Chapter 9
Despair And Acceptance
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.

When I woke up again, I was alone in my room.  I'd been put back in bed, and the comforter was up to my chin.  At first, I didn't know what had happened, and then that crushing feeling of loss consumed me again, and I was crying all over again.  I thought of all of the times that my mother had sat on the bed beside me, telling me that everything was going to be ok.  It wasn't going to be ok this time.  She was gone, and there was nothing that I could do to change that.  It was the most horrible feeling I'd ever experienced, and I didn't know how to process the emotions that it caused.  Crying seemed to be the only thing I could do.

When I thought about the fact that my birthday was the very next day, I cried harder.  My mother wasn't going to be there with me on my birthday for the very first time in my life.  I didn't even want to celebrate my birthday, but I knew that Steve and Ben had planned a party for me.  I just didn't know if I could actually make it through a party, knowing that my mother's body was in a grave in a cold and lonely cemetery.  It just wasn't right.  I was too young to have lost my mother, and for the first time, it really hit me that I was actually an orphan.  I had no family at all now, and that just made me feel worse.

When the door opened, I fully expected to see Steve, but I was surprised by Vince's worried face.  He walked in and sat on the edge of the bed, looking down at me with worry filled eyes.  He didn't say anything for a few minutes, and I turned my head so that he couldn't watch me cry.  I at least had the presence of mind to be embarrassed by my tears.

"Its ok," he said finally, and then I felt his hand on my chest.  He patted me a few times, and then his hand was gone again.  "You go ahead and cry, Tommy. I know you miss her."

"It hurts so bad," I said through a sob.

"She was a really great woman, and we all miss her," he said.  "I just don't think any of us thought about how much you miss her."

After that, he pulled me up into a sitting position and put his arms around me.  I saturated the shoulder of his shirt with fresh tears, but he held me while I cried and rocked us back and forth slightly.  I can't for the life of me tell you how long we sat that way, and I don't even know when Steve walked in and took Vince's place.  I just know that when I pulled back for what I thought was the first time, it was Steve's tear stained face that greeted me.

"I love you, Bud," he said, and I started to sob all over again.

"I love you, too," I said, and then I was wrapped tightly in his arms again while he let me cry it out.

I didn't think I would ever cry it out, though.  It was like this aching hole inside me that just kept getting bigger with each memory of my mother that flashed through my mind.  It hurt so bad to remember her, and yet I kept trying to think of even more memories.  It was like I was torturing myself on purpose.  I missed her so much, and all I could think about was that I didn't even get to say goodbye to her.  That hurt more than anything.  I tried so hard to remember what we'd talked about the night before she died, but I couldn't remember.  I remembered all sorts of important conversations that we'd had, but the last one was just gone from my memory.

As the sun started to go down, Shirley came into the room and sent Steve downstairs to eat supper.  He cast a worried glance at me before leaving the room, and I missed him like crazy as soon as the door was closed.  Shirley sat on the bed and talked to me about how I was feeling.  She didn't tell me it was ok or that everything was going to be all right.  She just listened to everything I had to say.  In the action of just listening to me, she made me lover her more than ever.  I still saw her as kind of a replacement for my mother, and I still resented it a little bit, but she wasn't trying to replace her.  She was only trying to show me that she cared for me, and I wasn't alone.

No matter how many people tried to show me that I wasn't alone, I still couldn't stop feeling that way.  Even when Steve was with me, it felt like he was a million miles away.  I didn't understand why it felt like that, and I hated it.  Dr. Franklin had warned me about the power of despair, and I had thought I was prepared for it, but there was no way to prepare yourself for the crushing reality of it.  It was like I'd lost my mother all over again.

When I was finally able to stop crying, I followed Shirley downstairs to the dining room.  I didn't think I'd be able to eat anything, but being around everyone would at least make me feel a little better.  You would think that it would be hard to feel so alone when you were surrounded by so many people, but you'd be wrong.

I surprised myself once the food was put in front of me.  I was ravenous, and I ate everything on my plate and even had seconds.  I felt like I would start crying again at any moment, but I didn't want to go back to my room just yet.  I followed Steve into the living room, and I was thankful that he protectively held my hand along the way.  When I sat down on the couch, he sat so close to me, and he put his arm around me while the other hand held mine.

No one said anything.  We just watched television.  I don't know if it was a movie or just a regular program, though.  All I saw was my mother's face, and I fought hard to keep from crying again.  I think Steve sensed when I started having trouble, though, because he tightened his grip on my hand, and his arm around my shoulders pulled me even closer to him.

The next thing I knew, he was dragging me off of the couch to go to bed.  The clock on the wall told me that it was almost ten, and I couldn't believe that we'd sat there that long.  It hadn't seemed that long to me, but then I'd been fighting with myself the entire time, so the passage of time probably shouldn't have shocked me.

That night I was plagued by nightmares where I came home from school with Steve, Nick and Jeremy, but when the car pulled into the driveway, they just disappeared.  Inside the house, I was completely alone.  Andy and Vince weren't there, and when I went outside it felt like a ghost town.  I woke up three times that night, shivering from a cold sweat, and each time, Steve wrapped his arms around me, and I bathed in the comfort of his reassuring embrace.

The sun was burning bright the next morning as I slowly came to full consciousness.  Steve was sitting up, looking at me when I opened my eyes.  I gave him a small smile, but I knew it didn't reach my eyes.  I felt no better that morning than I had the night before.  The day was here, and I was sixteen years old, but instead of being excited, I was depressed.  I told myself I wouldn't cry, though.  I didn't want to ruin the day for everyone else, too.  Steve and Ben had planned a party, and I would at least pretend to have a good time.

We took a slow hot shower, taking special care to make sure that we never stopped touching each other.  Steve seemed to know that I needed the contact, and I just soaked it up.  He washed my entire body for me, and he even washed my hair.  Now, let me say that there is nothing more erotic in the entire world than someone washing your hair! Even more depressed than I'd ever been in my life, I appreciated the eroticism.  I didn't even feel guilty about being aroused by it.

After our shower, we went downstairs to get breakfast, and we found Shirley, Ben and Tom sitting at the table with Vince and Andy.  Each of them gave me a worried glance, but I pretended not to notice it.  As soon as I sat down, Shirley placed a plate of eggs and bacon in front of me, and Andy handed me a glass of orange juice.  I could tell by the looks on their faces that everyone was nervous, and I hated the fact that I was the cause of it.

"Happy birthday, Bud," Steve said softly as he gripped my hand on the table.

"Thank you," I said in a weak voice.  I was so thankful to him for at least trying to make the effort even though hearing it brought fresh tears to my eyes.

"Wendy will be here in a few hours to get you," said Ben.  "Do you still want to go?"

Wendy and I were supposed to go shopping all day.  They didn't know it, but I knew it was because the party was being held in Wendy's back yard, and Steve, Ben, Nick and Jeremy were just waiting for me to get out of the house so they could join our other friends over there to set everything up.  The weather men had been predicting a hot June first, and so far, it looked like they'd been right.  They were giving me a pool party.

"I'll go," I said softly.  I didn't want to mess up their plans.

"You don't have to go, Bud," said Steve, rubbing my back.  "You can stay here with us if you want."

"Thanks," I sighed, smiling at him.  "I promised Wendy, so I'm going to go with her. I don't want to break any more promises."  I looked at Shirley when I said that, and she smiled at me.

"If you need anything, just call," she said from across the table.

"I will," I replied.

Shortly after breakfast, Wendy arrived.  She hugged me and gave me a worried look as she looked into my eyes.  She didn't say anything, and her smiled only faltered for a few minutes.  We left for our day of "shopping" after I kissed Steve goodbye.  We were quiet all the way to her car, and I was doing everything I could to not think of my mother.

"So, are you ready to shop?" she asked, faking a smile when we were in the car.

"Gung ho," I replied lamely.

"Tommy, are you really ok?" she asked as she started the car.  "If you'd rather, we can just go somewhere and talk."

"Its ok," I said.  "We can talk while we browse the mall."

And that's exactly what we did.  We talked about how I was feeling about my mother not being there for my birthday, and she told me all about how she felt when her grandmother died.  She'd been very close to her grandmother, and though it wasn't the same thing, I was grateful for her understanding.  She said that the first year would be awful.  Every time a holiday came along, I'd feel cheated, because my mother wasn't with me.  The second year would be a bit better, but it would still hurt.

We looked at everything there was to look at, and I even bought a few things.  It wasn't anything I really needed or wanted, but it just felt like I should buy something.  Wendy got a kick out of the silly things that I bought, and the two of us headed to the food court for lunch.  I was surprised that it had reached noon already.  I was even more surprised to find that I was actually very hungry.

"So did you get everything you wanted?" she asked me with a chuckle as we were finishing up our meals.

"You mean everything I could find that was silly?" I asked.

"I miss this, Tommy," she said.

"Miss what?"

"This," she said, spreading her hands out in front of me.  "We used to come here a lot, remember?"

"Yeah," I said, looking down at the table.  All of my friends were suffering from neglect, and it was making me feel like complete crap.  "I'm sorry about that."

"You don't have to be sorry about it," she said.  "I understand. I just hope that we can start doing things like this again. We all miss you, Tommy."

"I've been here all the time," I said lamely.

"Yeah," she said.  "You've been here the whole time, and we've all watched you try to destroy yourself."

"Its hard, Wendy," I said, trying hard not to get upset.

"I'm not trying to upset you," she said, "and I know its hard. You just need to let your friends help you a little. We all care about you very much, Tommy."

I promised her that I'd try to do better, and she seemed to accept that.  We talked about what Dr. Franklin had told me about the stages of grief, and she seemed to know a lot about that.  She told me that when her grandmother died, she'd watched her mother go through a lot of bad days.  Her mother hadn't done the things that I had, but Wendy said it wasn't exactly easy for her, either.  She told me that what had ultimately helped her mother cope with her loss was talking.  Wendy said that she'd be there for me any time I needed to talk, and when I told her that I didn't think I could talk about it, she smiled at me.  She said that I'd be surprised.

We went back to browsing after that.  I didn't buy anything else, but we saw many things that we both wanted.  With Wendy, most of it was clothes.  I got a kick out of the way her face lit up when she saw clothes that she liked.  She thought it was funny to watch me in the computer stores, almost drooling over the newer models of the computers.  It was almost three before we left the mall, and she asked me to stop by her house before I went home.  I thought she knew that I already knew about the part, but I didn't say anything.

I was surprised that there weren't a bunch of cars at her house when we got there.  Steve had told me that they would all be there, setting up for the party by noon, and they'd be ready for us when Wendy finally let me leave the mall at three.  I wondered where they all were.  Wendy, of course, didn't let on that anyone should have been there, so I just followed her into the house and into the dining room, where I was confronted by a large group of people quite visible through the sliding glass doors that led to the back yard, pool, deck and patio.

"Oh, by the way," said Wendy, turning to face me with a cheshire cat grin, "happy birthday, Tommy."

"A party," I said, feigning surprise.

"Oh, stop it," he giggled.  "I know you already knew we were throwing the party. It wasn't supposed to be a surprise party, so I don't care that you found out about it."

"Looks like the entire football team is here," I said, looking at everyone through the doors.

"Varsity and most of junior varsity," she said.  "I'm going to go upstairs and change into my swimsuit. Steve has your trunks out there somewhere."

"Thanks, Wendy," I said, smiling at her as she walked out of the room.

I left all of my bags in the dining room and went outside to join everyone.  Nick and Jeremy were busy trying to throw Peter into the pool, and Steve and Vince were having a friendly argument over the food by the grill while Ben and Doug were throwing a football back and forth between them.  Just about everyone else was in the pool or sitting around it.  I noticed Tom, Shirley, Mike and Sharon sitting on the deck with Mitch and Mrs. Benson.  I waved at them as I headed toward my boyfriend.

"Bud!" cried Steve when he saw me, and a huge grin spread over his face.

"Happy birthday, Tommy," said Vince as I reached the grill.

"Thanks," I said as I pulled Steve into my arms.

"How was the mall?" he asked, wrapping his arms around me.

"Oh, fine," I replied.  "I bought stupid things."

"Well then," he said, smiling at me, "we'll be stupid together later when we look through your 'stupid' things."

"Sounds stupid," I replied, smiling.

"Wanna get wet?" he asked, raising his eyebrows.

"Please," I said as he took my hand and led me back into the house.

The adults smiled at us as we walked past them and into the house.  Wending was just coming into the dining room, wearing her new swimsuit that she had somehow bought at the mall without me noticing.  She twirled around for us, modeling the suit.  I smiled at her, and Steve whistled.  She laughed and playfully shoved him.

"Looks good," he said.

"Thanks," she said.

"When?" I asked, smiling at her.

"You were drooling over a computer, and I snuck off," she said.

"It looks great on you," I said.

"Thanks," she beamed.  "Love ya."

"Mean it," I replied.

I went into the bathroom to change into my speedos, and Steve and Wendy laughed about all the things we'd bought at the mall earlier.  By the time I came out, Steve as going through the bags of "stupid" things that I had bought.  He was laughing softly as he scanned each item.  Standing there, watching him smile and chuckle, I had a sudden wave of sadness, but I shoved it aside before it could really take hold of me and took his hand.

"Come on, lover boy," I said, smiling at him.  "We're getting wet."

"Let's do it," he said, smiling back at me.

We went back outside as quick as we could without running and rushed to the pool, diving into the cold water and coming to the surface with matching gasps.  Everyone was staring at us at first, but soon they started laughing as we started trying to dunk each other.  Ben and Doug got into the pool and started to attack us, and before I knew it, just about all of us were in the pool having a great time.

The adults let us fool around in the pool for nearly an hour before they called us out to get dried off and have cake.  I was pleasantly surprised to see Thomas, Jeremy's brother, sitting with them.  He smiled from ear to ear when he saw me.  I looked at Jeremy and saw a very excited smile on his face.  He must have noticed me looking, though.

"He's moving in with us," he said without taking his eyes off of his brother.  "Sharon got them to let him come home."

"That's great," I said.  "I'm really happy for you both."

"Thanks," he said, turning to face me.  "Your mom is the one who got the ball rolling for this, though."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, she talked to Sharon about it, and they filed some kind of papers at the court house to transfer his guardianship to Sharon and Mike," he said.

"I had no idea," I said as we walked up to the table.

"Well, we weren't going to say anything to you," he said, "but your mom really made this happen for us."

"I'm glad," I said sadly, remembering her.

"Hey, Bud," said Steve right on queue, taking my hand in his.  "Its all right."

I shot him a weak smile, and we sat down at the table.  My sadness was quickly overcome by Thomas's excitement.  He gushed about my birthday, and he informed me that he was learning to swim.  I looked at Mike, and he explained that they were taking him to the YMCA in the morning to start him in a program for downs children.

We all settled in to eat barbecued burgers and other picnic fixings, and everyone talked about how excited they were about summer.  There were only two more days of school, and most of my friends couldn't wait to get them over with.  Doug and I would both be attending summer school.  For me, it was a choice, but Doug explained that he had to get at least two more credits before he could graduate.  No one asked him why, and he didn't offer an explanation.

As soon as the food had all been eaten, Shirley and Mrs. Benson came out of the house with a huge birthday cake.  Everyone surrounded me and the cake once it was placed on the table, and they actually sang "Happy Birthday" to me, humiliating me slightly, but I loved them all for it.  We each had a piece of cake with ice cream while everyone talked about presents.  Steve couldn't wait for me to open them all.  It seemed that he had the same enthusiastic attitude about birthdays and he did about Christmas.

I got a bunch of computer software from just about everyone.  Doug's gift was really practical, but I had no use for it.  He'd gotten me a carrying bag for a lap top computer.  I saw the disappointed look on Mike's face when he saw that I had opened that.  I wondered why he looked so upset until I opened the gift from him, Nick and Sharon.  It was a Sony Vaio lap top.  I was stunned.

"Well, you're going to be going to college for computer programming," said Mike when I looked at him.  "We thought you'd need a good lap top."

"College is two years away," I muttered.

"You can also use it in your computer classes in school," said Nick, smiling at me.

"Thank you guys," I said finally, smiling at each of them.  Even Sharon got a smile.

My gift from Steve was private, he told everyone, making me blush like crazy.  He said that it was back at home, and he'd give it to me when we got there.  I wondered what it could be, but thankfully, no one said much about his "private" gift.  I was forced to sit and watch as my friends cleaned up wrapping paper and put it in a trash bag.  Then we were all back in the pool, but it didn't last that long.  The evening air was cooling down.  The pool, which had been slightly cool earlier, was definitely getting cold.  We did stay in there long enough to play a few water games before everyone had to get out before getting too cold.

When we got home, Zeus was very happy to see us, and I cursed myself for forgetting to fill his food bowl.  I got him something to eat just before Steve dragged me upstairs to the bedroom.  His excitement had rebounded and was back in full force.  It made me a little excited to see him so happy.

"Ready?" he asked, hopping on the bed and grinning like an idiot.

"Ready," I affirmed, joining him on the bed.

His smile became devilish as he leaned over and reached under the bed.  He paused, looking at me with that mischievous glint in his eyes.  I was about to say something to him when he pulled out a small rectangular box wrapped in black paper with a red ribbon tied around it.  It looked like a small jewelry box, possibly a bracelet.  His smiled widened as he sat up straight and handed me the box.  Then the mischievous look turned to a worried look as waited for me to open the box.

I carefully untied the ribbon and removed the wrapping paper to reveal the last thing in the world I'd ever expected to get for my birthday.  I stared at him, and I saw the worried look become a pleading look as he looked back at me.  I looked back down at the gift, and I understood the real gift behind the box of twelve condoms that I now held in my hands.

"Tommy, we don't have to do anything tonight," he said softly, so softly that I barely heard him.  "I gave you those to show you that I'm ready to go that far. We can still go slow, but I wanted you to know that I think we're both ready."

"Steve . ."

"No," he said, cutting me off as he took my hand in his.  "I love you, Tommy, more than anything I've ever loved in my entire life. I know that I'm ready, but are you?"

"I love you, Steve," I said.  "I love you more than anything in the world. I just don't know if right now is the right time to even have the discussion. I'm not exactly in the best emotional situation."

"I know," he said, looking down.  "I think that maybe this could help."

"Or it could make it worse," I said, shocking even myself.  "When this happens between us, I want it to be perfect, Steve. I don't want anything bad to happen. Right now, I know I couldn't put my whole heart into it, and that's not fair."

"I don't understand," he said, and I could see the confusion in his eyes.  What was worse, I could hear the fear in his voice.  He was afraid that I didn't love him as much as he loved me.

I had to choose my words very carefully.  It was true that I hadn't thought that I was truly in love with Steve.  I'd let what Sharon had said make me doubt that, but when my mother died, and Steve held me in his arms, it was like I felt safer in his arms than I ever had in my entire life.  Even through the cloud of self hatred that I'd gone through for months after the funeral, I would sit and watch him sleeping.  In those times, I was more scared than I'd ever been that he'd be taken from me somehow.  I knew then that I couldn't live without him.  I knew then that was in love with him, and I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him.

"Steve," I said, taking his hand.  "I love you so much that it makes me dizzy sometimes. As for being ready for this, I don't know when anyone is really ready for it. They tell us that we're too young, but we both know that others our age are doing this already and have been for quite some time. I'd love nothing more than to be with you like this, and I'm really happy that you feel the same way.

"Its just that right now," I continued, "I don't think that I could really put all of my heart into it, because I can't get my mother out of my head. I know that's stupid, but every time anything good happens, I want to die inside, because she isn't here to share it with me."

"That's not stupid at all, Tommy," he said, squeezing my hand.  "I'd be heartless if I didn't understand that. Don't think that I haven't been watching you. I know that this is tearing you up inside, Tommy. I also know that you weren't really there at the party tonight. I could see it in your eyes. I know that you were wishing your mother was there. There's nothing wrong with that, Tommy. That's natural."

"Yes," I agreed.  "I've been discussing this with Dr. Franklin, and he keeps telling me what to expect. I just didn't want you to think that I didn't want to make love to you."

"So you do?" he asked, smiling at me.

"Of course, I do," I said, smiling back.  "More than anything, I'd love for us to finally get that far, but like I said, I want it to be perfect. Please be patient, Steve. Wait just a little while longer."

He pulled me into his arms, and kissed me so softly.  My arms went around him, and I just soaked up the love that radiated from his touch.  I really did love him completely, and I wanted nothing more than to find out what it would be like to be one with him.  I just wanted to wait until I knew for sure that I could really be there completely when we made it that far.

I was sure that some people would say it was maturity that made me wait, but it really was love.  Actually, even through my grief, I was happier than I'd been in a very long time.  Realizing that I was really in love with Steve made me so happy.  This time, when I wished that my mother was there to discuss it with, I didn't feel broken inside.  It hurt, but not nearly as bad as it had been.

When we went to bed that night, I was still awake when Steve's breathing evened out and slowed down.  I looked at his face in the moonlight, and I wondered how in the world I'd ever let anyone make me doubt my love for him.  We'd shared so much in such a short amount of time, and each event had made us closer together, strengthening a bond that would hopefully last for the rest of our lives.  I loved him with all of my heart, and I knew that I had to find a way to come to terms with my mother's death, so I could be with him completely.

The next day, our sleep in day, we lay in the bed, holding each other.  We were both awake, and I was sure that we were both thinking about the conversation we'd had the night before.  I was so happy that he thought we were both ready to take the final sexual step, and I was so happy that I could just hold him in my arms, feeling his chest rise and fall with each breath he took.  We were alive, and we were in love.  I owed it to him to figure out how to accept the way things were without my mother.

For the rest of Sunday, I stuck to Steve like glue.  He seemed happy with it, and we were a lazy couple of teenagers, lounging against each other on the couch.  Not even Vince's cocky remarks could phase us.  Andy just smiled at us as we talked with Nick and Peter when the two of them showed up.  They kept trying to get us to go somewhere, but neither of us would give up the comfort of each other's touch long enough to go anywhere.

We watched mindless television programs until Shirley and Tom came over to drag us to the dining room for lunch.  Even Shirley could see that something was different between us, but she didn't ask about it.  She just smiled and went back to eating her soup.  Steve and I sat next to each other, and we didn't scoot our chairs any closer, but the thought crossed my mind.  I couldn't believe how happy I was to just spend time with him.

We finally did go outside after lunch when Nick recruited Ben and Doug to drag us out of the house.  We sat in my back yard, talking about summer.  Actually, Ben, Nick and Steve talked about summer.  Doug and I would be in school for six full weeks of it, so it really wouldn't be much of a vacation for us.  I was starting to wonder how I could have been so crazy as to actually ask for summer classes.

"We'll be in Trig together this summer," said Doug as we sat on the brand new picnic table that Andy had made in one of his classes at Storyville U.

"Yeah," I said.  "I'll be alone for Spanish, though."

"Not really," he said.  "I hear that Keith has to take that class this summer to graduate."

"So, I'll know at least one person in the class," I said, smiling.

"And he wants to get a job," said Steve, glaring playfully at me.

"What's wrong with that?" asked Doug.  "We're all getting jobs this summer. Ours will just have to be part time."

"Well, I know I can't talk him out of it," laughed Steve.  "He gets all tuff guy when I try."

"I've seen tuff guy," said Doug, shooting a menacing glance at me.

"What?" I asked.

"You don't remember?" asked Ben, smiling from ear to ear.

"Remember what?" I asked.

"Ok," said Doug.  "Right before your big swan dive, you attacked me in karate."

"I did not," I said quickly although I could vaguely remember a little "friendly" competition in karate class.  I just hadn't thought it was Doug that I'd squared off with.

"Yes, you did," he said, laughing.  "It was actually kind of funny. You were trying to convince Dave that you'd been paying attention to the moves he was trying to teach that day, and you said that if he didn't believe you, you would challenge a member of the advanced class."

"Oh, God," I said, wincing.  "I think I remember that now. I'm sorry, Doug."

"Don't be sorry, Dude," he said, smiling.  "I've got more muscle, but you've got more power. That's all. Be happy that you can feel secure if someone attacks you."

"Well, blind fury doesn't make me feel secure," I said, causing his smile to slip.  "I can barely even remember what happened, and I know that any power I had at the time came from self hatred. I think I wanted to get knocked on my ass."

"That's over now, Bud," said Steve, protectively taking my hand.

"I know its over," I said quickly.  "I'm just not finished apologizing for my stupidity to each of my friends. What I did in that class was completely stupid and dangerous."

"Hey, Dude," said Doug.  "You were hurting, and I just happened to be the one who had to stand in front of that pain that day. No hard feelings at all. Besides, you didn't hurt me. All you did was hurt yourself in the process. You're the one who you should apologize to, Tommy. We all understand. We didn't like seeing you like that, but we understand why you were in that mess."

"Thanks," I said.  I breathed a sigh of relief at those words.

I was thankful that each of my friends were willing to just accept that I'd been having a "bad time", but I still felt like I had some things to atone for.  Dr. Franklin had warned me that I would be harder on myself than any of my friends would be.  What he didn't warn me about was the fact that I would get dangerously close to really hating myself.  He couldn't warn me, though, because I had refused to see him at the time.  Maybe what Doug said was true.  Maybe I needed to atone to myself for the months of trying to do myself in.  I thought about that for the rest of the day, and I tried very hard to not let that distract me from Steve.

Our second to last day of school was kind of strange.  I'd expected that we'd turn our books in, but instead, we were given assignments.  I was going to ask the teachers why they were assigning work when the final grades had already been figured, but Wendy advised me against it.  She said it was just their way of making sure that everyone was relatively quiet for the day.

At lunch, everyone was excited.  There was one more day, and then they'd be free of school for two full months.  The football team sat with us just like they had every day since the death threats before Christmas, and most of them were seniors, so they'd be graduating in three days.  They were very excited about that, and it was the only thing that our entire group talked about.

By the end of the day, I was actually looking forward to karate class.  I had some things to discuss with Dave, and I hoped that he'd agree to what I wanted to do.  He'd told me the week before that I would be in the advanced class at the end of the summer, but what I wanted was to stay in the class I was in.  My reasoning was that I had been so wrapped up in myself for three months that I wanted to learn all of those moves again.  I hoped that he would agree.

That wasn't the case, however.  When I talked to him about it, he challenged me in front of everyone.  It was a rule that if our instructor challenged us, we weren't allowed to say no, so I squared off with him as soon as he walked into the center of the circle of students.  We went through each move we'd learned since classes had started, and I was surprised that I knew them all.  I could see Steve and Rick staring at me with stunned expressions, and it wasn't until Dave said that we were finished that I understood why.

Dave was our instructor, and he was a black belt.  The fact that I had him soaked in sweat, limping and ready to stop his own challenge didn't escape me.  What it basically meant was that there wasn't much more I could learn in the class I was currently in.  Dave looked at me with a "do you understand now?" look on his face.  I had gotten the point.

That night, I talked to Peter on the telephone for almost an hour.  He told me something that shocked me, and I wondered why he hadn't said anything before.  I'd met his parents several times, but what I didn't know was that Barbara was his stepmother.  He told me that his mother had died when he was ten years old, and if I ever needed to talk about my mom, he would be there for me.  When I asked him why it took so long for him to tell me that, he told me that he didn't think that I was ready to hear it until then.  After the way I'd acted, I had to agree with him.  I was just glad that he felt he trusted me enough to tell me.

That night, I wrapped myself in Steve's arms and just basked in the love I could feel.  I thought about my mother, and for once, all I remembered were the good things.  They didn't make me feel nearly as sad as they had.  I went to sleep with a smile on my face for the first time in months.

The next morning, Steve and I went to the basement to work out, and he kept looking at me funny.  I wondered what was up, but I didn't say anything for a while.  We went through our warm up routine, and he continued to look at me that way.  When I was on the bench, and he was spotting me, he looked at me some more.

"What?" I asked.

"Nothing," he said, smiling at me.

"Then why do you keep looking at me like that?" I asked.

"You look different today," he said.


"Yeah, its like your face is more relaxed or something," he said.

"Whatever," I said, going back to lifting.

When we were finished with out workout, I followed him upstairs for our shower.  He continued to smile at me throughout the entire shower, and I wondered what he meant by me looking relaxed.  As we went downstairs, I was going to comment on it more, but I was shocked to see Tom and Shirley in the dining room.  It was barely six-thirty, and there was no reason for them to be over that early now that school was out.

"Morning, boys," said Tom as we came into the dining room and sat down at the table.

"I told you they'd be up," said Shirley as she placed plates of eggs and bacon in front of both of us.

"Morning," I said slowly, dragging out the word as I shifted my gaze between them.  "What's up?"

"We wanted to talk to you this morning, Tommy," said Shirley.  "And you have an appointment with Dr. Franklin in a few hours."

"Right," I said, smiling at her.  The smile startled her, and for a moment, it looked like she braced herself for harsh words.  I hated that.

"Are you all right?" asked Tom, looking at me strangely while Steve chuckled.

"I told you, Bud," he said.

"Told him what?" asked Shirley.

"Well, ever since we got out of bed this morning, he's had that look on his face," said Steve.

"What look?" I demanded.

"I already tried to explain it, Tommy," he said still smiling at me.

"Is it bad?" I asked.

"Tommy, the best way that I can describe it is by saying that you look like you did the day we got off the plane in Storyville," said Tom.  "You look happy."

"Well, I am happy," I said.  "I got a whole night of dream free sleep last night."

"That's great," said Shirley, beaming a smile at me.

"Yeah," I agreed.  "I also remembered a few things about my mother last night, and for the first time in a long time it didn't make me cry."

"So its getting easier," stated Tom.

"Well, I've also found someone to talk to that has gone through losing his mother, too," I admitted.  "I think that is going to help me a lot."

"Peter?" asked Steve.

"Yeah," I said, smiling.  "He said that he hadn't said anything until yesterday, because he didn't think I was really ready for commiseration."

"I wondered when you two would start talking about this," said Steve.  "Nick and I have been hoping."

"Well, I think its going to help a great deal," I said.  "I'm going to talk about that with Dr. Franklin today, too."

"That's a good idea," said Tom.  "I'm sure he'll agree that its good that you and Peter can share this."

"Me, too," I said.

"But Dr. Franklin isn't the reason that we're over here this early," he said.  "More dividends have been deposited into your account, and I wanted to know what you wanted to do with them."

"How much?" I asked.

"Seven thousand roughly," he replied.

"Well," I said, glancing at each of them.  "I think I'd like to go car shopping today."

"I was wondering when you'd decide to do that," said Shirley.  "You have to take your test first, though."

"We're still going to the DMV after my appointment, right?" I asked Steve.

"That's the plan," he replied.

"Ok," said Tom.  "How long do you think it will take at the DMV?"

"I'm not sure," I said, thinking about how long we'd been there almost a year ago when Steve had gotten his license.

"Well, if there's time after that," said Tom, "we'll go around and look at cars."

"Ok," I said not wanting to carry it any further.  I wanted to buy a car that day, but I realized that the DMV could take a while, so I wasn't going to argue.

Steve and I went into the living room to watch mindless morning television while I waited for it to be time to head off to Dr. Franklin's office.  We couldn't find anything that either of us wanted to watch, so we just watched music videos, or we tried to.  Have you noticed yet that MTV:  Music Television is getting to be nothing more than another channel for stupid shows and reality series?

Vince came into the living room, shocking the Hell out us.  He had no classes to speak of, but he was up before nine.  It was weird.  When he announced that he had to work, we were even more shocked.  I'd had no idea that Vince had even been looking for a job.  He told us that he'd be working the counter at Orvall's Drug Store on the other side of Storyville High School.

"It isn't the greatest job, but it will bring in a little more money," he said, putting on his shoes.

"But isn't the check that Mom and Dad send doing enough?" asked Steve.

"It buys your clothes and helps with food," said Vince.  "It isn't supposed to do much more than that. I've also been putting half of it away in an account for you."

"I only wanted to do that to buy my car," said Steve softly.

"Well, it did buy your car," he said.  "Now I'm thinking about paying for your college."

"I'm going to help pay for college," I said.

"Tommy, don't," Steve said forcefully, and I flinched at the hard tone of his voice.

"What?" I asked.

"Don't," he said louder.

"Fine, whatever," I said quickly, getting up and walking out of the living room.

I didn't understand what I'd done wrong, though.  I'd only said that I planned to help pay for both of us to go to college.  I didn't understand why it made him angry.  I did understand the tone he'd used with me, though.  It wasn't one he'd ever used with me before, but I'd heard him use it with Vince and Sharon a time or two.  That really made me angry.

I went up to my room, grabbed my paperwork for the DMV and went back downstairs and out the side door without even saying a word.  It was only seven-thirty, but I was sure that Shirley would have something for me to do at her house.  She was always working on something.  I just needed to be away from Steve for a while, so I could think about things a bit.

"Hey, Tommy," said Shirley when I came through the back door and into the kitchen.  "Ben's still sleeping."

"I didn't come to talk to Ben," I replied, trying very hard to keep the emotion out of my voice.  "I came to see what you were doing. I thought I'd help out."

"Well, I'm getting these packets ready for the summer staff at the school," she said, nodding at the papers spread on the kitchen table.  "You can help if you like. Is something wrong?"

"Nothing that I can't handle," I said, flashing her a smile that I hoped didn't look nearly as fake as it was.

We worked silently for a while.  What she had me do was take sheet off of each stack of paper and stack them together in order, so she could staple them together and stack them in the box she had sitting on a kitchen chair.  I used the time to think about Steve screaming at me.  I didn't see what I'd done to make him angry, but I did know how it made me feel to hear him use that tone with me.  I was angry, and I was hurt.  I made up my mind that I was going to stay as far from Steve as I could for the rest of the day.  I didn't even know if I was going to sleep in our room that night.  I was really upset.

"You'd better get back to your house and get Steve," said Shirley, looking at the clock behind my head on the wall.  "Its almost time to leave for Dr. Franklin."

"Do you have something to do?" I asked.  "I'd actually like it if you took me to see Dr. Franklin."

"I don't have anything that demands my attention," she said slowly.  "Something wrong?"

"You asked that already," I chuckled.  "I just wanted to spend a little time with you."

"Well," she said, smiling, and I hated that it wasn't completely true.  "Let's get these carried out to the car, and we'll head out then."

We talked about what kind of car I wanted to get on the drive to Dr. Franklin's office.  I told her that I had no clue, but I knew that I wanted one that wouldn't be a gas problem.  Prices were getting outrageous, and I had heard Andy and Vince talking about how much gas their cars ate up.  I wanted a car that was fuel efficient, but I wanted one that looked good, too.

She admitted to me that she knows virtually nothing about cars, so she would be a dangerously bad source of advice on car buying.  So, we branched off into a discussion of "pretty" cars, and I actually had a good time on that ride and discovered that Shirley is really fun to be around.  This was a fact that I had previously been too selfish to even consider.

In Dr. Franklin's office, I discussed the fact that I'd remembered very happy times with my mother the night before, and I wasn't reduced to tears afterward.  He was very happy to hear that, but he warned me that little bouts of sadness would strike me off and on.  I was well aware of that, though, so I wasn't too worried about it at that time.

I told him that I would be going to the DMV to get my license after our session, and he smiled.  He told me a story about his driver's test and how he'd flunked it the first time, because he was nervous.  I hoped that I wouldn't suffer the same fate, but I wasn't all that nervous about it.  I'd studied the rules of the road, and I'd driven Steve's car enough to know what I needed.

"So are you excited about your summer break?" he asked after our license test discussion.

"I'll only have seven weeks of a vacation, broken up with six weeks of summer school," I reminded him.  "I am excited about the seven weeks with no school, though."

"Any plans for your time off?" he asked.

"Well, I had been planning a trip to Magic Land, but I don't know about that just now," I replied, choosing my words carefully.  "I'm also going to be looking for a job over the next few days."

"Ah, the summer job," he said, smiling.  "That will take a little time away from your vacation, but I think its important for young men to make their own money."

"Well, originally, I wanted the job so that I didn't have to spend any of the insurance money," I admitted.  "Now, though, my reasons for that aren't so important. I want a job now, so I'll be doing something with my time that's worth while."

"Any thing that you do for yourself is worth while," he countered.  "Now, why didn't you want to spend any of the insurance money?"

"Well," I sighed.  "I felt that spending the money would be like accepting that my mother was dead. I've accepted that fact now without spending a dime of the money, so that reason is gone. I also didn't like the money, because she had to die for me to have it. I'm still struggling with that thought, but its getting better. I know that she would want me to use the money for college, and I plan to do that. It helps that most of the money I have spent was all from investments."

"Tommy, I'm very happy to see that you are working through this," he said.  "I have to admit that I was a little worried that it would take you a long time to accept that your mother was gone, but I'm seeing that you are coming to terms pretty well."

"It was hard, but I knew that I had to accept it and try to move on," I said.  "The last thing that my mother would have wanted was for me to wallow in misery over her death. My mother was all about living life to the fullest extent, and I want to honor her memory by doing just that."

"Well said," he replied, smiling.  "I'm going to cut our sessions back to one every two weeks for the time being. We'll switch to monthly sessions as I see that you are getting better at dealing with this, and eventually, you won't need me anymore."

"That doesn't seem like something that will happen," I laughed.  "I know that it will, but it seems like I'll need you forever."

"You'll see," he said.

Shirley was waiting for me in the waiting room when I came out to make the next appointment for two weeks later.  She was happy to hear that Dr. Franklin thought I was progressing so much that I only needed to see him twice a month now.  We stopped for a bite to eat after that.  It wasn't even eleven, so I can't say we had lunch.  We talked about what I wanted to do until summer school started, and I told her about my plan to find a job.

"You don't really have to find a job right now, Tommy," she said.

"Well, I don't want to become reliant on the insurance and investment money," I replied.  "I think that I should really find out what it means to earn my own money."

"That's a very mature way to look at it," she said.  "I wasn't trying to talk you out of working. I just thought that it might be too much with summer school."

"I've thought of that, too," I said.  "I'm going to discuss that with my potential employer, too."

"That's good," she said.  "What time do you need to meet Steve for your driver's test?"

"I was thinking that I'd have you drop me off at Peter's," I said quickly.  "I'll call him first, though."

Without waiting to see what she had to say about that, I went to the payphone and called Peter.  He was happy to hear from me and readily agreed to go to the DMV with me.  I was surprised that he didn't even ask about Steve taking me, and Shirley either didn't catch on that something wasn't right, or she just didn't comment on me not wanting to go home and get Steve.

"What's up?" asked Peter after we'd waved Shirley off.

"What do you mean?" I asked, following him to his bedroom.

"I thought you were with Steve," he said.  "Isn't he supposed to take you to the DMV?"

"He was, but I rather that you did it, if you don't mind," I replied.

"I don't mind, Tommy," he said, but he continued to look confused.  He grabbed his keys, and then we went out the back door to his car.

"Look, Steve and I sort of had a fight or something," I said.  "I'm just trying to stay away from him while I calm down."

"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked.

"Not really," I replied.  "I just want to take my diver's test and get my license."

The DMV was just as busy as it had been the year before, and we had to wait for almost an hour.  We talked about nothing in particular while we waiting, but I could tell that he was really wanting to ask about what had happened between me and Steve.  I was glad that he held back from asking though.  I wasn't ready to discuss that.

"You are going to Wendy's party, right?" he asked.

"Absolutely," I said.  "Both Wendy and Ben would have my ass if I didn't go."

"Right," he chuckled.  "I haven't gotten to spend much time with Ben, but he seems like a cool guy."

"He is," I assured him.  "I'm sure you'll get to hang out with him more over the summer."

"Yeah," he said.  "I'm so happy that school is out."

"It is for you," I reminded him.  "I still have summer school to get through."

"That's right," he said.  "Which classes are you taking?"

"Trig and Spanish," I replied.

"Damn!" he gasped.  "Still trying to kill yourself?"

"No," I laughed.  "Just trying to open up more room in my schedule for classes I need for college."

"But Trig?" he asked, raising his eyebrows.

"It'll be ok," I assured him.  "I've already studied most of the Trig book they use."

"Just don't go down the road you were on before," he said softly.

"Don't worry," I said.  "I learned my lesson."

"Good," he said, smiling.

My test went very well, and I left the DMV with my license.  Peter teased me about the picture, but I wasn't mortified by it.  With Peter, I did stop for lunch.  We talked more about the party at Wendy's, and he asked me if Steve and I would be attending together.  That was his way, I think, of asking what was going on between us.  When I said I'd get back to him on that, he looked really worried.  I still didn't discuss it with him, though.

Instead, we talked about our mothers.  He'd lost his when he was ten years old, but he still had a father.  I, on the other hand, was an orphan.  He said that he had no idea what that felt like, but he knew all to well what losing your mother was like.  He told me that he'd been confused for a long time, because, although he was old enough to understand what had happened, he just didn't want to understand.  His mother had gone into the hospital to have surgery, and she'd died during the operation.

We talked about Charles Pink and how he'd been sentenced to life in prison without parole.  He said that he couldn't even imagine what it would be like to know that his mother's killer was alive in the world, even if he was in prison.  I admitted that it was hard, but I was dealing with it.  I was a little surprised to know that I didn't wish the man dead.  I was just happy that he couldn't hurt anyone else the way he'd hurt me by taking the last, and most important member of my family away from me.

I asked him to drop me off at Ben's, so I could see if Tom still wanted to go and look at cars.  I promised that I'd call him later to let him know if I got a car, and I'd even drive over to his house to show it to him.  I was getting excited about buying a car.  I hadn't thought I'd be that excited, but then it would be my very first car.

"Hey," said Ben when he answered the door.  "Where's Steve?"

"No clue," I said, following him into the house.  "Peter dropped me off."

"You were at Peter's?" he asked.  "I thought you and Steve were going to the DMV."

"Oh, I went to the DMV with Peter," I said, flashing him my new license.

"Ok," he said slowly, taking my license from me and looking it over.  "Problems for you and Steve?"

"Looks like it," I shrugged.  "Is your dad here?"

"He's in the dining room," he said, looking at me strangely.  "Tommy, what's going on between you and Steve?"

"I'm not sure," I said, walking away from him and into the dining room.

"Hey, Tommy," said Tom when I walked into the dining room.  "Have you talked to Steve? He called here looking for you."

"I'll talk to him when I go home," I replied.  "Still want to go look at cars?"

"We can do that," he said slowly.  "Don't you want to take Steve along?"

"Steve already has a car," I countered, smiling.

"What's going on with you two?" he asked, looking at me hard.

"Nothing that I want to discuss with anyone right now," I said quickly.  "Please, can we just go look at cars? I'll deal with Steve when I go home."

He didn't look happy about it, be he agreed.  I knew that he thought I should open up when I was having a problem, even if it was a personal problem between me and Steve.  I didn't agree with that, though.  If Steve and I were going to be a couple, then we needed to deal with our problems on our own.  I couldn't stop Steve from talking about it with others, but I didn't have to do it.

Ben went with us, and he and I discussed what kind of car I wanted.  I told them that I didn't want a brand new car, because I didn't think any sixteen year old needed a brand new car.  What I wanted was a used car in good condition that would run good.  Tom had already explained to me that a I couldn't base my search for a car only on fuel efficiency.

We went to a used car dealership about a mile from the house.  I saw several cars that looked good, but I listened closely while Tom talked to the salesman about which of the cars were in the best condition.  He showed us three cars.  The first was a dark red Dodge Intrepid.  I didn't particularly like that car, because it was so large.  The price was out of our price limit, too.

The second car was a silver Chevy Lumina, and I didn't care for that one, either.  The salesman really seemed to want to sell us that car, but something about the way he talked it up didn't sit right with me, so when Tom looked to me for my decision, I shook my head slightly to let him know that I didn't want that car.  I was starting to think that I wouldn't want any car off that particular lot.  I didn't care for the salesman much.

However, the third car, a 1995 dark green Ford Taurus, looked just right in size, and the salesman said that it ran great.  I asked to test drive the car, and Tom looked at me with approval.  We took it around the immediate area, and Tom popped the hood to look at the engine.  When he told me that the car looked fine, I made my decision.  We left the lot with me behind the wheel of my first car, following behind Tom with Ben in the passenger seat, playing with the radio, to Tom's insurance company.

The car had only cost me three thousand dollars, and that included taxes and the title, so we purchased a full year of full coverage insurance, and I still had more than four thousand dollars in my checking account.  Tom had set me up with a checkbook, and he'd told me already that the money that stayed in my checking account was mine to do with as I pleased.  I wasn't sure that I wanted to spend the entire four thousand dollars, but I liked the idea that I had complete control over the money.

Ben and I went from the insurance company to the mall.  I really liked driving myself around for a change, and I didn't even get nervous when we got into traffic.  At the mall, I bought cat food and a few chew toys for Zeus, and we got some things for the car, too.  Ben got a few things for Wendy's party, and I bought a new pair of speedos.  It was summer vacation, and I knew that we'd be spending a lot of time in Wendy's pool.  I wondered about getting a pool for my own back yard, and I thought about talking that over with Tom.

From the mall, we went to Peter's house, so I could keep my promise to show him my car.  He rode with us to Subway for supper, and I marveled over the fact that it was after five already.  Peter said that Steve had called, but I told him again that I would talk to Steve when I got home.  Both Peter and Ben tried to get me to tell them what was going on while we ate, but I wouldn't tell them anything.  I was still mad at Steve for screaming at me, and I didn't want to say anything to either of them about it.

Neither of them looked completely thrilled about it, but I got them both to agree to go and see a movie with me.  We went to see the latest "big" thing, and it was nearly nine before I dropped Peter off at his house.  He said that he'd had fun, but he told me that I'd better go talk to Steve.  I planned on that, so I told him that I would.

"Are you going to tell me what happened between you and Steve?" asked Ben as we pulled away from Peter's house.

"Not until after I discuss it with Steve," I replied.  "I don't like it when Steve runs to anyone when we have a problem, so I won't do it, either."

"But you didn't break up, right?" he asked.

"We haven't yet," I said.  "I don't know what's going to happen when I get home. I'm still pretty mad."

"Are you thinking about breaking up with him?" he prodded.

"Ben, look," I said quickly.  "I said I wasn't going to talk about it, so please don't ask any more questions. Yes, Steve and I have a problem right now, but we've had problems before. That doesn't mean that we'll break up. I'm just not saying that we won't this time, because I don't know what's going to happen when I get home."

"Sorry," he said when I stopped talking.  "I didn't mean to push you."

"Apology accepted, and I apologize for biting your head off," I said.  "Its time for me to talk to Steve, so I can stop being so upset."

We didn't say anything after that until we pulled into my driveway behind Steve's car.  Then he told me that he'd talk to me later as he got out and walked around my house to go through the yard to his own.  I let out a deep sigh as I turned of the engine and got out of the car.  I was immediately confronted by Nick.

"There you are," he spat.  "What the fuck is going on? Steve's been upset all day long, and every time I mention your name, he snaps at me. What did you do to him?"

"Nick, back off," I said hotly.  "This is not your business. Its between me and Steve."

"He's my best friend, Tommy," he said.  "That makes it my business."

"Oh, so what goes on between me and my boyfriend is your business?" I demanded.  "How does that work exactly?"

"Well, I seem to care more about him that you do," he spat.  "You keep walking out on him, and that sucks! I wouldn't walk out on him all of the time!"

"Then why don't you date him?" I yelled.

"I'm not gay," he yelled.  "Besides, he loves you. I don't know why anymore, but he does."

"You know, I'm getting really sick of everyone saying shit like that!" I screamed at him.  "You and your mother!"

"Maybe she was right about you all along, Tommy," he countered.

"Well, maybe I'll sell the fucking house and move," I said.  "That way, you and your mother won't have to worry about me, and you can keep Steve!"

"You know, this attitude of yours is getting tired, Tommy," he yelled back.  "Your mother died. Deal with it!"

"Fuck you, Nick!" I screamed, losing control of my anger.  "Go home to your mommy and daddy and be happy that you have them! Whatever you do, don't ever come back in my house again!"

That said, I turned around and walked away from him.  He yelled something from behind me that sounded like he was sorry, but I didn't give a damn.  He was supposed to be my friend, and friends don't treat each other that way.  What he'd said was unforgivable, and I couldn't see myself forgiving him any time soon.  I didn't think, at that moment, that I would ever forgive him.  In my opinion, he was no better than his mother.

"What the Hell is going on out there?" demanded Vince when I walked in the door.

"Go away, Vince," I screamed.  "I'm not in the mood for an argument with you."

"Tommy, what's wrong?" asked Andy, coming into the room with Steve right behind him.

"Nick Andrews is no longer welcome in my house," I yelled.  "If anyone in this house has a problem with it, I suggest they start packing right now!"

"What did Nick do?" asked Steve.

"Oh, and you want to ask?" I spat.  "Done yelling at me now?"

"Yelling at you?" he asked, and I could see the confusion on his face.

"That's right," I said.  "Before I left, you yelled at me, and then I come home to get screamed at by Nick, who seems to think that I should just fucking deal with my mother's death and stop bothering him and his precious best friend with my problems. Well, I've got news for both of you. You can just move in with Nick!"

"Tommy, calm down," said Andy.

"Stop telling me to calm down," I spat.  "I'm sick and tired of people telling me to calm down. You know, I was doing a lot better today until all of this shit started!"

"What the Hell did Nick say to you to make you so mad?" asked Steve.

"Why don't you go ask your bulldog?" I shot back.

"Tommy, that's not fair," said Vince.

"Again, I'm not in the mood to argue with you, Vince," I said.  "I've been arguing about this shit that Nick said with you and Sharon since the day that Steve and I got together. I've got news for all of you, though. I won't argue about it anymore. If you all want us apart so damned bad, then you just got your wish! I'm done. You people can fucking have him!"

"Tommy, no!" cried Steve.  "Don't do this!"

"Its done," I said, walking out the door.  I got in my car and headed down the street.

I had no idea where I was going, but I knew that I wasn't staying at home that night.  I wasn't all that surprised when I found myself at Peter's house again.  He was standing on his front porch when I arrived, and I knew that Steve, or someone had already called him.  When I got out of the car, I was in tears.  I'd been asking myself how it got to this all the way to Peter's.  Of course, I hadn't actually been aware that Peter's house was where I was going until I got there, but it made sense.  We'd been together for most of the day, and he and I'd had a very good talk earlier.  I just wish that I had never left his house.

"Everyone is looking for you, Tommy," he said when I got to the porch.

"I'm sure they are," I said sarcastically through tears.  "They just want to bitch at me some more."

"Tom called, and he said for you to call him if you come here," he said, putting his arm around me and leading me inside the house.  His parents were standing in the living room, looking worried.

"I'll call him as soon as I can stop crying," I said, sitting down on the couch.

"Steve is out looking for you," he said.  "He might come here, too."

"If he does, I'm leaving," I said quickly.  "I don't want to see him right now."

"What happened, Tommy?" asked Ted, looking at me like he thought I might explode at any minute.

I took a deep breath and told him everything that had happened from Steve getting angry with me when I said I wanted to help pay for his college tuition to Nick basically stabbing me in the heart with the comment about my mother.  Then I told them about the scene in my house, and they were all shocked to hear me say that I broke up with Steve.  That fact hadn't actually sunk in with me until I heard myself say the actual words, and then I was crying even harder.

"You and Steve always worked out your problems, Tommy," said Peter.  "Are you sure you can't work this one out, too?"

"I wasn't even that angry with Steve," I sobbed.  "I was hurt by his harsh refusal to let me help him, but I wasn't mad at him, really."

"I think you and Steve should sit down and talk about this, Tommy," said Barbara.  "You can't let Nick break you up."

"I can't believe Nick!" gasped Peter.  "Of all the insensitive things to say."

"I can't imagine," muttered Barbara.

"Its clear to me that he hasn't wanted me and Steve together since the very beginning," I said.  "Just like his mother."

"What does Sharon have to do with this?" asked Ted.

"Well, she was always trying to get Steve to break up with me before she went to Maine," I said.  "Steve stopped talking to her pretty much after she came back."

"What was she thinking?" mumbled Barbara.  She looked truly dumbstruck.

"I'll never forgive her or her son," I said hatefully.

"I can't see that I would blame you," said Ted.  "Are you sure Nick wasn't just reacting to how upset Steve was when you didn't come home all day?"

"That doesn't excuse what he said to me," I insisted.  "It was heartless and cruel. No friend should ever say things like that to another friend. So, we're not friends. I can live with that."

"What about Steve?" asked Peter.

"You're right," I said, looking him in the eye.  "I need to talk to Steve."

As if saying the words were a magical summons, Steve knocked on the front door.  He saw through the window that I was sitting in the living room, and he practically knocked Peter down, trying to get to me.  When he was in the living room, he stopped about three feet from me, and I looked up into his tear stained face.

"Tommy, please don't do this," he said, and then he was sobbing.

"Don't cry," I moaned as I got up and put my arms around him.

"You can't really want to leave me," he said into my shoulder.

"I don't want to leave you, Steve," I said.  "I'm just tired of everyone telling us we don't belong together."

"Is that what Nick said?" he asked, standing back to look at me.

"He said I don't care about you as much as he does, or something like that," I replied.  "I don't really remember exactly what he said. I remember him telling me that I should just deal with my mother dying and change my attitude, though."

"He feels really bad about saying that," said Steve.

"Don't defend him," I snapped, making everyone jump.  "I won't ever forgive him for it, and I won't let anyone defend him on it to me, either."

"Tommy, he's my best friend," said Steve.

"Well, I'm not asking you to choose between us, Steve," I said quickly.  "But if you can't handle the fact that Nick and I are no longer friendly at all, then I guess we really should break up, because I won't forgive him, and I don't want anything to do with him anymore."

"Stop saying that we're breaking up," he pleaded.  "I don't want to break up with you, Tommy. I love you."

"I love you, too," I replied.  "I just don't want to argue with any of our 'friends' about not treating you right anymore. I know I've made a lot of mistakes, but you are the one I have to make them up to, not them."

"How many of our friends have said something like this?" he asked.

"So far, Nick is the only one," I replied.  "But what bothers me the most is that he said what he said about my mother."

"He had no business saying that about your mother," agreed Steve.  "I'm going to really let him have it over all of this, Tommy. Just please don't break up with me."

"I don't want you fighting with your friend over me," I said quickly.  "What Nick said, he said to me. I just won't have anything to do with him because of it."

"I'm still going to have it out with him," said Steve.  "He almost made me lose you."

"I'm not breaking up with you," I said quickly.  I silently cursed myself for having said that I was going to in the first place.

"And what did I yell at you about today?" he asked as we sat down on the couch.

"When I said I was going to help pay for your college tuition, you got really upset with me," I said.

"Oh, Tommy," he breathed.  "I wasn't trying to yell at  you about that. I just don't want you to feel like you have to take care of me. That money is yours, and I don't want you to use it on me."

"I wasn't going to use all of the money on you, Steve," I said.  "But if I want to help pay for your tuition, then why won't you let me?"

"Can we talk about this at home, Tommy?" he asked, looking around at Peter and his parents.

"Sure," I said, realizing that it was a private conversation.

"Will you come home?" he asked.

I nodded my head, and we both apologized to the Nolls for having to witness all of that.  Both of the adults told us to stop apologizing, and Peter just hugged us both.  We left after that, and I followed Steve home.  When we got there, Andy, Tom, Shirley, Ben, Wendy and Vince were sitting in the dining room.  I cringed inside when I saw them all sitting there, but I knew that I had questions to answer.

We sat down at the table with all of them, and I answered all of their questions.  They'd been worried, but none of them seemed to be really upset with me.  I even apologized to Vince for screaming at him, but he just shook his head and told me that brothers fight.  When we finally talked about what Nick had said to set me off so bad, all of them were very upset with him.  I told each of them to leave it alone, though.  I didn't want anyone saying anything to him about it.  I knew, though, that Ben would have plenty to say to him about it.  I could see that from the look on his face.

By the time everyone was convinced enough that I was ok and left, I was exhausted.  I hugged Vince and apologized again before following Steve upstairs to our room.  Vince returned the hug and told me, again, that brothers fight.  It made me feel good to know that he thought of me as a brother, but I didn't feel any better about the way I'd treated him.

For the next two days, Steve and I searched for jobs.  Ben came with us the first day, but we were alone on our search on Friday.  We had supper at Peter's house on both of those days, and Peter talked with us both about anything that happened to be on our minds.  Not much was said between me and Steve about Nick, but I knew that he had gone next door that next day to have it out with him about what he'd said.  I was thankful that he didn't give me a report about it, though.

Jeremy came over shortly before we started getting ready for Wendy's party.  He talked with Steve in the living room while I helped Andy put away all of the dishes out of the dishwasher.  I got the feeling that he was avoiding me when I came into the living room, and he said he should get going.  I followed him to the door.

"Jeremy, are you mad at me?" I asked him.

"No," he said, turning to face me.  "I thought you might be mad at me, though."

"Why?" I asked.  "You haven't done anything to me."

"Well, you're mad at Nick," he said, looking at his feet.

"That doesn't mean that I'm mad at you or Thomas," I said.  "What Nick did, he did alone. You didn't help him."

"Well, I wasn't sure how you felt about me since I live with Nick," he said uncomfortably.

"I feel the same as I always did about you, Jeremy," I said.  "Until you do something to change that, it will remain that way. I don't judge the people that live with someone that has done something to make me not like them. So, you and I are fine."

"Thanks, Tommy," he said, smiling at me.

When we left for Wendy's party, we took both cars.  Steve was giving Nick a ride to the party, so I chose to take my own car.  Jeremy and Thomas rode with me, so I assumed that Steve was laying ground rules for Nick.  I decided not to think about that, though.  Thomas kept my mind off of it by being excited about my car.  By the time we made it to Wendy's, Thomas had commented on everything inside my car.  He'd talked about the CD player most of the way there, and I'd had to play a few songs for him so that he could watch the display in the dashboard change.  I got a kick out of the way it excited him.

This year, there were more people at Wendy's party.  Steve told me it was because she'd thrown it before any of them had gone off on vacation with their families.  I noticed that more than half the football team had shown up, and Vince and Maria were there, too.  I sat at one of the picnic tables with Mark and Rick while Steve mingled with his other friends.

"So I hear that you and Nick aren't on speaking terms," said Rick when I sat down.

"You heard right," I replied.  "I don't want to talk about it, though."

"That's cool," said Mark.

"What are your plans for the summer?" asked Rick, changing the subject quickly.

"Well, I don't know right now," I replied.  "School will start again for me next month, and I'm trying to find a job."

"That reminds me," said Mark.  "They asked me about Steve at Santucci's last night."

"Are they going to hire him?" I asked.

"I think so," he said.  "I gave him a good reference."

"I'm pulling for you at The Plaza, too," said Rick.

"I thought they weren't hiring," I said, remembering what the manager had said to me when I interviewed.

"Well, we might start hiring soon," said Rick.  "One of our busboys isn't working out very well."

"Keep them talking about me then," I said, smiling.

We all went to the pool after that, and Steve took my hand as soon as I stepped up beside him.  He smiled at me with a questioning look in his eyes, and I smiled back warmly.  We sat at the edge of the pool just putting our feet into the water.  I watched our friends having fun in the pool, and I felt lucky to have them as my friends.  I really was lucky.  In that pool were kids that normally wouldn't want anything to do with homosexuals, and every one of them knew that Steve and I were gay.  They accepted us for who we were and overlooked our sexuality.

"What are you two up to?" asked Wendy, breaking into my thoughts and sitting down beside me.

"Just sitting here," said Steve.

"So are you two ok?" she asked, looking at me.

"We're fine, Wendy," I said, smiling at her.  "I was just being stupid again."

"Don't say that, Tommy," said Steve.  "You were upset, and after what happened when you came home, I'd have been plenty upset myself."

"I just hope that nothing like that happens again," I replied.  "It hurts when someone you consider to be a friend shows you that they really aren't your friend at all."

"I don't think Nick meant what he said, Tommy," said Wendy.  "He was upset, too."

"It doesn't matter," I insisted.  "He knew what he was saying when he said it, and he got what he wanted out of it. I can't be friends with him now. I just can't."

"Be calm," said Wendy.  "We're still going to the mall tomorrow, right?"

"Sure thing," I told her.  "I just don't understand why you want me there while you get a haircut."

"That won't take very long," she said, making Steve snort.  "I thought we'd shop for Steve's birthday presents."

"Oh," I said, glancing at my boyfriend.  "I already have his birthday present, but I can always get him more."

"What'd you get me, Bud?" he asked, smiling at me.

"None of that," I said as his hands found my waist.  "You'll have to wait until next week."

"That's no fun," he pouted, and I shoved him into the pool.

Wendy and I slid into the pool as well, and we swam after him as he tried to get away from us.  We were laughing like crazy as we caught him and, together, shoved him under the water.  He shot back to the surface and turned on us.  We easily evaded him, though, and he started to splash us.  Soon, just about everyone in the pool was in on it, and we were all splashing and dunking each other.  It went on until Mitch hollered for us to get out of the pool and eat.

Steve and I dried each other off while Wendy went to help her dad make set up plates of different foods on the long folding table they were using as sort of a buffet.  We filed into the line that was forming at one end of the long table and got ourselves plates.  Out table was nearly full when we sat down, and I wasn't happy to find Nick sitting directly across from me.  I thought about getting up to find a different table, but that would have been childish.  I could deal with him sitting across from me as long as he didn't talk to me.

"So, Steve's birthday," said Mark, tearing my gaze away from Nick.  "Is there going to be a party?"

"Wendy and I are working out the details on that," I said.  "We'll probably have everything decided tomorrow."

"Are you having the party here?" Nick asked Wendy.

"I don't think so," she replied.  "We're having the pool cleaned, and there's going to be a lot of stuff going on here while we get ready for our trip, so we'll have to find somewhere else to have the party."

"You guys got all of the stuff put in your basement," Doug said, looking at me.  "Why don't you just have the party at your house?"

"That's one of the options we've been discussing," I said, glancing at Nick to find him looking at me.  "I'm not sure about that, yet."

"Well, if you need help setting anything up, I'll be there," said Doug.

"I thought you would be working," I replied.

"Oh, I don't start for a whole week, so I can be available," he said, smiling.

"You got a job?" asked Frank.

"Well, Tommy wasn't really supposed to say anything yet," he said, glancing at me.  "But, yeah. I start working at Red Lobster the Monday after next."

"Sorry about spoiling that, Doug," I said, thinking that I had to figure out how to keep myself from saying and doing things to ignore my anger toward Nick when he was around.

"No problem, Tommy," he said.  "I was going to tell everyone tonight, anyway."

"So where are you going this summer, Wendy?" asked Marcy.

"Niagara Falls," she replied. "We'll be gone for two weeks this year."

"What are you going to do, Ben?" asked Peter.

"Enjoy Niagara Falls with my girlfriend," he said, smiling at Wendy.

"You're going, too?" I asked shocked that he hadn't said anything to me about it.

"I'm hoping to go, too," he corrected himself.  "My mom and dad haven't given me permission yet."

"They will," said Wendy.  "Don't worry."

"My dad told me this morning that we're going to visit my grandparents for a week," said Peter.  "Don't worry, though, we're not leaving until my mom can get her vacation. That doesn't start for another week."

By the end of that discussion it looked like me, Steve, Doug and Frank would be the only ones not going anywhere.  I started to think about that for a minute, wondering just what we could do that would make up for being "left behind" while all of our friends were going to various parts of the country for at least a week.  With Doug working, we couldn't go far.  I'd come up with something with Steve's help.

By the time we got back home, I was tired again.  All of that swimming had taken its toll, and I couldn't wait to take a long hot shower and get to bed.  It was nearly one in the morning already.  Steve and I both decided that we wouldn't be running in the morning.  We'd both be too tired for that after that night's excitement.

"With Doug working, we won't be able to do too much," said Steve when I broached the subject of what to do while the others were away.  "If we both get our jobs, then we'll have even more difficulty getting away."

"Well, maybe if we do it right, we can all get at least three days off at the same time," I said.

"Three in a row?" he asked.  "That'd be kind of hard to do."

"We'll see," I replied.

The next day, neither of us got out of bed before eleven.  Vince and Andy were working on lunch when we came down the stairs.  Ben was there, too.  He teased us about getting up after him for a change, but we just smiled at him and sat at the kitchen table as Vince handed us hotdogs.  Steve's birthday party was the topic of discussion at the table, and I told them that I was thinking about just having the party here.

"What about Nick?" asked Andy carefully.

"He's Steve's best friend," I replied.  "He'll be invited."

"He won't be here," said Steve.  "Sharon and Mike are going to Maine, and they're taking the boys with them. They leave Monday morning."

"When are they coming back?" asked Vince.

"Nick said they'd be back the following Sunday, so they'll miss my birthday," he said.

"Sorry about that, Steve," I said, hating that he had to figure out how to spend time with his best friend because of me.

"No worries, Bud," he said, but I could hear the strain in his voice.

"Well," said Andy, trying to break the tension.  "What's the plan for today?"

"I'm going shopping with Wendy," I said.

"I'm going to hang out with Nick and Jeremy for a while," said Steve, casting a worried glance my way.

"What time is Wendy coming?" asked Vince.

"She should be here any time," I replied.

"Well," said Steve, standing and getting his plate.  "I've got to get next door."  He kissed me before he put his plate in the sink and headed out the side door.

We were silent for a while after he left, and I knew that both of the "older brothers" were trying to decide what to say to me about Steve going to hang out with Nick.  I knew that things would be tense over my fight with Nick, but I didn't expect Steve to just stop having anything to do with his best friend.  I hoped that Vince and Andy wouldn't make it worse by commenting on it.  Luckily, Wendy showed up to save me from that conversation.

"Ready?" she asked as she put her head just inside the screen door.

"One minute," I said, getting up and grabbing my plate.  "I'll be back some time later, guys."

We talked about all sorts of things on the way to the mall, but thankfully, she kept the topic away from Nick.  She did talk about wanting Ben to go with her on her vacation.  I was sure that Tom and Shirley would allow him to go.  I thought it was great that she wanted him to go with her, and I was very happy that they liked each other so much.

"So, the party," she said as we pulled into the mall parking lot.

"My house," I replied.  "As long as we don't invite too many guests."

"Well, some of them will already be gone by then," she said.  "I was thinking Peter, Marcy, Mark, Rick, Dustin, Doug and Frank."

"Everyone else will be gone by then?" I asked, raising my eyebrows.

"Yup," she said.

"Well, we can definitely handle that many people in my basement," I said.

"Did they get your party room set up?" she asked.

"Yeah," I chuckled at her calling it the party room.  "All of the furniture and stuff arrived the day after I ordered it. Vince and Andy worked like madmen to get it all set up. It looks really good."

"Cool," she said.  "Decorations?"

"We can worry about that after your haircut," I replied.

We go to the escalator and rode it to the second floor of the mall, getting off right in front of the salon.  Wendy went straight to the desk and announced that she was there for her appointment, and we were taken back to a station, and then I got to see her stylist.  He was about six feet tall with very short medium brown hair and dark eyes.  I could see from the white dress shirt and dark pants he was wearing that he worked out a lot.  It seemed strange to me that he would be a cosmetologist.

"Tommy, Gage," said Wendy in introductions.

"Nice to meet you, Tommy," said Gage as he put a plastic cape on Wendy and looking me over from head to toe.  "So this is the elusive boyfriend you talk about all of the time?"

"No," laughed Wendy.  "Tommy is Steve's boyfriend. Ben is Tommy's best friend, and he's doing something with this parents today. Tommy and I are going to shop for presents for Steve's birthday."

"Ben?" he asked as he turned her chair and lifted the top of his station to uncover a shampoo bowl.

"My boyfriend," she chuckled.

"Steve has taste," he said as I sat in the chair across from them, blushing.

"Yes, he does," she agreed.

They talked about a variety of things while he shampooed, cut and styled her hair.  They mentioned people I didn't know, and they talked about Mitch.  Gage was also Mitch's stylist, and he told Wendy that he had an appointment later that day.  He asked what we were planning to buy Steve for his birthday, and Wendy asked him if he'd like to come to the party.

"I could probably stop by for a little bit," he said.  "When?"

"Friday," she said.  "We haven't set a time yet."

"Well, I'll be off work by seven that night," he said.

"The party probably won't start until around that time," she said.  "Call me later, and I'll give you the address."

After he was finished with her hair, Wendy and I set out to scour the mall for presents.  We found a few CDs that had just come out, but I didn't want to buy him CDs for his birthday.  Everyone was doing that already.  When I found teddy bears, I had a great idea.  Wendy listened as I told her about the bear that he'd won at Magic Land shortly after I'd met him, and she loved my idea.

By the time we got back to the house with our presents, Steve was home again.  He was sitting in the living room, talking to Vince about something.  Wendy and I raced upstairs to wrap the gifts we'd gotten him.  He came upstairs just as we got the last gift wrapped.  He pouted playfully as Wendy put everything in the largest of the shopping bags.

"We're not taking any chances," I said, hugging him.  "Wendy's taking them all home with her until the party."

"That's not fair!" he gasped.

"Bug off," said Wendy.  "You shook all of your Christmas presents like mad, and I'm not having you crush the cookies I got you for your birthday!"

"You got me cookies?" he asked, smiling at her.

"Maybe," she laughed.  "I'll see you boys later. Oh, Gage is coming to the party."

"Cool," said Steve.  "The more the merrier."

"Later, Wendy," I said.  "Love ya."

"Mean it," she replied, smiling at me.

"So you met Gage," said Steve when Wendy was gone.  "What did you think of the Styling God?"

"He's hot," I replied.  "But nothing compared to you."

"Hot, huh?" he asked, smirking at me.  "So you invited him to my party?"

"No," I said, pinching his side.  "Wendy invited him to your party."

"You know," he said, looking thoughtful, "Andy might like him."

"He might," I agreed.  "But we won't be doing any of the setting up stuff."

"Definitely not," he chuckled.  "But it would be cool."

"Enough," I said, pinching him again.

"Ow!" he cried, pulling away from me.  "You're mean!"

"And you're plotting," I accused.  "Let them alone."

For the rest of the afternoon and evening, Steve and I continued the playful banter with each other.  While he helped Andy with supper, I challenged Vince to a game of chess.  Vince and Andy were always playing, so I thought I'd see how good Vince was.  He quickly showed me that I was outmatched, but we had a good time playing.

After the supper dishes were done, the four of us sat in the dining room, playing cards.  Steve insisted that we play poker, and he dashed upstairs to get chips to play with.  I had a sneaking suspicion that Steve was plotting to start the Sunday afternoon poker games up again this summer, and I was pretty sure that he was planning to hold them at our house.  I was actually in favor of the idea.  I did enjoy the game, and the few times I'd joined him when he went to a game, I'd enjoyed the playful banter and all of the chatting.  It was clear, however, out of the four of us, Vince was the better player.  He beat us very quickly.

The next day, I stayed at home while Steve spent pretty much the entire day with Nick.  Nick would be leaving the following morning, and Steve wanted to spend as much time with him as he could.  I didn't like not being with him all day, but I understood.  It made me think about my decision to ban Nick from the house.  I was still no closer to forgiving him for what he'd said to me, but I was thinking that it would be better if I at least tolerated his presence.  I discussed it with Steve when he came home later that evening, and we both agreed that Nick could come to the house, and I'd even be civil to him.  I just didn't have to like him.

Over the course of the week, we hung out with Doug and Frank a lot.  Wendy and Ben were trying very hard to convince Tom and Shirley to let Ben go to Niagara with Wendy's family.  Doug and I seemed to get along a little better than me and Frank, but that was mostly because I didn't know Frank nearly as well as I knew Doug.  We set out to change that over that week.  I hung out with Frank a lot that week, and in getting to know him, I discovered that he and I weren't much different.  He had suffered the same fears and problems with coming out to his parents, and he was still scared of what would happen at school when he decided to come out of the closet.  Finding out that he was gay was kind of a shock, but then I realized that gay people weren't all the same.   I certainly wasn't like the gay people on television, and neither was Steve.  Frank was a football player, and a damned good one.  He just showed me that gay people were everywhere.

The night of Steve's party, it rained.  That was just another thing that reinforced the idea that I'd made the right decision to have the party in the basement.  Everyone arrived right on time, and Andy and Gage got along great.  I secretly hoped that they'd at least go out for a drink or something.  Andy needed someone.  Wendy and I smiled at each other when Andy and Gage sat down together across the room from all of us.

Steve was confused by my teddy bear gift, but he smiled warmly when I reminded him of the bear on my dresser and the significance behind it.  He got many gifts from each of us, but my original gift would have to wait until everyone was gone.  I'd done some thinking between my birthday and his, and it had to do with the gift he'd tried to give me that night.  I'd decided that if he still felt as ready as he did then, I would let him know that I was ready as well.