Skip - Part 54

 

Skip - Part 54



My ride was here. I left my car at the side of the driveway, out of the way of Skip's truck and Billy's car. Patricia was to drive me to the Metro North commuter train station in Fairfield. I'd arrive at Grand Central later in the morning and then walk across town to Penn Station for my trip to Philly. Amtrak took about an hour and a half.

Another summer away from home. Another summer without the long weekend picnic at the lake. Maybe. It was important for our morale, mine included.

Weeks without my Billy. Weeks without my Skip, and he his Aaron.

Patricia held my hand in the parking lot while we awaited the arrival of my southbound train.





I loved that she would come with me. I felt like mom and best friend was making sure the beginning of my next journey was going to be okay. I didn't have to ask anyone to take me to the train. Patricia asked me what time I needed to leave. She said she would pick me up. She did so in more ways than just coming to our home. She raised my spirits. Patricia was not going to let me be sad about my circumstances. Neither were Matt and Jeff on the destination side of today's journey.

Before the train arrived, we walked from the car to the platform. The train was due to arrive in a few minutes. The platform was filled with commuters. Patricia stood close, my hand still in hers. I think she was feeding me her positive energy. She had blushed a bit when she called me for always arguing with her and my reply that I loved her though. I had known her for 12 of my 15 years at GE the first time. I was now into my second year back at GE. She had not thought twice about my request for a project instead of short-term disability that would become long-term disability.

The train rounded the curve to our left. Patricia gave me a hug and whispered into my ear. Then, aloud, she said, "We'll take care of Skip and Billy. You take care of only you."

"Can't do that. You know why. I'll take care of me, but not only me."

"Again with the argument," she said with a smile. "Please call me later?"

"I will. Jeff and Matt are there for me too, so no worries."

She nodded. It was hard for her to let go of my hand. It was as hard for me to let hers go. She was my true mom in as many ways, save one, as my own mom. I had no worries for Skip and Billy. Distance apart meant very little. I would prefer to see my loves every day but since I couldn't, I could hold them close, the same way we held Billy and our boys close to us when they were at BC.

I got into a window seat, being one of the first to get into the last car on the train. I had this innate sense of where the doors opened relative to where everyone stood. A young woman in a business suit and sneakers sat beside me and said "Good morning." I returned her greeting and disappeared into my book, as she got lost in her newspaper. This was the routine of The Commuter. No one was rude, but the morning commute was a time of quiet for the next hour and 45 minutes. The days for workers in New York were run at a frenetic pace. Quiet time was a premium benefit. I managed to read about 150 pages, a bit under two pages a minute. Mitch Rapp, Vince Flynn's hero, was in DC this time, instead of some foreign country, setting his sights on a man within the power structure of Washington politics. I would not want to be that man. Mitch Rapp on my tail would be a million times more scary than the devil himself. His boss, Irene Kennedy and Director of the CIA, reminded me 100% of Patricia. Patricia could play the part of Irene Kennedy in a movie and be very convincing.

We made station stops at some of the wealthiest communities in Fairfield County and Westchester County. Wealthy towns like Westport, Darien, and Greenwich CT, and Rye, NY. Much of it was old money. It was common to see chauffeured limousines on the parkways between Connecticut and New York, often ending in New York City. None of the assets of my BC boys combined matched the money that a peer living in these two counties had.

One of my college dorm mates was from a wealthy Fairfield County family (dad a New York City lawyer, mom a physician). He would have fit so nicely into the fold of our boys. He had it all-money, friends, personality, a trouble-making nature that rivaled mine, and a good heart. And he was in the closet. He didn't know that I knew. I wish I'd sat and talked to him on a deeper level. He'd be one of my oldest friends. No one has so many friends that losing one is acceptable. Two of my college mates were gay and I figured the secrets should be theirs alone, even though I knew. I had no college friends except friend Jason. He was enough, but still. This is why my BC boys happiness was so important to me.

I looked out of the window as I sat thinking about all of this. We were a few minutes outside of Grand Central Terminal, about to go underground at E 97th Street. Grand Central was at 42nd Street. It was indeed grand, probably the best transportation center in the US. Grand Central served only the states of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, across five commuter rail lines. Subways ran underneath and nearby. It had gone through a major renovation from 1994 to 2000, looking more magnificent as it did in the 80's when I was a regular commuter to New York.

I sat down off to the side of the station, watching people come in droves up the stairs and down the ramps into the central hall. I heard announcements for arriving and departing trains. I saw people walking on the upper levels at the edges of the station. There were many places to eat around the edges and on the upper levels of the terminal. I loved the shining 4-sided clock, the grand staircase, the high arched ceiling, and the huge American flag hanging down from the ceiling.

This link should show you what I couldn't describe in words (but quadruple the number of people you see to get a flavor of how busy it gets in the early morning and late afternoon): http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Grand_Central_Station_Main_Concourse_Jan_2006.jpg

I had plenty of time since it was now just past 8:30 a.m. My train for Philly didn't leave until after 2:00. I spent those six hours admiring the changes at Grand Central since I was here last, eating a cheese Danish and sipping coffee at Au Bon Pain (pronounced, roughly, aw bon pan), and walking down Fifth Avenue. This was yet another wonderful part of New York. Most of the pricier shopping venues were north of Grand Central, though there was enough charm on this part of the avenue.

After a while, I continued walking down to the Empire State Building. The viewing floors were not open to the public yet, but I went inside anyway and melted into the crowd. The art deco architecture remind me once again of the Chrysler Building, further north and west from where I was. My thoughts went to Vincent again. I was honoring my promise to walk in the world for him. He was not seated beside me, but he was inside my heart, seeing what I was seeing. In a fast moving city, I felt relaxed and happy. I thought of Kate as well since she and I had worked in New York, she as a pediatrician, in the mid-80's.

An hour later, I walked west on 34th Street to Macy's. I window-shopped on the outside and then went inside to see if there were any good sales. I bought two new polo shirts, not on sale, but at a price that didn't make my mouth hang open.

From there, I walked west to Penn Station. Normally this would take the average human about a half hour, from Grand Central to Penn Station. The average New Yorker could do it in just about twenty minutes. I took about five and a half hours, usually sitting in the warm sun, reading, and people watching. In the country, we would watch the grass grow. Country people and city people are as different as night and day. It amazed me I could be both rather easily.

Penn Station, my next to last destination, was at 34th and 33rd Streets. As grand as Grand Central was, Penn Station is best described as being this side of Hell. New Jersey Transit, Long Island Railroad, and Amtrak all had space here. I did not go inside until about thirty minutes before my train was to depart, and even that was a long thirty minutes. Crowded, uncomfortable, and three times as noisy as the streets outside. I bought my ticket and then went back outside. Too claustrophobic.

Later, I was relieved to sit in my window seat on the Amtrak car, getting lost again in Mitch's aggravation at Irene's detractors. I'm glad I bought more than one book. I would be finished with "The Third Option" well before Philly. I read the final third of the book and the first quarter of my next book by the time we pulled into 30th Street Station. I remembered just now that I had packed "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" in my packages sent ahead to Matt.

I liked this station almost as much as Grand Central, since it was very similar in style. It was like Grand Central on a diet, smaller and less busy. This was the Amtrak hub of Philly. It sat just west of Center City and just north of UPenn, which we'd visit next week.

Matt and Jeff were at the top of the stairs as I came off the escalator. There were two very pretty young ladies with them. The boys did the introductions after they gave me a welcome to Philly hug, which I returned. Both girls gave us 'awww, how sweet' reactions.

"Aaron, my wife Kelly," said Jeff.

She gave me a nice hug, both arms, and a kiss on my cheek. Kelly reminded me a bit of Deb in Atlanta, blonde and pony-tailed.

"Hello Aaron. Glad you're here, despite the circumstances."

"No worries, girls," I said addressing Matt's fiancÚ as well. "I would have been here eventually anyway for business."

"Aaron, my fiancÚ, Ginny."

"Hi Aaron. I'm so pleased to meet you. Come, the car is across the street."

Ginny is often short for Virginia. I asked and she said yes. Only her mom calls her Virginia.

Matt took my duffel. We drove from the station, slicing right through the heart of Center City across to I-95, up to Bristol Township in Bucks County, northeast of the city by about 20 miles. In about thirty-five minutes ... Ahhh, back in the 'country' again. We pulled through the main entrance of Matt's condo development. We drove for another three minutes, to the outer edge of the complex, near the woods. Nice! We pulled up in front of Matt's townhouse.

I saw a beagle in the living room window, his or her paws up on the windowsill. He/she was undoubtedly wagging his/her tail.

"Uh oh," said Matt as we got out of the car. "I forgot to tell you I have a pup. His name is Snoopy. Uh ... "

"I assume he's a hound dawg," I said, "and probably full of energy."

"Yeah, he is that and more."

"I had a beagle named Ginger from the time I was four until I was a sophomore in college. Love dogs. Cats are okay too, but dogs rock."

Snoopy hopped around a bit when we entered. For the moment, Matt took him out back and hooked him up to his dog run. I saw that my FedEx packages, containing my clothing for the summer and fall, had arrived. I had brought only a medium duffel with me into New York and Philly.

"I hope that wasn't a pain for you, Matt."

"Nah, not at all. The FedEx guy left it at the leasing office this morning and I brought them in at lunchtime. Come on, I'll show you your room."

Matt took one box and Jeff the other. We went upstairs and straight ahead. My favorite type of apartment/condo, an end unit with windows on two sides of the room. It was bright and sunny, freshly painted a pale green, much like our bedroom at home. I guessed that this was formerly Jeff's room, when he and Matt lived here together. The guys stacked my boxes on the floor at the foot of a queen-sized bed, freshly made up. Both windows were open with a nice cross-breeze coming in. PA could get very muggy during the summer, but today was dry and clear, a number 10 day.

"You got a good amount of closet space," he said, showing me a walk-in closet. "And your own bath."

I peeked in. It had a large steam shower and granite counters, with storage underneath. It was also freshly painted, a pleasing almond color, complementing the paint in the bedroom. These guys had good tastes.

"Just like home," I said.

"Good. This is home, so I hope you'll enjoy it all."

"I'll unpack later," I said coming back into the bedroom. "Can I help with dinner?"

"Yeah. Lemme show you the rest of the place before we go downstairs."

The guys showed me that the third bedroom, beside mine, was a den. My room was on the backside of the townhouse. Down the hall was Matt's room. His was painted a lighter shade of slate blue than my old townhouse in New Hampshire. Matt was neat. Underwear did not lie all over the floor and there were no girlie posters hanging on the wall. A large Escher print in a black frame hung on the wall over his dresser. He too had two windows on two walls. The whole place was filled with bright sunshine at this time of day. It was just past 4:30 in the afternoon, hours before sunset.

We went downstairs. The living room, I had not noticed before, had a fireplace in the corner of the far wall. Matt's furniture was contemporary, identical to my own taste. Jeff had been gone for a couple months, evident by a gap or two in furniture. It was uncluttered and far from a bachelor pad for two working guys. There was a half-bath down the hall, separate dining room, and a nicely appointed kitchen.

Matt had told Patricia and Geoff that he didn't need them to pay for my time here. Friendship and my well-being was the order, not making money. He told them to save the money for my promotion and bonus when I delivered on my next project. He was joking, but they liked the idea. Matt's folks covered any shortfall if taxes or utilities got out of hand. Otherwise, it was affordable and now our home for the duration. The one thing I did make clear was that I would pay for groceries. He thought that was okay.

I was marveling at the kitchen. Granite counter, stainless steel appliances, lots of cupboard space, a window over the sink (which was a must for Skip and me as well), double window on the side in front of which was a two-person table for breakfast, and French doors to the deck. The exterior size of the condo was deceiving. Only the half bath downstairs and the den upstairs were less than 10 by 10.

"On the side, Jeff and I are contractor's working for our dads. He and I updated the kitchen while on Christmas holiday from work."

"Nice. I'm at home in the kitchen. I'm French-Canadian by ancestry and Scottish before that, back 800 years according to my dad's mom. I love to cook and grill. What can I do?"

"How about tending the grill with Jeff? We've got fresh free-range chicken from a local farmer. Kelly is making up the family's barbeque sauce. Ginny is the dessert queen, and no telling what she'll come up with. I'm normally the sous-chef when we're cooking together. I'm working on the side dishes. What do you like best?"

"Favorite side dish? Twice-baked potatoes."

"Really? I've had them only once, in a local restaurant. There happens to be bakers in the oven right now."

"I know," I said smiling. "That's why I said twice-baked potatoes. You wanna try it?"

"Yeah. I'll let you know when the bakers are done."

Jeff and I went outside. Snoopy sat and looked me over. He cocked his head. Ginger always did that when she met someone new. "Am I gonna like him, Aaron" she would say to me with her body language. "Oh yeah, Ginger, you will," I would say to her.

I was not going to feel like a stranger in a strange land around here. I had spent a lot of time corresponding with Jeff and Matt over the past year. They were already friends, and getting better acquainted was going to be nice. Kelly and Ginny were charming and sweet.

Like Skip's and my condo complex, there was water nearby. What I thought was a pond turned out to be a lake. An inlet connected to a pond.

"Come here a minute, Jeff. I gotta show you something. Mostly people don't believe this, so it might be a treat."

Jeff followed me to the pond. There was a male and a female duck swimming at the edge. I slowed Jeff down as we came nearer.

"Sit beside me, and watch this."

A few minutes later, the female duck got out of the water. She came over to me and I offered her a piece of a cracker that I had snagged off the picnic table near the grill. She took it, ate it, and then ate the other three pieces from my fingers. She then settled down beside me, up against my leg. I felt happy to show this. It was no mystery to me; I had been doing it since I was a kid.

"No shit," Jeff said softly. He was on his knee to my left. "I've been trying to do that for four years."

"Only thing is now I gotta stay a while so she'll come back to me next time too. Hold dinner for me, okay?" I said, laughing.

He quietly got to his feet and slipped away quietly. It about fifteen minutes, the young lady went back to join her mate. I walked back to the backyard. Jeff told the crew what I had just done. No one believed it, as usual. Jeff is obviously a known troublemaker. Next time I would have to choose a non-troublemaker type. I don't think there was one in the crowd.

"Don't believe me. See if I care," protested Jeff. "Aaron will just have to show you."

The potatoes were ready, so I went into the kitchen to show them how to make the side dish. I scooped out the potato flesh carefully into a bowl, added milk, butter and some salt and pepper.

"Got any grated Parmesan cheese?" I asked Matt.

He gave me the container from the fridge. I added the cheese and then stirred it all up. We re-stuffed the potatoes. They went under the broiler for a few minutes. Jeff tended to the chicken outside while the rest of us got dinner dishes on the table. I suddenly realized that I was the fifth wheel, a bit of an outsider in this group of long-time friends. I was about to sit on the end of the picnic table bench when Ginny pulled me over beside her and Matt sat down beside me.

"I know what you're thinking, Aaron, so stop."

"Women's intuition?"

"Skip isn't the only one who can read you, you know. You were about to do what I would have done. You're our friend and you're among friends."

"Here's to our bud Aaron," Jeff said, raising his frosty beer glass to me. The three did the same. I raised mine and clinked glasses.

"And here's to you all. Thanks for making me feel at home."

"Having seen a small part of your life already says we should hold on," said Jeff. "It's terrible to realize that you have four tumors along your spinal cord. I can imagine, against my will, what it's going to take to treat them. I'm a bit scared for you. Matty and I are going to be with you for your chemo. We'll drive you to UPenn and bring you home. Whatever post-care you'll need, you'll have. If you have to stay overnight for any reason, he or I will stay with you in your room."

I could only nod. I was surprised I could even breathe, for the knot in my throat. We ate as we talked. The crew liked my side dish. The meal was our first together, one of many hundreds to come, even if there was space and time between meals.

"We've driven the route to UPenn a few times," Jeff continued, "so we know how to get you there. It's an easy drive, by the way. About 35 minutes one way, even in traffic."

"So you know, I'm working a half day on chemo day. I also plan to be at work on Friday morning. If I can't be, I'll say so. If you want to worry, I can't stop you, but I'd rather have a hand to hold or a hug when I feel like screaming. I'll warn you, there will be times that stress you out."

Matt stood, climbed over the bench, picked me up, and helped me over the bench as well. He turned me toward him and hugged me tightly. He kissed my forehead.

"We know more about you than you think. Patricia has filled us in in detail. I hope that's okay, but it doesn't change the fact that we wanted to know. Someday, Jeff will tell you what he knows about cancer, but not today."

Ginny stood and leaned against my side. She hugged me and planted a kiss on my cheek. "We're a team of five, love. You without Skip and Billy might suck, but it'll suck less for the love we can give you. We will. That's a promise."

I was speechless. Kelly came around the table. She took my hands and looked up at my face. She was about 5'6" tall, a bit shorter than Billy. She kissed my cheek.

"Never alone, love. Not for a moment, unless you need quiet time. Otherwise, the boys will be on the first string, and we'll back them up."

Jeff came over and put his hand on her shoulder. She looked up at him. Both boys were about my height. Kelly handed Jeff my hands. He took them, interlocking his fingers in mine. He kissed my forehead.

"Patricia says you like it best, just like that. As for me, I like it best this way."

He hugged me to him and held on, putting his cheek against mine, his right hand on the back of my neck. I hugged him as I would any of my boys.

"You're like someone I used to know," Jeff said. "I'll do whatever it takes to make you okay. Blood for surgery, a hand to hold as you ask, and solitude only when you want it, but not at the risk of you being lonely."

"Thank you bud. Thank you all. I'm blessed in a lot of ways, and now four more ways."

We picked up our dinner plates and took them inside. Before we had dinner, the three wanted to see my 'duck appeal', still not believing Jeff. We walked over to the pond. I had them stand back so they could see, knowing the female would come to me but not to a crowd. Jeff had not really been in her line of sight earlier. I broke up the cracker so that she could hear me. I sat down and waited. The crew saw her swim to shore and climb out. She waddled over to me, ate from my fingers four times, and settled in beside me. After a couple of minutes, she snuggled against my bare leg. I looked to my left and saw three amazed faces, and an amused Jeff. As the days went on, Matt would try to do what I could do and he would fail until I taught him my 'trick'. A pure heart. Nothing more complicated than that. Kids and animals know. Any child ever set upon my lap would not scream and climb down or would not fidget any more than for a moment or two. My young nephews often fell asleep in my arms where they would not for their mom or dad.

After the little lady waddled away from me back to her mate, I walked back to the backyard, followed by four ducks, waddling and cracking up.

"Oh mighty, great, and wise Aaron. We shall never doubt you again," Jeff said, bowing low at the waist.

Matt, Ginny, and Kelly joined him, keeping straight faces for as long as they could, and then cracking up again. As straight-faced as I could, I returned the bow, arms stretched out like they had done, saying, "Oh mighty, great, and wise Earth beings, thank you for being my friends."

Earth beings? They decided to leave that one for now. We all hugged and made a lot of noise, probably disturbing the neighbors. We decided to go inside before the boys in blue showed up.

Later in the evening, once Jeff and Kelly headed for home, I went out back again so Ginny and Matt could say goodnight. I knew she did not live here with Matt. I would not have felt awkward if she did. She lived a few buildings away, across the complex. He walked her home.

He joined me out back once more. We sat on the top of the picnic table. He moved close to me and put his arm across my back. I did the same to him, at the same time. I put my head on his shoulder. He took my left hand in his right hand. We didn't have to say anything, and didn't for a while.

"I wish you weren't sick, bud. But we're okay. You should go and call Skip. Give him our best."

I did call Skip and talked to both he and Billy for a half hour. I could hear them smiling when I told them about the duck pond. I told them, reassuring them both, that I was as home here as if I were in Connecticut. I would bring the foursome home with me when we could all manage to be together. They were glad that I'm in such good hands. "No worries," Billy said. "We're okay."

I had a photo in my wallet of us three. I showed it to Matt. Skip and Billy had also sent along the picture of all of us that Will had drawn. They wanted the boys and our close friends all to be with me every day. I hung it over my dresser. I pointed out every person to Matt. I would do the same thing, at another time, with Jeff, Kelly, and Ginny.

"I don't see faces," Matt said. "I see beautiful hearts and souls. Sweet young Michael without his testicle, just like Skip. Sam. My God, how could his parents not want such a beautiful young man? Patrick, the newest warrior. Vincent not forgotten. Paul and Jessie-how they must feel loss. David with his torso full of horrible cancer scars but an untouched soul, loving and making a real home for Sam. By the way, we want to contribute to Sam's Fund for Michael and Will. They'll need money for an apartment after they graduate until they earn some money."

Matt handed me three checks-one from Kelly and Jeff, one from Ginny, and his own-totaling $6,000. I put them in a deposit envelope to send to Sam.

"Thanks so much. They'll be very happy about this. They'll use it as you intend, I have no doubt."

"So nice to have friends and loves of my life. Even though I'm missing one person in my life. You've never heard me say so."

"A son."

"Yeah," I said, lowering my head.

Matt lifted my chin with his finger. He held me again, in both arms this time. "A 99% complete life must be so frustrating."

"No. Because I'll have a son one day. I have a 100% life. A son will be 150% and I'll make sure he knows that."

Matt helped me open my boxes and put my clothes away. He hung up my shirts and slacks while I put my casual clothes in the drawers. Being home meant unpacking suitcases or whatever.

I don't know how long this would be home, but at least for six months. Matt had already told me not to think about that. He would be joyful when the tumors were gone and sad beyond measure when I left his home. This would be his and Ginny's home when they got married. If I wanted my own place after that, they would help me find one. It was likely I'd be here longer than six months, but planning is not my thing.

"Truthfully, the moments I'm in are those I care most about. A plan is only as good as the day it can be executed."

It was Friday, June 1, 2001, just before midnight. I showered while Matt finished up downstairs. He came back upstairs and sat beside me once I got into bed.

"You okay?" he asked me. "I'm glad you're here, but sad you have to leave your life behind again."

"I'm okay. Home is where Skip is, but home is where I'm cared for. I'm trying to make this more business trip than treatment routine. Treatment will be each Thursday afternoon. I want to be in the office again on Friday."

"I don't disagree, but just be a little more realistic. At least allow for a bad day."

"We'll see. The moments I'm in. It's the best I can do."

Matt kicked off his sneakers and sat beside me as I got into bed. I did not need to read tonight to relax. I was going to be okay. He talked to me quietly to help me relax. Snoopy must have been in Matt's room because I didn't hear his dog tag jingle against his collar. He was calm for a beagle pup. He had sat at my feet as Matt and I talked in my room earlier today. I had eventually sat down on the floor. He had sat on my lap and licked my face once, looking over at Matt. "I like him Matty," he seemed to say. Matt chuckled. When I was asleep, Matt turned off my light.

When I woke in the morning, Snoopy was lying across my feet, as Ginger did for the 14 years of her life. My watch read 6:30 a.m. Snoopy sat up a bit when I moved. I patted the bed beside me and he came over to me. He licked my face and then he lay down beside me. I hugged him for a few minutes.

"Out Snoopy?"

He jumped off the bed. I followed him downstairs and went through the condo to the kitchen. On the back deck, I put him on his dog run. He went to the edge of the yard and did his duty, coming back to the deck. I brought him inside. I filled his water dish and then looked around for his food. I found a bag of high quality dry dog food in the pantry.

"You're not spoiled much," I said. I added water to his food and stirred it a bit. He ate happily, looking up at me and licking his snout. "Matt loves me too," he said to me with his eyes. No doubt.

Matt came down after 8:00. His body anyway. I suspect that if I went upstairs to his room, his spirit would still be under the covers.

"Traitor," he said to Snoopy. Snoopy looked up at him, almost grinning. "Fickle at that."

"Uh oh. Our first fight," I said as seriously as I could without cracking a smile.

Matt was also having a hard time staying overly serious.

"I'm humble loveable shoe-shine boy," I said in my defense.

"You're no Underdog, bud. Okay, I guess I can temporarily give up Snoopy to you. Anyone who lets me sleep in a bit, takes mah dawg out, and gives him his breakfast ain't so bad."

"Ginger was the family dog," I said, "but mostly my dog. She slept with my brother only when I was away at college. Snoopy knows. Kids and animals know. I've seen it too many times not to believe they know I'm an okay dude."

Matt sat with me after getting his cup of coffee. "Thanks for making coffee too. It's better than I make. Can I adopt you?"

"Yes. Just sign here," I said, moving an imaginary piece of paper toward him. He 'signed' it.

He smiled. He sat beside me and put his arm across my shoulder, pulling me to him. We put our cheeks together for a minute. I liked that he held me a lot. He wanted me to know that I was okay, not just think so.

"What do you want for breakfast? My treat," I said.

"Pancakes?"

"Yup. Got blueberries?"

"Freshest ever made. Out in my backyard. I'll go get a cup of them while you make the batter. The mix is in the pantry."

"Mix?" I said.

"Wha-at? Mix is good."

"Good, yes. Scratch is better. Trust my culinary talents."

"I'm definitely going to adopt you."

He had everything I need in the pantry, probably thanks to Ginny being the queen of baking. Mix had too much sugar and too much sodium. One-fourth the sugar, almost no sodium. I added a small pinch of cinnamon. He'd be able to taste it but would wonder what it was. It was my maternal grandma's secret. The batter was ready when he came back in with blueberries. He rinsed them out, dried them in a paper towel, and then put them in the batter. He took the griddle out of a lower cupboard, sprayed it with cooking spray, and then heated it up. Our kitchen choreography was in motion, and about as perfect as it gets. He cooked up Canadian bacon on the side of the griddle that I wasn't using. I made four pancakes apiece. He poured OJ for us.

When we settled down beside the window, his first bite brought the look I had expected.

"What is that elusive little tang? It's very subtle but these are the best I've ever had. And don't tell Ginny."

"Think about it for a few minutes. Before it drives you crazy, I'll tell you."

After a few more bites and a taste of his bacon, he said, "Cinnamon."

I nodded. "It's the unexpected that makes your cooking your own. Ginny might know right away. Do you four do breakfast on weekends?"

"Yeah, more often than not. Sometimes the girls do a 'girl's only' weekend, so it's Jeff and me fending for ourselves. Healthy eating is the only rule with us."

"Me too, actually Skip, Billy, and me. One thing UPenn is going to do is look at my diet. I have to wonder if my ability to grow tumors is self-inflicted versus my environment or even my car accident. Andrew is still working on that theory in DC."

"If I get a cold every two or three years, I consider myself lucky. Jeff is the same way. We did have measles together as kids. We don't know who infected who first, but it ran its course."

When we finished eating, Matt put our dishes in the dishwasher. We both went upstairs to dress. I put on a Nike t-shirt and khaki shorts, white ankle socks, and my favorite Nikes. I remembered back to last year with Mark always pilfering my sneakers. I think Mark's were New Balance, sexy and comfortable, much like their owner. Matt also wore Nikes, a silver swoosh on his versus the red swoosh on mine. We looked a bit like brothers. He's the same body type except we was not scrawny. I was currently weighing in at 110. He was probably 170 like I should be. Dark brown hair like I used to have and trying to grow again. Hazel eyes like mine. Mine were more blue or green depending on what I wore. Today his were green and mine were more blue because my t-shirt is navy blue.

Friend Jeff is 6' tall, an inch taller than me. Blond and blue-eyed, sweet face, an only child because his younger brother died. He was a bit of an introvert, but he warmed up around me just fine. His heart was sincere. He had moments of sadness, but did not let them bring him down. We would talk about his sadness in time.

The girls were both extroverts. From what I saw yesterday at dinner outside, they are always conspiring. Both were very pretty and I was more convinced than not they both had hearts as pure as Betsy, Claire, and Jillian. But I'd watch my back anyway. The four were in their mid-to late 20's. If they weren't pure of heart, their hearts were better than most.

The weekend was full. We ate together, played street hockey with a young neighborhood kid of 17 being our sixth to make our teams even, went out to a movie on Saturday night, toured the area on Sunday so I'd know my way around, and went to our GE building in a corporate office park. It was only 10 minutes from home. Both of the girls showed me the schools they taught at-Kelly taught 4th grade English and social studies. Ginny taught 8th grade math and science. We went to the pool early on Sunday before it got crowded. Adult swim was before noon and after 4:00. Matt and Jeff came up under me and tossed me high out of the water. "Do it again!" I said like a typical kid. They did. They scared the crap out of me the first time. It was just as fun the second time.

On Sunday night I showed Matt how to attract the little lady duck. He had to 'cool down' his emotions first, and alas, we had to leave Snoopy at home for now. Before summer was gone, I was on a mission to get Snoopy and the little lady to be friends. It would take some effort, but anything worth doing usually did. When Matt was relaxed, he went over to where I had sat on Friday, sat down, crunched the cracker, and waited. It took a few minutes, but the little lady climbed out of the pond. She grabbed a piece of cracker and ran back to the water. Matt looked disappointed. I walked softly over to him.

"Cool and relaxed, like she's not even really there," I said. I took a few steps back. He waited. She came back for another cracker piece, and stayed nearby this time. Matt didn't move. She took the third piece. Her mate was in the middle of the pond floating lazily. I had to wonder if she picked up my scent, though not knowing of a duck's sense of smell. Snoopy's was far better, I'm sure. She settled down upon her feet, about a foot from Matt. She tucked her bill under her wing. I slipped quietly beside Matt. He was about to speak but I shushed him. After she went back into the pond, we walked home.

"Only a foot away from you. Not bad for your first time," I told him. "She'll warm up to you in time."

"Nice. That was cool, huh?"

"That was cool, indeed. She'll like you and trust you soon enough."

We sat on the picnic table. Snoopy sat at our feet between us. I started whispering quietly. He perked up one ear and then looked up and left at me. I pretended to be looking into the woods. He looked to see what I was looking at. I whispered again. He looked at me. "Why are ya messing with me," he seemed to say. I did it one more time. This time he hopped up into my lap.

I laughed aloud. "Okay okay, little one, it was me." I ruffled his ears and kissed his forehead. He licked my face once and then settled into my lap. Matt, Ginny, and I had a light dinner on Sunday night. Jeff and Kelly didn't want to 'crowd me' (their words) on my first weekend. I told them I'm comfortable around one or 30. There is a time for both and I told them not to change their routine around Matt and Ginny because of me.

We three drove to work on Monday. I had talked to Geoff, a relocated Brit like Andrew, over the phone once before leaving Connecticut and once after I arrived. He was thrilled to have someone else on the team with CAD skills. My Atlanta project was installed in Philly a few weeks ago, so he knew of my talent. Mike had clued him in on my work ethic. I was second oldest to only Geoff in an office of about 300 employees.

"Old Man" quickly became my name, to the point that Aaron was an unknown. I laughed. A term of endearment, and one so quickly, showed that I was accepted and welcomed. I fit right in easily of course. The only thing that I was too sad about was leaving "Officer Jim" and my fire squad behind. I had worked hard to be a firefighter on top of getting my paramedic license in Connecticut.

By Wednesday, it felt like I had been here longer than three days. I let the crew know I had tomorrow off for a trip to UPenn. Patricia and Geoff had talked and then conferenced in Mike in Atlanta. The basic rule was to let me go and I'd be a star. Micromanage me and I rebel, kindly as I can. At the end of Wednesday, my computer models had advanced to three-quarters, picking up where I had left off at headquarters in Fairfield. My clay model needed a bit of work only because I needed a different set of modeling tools. Geoff promised me those by my return on Friday.

I had to go to Children's Hospital of Pennsylvania at UPenn on Thursday. I told the guys that I'd like to give the SEPTA (Southeast PA Transit Authority) a go. Matt and Jeff still wanted to come, even after I told them it would be a long day. I was happy for it. They knew how to get around SEPTA.

We got on the Trenton Line in Bristol and arrived at 30th Street Station 35 minutes later. We walked a mile to the entrance of Children's Hospital. A forty-one year old at Children's? Only because I am a guinea pig. These types of tumors developing in a child would likely mean death, so UPenn was going to put a lot of work into the inner physiology of those tumors.

The first task was to see the MRI images that had been done at Yale-New Haven. I wanted to include Matt and Jeff in the meeting. Can't know the enemy unless you can see it. Jeff went pale when he saw five tumors, not four that I had told him. As for me, how surprised could I really be?

"Five?"

"Four and a half to be specific," said Dr. Ben Toddman.

He used a small metal ruler to measure the size of each. The smallest one was half an inch or just over one centimeter. The other four were various sizes, upwards of 2-1/4 inches, or 5.7 centimeters.

"I know we can kill them off fairly easy, but how do we keep them away, permanently?"

"Shut down the tumor factory. We have to find it first."

"Surgery to explore?"

"No, not yet anyway. We can use various imaging techniques to find all the potential sources. Your blood will give us a clue perhaps. We're considering implanting a chemo port so you get overall and ongoing protection."

"Andrew wanted to do that a long time ago but I didn't want it. I haven't heard much good about them."

"Technology is better than even five years ago. Smaller, lighter, less noticeable, and effective. I can do it today, but it's up to you."

I thought about it while we talked about the immediate need to kill off the tumors we know about. Dr. Toddman knew that Andrew had a lot of success with direct injection. The downside is that as they're breaking up, even small traces in your blood mean they can travel and settle elsewhere.

"I'm working on creating a vacuum of sorts to isolate the tumors if they break up. Better yet, and Andrew's brilliant idea, is they'll dissolve inside out. We don't know if they're newly formed or formed from remnants of your prior tumors. Microbiology Lab next door will tell us that. I need to biopsy each tumor."

"Okay. You can do the port too."

"Jeff. Matt. You should wait here for your friend, or feel free to go for a walk and return. We'll be about an hour."

"We'd rather be with Aaron."

"Admirable, but this is a sterile procedure because of infection hazard."

"Are you wearing a gown and mask?" asked Jeff.

Dr. Toddman had just lost his argument.

"Okay guys. Come on in."

We went to his lab next to his office. The three of them put on gowns face masks. Jeff wanted to trade his for Jason, from Friday the 13th. Matt said he'd like to be Freddy Kruger but he had trimmed his nails only yesterday morning.

"I plead insanity," I said to Dr. Toddman, rolling my eyes at the boys as I took off my polo shirt.

Well, at least they weren't going to let me take this too seriously. They sat to the side while Dr. Toddman wiped the left portion of my bare chest with two kinds of antibiotic. He then injected me with a local anesthetic. He warned the boys, and me, that he was about to cut into my skin to make a small pocket for the port.

"Understood. We're okay," they said, both confirming it.

He put the padded table at an angle. I lay back. Dr. Toddman made a neat and clean slice in two motions of his scalpel. I was watching the guys. The last thing I am is a stranger to scalpels, even though I didn't actually witness any of them. Jeff was gonna blow his breakfast. Matt's eyes were wide. I winked at them to let them know it didn't hurt much. Jeff took my hand anyway, though I held his more than he held mine. His blue eyes were shiny bright. Kelly loved him for those eyes, without question.

The port has a stem or neck of sorts, called a septum, for injection of meds and withdrawal of blood samples. It's slightly larger than the ear buds of your iPod. It also has a tube, called a catheter, which runs into a vein. Dr. Toddman had three veins to choose from-jugular (in the neck), subclavian (near my first rib), or superior vena cava (which ends up in the right atrium of my heart). He used the latter. Anything near or through the heart would circulate my meds farther throughout my system. If the tumors came from my blood, the total-body chemo would kill them early. If they came from my tissues? Unknown, for now.

He closed me up in short order and put a large clear Band-Aid over the wound.

"You should change that twice a day until I see you next week. I'm going to give you your first chemo to fill the port. If you run a fever of over 100, go to your local ER. I can adjust the dosage if I have to but you'll be getting smaller doses over time for the next week. You know how to use these?"

He held up syringes filled with an anti-emetic. "Oh yeah."

He gave me a box of 14, two for each day for the next week.

"Now for the hard part," he said. "It's up to you guys, but if I had the choice, I wouldn't stay."

Matt and Jeff looked at each other. "I wouldn't stay for this either guys. I sorta have to, but you don't."

They thought for a minute. They knew that Dr. Toddman was going to inject meds into five (or four and a half) tumors.

"I'm staying," said Jeff.

"Like Aaron said, can't fight the enemy if we don't know what it looks like," said Matt. "Aaron has done it before and I suspect it's worse alone. Nothing personal Doc."

"Okay," I said.

I lay on my stomach, putting my head on top of my arms. Jeff came to stand against the wall, near my head. Matt stood out of Dr. Toddman's way but within my line of sight. These guys were not going to be fair weather friends. If they could take this, they could take anything I would have to put up with for six months.

He used Andrew's method of injection, except these are to be single injections instead of IV-style half-hour sessions. He and Andrew figured that the tumors would stop growing at the first injections. After that, it would be a matter of shrinking them so my legs would not give out as my spinal cord was invaded. As before, he wiped the injection sites with two antibiotics. He did not use a local this time. One needle prick was enough. I was tested for allergies when I was in my 20's because I had an unexplained rash. My back took an onslaught of 28 minor injections. Five injections would be a cakewalk.

I took Jeff's hand as I saw Dr. Toddman reaching for the first needle. Jeff knew it was for him, not for me.

"I'm okay bud," he whispered in my ear. I turned my head and looked up at him so he would look at me. He was too curious though. He winced at the first injection, mirroring my own. The needle was nothing. The heat of the liquid within the syringe sucked. If I didn't know better, he was injecting molten lava into the tumors. I flashed back to Andrew's office in Boston as he did this to me time and again. Jeff checked my face. I was fine. He relaxed. I turned to look at Matt. He was okay because I was okay.

When Dr. Toddman was done, I sat up and put my shirt back on. The three took off their masks and gowns. We returned to the outer office. I drew a cup of water from the cooler and sat for a half hour. When the usual lightheadedness passed, I told the guys that I was okay.

Dr. Toddman gave me his direct line to call if I needed him before next week. I told him I'd be okay. I'd be at work on Friday. I gave him my business card as well, with my local phone numbers on the back. He knew I had left home behind to move here for the duration. He also knew who I left behind.

"I'll try to get you home as soon as I can," he promised.

I looked at the guys. "Home is where I'm cared for Doc. And Skip is as close as a phone call."

He nodded. "Andrew is right. You're a fine man, Aaron."

"Andrew is right about you too. I can't compare you two, but I know you'll take as good care of me as Andrew would."

We shook hands and headed for the outside world. I looked at the skyline of Philly, to our northeast. The sun shining off the buildings brought back the memory of the early morning sun on the Chrysler Building in New York. I quietly said hello to Vincent. I made sure I was aware of all the landscape around me. UPenn's campus was like a stroll through Europe. We spent the next couple of hours walking around the campus. The guys figured I'd want to wait for lunch, but I didn't want them to pass on it.

"I could eat a salad. You guys don't need to worry about me."

"Of course we do," said Jeff. "Not baby you, but you can't ask us not to be concerned."

Sigh. "Okay then, somewhere in the middle."

"We'll try," said Matt. "No promises though.

I puked mightily Thursday night. Matt got on his knee beside me and held my head. So much for our earlier discussion. He wiped my face with a cold washcloth. He flushed the toilet twice, cleaning me up as necessary. When I was done, he flushed once more, wiped my face again, and picked me up.

When he carried me to my bed, he lay down beside me and held me tight. He kissed my hot forehead. He went back to my bathroom and soaked a washcloth in cold water. He laid it on my forehead and tended to it each time it warmed up.

"I'm so sorry," I said.

"Sshhhh," he said, putting two fingers on my lips. "No need, bud. I knew what I was getting into. I'm going to take good care of you. You are not to worry about anything."

"This sucks. It could take a while to get the injections tweaked."

"So don't worry."

When I fell asleep, Matt stayed behind me. He held me the rest of the night. Snoopy lay beside my bed.

Even when I was awake, I tried to stay still so I wouldn't make a bad night's sleep for Matt. His arms around me told me he cared a lot about my well-being. I felt safe. I felt ashamed too, because I didn't want to be sick. But he wouldn't accept my shame. When I knew he was awake, I turned to face him. He kissed my lips softly and then realized what he did.

"I'm sorry, bud. I don't ... "

"Sshhhh. Do it again."

He did not hesitate.

"Thanks bud. You know who and what I am. It's okay."

"You mean gay? Aaron, you may be gay, but you're several hundred other things first."

"You sure about that? Your first reaction says otherwise."

"Only because I thought I might offend you. Or Skip."

"Not me, nor Skip, nor Billy even. It's a kiss. Just because it's between you and me changes nothing. Did you sleep okay?"

"Okay enough. I cared more about your sleep."

"Care about us both. It's gonna help you help me. Come on bro, coffee is on me."

Snoopy walked ahead of us. I picked him up at the bottom of the stairs and hugged him too. He licked my face. I was amazed that he was disciplined to do it only once each time. I had been around enough dogs, Ginger included, who bounded about and licked until pushed away. I never could break her of that.

"Good boy. You wanna go out?"

He hopped down and went to the back door. I put him on his run, leaving the door open since it was a nice morning. Matt did what Skip and I did-had the coffee start just before the alarm went off. I poured cups for us both, getting used to the layout of his kitchen. Matt, like me, liked a bowl of cereal for breakfast, with a more substantial brunch on Saturday and/or Sunday. He had four cereals to choose from. He had asked me to tell him my favorite cereal as well. My favorite, Cheerios, was already in his pantry. I also liked Wheaties, also in his pantry. He went out in the backyard again to get some fresh blueberries. Snoopy trotted along behind him, eating from Matt's hand. Matt had to put the blueberries up against his chest to keep Snoopy from eating all of them.

He left Snoopy to play while we ate breakfast and then showered and changed for work.

"You're really going to work this morning? You slept four hours at best."

"Yeah. I'm fine. I'll take a syringe with me to work. I have to remember to tell Geoff and our crew. I don't want a druggie reputation I can't live up to."

Matt laughed. He brought Snoopy back in. I knelt for a moment and scratched his head. He trotted off to the living room. While some dog owners put their pets in cages during the day, Matt gave Snoopy the run of the house. He always came home at lunch to let the pup out again. If he peed on the floor, well then he peed on the floor. The pup went out again as soon as Matt got home from work. Even for a three-year-old, Snoopy had good habits.

Friday at work was busy. I worked on my CAD specs while transferring them to the clay model. I fussed over the clay, sculpting it so that it gave up the shape inside that I had envisioned. I was a bit over 75% done. I was no great artist but I knew I could coax out the shape to help the Engineering department to fabricate the final product.

Since this was summer, and school was not in full session, the girls had one day a week of summer school to help the stragglers get caught up in math and English. Two days a week was spent coordinating the local Special Olympics activities. One day a week was spent making meals for both couples so cooking time in the heat of the summer could be reduced. Usually a rainy day was best for cooking and a dry clear day for baking. We guys did the majority of the grocery shopping. As usual, my grocery items were primarily for specific meals. Before leaving Connecticut, I had made a copy of my favorite recipes and put them in a three-ring binder. The girls made two or three meals a week from my cookbook.

For tonight's dinner, we were having Chinese Pie. I had no clue where the name came from. It was not made of Chinese ingredients nor was it a pie. And the name was regional-some places this particular concoction was called Shepard's Pie. I also had a Shepard's Pie recipe, though different from Chinese Pie.

Keeping it simple here, Chinese Pie is a layer of browned ground hamburger or turkey, a layer of cream-style corn, optionally chopped onion and/or green peppers, and a layer of mashed potato. Bake at 350.

Shepard's Pie is just as easy. It's a layer of shredded or pulled beef (sirloin tips will do), gravy, a layer of peas and carrots, optionally chopped onion, and a piecrust. Bake at 350.

Both are made in a rectangular cake pan or large square casserole dish.

The girls found my lasagna recipe quite daunting, so I would show them, on a future weekend, how to make it. I promised them it was not nearly as tough as it appeared. They found my two 'pie' recipes easy and tasty. I've often found that women are pickier eaters than even little kids. This did not seem to be true for Kelly and Ginny. The meals were even Snoopy-friendly. His reaction to onions was quite comical. When he bit into one, he looked up and chewed with his mouth open. When I laughed at him, he put his front paws up on my leg. The onions were diced so he wouldn't choke on them. Like most people, I think it was texture versus taste. Onions are very mild when cooked, but are still a bit chewy. He did us all a favor and did not regurgitate his supper.

I, however, was not so fortunate. I had recorded several nausea episodes in my medical notebook for Dr. Toddman. He and Andrew would tweak my formula once we knew it was effective for the tumors. Matt slept with me any night that I was sick.

I had easily adapted to the port in my chest. I needed only to remember to cover it with a large clear Band-aid before I showered each morning.

For a while, the weeks were made up of work, watching TV or movies with Ginny until Matt walked her home, reading, being entertained by Snoopy, Snoopy watching me read from his doggie bed or even right beside me, walking around the neighborhood looking at the stars, and talking to Skip and Billy every other night. Our lives did not change much day-to-day, but two days without talking to my loves was too much to bear. I made sure to talk to them especially on Thursday nights.

Matt and I were in the backyard one night looking at the stars.

"So the accident must have changed Skip's life dramatically. He wants to work, but what can he do?"

"It did. He used to work as a carpenter cum engineer at Harvard and then at Yale, just before the accident. He doesn't have to work because the city is taking care of him. They paid for his care in Atlanta. He could have successfully sued the city, but that's not Skip. But, you're right, he wants to work. I suspect it's going to be unconventional, whatever he's thinking about. He won't tell me what's up, for now. He's working within his own mind because he can't write anything down."

"He's a good man, isn't he?"

"Yeah. He keeps moving me forward. He says what happened is past. He tried hard to walk, but can't. He can hug me. It's all he wanted. I'll share my Atlanta journals with you if you want to read them."

"I do. I'm glad he has you to love him, Aaron. You're the finest kind."

"Uh, are you from Maine?"

"Nope. Born and raised in PA. Why"

"Finest kind is almost as good as 'I love you', at least to my Maine friends and me."

"Well, you are, and I'm growing to love you."

I looked at him. He blushed.

"Are you afraid of what you just said? Or something else?"

"Something else. I'm not ashamed to say I love you. A month of watching your highs and lows makes me feel deeply for you. I'm afraid of losing you, in two ways actually, though one would be acceptable."

"I'm not going to die, Matt. Put it out of your mind. Andrew and Dr. Toddman are working hard. If I do die, they'll help someone else and I'll live on through someone else."

"And me. But you going home is gonna make me sad too."

"Me too, in a way. I don't think distance is going to make a difference. You'll meet Skip and Billy, if you want to."

"I do. We all do."

Matt held me again that evening, pretty much from suppertime to dawn. Snoopy put his front paws up on my bed and looked at me. I opened my eyes. "I'm sorry you're sick buddy," he seemed to say. I reached out and put my hand on his head, scratching his ear.

"You can come up," I said to him. He jumped up and lay down, putting his back in the crook of my body. I held him while Matt watched.

"He loves you too," said Matt.

"Good boy, Snoopy. I love you too." Snoopy looked up at me for a moment but stayed quiet. He knew he was down for the night.

When we woke up in the morning, somehow with me managing to keep what little I had in my stomach actually in my stomach, friend Matt was hard. He had been spooning me all night. He did what Skip or Billy did-if I moved, he held me so I knew I was all right.

I had to stifle a laugh when he realized his condition. When I sat up, Snoopy got down and headed for the kitchen. I looked around at Matt. He was about twenty shades of red.

"Well you did tell me you love me," I said.

"I'm so sorry, Aaron. It's very rare for me to wake up hard."

"Come on bro, you're not insulting me. Do whatever you need to. I'll put the coffee on and let our little buddy out."

Matt came down only a couple minutes later. He had put on his jeans for now. He looked very embarrassed still.

"Come here," I said. He hesitated but came to my side. I put my arm around his shoulder and kissed his cheek. "You kept me safe all night. How many people do you know who would do what you did for me?"

"Jeff."

"And?"

"Probably all of my brothers."

"The girls? Your sister?"

"I dunno. Probably."

"You love me."

"I do. But it doesn't excuse ... "

"It does."

I left it at that. I poured coffee for both of us. We went out onto the back deck and watch Snoopy chase the birds. After we finished our coffee, I knew I needed some cereal. I went inside and brought out two bowls of Wheaties. He and I ate. He was having a hard time looking at me.

"For now, and maybe a while to come, you're the center of my world," he said to me.

He looked me in the eye as he said that. He smiled, and I knew he meant it. I reached my hand across the table and took his hand in mine.

"Thanks for that. It's a place of honor. You know I need you. Please don't be embarrassed. Remember what I am."

"It's not that. I guess I feel more for you than I thought I could. I'm afraid we'll lose you, Aaron."

"What can I do to help that feeling go away for good?"

"Live."

"Okay."

I gave him back his hand after a few moments. Snoopy looked at us and then came running. Matt and I went inside and brought Snoopy in. I put our dishes in the dishwasher. We went to our bathrooms and showered. We came downstairs a while later, dressed for work.

"I can't believe you're going to work as usual. You've obviously got one hell of a headache."

"I do. And I am. If I stay home, the cancer wins."

This time he came over and gave me a tight hug, putting his forehead against mine and looking at my eyes again.

"Your eyes tell me how bad it really is for you."

"And you are good for me. We're not strangers, but our friendship is still new. You've seen more in our short time than Skip and Billy did in our first few months. The fact that you're holding on says a lot about you."

"I can't take love lightly bro. You break my heart, seriously. Maybe it'll take both of us to make you okay."

"It will. I can't do it alone. You should talk to Jeff this morning and 'confess'. See what he says."

"Okay."

Later in the morning, Jeff came to my side of the building. He bent down close to my ear.

"I'd be hard too, bro."

He patted my shoulder and went back to work. I didn't look around as he left. I sat there with a nice smile on my face. I bet Matt felt better too.

Proof of that came when we got home from work. Before dinner, he whispered in my ear. I smiled. We went to his bedroom for a while and took care of business together. It made sense that if he needed to, that I did too. He figured I would like to be with him. He figured right. He wouldn't have to feel embarrassed around me anymore. Friends should be able to talk about anything and everything.

It was Friday. We five were going out to a summer concert at the park. I was still eating light. The foursome argued with me when I told them they should eat their usual dinner. Like Billy and Skip, in the beginning, they did not want to eat when I couldn't.

"I can eat. Just has to be light. Come on, let's go for seafood. Shrimp salad strikes my fancy."

"Yum!" said Jeff, smacking his lips.

Jeff indeed loved his life and made the other four of us feel good in his company. He, I guessed right after talking to Matt, was a joker. Matt and I conspired to be on guard against Jeff and to shut down his next jolly joker episode. It was only a matter of time.

We went to one of my favorite places, whose slogan was "When you're here, you're family." I did miss having a hearty appetite, but I also did get my shrimp salad and some cola with my meal. No wine tonight. Matt gave me a sip of his anyway when we toasted our friendship. These really were four very fine young people. Matt had even confessed to Ginny what happened this morning and told her about my reaction to it. She took my side of course. That Matt was a loving man said it all.

The concert was a mix of jazz and contemporary adult hits. I was surprised to see a fair amount of teens enjoying the music. As far as I'm concerned, music is universal. Everyone likes some type of music. I flashed back to Connecticut, all the way back, to Kate and our one-year of marriage. We lived a bit further south than Skip, Billy, and I currently do. In the town of Westport, known for Paul Newman and Martha Stewart, was a place called The Inn at Longshore. On Friday nights during the summer, they had a jazz series. We would have a light dinner before going and then have one or two summer daiquiris. We watched sailboats cruise the river while we held hands and enjoyed music under the stars. Baby Langille was conceived on one such night, also under the stars. Not outside at the Inn at Longshore though. I'm more modest than that.

I sat in the middle of a middle row, Ginny and Kelly on each side, mates to their left or right. Being in the middle when we were together kept me from feeling like the odd man out. The music was sooo nice. It was easy to get lost in it. The only thing better would be if we were at a Yanni concert. But that would have to be with Skip and Billy. We five sang along when we recognized the music, prompting those nearby to do the same.

When the music was done for the night, we walked around downtown and a bit beyond. The crickets and bullfrogs were doing their own concert and sounded as sweet. No one else was out and about, usual for a Friday night in Bucks County. Those who liked the nightlife would have ventured toward or into Philly.

"I love you my bro," came to me in a soft whisper. It was not a voice, but a thought. I did not have to look around to see if one of the four had said it. I know who said it. I sent a thought back to him in reply, and more than just an 'I love you'. I told him that I missed him but that I was in good company. I know it made him feel better. I would call the guys tomorrow night.

"Talking to your bud?" asked Jeff, seeing me quiet and off in space for a few minutes, and then coming back to them.

"Yeah. Sorry."

"No need for sorry. It's hard to be away from him."

"Yeah, but it's easy to be with you guys."

The crew was happy to hear that. We were good together and we loved being together. An ideal situation was to merge our households. Since that wasn't going to happen, friendship ruled, no matter where the friendship took place.

We said goodnight to Kelly and Jeff as they headed home. I told Matt to drop me at home and to go spend time with his Ginny. I took Snoopy for a walk around the development. He was also the perfect companion. I did not have to tug on his leash to keep him from making noise or running away. The only thing that surprised me was how easily he had accepted me into his and Matt's life. He licked my hand because he knew I was happy to be with him. I scratched his head.

I was in bed, reading a Daniel Silva novel. He was a recent addition to my favorite authors. Snoopy was somewhere in the condo, probably downstairs waiting for Matt. When Matt appeared in the door, he asked if it was okay to come in for a minute.

"Of course. You didn't come home because of me I hope."

"Nah. Ginny and I don't sleep together overnight. We don't have anything to prove to each other. Romance is better than sex anyway."

"Sweet," I said. "I love our friends like you do. Home feels nice, just right."

He kicked off his sneakers and lay beside me. I put my book down. He laid his head on the pillow beside mine and gave me a nice kiss on my lips. Then he hugged me and gave me back my book. He was going to get back up but I put my arm around him. I put my book onto the nightstand. Neither of us said anything. He took off his polo shirt, jeans, and socks. I opened the covers for him. He slid between them and lay beside me. I turned off the lamp and snuggled into Matty. He kissed my neck.

In the morning, I felt Snoopy nudge my arm. "Sshhhh," I said as I made room for him. He got up beside me and lay quietly. It was early judging from the daylight quality. I turned my head to look at Matt. He was awake, watching me.

"Sorry if I woke you," I said.

"Nope. I was watching you sleep. I know why Skip and Billy like doing it. You're calm and at peace, despite the storm that I know is inside."

"It's too early to get up. Can I hold you?"

"Yeah. Nice."

He and I turned to face each other. I gave him a soft kiss on his lips and put his hand up against my heart.

"Am I in there?" he asked.

"You are," I said, meaning it. He didn't have to ask. He was one of my 'keepers', helping my body and soul to remain one, and on Earth. In my world, that's love. I think he gave up a lot for me. I suspect he would disagree.

"Good answer, but ... "

"Sshhhh," I said. "There plenty of room. Get used to being inside my heart."

"Nice. Here, what do you feel?"

He put my hand on his chest, over his heart.

"Every fourth beat for me."

"You know me well. That's an honest answer."

"I don't lie. I'm not insincere."

"I know that now. You've taught me some great lessons to hold on to."

"You knew them anyway. Thinking about them once in a while is good to do, but living it that way is better."

"I don't love lightly, Aaron."

"Good. Neither do I. You're in my heart for good. Can you stand it?"

"Yeah, I can if you can."

"Love you bro. Home is where I'm cared for. You and your buds do it very well."

"OUR buds, Aaron. We're not Skip and Billy, but I hope we're close enough."

"I know you understand that it's not an insult if I tell you Skip and Billy are a bit above you. But I try not to play favorites otherwise. You're a good man and an even better friend. Even 'friend' isn't right anymore."

"Heart mate. Like the BC boys."

He did not say it to be smug or to be more than he is. Matt is now a friend 'just right', and for life.

"Yeah. Nice thought. But I'm sorry for the days I'm sick. It's still a lot to put you through."

"Nope. I'll just hold you tighter on those days. Don't give it another thought. It's the first reason why you're here and away from Skip and Billy. We four knew it would be hard for a while. But we see you fighting hard. I doubt I'd be at work every Friday after a hellish Thursday afternoon. Or maybe I would, now that I see you."

"Like I said, if I stay home, the cancer wins. It's not my job to kill the cancer. It's my job to not let it kill me."

He thought for a moment. He was sad. He knew what was inside of me and he hated every molecule of it. He hated the chemo pump in my chest. He hated the chemo flowing through my veins. He hated the injections most of all. But he loved that I could stand up to all that and show little weakness.

"I love you, Aaron. One more brother to have close to me."

"I love you right back, Matty. Did you expect this?"

"I guess I hoped for it more than expected it. If we ever do lose you, I'll carry you in my heart forever. I hope it won't come to that, but I could live that type of life. For you."

"Hold me then, a while longer. I don't want you to lose me."

"You know, you're teaching me more about friendship than I ever thought about. Jeff and I have been best buds since we were kids. By your definition and pronouncements of friendship, I fall short with him. To some, it would seem strange that I feel so close to you after a month, but it feels like I've known you for years. Truly, I don't want me to lose you."

He did hold me close, probably closer than he thought possible. I bet he and Jeff would have a discussion that would only brighten their friendship. They would go from best buds to brothers. Jeff didn't have one any longer. Matt had six plus a sister. He now had two more, as did Jeff. Jeff appreciated Matty and me as brothers. He was not shy about telling us. I loved sitting and holding Matty (and often Jeff) when we had quiet time.

We got up and made coffee. After Snoopy did this thing outside, he came back in. I filled his dish with his breakfast, which was different than his dinner. I also gave him fresh water. Matt stood back and watched me. I looked up, a bit sheepish.

"Now stop that. You two are good for each other."

"Just trying to earn my keep. I know keeping my room in order is all you asked at first. I feel at home here and it's only right to lend a hand. I still make my bed once I get up, as you've seen, because my mom put that in my head. I got ribbed for it in college, but it eventually caught on."

"Me too. I'm not a neat freak, but I'll take order over chaos."

Matt put scrambled eggs on our plates. I put two slices of Canadian bacon on the plates and then sliced up a cantaloupe.

We ate our breakfast out on the deck. The neighborhood was quiet, even though most residents would be up by now. It was only 8:00 a.m. Ginny came over a bit later, bringing a bowl of oatmeal outside with her. We three went into cleanup mode for a few minutes. Ginny preferred to clean up the dishes and mop the kitchen floor. Matt had hardwood floors instead of carpeting. I tossed the Swiffer dry mop pad in my bathroom trash when I finished sweeping up Matt's room and bath, the hallway, the den, and my room and bath. Matt had done the same downstairs.

Jeff and Kelly arrived around 9:00. Ginny ribbed them about their timing now that the work was done. No doubt they had done the same thing at their home. They owned a Cape Cod-style home that they were now building onto. Jeff was as fine a carpenter as JD was. Matt and Ginny were keeping this condo after they got married. He and Jeff were going to build the couple's new home within five years, with the help of other friends in the building trade.

We decided to head west to Hershey. Jeff said that Hershey Park was a must see. We also bought a change of clothes so that we would be a bit dressier for dinner at the Hotel Hershey.

"What's the occasion?" I asked Matt. "Birthday? Anniversary?"

"Neither. Celebrating Aaron. You might know him. He's a hell of a beautiful friend."

"Yeah, I've heard of him. Maybe we can meet someday."

"Don't look too far, love," said Ginny. "He's as close as our hearts."

"Here's to that!" said Jeff, giving me a nice hug.

"Easy guys. No pedestal here."

"Not a tall one, but otherwise, we can put you there and will."

"Humble loveable. And very much like you all."

"Close, but no banana," said Jeff again.

"Oy!"

"What's that mean?"

"It's Italian," I joked. "Means 'cut me a break'."

"Not today, love," said Matt. "You're special to us. All of us. We do love you."

Sigh. I hugged Matt and Ginny, and then Kelly and Jeff.

"Thanks. Nice to be loved."

Snoopy was at our feet.

"Snoopy. Nana?"

He hopped up and around, very happy.

"Nana," said Matt, "is my mom. We're invited for dinner on Wednesday by the way."

"I hope my good behavior is back from the cleaners by then," I said.

The foursome laughed. I snickered a bit but tried not to laugh at my own humor. That was crass. Matt's folks had stopped in a few days after I first arrived. His mom looked so much like my mom that it was scary. His folks were barely older than me. Jeff's folks joined us one Saturday night for dinner at his and Kelly's place. They were also only a year or three older than me. Both sets of parents told me why the boys are like they are. Upon meeting both the dads, I got a nice handshake and a welcome. By the time we left, I got hugs and 'come back soon' invitations. Either set of parents was part of our weeks, usually on Wednesday. They all promised I'd be in their thoughts on Thursday. Should Jeff and Matt be on the road together, I did not need to be alone. This extended to someone being with me in Philly on treatment day. I had to think about that. It was hard enough having Jeff and Matt with me each week. I knew it was awful for them. They never let me feel that way for long.

We dropped Snoopy off and then headed west on the PA turnpike. We arrived in Hershey about two hours later. The skies were clear. We had been watching the weather forecasts for a couple of weeks to pick the right kind of day. We all had swimsuits or trunks for the water rides, and each brought small duffels for our change of clothes.

At the ticket booth beside the entrance, I took out my wallet to pay for the substantial admission price, about $26. When Matt said "Three" to the lady inside, I almost passed out.

"Matty ... " I half growled.

"Chill bro. This is your day," said Jeff. "Please don't worry about it."

'My day' also meant I was not allowed to remove my wallet from my duffel bag for the rest of the day. I knew enough about the Hotel Hershey to feel uncomfortable with that. I conceded anyway. For now.

"Okay. Sorry."

"S'okay bud. Come on. Let's check out the rides before we have lunch."

Water rides were up first so we'd be dry later in the day. How five grown women and men became instant 10-year-olds was an amazing morph, one that took only seconds as we went from the peak of the log ride to the bottom pool of water at around 60 mph. "Let's do it again" was the consensus. We came close to our normal ages until we got closer to the ride.

On other rides, we got wetter, got twisted into pretzels as we were hurtled into space barely inches from reaching a new space-time continuum, achieved a moment of zero Gs, and screamed like little girls. I'm talking about we three men because the girls both had way too much common sense to get on these types of rides. I wish I had common sense too. Lacking that, I have to secretly admit that it was fun to scream like a little girl at zero Gs.

In the heat of the day, we found a relatively cool place under a large tree to eat lunch. This meant no more extreme rides. Blowing chunks on an extreme ride was gross, even by my standards. I did consider for a moment what a partially digested tuna sandwich looked like suspended in mid air post-puke. Nah, can't go there. I must have had a smile on my face.

"What in the world made that silly smile on your face?" asked Jeff.

"Just a little Aaron weirdness," I said. "If I want to keep you as friends, we'll leave it at that."

"Alrighty then. Apple? Pear?"

"Split a pear with me?"

"I will," said Ginny. "I'm watching my girlish figure."

Matty gave her eyebrows. "Me too," he purred, like a baby lion.

She cuffed him lightly. He laughed and kissed her forehead. He whispered in her ear. She cuffed him again.

"We'll discuss that another time," she said coyly.

We sat and people watched for a while. The park was crowded. Since it was seasonal, locals and tourists had only a few weeks to enjoy the park. We rode more rides and then walked almost every inch of the park, taking it all in. Nice place to visit. I have been to various Six Flags parks. They were larger and busier. This was an amusement park done just right.

We decided to find a quieter, and cooler, venue so we drove into downtown Hershey. Compared to The Park, it was a ghost town. The streetlights were oversized chocolate kisses. I loved the quaintness of the town. The chocolate factory took up at least one quarter of the downtown area. Jeff said they used to give tours. Chocolate World, back near Hershey Park, is the place for tours and treats.

Jeff checked his watch. "What time is dinner?" he asked Matt, who had made the required reservations.

"8:00 p.m. We could go and change and then walk around the gardens."

We agreed. The hotel sat atop a ridge overlooking the area. It was stunning. The gardens were quiet. After walking around, we went to the men's and ladies rooms and changed. The girls were quite beautiful in their dresses. We three men looked quite dapper in our suits. I couldn't recall the last time I wore a jacket, never mind a tie. The tie itself was new, bought only on Wednesday, just before our weekend plans were final.

Dinner was in the famous Circular Dining Room, as formal and as grand a room as I had ever been in. Mr. Milton S. Hershey was known to say that people placed into corners of restaurants were unhappy and showed their unhappiness in their tips. Therefore, Mr. Hershey wanted a circular dining room and happy patrons. I felt amazingly out of place, even looking quite dapper. The only place I (with Kate) had ever been that was more expensive, though only just, was The Tavern on the Green at Central Park in New York City. It was only a little hard ordering what I wanted to. I did pass on the pricey appetizers though. Was my Beef Wellington worth the price? Yes and no. Mostly yes. Beef Wellington was not in my recipe collection; therefore, it was a favorite when I ate out at a place of this caliber. I had not done so in many years, and would not for more years to come. Dessert was decadent and a necessity. Conversation was animated and light. This was truly a wonderful time to be with newer friends, though we felt comfortable with each other. I was not a fifth wheel in this circle of friends.

By 10:00, we were on the road to Bristol. I sat in the back with both girls. Kelly napped on my shoulder for a few minutes. She had taken my hand when she woke up.

"Good day, Aaron?"

"Exceptional. Thank you all for a stand-out day."

"You're welcome love," Kelly said.

At home, Matt dropped Kelly and Jeff off at their place. They both kissed me on my forehead and said goodnight. They walked arm-in-arm up the long drive to the house. The next stop was to drop Ginny off. She too kissed my forehead and said goodnight. She smiled sweetly as she touched my cheek. Matt got out, walking her to her door. The couple kissed and hugged under the half moon. She would join us for breakfast in the morning, as would Kelly and Jeff. We had most of our meals together on the weekends, whether light or one of substance.

I got into the front seat as Matt walked back. We knew we would be late getting home, so Matt would get Snoopy in the morning. Matt and I were both tired enough to head for bed right away.

I was a bit surprised to see Matt in bed with me when I woke up. It was still dark.

"You cried out, bud."

"Sorry Matty. I woke you."

"S'okay Aaron. Um, who's Jake?"

I looked at him for a moment.

"I'm not sure. But I think he's someone who needs me."







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