Skip - Part 51


Skip - Part 51


"I know," said Skip.

We laughed. How were we going to get to bed? Well, Skip could manage easier than me since he was used to it. I made a practice run. Satisfied that I was not as handicapped as I had panicked about, we listened to music before we finally went to bed. By 10:30, we were hugging each other.

"Feels a little empty," said Skip. "Don't take ... that the wrong way love."

"I agree, bro. But we're far from alone. I'm glad to have Pete and Charlie inside of me."

"Yeah. That was nice. Two more to love. But ... I love you best, Aaron."

"Please don't," I said.

"Have to. You make me ... love you best. My Aaron," he said as he kissed me sweetly and then snuggled against me.

"My Aaron." Okay, I could live with that. Even with all the great boys in our lives, I did love Skip best. My heart was big. I thought only of Skip as I went to sleep.

Getting to bed was one thing. Managing day-to-day was another. My first challenge of Monday morning was how to shower by myself. By the time I was done, I did not have enough strength in my arm to slide back into my wheelchair. I told Skip.

"Fred will be here in a ... few minutes," he said reasonably.


Skip was at the door when Fred arrived.

"Okay to help Aaron?" Skip asked him.

"Sure. Lead the way."

Skip brought Fred to the bathroom. I had a towel over me, a bit embarrassed.

"Showering by myself worked well enough Fred, but I'm a bit worn."

"No worries bud. Please don't feel bad."

"Okay. I'm dry enough to get dressed."

He set me in our bed.

"Sweats? Track suit? Thong?"

"No. No. And not in my lifetime. And only if you want to take care of TWO all day because your Mrs. would fire my ass."

He chuckled and then laughed aloud. I liked his personality and humor. Fred is a good man. He already knew I would be under his care for a while. Fred's thoughts are not half-assed, so he would have a good plan in place this first morning.

"T-shirts and boxer briefs are in the 2nd draw down, on the left. Socks on the right. Skip and I are the same size, so anything will do."

He dressed me and withheld any comment he had about dressing a doll. He was a bit amused, so I knew what he was thinking. Skip sat back and enjoyed it. He would be next though, since he was wearing only boxer briefs. He took a hanger out of the closet. Billy had put five outfits together for me for the week. It had black slacks and a light blue button down. No tie. Maroon crewneck sweater. When I was dressed, he put me in my wheelchair and pushed me out to the dining area. Skip followed.

"Do you want to get dressed bud? Or shower first?"

"In a while. I'm okay. Coffee is ... ready if you want some. Aaron ... and I share a large mug."

We had an automatic coffee pot and a full pot of a Columbian mix that Jillian sent us from Boston. Fred poured into our custom ceramic mug made by a friend of Claire's in Scotland. It was as richly colored as our coffee, in deep gradient blues and blacks. Fred took a smaller mug for himself. He took a box of Danish out of a bakery box.

"Share a third with me?" he asked.

"Yeah, just right," I said. "Silverware is in the drawer to the left of the sink."

"These are melt-in-your-mouth good," he said, cutting a large raspberry and cheese. "Our friend owns the local bakery. She's open by 6:00 a.m."

"I know the place. We're regulars there."

"What's your usual breakfast routine?"

"Cereal, juice, coffee," I answered. "We're as low maintenance as it gets."

"How about something special each Friday?" he asked.

"Like you and ... Patricia ... coming over early and ... joining us?"

"Whoa. Scary."

"I have a knack," Skip said, smiling.

"I've heard."

"Aaron says you're ... a good cook. Special ... breakfast would be nice."

"Are you willing to let me help you shower, Aaron?"

"Yeah. Being too tired before the day even starts is hard. I'll need more help this morning at work than usual. Brent won't blink though. Patricia has a really great team."

"I've met them all. Alfie going to MIT. He's so pleased."

"You haven't seen his newest toy. It waters his plants."

Fred chuckled. He could picture it. Alfie was a quiet and humble genius. The newest robot took a reading of soil moisture. His two plants got a long drink of water through tubing coming from a tank under his desk. He would give it to his parents when he went to school. He owned the patent. GE would use the product in desert and city rooftop greenhouses in combination with hydroponics. Alfie's MIT education was completely paid for.

"Lunch will be up to you two. The fridge is stocked. How about breaking up the week by having lunch with us at work?"

"Good plan. I can get your dinner started too."

"Dinner is easy for us, on the lighter side. Soups and chowders or stews. Anything on the grill on the deck. Again, up to you two."

Patricia came in after knocking.

"Good morning boys," she said, putting a warm hand on Skip's shoulder.

He blushed, realizing he was still almost naked. Actually, he was more concerned about how thin he was. People were not used to that yet, especially people who knew Skip before his accident. He had lost weight much like I had, and could not get it back. Patricia seemed not to notice. She kissed his cheek. Fred handed her a cup of tea. She sat for a moment.

When we were ready to go, Fred put me into my winter jacket. It was 20 degrees this morning. Patricia had turned the engine off, so when it was time to leave, Fred started it up again and then put me in the front passenger seat. Patricia got in and we were off. In the company garage, as he had done since the day after I arrived back to work, Brent helped me out of the car.

At my desk, I answered a couple of emails and then settled into my part of the project. It was lunchtime before I realized what time it was. That was my kind of Monday morning at work. Without any argument from me, Chelsea pulled me away from my desk and out to the elevator.

"Hi Glory! Ham and Swiss in a wrap. You got dried tomato today?"

"Just for you, love. Bacon and a bit of mayo?"

"Yeah, thanks."

Glory was Gloria, a fixture in the kitchen at HQ. Brent had gone and brought two pints of milk to put on my tray. I gave him my GE debit card as Nancy checked me out at the register. Nancy was Alfie's mom. She put a couple of pieces of Godiva chocolate on my tray, her Monday treat for me. She winked as she checked Brent right behind me. Chelsea came back to bring me to the table. Patricia was the last to join us. Her boss came through long enough to rub my shoulders. At the same time, she wanted to know if I would join in on our group's basketball team. They had one walking wounded from last Thursday's game.

"Scraping the bottom of the barrel again, Mags?"

"Now you stop that. Help me Obi Wan. You're my only hope."

Her imitation of Princes Leia was just perfect. I laughed heartily. She knew how to get to me. Star Wars was my current favorite series of movies. Her younger son was as big a fan, and I had supported his habit with birthday gifts of Star Wars model ships and figures. She had a framed Star Wars poster in her office.

"Okay okay, I can play. I'll figure something out."

"I know you well enough, Aaron. You're a good sport."

It's true that my basketball skills were well known. I tried not to boast, but it was something I loved a lot, therefore I was good at it. Soccer was a very close second. I had tried lacrosse a few times but it was not as popular unless you were a teenage boy. I also liked baseball and softball except that I couldn't hit worth beans. If the rules allowed for a designated hitter, I could make first base as long as the batter did his job. Football was men falling down. Golf was men in ugly pants walking. Tennis was okay but I always had partners who couldn't hit the ball back once served. So, basketball was the game of choice.

Over dinner, I told Skip about Maggie's ploy. I also told him that it had worked.

"Oh this I ... gotta see love."

"You will. Our first game is Saturday morning over at the university. I can dribble and shoot, but a one-armed bandit can't get around the court."

"Fellow teammate ... will help no doubt."

I cleaned up and put the dinner dishes into the dishwasher. With two of us, it took all week to fill up. We went into the living room and slid onto the sofa. He and I helped each other hug. I don't know what was on TV because we sat and kissed for at least half the evening.

"You're really ... quiet love. You okay?"

"Me in your arms. How can I really be the man you love? You could have your pick of anyone."

"You are not just ... anyone. You are the man ... in my heart. I knew even then. I've known ... you almost nine years, and we-we're together for almost eight. I think we have ... kept each other alive."

"I'm going to be sad when I wake from this dream."

He touched my cheek and kissed me softly.

"Is that a dream?"

"Finest kind."

"You're my dream. We ... worked hard for this ... moment."

"I hurt you badly. You forgave me anyway. It's not right."

"It is right. Your brain-fuck ... hurt me. Your ... heart never will."

I looked at him. He was right of course.

"I love your ... heart. It beats for me and our Billy."

"Yeah," I said, choked up.

"I know I can ... promise you my heart ... forever. You really are ... my Aaron. By heart."

"Okay," I said simply.

"I love you, Aaron."

"I love you as much, I hope."

"You do. And Billy."

"And Billy," I said. Billy knows. We were separated only by distance.

"I love you so much," came the greatest words I can ever hear. "I thought about you today," he said.

Billy called mid-week.

"Sweet. Sounds like you're missing us," I said.

"Nope. But I can't keep my thoughts to myself. You should know them every day."

"I do. I love you too, Billy. And I do miss you."

"Nice. We're thinking about Spring Break. We're not into going to the beaches and getting blind drunk. What should we do? We all want to see you."

"I've been thinking about it for a couple of days. I thought about Canada, but I dunno."

"We thought about that too. We could see Michael and Will too, maybe."

"It's a lot of traveling, and I'm not sure about vacation time from work. I think I have four days, accumulated."

"We're all for it. All seventeen of us. You and Skip talk more, and include Patricia and Fred, Pete and Charlie too."

He was right about including Patricia and Fred. I remembered that Patricia said she would consider such a vacation. She and Fred both happened to love winter. Would they love being around a bunch of college seniors for a week to ten days?

After we hung up, Skip and I talked in depth about how we would pull this off. While we were talking, I fired off an email to Michael and Will. It was early enough to call Patricia and Fred. They both got on the phone and we worked it all out. Billy and the boys said the only constraints they had were the dates of Spring Break. Even though it was five weeks away, we would need that whole time to talk to the inns in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and see if Skip could physically handle such a trip. He did well enough from Washington to Fairfield, CT, a trip of six hours. Fairfield to Nova Scotia was daunting, at fourteen hours.

Will and Michael answered our email before bedtime in three simple words "Bring it on!"

Patricia and Fred had said yes. Charlie had three weeks of unused vacation, and would lose one week of it if he didn't use it before June 1. Pete could do what he wanted since he and a friend worked whenever they wanted to. We decided we would fly to Halifax, Nova Scotia and take it from there, instead of driving in a long caravan of cars.

"I'm psyched!" Skip proclaimed.

"Me too. Share an orange with me?"


In the kitchen, I put an orange on a cutting board and grabbed a knife. Normally I would peel this navel orange easily. Skip had taught me to be very patient when using tools and only one good hand. He was the master of patience. I was the student, and a rebellious one at that.

The orange rolled as I started to slice it.

"Careful bro, that ... knife is very sharp. Dad ... sharpened all our knives. Help me with ... my hand."

"Your hand and an extra-sharp knife in mine? Nope, that ain't gonna happen."

"I trust you. Just ... don't act like a ... Benihana chef."

I brought his hand up to hold the orange. I sliced it cleanly and easily in half. Skip dropped his half onto the cutting board face down and held it. I sliced it in two again. It took a bit of doing, but I sliced it into eights and fed half to Skip and half to myself.

"But you can't ski anymore. How do you feel about that part?"

"Neither can you, for now. Maybe ... by then, you can. We'll do ... snowmobiles and sleds. You and I ... will make love ... in the woods."

"Okay. I guess I shouldn't worry so much."

"No," he said, kissing me softly. "You shouldn't. Don't worry love. It ... will be a lot of fun."

I thought about it for a moment. "Yeah, it will be. Seventeen BC boys, you, me, Patricia, Fred, Pete, Charlie, Michael, and Will. Twenty-five people. Wow."

"We should make love ... now. So we won't mess up ... when we're alone in ... the woods."

"We might have to practice often before we go. I wouldn't want to do it wrong."

We each practiced on each other, thoroughly.

"You are more than ... my Aaron. You're my ... hero, love. The perfect lover ... but more even than that."

"Times two. We are all we have for right now. I love you perfect," I said.

I proved it by holding on to him as we slept. He stirred a couple of times in the night. I held him tighter for a moment to settle him down. I often wondered if he had disturbing dreams. How could he not?

In my physical therapy routine at Yale-New Haven, I gave my therapists a mission. I was three weeks into my PT there.

"I want to be able to walk on my own, if not ski, in five weeks."

"Alright," said Mike. "You're the boss. But we work smart, not hard."

I held up my thumb and forefinger with a small gap between them. He rolled his eyes at me. I was used to that by now. If one did not roll his or her eyes at me, I was not loved.

"Okay okay, a little hard work, too. Masochist."

The 'smart' way was two hours of very intense muscle and nerve stimulation. The 'hard' way was another half hour of the same. Mike was a specialist in dealing with brain-related injuries. I was his first post-surgical rehab and the first person he ever knew with cancer.

"Aaron, I feel guilty that very little pain has touched my life. You should stop hoarding it all."

"Better me than you, bro," I said, more sincerely than he wanted to hear. Those who put up with crap just got better at it when the crap hit the fan again.

He got me a carton of orange juice after my workout. Mike looked at me.

"You okay?" I asked.

"Oh sure. It's just ... I dunno. I can't find the right word."


"Maybe. Unfair, too. Such a life you've lived."

"And still live, Mike. Don't worry about me. I live in the moments I'm in, even the unfair ones. Without me and those like Skip, what would you do with your life?"

"Well, on the side, I'm a folk guitar player. Someday my wife and I will live on an island. Not today though," he said with a sly smile. "Sadly there are enough Aarons and Skips to keep me employed for a long time. That being said, I love my work. I know I can make you walk again because you have a strong desire and a goal. Skip now has neither, but he gave it a great try. Skip makes me profoundly sad because we can't fix him."

"Skip has a better life than I do. He's done fighting, whereas I'm just starting, again. Again again. It's frustrating."

"You have a great life. I don't need to remind you of that. You're on the edge of self-pity, so I'm going to pull you back from that. You have a right, but only a small right. You're overall goal is to get back to your paramedic training and duties. As far as I'm concerned, it's already a done deal."

"For me too. Can we keep the MD at bay?"

"Not easily, but over the long run, yes. CMT, your type of MD, has been with you since day one. You're almost 41. You're not full-time in a wheelchair yet, and the reason you're in one at all isn't even from CMT."

"Good perspective. My mom was in a wheelchair full-time by my age, though barely. My brother still shows no signs of MD or CMT."

"How old?"

"39 last month."

"He's had genetic testing?"


"Lucky you," he said. "A roll of the dice."

"Maybe so, but I have Skip."

"And Billy."

I didn't know that he knew. Skip would have told him, or he would have met Billy and known. People who see Skip and I together come to a logical conclusion. I assume it's the same for Skip and Billy, brothers notwithstanding.

Mike helped put me into my jacket as Fred came in to join us. We chatted a couple more minutes and arranged my next appointment. We decided upon Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 4:45 p.m. since I had a short-term mission. I still wanted to work a full day if possible. Mike found my schedule easy to accommodate.

Fred put me into his truck. Skip had not wanted to come out into the cold again. Patricia was with him at home. We chatted easily on the 30-minute drive. He would take me to my appointments on Mondays, Pete on Wednesdays, and Charlie on Thursdays. Regular schedules made it easier to remember things and it would be a burden shared. Pete and Charlie had offered this schedule to Fred and me. We agreed. Each would back the other up as necessary.

At home, around 8:00 p.m., Fred laid me on the sofa on my back, legs on top of Skip's legs, taking off my boots and socks. Fred wrapped Skip's hands around my bare feet at Skip's request. Patricia was in the kitchen warming up soup for me. She brought it to me on a tray, with a slice of buttered bread. Fred set milk down on the coffee table, beside something covered with a napkin.

"Okay boys, we're off," said Patricia. "See you tomorrow. Call in the meantime if you need anything."

"Thanks folks. It was ... a good day, Fred."

"For me too, Skip."

Skip reached over to my hand. I met him halfway.

"Love you, bro," he said. "How was PT?"

"Back up a bit," I said, selfishly.

"Love you ... my Aaron."

"Sweet. I love you bud. You're so nice to come home to."


"Don't say that like you doubt it. Of course really."

I drew his hand closer, lifted it, and kissed his palm. His eyes lit up.

"I don't ... doubt you. But I'm ... just me."

"'Just me' is the man I love."

He smiled. I finished my soup. I lifted the napkin to find a piece of chocolate-frosted chocolate cake.

"I forgot," Skip said. "Patricia brought it. There's ... more on the counter."

When I was done, I set my bowl down. I waited a bit before sharing my cake slice with Skip. He wanted only a taste, having had a slice earlier. The rest of the kitchen was spic and span, so we stayed on the sofa. Skip wanted to finish the chapter in his current novel because it left him hanging. I put him between my legs and took his book off the page turner that was on the coffee table. I held it and turned pages as he nodded.

"May I keep going?" he asked.

"Of course," I said, turning to the next chapter.

I had read the book already, a Dean Koontz novel about a character named Odd Thomas. Odd reminded me 100% of Skip because he was a sincerely good man. Skip said Odd reminded him of me, because I had lost my first love AND because I am a sincerely good man. After an hour and a bit, Skip finished a few more short chapters. He turned and kissed me. I kissed him back.

"Some TV?" he asked me.

I tuned in to the Discovery Channel after checking The Science Channel. I half paid attention because holding my bud was better than most any TV, though Discovery Channel and The Science Channel were up there. We entertained ourselves during commercials, which I muted. We purposefully do not buy products that advertise on television, and especially those that advertise every twenty minutes around the clock on every network. With an advertising budget that large, that company does not need our money. At the grocery store, we will gladly take store brand over national brand any day. Quality is all that counts. Our car insurance is not from one of the big three or four who advertise ad nauseum. We watch television to be entertained, not persuaded into buying something that has been 'new and improved' for the last eight months. We buy mid-priced items when we make a major purchase. The cheapest is too cheap. The high-end is too high-end. We research any major purchase, usually with the help of Consumer's Reports. Our message to companies is 'make an honest buck AND don't advertise your products or services every twenty minutes around the clock on every cable network imaginable.' Only then will we buy from you. Otherwise, we will walk away every time. Our washer and dryer, delivered the day we moved in, was less expensive because of the GE employee discount. It was also classified as a 'scratch and dent' pair. Neither of us could see anything that bothered us enough to look at another pair. The imperfections were minor, though they did not meet GE standards for our customers. GE makes a good product at a fair price AND does not advertise too much. Sigh ... my rants. But our home is modest and uncluttered.

Fred arrived a half hour earlier the next morning, helping me shower without having to struggle. He wore his swim trunks, like Andrew had, and washed me thoroughly as he would himself. He toweled me dry and dressed me warmly. Patricia picked me up at 7:15 and brought me home at 4:15. On Wednesday, Pete picked me up at 4:15 and drove me to New Haven for PT, bringing me home again by 8:00. Fred and Patricia repeated their rituals for us on Thursday, with Charlie picking me up and bringing me home. Before any of them left us for the day, we were given warm hugs and forehead kisses. Bless our caregivers and their fine hearts.

On Saturday morning, my workmates and I gathered at the local university's gym. Brent would be my legs, pushing me around the floor whenever I had possession of the ball. At some point, our two brains must have become one because his timing was perfect. He did not overrun the ball as I dribbled. He did not move too fast, too slow, or too far from one side to the other. My teammates roared when I sunk basket after basket, left-handed, using my right hand only to steady the ball. Both team's friends and family made more noise than anyone on this campus had ever heard. My arm finally gave out. Brent took me to the sidelines and ran back into the thick of the game, scoring the second of two three-point shots in the entire game. It was my turn to make noise and I did. It was thrilling to be 'disabled' and playing my heart out. I'm not a halfway kind of guy and I never will be. Charlie came down to take me out of my wheelchair and into the bleachers with him and Pete. I protested because I was hot and sweaty but they didn't care. Both hugged me and helped me stand when we cheered.

The game lasted another 45 minutes, three and a half hours in all, the lead changing repeatedly, and the energy level stayed high. I yelled myself hoarse. We lost by four points. After we all showered, we had an outdoor picnic under bright sunny skies and a 36-degree day.

"Good thing I pooped out," I said to an opposing teammate. "We coulda lost by a lot more."

"No way, Aaron! You were awesome. And you know it, so stuff it."

"Not awesome, but man was that fun. Seriously Kev, I worried a lot about how I was gonna play. Winning and losing are a moot point with me. Gotta play."

"So you'll play again in two weeks?"

"Yeah, in a heartbeat. I'll feel better on two legs, but my wheels and Brent never let me down."

Weeks moved on into February. Work, therapy, improvement in my right arm, moderate improvement in my right leg, walking with help, basketball at the university, and Skip, best of all. He cheered me on at every point, willing me to be stronger. I became stronger, but was not able to walk on my own yet.

"In time, love. I believe," he said.

"I do too. But ... "

"Sshhhh. My time is past ... and yours is now. I'm ... not sad that I can't."

"I am."

"Get over it."

"Not today."

"I love you, bro ... so much. Your gain ... takes nothing ... from me."

"I can't feel good about something that I'm doing that you can't do. There's no fairness in that."

"So you're gonna ... stay in that wheelchair ... the rest of your life?"


"No. You are not. I need you, love. All ... of you. You walking ... means a ... better life for me."

"I know. Still, I'd be sad if I was in your place."

"Good thing I'm ... in my place then. I'm not sad. I haven't ... been in months. Only you ... make me sad."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't need sorry. I need you. When ... I say I love you ... I mean it. Look at my eyes."

I did.

"What do you see?"

"One of two men who I love with all my heart."

"Me too," he said, meaning it.

I took us to bed and I made slow sweet love to my Skip. We wrapped ourselves around each other and slept peacefully. When he stirred, I held him. He kissed my neck. I smiled in the darkness.

I let the sadness go, finally. I believed him. It would make it easier for me to make gains in my PT. Mike knew this.

"I'm glad for you bud," he said to me.

"I had to let it go first."

"Yeah. Now walk with me."

He did not hold me any more than necessary. I did not fall. I took slow steps, got my balance, and took another step. When I got tired, I rested, and then started again. Fred, Pete, or Charlie watched me make progress every time I worked with Mike. Mike had been patient, but he also knew that the day would come when I would run, ski, play basketball or soccer, or just walk beside Skip, holding his hand. By mid-February, I used a walker instead of a wheelchair. By late February, I walked around our condo development, beside Skip, holding his hand in one hand, using a cane in the other. Mike would help me on cross-country skis. It was the final requirement before our vacation.

"Told you so," Skip said, meaning it.

He and I lay on the sofa, me between his legs, back of my head on his shoulder. I held his hands against my heart.

"You did. Why do I have to be stupid?"

"Not stupid. You just ... worry about the ... wrong things sometimes."

"That sounds stupid to me."

"Nah. You care about me. That's okay ... because I care about you too. I ... know what it feels ... like to care."

"You love me anyway," I said, unsure why he can sometimes.

"I do. You're a treasure. You ... "

" ... and Billy," I said.

"You and Billy. You know ... how that feels as ... much as I do. To love two."

"It's not twice as nice. It's billions of times better to love you both and for you both to love me. I miss our boys so much, too. I dreamt about Vincent last night."

"I know," he said simply.

"It's almost a year."

"Better that he died than ... that he suffered a long time. You ... know that better ... than anyone."

"'Cept you,' I said.

"A few weeks for me. A lot longer for you. I don't suffer."

"I know. Loving me is enough to suffer," I said quietly, but not as seriously as he took it.


"Kidding. But you know that."

"Only sometimes. You still have depression issues."

"Anxiety issues. That you could hate me."

"Never. Not for a single heartbeat."

"You're a better man than I am," totally serious this time. He is.

"Nah. Just a ... different man. I'm as ... amazed as you are ... sometimes that you ... could love me."

"Now who's kidding who?"

"Serious. I know I ... made you love me. But you ... are a force to ... be reckoned with. The depth of ... you is beautiful. I see your heart. You don't ... think you're handsome, but I think ... you're beautiful. Billy and I ... talked about you a lot ... before we went to DC. He almost had ... to hold me down. I couldn't ... feel you. So scary, love. So scary."

"You're human after all."

"It's not all it's ... cracked up to be."

"What do you feel now?"

"My heart beating for only you."

"No. You know I hate that," I protested.


"I CANNOT take away from Billy."

"Sometimes you do. I'm in love ... with my brother. I'm in love with you ... more this moment."

"Because I'm here."

"Dunno. Maybe."

"I'm not confused about how I love you and Billy. Never was. Loving you the same is the challenge."

"Yeah. Me too."

"Human again," I teased.

He shrugged. Then he pulled me closer. "I like human. Don't be ... amazed by me. Love two and be happy ... that you can."

"It's how you live each day," I said, not a question.

He did indeed. Skip lived simply, was a deep thinker, had more common sense than ten men, and a bigger heart than a thousand. He loved Billy and me too. He was the first to love two so finely. Billy and I came to that knowledge and love easily enough.

I booked airline tickets for Skip and me from New Haven to Halifax. I also booked Billy's and the BC boys from Boston to Halifax. This vacation, paid for by Skip and me, was the boy's birthday gift this year. It was not nearly as expensive as it sounds, though the boy's would not spend a cent of their own money for the trip.

On the runway in Halifax, we got into one giant huddle, hugging and kissing each other, patting each other on the back, smiling through tear-filled eyes. This is the first time we had all been together since the August day when they walked into the therapy gym at Shepherd. Five vans took us to the first five bed & breakfast inns.

We would double up in rooms because we only slept in those rooms. The bulk of each day was spent outdoors doing everything we could imagine doing. After a light lunch, we all gathered in as central a location as we could. Fred and Pete pulled Skip along on a toboggan until we crested a hill. Pete and Charlie put Skip on an aluminum saucer and then one or the other joined him, holding on for dear life as they sped down the hill in a dizzying circle, laughing like little kids.

Fred and Patricia went down on the toboggan. Most every boy had bought a snowboard.

"I had no clue any of you were into snowboarding," I said to Sam.

"Yeah. We practice on campus and in the parks. We're all pretty good at it."

That was an understatement. I watched a long chorus line of boys holding on to each other's shoulders, sliding down the hill in a blur, hooting and hollering all the way down. On the second run, Kenny sat atop Brian's shoulders. At the top of the hill, each boy went in turn, forming a snaking line from top to bottom. Pete and Charlie started out with Pete behind Charlie. On the way down, and to the end, they swapped out their positions on all four sides. A New York City choreographer could not have done a better job at their graceful, and speedy, ballet. Billy put his board on the ground at my feet.

"Your turn love," he said.

He figured that I would sit on my butt and slide down. I stepped in, kicked off, and sped down the hill, legs bent, turning and gliding in a graceful solo that left all of the boys with gaping mouths.

"Who is that?" I heard Jake or Jeremy yell.

"That's our Aaron man!" said Skip, as surprised as anyone.

I stepped off, ran up the long hill, and hugged Billy.

"I was kidding," he said. "When did you learn to snowboard?"

"Before I met you and bro, probably my first or second year of college."

"I thought you only cross-country skied."

"I can't tell you EVERYTHING about me. Where's the fun in finding out what I can do?"

Snow started to fall. I put Skip on the toboggan and left the boys to do what boys do. "We'll see you for dinner," I said.

In the woods, hidden and discreetly away from everyone and everything, Skip and I made out like teenagers. Outdoor nookie was best, except for the spiders or other creepy crawlies. Winter outdoor nookie brought nothing but thoughts of good sex. Billy arrived on cue, of course. Skip and I moved from our duo sixty-nine into a triangle sixty-nine. Once we had had enough, Billy and Skip both got inside my butt. It took some doing since we hadn't done this in a while. Billy and I both kissed Skip, and then each other. At the end of our lovemaking, we put ourselves together and headed back to Joan and Walt's inn.

The boys were scattered all over the place. Several were involved in a game of Monopoly. Patrick appeared to be the land baron, having acquired the two prime properties. Ste dared him to start building hotels. Alex and Kirk each held two railroads, and they were bargaining at every chance. Neither was going to part with such a treasure.

I had our backgammon set in my backpack, so Jessie sat down to help Skip move his pieces. After game one, which Skip won, I sat by the fire with Matt while Henry stepped in to try his skills with Skip. Skip lost, so I went to the kitchen to make dessert with Joan while Jake sat and held Skip.

Patricia and Fred came in a while later, having gone on a drive of the local area. Fred loved to explore. They were staying at Margie's place with six of the boys. We were with Aggie and Malcolm. Paul was in our room with Skip, Billy, and me. The twins were split up, if only overnight.

Sam, David, Michael, and Will came in later as well. No imagination necessary from the wide smiles on their faces. Michael and Will felt like they were at the end of the world, but they were not out of mind at all. Our email exchanges were frequent. They were both pulling 4.0 GPAs. College agreed with them. They said they owed it all to Sam. Other than spending money, Sam's fund paid for every need. Will sat on my lap and I held him tight, kissing him on his forehead.

"You surprised me again today. Snowboarding yet."

"You weren't too shabby out there either, love."

"I'm born to it. I forget that you really are too, considering where you grew up."

"Ice hockey too, but don't tell anyone."

"Will the surprises never end," he said, shaking his head.

"Not around me they won't."

He gave me a nice kiss. Then he realized that 'grown ups' were in the house. He blushed. I kissed him to show that he need not worry. We were all family here, grown-ups or not.

For dinner, we stretched from the dining room into the living room, eating bowls of steaming chowder and loaves of fresh bread. Henry fed Skip as if he had done it every day. After dinner, we sat around as Joan and Walt poured wine. Billy raised his glass. We all did the same, Henry helping Skip to do so.

"To our bud, Vincent. He's here, of course, because we're thinking about him. Aaron and Skip don't know, because I keep forgetting to say so, but we planted a tree for Vincent outside our dorm. It's a white lilac, so it'll bloom in his honor in the spring."

"Nice," I said. "We're going to plant one for him as well at our condo. Skip and I settled on a dogwood tree, also because it'll bloom."

"We love you V!" said the twins.

"Here here," the rest of us said.

At evening's end, and quite late, our keepers saw to it that we each got back to our inns. We did not plan very far ahead what we wanted to do. But before we broke up each night, we made a plan for the next morning. The boys wanted to go into town to buy Skip and me birthday gifts. We were a couple of weeks early, but we already knew we'd be celebrating our birthdays here. What the boys didn't know is that Skip and I had a small pendant for every one of them, with their birthstones to match their birth signs, same as for Skip, Billy, and me.

Skip and Billy had the bed after Paul and I decided to snuggle in my sleeping bag. I talked to him softly, holding on to him.

"I miss Vincent," he said, "pretty badly. I'm so sorry I killed him."

"Don't apologize for something you didn't do," I said. I thought about my own thoughts about Skip's accident. It was easier to tell someone who would listen to my advice versus me taking my own. "It was an accident. Like Skip's," I said, swallowing hard.

"You don't believe that any more than I do," he said, still whispering.

"It takes time. The guilt doesn't belong to either of us," I said.

"Yeah well, I'll hold it for a while longer anyway. All because I wanted to buy a birthday gift."

"I know love. I really do understand how you feel. I'm sorry I couldn't save our friend. I let you all down."

"No. He died unafraid because you were there. I'd feel the same way, Aaron."

"Tell your bud you love him."

"I love you V," he said into the darkness. "I know you love me too. It means a lot."

"Yeah bud, just right," I said, pulling him into my arms and holding him. "I love you too, Paul. I know it's hard, but let it go."

I tucked his face into my neck. He kissed it and then went to sleep. As usual, when he stirred, I held him closer. It was easy to be disoriented on vacation. "I love you Skip. I know you love me too," I said quietly. If he heard me, he stayed quiet. Billy would be holding his brother in both arms, Skip's face tucked into Billy's neck.

On Sunday, we went on a multi-sled sleigh ride. It was all the better because it was snowing. Even though it was late February and almost early March, it felt like Christmas. This is why being here in December did not matter to us. Brian and Greg were Skip's keepers for the morning. Either of them carried him over their shoulder and time he was moved from place to place. Ste carried me around just because he could. I flipped him into a snowbank and we wrestled for the right to carry. I won, so I threw him over my shoulder. He laughed as he mock-pounded on my back. I put my face in his crotch and he laughed harder.

"Don't start something you can't finish," he said.

"Not bragging, but I always finish what I start my bro. You want some playtime?"


We went off on our own for a while. We lay in the snow and jacked each other off, kissing as we went, and then ate each other's loads. We lay together a while longer.

"I've missed you love," he said, looking into my eyes. "Are you my Aaron again?"

"I always was, love. I always will be Ste, no matter what."

"Like Vincent?"

"Vincent is now more special than I will be for a while. Is it sad at school?"

"Only the first few days of the new semester. We took turns sleeping in Vincent's bed for a while. Jessie doesn't want a roommate."

"I can understand that. He feels V the most because they were roommates for almost three years. I hope that feeling lasts, because ultimately it's a good one to feel."

We kissed each other and then joined the other boys again. No one joked that we were screwing around in the woods. Any one of our boys could have private time with any other boy or with Skip or me. No one would have to ask. Even the twins still did that at school. Our friendships were strong and very loving. My email had been full when I was in DC between and after surgeries. Every single young man who sent me email told me the same thing in their own way-You are so loved and so special. Come home to us soon. Therefore, I did. Skip and Billy had pulled me back to life, even when I wanted only peace. The BC boys had as much of a draw on me. I had felt them when I was between surgeries, and upon awakening all four times. There is a theory that common thoughts are magnified. I don't think it's theory, not where my loves are concerned.

When the boys gave Skip and me our birthday gifts on Wednesday, halfway through the week, Billy and I brought out our gifts to them. We put small boxes, tagged with their names, on the floor in front of us. There was a lot of protesting, since Skip and I had paid for the trip. Jon and Jeff sat off to the side of the living room with Pete and Charlie. There was no need for that.

"Come on over ... you guys," said Skip. They hesitated. "We have something ... for you too."

"You shouldn't spend money on us," Jon said. Jeff agreed.

"Because we love all of you. You're our boys, by heart and love. Every one of you means a great deal to us. I suspect it runs both ways, at least I hope so."

This shut down any more protesting. Each boy sat facing me as Billy helped me put the pendants around the boy's necks. Skip and I gave each boy in turn a kiss on his forehead. Patricia and Fred sat back, watching us, with Patricia teary eyed and Fred choked up. Our gifts extended to Jon and Jeff, Joan and Walt's boys. The last to receive our gifts were Pete and Charlie.

"Last but hardly least, loves. Thanks for your friendship."

"And love," they said at the same time, and then laughed at each other.

Their folks beamed at us. Every boy hugged Skip and me, one by one, thanking us. We knew every birthday and we were very careful in buying the right birthstone for each boy.

"Did anyone not get their right birthstone?" I asked.

"Yeah. Just right. Great," echoed through the crowd. Then Charlie spoke up. "I dunno. How do I find out?"

"Your birthday is in October?" I asked. He nodded. "Lemme look at it."

"It's an opal, Latin word opalus, meaning 'precious jewel'. I think I got it right."

"You did," said Pete. He kissed his love. (Readers have noted that I do not usually say 'lover'. I do this on purpose. We are not lovers. We are the loves of each other's lives-something quite different, and much better.)

Patrick came to sit with me again. He looked at me and kissed me softly and sincerely. He whispered something in my ear. My heart skipped a beat. I looked into his eyes. They did not betray anything. He said he loved me, and that's what his eyes now said.

"That's not for anyone else to know, yet," he said to me. "Well, Skip can know." I would not argue. I gave him a phone number. I would call that number as well and tell him to expect a phone call.

"I won't tell Skip until we're home again. You can call us anytime."

"Thanks. I will. I'm okay."

"I know. What can I do for you?"

"Love us all every day. There's nothing special about me."

"There is. And I already do love you all every day," I said, kissing him again.

It was no lie. Every BC boy was such an integral part of my life. Our friendship was not just because Billy went to BC. That was true for only a short while, but the depth of us shined through in no time. I could not be false with them. They trusted each other, but Patrick was not ready yet to share. He needed more information. And a plan. Once in place, he would ask for what he needed. Billy slid in behind Patrick, next to the fireplace. He held Patrick close in both arms, kissing his cheek. I don't think Billy knew what I knew. The boys just naturally gravitated to someone who was off by themselves or if they were themselves alone. Patrick automatically took Billy's hands and wrapped them around his belly. Billy automatically scooted in closer and held his friend of three years. He kissed him on his neck. Patrick put his head back, his cheek to Billy's cheek. I kissed them both and then left them alone.

If Patrick needed anything on campus, Billy would be the first person he went to. And then Billy would pull Patrick further into the comfort and caring of the rest of the boys. Patrick still lived in his first dorm, and Sam was still Patrick's roommate. They were in their dorm to sleep only. The brotherhood of boys was too strong for them to be separated, or apart for long.

Kenny ran and threw himself into my arms. I held him tightly. We sat down beside the twins and connected as four. I told stories of long winters near the Canadian border. It turns out that Aggie and Malcolm had been to my hometown, on their way into Central New Hampshire. I described what the family farm looked like from the state highway. There was an overlook, with our pastures opening below it for hundreds of acres, down to the Connecticut River. They had been on that overlook, eating a picnic dinner, watching the sun set over Mount Monadnock on the Vermont side of the river. I had seen that sunset for the first 18 years of my life, and then for four more occasionally while I was in college. I wish home were a happier place. I wanted to take my loves there. It would not happen.

As much as my family would dislike my choices, Patricia and Fred just reveled in our friendships. Jessie sat while Patricia held him and talked to him about Vincent, curious but careful in what she said or asked. He proved to her that he could talk about it all. He showed her that he was wearing Vincent's sweatshirt. He told her that Vincent's mom was pleased that the boys wanted to keep and share his clothes. Patricia knew what it was like to have to deal with belongings of a loved one. Fred held his sons. If they were not both sons by blood, they were sons by love. Pete and Charlie dearly loved their parents, both sets. I missed out on very few things in my life, but that was one of them. I was blood to my brother, the only blood left. My nephews made it clear, time and again, that they were not going to mistreat me. They wanted to come to visit Skip and me. I told them the door was open.

We did not sit on sofas or in chairs. We sat on the floor, shoulder-to-shoulder, heart-to-heart. Our lives were good, if not 100% complete. There will be one last big push to graduation in May. All the boys were going on for their master's degrees, but not all at BC. That would mean separations. Some were thinking about marriage. All knew friendship was friendship and family was family, no matter where we laid our heads each night.

It was midnight before we separated. We were all in the second five of the ten inns. Our hosts were thrilled to have us. Happy homes were homes full of loving people. All the inns had large rooms and large fireplaces. No one worked too much or slept too much. We might eat too much but this was a vacation after all. The innkeepers had all been so pleased to meet Sam, the benefactor of their large donation to help him be a better man. He had hugged and thanked every one of them in person. He wanted to give them much more, but for now, he could not. He could give only his gratitude, which was more than they would ask of him anyway.

Some of the guys were antsy, in a sexual way. Patricia and Fred spent the day with the other adults in town, shopping and touring this very beautiful landscape. We boys, none of us close to adulthood yet (too scary) went into the woods. The twins put Skip at the head of what was going to be a long time. Jeremy settled between Skip's legs, opened his ski suit, and dug for gold. Patrick settled down next. Each boy in turn got between a buddy's legs, ending with Billy. I knew he did not need to get off yet. I ended up somewhere in the middle, between Paul's legs. He was happy about that. Michael wanted mine. Will ended up further down the line. Couples separated on purpose, giving their loves something new. We took our time. No one was going to bother us because we were boys being boys. Each gave and got a nice creamy reward after a long while. The very last to get his was Michael, from me.

"Man, you made me work so hard," he said, laughing aloud. "I came fifteen minutes ago!"

Charlie smacked his lips and laughed with Michael.

On our last night, all the innkeepers had arranged a large dinner for us all in the nearest central location. It was buffet-style. There was music, of course, all kinds to please us all. On a Richard Marx slow dance, I went first to Skip, who was in his wheelchair with Kenny sitting on his lap. I signaled for the music to be put on hold for a moment.

"Dance love?"

"I would be glad to ... love. Billy?"

Billy hopped down from the back of a chair. He eased behind Skip in his wheelchair, gently lifting his brother up and out, holding him tightly so he would not fall. I grabbed Skip as soon as he was upright. Billy slid out of the wheelchair and held Skip tightly. Our innkeeper hosts did not know about this. I had shared our dance technique only with the BC boys, and Pete and Charlie. Patricia and Fred had not seen it yet, though they knew about it.

The music was kept to a selection of slow dances. Every boy got behind Skip and danced with us. Every boy teared up, and some sobbed, holding Skip closer. Kenny thought he was too short.

"No way you'll drop our bud, Kenny."

He took his place with Sam's help. Sam had been before Kenny. He made sure Kenny was okay. I held him with one hand and he held me as he held Skip. When Skip's arms fell away from me, Billy helped him hold me again. He worked very hard to keep his arms around me, his cheek against mine as I looked into the eyes of each person who danced with us. Skip looked into the eyes of everyone else and saw many emotions, mostly good. He knew they had wishes for him that would never be fulfilled. He was more fine with that than our friends were.

We danced for over two and a half hours, giving everyone a song, adults included. Margie was hesitant. Skip told her to grab hold and waltz us around the room. She did so, happily. Aggie, Mal, Joan, and Walt, plus the rest, all shared our moments. I, for one, was not going to forget this. It was better, if only a little, than Atlanta. Atlanta will always be special because our dancing was so spontaneous and was the first time, with our Mark to be an awesome part of it. I wished, so much, Skip could dance on his own. That one thought is where a large part of my guilt came from. What eased the guilt was dancing with him this way. He loved it, therefore it was good.

"And I love you, my ... Aaron. Always," he said, again roaming my mind, his timing exceptional.

When we finally sat down, we all gave each other a round of applause. So beautiful to be where we were loved and accommodated. Skip and I are not wealthy by anyone's imagination, but treating our boys to a week such as this exceeded even my expectations. Now is the time of our lives, in the moments we're in.

That night, back in our rooms, I helped Skip in the bathtub. Billy and Patrick sat and talked to us as I washed our bud. Billy and Patrick would settle for a quick shower, maybe together. The boys washed our backs for us. Patrick kissed my cheek.

"It's beautiful, you know. How you take care of Skip I mean."

"It is," said Skip, in agreement. I no longer thought much about it. Caring for Skip was what I did. Billy did as well when we were together. "Kiss me too?"

Patrick did kiss Skip, on his cheek. Skip looked at Patrick like he knew something. The boys kissed on their lips softly. That too was beautiful.

"You have two minutes ... warning before I pull ... you into the tub," Skip said with twitching eyebrows.

Patrick was naked in less than a minute. He climbed in while I climbed out. I toweled off. Billy and I left the bathroom. There was a sharing here that needed to be private. Billy took advantage of me still being naked.

"I'll need another bath if you keep that up," I said to him as he got naked. He raised my legs and entered me easily.

"I'm counting on it," he said as he kissed me. "Save water, shower with a friend."

"I was already clean."

"What's a little sweat between mates?"

"Okay, as long as you respect me in the morning."

"Sshhhh, I can't hear myself lust you."

He lusted me just fine. Patrick brought Skip into our room, setting him down on the sleeping bag.

"I guess it's you and me then," Patrick said to Skip.

"Nice. Hold me so I ... stay warm."

Patrick held Skip close, knowing it would be a while before he saw him again. This is also why Billy made love to me. We would be apart for three more months until graduation, and then for most of the summer. We had already talked about our annual summer long weekend. It would be at the lake as usual. We were not ready to be apart yet.

"I love you so much bro," Billy whispered to me as he came inside of me. He stayed inside of me as long as he could. We went to take a shower, trying not to disturb our sleeping buddies. Patrick's face was in Skip's neck. They were breathing softly. When we were done, we got into bed and snuggled close. We slept easily.

In the morning, we woke about the same time. Patrick put Skip between Billy and me in bed, and then lay behind me, holding me so that if he fell out of bed, I would go with him. We snuggled closer together so that would not happen.

"So it's like this every day for you three?"

"Yeah, when we're all together. Nice, huh?"

"Yeah, nice. I have Sam to hold on to, so it's all good. He's antsy sometimes about you guys."

"When he gets that way," I said, "just hold him close. Believe together that we're okay. If you can't believe it together, we'll come to see you."

"Come see us anyway?"

"Yeah bro, we will. It's a long time until graduation, and we won't wait that long."

Patrick kissed each of us and then got up to get dressed. Billy got up a moment later. I dressed Skip. I held his head in my hands and kissed him deeply.

"I love you, you know."

"I know. I love you as much."

"Sweet. Love me always?"

"I will."

I was not antsy. I had my Skip and he had his Aaron.

We went down for breakfast. The rest of our inn mates joined us shortly. Smells from the kitchen had gotten us all up. Patrick set Skip down in the chair with arms at the head of the table. He wanted to feed Skip this morning. Jeremy, Paul, Alex, and Pete joined us. We would eat a good breakfast since we had noon flights back to Boston and New Haven.

Two hours after breakfast, we all congregated in the waiting room at the airport in Halifax. We had had a great week, and great weeks meant some sadness in parting. The BC boy's flights were called first. They would be home within two hours. The Connecticut contingent left a half hour later. We would be home within three hours.

Once home, which felt so nice, Fred put Skip into his SUV. "Dinner with us?" Patricia asked.

"Sure. Something light. I'm feeling fat." I patted my tummy.

"Fat is 120 pounds away for your scrawny ass," she said, smiling. "I'm going swimming each morning for the next two weeks though. Canadian food is rich, no?"

"Oh yeah. Has to be. Today there is a 30 degree temp difference between us and our hosts. They need that for warmth.

After dinner, the folks brought Skip and me home, helping us settle in. I would need to go shopping for groceries after work tomorrow. We had put fresh bagels in the freezer before we left. Fred stopped at the neighborhood mom and pop store for us so we could get OJ and milk. Other than that, we were set.

"How do we help Patrick?" Skip said to me in our kitchen.

"He's going to talk to Andrew this week. I already got them in touch. Andrew will go back to Boston until Patrick graduates in June and then will bring him to NIH soon after."

"Oh man," he said, sighing. "What stage?"

"Three," I said quietly.

"Aww shit."

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