you.

Wendy was permitted to enter the living room along with Ben, and the two of them sat on the loveseat, but neither of them said anything.  It was nice to just have them there with me.  I needed my friends, and there was no way I could deny that.  Nick and Jeremy sat with Peter and Marcy on the floor, and they each just gave me reassuring smiles from time to time.

Finally, people started to leave.  I was happy that they'd come to pay their respects, but I was thrilled that they were leaving.  Vince had told me to expect some of them to pop up now and then in the coming weeks to "help out".  That would probably make me mad, but I'd deal with it when it happened.

Finally, it was just Shirley, Tom, Sharon and Mike, other than my friends.  Doug and Frank had gone home to give us some privacy, and Mike sent Ben, Wendy, Peter, Jeremy, Marcy and Nick to the dining room, so we could have a private chat.  Mike said that he wanted to take me to the firm on Monday to start getting the trust put together.  When I told them that I had planned on going to school on Monday, they all looked uncomfortable.

"You really aren't ready to go back to school, Tommy," said Sharon, infuriating me.

"Look," I sighed.  "I know you are all worried about me, and I can appreciate that, but I'm not going to be told what I can and can't do when it comes to school."

"I wasn't trying to . . ."

"Sharon, leave it alone," I spat.  "I told you before that I don't want advice from you. Now I'm sorry for being rude, but you know that I don't trust you, and I won't have you telling me anything about what I should or shouldn't do."

"Tommy, maybe it isn't such a good idea that you get back to school so soon," said Tom.  "You've had a very trying week."

"But its been a week," I said.  "I'm not missing school. I don't want to sit around feeling sorry for myself. I have the weekend, and I'll be at the firm on Monday morning, so I guess I have Monday, too. I will be returning to school on Tuesday. I don't care what anyone thinks about it. I need to get back to school. I need to do something to take my mind off of all of this."

"Tommy, no one is trying to keep you from going to school," said Mike.  "You're right. We are worried about you, but you are the one who knows when you're ready to get back into school. The only thing that I have to say about it is that you should consider your stomach."

"I have," I assured him.  "I have an excuse from the doctor for gym class, and I won't be working out or running for a while. Going to school isn't going to hurt my stomach."

"What if you get into another fight?" asked Sharon.

"Not this again!" I screamed at her.  "This is exactly where you stepped over the line to begin with. You will not even talk to me about fights, Sharon. How dare you?"

"Sharon, why don't you take the boys home and make sure that they're handling this," said Mike slowly.  "The last thing we need is to upset Tommy."

"Fine," she said, glaring at me.

I watched as she got up and walked out of the room, and I didn't say another word until she was out of the house.  I didn't want to fight with anyone, but Sharon Andrews wasn't going to be a friend to me after what she'd done.  I couldn't allow that.  Steve looked at me with a strange look in his eyes, but he didn't say anything.

"Now," I said finally.  "Let's talk about the trust."

"What trust?" asked Steve.

"My mother had life insurance, and the firm had some on her as well," I said.  "Its a lot of money, and Mike and Tom are going to put it into a trust."

"As I told you," said Mike, "you'll receive a monthly allowance, and once we invest part of the money, there'll be dividends to think about. We'll probably just reinvest the dividends, but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

"I'll need money to pay the bills around the house," I said.  "There's also groceries and supplies to think of."

"We'll take care of that, Tommy," said Shirley.

"A house account will be opened, and money will be placed in it each month," said Mike.  "Just like the trust, you will have the ultimate say over the account. Although you won't be able to draw money from either the trust or the account without Tom. On the same token, he can't withdraw or make any decisions without you."

"Where are you planning to invest the money?" I asked.

"Well, we'll discuss that with someone who handles investments," said Tom.  "You'll be in on that discussion as well."

"Do you know of anything that you'd like to invest in?" asked Mike, looking at me with raised eyebrows.

"I don't know a thing about investments," I admitted.  "All I do know is that some things are really hot right now, but that doesn't mean that the stock is worth anything."

"Well, we'll have one of the attorneys at the firm put in a call on Monday," said Mike.  "Unless you'd rather that Tom find someone on his own."

"That's fine," I said, shaking my head.  "What I want is to go to bed."

"What did you decide about the flowers?" asked Shirley.

"I'll deal with the flowers in the morning," I said.  "Right now, they seem happy where they are."

That comment brought a smile to Steve's face.  Even Vince had a glint in his eyes after that one.  I hadn't intended to be flip about it, but I was a little irritated that she was so worried about flowers.  All I wanted was to go to sleep and end the horrible day.

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