Storyville 2
by Julien Gregg

© Copyright 2005 - 2007 Julien Gregg
All rights reserved.
No part of this story may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.  This story is almost all fiction.  Almost all of the characters depicted in this story exist exclusively in the imagination of the author.  Any resemblance to an actual person, living or dead, is, sometimes purely coincidental. 

Chapter Sixteen:
Life In The Spotlight

"What do we do now?" Steve asked as we got closer to the chanting crowd. There was fear in his eyes, and I hated to see him like that. I wished that this whole thing would just go away. I knew that it wouldn't though. This probably wasn't the last time that I'd see that look on his face either. Some things are better faced head on.

"We hold our heads high," I said, gripping his hand. "They're just bigots, Steve. We've faced worse than them before."

Holding his hand, I walked across the street. We were escorted by four policemen, and Shirley, Meg and Tom flanked us. There was no way in hell I was going to let these people think they got to me. I couldn't force Steve to wear a brave face, but I was tired of being destroyed by people who couldn't see the world for what it was. The time for hiding was over a long time ago. These people weren't going to make me cringe in shame.

"What will God say to you on Judgment Day?" cried one of the protesters. "What will you say to God?"

I stopped walking and looked directly at the woman who had spoken. She had long flowing blond hair the color of the sun with a creamy complexion. The white robe she was wearing would have bleached her out completely, but her cheeks were rosy enough to save her. Her big blue eyes were defiant, and her mouth was twisted into a hateful leer as she tried to stare me down. I had no trouble recognizing her, though. She was there at my house the day the stones were thrown. She had been standing right next to the reverend. Before me was Cathy Lions. She was one who had escaped arrest.

"What will God say to you?" I asked. "When He asks you how you treated His children when you were alive, how will you look at Him? What will you say to Him when you have to admit that you were a caster of stones?"

"I'll tell Him that I did His work!" she cried, leaning closer to me. "I'll tell Him that I tried my very best to remove an abomination from His Earth!"

"Ma'am, you're going to have to come with me," said one of the police officers that was escorting us through the crowd.

"You can't arrest me!" she cried as several of her cronies backed away from her. "I did the Lord's work!"

"You are under arrest for the attempted murder of Thomas Porter and Steven Sutton," he said, and I stood and watched as he advised her of her rights.

News cameras were getting it all, and there was no way that Steve and I could escape the cameras. Five more people were arrested out of the crowd of protesters. I didn't recognize all of them, but their own stupid words got them arrested. It wasn't clear if all of them were actually at my house that day, but that didn't stop the police from arresting them.

Once we were safely in the courthouse, Steve sagged against me. I hated that I had aggravated his fear, but I was finished with being a victim. It was time to stand up for myself, and I'd done that. I just hoped he'd understand. I tried to read his eyes, but they were downcast and he wouldn't look at me. For the first time in a long time I was afraid that my actions had hurt my relationship with the only human being on Earth that I could love.

In the courtroom we listened to neighbors who had witnessed the attack on us in front of our house. I looked over at the reverend once to find him glaring back at me. His lawyer whispered something in his ear that make him shake his head and look away from me, but he looked right back. I just glared back at him.

When the trial paused for lunch, Steve still wouldn't look at me. He played with his sandwich quietly with his eyes cast down on the table. Around us the conversation was heavy. Tom and Gloria talked about how they thought the case was going while Shirley and Meg commented on the way the jury looked at me and Steve and then at the reverend. It was clear, at least to me, that the trial would go in our favor. I just wasn't looking forward to testifying later.

Steve testified first when the trial resumed. He told the jury how scared he'd been that day and all of what he could remember. He told them that his head still hurt and that sometimes after reading for a while his vision blurred. That was something I didn't know. I wished he would have told me, but there wasn't anything I could say about it now. When the defense attorney tried to question him, Gloria objected to just about every other question until he finally told the judge that he had nothing further.

"The state calls Thomas Porter," Gloria said, and my stomach flipped over.

I stood up and walked to the stand where the bailiff stood with a bible. After I sworn in, I sat down and waited for Gloria to start. I held my head up high and looked directly at her instead of anywhere else. I was determined not to let the reverend see me afraid.

"Thomas, could you please tell the jury what happened the day you were attacked?" she asked, giving me a reassuring smile.

"When we got to school that day, Reverend Hartman was there with I think most of his congregation," I said, working hard to keep my voice even. "They'd gathered in front of the school and were chanting something about fornication. I'm sorry, I didn't get close enough to them to actually hear them. I didn't want to get into a situation at school.

"After school, I found that my car had been vandalized. The reverend and his congregation followed me, Steve, Mark and Rick to my car where they taunted us and called us sinners and fornicators. The football team came to our defense, and things got a little crazy. I'm sorry, I can't really say what happened next. We were escorted back into the school.

"When we got home from school, we were having supper when we heard a group of people singing a hymn. When we got to the living room we saw that it was the same group that had been at the school. Reverend Hartman and his congregation were standing in my front yard, singing loudly. I went to the door to ask them to leave while Steve's brother, Vince, called the police.

"That was when Reverend Hartman threw a bucket of animal blood at me. He said, 'Let that be a lesson to you,' and then someone threw a rock and hit me in the face. As I fell, I heard Reverend Hartman say, 'Burn in Hell, fornicator.' That's all I remember. I lost consciousness after that," I said and took a deep breath. Talking about it all here in the court room was harder than anything I'd done since my mother's funeral.

"You're certain that it was Reverend Hartman who said those words?" Gloria asked.

"Yes, Ma'am," I replied. "I was looking right at him as I fell. It was Reverend Hartman."

"Thank you," she said with a small smile. "I have nothing further."

She walked back to her seat and sat down. I glanced at the defense attorney as he picked up a legal pad and walked to the stand in front of me. He wore a smirk on his face, and his eyes were filled with contempt. If ever there was a bigot, this man was one. I didn't let him shake me, though. I just looked back at him with as much indifference as I could muster.

"Mr. Porter, you say that you heard Reverend Hartman call you a fornicator and tell you to burn in Hell, is that correct?" he asked, looking down at his pad.

"Yes, sir," I replied.

"Yet you said that just before the revered supposedly said these things to you, you were hit with a rock?" he asked, looking at me with contempt on his face again.

"That's right," I said, wondering what he was up to.

"And you lost consciousness?"

"Yes," I replied.

"Well then, how can you be entirely sure that it was the reverend that spoke those words?" he asked. "Is it possible that you dreamt that he said those words to you while you were unconscious?"

"I didn't dream anything," I replied evenly. It was clear that he was trying to rattle me. I wasn't going to let that happen. "I not only heard him say the words, I saw his lips move as he spoke them. I saw the hatred in his eyes."

"You saw all of that as you were falling?" he asked, raising his eyebrows.

"Yes, I did."

"That's quite a lot of detail to register when you've just been hit in the head with a rock so hard that it caused unconsciousness," he said.

"Objection," said Gloria. "Is there a question?"

"Withdrawn," said Dandridge. "Nothing further."

I was allowed to step down as Gloria told the judge that the state had presented it's case. The judge announced that we would hear defense testimony the following morning. We were excused from the courtroom and Steve took my hand again as we made our way back to the first floor and out into the throng of protesters.

There was another group protesting now, though. Their colorful clothes and big rainbow signs contrasted with the white robes worn by the religious protesters. The two groups were taunting each other as we came out of the courthouse, but as soon as each group saw who we were, they both erupted again. One side condemned us while the other shouted encouragement. Several tried to shake our hands as we passed, but police kept them back. I just clutched Steve's hand and followed Tom across the street to the parking lot.

"I wasn't expecting that," said Meg when we were all in the SUV.

"It's nice to have someone screaming something that isn't hateful for a change," said Shirley.

"The reporters are eating it up," said Tom. "I noticed a few national trucks out there this time."

That statement still made my stomach flip over. I was all for standing up for myself, but did I really want to be on national television? After the events of that morning, though I decided that it was too late for that. The spotlight was already on us. The only thing left to do was make sure that our story got told. I wanted to make sure that the world knew the truth.

Sure there would be those that hated us just because we're gay, but there would be those that sympathized with us because of the attack on us as well. Then there was the group of homosexual protesters at the courthouse. They would stand behind us even if their cause wasn't exactly our cause. Did it really matter why people stood behind you when they gave you support?

When we got back to the house there were reporters everywhere. Steve's face grew dark when he saw them, but he didn't say anything. I looked at Shirley and she gave me a sad smile. The spotlight really was on us now. I wondered how we'd ever get them to go away.

We made our way inside about the time that Vince and Maria pulled up. When they got inside I noticed that Vince paid special attention to Steve for a moment before heading off to the kitchen to see if he could help Shirley and Meg. It took two seconds for them to run him off before he joined the rest of us in the living room, but Maria's help was accepted.

"You both did really good today," Vince said after we'd sat there in silence for at least ten minutes. "I'm proud of you both. I don't know if I'd have had the guts to get up there and tell them what happened in front of everybody."

"I didn't think I was going to be able to do it," I said honestly. "But, I don't know, I guess I'm just more angry about what happened now than before."

"You both have every right to be angry about it," agreed Vince. "What happened was horrible. I still can't believe it all."

"Well believe it, Vince," said Steve in a pained voice. "You were right. We nearly got killed because of what we are. Now we're being paraded in front of national news cameras just so that we can try to feel safe again by sending the people who did this to us to jail. But we'll never feel safe again, Vince. There's always going to be someone out there; some group of people who want to hurt us. We're going to have to look over our shoulders every single day of our lives from now on. You were right. I should have listened to you, and I'm sorry."

I was too shocked by what he'd said to reply for a moment. Vince looked like he was suffering the same affliction. We didn't get a chance to reply, though. Steve got up and walked out of the living room and up the stairs. Vince and I looked at each other for a moment before I got up to follow my boyfriend and see if I could figure out how to make him feel better. I just didn't know how I was going to do that this time. He was right about one thing. There really was going to always be someone out there that hated us for what we are, but I didn't believe that there were groups of people that would try to hurt us. At least not that we were in danger of running across every day. As for feeling safe, that wasn't something I could say he was wrong about. I felt safe before this happened, but now I wasn't so sure. This whole school year had tipped the scales of safety.

He was lying on our bed, face down with his arms folded and his head resting on them. He looked so stiff and scared lying there. I walked over and sat on the bed next to him and he sighed. Without knowing what to say to assuage his fears all I could do was rub his back and be there with him. I really didn't have words that could be anywhere near appropriate in this instance, but then maybe he really just need to be close to someone and feel safe.

While I was rubbing his back he turned onto his side and looked at me. There was fear in his eyes, but as he looked at me I watched it melt into contentment. I snuggled close to him and we just lay there in each other's arms, taking refuge in each other. I must have fallen asleep there because the next thing I knew Meg was calling us down for supper.

From the silence at the table I was sure that Vince had shared Steve's earlier speech with the ladies. Everyone went out of their way to keep supper quiet, and after a few minutes Steve looked up at everyone and smiled. He didn't say anything for a few minutes. He just looked at everyone. When he looked at me, he took my hand.

"You guys are really great," he said. "I know we don't tell you nearly enough, but you really are. You're always there for us when we need help of any kind, and you're there when someone needs to knock us back down to reality. I'm sorry that I'm being quiet. I just have to learn how to handle this in my own way. You're all helping, though. I thank you all for that."

No one said anything after he finished. We all just smiled at each other and went on eating. I don't think there really were any words that would have been the right ones at that time. He was right, though. The people at the table were the most important people in our lives. They guided us and helped us in ways that we never really ever knew about, and they did it because they loved us. Realizing that made me think about a lot of things that I'd done to hurt them all at one point or another. With everything that had happened recently I felt like it was time for me to do something. I still wasn't sure what that was, but I knew that I would figure it out soon.

Steve and I did the dishes after supper. We had to argue with Meg and Shirley about it, but in the end they relented. After the dishwasher was empty again we sat in the living room with Vince and Maria. Tom, Shirley and Meg had gone home, so it was just the four of us. Steve and I snuggled on the couch while Maria and Vince did the same on a blanket in front of the television. We made it a point not to watch the coverage of the trial. We found an old Christmas movie and settled in.

After the movie ended, Steve and I went upstairs to shower and get ready for bed. We slept in each other's arms that night like almost every other, and I thanked God that we were able to love each other. We felt safe in each other's arms for one night at least. Tomorrow might bring new surprises, but we'd handle them together. Together we were nearly unstoppable.

The defense called a psychiatrist to the stand that testified that Reverend Hartman was a sane and well adjusted individual who had let his religion overpower him. Gloria tore that apart on cross and had the man grasping by the time she finished questioning him. She got him to contradict himself several times, and I noticed that the jury was glaring at the man as Gloria continued to trip him up.

Reverend Hartman took the stand just like Gloria had hoped. He told the jury that he'd never intended to kill us. He said that he was just doing what his God wanted. He said that he really did believe that God was proud of what he'd done and he wasn't sorry. Just listening to him talk about what he believed the Bible said about homosexuality made me angry. It also made my skin crawl to think that there were so many people out there in the world that actually agreed with him.

"You say you never intended to kill Thomas Porte and Steven Sutton, Reverend, but tell me what exactly did you intend when you led your congregated to their house to throw stones at them?" Gloria began her cross examination.

"Just what we accomplished," he replied, and I noticed that his lawyer flinched. "Homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of our Lord, and we carried out His will."

"Did God speak to you before you rallied your congregation, Reverend?" she asked. "Did you see a burning bush and hear His voice telling you to stone the victims?"

"I'm not insane, Ms. King," he replied. "I have no delusions that God actually speaks to me."

"Yet you claim that you know that you were doing His work," she said. "If God hasn't spoken to you and told you what his plan was, then how do you know you were doing His work?"

"I know because I am a Christian, Ms. King," he replied. His temper was flaring. His eyes blazed at Gloria as he spoke. "Christians know what God wants for the world."

"Oh," she said and shrugged. "So I should know what God wants then, because I'm a Christian?"

"I doubt that you are a Christian, Ms. King," he said with contempt in his voice and on his face. "If you were you wouldn't be trying to convict me. You would be congratulating me."

"You seem pretty sure about that," she said. "Why then did you hire an attorney? If you think that true Christians would congratulate you instead of convicting you, why not just let the good Christians decide on their own without all of this?"

"Because I don't believe there are many good Christians left in the world," he spat, and I glanced at the jury. They looked both shocked and angry.

Many of them had said that they were active in their churches and considered themselves Christians. What the Reverend had basically just said was that they weren't the right Christians. I imagined that wouldn't sit well with any of them. His lawyer seemed to think the same thing. He shook his head slightly and sighed.

"You say that you didn't intend to kill the victims that day, Reverend," Gloria continued. "Yet you told them to burn in Hell, isn't that right?"

"I may have said something like that," he replied.

"Twelve witnesses have testified that you said exactly that, Reverend," she countered. "Tell me, if you told them to burn in Hell, how can you say you didn't intend to kill them?"

"Those are just words, Ms. King," he said as if he were explaining something to an ignorant child. "People say words that they don't actually mean every day."

"Oh, but do people back those words up with stones?" she asked. "If you didn't intend to kill the victims, then why tell them to burn in Hell right before you started to throw stones at them?"

"I was following God's will!" he cried.

"Right," she replied. "But you've already said that God didn't say anything to you about how to do His work."

"You're twisting what I've said," he complained with fire in his eyes.

"No, sir," she replied. "We can have the court reporter read back your testimony to refresh your memory on what you said."

"Objection, your honor," said Dandridge. "Council is baiting the witness."

"Over ruled," said the judge, glaring at Dandridge.

"Do you hate the victims, Reverend?" Gloria asked.

"They are homosexuals, Ms. King," he said. "I don't hate them as human beings, but I hate what they are, yes."

"Yet you say this wasn't a hate crime," she said.

"This wasn't a hate crime at all," he replied. "This was an act of carrying out God's plan."

"Reverend Hartman, you targeted these young men because they are homosexual," she said. "You threw blood and stones at them and told them to burn in Hell. You even called them fornicators. How in the world do you expect anyone to believe that you didn't do this because you hate them?"

"Objection!" cried Dandridge.

"Withdrawn, your honor," said Gloria quickly. "I have nothing further."

Chapter Seventeen:
Verdicts And Decisions

"Will the defendant please rise?" asked the judge as the courtroom became completely silent. The jury filed in and took their seats as Reverend Hartman and his lawyer stood up.

Gloria had told us that the jury could be out for days, and I'd prepared myself for that. However she'd called not even two hours after we'd left the courthouse and returned home. It seemed the jury had already reached a decision. I didn't know if that was good or bad. Gloria told us that it could be very favorable. I didn't know how favorable it was when I saw the cold looks on their faces as they took their seats in the jury box.

"Madam foreperson, has the jury reached a verdict?" asked the judge as a middle aged woman in the front row of the jury stood.

"We have, your honor," she replied as the bailiff walked over and took the piece of paper she handed him.

He took the paper to the judge who read what it said. He looked at us for a second, and my heart wanted to stop. Could they really have found him innocent? Had I been wrong when I believed that they were outraged by what he'd done? I didn't think I could live with it if they set him free. What kind of message would that send to the gay community; to the bigots and prejudiced? It wasn't until that very moment that I realized that I wasn't done with this fight. I wasn't done by a long shot.

In every city in America people were persecuted, beaten and even killed because of their sexual orientation. People were fired, refused residence and lived in fear all because of a part of them that they couldn't change or control. No, I wasn't done with this fight. It was so huge, but I would be a part of it one way or another. If Reverend Hartman walked out of the courtroom, then I would make it my personal crusade to make sure that he failed no matter what he did with his life after that day. If he didn't walk out of the courtroom there were other avenues for me to travel in my quest to help make America a safer place for homosexuals. I wouldn't be done with this fight until every city in America was safe for gay people to live in.

"In the case of The People Versus Reverend Reverend Donald Hartman, how does the jury find?" asked the judge as he folded the sheet of paper that he'd been handed and looked to the jury.

"We find Reverend Donald Hartman guilty," she said, and I released a breath that I didn't even know I was holding.

The courtroom erupted as several people started shouting. The judged screamed for order and after about twenty minutes the room was silent again. The judge remanded Reverend Hartman to the custody of the police until the sentencing hearing in January. Court was dismissed and Steve and I were surrounded by reporters as soon as we left the courthouse.

We answered questions as best we could, but Steve really didn't look happy about it. When we finally got home he was in a foul mood. I'd expected him to be in a great mood. We'd won. Maybe not everything, but we'd won part of the battle. Reverend Hartman had been found guilty. Surely the rest of his followers would also be found guilty. They were going to be punished for what they did to us. I didn't understand why he wasn't happy about it.

Almost all of our friends were at the house when we got there. Maria, Meg and Shirley began to prepare food for everyone while Tom, Andy and Vince set the dining room and kitchen tables. Everyone was excited and talked about how happy they were that the trial hadn't lasted to Christmas. It was December twenty-third and the trial was over. Gloria told me that a six day trial was actually pretty fast for a case like ours. She said that the jury's coming back so quickly wasn't unheard of, but she'd thought they would be out longer. We weren't looking a gift horse in the mouth, though. Reverend Hartman had been convicted of attempted murder and the perpetration of a hate crime. Gloria assured me that he would be going to prison for quite a while. She also said that now that the reverend had been convicted it would be extremely easy to either convict his followers or get them to deal.

Steve's mood remained low throughout the mini celebration that day. By the time everyone left I was sure that he'd have perked up, but instead he claimed he was tired and went upstairs. I was going to follow him, but Andy pulled me into the dining room to talk about what I wanted to do now that the trial was over.

"I'm going back to school," I said when he asked me what my plans were. "I thought we'd already discussed that."

"That's not what I meant," he said with a chuckle. "I've noticed that throughout most of this you've been pretty angry. Now don't get me wrong here. I'm not suggesting that you talk to anyone about your anger. What I want to suggest is something that might be better."

"Like what?" I asked. He'd piqued my curiosity.

"Well you said that you wanted to do something to make Storyville safer for homosexuals the other day," he replied. "I did some looking around. There are a few groups that you could join that are working toward getting the city to pass laws and other things like that."

"You mean activist groups?" I asked. I hadn't even realized that Storyville had any such groups. "Are they at the university?"

"There are a few groups at the university," he said, nodding his head. "The two I want you to look into that aren't connected to either the high school or the university."

"What kind of people are involved in these groups?" I asked as my mind began to go into overdrive. "And what kinds of things do they do?"

"Well all kinds of people are involved," he said slowly. "I know a lawyer that is involved with one group and a doctor as well. So far all I've seen them do is hold picnics and the like to help promote awareness. They started a petition last year, but I don't know what it was for or how it worked out."

"Can anyone join these groups?" I asked. "I mean I'm not a lawyer or doctor."

"No, but you are Tommy Porter," laughed Andy. "Tommy, you're one of the most famous people in Storyville right now. Use that. I know you don't like it, but it can really open a few doors for you right now. If you're serious about trying to make a difference, use your new found fame."

He slid a sheet of notebook paper across the table to me. I picked it up and looked at the three addresses and phone numbers printed in Andy's neat handwriting. He'd really researched this for me. There were details about what he'd learned about each of the groups under their phone numbers.

"I'll give this some thought," I said as I scanned the page.

"Congratulations on today, by the way," he said, smiling at me. "I'm very proud of you and Steve. Mark and Rick, too."

"Thank you, Andy," I said, smiling back at him. "You know I didn't press charges and see this through to make anyone proud. I did it because it was the right thing to do. He tried to kill us . . ."

"Calm down," laughed Andy. "I didn't think you did anything for pride, Tommy. That's why I'm proud of you. You showed everyone that when the chips are down you can step up to the plate and take care of yourself."

"I only did what everyone else would have done," I protested.

"No," he said, shaking his head. "Other people might have caved under all of this pressure, Tommy. You didn't. You're going back to school, you sat in a courtroom every day, staring down the man who tried to get his congregation to stone you to death and you still have that fire in your eyes. You are one of the bravest people I know, and I'm so proud to know you."

He took my hand across the table and squeezed. The smile on his face drew out a smile from me as well, but I didn't feel very brave. Throughout this entire ordeal I'd been less than brave. I'd been terrified at times and down right ready to crawl into a cave and hide from the world. Most of all I'd been angry. I don't know if anger and fury make anyone brave, but I was happy that I'd impressed him.

He got up to say goodnight to his mother and father after that, and then they both hugged me and told me how proud they were. I smiled and hugged them back, but I still wasn't sure that anyone should be proud of me. I planned to work on being worthy of their pride, though.

* * *

"You're seriously going to contact these people?" Steve asked, looking at the piece of paper like it was the plague or worse.

He'd been asleep by the time everyone left, and I was too tired to wake him up. Instead I'd snuggled with him and drifted off to sleep. I showed him the paper when we got back from our run and after our shower. We were supposed to be having breakfast, but once he saw the paper he completely forgot about his pancakes.

"I'm going to check them out," I replied slowly, watching his face as I spoke to gage his reaction.

"Damn it, Tommy, don't you want this to stop?" he asked, slamming his hand on the table and making me jump. "Do you want people to come after you again? Is that the life you want?"

"No, Steve, it isn't the life I want," I replied, trying very hard to keep my tone normal. "That's why I want to check these people out. If they're doing good things then I want . . ."

"You want what, Tommy?" he asked, glaring at me. "You want more time in the spotlight? That's it, isn't it? You loved having the world come to cover the story of how the reverend . . ."

"Just stop right there," I said, losing my battle with anger. I stood up and shoved my chair in. "First of all, I didn't want the world to come to Storyville and cover the story of what that bastard did to us. How could you possibly think that I would welcome that kind of attention?"

"I can think that because you're getting ready to start up all this shit again!" he spat, glaring at me still.

"I'm not starting anything up again, Steve," I snapped. "What I want to accomplish is making people like us safe from the people who want to hurt us. That's what the people in those groups want, too."

"You don't know what they want," he said as Andy and Vince came into the room. "You just want to get yourself into a group of people so you can tell your story all over again. You're the one who kept pushing, Tommy. You're the one who decided to go outside and hose the flock down that day. It's your fault . . ."

"Steve, stop it!" cried Vince. "I don't know what your problem is, little brother, but yelling at Tommy and accusing him of things that make no sense isn't going to happen."

"Of fuck off, Vince," Steve spat, shoving his own chair in as he stomped out of the house.

"Tommy are you all right?" Andy asked as we heard Steve's car start and then his tires squeal as he backed out of the driveway.

I just stood there and looked at them. I didn't understand what had happened. I knew that Steve was upset about what had been going on. We all were. What I didn't understand was how he could think that I liked the attention it brought with it. That was stupid. Something was wrong, and I didn't know how to fix it.

"Tommy?" said Vince, looking at me close.

"I'm fine," I replied, pulling out my chair and sitting back down. "I don't know what happened here, but I'm fine."

"He's upset, Tommy," said Vince as he took Steve's seat. "He didn't mean any of those things he said to you."

"You don't know what he said," I replied. "It was like I didn't even know him."

"He needs to talk to someone about this," said Andy. "He clearly isn't dealing with it at all."

That was when Shirley and Meg came through the side door. They were carrying grocery bags and pots and pans. They took one look at us and sat the bags and pans on the table. Meg sat on one side of me and Shirley sat on the other side of me. They both looked at Andy and Vince without saying a word to anyone.

"Steve left," I said. I didn't know what else to say. What I could say wouldn't sound very good.

"We heard him leave," said Meg. "Would one of you like to tell me what happened here?"

"We came in at the end of it," said Vince.

"He's very upset about what happened," said Andy.

They stared at them until Andy joined Vince across the table from us. Slowly we began to tell them exactly what happened. They were both silent until we'd finished. Even after we'd told them everything neither of them had anything to say at first. Meg squeezed my hand while Shirley hugged me, but I didn't allow myself to cry. I decided that crying wasn't going to solve anything. What was happening with Steve might be fixed by talking to someone and it might not. All I knew was that I loved him, and he was hurting. I also knew that I wouldn't be able to let go of what I wanted to do. There just had to be a compromise in there somewhere, and if he would just calm down long enough to talk to me about it rationally we'd find it together.

Ben, Wendy, Mark and Maria came in with Tom a little bit later. Maria and Wendy joined Meg and Shirley in the kitchen while Mark and Ben sat with me in the living room. Andy stayed in the dining room to talk to his father and Vince left to look for Steve. I thought it was ironic that I was the one they usually had to search for when something happened. It wasn't like Steve to run off.

"Dude, what's going on?" Ben asked as he sat beside me on the couch. "Where's Steve?"

"He got mad at me and left," I said, grabbing the remote and finding a football game for us to watch. Christmas Eve always found football on television.

"He got mad at you?" Mark asked. "What about?"

"Oh, I'm apparently fame hungry and trying to benefit from what the reverend and his people did to us," I said not taking my eyes off the television. "Apparently I like all of this attention."

"That's stupid," said Ben.

"Where did he go?" Mark asked.

"I have no idea," I replied. "He got in his car and sped off. Funny, isn't it? I'm usually the one to do that."

We sat in an awkward silence after that. I finally found the football game and tried to force myself to pay attention to it. I did manage to watch more than half the game before Meg came to tell us that dinner was almost ready. She asked Ben to call Dustin and Charlie and remind them that they were supposed to be there already, but as she said those words, Dustin, Charlie, Phillip, Carl and Jason walked in. They each looked like they had something to say, and then I saw Steve and Vince come into the house.

Steve walked through the crowd at the door and up the stairs. I sat there and let everyone look at me for a minute before I sighed and got up to follow my boyfriend. I found him in our room, packing a bag. I was so shocked that I just stood there and watched for a minute. I couldn't think of anything to say.

"What do you want, Tommy?" he asked coldly as he stopped packing and turned to face me.

His eyes were filled with anger, and I'd never seen him look at me like that. I was shocked by his cold tone as well. I couldn't decide if I was angry with him for talking that way to me or if I was hurt. I was confused, that's for sure. I didn't understand where this was coming from.

"What are you doing?" I asked lamely.

"What the Hell does it look like?" he snapped. "I'm packing."

"So you're leaving?"

"Well I never said you weren't bright," he said sarcastically. "Don't worry, I won't take anything that isn't mine."

"Isn't yours?" I said, shaking my head. "Steve, what is happening here?"

"Oh, so you aren't as bright as I thought," he said. "I'd have thought it was obvious. I'm moving out. We're finished, Tommy. Clear enough?"

Chapter Eighteen:
Separate But Not Alone

"Tommy, it's going to be ok," said Andy as he sat with me in the living room after Vince and Steve left the house.

I didn't even really know how to feel about what had happened. Steve had come home with Vince, gone upstairs and packed his things into two duffle bags and four boxes. He'd told Andy that he'd come back for the rest when he could get a truck. Vince left with him, but he didn't pack anything. I didn't know what to think.

"What did he say to you?" I asked for the fourth time since I'd come back downstairs.

"I told you what he said," replied Andy. "Meg went after him, and Wendy keeps trying to get him on the telephone."

"He isn't answering?" I asked stupidly.

The thought that this was really the way things were going to be finally came crashing down on me. Steve had really left and broken up with me. The problem with that was that I didn't know why. I mean I knew he was upset over what had happened. We both were. It just didn't make sense to me that he would break up with me and move out of the house because of it. What exactly would that do for him?

"He hasn't so far," replied Andy. "Tommy, maybe he really just doesn't want . . ."

"I don't want to talk about it," I said, staring at the Christmas tree.

There were gifts under the tree. They'd been there for a few weeks. Steve's gift to me was still there in the front, and mine to him was right beside it. The next morning we were supposed to wake up, have breakfast and then open gifts. We were supposed to be happy. We were supposed to be together.

"Well he won't talk to me," said Meg's voice as she came into the house through the side door. "I don't know the woman who answered the door, but she sure was rude."

"Where is he?" asked Shirley.

"Across town," sighed Meg, sliding into a chair at the dining room table. "I didn't see Vince anywhere."

"Vince just called," replied Shirley. "He's coming back. Said Steve won't talk to him either."

"What is going through that boy's head?" Meg asked.

"I don't know," said Shirley. "I knew he was upset about the trial and what had happened, but I didn't know that he was thinking of leaving."

"How's Tommy?" asked Meg.

"I'm fine," I said as I walked into the dining room. "Whatever Steve has been thinking or feeling over the past few weeks wasn't shared with me. We had a little argument this morning about me wanting to check into a few activist groups, but I don't think that was enough to set this off."

"I meant how are you doing with this?" Meg asked.

"I don't know what to think or how to feel about this," I admitted. "It hurts, but I don't know. I guess I just can't believe it's happening."

She hugged me before I sat down at the table. Everyone came in to eat, but no one said anything. The entire meal was eaten in silence, and I couldn't help but feel the emptiness of Steve's chair. He usually sat across from me, and now that he was gone I had to stare at that empty chair. It hurt like Hell, but for some reason I still hadn't broken down about it. I just kept thinking that he'd come to his senses and come home soon. I half expected him to walk through the door and apologize any minute.

He didn't come through the door, though. Before I knew it I was helping Meg and Shirley clear the table. Then I went up to my room and began to clean up the mess that Steve had left behind when he threw things to find what was his. I even made the bed. Then I walked across the hall and took a shower. By the time I actually went to bed I was exhausted. I fell asleep before my head even hit the pillow, and I didn't dream.

The next morning I put on a sweat suit and went downstairs to find Vince and Andy sitting at the dining room table with plates of untouched pancakes in front of them. I smiled at them and went into the kitchen to get my own breakfast. I expected them to tell me to eat more when I came back to the dining room with only a bagel and cream cheese, but neither of them said anything. I sat in my seat and tried hard not to think about the fact that I'd slept alone the night before and was once again faced with Steve's empty chair. Merry Christmas indeed.

Once I started to eat, so did they. I wondered just what they expected me to do. I certainly wasn't going to cry in front of them. My family and friends had watched me go through a melt down once before. I was determined not to let it happen again. Steve had made his decision, and I had to deal with it. I was still sure that he'd come to his senses and come home again. If he didn't, I'd deal with it. I had no choice.

When I was finished eating I took my plate to the kitchen and put it in the dishwasher. Then I went upstairs to change clothes for the day. I made it to the bedroom and even opened the closet before I started to cry. Holding it all in wasn't going to be as easy as I'd thought. Just looking at the half empty closet was harder than I'd thought it would be. How could he do this? I wondered. I didn't understand. It wasn't as if we hadn't had worse fights. Was he finally just tired of fighting with me? Had he been planning this for a while?

I sat down on the bed and stared at the teddy bear he'd won for me at Magicland, and before I knew it I had it in my arms. I was sobbing so hard that I'm surprised Andy and Vince didn't hear me. Perhaps they did. Maybe they just thought that I needed space. If they heard me or not they stayed out of the bedroom and let me have my cry. I was thankful for that. I didn't think I could handle talking about it.

Once thing was very clear to me, though. The bedroom that I shared with Steve had become a painful place filled with memories. I couldn't sleep there anymore. I thought about the couch, but that would mean I'd still have to come into this room to change clothes. All of my stuff was in this room. I sat and thought about what to do for a while, and before I knew it I was dressed and leaving the bedroom.

I went into the bathroom across the hall and washed my face. One look in the mirror showed me that my eyes were slightly puffy and a little red. So what? They'd know that I'd been crying, but wouldn't that have been expected? I decided not to worry about it. I went downstairs and joined them in the living room. Shirley, Tom and Ben were there, and I saw that motherly look pass across Shirley's face, but I smiled at her and kneeled down in front of the tree.

"There are presents here for everyone," I said, trying to keep my voice steady as I carefully sat Steve's presents aside and grabbed presents for Vince and Andy. Both were from me, and I was thankful that Steve and I had decided to buy everyone presents separately this year. I didn't think I could have stood to see both of our names on any of the tags. "Here you go, guys."

"Tommy, why don't you let me take care of that," said Shirley as she started to get up from the couch.

"I can do it," I assured her, handing her a present to her from Andy.

I kept putting my own presents to one side, completely ignoring the gift from Steve. I passed out presents to everyone that was there before I started to open mine. There were presents for Wendy, Rick, Mark and Doug as well, but they wouldn't be there until after supper, so they just sat in their respective places under the tree.

I opened all of my presents and thanked each of them for the gifts they'd given me. I started to hear the hollowness in my voice after the third gift. Tom and Shirley had bought me software for my computer. I stopped talking after all of my presents were opened. I took my place in the recliner with my gifts spread out around me as Shirley brought us mugs of hot chocolate. She paused for a second after handing me mine, but I smiled up at her.

"Merry Christmas, Tommy," she said, and I hated the pity filled look on her face.

"Merry Christmas, Shirley," I said, standing to hug her. She held on tight, and I nearly lost the battle with unshed tears.

After hot chocolate, Andy and Vince started to clean up all of the paper on the floor while Ben and I went to the dining room. Shirley went to the kitchen to start putting together lunch, and Tom sat watching football. Ben and I were quiet as we both stared at the table. My best friend seemed to be at a loss, but then so was I. I couldn't help wondering what Steve was doing, and that almost made me start crying again. I had to get a grip on myself.

Then without even so much as a single thought about what I was doing, I got up and went upstairs. I stopped in front of my mother's room and stood there for a second before I opened the door and stepped inside. I could count on one hand the number of times I'd actually been in that room since my mother died. Shirley had kept it clean, dusted and aired out. Other than that no one was ever in there for any reason.

I went to the closet and opened the double doors. The closet was empty of clothes. All of my mother's clothes were either in a trunk in the attic or had been given to Good Will after she died. Her dresser was empty, too. I think it was then that the plan to move into her room started to form in my mind. No one came to check on me, so I got almost all of my clothes moved to her closet before I started to think about what else I wanted to take out of my room.

My mother's computer was still on her desk, but that only took me a few minutes to dismantle and store in the bottom of the closet. Then I took my own computer apart and moved it into her room. I set it up on her desk and connected everything, taking the time to make sure that her ethernet cord was actually connected to the modem downstairs.

I put my school books on her nightstand and my shoes in the basket that had once held her shoes beside the bedroom door. I brought my DVD's and video cassettes into the room and put them on the shelves of the bookcase beside her television. I hooked up the DVD player and the VCR, and that was all I decided to take out of my room.

Shirley stuck her head in the door as I was putting the remotes to the television and equipment on the nightstand next to my textbooks. She looked around the room for a second and then smiled at me. It was a sad smile, but I chose to overlook that. I wasn't ready for commiseration at that point.

"Lunch is ready," she said before closing the door again and leaving me to look around the room.

I went downstairs to the dining room and joined them at the table. Wendy was there now, and she was passing out the sandwiches that Shirley had made while Vince put the soup in everyone's bowls. I sat down and took my sandwich from Wendy without a word. The silence was strange and in it's own way just as depressing as Steve's leaving. Before we'd always had lots to talk about when we sat around the table. I decided to force conversation.

"I'll be finished with all of the work that your dad gave me to help me catch up on lost time in school," I said to Wendy when she sat down.

"So you're still planning to come back to school?" she asked slowly.

"Of course," I replied. "I want to graduate with my class."

"Mark and Rick are going back, too," said Ben, and I loved him for trying to help keep the conversation going.

"When are you going back to work?" Andy asked without looking at me.

"I'm going to call work tomorrow and see if I can be put back on the schedule easily," I replied.

I'd been taken off the schedule when the attack happened. My manager told me that he'd leave me off the schedule until I was ready to come back. I was actually shocked that he'd let me have so much time off, but he told me that I was a good employee who never called in and always did his work without any problems. That made me feel good. I hoped it would feel good to go back to work. That's what I really needed to do. I needed to plunge back into my life. I didn't intend to dive into it with everything I had, though. Losing Steve wasn't going to destroy me.

"It'll be nice to have you back at school," said Wendy.

"Sure will," agreed Ben. "It's been kinda boring without you there." He gave me his famous cock-eyed grin and I couldn't help smiling back at him.

After lunch I took my presents upstairs and put them in my mother's room. It occurred to me that I should probably start referring to that room as "my room". But so far it just didn't feel right. Ben came up while I was finding places for everything, and he stood in the doorway as if he were unsure about coming inside the room.

"What's up?" I asked, faking another smile.

"Didn't know you'd moved into this room," he said, coming through the door and sitting on the bed.

"I made the decision this morning," I explained without detail. I was sure he'd want the details of that decision soon, but luckily he didn't push.

"So when is your car going to be fixed?" he asked, dropping the subject of the bedroom switch.

"Supposedly it will be ready for me to pick up tomorrow morning," I replied. "I could have picked it up the day before yesterday, but we had court."

"Yeah," he said, nodding his head. "Want me to go with you tomorrow? I could give you a ride to the mechanic."

"Sure, thanks," I replied, hating the stinted conversation we were having and loving it at the same time.

"Cool," he said.

We were both silent as I sat down at the computer and began to install the software that Shirley and Tom had given me for Christmas. It was brainless work, but I followed the on-screen instructions and took the time to page through the booklets. I know I was killing time, but I really didn't know what to say. Everything I thought of would bring us back to a topic I wasn't ready to discuss. I knew that if anyone would get me to talk about Steve it would be Ben. He had his ways.

"Are you ready to go yet, Ben?" Wendy asked as she stuck her head in the door.

"We're gonna go catch that movie," Ben explained to me, though I hadn't asked. "You wanna come?"

Now I appreciated the thought, but the last thing I wanted to become was a third wheel in the relationship of my two best friends in the world. Either they would end up resenting me, or I would end up resenting them for the happiness that they shared and I'd lost. I wasn't stupid. I'd paid attention in my Psych classes.

"No thanks," I replied. "I still have a lot of stuff to do. Moving into this room isn't as easy as I thought it would be."

"Call me later tonight," he said, looking at me in that way he did that always said not to argue with him.

"Will do," I said. "Enjoy the movie."

"Bye, Tommy," said Wendy, and I hated the pity in her voice.

"Later, Wendy," I said. Almost as an after thought I added: "Love ya."

"Mean it," she said, and this time there were actually tears in her eyes.

Two more chapters and then Storyville 2 will end. I've not decided if I'll write a part 3 to this story or not. I'll make a decision soon. I want to take this opportunity to invite you all to check out my new site. I'll be adding stories and chapters to existing stories to the site very soon. I hope you all enjoy them.
Julien Gregg