Jake03

 

[Aaron's note: It has occurred to me that I have not said whether this is fiction or non-fiction. I have done so on purpose. I want the readers to believe what they will believe. I write because I want you to feel. I want you to treat the people around you the way I treat Jake. It is my own way of giving some life and hope to this world.]

[Aaron's note 2: Due to technical difficulties, namely me being a moronic human, there were more than a small handful of `typos' in this version. Optical character recognition did me in, turning poor Jake into Joke. I think I have fixed all of the humiliating goofs. I apologize for making your eyes do funky things will reading my text. Chapter 3 is the only one in which I had to use OCR.]

Jake -- Part 3

I thought about him 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 are 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 at hand 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 Wednesday 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 on Wednesday and I saw that I had been so right all along. My worse nightmares came true. I was right. That was the cruelest part -- overactive 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, 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, Jake, 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 can't do this with you here."

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 any more."

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. Whoever beat him had probably been sitting on him, holding him down. The images flashed through my head. I could see him trying to fight him, or them, off. 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, his eyes green. When Jake smiled, you had to. There was no way to stop you. Tonight he broke my heart. There was no smile. There were eyes that were vacant of his soul.

"Do you have a headache?"

He nodded.

"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.

"No."

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.

"Thanks."

"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.

"Aaron?"

"Jake?"

"Umm. Thanks."

"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 out of my back pocket and soaked up the tears on his cheeks. I kissed his cheek and held it in my hand.

"Who told you that?"

He shrugged.

"Jake, someone is filling your head with guilt. 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 physically, brutally abused 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."

"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 lie down in the chair and waited. It was Jeff who came out first. He didn't say anything. He knew Jake had left. 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 now Jake was also without his weekly treatment. I screwed up. All I wanted to do was help Jake. All I did was chase him away. I couldn't say anything to anyone. I had screwed up so badly.


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 phone number and E-mail address I owned. I checked work and home voicemail daily. I checked my E-mail hourly. 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 crashed hard the following night, a Saturday. 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 Mattie who held me. It was about 3:00 in the afternoon.

"Jeff went home for a while. I stopped in on my way home from work to give him a break. You okay?"

"Groggy. Worried."

"About?"

"Jake."

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.

"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."

"Above and beyond, dear Mattie. I'm going to ask for a medal for you."

I knew what he meant. I felt the same for Jake.


Monday, so soon. I worked. Day 1 after work. Bone marrow day, too. Standard sentiment -- hate it hate it hate it. I lie on the sofa until nausea kicked in. Jeff helped me. Tuesday I worked. No phone calls came from Jake. No E-mail. I had sent him a note just to say hi on Monday morning. No response. Wednesday I worked. Same shit, different day.

Wednesday. 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.

"Jake?"

He shook his head. He wouldn't look at me.

"I'm sorry. You missed your treatment because of me. Lady doc was quite pissed at me."

"I came back on Thursday. 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."

I shrugged. I was moody. Jeff 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. I worried even more. 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.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday; then Day 1 again for me. Tuesday then Wednesday, and Day 2. No Jake. Thursday and a knock at the door at dinnertime. I looked through the peephole and opened the door immediately. Jake and a friend. Oh God, Jake.

"I told him to let me take him to the hospital," his friend said. "He told me to bring him here. He was adamant."

"S'okay, man. Help me with him. What's your name?"

"Daniel."

I was on crutches still. Jeff 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 blackened 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 out. I pulled his jacket off carefully. His arm 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 man. 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 got to get you to the ER. Daniel, can you drive again?"

"Yeah. I wanted to take him there in the first place."

Daniel took Jake, carefully. I wrote a quick note for Jeff 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.

We waited 40 minutes before anyone could see Jake. I bugged the nurse at the desk repeatedly until I got someone to get Jake a painkiller. He shook badly. 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."

"You did good, man. No worries. We'll get him help soon."

`Soon' was a long wait. Daniel helped get Jake to the treatment room but they made him leave. He came back out to wait with me. It was another long wait. Then Jake was led down the corridor, in the opposite direction.

Thirty-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. Home was going to be my place tonight. Daniel was glad about that because he knew Jake would be okay.

Jeff was at my place 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."

Jeff 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 Jeff 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?"

"Headache."

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 my computer desk. I was quiet for a few minutes. Jeff said he was going to leave us alone and hang out in the living room. 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 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 on to his side.

"Hold me?"

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.

"Okay?"

"Not yet. I'm scared, man. 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, probably not even healed from the last rage. Swollen cheekbone, again. It wasn't broken, thankfully. Bruises where he had been physically, brutally abused, 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. My home would be his if he'd let me 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 tonight.

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 is a police sergeant in the next town. I have a friend who is 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. I'll pack up things in my closet and this will be your room. I'm going to make a new home for you, Jake. You'll have a safe place to live, and I'm going to care for you.

"You can't, Aaron. You don't need someone like me around. You'll get hurt, like me."

"I can. I do want you around. When you hurt, I'll find a way to fix it. For every minute of pain you put up with, there will be ten times the comfort given back. He may not be done hurting you, but I'm not done caring about you either. I swear I'll break his neck if he ever touches you again."

"You can't."

"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. He'll kill me, for real"

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 was right, this was hard. He reminded me so much of a friend that I had lost 19 months ago. 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 20. I'm a man. You 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. Doing something, even when you don't mean to, hurts someone.

"Jake, I don't care what the words are or how hard they are to say. I want to know why your father beats 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."

"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 weeks ago. You came here earlier tonight. Again, trust. There won't ever be a time I don't want you around."

"But you don't know what this is like. 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."

"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."

"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 and Matt 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!"

"Haven't we been here before? Is it always about Jake?"

I lowered my head. I spoke very softly. He didn't hear me. He scowled at me and tilted his ear, wanting me to repeat what I had just said. I did, a little louder.

"I said I have been in love before. I've been in love with a young man."

He looked at me. Now he was confused. I had told him about Kathryn, and he knew I had been married. Every time I talked about Kathryn, 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.

"Listen to me. I don't want you to ask questions until I'm done."

Jeff 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 Andrew."

I pulled Jake to me. Jake knew I was going to tell Jeff. I looked at him first to see if I could. Jake nodded.

"Jake's father is beating him. He found out Jake is gay."

Jeff sat on the bed beside Jake.

"Jeez, Jake. Then you're not going home, bud. We'll help you."

Jeff 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 Jeff and then I looked at Jake.

"See? The whole world is NOT going to hate you for what you feel. Jeff 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 talk about this."

Jake nodded.

"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. I have been the same way with someone very close to me. His name is Andrew. We met once I had moved to Pennsylvania. He too was in love with a friend, a guy named Joe. The three of us, along with many more, male and female, had a beautiful friendship. Matt and Ginny were part of that, along with Jeff and Kellie. 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. It spanned something like 27 years from youngest friendship to oldest.

"Joe and Andrew were the only male couple. Joe is my age, younger by seven days. Andrew was, I think, eight years younger. 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 time together as we could because that's what friendships were for.

"Joe was a fellow warrior in the cancer battle. Doc took care of all of us. 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. Two teenagers who were joyriding and racing each other ran him off the road. 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. Jeff got up 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 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."

"Is Andrew?"

"Please Jake. Let me get this out."

"Is Andrew alive!?"

I didn't want to answer. I cleared my throat and I looked at Jeff. I always admired someone who would make eye contact and keep it, even if it was uncomfortable. Jeff put his hand behind my head, pulled me gently toward him, and kissed me on my forehead.

"I love you, Aaron. So does Andrew."

I looked at Jake. Jake took Jeff's hand again. He shivered a little. Jeff 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. He couldn't do it all himself. 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 an hour from here. Andrew, Joe and I were their three sons. His folks loved Joe as much as they loved Andrew. Andrew was from in Pennsylvania. Joe was from New England originally. They met in Boston in 1990. 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 proved to them, and repeatedly proved, 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. Andrew loved people and they loved him back. He loved his Joe more than he loved anyone, and Joe loved his Andrew in return, equally and sincerely.

Then Andrew got sick. It took local doctors a few weeks to figure it out. Once he knew what was wrong, he wanted only Doc. Andrew was diagnosed with cancer in his spine. Doc was so unsure about taking on his case. He's a research oncologist, so he doesn't have a real practice like other doctors, but Andrew was not going to let some `local Podunk doctor' take care of him.

Doc knew a lot about Andrew because all I did was talk about my friends. I asked him directly how he felt about Andrew being gay.

Doc's answer, not surprisingly: "I'm a scientist, not a judge. I have no right to rule over Andrew."

The only reason, he said, he was unsure about taking on Andrew's case was because he knew so little about Andrew's cancer. His young patient quickly endeared Doc to him. Andrew didn't put on airs just to impress Doc. He asked many questions, sometimes out of fear. He knew Doc would do his best for him. Doc, like me, never goes half way on anything. He enlisted the help of his colleagues. He researched other cases. He wouldn't let discouraging news slow him down or give Andrew anything less than his full attention.

Andrew was still taking care of Joe every day. I was taking care of Andrew at least as much. I would go endless nights without sleep just so that Andrew could sleep. He started to let me hold on to him. He'd wake in the morning and tell me that he knew I was there because he could feel me whenever he woke during the night. Andrew got my full attention. I had no one to love this way, never wanted to ever again once I lost Kathryn. I was suffering deeply from the loss of yet another friend to ovarian cancer, and I was so fearful that if I cared, I'd lose too. When I loved someone, they died. I was good at keeping people at arm's length, for their own safely. My rule was that you couldn't love me because you'd suffer.

"He wouldn't hear of it. People as stubborn as Jeff or Matt wouldn't either. But what Andrew wanted from me was different. He wasn't asking for it, in words, and maybe not even intentionally. What happened to us is like you and Daniel, Jake, assuming Daniel feels what you do."

"He does," Jake said softly, believing it, knowing it.

"Andrew and I knew one day that we were in love with each other. It wasn't `I love you like a friend' any more. It was deep in my heart, no holds barred, fearful love for a young man. I asked him what would happen with Joe. I was so scared because I didn't want to take Andrew away from Joe. That would have been the cruelest thing on Earth. Andrew said, sincerely, that if his Joe survived, we would be three. It didn't take away my fear. Joe would find me a betrayer and put a quick end to our friendship. I would never see him again.

"Andrew and I spent long nights talking. He fold me that I didn't have to be in love with him. He knew he was asking a lot of me, but he wanted me to love him anyway, whether or not it was equal to what he felt for me. But it was. It had been for a few weeks. It had scared me enough that I stopped letting myself feel for Andrew. My mission was supposed to be to help Andrew be strong enough to help Joe. Love, the kind I thought about, wasn't part of the deal. It was wrong to want it and it was sooo wrong to take it away from Joe.

"It happened anyway. It took time. Andrew had so much on his mind. His treatments would bring him to his knees. I was the only one he would call. I ended up in the hospital because of a fever from hell, so he switched roles and watched out for me. All he wanted to do was to get me home. He knew I couldn't fight in the hospital. Home is where you belong when you're sick because it's more comforting. He too had been afraid of losing me because my temperature had hit 105 over a few hours. Doc got Andrew to stop worrying, and Andrew grew to trust Doc 100% his life, my life, whatever."

Are you okay, Jake?" asked Jeff.

He was awake and alert, sad eyed and shaking a little. Jeff went into my closet and got out a Champion sweatshirt. He helped Jake get into it with one arm. He sat behind Jake, up against the wall, and then laid Jake against him. He wrapped his arms around his chest again.

"Yeah. I never would know, Aaron. I thought I knew everything. You knew right away that I was wrong about you not understanding."

"There are so few people that I will talk to about Andrew, Jake. I'm probably going to make some people angry at me when I finish my journals. Some won't understand at all. Some will, maybe. I dunno."

"Tell me about Andrew, more."

I started to protest. I thought it would be enough.

"Please. He's in here, isn't he?" he asked, puffing his hand on my chest, over my heart.

"Yeah. But it's pretty crowded in there sometimes. I don't think it's fair to everyone who I tuck away there."

"Not from what I can tell," Jeff said. "You got those you love, living and gone, tucked neatly away, Aaron. Mattie isn't here, and I know you've been missing him. Or me when I'm not around. You've said so and I've believed you. Seems that those furthest away from you are the ones who have all your attention."

"He isn't wrong, is he?" asked Jake. I think it was important for Jake to understand love. No, he isn't wrong. But ..."

"Uh uh. No buts'. You care about people Aaron. You love so many. No one would be mad that she takes up a lot of what's inside you. How many years?"

"24 years together."

"You know what? I want to know, some day, that you put me in here sometimes too."

"You've been in there, Jake. I worry about you, bud. I care about you even more now. You're on my mind constantly. Daniel did me the biggest favor by listening to you tonight. Why did you choose to come to me?"

"Because you told me I have to trust you. I do, Aaron. My father is constantly abusive to me and my mom doesn't stop him, so who am I going to trust? Only you."

I felt so bad for him. At 20, I was out on my own, at college, making my own life. At 20 Jake is having his life taken away. He's got one friend that he's in love with and another that he's beginning to feel safe with. Not exactly a life I'd want at 20.

"So what happened when you knew you were in love with Andrew too?"

"God, I was sooo scared. I knew I couldn't tell myself, or him, that I wasn't in love with him. He needed me and I couldn't turn my back on him. He knew I hurt from losing friends to cancer, that I had stopped letting people close to me. He wanted to love me for that reason alone. He said I deserved to be loved, and to love someone in return.

"One day I held him, and we made out. Andrew took his time and was so patient. It was the return of something I hadn't had since Kathryn was killed. I thought I'd never feel it again, and it felt so good. Not just the sex because I'm not just looking to get off. But to be so in love again, and so loved back. It stunned me, and I was afraid someone would wake me from the dream and I'd be alone again. I told Andrew, finally, that I was as much in love with him. I told him I was still scared about Joe, but we would work it out if we could, if Joe wanted to. We talked to his parents because I didn't want to lose them either, the same as Joe had done years earlier. I wanted them to know how I felt for Andrew, and why, and that it wasn't some passing love thing. His mom and pop both said that I was yet another victim' of Andrew's heart. I told Doc and Claire, very tearfully. Doc repeated what he had said about Andrew, and told me he respected how I felt. He said I had as much a right as anyone he knew to be in love.

"Claire had a long discussion with me. She said she knew I didn't get into this lightly. I asked her what she thought. She told me it's never, ever wrong to love someone. I told her, basically, that I hate labels. I have a name, so people know who I am. I don't care shit about gay, straight, bi, or any of that crap. I don't put people into neat little categories and I try so hard not to let people do it to me. I so much wanted to love Andrew without someone thinking I was a terrible human for daring to do such a thing."

"You're not," said Jake.

"You're in love with a guy too, so you can't judge me fairly."

"Then I can," said Jeff. "And I will. You're not a terrible man. Anyone that you love, and are in love with, has the best heart and soul to count on. Andrew was so blessed to have you, Aaron. I'm jealous, a little, because Andrew had you in a way that no one probably ever will again. I don't know about Joe will accept you. My instinct says he will. How many people have you totally given yourself over to?"

"Two."

"Kathryn. And Andrew."

I nodded.

Both gone now. But both had the love of the century. Tell me I'm wrong."

I said nothing.

"And who are you in love with right now?"

"No one. Not like that."

Then someone is surely alone, Aaron. I feel for them."

I was going to argue with him that he was young enough to be more forgiving of the type of love I had for Andrew. Older friends won't be so supportive. Friends my age won't be because we've all been told most of our lives that for one male to love another male is wrong. I never believed it, or felt if to be that way, but Andrew was also my first true test of my beliefs. I've had gay friends as long as I can remember. I don't sit in judgment because I have no right. I answer to one and that's my fate.

Back to Andrew?" asked Jake.

I took a deep breath. My Anxiety Monster was coming out from hiding. I've told friends in the past that my Anxiety Monster was a dark soulless creature who would suck my brain out and replace it with terrible depression. He would stay hidden for months on end and then creep out, teasing me, and suddenly start brain munching me.

"Andrew wanted me to make him a promise. He wanted to make sure that someone was still with Joe, because Joe's life mattered the most to Andrew. Joe coming out of the coma and having someone there when it happened was the thing that Andrew lived for. And if he couldn't be the one, he wanted me to be. I refused to talk about Andrew's death. But Andrew needed a promise, and not just empty words. It took me a few months, but I finally told him I would take care of Joe always.

"Andrew got so much sicker. He also made me promise that he would not die in the hospital. I understood that, because I have told Mattie and Jeff the same thing. Doc knows it and he has agreed as well. Doc said the same for Andrew.

"One weekend, Andrew wanted to go to Doc's place in the mountains. He had loved going there the few limes we went.

"We sat on a large rock at the edge of the pond, feeding the ducks, watching the clouds change shapes. He had waited until his parents arrived too. That's the day Andrew died. Right in my arms. I was sitting behind him, holding on. I hadn't expected that this would be how it would end.

"I couldn't let him go. Even losing Kathryn didn't hurt me that much because I didn't know, really know, that she had died. But to be holding on to someone you love so much and to feel them slip away. I will never forget that."

"When?"

"Good Friday. April 21, 2000."

My voice cracked. I sobbed. Jeff let go of Jake with one arm and pulled me toward him. Jake put his good arm around me. He had tears in his eyes.

Dearest Andrew, I will love you forever, right up until my last breath. You made me know what love felt like again. It was so different and it was so special, I cannot forget.

I'm not ashamed either, Jake. I would love him all over again. No one ever touched my heart so deeply, moved me so fully, and tested me so completely. I won't ever love like that again."

"What about loving Joe?"

"I made Andrew a promise. It was so hard to live up to it. But l went to be with Joe in the hospital. I did what Andrew did. I stayed with him all weekend. I went home in the morning to get ready for work, worked half days when I could or all day when I had to. I'd be there with Joe again by 4:00 p.m. or so.

"When he finally came out of his coma, a few months after Andrew had died ..."

It hurt so much. I wish I hadn't let Jake this close. I had a lot of healing to do. I lowered my head and let the tears flow. Jake and Jeff waited. I kept my head bowed.

"... after Andrew had died, I was where I promised I'd be. I stayed with him as I had done when he was in the coma. I watched him get a little stronger each day. Over several months, he learned to walk again. But he won't ever walk again on his own. He's a paraplegic because of his injuries. As much as he would let me, and as much as I could, I helped him to come back to a life."

"Did you tell him, uh ..."

"That I was in love with Andrew? Yes. I told him on a sunny spring day, in the park."

"Did he ... Was he okay with that?"

"No. Not for a very long time. He used Andrew's life to bring back his own. He found it cruel that I would take advantage of Andrew."

"But you didn't."

"He thought so. For a long time. I don't know if I'm totally forgiven.

"It's taken a long time, but Joe is now home. You don't know it, but he's been sleeping all this time in my room. I'm the only person he really knows. He's gotten to know Mattie and Jeff and their wives, of course, and they are so good to him. He doesn't know about Andrew yet. His memories seem to be all but gone, but it's going to take awhile to bring his life back. I promised I would. I owe it to him, and to Andrew.

"Joe loves me and I love him. It's not `in love' because Joe doesn't understand that. If he ever tells me he's in love with me, I'll be right there for him. I know how to love another man now. I'll do it, and I can't say I honestly care what people think. Joe has lost something he doesn't even know, not the way he should. He deserves to know some day. I want to love him.

"So you know what `in love' means, for real," said Jake.

"Yeah. Hurts sometimes. But I'd risk the feeling again."

Jeff agreed. "I too am in love, Jake. I have my Kellie, over 13 years now. I am in love with Aaron, too, just as deeply. There is no sex, but I hold him and I'm afraid to let him go. I love him from inside here and I ache to be here for him always."

"So you don't hate me either."

"No. I don't hate, period. I'm happier knowing you love someone , and he loves you back. Is Daniel a good man?"

"Daniel is the one person I trust with my life. It's been almost a year. I can't imagine my life without him."

Jake was getting tired. I felt so drained. Jeff was tired because he's been up since before dawn, out on the road.

"I want you to trust me too, Jake, like you do Daniel. I promise you no one is ever going to hurt you again. Not ever. I swear to you, with all my heart."

"It's going to be harder than you think, Aaron."

"I don't care. I love you, Jake. From here ... to here." I touched my heart, and then his.

Jeff went to check on Joe. He came back briefly to say goodnight. Then he went to care for Joe.

Jake 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 to care for them.

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