Skip - Part 56
"You can come and visit us. Matty would love to have you. Come for the weekend?"
"Yeah. I told my mom already. She said okay."
"We'll pick you up in the morning. 8:30 or so?"
"Okay Aaron. I'll be ready. Good night."
"Sleep bro. No worries, okay?"
"Nice! Jake for the weekend. I bet he needs a good break."
I had to do something before I did anything else. Matt went downstairs and left me alone. Someone else I know loved wild ducks and deer. We grew up with them on our dad's farm. I sat staring at my phone for a few minutes. I dialed his number.
"Hi Brad. I was thinking about you a lot lately."
I wasn't sure, but I think he smiled on the other end of the phone.
We talked for almost an hour, a near record for us because I knew my brother hated the phone. He worked for a local auto dealership and spent his whole day on the phone and with customers. He, however, was a perfect front counter guy and liaison to the repair department.
He surprised me near the end of our conversation. He asked about Skip and Billy. He, of course, knew that I had to leave them behind.
"I'm sorry you can't be with them. I'm sorry Aaron. I know you're really sick. I know some of it's because of me. You should know that I do love you. It's just hard, after Kate, ya know?"
"It's not, really. I love Skip and Billy. I don't need your blessing. Don't hate them. They mean so much to me."
"I know. I'm sorry. Will you guys come home, here I mean?"
"It could be a while."
"I can wait. The boys haven't let up on me in months you know."
"They talk to me a lot. But you know that."
"Can't tell from my phone bill. I told them not to call you collect anymore. They can call on my dime. I'll call too. Why am I so stupid?"
"I dunno. Why are you so stupid?"
He was quiet for a half-minute.
"You were meant to be with Kate forever."
"Bastard fucking drunk driver. I hope he rots in hell."
"He did his time. He suffered enough, bud."
"You suffered more. Way more. Way too much. And I could have lost you too, you know. It would have been the worst day of my life, not by 1 for Kate, for by a million more. I'm stupid because I have too much and all you do is fight for your life. And Skip. It pisses me off that he's broken."
"Only his body, Brad. You should call him. Talk to him. He's brilliant. Did the boys tell you we planted a tree for Kate?"
"Yeah." He choked up for a minute. He was quiet. "And for the little lost one too. You should know I did the same, at Kate's parent's house. I asked the owner for permission. I told them why. We planted them together. I water them. They let me cut the blossoms. Like you and Kate, they don't last long enough. But they're sooo sweet while they're with us."
"The little one has a name."
"Really. Wha ... what did you name him?"
"Bradley. Because I love you even though ... "
"But I do. I do love you Aaron. What can I do for you? Do you need blood? Platelets? Bone marrow?"
"No. I'm 100%. You just did that. Don't forget this moment."
"I won't. Can I call you in a week?"
"Every time I pick up the phone, I put it down again. I doubted you wanted to talk to me."
"Every time, bro. And anytime."
"Thanks. Love you Aaron. Always have. Always will."
I choked up. I never knew. "Love you too, Brad. We're okay?"
"Yeah. We're okay. Night bro. Call me if you need me."
I ran downstairs and played the whole conversation back to Matty. And then I cried hard.
Leave it to my brother to show a heart after all. He always had, for others. We were okay until Kate died. We were okay after that for a while. When I told him about Skip, he hung up the phone. It was weeks until we talked again. When we got home from Atlanta, there was a card for Skip-from Brad. The message was simple but nice. I got one in DC as well. Simple but nice. I was like him though. I picked up the phone a few times but never made the call. How stupid. Maybe for both of us, but as much for me as him.
Matt and I went to pick up Jake on Saturday as promised. He brought his duffel bag along. I got out of the front passenger seat so Jake could sit up front. I took his duffel and put it in the back with me. When we got home, which in itself showed Jake we weren't far away, we showed him to the upstairs den. The daybed was only a single, but Jake said it was just right. His own bed was as well. He put his things away in my dresser, where I had made room for him.
The weekend was full. We treated Jake like visiting royalty. The girls loved him. Ginny said she was reconsidering Matt's proposal. Kelly said she was looking at either annulment or divorce from Jeff. Barring that, they wondered if Jake would consider adoption.
"I do," he said, kissing the girls hands like a fine gentlemen.
They all laughed at the group antics. Even Snoopy hung close to Jake. I think, like me, he knew Jake was a little different than his other family. Jake had never had a pet, so he loved Snoopy's attention. They played together in the backyard for a couple hours after we had lunch.
I took Jake over to the pond to feed the ducks. I didn't show him my trick yet. But we did enjoy a few minutes of quiet time. He took my hand. He held it in two hands. He touched my wound, the self-inflicted one.
"Oh Aaron. What in the hell did I do to you? My God."
He kissed it. When he looked up at me, he had a tear in his eye.
"Forget it bud. I did it to myself."
"You did it because of me."
"I did it FOR you."
"I don't understand," he said.
"Did this wake you up?"
"Not at first. And not soon enough. Thanks for bringing me home, Aaron. Well, not really home for you."
"Home is where I'm cared for, Jake. I've been here since June. Matt takes good care of me. Jeff does too, to give Matt a break. What becomes of us when I go home to Connecticut?"
"I'd like to visit. Never been there."
"You'll be welcome. Skip is with Billy at Boston College off campus. We've owned our condo for over a year but still haven't been in it more than a few weeks at a time."
Jake didn't talk about home to me. I didn't push. The weekend was his and we did whatever he wanted. We played ball. He loved basketball and he was good at it. After dinner, we went for a walk, stopping when my leg ached. He pointed out the constellations that he knew. We talked and watched the stars for a long while.
That night, I sat beside Jake while he fell asleep. I thought about being near him in the morning. Away from home, even in a comfortable place, I worried about him being disoriented. I heard Snoopy in the hallway. I got up before he went downstairs. I called him over to me, kissed his forehead, and pointed to Jake's room.
"Go kiss Jake," I said. He cocked his head. I kissed his forehead again. "Go kiss Jake."
I sat down where I was in the hallway, out of view. Matt wasn't up yet. It was only 7:30. I heard Snoopy's collar jingle as he jumped up onto Jake and licked his face. Jake must have been startled. He called out and then he giggled like a little kid, obviously wrestling with the little beagle. Snoopy was all over him when I peeked around the door jam.
"Figures you started that. Snoopy scared the crap out of me."
"Well, at least you're not wondering where the heck you are."
"Nah. I knew. I woke up a while ago but went back to sleep. I'm okay."
"You wanna stay here a while? I can make breakfast for us."
"Nah. I'll come down with you. Matt up?"
"Yup I am," said Matt, joining us. Who wants to sleep past 7:00 on the weekend anyway?"
"Oops," I said, giving Jake a face. He laughed.
"I was awake. I heard you tell Snoops to kiss Jake."
We headed for the stairway.
"What, you guys run around in your underwear all weekend?"
"Nope. Just until we finish breakfast and shower. You get dibs on my bathroom by the way."
Jake left his jeans on the floor. It was cool so Snoopy stayed outside only long enough to make a land mine at the edge of the grass. Matt would go fetch it in a while. He kept the yard clean because of neighbors and little ones playing on the common backyard.
I made homemade pancakes. Jake sliced the last of the season strawberries to put on them. Matt heated up some real Vermont maple syrup and poured OJ for himself and milk for me.
"Milk for me. OJ is tough on the mouth," said Jake.
"Same for me bud. I miss my OJ but I'm glad I love my milk."
We did a big family dinner on Sunday with Matt and Jeff's parents hosting us. Matt's family was scattered all over the east coast, including into New England. Distance meant nothing. Matt talked often to his brothers and sister during the week. He talked to his folks every night, as did Jeff. Jeff's folks were going into semi-retirement and moving further northwest in PA, near State College. That gave me an idea. I had talked to Jeff, who talked to his folks. If what I had in mind worked, Jake could again be set.
When it was time to take Jake home, he was a bit antsy.
"Yeah. Can we do this again sometime?"
"Snoopy? Do you want Jake to come back?"
Snoopy went to sit at Jake's feet. He raised his paw. Jake shook it and laughed.
"Nice. See you again Snoopy."
I sat in the back with Jake this time. Matt checked Jake out in the mirror a couple of times. It was obvious that Jake wasn't really looking forward to going home. Jake kept looking out the window, more so as we got closer to his place. I held him tighter. He let me hold him, my cheek against his.
This time I walked Jake to his door. He gave me a hug. I told him I'd see him on Friday and asked him to call me this week.
And then Jeff and I fell out of a tree. We got banged up pretty badly. Long story. Well, not really. But that's for a bit later.
October turned into November. The days were short and they flowed so quickly from one to another. Jeff and I were recovering from the now famous tree incident. Jake saw me that following Friday with my right shoulder strapped to my chest and my right leg in a high-tech cast. I was already in my chair, staring at the ceiling, the needle freshly inserted into my hip.
Jake looked at me when he came in and then did a double take. He rolled his eyes at me. He shook his head and smiled this wicked smile. Why do people always roll their eyes at me? Why do they smile at me and assume they already know what happened? I didn't do anything bad. However, I had to give him a bit of grief first, before he unleashed his on me.
"Oh sure, be that way. See if I care," I joked with him.
"Well, you make it so hard for me not to wonder about you, Aaron. Let me guess. You were biking and you went over the handlebars. You went skateboarding and wiped out. You were playing basketball and you collided with someone twice your size. Car accident, motorcycle collision, or dune buggy racing. I know, you were dancing and you fell off the stage. Am I close?"
"Not even, wise guy. You see, there is this tree . . ."
"It threw you to the ground."
"Shaddup. Will you give me a break?"
"Looks like you have enough breaks. No more breaks for Aaron."
"Oy, I'm a captive audience to a comedian. Are you done?"
"Not even, wise guy. You see, there is this man named Aaron . . ."
"Jake! Gimme a break!"
"Hey, you're a poet and don't know it. So what did this tree do?"
"I'm not going to tell you. You have your own theories, wrong as they are. You think you know me so well. You figure it out."
"How much time is left on your IV?" he asked.
He sat down and his lady doc started to prep him. She had this smirk on her face. I ignored her.
"About 90 minutes. I've been here a half hour already."
"Okay, give me a running start. What's broken?"
"Collarbone and right leg, two places."
"Ouch. How big is the tree?"
"You fell out of a 60-foot tree?! Are you a manic?"
"Only 30 feet."
"Only? You are way too old to be in a 60-foot tree!"
"Not! Keep going."
"Wait. I have to picture me, in about 20 years, wanting to be in a 60-foot tree."
He paused for a moment, looked blankly at the ceiling, and smirked. He got dreamy-eyed, and then frowned. He looked back at me and shook his head.
"I can't, Aaron. It's too much for my imagination. I wouldn't want to be in a 60-foot tree at 20, never mind 20 or more years from now."
"Geez Jake, and I thought you had some adventure in you. You'd be amazed how clear the view is from up there."
"What can you see from up there? Your head in the clouds? I can already see that from down here. More trees? Bugs, bats, bees, creeping crawlies? No thanks."
"Nah. Yourself. You can find yourself up there. No limits. Nothing to tie you down."
"Oh great. I'm a comedian and you're a great philosopher. Aaron, reality says if you climb a 60-foot tree, you will kill yourself. You're asking for trouble."
"It's not any safer on the ground. I got cancer while on the ground. So did you."
"I'm not the only tree-climber, just in case you haven't thought about that."
"Aaron I don't know anyone crazy enough to be up there with you."
"Sure you do."
"Nahhh, you're not serious!"
"Oh I'm way serious."
"Matt? Jeff? No way, Jose! The guys are too smart to let you do that do them."
"So you think. By the way, Jeff."
"You haven't seen him today. Wait until he comes in."
"Then you messed with his head."
"He did it voluntarily. And why are you blaming me? I got a lot of common sense you know."
"Hell no you don't."
I laughed aloud at him. Here were two guys, 20 years apart in age, taking their chemotherapy session, amazed at each other. I had him pegged for being adventurous and he had me pegged as the old man.
"You gotta live, Jake. Every day. I've told my friends I'm going out kicking and screaming if I'm going to die from this crap."
"But a tree? From the looks of you, you probably did scream."
"You pictured me on a bike, a skateboard, playing ball, or being up on a stage. Why not in a tree?"
"Because I thought you had a brain!"
He laughed. He had no clue how to take me. Everything he thought about me was wrong. I tickled his funny bone. Thank God for small favors. Then Jeff appeared.
"Who had a brain?" he said as he walked in, slipped his jacket off his injured shoulder, and off his good arm.
Jake lost it. He just laughed so hard that tears streamed down his cheeks. He choked, then laughed all the harder.
Jeff looked from him to me, rolled his eyes, and back at Jake, thoroughly amused.
"Get him," he said to me, motioning to Jake with his thumb, smiling. "Jake, did your lady doc spike your meds or what?"
Jake was wiping tears out of his eyes, getting his breath back.
"Ohhhh, this is too much. He pushed you, right? First he dragged you up there, and then he pushed you. Because if you tell me you were up the tree with him, of your own free will, I'm going to start believing in Santa Claus again."
"Ho ho ho, but I think you'll get a lump of coal this year. Wise guy."
"I already called him that. We're playing 20-Questions so he can find out what happened to me. Uh, us."
"How much does he know?"
"Are you kidding? He's 20. He knows everything. Didn't you when you were 20?"
"Oh yeah, I forgot. Now how much does he THINK he knows?"
"That the tree was a 60-footer, and that we were up 30 feet."
"Not even warm, baby. It gets better."
"I don't think I can stand it. Okay, okay. So, you were 30 feet up, admiring the view. You started showing off, right? Or fooling around. Or decided that you are Superman or Spiderman. Or Batman and Robin?"
"This kid is a real comedian," said Jeff, laughing again.
Jeff liked Jake, and Jake liked Jeff. Jeff went over to the chair Jake was sitting in, moved him over a bit with his butt, sat beside him, and put his good arm around Jake's neck. He looked into his eyes and he gave him a noogie. Or noogy. You know, that knuckle-rubbing thing on someone's head, irritating, but always done with affection.
"I called him that too. He called me a philosopher. I, on the other hand, see nothing wrong with grown adults climbing trees."
"Me neither. Though 'grown adults' stretches even my imagination," said Jeff.
"Shaddup you Jeff-boy. Okay Kid, next question," I said.
"Hold on. I'm still trying to digest that Jeff was part of this. He drugged you, right? Or he hypnotized you. Spiked your breakfast?"
"None of the above. I was a willing participant. On a clear day, you can see your imagination forever."
"Oh great, another philosopher."
"Hey now! Don't say it like it's a dirty word. We're men of our time."
"Okay you two. I'm running out of drugs here and The Kid still has a ways to go yet."
"I know!" said Jake, snapping his fingers and pointing to Jeff. "He pushed you!"
"Wrong!" said Jeff, snapping his fingers and pointing back at Jake. "That doesn't account for Bozo being hurt, too."
"Bozo? Hmmm. Okay then, he felt remorse and jumped," he said as he shook his finger.
"Not!" Jeff shook his back at him.
I had to laugh at the two of them. Bozo (that would be me) surrounded by his troupe of clowns.
One smartass guess followed another. The three of us laughed harder and harder as each one flew out of Jake's mouth. Jeff countered every 'argument' with an equally smartass remark. Jake is an amazing kid, totally lost in 20-Questions and forgetting, or ignoring, the fact he was doing chemotherapy at the same time.
Doc came to check me and quickly left. He wanted no part of this. He didn't fool me. He had been sitting in the side room listening to everything. So had Jake's lady doc. She came in, pulled the IV out of him, bandaged him up, and left quickly, obviously giggling.
"Okay, okay. I give. Here's what I really think. Jeff's shoulder is dislocated, right? But Aaron's collarbone is broken, plus his leg in two places. So you didn't fall at the same time?"
"Oooh Aaron, he's paying attention after all."
"Mind boggling," I said, shaking my head once.
"Well," he said, ignoring our antics, "I think Aaron slipped. But, you must have tried to catch him. You don't have the same type of bandaging that Aaron does. So you have a dislocated shoulder, not a broken collarbone, right?"
"Ouch. So you caught Aaron, but he must have been too heavy, even though a good wind would knock him over. His weight blew out your shoulder, and you had to let go of him."
"You're a bright boy, Jake. Game over. Name your prize."
"I choose you two, not like I have much choice. God. That must have been a terrible feeling for you both. I really did hear what you said about seeing things up there, but . . ."
"No buts, Jake. Aaron and I didn't even think about falling. Climbing was, and still is, the important thing. We'd do it again."
Jeff looked over at me. I nodded.
"Even after getting hurt like this? I mean we're talking serious broken bones."
He got spacey for a moment, as if he was disoriented.
"Jake? You okay?"
He didn't say anything, like he was in another time. Jeff held him for real. He checked his forehead and his eyes.
"Come on buddy. Do you hear me?" said Jeff, trying to bring Jake back to the present.
"Ummm, I'm okay. Sorry. I got a little dizzy there for a moment. It happens all the time; side effect of my treatment. I'm okay. So why would you go back?"
"I got no real fear of the tree. I love it up there. For me, I got nothing to lose. I'm not going to die from this cancer, or from my kidney dying, without living first. I do it only one day at a time. You've seen my sense of humor. Actually, it's increased at least three-fold since I met your friend over there. There's room in my day for tears, but there's also room for just being with my friends, laughs if we got 'em, work, the boy's wives, Jeff & Kelly's baby arriving this spring - all that."
"You're having a baby?" Jake asked Jeff.
Jeff just smiled a mile wide. "I don't know what it'll do to my boyish figure. I think I'll let Kelly do the hard work."
"Good for you, daddy. Man, you're gonna make an awesome dad."
Jake realized what he had just said. His face changed in a heartbeat. The smile faded quickly and he got quiet. He wasn't disoriented this time, but the look of sadness on his face was profound.
Jeff was looking at me. I motioned my head to Jake. Jeff looked at him.
"Jake? What happened?"
"Nothin'. I'm okay. Tired I guess."
It was obvious Jake was not okay, even 15 feet across the room I could tell something was wrong.
"I still got an hour of chemo. We'll take you home, as usual. You want a blanket?"
Jeff got one from the closet and wrapped Jake up. He sat back down beside him. The chairs were kind of like recliners, but without the pop-out footrest-one piece. They could stretch out. Jeff tucked himself behind Jake, kicked off his sneakers, and held Jake as well as he could with one and a half arms. He kissed him on his neck and told him to sleep for a while. Jake must have liked the comfort because he was asleep in a couple minutes. Jeff looked over at me.
"So how are you doing?"
I put my finger to my lips and shushed him. I nodded back to Jake.
"I'm okay. Don't worry about me. It looks like your buddy there needs his quiet time."
I lay back and watched them. Jeff was being big brother to his needful little brother. He was amazing to watch. He'd known Jake, what, 4 or 5 weeks, but he held on to him as if he'd known him a lifetime. I watched Jake. His face was innocent as he slept, finally a little carefree, probably for the first time that day.
"Hey Aaron?" Jeff said just loud enough for me to hear him.
"I love you."
I smiled at him and nodded. "I love you, too, Jeff-boy."
Jeff closed his eyes too. He was good at power naps. I wasn't, even when I was being held. I had no jealousy of Jake right now. Jeff was so kind to him, but that's Jeff. He was like that with everyone. Doc came in, checked me, and looked at the two sleeping beauties. He motioned for Jake's doc to come look. She came in.
"I think Jeff is better for him than the chemo. Maybe we should hire him for all our patients."
Doc sat beside me and kept me company until my chemo was done.
"You look sad. Why, other than the obvious?"
"Nah, the chemo isn't bothering me. My new friend over there; he's like a younger version of me, Doc. You remember, don't' you?"
"I do. Strong willed, mindful, stubborn - I could have used many words to describe you when I met you. They must be good words because I can use them even now, many months later."
"You know you can save me, even from myself. Andrew is like that too, of course, maybe because our history is so long. But no one else gave me any hope. Eight or nine months was the longest they told me I'd live. I went from one doctor to another-hematologist, oncologist, specialist; you name it. So what within you told you that you could help me?
"It was what I saw within you that said I could help you. Things just told me that you would need what I had, or even what I learned along the way.
Surely, the others would have seen that. They all gave me a death sentence. What made you different?
"You hate this, but a question in return for your question. What were your first words to me? In case you don't remember them, I do."
"I remember them well. I asked you if you believed more in your beliefs, or mine."
"And what was my response?"
"You said you believed in mine first, but you also believed in yours, and you would help me live. I told you that if you told me I had 8 or 9 months to live, I would leave you where you stand."
Doc finished my chemo, removed the needle from my hip, taped it, and helped me stand. I pulled my gym shorts off and put on my jeans. He put my sneakers on and tied them for me. When he stood again, he put his arms around me, carefully, and hugged me.
"I still believe in you, love. I won't ever stop believing in your power. It is immense. From what I have seen, young Jake needs you. I hope he sees in you what I do."
As usual, we took Jake home after his treatment. Jeff walked him to his front door. I watched them hug and then watched Jake swallowed up by his house. Jeff walked back.
"Dunno why bro, but something's really up with Jake. It's eating at me, out of my reach. You feel it too."
"Months ago," I said.
I thought about Jake every day. I have an intense feeling once I get to know someone and sometimes I hate sooo much being away from him or her. I wonder what they're doing. I wonder if they thought about me, even for a few moments. I wonder if they are okay. If they are sick, especially like me, I worry. Even when I say "No worries" to my friends, it doesn't mean I won't worry about them. Everybody has a life to live; I just like being part of that. I don't love someone half way. Most of my friends tell me I don't do anything half way. I usually hear that after I've fallen out of tall trees. I love deeply. I hurt deeply. I play very hard. I work like there is no tomorrow and that the task is dependent on the world being right. It's just how I am.
Will he call me if he really needs me? Does he trust that I would drop everything and come to him? Will he think he's being a bother and struggle on his own? I hoped not. I thought, over and over again, about his bruises. I was obsessed about his bruises. What if he ended up with broken bones, or a concussion, or injured too badly? Someone was hurting the boy that I cared for so much. I couldn't stand that. I could better accept that he had cancer because someone was helping him, but it terrified me that someone was intentionally hurting him. Intentionally, willfully and violently. It made me shiver.
I almost willed that he would call me. I thought of excuse upon excuse to go out to his house. I had no good reason to, not without his folks thinking I was stalking him. I worried even worse on Friday because I didn't think he was going to show up. He was late, getting to the hospital around 6:00. Something had been wrong.
I took one look at him and I saw that I had been so right all along. My worst nightmares came true. I was right. That was the cruelest part-imagination is one thing but reality is quite another. He had a black eye and a fat lip. His cheekbone swelled beneath his eye. He walked in, took off his jacket, dropping it on the floor, and sat down in his usual spot. He didn't acknowledge that I was there. He didn't look at me at all. He stared at the floor as if it was the most fascinating thing on earth.
"Jake?" I don't think he heard me, for real. "Jake!"
I startled him, badly. He jumped, and looked at me wide-eyed. I seemed to bring him out of a trance. He looked at me as if he realized for the first time that I was even there. For that matter, I think he realized, for the first time, where he was. He had been on autopilot, probably since he left home. He had gotten on the bus and found himself magically here.
"My God. Oh my God. What did they do to you?"
I was horrified. I could have gone to his house this weekend, or Monday, or yesterday. I could have called him. I could have made someone stop. Tears welled up in my eyes and overflowed.
"Jake," I said softly. "Jake, please come here."
He stared blankly at me. He shook his head.
I stood up. I held the needle that was in my hip. I made sure it was secure so that I wouldn't pull it out. I wrapped my hand around the IV pole, stood for a long moment, and walked like Frankenstein's Monster on one broken leg. Doc came in and saw me.
"Go away, Doc. Please tell Jake's doctor to stay out for now, too."
He stood for a moment, terribly undecided. I took another step forward. He took a step toward me.
"Go away! NOW!"
It was so cruel for me to yell. I couldn't help it.
"I'm sorry Doc," I said apologetically, "but you don't belong here just now."
He didn't say anything. I know he was thinking plenty. He went into the office that was 10 feet from me.
I hobbled over to Jake. He pushed himself deeply into his chair, wishing I would leave him alone. There was no way that was going to happen. I fell into a chair and then scooted it up beside him. I put my leg up because it throbbed so badly. Jeff came back into the treatment room from his trip down the hall.
"You too, bud. Go away. Go stay with Doc."
He looked from me to Jake, back to me, and back to Jake. He was stunned.
"Go away, Jeff. Get out of here. Please."
I knew I had hurt him. He lowered his head like a hurt puppy. He turned away from me, and then looked over his shoulder. I shook my head. He went into the treatment room office and closed the door most of the way. Doc and lady doc were there.
"Close the door please!"
Someone closed the door quietly. I waited a moment. I reached for Jake's hand. He wouldn't take mine, so I took his and held it.
"Come on baby, this ends now. Please talk to me. You have to trust me."
He mouthed some words but nothing came out. They stuck in his throat as his voice cracked. He shook his head. He pulled his hand away from me and put both under his armpits.
I reached for his hand. He resisted and pulled away from me. I took it again and held on.
"You have to trust me. You got too much against you. You have to let me in. I can't save the world, but I'm going to help you."
He stared at me blankly as if there was no soul behind his eyes. I got up from the chair, pushed him over gently with my butt, and sat beside him. I put my good arm around his shoulder and I pulled him to me. I kissed him on his temple. He broke down instantly. I held him as he cried hard into my neck. He put both arms around me and held on to me for dear life. I willed myself not to cry too.
My fear rose in my throat and sat there, a large lump that I had to swallow repeatedly to push down. I had to show him that I was strong enough and caring enough to be the one friend that he had to trust. It was sooo hard. I ached so badly for him. Someone beat me nearly to death before. I know what it is like to be brutalized and left for dead. I knew the pain. The only way for Jake to make it stop was to ask for help.
I felt dizzy, but I don't know if it was from the chemo or because of how he looked. I held his face in my hand and looked into his eyes.
"I'm sorry baby. I'm so sorry. I don't want you to hurt anymore."
The words were horrible to me, but they were all I had to say. I pulled his collar away from his neck and checked. He had a large ugly purple bruise on his neck. I touched it lightly with my fingertips. He flinched, drawing in his breath sharply. He pushed me away.
"Let me look. I won't hurt you, I promise."
I untucked and lifted his shirt so I could see underneath. He put his hands on my arms to stop me. I shrugged them off. When he resisted, I took his arms and put them at his side. I held them until he understood I was going to look. There was a second bruise, just as purple, just as ugly, about three inches down from the first. It was a couple inches across. Whoever beat him had probably been sitting on him, holding him down.
The scene flashed through my head. I could see him trying to fight him, or them, off. Maybe he couldn't, so he just tried to defend himself. He had bruises on his arms too-defense wounds. My paramedic training told me so. He, or they, just hurt him more. Didn't anybody hear his cries for help?
I touched his cheek and I made eye contact. He looked away but then looked back at me. His eyes were so sad they could make me cry. His hair was dark brown and thinning, his eyes pale blue. When Jake smiled, you had to. There was no way to stop you. Tonight he broke my heart. There was no smile. They were eyes that were vacant of his soul.
"Do you have a headache?"
"Doc?" I said, loud enough to be heard.
The door to the office opened and Doc came out.
"Any aspirin back there for a headache?"
I motioned toward Jake. Doc nodded and disappeared. He came back a minute later with two packets, unopened, of Tylenol Extra Strength and a glass of water. I took them from him. He started to speak but I looked up at him and shook my head.
"Can I check you at least? "
I let him check the needle. I had a few ounces of liquid left in my IV pouch.
"Are you okay," he asked.
I turned my attention back to Jake. I put the glass down between my legs, tore each small packet in half, and took Jake's hand again. Doc went back to the office and closed the door. I poured both gel caps into his open palm and then closed his palm a little so he wouldn't drop them. He put it up to his mouth, swallowed them, and took the glass of water. He drank the whole glass, never taking his eyes off me. He gave it to me when he was done.
"It's okay. Those should take the edge off the headache."
He looked at me, eye-to-eye, never wavering. He looked at my face. He let me hold his hand. He knew I hurt, too. He knew about how I felt. But he had to wonder why I'd take care of him when I hurt at least as much as he did.
"I care about you, Jake. You hurt, so I hurt. I want to make you okay. I've wished to be given your cancer instead."
"You don't want it. You don't deserve it."
"And you do?"
"Yeah. I do things wrong."
"No, bud. Not wrong enough to deserve cancer."
"Yes," he said in a raspy whisper. He nodded his head.
Tears welled up in his eyes. I shook my head and closed my eyes for a brief moment. I took a tissue from the table soaked up the tears on his cheeks. I kissed his cheek and lay my hand on it.
"Who told you that?"
"Jake, someone is filling your head with shit. From everything I've seen about you, you are a good kid. No one deserves to have cancer, not even the most wretched person on Earth. No one deserves to be beaten like you have been."
He was confused, because what I said went against the reasons he was beat up. He scowled again. He rubbed his eyes against the pain of his headache, as confused as hurt. Someone had polluted his mind. No 20-year-old should believe that he deserved to have the shit beat out of him repeatedly.
I made a stab in the dark, a wild-ass guess for no good reason other than to start somewhere.
"Did someone from school do this to you? One of your friends; or ex-friends? A teacher? Someone on the school staff?"
"No. I keep to myself at school. Everyone leaves me alone, like I don't even exist."
There were things I was going to change in Jake's life. My Jake-101% certain of it. I tossed the preconceived images I had of a boy in trouble and put Jake's images in his place. Jake was the boy in trouble.
"Someone on the streets, then. Someone who is jealous that you live a better life then they do. Someone asking for money, like extortion."
He shook his head.
"I could guess all night here, bud. I'd rather you told me."
He shook his head. He looked at me again; a look that said he wanted to tell me, but he would endure worse if he did.
"I gotta take my chemo, Aaron. Please?"
I bowed my head. I knew the answer. I had a suspicion based on instinct. There were no police reports of someone mugging Jake. No one sat in jail for what he, or they, did. I was so close, but I hadn't figured out why yet.
"There aren't many possibilities left, bud. You're telling me who did by telling me who didn't."
"No more. It's late. I gotta get home. My parents will be mad."
He got up abruptly and left. I couldn't go after him. I sat for a few minutes, letting the rest of my IV finish. I was too sick to do anything for him. I lay down in the chair and waited. Jeff came out first. He didn't say anything. He saw that Jake had left. It was too late to go after him. Doc and Jake's doc came out. They were upset at me. I got a nasty glare from lady doc. I turned my head and ignored her. So Jake was also without his weekly treatment. All I wanted to do was help Jake. All I did was chase him away. I couldn't say anything to anyone.
"You should have yelled for me to go after him," said Jeff.
He was angry with me. Rightly so. I wasn't thinking straight.
"Look, whatever you're thinking about Jake is probably right. You can't help him by yourself. I was here. I would have gone after him, whether I could bring him back or not. What if he won't come back now?"
"I know," I said softly. "I fucked up."
"Yeah bro. You fucked up bad."
We didn't say much on the way home. Jeff was angry. He dropped me off in the driveway at home. He didn't come in. I went upstairs without saying anything to Matt. I closed my bedroom door.
A while later, Matt knocked and then came in. I was lying in the dark. He took off his jeans and sweatshirt without turning on the light beside me. He didn't say anything. He got behind me and slid his right arm under my side. He held me all night. We did not see Jeff and Kelly that weekend. I needed to be taught a lesson, harsh as it was for him to do that.
The days kept passing in a blur. I was so torn on what to do. I wanted to trust that Jake would call me. He had every conceivable contact point that I owned. I checked work and home voicemail daily. I checked my E-mail obsessively. No word. Nothing but silence that made me more anxious as the hours ticked by. He didn't call. I didn't sleep at all for two nights. I pushed Matty away. I closed my door. Snoopy scratched at the door. I cried.
I crashed hard the following night, a Monday. I woke to find Jeff holding tight, sleeping soundly. The blue numerals on my clock said 4:55. I fell asleep again. A headache woke me. 8:10 a.m. Jeff lie beside me and watched me.
"Can I have an Imitrex, love? My head hurts."
Again I fell asleep, after what seemed like a long while. When I woke again it was Matty who held me. It was about 3:00 in the afternoon.
"Did you two work at all today?"
"Yeah, me but not Jeff. He went home for a while. I stopped in on my way home from work to give him a break. You okay?"
He didn't know what to say. I hadn't shared much with him, not enough to make him worried anyway. He held on with both arms. Even though I had fucked up badly, he held me. Jeff had missed a day of work for me. He could still be angry though.
"Do you want to sleep some more?"
"No. You must be bored to tears."
"I'm fine. It's nice to take care of you. I don't always feel like I'm doing a good job."
I knew what he meant. I felt the same for Jake.
"Above and beyond, dear Matty. I'm going to ask for a medal for you."
Wednesday, so soon. I worked. Day 1 after work. I lie on the sofa until nausea kicked in. Matt helped me. Thursday I worked. No phone calls came from Jake. No E-mail. I had sent him a note just to say hi on Tuesday morning. No response. Wednesday I worked. Same shit, different day.
Friday. Jake in his usual spot. I sat across the room, not having a clue what to say. He turned his head away and closed his eyes.
He shook his head. He wouldn't look at me.
"I'm sorry. You missed your treatment because of me. Lady Doc was terribly pissed at me."
"I came back on Monday. I made up a lie to my mom. I had to get home. My parents don't want me out late."
"I know, Jake. I'm sorry. But ..."
"No Aaron. You've done so much for me. I'm okay. No more."
He closed his eyes and tuned me out. I was defeated. It was my fault.
He left before I was done with my chemo. Jeff came at 6:00.
"No Jake again?"
"He came and went."
Jeff sat beside me in a chair for a moment. I shrugged. I was moody. He bumped me over and sat beside me quietly holding on to my hand. I fell asleep about halfway through my treatment. I was too distracted at home to think much about Jake. I was so sore and so sick. Tonight I had to worry about only me, or I wouldn't survive until morning. But I worried even more for Jake. I didn't know how to do any differently. I had to live with the fact that Jake was on my mind, whether or not he'd let me help him.
Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday; then Day 1 again for me. Thursday then Friday and Day 2. No Jake. Saturday night. A knock at the front door at dinnertime. I looked through the peephole and opened the door immediately. Jake and a friend. Jake looked awful. He was deathly pale. My heart sank. All my worries were for something. It sucked to know that.
"I told him to let me take him to the hospital," his friend said. "He told me to bring him here. He was adamant."
His friend was holding Jake up, Jake's arm across his shoulder.
"S'okay, man. Lemme help you with Jake. What's your name?"
I was on crutches still. Matt wasn't here yet because he was driving back from up north. Jake's friend and I got Jake to the sofa. I pointed to the linen closet.
"Okay Daniel, wash cloth ... cold water, and ice. In the freezer. God, Jake, what happened?"
Jake was bleeding from his nose, his eye blacked again, hardly healed from the last time. His cheek swelled cherry red. I touched his arm and he screamed. His hand shook badly. He clenched his arm and cried. I pushed his jacket sleeve up. It was purple/black.
"Damn! Daniel, didn't you see this?"
Daniel came out of the kitchen, his eyes widening as he looked at Jake's arm.
"No. He wouldn't let me touch him. He told me to bring him here. I thought it was just a bloody nose, and his eye."
"I think his arm is broken. Is it, Jake?"
He looked at me, tears streaming from his eyes, and quite visibly shaken.
"Help me. It hurts so bad."
"We need to get you to the ER. Daniel, can you drive again?"
"Yeah. I wanted to take him there in the first place."
Poor young man was in a state. He thought I might yell at him. I was not going to yell at anyone. I was going to do a lot more than yell. I promised that to Jake as Daniel took Jake, carefully. I wrote a quick note for Matt and left it on the kitchen counter. I locked up and hopped down the stairs on one leg, crutches in my other hand. I got in back with Jake. Daniel drove fast. My heart was racing as fast as the car was. Daniel had his wits about him, and he didn't waste any time. He pulled into an illegal parking spot and left his 4-way flashers on. He ran inside to get help. Two people came out with a stretcher. The man put Jake on it and sped away inside. Daniel and I followed.
The nurse had done triage to see the condition of Jake. To me he looked like a soldier coming in from the battlefield. Maybe he really was. He shook badly. He was taken away. Daniel was beside himself now that he had time to realize that Jake was badly hurt.
"Tell me what happened," I said to Daniel, bracing Jake's arm in my two arms while sitting behind him.
"He called from the 7-Eleven. He said he wanted me to drive him to a friend's place. He got pissed off when I asked if his parents were home. He told me I had to come now or he'd call someone else. He sounded so desperate. When I picked him up, he was trying to stop the nosebleed. I told him I was taking him to the hospital, but he screamed at me. He made me drive to your place. It's 40 minutes away. But ... "
"Sshhhh. You did good bud. No worries. We'll get him help soon."
Forty-five minutes later, Jake came through the door with a nurse. His left arm was in a cast. They asked me to sign a release to take him home. I handed over my credit card to pay the fees. My insurance card did him no good. That would change. I added it to my list of things to think about.
Home was going to be our place tonight. Daniel was glad about that because he knew Jake would be okay.
Matt was home by the time we got home. Daniel asked if he should stay, but gave me the impression that he would rather leave.
"You can stay, or head for home. If you go, can I call you tomorrow?"
"Yes. I should go. My folks are probably worrying."
"I'm glad you brought Jake to me. Thank you. You okay?"
He smiled at me and nodded. He handed me his phone number.
"Good night, Daniel. Safe home."
Matt helped me get Jake settled in the spare bedroom. Poor dude was so tired. I went to my dresser drawers and got him a fresh T-shirt and a pair of gym shorts. I helped him change while Matt made some hot cocoa. Jake asked if he could have another painkiller.
"Not for another couple hours. It's too soon. Does your arm hurt?"
He was profoundly unhappy. I grabbed my crutches and went to get a cold washcloth. I had him roll onto his stomach and I put it on the back of his neck.
I left the room for a couple minutes. I went to call his parents, to let them know Jake was at a friend's place tonight, for the night. I spoke quickly and did not give his mom a chance to question me. I left no doubt in the tone of my voice that I was not happy, but I didn't tell her that Jake had been to the emergency room.
I came back and sat down in the chair that was used for our computer desk. I was quiet for a few minutes. Matt said he was going to leave us alone and hang out downstairs in the living room. He took Snoopy with him. I hoped that Jake would take advantage of just the two of us. He only stared at me, so unsure of himself. I thought about what I was going to say, or even if I should say it, over and over again in my head. I turned the washcloth over on his neck, letting the coolness of it help reduce his headache.
"Why does your father beat you, Jake?"
It wasn't such a wild-ass guess. It was a matter of process of elimination. It was a very strong instinct that had been there, but I had to eliminate the other possibilities first.
He lay on his stomach, one arm tucked under him and his broken right arm lying beside him. He looked at me, staring as if he never heard my question. I waited.
"Please talk to me. You can stay here, you know."
He stared. I know he heard me. He blinked his eyes and turned onto his side.
I slid off my chair and onto the twin bed with him. I got behind him, like Jeff or Matt does with me. I reached under him carefully with my right arm and I wrapped both arms around his chest. I kissed his aching head gently.
"Not yet. I'm scared, Aaron. He's going to come after me."
"No. I called your parents. I told your mom you were with a friend tonight. I didn't tell her where, or with who."
"He'll come anyway."
"Your parents don't know me, Jake. You're safe here, for as long as you need."
He thought about it. He seemed to relax a little, but he was obviously scared. Who could blame him? Black eye, again, not even healed from the last rage. Swollen cheekbone, again. It wasn't broken, thankfully. Bruises where he had been beaten, again. And now a broken arm added to the list of injuries. It made me dizzy to think that a father would beat his son. I don't care about reason-there was NO legitimate reason to beat a child, your own flesh and blood. If there was a way to get Jake out of that house, I was going to do it. He had spent his last night there. Home was not home anymore. Our home would be his if he'd let us take him in. It took all my nerve not to call the cops and report what I knew. Jake hadn't confirmed it yet, but I knew anyway. His father physically abused Jake. His own father had broken his arm late this afternoon.
Jake must have felt my own rage. I was shaking. He turned his head a little, looking back at me.
"Aaron? Don't. Whatever you're thinking, don't. I only want you to hold me. I believe you, that I'm safe. What you've done for me tonight already is more than I can accept. I'm going to owe you. You don't know what you're taking on."
"I do know. I'm starting a holy war between your father and me, and probably your mother if she's not stopping any of this. I have a friend who's a police sergeant in the next town. I have a friend who's a district court judge. Somehow, we're going to get you home - I mean to your parent's house, so you can get your personal things and clothing. This will be your room. We're going to make a new home for you, Jake. Matty will have you. You'll have a safe place to live, and we're going to care for you. Five of us Jake. All five. Well, six. Snoops too."
"You can't, Aaron. You'll get hurt, like me."
"I can. I do want you around, and you're already here. I swear I'll break his neck if he ever touches you again."
"You don't know what I can do."
"I know you couldn't do that. I got stuff to tell you but it's going to be so hard for me to."
I held him closer to me. I rubbed his neck and shoulders to take the pain away. I moved back a little and helped him turn over to face me. He reminded me so much of young Andrew. He had the same features. His face was sweet and innocent, so filled with terrible pain.
"Whatever the hardest words to say are, those are the ones to say first."
"You're a dreamer, you know? Isn't anything hard for you? What you said makes so much sense, but nobody but you would be able to follow that advice. The hardest words to say are the most private things that nobody knows."
"The hardest words to say are the reasons your father beats the shit out of you. I don't know why. I have no ideas why a man would beat his child ... "
"I'm NOT a child. I'm 21. I'm a man. Ya know?"
Tears flowed and he looked away from me. He had a lot to prove, but no one gave him the chance, including me. He looks like a kid. I didn't mean to insult him.
"Jake, I don't care what the words are or how hard they are to say. Why does your father beat you?"
The words weren't very loud and they took a while to be said. I lie beside him, waiting while he thought about them. A large tear flowed down his cheek. He looked me in the eyes, couldn't hold my gaze, and then tried again. I looked at him.
"Because I'm gay."
I got quiet for a few minutes, but then I suddenly realized that was not the right thing to do. The words didn't shock me but I hadn't considered that as a valid reason for a beating either.
"Thank you. I'm glad you told me. Weird, but I didn't think that was the reason. I thought you got caught stealing ... wait, give me a chance to finish. Or that you were into dealing dope, joyriding cars, getting lousy grades. All that. And a little more."
"I can't stay now. You don't want someone like me around. Matt's gonna ... "
"It's all the more reason for you to stay. You're getting hurt at home. You won't get hurt here. What do you mean 'someone like me?'"
"Faggot. Queer. A million words for 'someone like me'. My own parents don't want me. Why would anyone?"
"Because you're my friend. You trusted me the moment you talked to me a few weeks ago. You came here earlier tonight. Maybe desperation. There won't ever be a time I don't want you around. I already told you you're one of my favorite people."
"Favorite things. Like my shirt."
"I misspoke then. I'm sorry I didn't say it right the first time."
"But you don't know what this is like. The bad side I mean. I know you have Skip. I've known for a year, but I've hid it. I'm in love with a friend. I figure it's the reason I got sick. My father said so."
"NO! Don't you ever believe that load of crap! You got sick because something happened biologically to you. How you feel about someone else is never a reason why you got sick. I would have been dealt a plague of death if I believed that."
"You've never kissed a guy. You don't know what I feel!"
"Jake, don't make any assumptions about me. Skip isn't just my best friend. We're in love. Forever. Billy too. And someone before that-who made me feel bad too."
"I'm not talking about what you feel for Matt. I see what you feel, but that's different."
"I'm not talking about Matt."
"Jeff either. He'd die for you, you know. But that's still different."
"I know he would. I love Jeff with the highest regard. But I'm not talking about Jeff either."
"What are you saying then?"
"I'm saying I know what you feel."
"You don't. Don't tell me bullshit just to make me feel better! I won't believe you, because you can't back it up. You DO NOT know what I feel!"
We had been here before. It had ended badly. I lowered my head. I spoke very softly. He didn't hear me. He scowled at me and titled his ear, wanting me to repeat what I had just said. I did, a little louder.
"Skip, Billy, and I are much more than just best mates. I hate the word 'lovers'. We're heart mates. There was one more, after Kate and before them too."
He looked at me. Now he was confused. I had told him about Katie, and he knew I had been married. He still didn't get the full effect of Skip, Billy, and me. Every time I talked about Katie, he said I got dreamy eyed. He had picked on me a little, but he also knew I loved her very much. I think he knew as much about her as anyone who'd ever met her, even though he never had, personally.
"Listen to me. I don't want you to ask questions until I'm done."
Matt came to the door to check on us, wanting to know how Jake was.
"Come on in, love. You know all this, but I'm about to tell Jake about young Andrew. Jake's father is beating him because he found out Jake is gay."
Matt sat on the bed beside Jake.
"Jeez, Jake. Then you're not going back there, bud. We'll make a home for you."
"I offered Jake your ... our home."
Matt was visibly upset. He wasn't into hatred any more than I was. He too came from a family so loving and so supportive that he couldn't imagine what he'd just heard. He took Jake's hand and kissed it softly.
I motioned to Matt and then I looked at Jake.
"See? The whole world is NOT going to hate you for what you feel. Matt just proved that. I'll prove it too, but this is going to take a while to explain. And it's going to hurt me because I don't like to talk about this."
"You just said you are 'in love' with a friend, not just that you love a friend, or are having sex with a friend. By the way, I think that friend's name is Daniel."
Jake nodded again.
"In that case, I'm very glad. He proved how good a friend he is tonight. He obviously is very concerned for you. Does he know you have special feelings for him?"
"Then you should tell him. Soon. I don't think you'll shock him."
"I'm going to tell you about Andrew. We met a few years ago. Maybe yesterday for all I know. He too was in love with a friend, a guy named Joe. The three of us, along with many more friends, male and female, had a beautiful friendship. I've had so many more since then. Our friends included numerous singles, other married couples, soon-to-be married, newly separated, divorced, one other widowed female friend, and lots of folks we worked with. It would be so hard to follow the friendship train because it was huge. My current set of friends rivals even that.
"Joe and Andrew were the only male couple. Joe is younger than me, and Andrew younger than him. No one cared. We all had a huge amount of respect for the other, called each other for fun, or for help. We'd play ball together, go out a lot, worked together, all that. We'd spend as much together as we could because that's was friendships were for.
"Joe was a fellow warrior in the cancer battle. Everyone came to Joe's rescue when he needed help, but he didn't ask often. Sometimes Joe could be really quiet. Over time, I learned that he just didn't want to abuse the friendship. He gives back as much as he ever takes.
"The first big crisis in the friendship was when Joe was in a car accident out in Hershey. Two teenagers who were racing each other. They ran him off the road. He was very badly injured. The second big crisis in the friendship, nine months later, was when Andrew became ill."
I stopped for a moment. My throat choked up. I wiped tears from my eyes. Matt went back downstairs to get juice for all three of us. I continued when he came back in.
"It was the ultimate in life being unfair. Andrew and Joe were best of friends, so happy together, loving, dedicated, and never hurt anyone. Joe almost died that night, and several times after that. His heart stopped several times. He was in a coma over 2 1/2 years. Andrew spent every waking moment helping to keep Joe alive."
"Is he?" interrupted Jake.
"Sshhhh, no interruptions. Yes. Joe has a very long way to go, but he will make it back."
"Please Jake. Let me get this out."
"Is Andrew alive?"
I didn't want to answer. I cleared my throat and I looked at Matt. I always admired someone who would make eye contact and keep it, even if it was uncomfortable. Matt put his hand behind my head, pulled me gently toward him, and kissed me on my forehead.
"I love you, Aaron. So does young Andrew."
I looked at Jake and shook my head. Jake took my hand again. He shivered a little. Matt put his arms around Jake and held him.
"When Andrew couldn't stay with Joe, he'd go home early, get ready for work, work either half days or all day, and then go right back to Joe. He was with him 16 to 18 hours every day, 24 hours on weekends and through the holidays. He was so hopeful Joe would make it. He'd talk to Joe as if Joe would suddenly sit up and carry on the conversation. He struggled so hard to make sure Joe would stay with him. He started by sleeping on a cot next to him. Then, with help of the nurses, he would sleep right beside Joe. The nurses took care of Andrew, willingly, as much as they would Joe. Andrew became such a powerful force in their lives. He was everybody's son, someone to love, and someone who returned love so beautifully.
"Sometimes he caused trouble, not in a bad way, but he was really mischievous. He loved pulling pranks and the nurses never knew what to expect."
"Is that where you got it from?"
"Oh yeah, Andrew taught me many things. I've done many things on my own, over the years, but Andrew was a master at getting the nurses on edge and keeping them there. No one took him for granted. And he was so beautiful.
"I helped him every way I could. I had to beg him to let me help him sometimes. Same as Joe, he didn't want to put pressure on a really good friendship. I think you feel that way."
"Yeah. Used to. Not now though."
"He couldn't do it all himself. Like you can't. He'd get so burnt out and all he could do is cry. He loved his Joe so much but for all his bravado, Andrew was terrified that Joe would die.
"Finally, I was able to get Andrew away, to his parents. They live over an hour from here. Andrew, Joe, and I were their three sons. His folks loved Joe as much as they loved Andrew. When Andrew told them that he loved Joe, his folks had concerns. They already knew that Andrew was gay, but they were more concerned for the age difference. Joe quickly showed them that his love for Andrew was true and strong. I was 'the different' son, the one who wasn't gay. His mom said she'd love me anyway. She always made me laugh. God bless the woman for her guts and her tenacity. I guess she developed that because she's a teacher.
"Andrew's pop is as caring and kindly as Mom is. No wonder Andrew was so good. He could have been a spoiled brat, but he never came off that way. You see how love works. 'In love' is every stronger."
Matt agreed. "I too am 'in love', Jake. I have my Ginny, since college. We're getting married in the spring. I'm in love with Aaron, too, just as deeply. There's no sex, but I hold him and I'm afraid to let him go. I love him from inside my heart and I ache to be here for him always."
"So I'm okay here?"
"Yeah. I promise you, love. No one is ever going to hurt you again. Not ever. I swear to you, with all my heart."
Jake said nothing more. He was very tired. He fell asleep in my arms. I hoped he believed; I hoped he knew what love meant, and what I gave him was because everyone needs to be loved, especially someone who trusted you.
Saturday morning at dawn-the spare bedroom, now to be known as Jake's room. Matt, Jake, and I woke up holding on to each other. Me to Jake, Jake to Matt, Matt holding Jake's arms. Like I said before, Jake likes Jeff, and Jeff likes Jake. Matt has now equaled that friendship.
All my fears about him had gone, except for one. That last one would be over soon.
"Did you sleep?" I asked Jake.
"Yeah, I did. No fears for a change; no more wondering what would happen overnight."
I'm going to write a bill and submit it to Congress. It's mandatory that people sleep at least in pairs, to protect each other. Nobody is to sleep alone ever again. Nobody dies alone and lonely in the night, ever again. Pick somebody you trust, male or female. Minimum rules-only that you can't sleep alone, and that you have to hold each other, and mean it.
I know, I know; dream on. Fine! I will. At least in my world people would be safe at night. I feel safe, and I know I won't die alone either, whether or not Jeff or Matt gets me to Doc in time.
A small snow shower started outside. I sat on the sofa with Jake in my arms. We talked for hours. We got help from The Four with meals and reassurances that Jake was now home. He relaxed and we fell into a routine.
Daniel took a week off from work and came to stay with Jake. Matt, Jeff, and I needed to work. I thought about working half days. Jake wouldn't hear of that. But I made him swear he wouldn't try to go home.
"Home is here," he said. "Don't need to be anywhere else. Daniel wouldn't take me anyway."
I had a planned day off from work on Friday. I had things to do. It was going to be a busy day. I signed on to work, found nothing critical, and got in the shower. Jake took his after I wrapped his arm in plastic. His black eye was healing. His headache had stopped. This was a week before Thanksgiving week.
I called his parent's house. I can't call it 'his home' because it wasn't. His parents did not have a home; it was a big lousy house. Matt's condo, large as it is, is one-third the size of Jake's house. But it's 'home'. Home is where people loved each other. A house is where people beat the crap out of their own son, only because he was gay.
I told Jake and Daniel what I wanted to do first. They had agreed to it. I had also talked to Skip and Billy about everything that was going on. They were so pleased that I had rescued Jake. They wanted to meet Jake soon. Jake said he was looking forward, not back. So I called his parents, told them where Jake was, who I was, and said I had something to bring by tomorrow morning. They reluctantly agreed. I had left them very little choice.
Jeff and I pulled into the driveway on time. Both of us got out. Jake's parents already knew that I was a friend that Jake had met at the hospital in Philly. Jeff and I stayed put. They did not want us in their house, so they came outside. His mother stood back a bit from her husband. They did not know why I was using a crutch and had my shoulder tied to my chest. They never would either.
I handed Jake's father (not 'dad', father) a sealed envelope. His mother, no longer 'mom' but relegated to merely mother, stood and looked at me. His father took the envelope and opened it. Inside were:
3 photographs of Jake's battered face, one of them a close up
2 photographs of his arm in a cast and an x-ray of a twice broken bone, marked with Jake's name and social security number
2 photographs of two large bruises on his chest and neck
A restraining order against both his father and his mother, signed at 9:00 Friday morning by a district court judge
Regarding the x-ray, Jake told me his father had taken his arm and snapped it over his thigh, as someone would do with tree branches or a stick. Two breaks. I try so hard not to hear Jake's screams, not to feel how that would have hurt. I got dizzy the first time I looked at it. Anger stirred in me even more. It was the final straw to this whole deal.
There was also a police car sitting across the street, window rolled down, and policeman looking our way. Jake was in the passenger seat.
"I know who did this, and I know why. It will never happen again. Jake is leaving this house."
I turned to the policeman, who was a friend for the past few months, related to a co-worker. He and Jake got out and walked to where we stood, each carrying a large box.
"You are to stand here. You're not allowed in the house with Jake, or anywhere near him. Jake is going to pick up what he wants from his room. He's not going to take anything from any other room. If he needs anything beyond what's his, I am going to provide for him. You can check the boxes when they return outside, okay?"
Nobody said anything. I nodded to Jake to go ahead. If looks could kill, his father would be drilling death rays into my skull. I've had worse than death rays. My imagination told me they might tickle, but that was about it. Maybe they'd cure my cancer.
He didn't look like a man who would beat this son, but then again, what does a bigoted child beater look like? His mother was a kind looking woman. I thought to myself 'get the hell out of this house lady, before he hurts you too'.
Jake and my policeman friend came out of the house within 10 minutes. Jake had put what he wanted in the two boxes and the police officer carried out Jake's PC. He made two return trips for the boxes. I told Jake to leave the monitor, mouse, and keyboard if they wouldn't fit in the boxes. Keep the load light, and make it quick. I had spares that he could have. Matty and I had also already bought him new jeans, socks, and underwear because he showed up with only the clothes he wore. Daniel was taller than Jake but he brought Jake some of his sweatshirts anyway. They only showed how small he really is.
"This ends today. The police sergeant here has full details. His badge number is there in the envelope. The district court judge also has full details, along with all original copies of the contents of the envelope, your names, home address, work addresses, and home and work phone numbers. As far as you're concerned, your son has left you for a better life. You're not going to know where he is, but that's going to be with me. I'm a safe haven for him. Jake will make a life of his own when he's ready. Are there any questions?"
There were no questions. Just death rays to my skull, and a mother who looked too stunned to speak.
Neighbors looked out their windows. Jake and the officer left. Jeff and I got back in his truck.
He pulled over when we got outside the neighborhood. He just stared at me, wide-eyed.
"Whaa-aaat?! Don't give me that look. I wasn't going to kill him. Much. And only after I broke his arm over my knee."
"You are one very serious and scary dude. If that were me, I would have gotten down on my knees and waited for you to lop off my head. I know you, and I love you dearly. Aaron, I will never get on your bad side."
"I have no bad side."
"Jake's parents think you are evil incarnate."
"That's my good side. Don't get them confused."
"Ooh, sorry. I am your loving and loyal friend for life. Honest. Poor buddy Jake. He was shaking, did you see?"
"I saw. He's getting a hell of a hug when we get home. I hope that is the worst thing he'll ever have to do the rest of his life."
When we got home, Daniel was there from earlier this morning. He knew what we were doing. He couldn't go along because Jake's father would have caused Daniel's family some trouble.
My officer friend told me I had done young Jake a huge favor. He took the boxes and PC to Jake's bedroom upstairs. I thanked him for helping; it was above and beyond his duty. He left, telling me to call him during the week. I would do so. Better yet, I would make lasagna soon and invite him over with his wife.
Jake came over and stood in front of me. His eyes were so beautiful; beautiful enough that they made me sad. He looked at me for a long moment. He put his fingertips lightly on my chest and looked at my face, all around, then into my eyes. He gave me the half-smile, thoughtful and 'Jake-like'.
"Do you know what I'm doing, right now I mean?"
I didn't get what he meant. I shook my head.
"Touching an angel."
"No," I said in a loud whisper because it caught in my throat. What he said was so sincere. "No, don't put me up there. I'm just like you."
"Not even, wise guy. You may not be a god with this cancer thing, but you reached into a deep well and pulled me out."
"Only because you let me. You could have gone with Daniel."
"No. Someday we'll make a life. I'm not ready yet. I'm too immature. I should have trusted you from the day I met you. I was afraid of my father hurting you. You ARE the angel."
There's an angel here, all right, but it's not me. He took my hand and held it. I looked down at his hand. I closed mine tighter around his. He let it go after waiting a minute. I had bowed my head but he kept watching me. He put his finger under my chin and lifted it up so I would look at him. He searched my face again, and then he hugged me close. I hugged him back. He kissed me on my neck. His eyes glistened, but no tears fell.
"I will never forget this, my Aaron. I guess I am your Jake after all. Are you happy about that? Not what you expected I'm sure."
"I'm totally thrilled by you. Yeah, you are 'my Jake'. Can't imagine I'm any great savior. Love me anyway?"
"No one could possibly top what you have done for me today. I hope my father shit his pants. I'm not scared any more. You told me you knew what you were doing. Aaron, I love you so much. I can't ever repay you. Where would I even start?"
Daniel moved closer to Jake. They were friends, but now they could be more. Actually, there were. They have made, as they both told me, the sweetest love anyone ever could. I believed them too. Daniel was so happy when Jake told him, finally, that he had those special feelings for him. He had them too. Jake already knew Daniel was gay. So did his parents. His parents were beside themselves to find out what Jake's father had done. His mom cried for an hour, sad she hadn't seen it before it got that bad.
Daniel is about 5' 10", brown hair, stunning green eyes, very handsome, with a heart for his buddy. It showed. He slowly took Jake's hand in his. Jake interlocked their fingers. He blushed.
"You should have seen him, Daniel. He stood up to my father. Aaron's got balls man. I was so shocked. Aaron's got serious honkin' balls of steel!"
Daniel came over to me, hugged me tightly, and told Jake that they both owed me. They would pay me back some way.
"Nope. I don't need anything but you two in my life. I love you, Jake. I guess I proved it, but even if I never could, it wouldn't change anything. Anyone who knows you, loves you, could have done that."
"But no one else did. You did. Today, and for a while to come, you are my hero."
Jake's own life, a good helpful life, was all I wanted to see. I already had my wish because Jake would never be beaten again. If anyone ever touched Jake again, his father was going to jail. As long as Jake stayed 'healthy', no other action would be taken against his parents.
"I made a promise, love."
"You don't break promises, do you? No matter how hard they are?"
Jake looked over at Joe. Joe had wanted to be part of today very badly. Joe understood what this was about. I had told him early this morning so he'd understand why Jake would be living here too, for however long he wanted to. I asked if we could visit him too.
"Oh yeah. Anytime."
I went over to Joe. He was in his wheelchair, tilted back like he could do a wheelie. He lowered the wheels to the floor. I took his hand in mine. I kissed it and then put it up to my heart, holding it there. He liked that. He knew what it meant. It was my way of telling him, without saying it, that I love him. I had to teach him because sometimes his hearing goes away for a few hours. It's a leftover result of his coma and damage from the accident. If he can't hear me, I want him to know anyway.
I tell Joe often that I love him, in words, and by holding him close. We don't see enough of each other that he'll get sick of me anytime soon. When we were together, I made sure he never forgot me. We watch TV from the sofa, me behind him. He would never have to wonder, never have to assume, or ever worry. I held him at night; hand on his heart, so he would feel me. Andrew had started that when Joe was still in the hospital, before the coma released him. I continued it, and showed him what it meant, after the coma.
"No, love, I don't," I said back to Jake.
Jake settled into his room. We slipped quietly into the weekend. Sunday began Thanksgiving week. Jake and Daniel talked about having Thanksgiving at Daniel's parents. Jake said he was still uncomfortable with that. Daniel had finally talked Jake into it, even going as far as calling his mom with Jake on the line to make it an official offer. That was settled.
I had one more thing to show Jake. I took my wallet out of my back pocket. Jeff was standing beside me. I handed my wallet to him. He knew what I wanted, since I was not two-handed yet. He took out the picture and looked at it for a minute. He looked sad.
I showed young Andrew's photo to Daniel.
"Oh my." He looked at Jake, back to the photo.
"What? Lemme see," said Jake, wanting the photo.
"Aaron? This is Andrew?" He stared at the picture.
"Yeah. Now do you know why I talked to you? I had to."
"The eyes are mine. God Aaron, I must be a walking nightmare to you."
I pulled him to me. I hugged him close. He hugged me back, after a moment of indecision.
"No, love. You're a walking memory."
"No." I put my fingers to his lips. "No. You're just fine, love. Don't apologize for something you can't control. I love you for you, and for the little part of you that reminds me of Andrew. I had no choice but to talk to you two months ago. I thought I saw a ghost. You can act sooo much like him. I love that you let me hold you, and will hold me back. That's to your credit, not anyone else's. I'm surprised, because I would think someone who got beatings wouldn't want to touch."
"I know you won't hurt me. No one else would. Just him."
I let Jake go on one side. I turned to pull Daniel in. He let me, and he hugged me too. We three stood there, heads touching, arms around each other, being quiet for a moment. I felt good about Daniel. I usually trust first instincts, and mine told me that Daniel was good for Jake. All of Jakes school friends abandoned him. Daniel, a year older than Jake, just drew him in even more. Jake hadn't even told Daniel what was going on at home. He suspected things weren't right. What could he do until Jake talked to him? It made Daniel angry, after Jake was okay, that it took so much abuse before Jake sought help. There would be no more secrets.
I could get angry all over again about it. I think what we did this morning is enough revenge. At least I can keep my promise to Jake.
I went about doing things around the condo. I spent a long while sitting on the floor beside Joe, helping him with his exercises. Jake and Daniel were upstairs in the spare room. Jake's room. No longer the spare room. Matty made it very clear to Jake this was home. We didn't know when we'd be going to Connecticut. Even when Ginny and Matt got married, they said nothing changed if we wanted to stay. Jake, said Matt, should have stability and nothing but heart.
I had to upgrade my t-shirt to a sweatshirt. I hobbled upstairs toward my room, passing Jake's room. They immediately separated, turned their backs on each other, and tried to act as if nothing was going on.
"I'm sorry guys. I didn't mean to kill the moment."
"Nah, it was my fault," said Daniel. "I'm sorry, Aaron. We should have closed the door at least."
Daniel was embarrassed. I came into the room and shook my head.
"Daniel, tell Jake how you feel."
Daniel looked at Jake. He smiled and looked directly into Jake's eyes.
"You're the only person I want. To lose you for any reason would hurt. I love you. If you want me to tell you every day, I will."
Jake didn't need any prompting from me.
"Tell me always. I love you too, Daniel. I've loved you even at the risk of my father's rage. It wouldn't be enough to make me stop. It wasn't enough. Nobody will take you away from me, unless you leave willingly. I don't know how long forever is, but I want you. You're the reason I live."
Jake had still lived at home because he didn't have a job. Being sick made it worse. Apartments in his town were non-existent. Same for Daniel. But the two families were like night and day-or Venus and Mars. I looked at them both. I nodded. I turned to leave.
"Aaron? It really didn't bother you to see me kiss Daniel?"
"Nope. If you hold that close you'll never lie to each other. Always talk to each other, good or bad. Then the kiss really means something. It has to be for being in love, not just because it's the right thing to do."
They both nodded.
"You're the best," said Jake. "I've got something to ask you. Later-another time. But I do love you. I meant what I said about touching an angel, whether you like it or not. I owe you my life."
"I can't have a son, Jake. The only gift I never had. You ... you fill my heart. Getting you safe is something I've worked for since I saw your bruises."
"I know. Weeks, and I fought you so hard. I didn't think anyone could help. He could have killed me. Then he would have killed you. I trust you with my life, Aaron. Wherever you go, we both want to go too. Will that happen?"
"Yes. It will, Jake. You too Daniel?"
I kissed both on their foreheads. Skip expected, almost demanded, that this be the way things go. "Bring Jake home. Our home. We'll love him."
"Kiss your bud. And mean it."
They both smiled and then kissed me on my lips. They did mean it. I almost cried because this wasn't what I meant. They gave me eyes. Smiles naturally followed.
"Not what I meant, but nice."
They held each other and kissed each other as sweetly. Eyes. Smiles.
"Carry on boys. If you want privacy, close the door. We'll respect it. This is your home now, Jake. No time limit, no conditions. Daniel, you're welcome here any time. Come and go as you please. Let Matty and me cook for you guys. Kick back and put your feet up on the coffee table. Spend time with Snoopy. He loves attention. Daniel, if your parents will let you spend some time with Jake, bring a duffel with a change of clothes. Or keep some here. My bathroom is yours. Let's sit down and talk about what you want, when you're both ready. Joe is here once a month or so. He's learning all over again, so maybe you'd like to help. No obligations though, okay guys?"
"One more thing. Jake, I want you to think very seriously about a different college. Community college is a really good start. But you should reach. Far as you can. Tell me what school you want to go to. Anywhere. And only when you're ready. Will you do that for me?"
"I can. My mom couldn't pay for more than I got now. My father wouldn't give me a dime more than he had to. I'm not taking your money though."
We'll see, I said to myself. Which meant that he could argue but he wouldn't win. Sam, we got a new boy for you. Or maybe I wouldn't talk to Sam. Jake fit the profile. But not entirely. He was 'mine' after all.
"Opened or closed," I said as I left, hand on the doorknob.
"Closed," they said in unison, nodding and smiling at each other.
"Oh really now?" I said as I gave them eyebrows. "Are you two going to behave?"
Two heads shaken, two mischievous smiles, one holding the other. Daniel took Jake over to the bed. I laughed aloud. I closed the door.
There was giggling followed by silence. I was happy for Jake and for Daniel. Jake had said it best. "I've loved you even at the risk of my father's rage. It wouldn't be enough to make me stop. It wasn't enough." Jake knew what love was, and what it cost. He was already a year with Daniel, in his heart, even through the beatings. God love them both.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
(1929-1968, American Black Leader, Nobel Prize Winner, 1964)
I get a daily quote in my E-mail. The timing of this one was spot on. People would carry around darkness, or impose it on someone else. Sometimes it's ignorance. Sometimes it's their beliefs. I want Jake to know right and wrong; and Daniel, too. It's two, not one. Daniel is from a good home. His parents accept him. I want Jake to know our good home, here and then in Connecticut, for life. I'm not like his parents.
Jake is going to be gay whether I support him or not. I want Jake to be a good man and shed the label. Jake called himself a faggot, a queer, because that's what he's grown up with. Jake's only wrong, in an ignorant person's eyes, is that he loves Daniel. I could think of better role models for Jake than me. I could also think of far worse. His own father polluted his mind with thinking that he was a bad kid, so that's why he got leukemia. I can't even imagine Jake's horror when he believed that.
The guys didn't stay long in their room. Matt was getting ready to take Ginny out for dinner. We would all have a nice Sunday dinner tomorrow.
Joe was lying on his stomach. I straddled his butt while I did a deep rubdown of his back muscles, one side, and then the other. He had gotten fidgety sitting in his wheelchair. I learned from two good PT folks how to take the pressure off his spine and ease the soreness. The music was my rhythm, but this one-armed stuff was for the birds. Jake couldn't help much. Matty helped a bit, but I shooed him to his room to get ready. This friendship had more one-armed bandits than a Las Vegas casino. When I got tired, I sat up.
"Sorry, Joe, I can't keep it up. My arm is getting tired.
"May I?" asked Daniel. "I know how to do massages. It was part of my sports medicine courses."
"Sure Daniel, if it's okay with Joe."
"Okay for me, Aaron."
Daniel took my place and gave Joe a good strong deep backrub. He worked on his muscles from shoulder to waist. After he was done, about 25 minutes later, he asked me if I had a heating pad. I got one. He asked if he could give Joe moist heat, with a towel too. I got a large towel from the linen closet. Daniel expertly made a moist heat wrap. He put it on Joe's lower back, sat beside him, and monitored it for 15 minutes.
"How was that, Joe?"
"Good Daniel. Thank you.
"You bet. Massage and heat for 40 minutes. Tomorrow too. Okay, Aaron?"
"Thank you, Daniel. That would be nice."
Joe curled up on his side in the late afternoon sun. He'd been doing that since before he got out of the hospital. He looked like a cat, asleep and content, no pain. I lie beside him, arms wrapped around him, holding his head in my arm. Jake and Daniel went out for a while for fresh air. I napped with Joe. Finally, all seemed right with the world. Jake was safe. I felt great relief for that.
Jake went to Daniel's for Thanksgiving. Christmas in Connecticut was the next plan.
A couple of weeks before Christmas, Jake said he wanted to see his mother. I was antsy about the idea. The court order had said no.
"It said she couldn't see me. It didn't say I couldn't contact her."
"Jake. What if your father finds out?"
His mother had been as much to blame for what Jake endured because she didn't stop it. She could have called the police, or told a friend, or a neighbor-anything to keep her son out of harm's way. She did not. I made it plain that I resented her.
"I know you do, Aaron. You're not wrong. I just need to know she's okay. I don't know if she'd try to stand up to my father."
"Do you want to call?"
"No. If he answers or if he listens in ... "
"You could call her at work maybe. Or, does she have her own E-mail, private?"
He shook his head, and then thought again. "At work. But I don't remember it."
"Come on, let's give it a try. There are usually a few standard E-mail address types companies use. John.firstname.lastname@example.org or maybe email@example.com. We'll try some. If the message bounces back as undeliverable, we'll try another."
I sat beside Jake at my PC. We looked up his mom's company on the Internet to get the correct domain name of the company. Then I entered the first of a list of common ways that employee accounts were set up.
The first message came back within a minute. I showed him how to go into his 'sent items' folder and copy the text of the first message. He pasted it into another, with a different form of E-mail address. The second try bounced back, as did the third. The fourth one did not.
"You wouldn't be a professional hacker, are you?"
"Nah, just a hack. If I were a real hacker, I would've gotten it right the first time. So now we wait, bud. We'll know tomorrow, if she reads mail each day."
We checked again at a half hour and an hour, just to be sure. The message had not bounced back.
Jake went to watch TV. He watched for E-mail each day. He grew increasingly unhappy as each day passed with no word.
"She doesn't want me."
"Maybe she's afraid."
He thought about it. Days passed. He hung out. Daniel came to stay with him a couple weekends. We went to chemo together. Jeff or Matt took care of Jake after chemo the same way they took care of me.
"You can. If it's meant to be."
Four days after Christmas --
Jake sat at my PC, tears in his eyes.
"She's okay. She's left my father and went to my aunt's house up north."
I left him alone while he wrote her back. I was lying on the sofa when he came downstairs a little while later. He curled up in front of me. I touched Jake's cheek.
"We will talk to the judge again," I told him.
In the meantime, we got ready to go home to Connecticut.
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