This post contains portrayals of homosexual actions and lifestyles. There may be references to, or explicit descriptions of, sex between consenting adults.
If homosexuality, sexually explicit language, or swearing offends you, or if reading material that contains these violates any law or personal or religious beliefs, you must exit now without proceeding further.
If you’re under 18 years old you may not read it either because it is against the law. I regret this because I was once a randy teenager myself and I feel somewhat two-faced in helping enforce the law. Hopefully, one day, censorship may disappear along with other vestiges of Big Brother and Mother Grundy.
The story is entirely fictional. Kirkhall Island is a fictional Barrier Island off the Georgia Coast. Where I mention real people or companies, it is merely for a semblance of verisimilitude and the attitudes and actions I ascribe to them are entirely fictional. As far as I know there is no Beyer College or University in Tennessee. The one in the story is entirely imaginary.
My thanks to Bill and Alastair who edit my work and make suggestions. Any errors that remain are probably because I ignored their advice.
The original mistake, I was fast realizing, had been pouring the first cup of coffee. After that, as I had become more and more immersed in the technical debates of the meeting, I had begun to chain-drink: swallowing gulps of the dark liquid to wet my throat, dry from continual talking. Now, some twenty miles short of Macon on I-75, the emergency was dire. I still had an estimated eight miles to go before the next rest stop and all the warning lights of imminent bladder failure were brightly lit. Throwing caution to the wind, I pushed the accelerator towards the floor and scooted my Jeep into the left hand lane to pass a line of cars running in convoy at ten above the limit. The darkness made it impossible to see if a police cruiser was pulling up behind me and I had to rely on the human instincts of the drivers in front of me to hit their brakes if they spotted the law on the median.
Normally I would have made the Atlanta trip on my bike, but I'd had to pick up a stack of the latest aircraft control-system documents in bulky binders, and thus my Wrangler had been pressed into service. The early spring night air tumbling over the windshield gave me the out-in-the-open feeling that I liked, but it held little warmth and I was glad for my heavy, leather motorcycle jacket.
It had been a good meeting. Working remotely gave me a great deal of the independence I liked, yet the team camaraderie when we all got together was invigorating – the quick interchange of ideas, the mooting of techniques and concepts that went on and on around the large conference table. We formed a good band: the intra-group rivalry to develop a new approach or come up with a better algorithm, never interfering with the united front we presented to the rest of the company. No better example of our solidarity was my colleagues' acceptance, in spite of their confusion, of my orientation when I came out and, later, their whole-hearted support during my crash-and-burn break-up with Steve.
Now we were on a good footing where they felt comfortable in asking me to choose the restaurant for lunch `because Gays always know the best places to eat!' and, later, to give me a jocular hard time about staring at the waiter. At times like that, Rod, our manager, would just shake his head and smile, remarking that we'd all be fired if an HR guy overheard our talk. As I said, we are a good team.
I hit the entrance to the rest area with my speed a little hot and was still braking as I entered the car park. Barely had the Jeep stopped before I had the backpack which held my notebook slung on my shoulder and I was headed toward the restroom. Ten minutes later, and much relieved, I backed the Jeep out of the parking space and taxied gently toward the highway. I wound past the truck area where the big rigs were parked, several with motors running at a subdued rumble keeping their contents refrigerated, and turned onto the exit road. As I straightened the wheel my headlights swept over the hitcher. Geez, one doesn't see the outstretched thumb much these days, I reflected with some nostalgia. Nowadays there are too many kooks out there, both drivers and hitchers, to make it safe. I changed up and began to accelerate toward the slab. Then, as I swept past the young guy, I saw the shoulders sag down in dejection as he wrote off yet one more of the hundreds of potential rides that had ignored him.
"Fuck!" The word escaped my lips audibly as I cursed my own stupidity even while I was standing on the brake and hurriedly downshifting. In my mirror I watched him turn toward me and, as he saw the glare of the brake lights, pick up his backpack and begin to run toward the Jeep.
"Where're you going?" I asked as he came level with the door.
"Sorry, buddy, I'm headed to Savannah. I'll be off I-75 in a few miles."
"Can I ride with you to 95? There are more trucks on that road. I've been here four hours." He pleaded desperately.
"You got any drugs on you?" He shook his head. "No drugs, no gun in your backpack? Can I check?"
He looked at me then dropped the pack to the ground and began to unfasten the clips. "Sure. Go ahead. Just my computer and some clothes."
"OK. Don't worry. I'll trust you. Get in, but you might want another sweatshirt or a jacket: it gets a bit chilly in here."
"Man, I sure appreciate this," he said as he opened the door and lifted himself onto the seat. "I've been on the road over twenty-four hours and you're only the third guy who's stopped for me." He dug around in his pack and a faded denim jacket appeared. He wedged his backpack behind my seat, wriggled into the jacket and clipped his seatbelt on as I started up.
"Where're you coming from?" I asked as I threaded my way between two 18-wheelers onto the center lane of the highway and accelerated up to cruise speed.
"Geez and it took you this long to get here? Whereabouts in Tennessee? Beyer?" I asked, having recognized the crest of the small but well-known college in the north of that state on his sweatshirt.
"Yeah." I moved over to the left lanes to avoid the chaos of the I-475 junction. "A friend gave me a ride to Knoxville. A trucker picked me up after a long while there and took me down to Atlanta yesterday afternoon and I got another ride here this morning. So many people passed me – just one guy in a car sometimes. Shit, you asked me if I had a gun: if I had, I'd probably have shot at a couple of them!" He gave a rueful smile as I looked at him.
"It's a tough decision for a driver," I explained. "You hear so many stories of hijacks and all that. It's a pretty big gamble for a hitcher, too," I added.
He shrugged. "Yeah. I didn't think it'd be so hard. >From what I'd read, it was pretty easy to get a ride with a trucker."
I kept my own counsel on this. Maybe I read the wrong stories. I guess the vast majority of truckers are good, honest, God-fearing folk, but when I'd come across truckers and good looking young guys in stories, the journey tended to be a great deal more fun than the destination. Perhaps I should visit a wider spectrum of stories on the web.
We engaged in small talk about the traffic and the weather as we came toward the outskirts of Macon. I had skipped Atlanta in a hurry in order to avoid the evening rush and had planned to grab some dinner around this area, so when the blue information sign loomed in my headlights, I pointed at it and said, "I need to get something to eat here."
"Sure. No problem. I'll wait in the Jeep."
"You're not hungry?" Was there ever, since Cain and Abel, an adolescent guy who couldn't eat more than his weight in food three times a day?
"Naah. I already ate."
"You've been at that rest stop for four hours. What did you eat? Thirty Snickers bars? Look, if it's the bucks you're worried about, I'm buying." I'd been in college once myself: it was always the bucks.
"You don't have to " He replied, his empty stomach, winning the battle with his good manners, depriving the voice of any tone of conviction.
"It's an Applebees. I think I can afford it."
"Thanks. I'm hungry," was all he said. It hurts to beg.
I took the exit and the next couple of minutes passed in silence as I navigated the knots of traffic on the side roads. I chose a parking spot where I could see the Jeep from inside the restaurant and shut down the motor. "I'd take your pack in if you have a computer in it," I advised as I slung my PC backpack over my shoulder. He turned back, lifted his bag out, similarly hung it over one shoulder and followed me into the restaurant. Selecting a table from where we could watch the Wrangler, I stashed my backpack out of harm's way underneath and hung my jacket over the back of the seat. "I need to wash up some," my companion stated and, placing his pack by one of the chairs, headed for the restrooms. I stretched my neck and back, tight after the drive and was about to pick up the menu when the waitress arrived with two glasses of water and the cutlery. I acceded to her recommendation and ordered some onion peels with horseradish sauce to get us started and was just beginning to scan the menu when my passenger returned, his hair neatly pulled back into a ponytail and his sweatshirt tucked into his jeans. "That feels better," he said with a smile. He looked around and remarked, "This is great."
"Good. By the way, my name is Chris," I said holding out my hand.
"I'm Sean. Thanks for the ride – and this, Chris."
"No sweat. Don't mention it," I replied and informed him of my choice for a starter. That apparently met with his approval for he picked up the menu and began to study it as though it offered the secret to eternal youth. As he weighed his choices I took the opportunity to study what I'd landed myself with. He had longish hair and, under eyebrows that were the same light brown color, two blue eyes that were flicking back and forth looking at the descriptions of food he craved. The nose, neither narrow nor broad, led down to the bow-shaped upper lip that framed a row of even white teeth. The firm chin jutted out above a prominent Adam's apple as the long neck disappeared behind the band of the red-faded-to-pink sweatshirt.
"What are you having?" he asked, smiling as he caught me looking at him.
"Probably the fajitas," I said hurriedly. "I don't want to be so full that I get sleepy on the drive. But if you're hungry, why not try the Bourbon Street steak?"
He hesitated. "Hey, go for it," I said. If this was all it took to help a fellow human being, I could do it.
If Sean had eaten at all that day I would have been surprised. By the time I had sampled a quarter of the onion slices, he had wolfed the remaining seventy-five percent; I was still enjoying my fajitas by the time he had cleared all his food as well as the first layer of glazing off his plate; and the apple pie I suggested he try, disappeared into his mouth in mere seconds after it was placed in front of him.
"Can't I put something down, just for the tip?" he asked pulling his wallet out of his back pocket as I took my card out of mine. The briefest of glances told me that there wasn't too much in that wallet. Certainly no plastic.
"Tell you what. One day when you've got a good job, give a helping hand to some student who needs something. That's what you can do."
His lips clamped shut and he just nodded at me. "Thanks, Chris," he spoke after a few seconds. I briefly noted this, but the food had dulled my wits and I let it go without analysis.
The next couple of hours went by with us engaged in small talk. I learned that he was studying for a BA degree, majoring in Film studies, which sounded like a boondoggle to me, and creative writing, which sounded really neat. I told him bits and pieces about my job, in which he saw more of the drama of mid-air near-misses than the intrinsic beauty of the ultra-cool technology. We touched on politics and were in violent agreement on the ineptitude and mean-spirited nature of the current administration. And I learned he was headed to visit some kin-folk who lived in the Miami area. A day later I would curse by obtuseness in not asking why he was taking a trip in what, in most colleges, was the middle of the spring term, or why he spoke about driving but didn't have a car, or even why he had chosen to engage in such a hit-or-miss travel arrangement as hitch-hiking. But by then, of course, I would know him better.
On that night, however, his long journey coupled with a big meal took its toll and long before I negotiated the intersection from I-16 to I-95, his head had lolled back onto the headrest and he was asleep. I left him like that until we were about ten minutes north of my turnoff and then shook his shoulder. He woke with a start and looked around him in some bewilderment at first until his recollections kicked in. "Where are we?" he asked.
"On I-95. Coming up to where I turn off to go to Kirkhall Island."
"Oh. OK. Is there a rest area here?"
"Well, that's what I was going to ask you. There isn't a rest area on I-95 until the next county – down by Brunswick. Up here I'd have to drop you off at a gas station at the exit. If you try hitching on the highway the State Troopers will take you in. Or you could come to my place, catch some Z's in a bed, clean up some and tomorrow I'll run you down to the Glynn County rest area."
He hesitated then answered, looking straight ahead, "Yeah, I could do that. That's OK."
"Cool. I don't think you'll stand too good a chance of getting a ride tonight anyway." We drove the rest of the way in more-or-less silence.
"Nice place!" was the awed comment as I turned into my driveway. "Geez, is that your bike?"
"Yeah. You like bikes?"
"Never been on one. That looks real fast."
"It is. I could've shaved close on an hour off my trip down tonight if I'd been on the Ninja." I slung my pack onto my shoulders, picked up my rollerboard and, with the binders under my arm, headed up the stairs to the front door with Sean following.
"You have a great place," again, the tone of wonderment as he looked around him.
"Come upstairs. I'll show you your room and where the bathroom is." I hadn't meant it to come out like that, but now inside and away from the forced draught of the Jeep, it was becoming somewhat obvious the guy needed a shower.
With him squared away and my PC back on the desk and connected, I picked up the phone and called Mike's cell. Usually on my return from an Atlanta trip I would have spent the night at his place in Savannah, but he was up in New York at some kind of lawyer-meeting that would last through the week-end.
"Hey, Bud! What you doing?" We exchanged greetings, I told him about my meeting, heard about his and about the Broadway show he'd seen in the evening.
"Is there a washer I could use?" Sean appeared in the doorway, towel wrapped around his waist and with his jeans, shirt and other stuff in his hand.
"Yeah. Downstairs. The door to the right of the kitchen." I said, covering the mouthpiece with my hand.
"Thanks," he said and I heard his bare feet trot down the stairs.
"Who's that?" asked Mike.
"I picked up a hitch-hiker on the way down. College guy headed to Florida. I'm giving him a place to crash for the night."
"Are you fucking out of your mind? You have no idea who this guy could be. You could get yourself robbed – or even killed!"
"He seems OK. Just a young guy wanting to go to Florida."
"It's school time, Chris. Finals will be coming up soon. Why is he off to Florida?" I could sense the frustration in Mike's voice.
"I dunno. I didn't ask him. He'd been on the road for over a day and it seemed like he needed a break," I responded starting to get defensive.
"You forgot to mention young and cute and, no doubt, well endowed." There was a tinge of disappointment now.
"No, Mike. It's not that at all."
"So, how often do you pick up hitchhikers?"
"Well er I don't usually, but he seemed to really dejected and sorely in need of a ride."
"And you decided to be big brother."
"No, Mike. Tomorrow I'm taking him down to the rest stop on I-95."
"He's going to sleep in the spare room."
"Right! Whatever. Have a good night, Chris. Hope you're still alive in the morning." The connection was terminated.
Fuck! For the second time that night I cursed myself. What was Mike thinking: as soon as he left town I was out playing the field? Angrily I pushed the phone back onto its charger and glanced at my Outlook screen without seeing the messages. Damn! Why was Mike always right? Would I have picked the guy up if he'd been a forty-something man instead of a slim guy twenty years younger? Probably not.
I got up from my chair and walked across the landing to my room pulling my T-shirt over my head as I crossed the threshold. "Holy shit!" I yelled in fright. Lying spreadeagled on his back on my bed was Sean. Not a stitch of cloth covered his body. "What the fuck are you doing?"
He jumped off the bed and stood there looking at me in some bewilderment. "I thought that this is what you wanted I mean, like, you picked me up, you bought me dinner, then you brought me here. I know you're Gay I saw the HRC decal on your Jeep. I thought maybe we could be, like like friends, you know. That I could stay here for. "
I moved away from the door giving him a clear path. "Sean, whatever you thought, you thought wrong. I'm not Brian, you're not Justin and this isn't Queer as Folk. I brought you here because you looked dead beat and needed a clean-up. Tomorrow morning you will be in the rest area on I-95 headed to your family in Florida. You can sleep here, there's beer, wine and food in the kitchen, help yourself to whatever you want. There's an internet connection in your room if you want to fire up your PC. It's been a long day, so I'm going to sleep now – by myself."
He edged past me then stopped in the door, trying to cover his manhood with his hands. "Shit, I'm sorry, Chris. I just thought "
"Don't sweat it, Sean," I cut in. "Just go get some sleep and we can talk in the morning." He turned and walked to his room and I heard the door close, but my eyes stayed fixed on the doorway where the cute ass had disappeared.
I finished undressing, completed the normal toiletries and lay down on my bed in the darkness. Shit, I sure knew how to pick them! What kind of guy thinks of sex as a payment for common human kindness? I turned over and caught the scent of the shampoo that had come from his hair when he lay there. Then the reality washed over me: I wasn't angry at Sean. I was angry at myself because, whatever words had come out of my mouth, I remembered my hands being only microseconds away from shucking my own jeans and grabbing that pale, firm body.
It took a long time for me to fall asleep and when I did, it was a restless languor that found me dull-witted when the sun, streaming in through the windows, finally woke me. I pulled on a pair of cut-offs and a sweatshirt and headed downstairs for the caffeine fix my body craved. Sean was already up, dragging his clothes out of the dryer. The coffee machine gave a little burp and I noticed that the guy had at least had the sense to make a pot. If he'd wanted to redeem himself for the night before, he couldn't have chosen a better offering.
"Morning, Sean," I croaked through dry vocal chords.
"Morning, Chris. I made coffee." The puppy, licking its owner's face after chewing his favorite book.
"Thanks, man. You're a life saver. You want a cup?" I asked, taking two mugs out of the cupboard when he assented. I pushed his mug towards him and took a long gulp from mine as he dumped his clothes on the table and picked up the hot liquid. Our eyes met as my neurons started to fire.
"Look, Chris, about last night. I "
"Don't mention it. We all do strange things when we're tired." He gave me a shame-faced smile, picked up his laundry with one arm and with coffee mug in the other hand climbed the stairs. As I watched him go I once again recognized the stirrings below my waist and hurriedly started to get things ready for breakfast as a distraction. A quarter of an hour later, the aroma of frying bacon brought my guest back down. Fully clothed in clean jeans and sweatshirt he looked like any other college student in the country. I slid a couple of fried eggs onto a slice of toast, ladled about a quarter pound of bacon next to them and handed the plate to him. "This should keep you going till lunch time," I kidded.
"Thanks, Chris. I won't forget what you've done for me."
"It's nothing. Really. It was kinda lonely driving down by myself anyway."
We ate in silence for a while and then I asked, "So why aren't you studying for finals instead of gallivanting all over the Southeast?"
Sean chewed on the bacon and looked at his plate for a long silence and then said, "I've decided to drop out. The studying thing wasn't what I was cut out for."
I didn't quite know what to say. Well, actually, I did. I wanted to tell him what a stupid ass he was; what a dumb decision he was making. But I wasn't all that much older than he was and I knew, for sure, that coming out with that statement would be the end of any further conversation. Anyway, in an hour or so he wouldn't be my problem any more. "I thought from what you said last night that the film stuff and the writing were exactly what you wanted to do."
"Yeah. Well, I can get some experience in life first, then head out West and get in with some studio. Learning on the job makes a lot more sense."
What kind of hormone mix gets into the minds of guys when they're between eighteen and twenty-five that makes them think they know everything? What makes them actually believe they know anything?
"So what are you going to do in Miami?"
He looked up at me now, mistaking my lack of argument for concurrence. "Actually I was thinking of going to Key West. Get some work on one of those sailing ships." This was so far from my realm of experience that I was speechless. I finished my eggs, wiped my mouth and sat back.
"Sean, look around you. I've got a house that many folk would give a limb for. I have a car that works. I have one of the nicest sports bikes you can get. I have a room full of computers. I get to go out to eat, see shows, have vacations.
"I work my ass off to afford this, but my job – for me, anyway – is so much fun that I can't believe I'm lucky enough to get paid to do it. But I had the choice of that job, and, because of that, the ability to have all this, because I stuck through college and got a degree.
"If you drop out, you are going to have very little choice at what jobs you work at and you are going to work three times harder than I do to get a whole lot less. Yeah, It's your life, buddy, and it's your choice. But if you do what you're planning on doing, my two cents worth is that it's not a very good decision."
"I'll be fine, Chris. The movies are different to your tech world."
I shrugged. "OK, guy. You know where I stand. It's your life, as I said." I got up and cleared my plate and cutlery into the dishwasher. "I'm going to do my morning beach jog then I'll be back and take you down to I-95."
"Thanks, Chris. I'll be OK. One day I'll come by and buy you a great dinner to show you."
I smiled at him. He was probably young enough to make a mistake and rectify it – if he had the smarts. If he didn't, it would be Darwin at work.
The beach was practically deserted and I pondered Sean and his life as I ran along the firm sand where the water lapped while the gulls flew up ahead of me to circle half-heartedly over the waves and land in my wake. The wind had been at my back on the outward run and, lost in thought, I went further than I had planned. It was against me coming back and it took me longer to cover the distance. Tired at the end of the run, I rested on the wooden walkway that protected the dunes until my breathing slowed down from the gasping pants, and then made my way inside.
"I'm back!" I called as I entered. There was no reply. "Sean?" I called walking through to the living room. Nothing. I went upstairs: his room was empty, the backpack gone, the sheets on his bed folded neatly at the bottom for me to launder. I dashed to my office. My computers were all there and I breathed a momentary sigh of relief as I walked to my bedroom. On my bed, in the same place where had lain the naked temptation of the night before, now was a laptop with a Post-It note stuck to the cover. Bewildered, I peeled it off.
`Chris I'm sorry. The PC should cover everything. It's worth about $800 on e-Bay. I'll always remember you.' I was stunned. What had the little fucker done now? Why had he dumped his computer on me? Perplexed, I stripped and walked to the shower. It was only when the hot water hit me that my mind clicked into gear and I ran back to my room, water streaming off my body onto the carpet. My wallet was still on the bedside table and I picked it up. The cash was gone. Shit! At least the credit cards were there. But, once bitten, I was now in a paranoid state of mind. I shut the water off and wrapped a towel around my waist to catch what water still clung to my body. Flipping the MasterCard over, I picked the phone up and called their customer service number.
"I think my card number may have been stolen," I told the woman who answered almost immediately, can you tell me what the last three or four charges have been?"
"Sure. Let me see. There was a $287 charge to a hotel in Atlanta yesterday."
"That's OK. That's mine."
"Then a $22 charge at a gas station, also in Atlanta."
"That's OK. That's mine, too."
"There was a $35 charge for a restaurant in Macon."
"Right. That was me, too."
"And then, today, there was a $239 charge to Delta Airlines."
"That wasn't me. What was it for?"
"An air ticket. Are you saying that you did not make that purchase?"
"No, ma'am. That one wasn't me."
"Would you like me to cancel that transaction then?"
"Yes. Please." I thought for a second or two then asked, "Where was the ticket for?"
"I don't know. You'd have to ask Delta Airlines that." So I sat on the bed, answering her questions as she cancelled my card number and promised to FedEx a new one out to me that day. I hung up and called Delta. It took me forever to get through to a mark-one human being, and when I did it was only to be told that they were unable to give out passenger information.
Frustrated and angry, I sat down at my PC and pulled up the Delta web page. If he was planning on flying he had two choices: Brunswick and Savannah. Brunswick was closer, Savannah had more flights. I selected a Brunswick-Atlanta-Miami route. It would leave at 11:45 and the fare, with taxes, would come to $239. From Savannah, the fares varied between $230 and $205 and he could fly out until about 5pm. OK, so I was reasonably sure where my cash would be in about 90 minutes.
I jumped back under the shower and performed my crisis-mode crotch-and-armpit wash, pulled on jeans, boots and leather jacket without wasting time on underwear or T-shirt, and in ten minutes was astride my Ninja headed off Kirkhall Island. There was no Delta flight out of Brunswick after 11:45 today, I mused, so my bet was that he'd called a cab to get to the airport – to be paid with my cash.
I was riled. Galled at being taken advantage of; even more resentful because, as always, Mike had been proved right.
I tore down highway 17 overtaking every moving vehicle without regard, briefly glancing into each as I passed, until I reached the Golden Isles Parkway. Dragging a knee, I hung a right and then burned up the couple of miles to the Glynco Parkway that led into the airport. As the Ninja growled up toward the terminal I saw a cab pull up about fifty meters ahead of me. I snapped my sidestand down, pulled the key from the ignition and, leaving the bike standing, I ran toward the guy in blue jeans and red sweatshirt who was beginning to pay the driver.
"I hope you gave him a good tip, Sean. After all, why worry? It isn't your money."
"Chris!" His face blanched as he turned and saw me. His head swiveled and I saw his knees bend for take off as he looked for a route to bolt, but I grabbed his shirt before he could move.
"I canceled your ticket, you son of a bitch. You're not flying anywhere today."
"Chris. I left you my PC to cover what I took. I gave you much more than I took – I owe you nothing." He paused and turned on the puppy eyes. "Chris, I have to get down to Florida and get a job."
"What? Cute boy with leather collar and leash on one of those sail boats doing Gay Cruises to the Caribbean? What kind of job? Vacation blow job giver? Ship's bitch?" The flush that rushed to his face told me I'd struck home. The cab driver had heard enough by now, and, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, jumped back into the car without waiting for the tip and took off in a hurry leaving us standing there in a cloud of exhaust fumes.
"It'll work out. I'll meet a real nice guy who'll get me into the film business."
"Geez-us! Get real, for fuck sake. There's more to life than what you read on Nifty. You're going to end up like a hundred other gay guys who've headed down there: in the gutter, too dirty to get laid, all you can do is get on your knees in shit-house stalls so you can buy booze or drugs. That'll last a month: you'd better pray you're in jail by then, otherwise you'll die."
He was silent.
"Give me my cash." Sullenly he pulled a wad of notes from his pocket and handed it to me. I spread the warm notes out and counted them. I had no idea how much had been in my wallet, but I guessed there was somewhere between $20 and $30 missing. He pulled his pack onto his back and took a step toward the main road. "Where do you think you're going?" I grabbed the neck of his sweatshirt.
"Florida. You can't fucking stop me. You've got your cash and you've got my PC."
"Listen, shit-head, you don't understand. When you used my MasterCard to buy your ticket, that was theft. All I have to do is open my mouth and get any cop here to haul you into jail. As of now, your ass belongs to me, buddy."
That stopped him dead. Again the big, puppy eyes. "Chris, please don't call the cops. I don't want to go to jail." I could see the water welling up on the lower eyelids as he struggled in my grip.
I let go of him and sighed. "You are a fucking pain in the ass, you know that? My boyfriend is fighting with me because you're in my house; I'm missing work because you skipped out with my cash; I've had to cancel my credit card because you stole my number and fuck knows what a hassle that's going to be with all my e-payments and subscriptions. And now I've got you on my hands and, sure as shit, I don't know what to do with you." He fought hard to control it, but the tear rolled out of the eye down his cheek. He brushed it away angrily with his sleeve and looked at me with a vestige of defiance.
"So what now?" his voice unsteady.
I noticed a cop starting to walk toward my bike. "I don't know. First, you're coming back to my place and taking your computer back. I don't need it. Then you are so going to level with me about what's going on here. I don't want to hear one more word of your bullshit." He turned his head, scanning for an out. There wasn't one. "Get your stuff on your back," I said, "I've got the bike here. Let's go."
The ride home was more sedate than the one down and I more-or-less kept within the speed limit as I sought an answer to my predicament: now that I had him, what was I going to do with him. Then, half way through the journey, the more primeval parts of my brain overcame the thinking part and made me aware of the denim-clad legs pressed next to mine, the feel of the body leaning against the back of my jacket. Amassing all my willpower I kicked the thoughts to the back of my mind, but they remained there, slyly waiting for any of the thought processes that I replaced them with to go idle so they could gain access to my synapses again.
I made it home without getting too distracted and steadied the Ninja as my passenger dismounted. "That's a cool bike," Sean commented as I cut the engine and swung my leg over the saddle hoping the front of my jeans wasn't betraying my thoughts. He unbuckled the helmet and slid it off his head. "Is this your boyfriend's helmet?"
"He uses a different aftershave than you do."
I nodded dumbly. I wondered how long it'd be before I smelled that aftershave again. We climbed the stairs and went inside. "You know where everything is. I'll be right down." I went up to my room, hung my jacket up and pulled my boots off. I called Mike's cell phone but it went directly to voice mail so I guessed he was in a meeting. "It's me. Just wanted to say Hi."
I swapped my jeans for the cut-offs, grabbed a T-shirt and headed downstairs again. Sean was standing at the windows staring out at the sea. "I guess the sun is over the yard-arm, so we can justify having a beer." I remarked trying to ease the tension.
I pulled a couple of bottles of Asahi out the fridge and pushed one toward the boy. Grubbing around I found a block of Munster cheese and some pumpernickel bread and I put those out on a board with a couple of knives and walked through to the living room balancing them and my beer on my hands.
After we had sat down I took a swig from the bottle and settled back. Pointing my finger at him like a pistol barrel I spoke. "OK. From the top now. No lies, no frills, no shit. What's going on here?"
He took a long drink. "OK. Well you know I'm gay, right?"
"It took some time, but I finally figured it out."
"Well, not many people know. I keep low key. Anyway, I have this friend in Knoxville – that's where my home is – and, well, he's kinda like my boyfriend. He goes to UT, I go to Beyer. We see each other most weekends. So, last Christmas time, we were making out in front of the fire in our living room. It was late; we thought everyone was long gone to bed. Anyway, my dad caught us and went fucking crazy. He sent Philip home, and just yelled and yelled at me for, like, hours. Major drama. He took my car away, took my cell-phone away, and stopped paying for pretty much everything. I'm allowed to live at home until I finish college, but that's all. I have a scholarship to Beyer which covers my tuition, board and most of my books. I've managed to get a job as a waiter in Maynardville and that gives me some cash. Not much, after books, but I can get by.
"I was keeping my grades up and school was going OK. Home life sucked, of course, but that happens." He took a slice of bread, cut off a hunk of cheese and chewed on that for a while. I made no comment: it was his story. "There's this guy at school, Nat. Nathaniel Charles Burwood III. His father owns one of the big mills in North Tennessee and he's on the board of the college. The family's got money – big money. Nat's a good looking guy – but straight," he added as an aside for my benefit and smiled for the first time since we'd returned. "He's good at sport — he's on the school's crew team. Good body. Popular at school, can screw any girl he wants, got lots of friends, but more, I think, because of his spending habits than because he's a nice guy. I dunno: I may be biased.
"Anyway, this Nat guy is in my British Literature class. One Sunday night he came up to my room – he actually lives in a different hall – but he came to my room and asked me about a paper that was due on the following day by five in the evening. It was on Gulliver's Travels. I had done my paper and it was all complete, but I hadn't submitted it yet. Nat asked about the work and what research I had done. He said he'd completed his paper but was concerned about the format he'd used. So I showed him mine and he said the format he'd used was a bit different. I pointed out why I had done my paper the way I had, and he agreed it made more sense than his way. So he asked if he could take a copy of mine to follow the style. Chadbrooke, our professor, is very particular about the format one uses in these papers and you can loose as much as 25 percent if you don't use his particular layout for papers. I didn't see much harm in him using the format I'd used, so I said that'd be OK – you see, he'd told me he was complete with the research and writing so it didn't seem a real big deal. I told him I'd email it to him, but he said that it'd be easier for him if I put it on a diskette. He had one with him, so I just copied my paper to that and he took it and left my room. I didn't think any more about it."
He took another drink from the bottle and looked at me. I met his gaze. "About a week, maybe more, later the results were posted. Nat and I had both been awarded an F." He looked down at his hands and continued. "When I went to see Chadbrooke, he said that Nat's and my paper bore `striking similarities' and that he had had no alternative but to fail us and report the matter to the Student Judiciary Committee for their decision." He paused and then went on speaking more quickly. "I went to see Nat to ask him to tell Chadbrooke what had happened. You see, if I got the F, I could lose my scholarship. Nat was with one of his friends and, almost before I could speak, he turned on me and started ranting at me that I had copied his paper. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. He was saying the exact opposite of what had happened: he turned everything right around. He said that I had asked him for help, that he had given me his paper. That I had copied from his work.
"When I tried to remind him about his coming to me, he called me a lying fag."
Once again he looked at me, gauging my reaction. Once again I held his stare without comment.
"I went back to Chadbrooke; I showed him my previous work, pointed out similarities of word choice, how I used phrases and punctuation. He wouldn't do anything, deferring everything to the Judiciary Committee.
"I still thought I stood a fighting chance with the Committee. That was until last Wednesday when I found out that I was the only one who was going to be appearing at the Committee hearing. Chadbrooke had accepted Nat's version of what had happened. He'd been given a C+ for the paper – my paper – and I had an F and was being accused of cheating." He carefully cut a slice of bread in half, sliced off a piece of the Munster and positioned it precisely on the pumpernickel. Without smiling he looked up at me. "I'm not dumb: I saw exactly which way the wind was blowing." He rubbed thumb and forefinger together meaningfully. "Nat's daddy had had a little chat with Chadbrooke or the Dean or someone. That's when I decided to drop out. I wasn't going to win this one." He lifted the bread and cheese to his mouth.
I drained my beer. At least now I understood where he was coming from. I might have, no, I would definitely have, acted differently, but I could empathize with his feelings.
"And that's the whole story? No minor details missing?"
"Chris, that's the truth, I swear. I know you don't think much of me. I know that you think I'm a real shit, and I don't blame you, but I didn't cheat on that paper. I busted my ass writing it."
"So why are you running, then."
He gave a humorless laugh. "They've decided already. There's no way Nathaniel Charles Burwood III is going down – the college couldn't afford it and his father wouldn't let it happen."
"What's your boyfriend think about this?"
"He doesn't know. He thinks I've gone home through the weekend to study. If I told him, he'd want me to fight it, so I didn't tell him. He always says I don't have to take this shit."
"Sounds like my kind of guy."
"Easy for you to say. But then neither you nor he have to go to your parents and tell them you've been kicked out of college for cheating. You have no idea what a big disgrace that'd be in our family. At least this way my parents just think I'm a loser – and they pretty much think that already because I'm gay – but at least they won't think I'm a cheat.
"Chris, for them it is having to tell all my aunts and uncles that I've been expelled for cheating. And if that doesn't seal their fate, they'll worry that the family'll find out I'm gay, too."
"Fuck, Sean." I exclaimed putting down my bottle. "All I hear from you is about other people. This Nathaniel, who sounds like a major prick, by the way; your parents; this professor; your narrow-minded family. And, quite frankly, none of these people seems like being worth one second of consideration.
"What about you? You tell me you didn't do it. If that's the truth, then you have a moral obligation to fight it. Maybe you are going to get your ass well and truly kicked, but, by God, you'll go down fighting and you'll go down with honor."
"Who cares?" he remarked with disdain and took a swig of beer.
"I fucking care. Seems like this boyfriend of yours would care if you gave him half a chance. But all that's totally irrelevant. You have to care. It defines who you are. Who you believe you are. Who you see when you look in the mirror. That's why. You start running now and you'll always run. It's your whole goddam self respect.
"And there's another thing, even if you don't give a rat's ass about yourself, from your parents' point of view, to this Nathanial punk, to some other folk at your school, you are the only gay guy they personally know. To them you represent the whole Gay Community. If you run, you let every fucking one of us down and every fucking one of us has to fight just a little bit harder to get our rights."
"It's not fair, it's not right, but that's the way it is."
Sean drained his beer and looked out the French doors at the sea. The beach was deserted; two pelicans skimmed the surface of the rolling ocean hoping to cross paths with an unwary fish. I knew I was pushing the boy pretty hard, but he had to hear it from someone sometime. After almost a full minute of silence he turned to me and shrugged his shoulders, "It's too late. The Judiciary hearing is on Monday. It took me two days to get this far – and that was with your help – tomorrow's Saturday: I'll never get back in time."
I felt relieved. At least he hadn't outright refused. Now I had a problem I could solve.
"OK," I spoke after mulling over the options, "This is what we'll do. You keep out of my hair for the rest of today and tomorrow so I can get some work done. I've got a telephone; I've got Ethernet connections everywhere. You get in touch with whoever it is on that Judiciary thing and find out what's going to happen on Monday. Find out what they have to have to find you guilty. Find out what kind of punishment they can dish out. Ask if there's any option to plea bargain – DON'T take it, just ask.
"Then on Sunday I'll drive you back up to Tennessee."
"No, Chris. You can't do that. It's way too far. I've fucked with you enough already. Take me to Savannah and I'll hitch back."
I stood up and began to clear the table. "You ever see one of those big steel bridges?" He nodded. "Know how they work? None of that iron can hold the load by itself: the bridge takes the strain by distributing the load amongst a whole lot of beams and trusses. So, you need to learn to dump some of your stresses on other folk. Worry about getting your ass out of the swamp and let me worry about when and where I'm driving."
He walked over to me and put his arms around me and held me for about a quarter minute. Letting go he brushed his eyes on his arm again and gave me a wan smile. "I guess I'm going to have to ask for my PC back."
The remainder of the day I spent in my office writing airplane control code and running simulations. Once or twice I heard his voice on the phone, but I couldn't hear what he was saying. Around six thirty I surfaced and taught him how to make a puttanesca sauce to put over the linguine. Another five minutes and I had convinced him that one wouldn't die from eating anchovies. "So, what have you found out this afternoon?" I asked as he polished off his third platter of the food of the ladies of the night.
His demeanor, which had been fairly lively throughout the meal, dropped. "I've got a student advisor to work with me on the case. She tells me I can either admit I cheated, which will get me an F on the test and an entry on my student record. Or I can fight it and, if they come to the conclusion that I cheated, I fail the course, get an entry on my record, and get put on disciplinary probation. Plus I get all the bad publicity in the college press – and maybe the local paper, too, if it's a slow news day."
My stomach muscles clenched: it seemed like I was sending him onto a sacrificial altar.
"Chris, I honestly don't know if I can go through with this. Can you imagine what it'll be like if I have to pack up my dorm room and move out with everyone thinking I've cheated?"
"Why would you have to move out?"
"If I get something like that on my student record, my scholarship gets cancelled."
I pondered this for a while. "Sean, look at me. Right in the eyes." When I had his attention I asked, "Did you cheat, plagiarize, or even copy down ideas you heard from some old guy on NPR for that paper?"
"Chris, I did nothing wrong. I swear it. I researched that paper real well. It was a fairly interesting subject. I could have done even more, but we had a length maximum. Everything I researched was cited or listed in the bibliography. The only thing I did wrong was to give another student a copy of it – but he had said it was only to see the format."
"OK. If that's the case you have no choice. You fight. You may lose. But you NEVER have to hang your head in front of anyone. Many a person has been falsely convicted, but by fighting it at every step, there'll always be the notion that a mistake could have happened. If you run, you'll be no better off and everyone will be convinced you ran because you actually did cheat."
We continued to chat about the case until, by the time we had finished clearing up, it was coming on nine and I left him watching TV while I went upstairs to call Mike.
"So, did you get your boy-toy back on the road?"
"He's not my boy-toy, and no, he's not on the road: he's back here."
"What do you mean `back' there?" `Hey, buddy, I'm not some suspect under cross examination!' I thought, but bit my tongue before uttering the words.
"Well, he used my credit card to book himself a flight and then scarpered, but I nailed him before he got too far and dragged him back here to straighten him out."
"Are you out of your friggin' mind?" asked Mike, his tone dripping with disapprobation. You should have called the cops and had his ass thrown in jail."
"Look, Mike, the kid's in trouble," I responded and went on to tell him the whole sorry story in some detail.
"The guy sounds like a real loser to me," was all that I got for my pains, "He probably needs a stint of hardship to get his priorities right."
"I can't believe I'm hearing this from you of all people," I rejoined. "Aren't you the famous champion of the wronged? So why are you acting so shitty because I do something to help someone?"
"Because I think you're being blind-sided by this kid. None of my clients has ever tried to rob me – otherwise they'd very soon find themselves an ex-client. You have this dumb, engineer, computer-geek attitude that there's a fix out there for everything. Well, in the real world there isn't. Some folk just don't have a sense of values or priorities.
"He's being shafted. He started to run because he thought he couldn't win."
"And you've convinced him that he can. Why, Chris? Look, these college judiciary committees aren't made up of clueless people. If they're taking up the case, they think there's some substance to it."
"Maybe so. I don't know. I don't know if he even has a snowball's chance of winning. But I've convinced him to fight. So he can at least live with himself after all this dies down."
"And if he goes back like you're tell him to, and then the committee finds against him, what then?"
"He's going to be no worse off than he is now."
"No, I meant what are you going to do? Wave goodbye and say `so-long, kid!' Or bring him back to live with you?"
"No. No, of course not. I dunno what I'll do then."
"Well you'd better think about that, because the guy is taking you for one big ride, buddy."
"No he's not. He's just young, Mike."
"And no doubt he's cute!"
"Fuck you," I snapped and clicked the `end' button on my phone. I sat staring at the Google page on my PC screen. I felt like shit. I remained there for a few minutes licking my wounds and then went downstairs.
"Want a glass of wine?" I asked Sean.
He looked up. I probably hadn't cleaned my voice up too well after the phone call and my frustration came through. "Sure. Thanks."
I poured two glasses of Chianti and sat down to watch the end of Top Gun.
Sean raised his glass in response and took a sip. "What's up?"
"He unhappy because I'm here?"
"He'll get over it."
"I'm sorry, Chris. I know I'm screwing your life around."
"You haven't done anything too bad," I gave him a rueful smile. "I'm thirty-one: I don't need a nursemaid – or a boyfriend – to tell me what I can and can't do."
"I'm such a jerk!"
"Everyone screws up sometime. It's not the fact that the airplane stalls, it's how it recovers that's important." Sean merely shook his head and smiled at me.
The following morning after breakfast I took Sean into Inverness when I went shopping for food and then left him on my deck to work on his tan while I worked on my aircraft control programs. In mid-afternoon my phone rang and Mike's name appeared in the caller-ID window.
"Just checking that you're alive," he said without humor.
"A bit late for that, isn't it?" I replied in like vein. "Wouldn't it have been more likely for me to have come to some violent end during the night?" And from there the conversation went downhill as we traded barbs. The breaking point came when I told Mike I was headed up to Tennessee the following day.
"You are so easily led off track by a firm butt in a pair of tight jeans. Have you got the guy to forget his girlfriend yet and try the joys of a man-sex lifestyle on a Georgia Island?"
"I didn't need to: he's gay already. And you can make of that what you will!" Once again I ended the call.
That was another night when I didn't sleep well. Mike's attitude was killing me. Shit, I wasn't questioning him about what he was doing in New York, who he was having dinner with. God, we weren't even a couple and he was acting like we were.
The real problem, though, I rationalized to avoid admitting it, was the possibility he was right. Was I cutting Sean a whole lot of slack because he was a cute young guy – and gay at that? If he were some middle-aged breeder would I even have given him the time of day? And how long was it going to be before my defenses were breached and I took that one step over the line with the boy?
I found myself pondering this again as I swung the Jeep onto I-16 again with its hood pointed toward Atlanta. But running over how right I was and how wrong Mike had been was depressing, and I dragged my mind back to think about Sean's issue. A vigorous search of the Web the previous afternoon for information about cheating and its detection had netted me little. What I had been searching for were some ideas for a program to count word patterns or distributions, but, while they were referred to, I couldn't find any details of what they looked for, or what the results should look like and, more disastrously, I found no. What was clear, however, was that cheating was becoming an epidemic that was threatening the very roots of education. That explained why Beyer was being so hard on the case at hand. Yet it just seemed to me that the decision of guilt had somehow already been made. And that was definitely not fair.
With brief stops for gas, food and bathrooms we made fairly good time and it was just after three in the afternoon when we pulled off I-75 into the vicinity of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. On the drive up, when I wasn't wondering where my relationship with Mike was going, I had come up had some ideas for a program to calculate word counts and dispersions and I wanted to settle down and try the theory out. To take a break I had let Sean drive between Atlanta and Chattanooga and, once I had got over the misapprehension of how he changed gears, had managed to get some of the code typed in. When I took over the driving again he had asked if we could take a rest for about thirty minutes to see Philip and I figured that some moral support for him might be a good thing, so we took the short detour.
One didn't need gaydar to tell that Philip wasn't hetero: the cut-offs had been carefully trimmed from designer jeans, the white tank top with blue trim very likely came from a boutique, several bracelets adorned each wrist, and his looks could have got him on the cover of any gay video, but when he took my hand his grip was firm and his voice was measured and masculine. At his invitation we spent about half an hour in his apartment, a couple of rooms so fastidiously decorated that I sat in one spot and held my Coke in my hand the whole time lest I were to inadvertently disarrange anything. Philip was a senior, well on his way to becoming a chemical engineer, and with an offer of a job with Eastman Chemicals with whom he had completed a summer internship. He was dismayed at the charges that had been leveled at Sean, outraged that Nat had been cleared, angry and bewildered that Sean could have thought of running away without telling him, and grateful that I had returned his friend. We chatted about Sean's upcoming hearing and he concurred that, in order to combat the false story that had apparently been accepted as gospel, we would have to rely on the writing style of the two documents and compare them to previous submissions from the two students. He volunteered to browse through the resources available in the UT libraries for techniques or algorithms and, with a gentle kiss to my cheek and an embarrassingly frank close hug for Sean, he bade us farewell and we headed on to Maynardville.
Sean's dorm room was the antithesis of Philip's: books and papers were scattered apparently randomly about and there was enough atmospheric crud on the window panes to adequately protect him from a nuclear blast. Nonetheless he located the CD that held his paper, and I powered up my PC and copied it onto my hard drive along with three other papers he had written for the same professor so I could test my word-count theories. While I was doing that, Sean went through his emails. "This student advisor I've been given, she wants to meet with me tonight."
"Well at least you'll find out a whole lot more than you know now. I'd try and meet with her as soon as you can, in case there is something we need to do."
Sean gripped my arm. "I'm really scared," he spoke earnestly.
"Yeah. I know. It's going to be a battle. But we are in the right – let's hope we can catch the other guy out with one of his lies."
"You don't have to go to the hotel," he said looking at me with pleading in his eyes, "You could stay here. I can crash on the floor, you could take the bed – I've got some clean sheets somewhere."
Let's see: I could have a freshly made bed, in a room with my own TV and my own bathroom which smelt faintly of soap and which I didn't have to share with anyone. Or I could doss down on a sagging mattress and get up in the morning and wait in line with ten college guys for a shower stall with millimeters of soap-scum on the walls and a mat of pubic hairs on the drain. It was a no-brainer. "OK. If I'm not putting you out too much. It'll be easier to ask you questions if I'm here."
"Oh, thank you, Chris," he hugged me and held me close. "I don't know how I'd get through this without you."
"The same way as you're going to do it now: you're going to meet with this female they've assigned you and you're going to listen to what she has to say and find out exactly how deep the swamp is and roughly what the last count of alligators was."
Sean sighed. "OK. I'll do that."
While he made a couple of phone calls, I cleared some space on his desk and moved my PC over and attached the power supply. "She can meet me after dinner. About 7:30," he informed me after a short conversation.
"Well, we've got to eat, too. Why doesn't she join us? I'll buy," I added as I noticed a look of uncertainty flash across his face.
And thus, about forty minutes later, we were seated at a table in a rather noisy restaurant and I had a chance to study Adrienne. She appeared very self assured and had chatted quite easily with us on the short drive into Maynardville. Like Sean she was a junior, but studying for her BA for pre-law. Once we had ordered, Sean asked her about the hearing. She glanced at me. "You can talk in front of Chris," Sean assured her, "he knows everything about this. He's going to try and use a computer program to prove similarities in my writing style."
She was too polite to say anything, but Adrienne's face betrayed an obvious lack of confidence in this approach.
"What were you thinking of doing?" I queried.
"It's not going to be easy. I was hoping to get Nat to tell his version of the events and then ask him questions about them, scrambling the order to try and catch any inconsistencies. If that doesn't bring up anything, I want to link Sean's fate to Nat's. In other words, since it's Nat's word against Sean's, the two should be punished equally. I'm hoping that Nat's father's influence is going to tilt the balance on his side to leniency and that'd help Sean." She paused. "Actually, if your computer program can show any similarities, it maybe could help us."
We discussed the case and the personalities of those involved while we ate. "The thing we've got to avoid," Adrienne noted, "is any attack on Chadbrooke. If we don't lose the case, Sean will still be in his class and we don't want any kind of retribution."
"Kinda hard not to attack someone who has called you a liar and a cheat without evidence." I remarked.
"Well, that'll obviously be part of my questioning. Why he started off by failing both guys and then reversed Nat's grade and gave him a C."
"Surprise, surprise: Nat's daddy had a little chat with someone."
"Well, that's not something Chadbrooke's going to admit."
"Yeah. Probably not." For the next fifteen minutes or so we discussed various aspects of the college and the players in the upcoming hearing as we finished our meal, then drove back to the dorms. We stopped by Adrienne's and she came down with a CD that contained Nat's copy of the disputed paper as well as four others of his that she had managed to get from Chadbrooke. Tucking it into a pocket of my jacket and promising to meet her at 7:30 for breakfast to plan for the 10am hearing, Sean and I went up to his room.
"I'm going to take a shower," Sean told me, "and then I'll come and work with you."
"Cool. I'll finish off the code and start to see what we get."
While I had the room to myself I decided to give Mike a call. He wasn't too bad – a little cool, but polite. "Mike, I need some advice on how to get a guy to trip over himself in a story," I said, my need overcoming my pride. I outlined what Adrienne had said and he concurred.
"That's the best way. Get the guy to tell you over and over what he did. Of course," he added, "it's more difficult in court – or in the hearing in your case – because the chairman is going to limit the number of times you can ask the same thing." We discussed the case some more and then he asked, "So, what hotel are you in?"
"I decided to stay in the dorm with Sean. It's going to be a working night for us." There was a silence.
"Well, that's very convenient." His tone was cold.
"Mike, it's not like that. Sean has a boyfriend."
"So do you. Or had you forgotten."
"No. Of course not."
"So how come you're all cozy with this guy now? A convenient fuck-buddy to relieve the stress of working late?"
"Mike, for shit sake cut me some slack, will ya? I'm trying to help a guy and it looks like we're going to get our butts kicked tomorrow, so I don't need this crap from you."
"Well, I just can't understand how, as soon as I go out of town, you have another guy move into your house and then two days later you're shacking up with him."
"I'm not shacking up with him. We're going to work on his case tonight."
"Uh-huh. Shoulder to shoulder, I bet."
"Shit, Mike. I can't handle this. I'll talk to you when you're back in Savannah."
"If you don't do a Steve on me."
"Fuck you." I killed the call. My breakup with Steve was a deep wound and I didn't like it being probed.
"That your boyfriend?" I spun around to see Sean standing just inside the doorway with his towel around his waist. Damn! I hadn't heard him come back in.
"Yeah. It'll pass." I turned back to my PC fearing what might happen if I looked at that young guy's hard body too long. Yet Mike already thought I was doing it, so why not? `Get your mind straight, buddy,' I thought and forced myself to concentrate on my code.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to come between you and your boyfriend."
"You haven't." Just by a hairbreadth he hadn't, and the night was just starting. I heard his closet door open and I guessed he was getting some clothing. I kept my eyes on my screen, my fingers on the keyboard.
He sat down next to me at his PC. With sweatshirt and sweatpants he was fully covered. "You really think we're going to get our asses kicked tomorrow."
"Oh, shit! How much did you hear?"
"From that onwards."
I pushed my chair back and looked at him. "Look, Sean, you have got to understand something about me. I don't like not to win. I will fight and fight until I do. To me a compromise is not a win. And that's what I mean when I said to Mike that I was afraid of tomorrow. I think Adrienne's going after a compromise. And you know what, she's probably right. We have the deck stacked against us and she is going to go for a result that will let you graduate. No employer is ever going to ask for you student record – all they'll care about is that you got some letters after your name.
"But I, me personally, want to hang this Nat out to dry. But I'm not going to make things worse for you by going after him. So tomorrow I'll think I got my butt kicked but you'll very likely be satisfied with the outcome. It'll hurt for a while, but in the end you'll be OK."
"You think so? You think I've got a chance?"
"Yup. Adrienne's smart. She'll make a good lawyer. That's why I miss Mike now. He'd keep me on course for what's important. Mike follows his head. That's partly why he's being such a prick now, because he knows I'm following my heart and damn the consequences – for me or anyone else." I didn't add what I really thought: `and especially for him.'
"Do you two always fight like this?"
"No. There have been one or two little spats, but this is the first big one we've had."
"Chris, I promise I'll make it up to you. One day I'll figure out a way."
"It's not you. It's not really Mike. I had a relationship go really sour and a bad break-up. I'm now finding it really hard to open up to someone else; to allow him to see all the real me. I'm shit scared he'll see something there he doesn't like. Even worse, maybe he'll find something that I really value and he'll just laugh at it." How come I could explain to this young guy what I hadn't been able to articulate to my closest friend? "Up to now Mike's been real patient and gentle. Now he's out of town and I'm going around with another guy and he's unhappy. Whatever I tell him about what I'm doing here, doesn't make a difference, because I've never been able to open up with him. So he thinks I'm bailing out on him."
"But you're not like that, Chris."
"I've never let Mike see that. You want the truth? I really don't know whether that's what I'm like or not." I ran my hand through his hair. "Ah, let's not get soppy, we've got work to do."
So we set down to our computers: me writing code, Sean making a list of everything he had researched and making annotations of why he'd written each phrase. Those would be the traps that Adrienne hoped would catch Nat.
At the end of an hour my code was complete, a small Word document had been created for me to test against. Once I'd determined that the numbers it produced were accurate, I tried it on each of Sean's papers.
The results were somewhat underwhelming. Maybe the sample was too small, but the variations seemed fairly large to me. I slumped back in my chair. It was 11:30 and I'd been up since 5:30, driven a whole lot, fought with my buddy.
"Sean, I should have thought of this earlier, but any chance I can get about four or more papers from another student? I need to see how the numbers vary and how they compare with yours."
"I'm sure someone else is awake," Sean said getting up and stretching.
"If possible, someone who is a junior or senior. I want someone as close to your writing ability as possible."
"K. Let me go crawl the halls."
It took about twenty minutes before he returned with a CD in his hands. These are from a girl in my class. It's not the same class, but it's also taught by Chadbrooke: I thought the format might have some effect."
Damn! Why hadn't I thought of that? I must be really tired. "Thanks. You're a good guy, regardless of what Philip says."
He gave me a hard look and then landed a light punch on my arm. "Watch it, Chris!" he laughed.
The numbers that I got from running the girl's papers through my program were also fairly widely dispersed, but one set caught my eye: she tended to use the same words more frequently within a paragraph than Sean did. Also, the word `and' came up with a much higher frequency fairly consistently. It was tenuous at best, but I thought it could sow seeds of doubt in someone's mind. Nat's numbers were a bit more varied and I dicked around with my code some more, trying desperately to find something that was common amongst Nat's writings. But whatever I tested for, I could find traits in Sean's writing, others in the girl's, but Nat's seemed to defy categorization.
My brain was getting fried, I realized, and I needed to take a break, but there was no time for that: by 07:30 I had to have my ducks in a row. Grasping for a straw I clicked on Trillian and noticed that my boss was on line.
`Hey! Can I call you?' I IM'ed.
"What's up?" he asked picking up his phone on the first ring.
"I'm mind-fucked, Rod" I said. "I really think I'm on the right track, but the answer isn't coming up and I need to talk this through." I rapidly gave him a synopsis of my problem, the charges against Sean, the people involved, and my attempts to analyze the data at hand. "Nothing of this Nat guy fits a pattern,"
There was a silence as he digested all I'd told him. "Chris, I think that may be your answer."
"That the two students' data form patterns and this guy's doesn't." He paused while I mulled this over. "Look, this could well not be the first time this guy has copied someone else's work. If that's the case, stuff you've got of his could come from multiple sources. If that's the case it'll never fit a pattern."
"Shit! How could I have missed that?"
He laughed. "You'd have figured it out sooner or later. One works on the same thing for a long time and you get a mind block: it helps to talk things through with someone else to get a fresh angle."
I thanked him, promised him I'd get some sleep which we both knew was a lie, and put the phone down. I leaned back in my chair and explained things to Sean who became elated and acted as though I had a signed confession from Nat.
"Look, Sean, this may not pan out at all. My boss and I are both Geeks – I can explain what I'm doing and he understands. We have the same logical way of thinking. It's going to be real hard to convince a non-techie of the validity of what I'm showing them. Nat's style of writing may just be too different to analyze. All this is simply more than you had before."
Yet Sean remained confident and declared he was going to get some sleep. As he spoke, his sweats were shucked and, stark naked, he got ready for bed while I fought my urges and remained at my keyboard. Ablutions complete, my Siren, pulling out a sleeping bag from the closet, slid into it and turned over. Ten minutes later his breathing was heavy and regular and I could be unbound from the mast.
Looking for more data to bolster my pathetically small sample, I turned to Google, pulled down several Word documents on English literature and began to scan them to see how the rest of the world stacked up against my guy's writing. That proved a dead-end since I could never find two similar documents by the same author. Changing tactics, I searched Google for papers on the same subjects Nat had written on. It was slow, tedious work, then an hour later I got a hit. I had pulled a Word doc off a web site which was an essay on Paradise Lost. There was no direct correlation in the phrases – Nat's words were changed around – but the sentence lengths were close and the word counts almost identical. I was pretty confident that I could show a high probability that he had copied this paper.
I felt cheered and was tempted to wake Sean, but he was sleeping soundly and cute young guys, like sleeping dogs, should be left alone. Too wired now to sleep, I sat back and started to figure out how best to present my data so that a Fine Arts student who believed Math to be a Dark Science could comprehend what I was telling him. Half an hour later, with a mental plan in my head, I pulled up Google one more time. Yes, like in most college towns there was a 24-hour Kinko's. I dialed the number and the cheery clerk who answered confirmed they rented projectors and accepted my reservation for one. Setting my cell-phone to wake me, I undressed and gratefully slipped into Sean's bed and fell almost instantly asleep.
The cell phone did its duty, buzzing me awake at 6:30. I swiveled out of the bed and picking up my toilet gear and winding the towel Sean had set out for me around my butt, I headed for the bathrooms. At that time on a Monday morning the showers were hardly a hive of activity and I completed my shampoo, shave and shower with just one other guy for company.
"Mornin', Chris," Sean said as I re-entered his room. He was sitting by his computer and, as I recalled later, looked a tad embarrassed, but if I noticed it at all I put it down to him having gone to sleep while I worked.
"Hey, Sunshine! I got some good news for you."
"What d'you mean? Your program work out with those numbers?"
"Kinda. But, even better, I have a smoking gun – your buddy has copied an English paper before."
"Shit, Chris. Show me."
I sat down at my computer and went through the PowerPoint presentation I'd prepared.
"Geez, Chris," he said after I had explicated, "That's fantastic." His voice caught and he straightened up and turned away, but not before I'd seen the tear roll down his cheek.
I stood up and held him tight. "It's OK, guy. We have him. Glued, screwed and tattooed."
He pulled away and wiped his eyes. "I must tell Adrienne."
"You're telling no-one. This bastard will wriggle off the hook again if he gets a hint of what we know before we get in front of that Committee. I don't trust him or his father, so you just carry on acting like you're still a tad worried."
"But Adrienne has to know. Shit, this is such great news."
"Oh, yeah. She'll know. But we'll tell her where it's nice and private. Now go get showered so we can meet her for breakfast – and wipe that grin off your face!"
"Man, Chris, I am so happy. You have no idea. Can I tell Philip?"
"Yeah. By email. I don't want anyone overhearing you on the phone."
"You're paranoid," Sean laughed.
"I told you I like to win. I don't give a thing away." I didn't let on that I was scared out of my mind that I couldn't adequately explain the validity of my analysis.
Half an hour later we walked out of the dorm and took the path toward the dining services building where we had told Adrienne we would meet her. We strode up the hill in silence each wrapped in his own thoughts. After a minute Sean took my hand in his and it was in that manner we approached the cafeteria door where I spotted Adrienne waiting.
"Good morning, guys. You look refreshed and ready for your day!"
"Morning, Adrienne," we chorused and Sean looked at me for permission to tell her our news.
"What's going on?" she asked.
"I need to pick up something at Kinko's," I told her. "Is there a Waffle House or some place off campus where we can get breakfast and talk in relative privacy?"
"What about Jose's?" Sean asked Adrienne.
"Yes, that's what I was thinking." She turned to me, "This place makes the most awesome omelets in the world."
"Let's go. I'm hungry!" I said and we turned toward the car park.
I kept Adrienne in suspense until we were seated in a booth and had ordered our breakfast. Then I opened up my PC and walked her through what I'd found.
"My God!" She exclaimed. "This makes a case that Sean was right all along!"
"You doubted me?" the boy queried and Adrienne had the grace to blush.
"No. I didn't. At least I hoped you were right. I tried not to think about it, though: I didn't want to get my emotions involved in the case."
"You sound like my boyfriend " I started, but the stab of pain that the word caused made me stop. I noticed Sean color up and look at his plate and I wondered what was up. Didn't he like me using the term boyfriend? But I had other fish to fry and, again, I didn't pursue the thought.
"You're going to have a tough job getting this across, Chris," she added. "The chairman is probably going to get it, but the folk in the peer group are likely to be fairly artsy."
"I'll try and keep it to one syllable words," I said with a humor I didn't feel.
After breakfast, we swung by Kinko's and I picked up the projector. We drove in silence back through the town which was, just now, coming to life. The rays of the low sun caught the dew that hung on the fine webs strung between the branches of the trees, bright green with their newly-formed leaves. I felt pretty good: I could possibly be home by eight or nine if we got things out of the way in a timely fashion.
"Hey, homo! You made page three!" I was startled out of my reverie by the voice which came from a tall, dark-haired youth standing suddenly in front of us. I scanned the starched white shirt, the pressed Dockers as their wearer pushed a newspaper into Sean's hands. "See you at ten." He turned, then added over his shoulder, "Waste of time, really. I thought you'd run away and saved us all this trouble." Putting his hands in his pockets he walked off leaving the three of us speechless.
Sean hurriedly opened the paper and I craned over his shoulder to read. It was the local town rag and, on page three, as the young man had said, was a short article about the hearing scheduled for today. `The decision of the Committee may be moot,' the article ended, `since the alleged cheater has apparently left town rather than face the disgrace of the inevitable verdict.'
"Have you seen this?" I asked Adrienne.
"Yes. I saw it before breakfast. It's a free country – the press can say what they like."
"There hasn't even been a hearing. What happened to innocent until proved guilty? And that word `inevitable' is a tad slanderous for my liking. It's also prejudicial to an unbiased hearing."
"No it's not. Do you believe everything you read in the newspaper? Anyway, your evidence will clear matters up and they'll be left with egg on their faces."
"Who was the harbinger of this good new?" I asked Sean.
"That was Nat," the boy informed me.
"That guy? That was Nat?" I turned to Adrienne. "That guy is going down."
"Chris, don't take it so personally."
"It is personal. He chose to make it personal." She merely smiled at me. "Look," I explained, "unless a guy makes it pretty clear he's gay, if he utters the word `homo' in my presence he's thrown down a gauntlet. You had better believe this is personal now."
"Yeah, I agree," Sean said levelly. "I've taken that kind of crap for too long. We have to put a stop to it."
"Whatever you say," Adrienne conceded reluctantly with a shrug, "It's your day. Let's go and plan how we'll run this then."
We found a small office that we could use and we spent an hour coming up a strategy. "OK," Adrienne said eventually, "I've got it all planned out. You guys need to use the restroom before we start?"
When the little hand of the clock on the wall was just short of ten and was covered by the big hand, we entered the conference room where the hearing was to take place. The meeting was less formal than I'd anticipated. There was no dock, no jury box. The chairman, who was termed the Judicial Officer (which the student handbook injudiciously abbreviated to JO) was a student. The group of peers that would decide on Sean's case consisted of an associate professor from the arts department, a member of the administration staff, and three students. Taking our seats, Adrienne and I booted our PCs and I attempted to set up the projector unobtrusively. With all its power cords and connecting cables, unobtrusiveness was a somewhat relative term, however, and there was a silent interest from the rest of the people in the room.
Precisely at 10am, the chairman banged his gavel and called the meeting to order. Having ascertained that Sean was in the room, he read the complaint and then the section of the student guide that authorized the Committee to hear and decide on the charge. The two student advisors, Adrienne and a tall, gangly young man whose name was Fleming and who would be the prosecutor, were asked if they were ready to proceed. They each replied in the affirmative and the chairman next turned to me and asked me to introduce myself and my involvement.
"Sir, my name is Chris Lawrence. I have experience in computer programming and mathematical modeling techniques. I work for Avionic Development in Atlanta as a software developer. My academic qualifications and the URL of my website which contains some of my papers are on this sheet." I passed a sheet of paper which I'd printed off earlier up to him and waited for him to peruse it.
"And your involvement in this case is?" He asked after carefully placing my sheet into a manila folder.
"With the nature of the dispute, it was obvious that a mathematical analysis might help determine the similarities and differences between the paper under discussion and others by the two students. Mr. Jameson came down to Macon where I happened to be at that time. We discussed his case and I have done some analysis and investigation on his behalf. Considering the technical nature of the analysis, I thought it would save everyone's time if I were allowed to present it in person."
"Very well, Mr. Lawrence. Thank you – and welcome to Beyer."
"My pleasure, sir."
I sat down. I had not told a lie: if people joined dots that shouldn't be joined it was not my problem.
I looked over at Nat and caught him looking at me. His eyes were thoughtful as though trying to size me up. I held his gaze until he dropped his glance.
Professor Chadbrooke was the first person called by the prosecutor. He stated that, when marking the papers, one of his assistants had pointed out some striking similarities, including identical phrases, in the two papers. He had had no choice but to fail both students until the matter was cleared up. In accordance with the college's policy he had confronted both students, each of whom had accused the other of copying their respective work. At that stage he had informed the Dean of the faculty of issue and had handed over the matter to the Judiciary Committee.
"Professor," Adrienne asked when it was her turn to ask questions, "do both students still have F grades?"
"No. Originally, when I looked at the two papers, the dates and times of the files were very similar. Later on, Mr. Burwood approached me and showed me that that was a result of the papers having been emailed to me. The file on his computer was dated a day or two earlier. When I asked Mr. Jameson to show me his paper on his PC, the date on his was two days later than Mr. Burwood's. With that evidence, I gave Mr. Burwood a C+ grade. I dropped him a letter-grade because he had made his paper available to Mr. Jameson – although under the impression it was merely to be used for seeing the format I require.
"I also notified the Judiciary Committee of my decision."
I scribbled a note and passed it to Adrienne. She read it and asked, "Professor, couldn't the computer date and time have been changed and thus the file date, too?"
"I had thought of that." The slight emphasis on the word `had' indicated his irritation. Did this visiting tech think he was stupid because the professor was not part of a technical faculty? "In fact, I tried it on my own computer, but the time was reset within seconds to the current day and time. So, no, I considered it not possible."
Adrienne looked at me, but I merely shrugged. The date and time were not all that important: what I'd found out was the technical competency of everyone involved. Adrienne sat down and the professor was excused.
The student prosecutor then called on Nat.
"Mr. Burwood, will you tell us, in your own words, how Mr. Jameson came to be in possession of your paper?"
"Yes, sir." The very model of the respectful young man. "I had been working on my paper for about a week. I had it finished. Then on," he paused as though recollecting, "I think it was the Sunday night before the paper was due, Sean er Mr. Jameson asked if he could have a look at it to see how to format the paper. Professor Chadbrooke penalizes us if we submit papers in the wrong format. Mr. Jameson said he had finished his paper, but he wanted to make sure the format was correct. I didn't see how that would be compromising to the Honor Code. I just thought I'd be helping him. It was close to the deadline and it was late. Yeah, I remember, he said he'd spent the weekend with his boyfriend." He looked around with the very slightest trace of a smirk. His eyes met mine again and he smiled at me.
"Mr. Chairman, I move to strike the last statement. Where Mr. Jameson was, is not relevant."
"I agree, Miss Thompson. Sir, please confine your statements to the matter in hand and what is pertinent. If the Committee needs clarification on a point, we'll ask for it."
"Oh, yes. I'm sorry. I was merely giving a timeline. Anyway, Mr. Jameson asked me to put it on a floppy. I did that, walked across to his dorm and gave it to him. He copied the file onto his computer and then he gave the floppy back to me. In fact, I have the floppy here." He produced a bright yellow floppy.
"Mr. Chairman," Adrienne exclaimed, getting to her feet, "that floppy can have any bearing on this case. It could have been made today; it could have been made yesterday or any time from when the paper was written."
Nat began to explain, but I wasn't listening. I whispered to Sean, "Does that look like the floppy he gave you to copy onto?"
"Yes at least it was a yellow one."
I touched Adrienne's arm. "Let the floppy in as evidence."
She looked at me, briefly amazed, and then turned to the Chairman with a bland look on her face and said, "I withdraw my objection. We'll accept the diskette as evidence."
And so the next five minutes passed with us having to listen to how shocked Nat was to find he'd been rewarded with an F for trying to help a fellow student out; and how he'd managed to show Professor Chadbrooke that his version of the paper had preceded Sean's.
And then it was Adrienne's turn.
"Mr. Burwood, you said that you'd been working on your paper for," she glanced at her notes, "about a week. I believe that's what you said."
"So you had done some fairly extensive research?"
"How did you go about this? For example, do you make notes of your research and after you've got everything in, then write the paper? Or do you write the paper as you do research and constantly move stuff around with cut-and-paste so it makes a coherent document?"
"Mainly I make notes. Then, when I have them all, I have a better idea how to write everything down in an orderly fashion. So then I just write, cutting and pasting the references in and citing each reference in a bibliography at the end."
"So you have all these notes on your computer still?"
He gave a scornful laugh. "No. I'd have no disk space left if I did that. I delete them once my paper is submitted."
Adrienne gave the appearance of being crestfallen, but carried right on. "How many papers have you written for Professor Chadbrooke this year?"
"I don't know. Probably about six. Seven, maybe."
"Do you research them all in the same way?"
"What do you mean?"
"Where do you get your information from? Do you go to the library? Do you use the Internet?"
"Mainly the Internet. It's convenient. The searching is easier."
"You wrote an essay on Paradise Lost this term, is that correct?"
The barest hesitation, his hand brushed his collar, "Yes, I did."
"And you researched that on the Internet?"
"Yes I did."
"How many resources did you use?"
He gave a short laugh. "I can't remember. Lots."
"Do you remember if you used the information from several?" She paused and he was just about to answer, when she continued, "Or did you use just one."
There was a distinct hesitation and he looked at her, trying to fathom out what she knew. She returned his stare, eyebrows raised questioningly, until he answered, "I don't remember."
"Thank you, Mr. Burwood. That is all for now. I'll come back to this paper later." As Nat sat down, Adrienne re-arranged her papers and then looked up to the head of table.
"Mr. Chairman, I would now like Mr. Lawrence to show us the results of his research."
"Very well. Mr. Lawrence, has Miss Thompson shown you a copy of Beyer College's honor code?"
"Yes, sir. She has and I've read it."
"And you agree to abide by that and that everything you say will be honest, the truth, and respectful of others?"
"Yes sir, it will."
"You may go ahead then."
"Thank you." I took the projector out of stand-by mode and the first slide of my presentation appeared on the white-board I was using as a screen. "Every person tends to have a personal style of writing. To write like someone else takes some effort " I continued, outlining the theory behind my algorithms.
"For example," I said, "Last night I obtained four papers written by another student, a Ms. Prentice." I brought up the first of my charts. "These little shapes are called box-and-whiskers. The dot in the box shows the median, the edges of the box show the 25th centile on the left and the 75th on the right. The ends of the whiskers, similarly, show the 10th on the left and the 90th on the right.
"Don't worry about the terminology," I added as I noticed eyes glazing, "I can explain that later if I need to. What is important is the similarity of their shape. What I'm showing here is that Ms. Prentice tends to use sentences of pretty much the same length. Here are Sean Jameson's. Again he uses fairly consistent length sentences. However, if I show the two together, you can see that his sentences are generally longer than Ms. Prentice's.
"Here," I said, changing the slide yet again, "are Mr. Burwood's. Interesting: in two papers there is a fairly close similarity. The other two are different, both from each other, and from the first two."
I went on about the frequencies of certain words, the number of times the same word was used in a paragraph, the lengths of the paragraphs themselves.
Switching from PowerPoint to Word, I brought up the first of the Prentice girl's papers. "Don't worry about the words," I instructed, "look at the format. The paragraphs tend to be roughly the same size. Now look at Sean's. I changed windows. As the screen switched my eye caught a flicker at the bottom of my screen, but it was too quick for me to see what had changed. Preoccupied with my presentation I pushed the information to the back of my mind as I said, "See, the paragraphs vary in length. This one is a couple of lines; this one is almost half a page; this one he uses just one sentence.
"These patterns continue." I brought up the second of the girl's files, then the third and fourth. The evenly sized paragraphs were evident. My fingers clicked on the second of Sean's papers. The flicker at the bottom of the screen occurred again and a couple of synapses picked the movement up and set an alert. Still unaware what it was, I went back to the Prentice paper then returned to Sean's while my eyes were glued to the lower part of my screen.
A jolt of electricity coursed down my spine causing my abdominal muscles to clench: In Sean's paper, TRK, the tracking option, was on. Tense with anticipation and apprehension I changed the window to Nat's paper. TRK was turned on for his paper, too.
"Now look at Mr. Burwood's papers," my throat was suddenly dry as I verbally danced to cover what I was looking for. "In this paper, we have varying lengths of paragraph." I moved to another of his papers, not caring about paragraph lengths anymore. TRK was not turned on. I felt the sweat break out on my face: I had the answer. In the next seconds I was going to show publicly that one of the two students was lying and I was terrified. Had Mike been right all along: had my judgment been clouded by a cute young guy? What if I showed without doubt that the charges against Sean were valid?
I turned and looked Sean. His eyes met mine and I could see the question on his face: why had I paused in the presentation? The query was there, no apprehension that I could see. I took the gamble
I brought his paper onto the screen and, moving my cursor to the View tab, clicked on `Markup' button and the screen expanded into balloons down the side and some of the text in red.
"Pretty isn't it?"
There was a silence in the room. The change in the appearance of the screen coupled with the sudden change on direction from my previous discourse had lost the others. I felt Adrienne's and Sean's eyes on me – I was way off the plan we had discussed earlier. I paged down the file quickly, my eyes scanning the screen in front of me for what I dreaded to come up: multiple colors in the fonts. But as the text streamed up the screen all I saw was red and black. I began to breathe again.
I brought Nat's paper up and hit the `Markup' button. Once again the image on the screen changed and, right on the first page I saw it: text in black and red and blue.
I sat back in my chair and I felt my tear glands sting a little as the tension released.
"Mr. Lawrence ?" the chairman asked.
I pulled myself together and brought Sean's paper back up. I clicked off the `Markup'. "I'm sorry, sir. I've right at this minute noticed something that is really pertinent.
"I'm going to change my tack here. But, I need to explain something about Microsoft Word to y'all first. There is a feature built in to make editing a document easier. This is called `Track Changes'. You can turn it on up here in the Tools menu. When it is turned on, this TRK field at the bottom is dark.
"What happens is that the Word software remembers each change that is made, each deletion, each insert. Look at Sean's paper here. The TRK is dark so this feature is enabled. The paper appears quite normal. But, if I go over here to the View menu and select `Markup' look what happens. As I clicked the button, the whole screen once again erupted into balloons. "Quite the writer is this guy, isn't he? He's deleted almost twice as much as he's written. All this stuff he wrote, only to be cast aside later to fit into the prescribed length." I scrolled down a few pages. "And what have we here? He deleted a whole lot of stuff about Sanskrit puns being introduced into the text." I paged down some more. "Look what I find here? Dean Swift actually forbade the performance of Handel's Messiah in Dublin and had to be entreated to lift the ban!" Interesting stuff isn't it – and none of it made it into the final draft. But make a note of this: it says `Inserted by S Jameson'. The software remembers who made each change.
"Now let's go and check Mr. Burwood's file." I clicked the filename and opened it up. The `markup' button was next, and once again the screen filled with balloons. "Let's see what we have here." I moved my cursor over some of the lines. "`Inserted by N Burwood at 22:15', OK he's working late at night. But what do we have here? ``Inserted by S Jameson on a different day at 17:45'.
The tension could be felt: I noticed the chairman write a long note on his pad. After a pause, I resumed. "And immediately, I can figure out the question that has leaped into your minds: how would Mr. Jameson's name get on Mr. Burwood's file, if the file Mr. Burwood submitted had only ever been on his own PC? What's more, if we go down here, we see that the very same lines about Sanskrit have been deleted from Mr. Burwood's file – and, as it shows here, they, too, were deleted by Mr. Jameson.
"How is that possible if it was Mr. Burwood who gave Mr. Jameson the file?"
"What about the dates and the times of the files?" asked the chairman.
"Unplug your PC from the university's network and you can change the date and time at will. Until you reconnect to the network, any file you save will have the altered date/time stamp. As soon as you reconnect, the server will force your PC's date and time to synch up."
"Thank you. Have you got any more to show us?"
"There are two more things we need to look at. First, let's go back to floppy. You my not know this, but when you delete a file on a floppy drive, the file itself is not actually deleted: just a few characters in the file allocation table. The actual data stays intact until another file writes over it. So if we take this floppy, on which it is alleged, Mr. Burwood gave Mr. Jameson the file "
"It happened just like Sean said." The voice was hoarse and quiet and if the room hadn't been very still, no-one more than a seat or two away from Nat would have heard it. "I took Sean's work. I'm sorry." I looked over at the guy for the first time since my presentation started. His face was sallow and his shirt was beginning to show the damp areas of sweat. I had no idea to whom he was apologizing or what he was sorry for.
"Thank you, Mr. Lawrence." The Chairman stood up. "You may take your seat. That was a very lucid presentation. Ladies and gentlemen, we'll recess for lunch now. During that time I need to confer with my colleagues and also with Professor Chadbrooke. I ask you to please return here promptly by 2pm and at that time we'll inform you of what decisions have been reached in this matter and what further steps will be taken. Could I speak with the student advisors now, please? The meeting is adjourned." He rapped his gavel.
Adrienne moved up to the head of the table while I powered down my laptop and the projector. Behind me the room was emptying in a flurry of excitement. As I wound all the cables into their compartments in the bag Sean came up next to me. "You were awesome, Chris," He spoke in quiet but delighted tones.
"It wasn't all that much. It was a basic tutorial on some Microsoft Word techniques. How come you turned change tracking on?"
"I didn't. I still don't understand much about it."
"You've never seen a Word document look like the one I showed?"
A thought struck me. "Did you ever have someone else read your paper – before you cut its size down? Maybe ask them to edit it for you?"
"Yeah. Philip came over when I was working on it. I asked him to read through it and check for mistakes in grammar and stuff."
"Then Philip saved your cute ass for you."
"Shit, I need to phone him and tell him. I'll be in the hall. Collect me on your way out." I packed my PC into the backpack and stuffed the power supply into its section. Clipping the flap closed and hoisting the pack onto my shoulders I picked up the projector bag and headed for the door. I didn't feel elated. To tell the truth I didn't feel much of anything. It was all such a waste: that Nat kid could probably have been turned into a pleasant human being if he'd had different parents. I'd taken him down for now, but daddy would see him through and he'd come back believing still that money placed him above the law.
In the foyer Sean was talking on a phone, so I slaked my thirst at a nearby water fountain then leaned against a pillar waiting for him.
"Let's go get some lunch – I'm hungry. Philip says `Hi', by the way."
We walked along the bricked paths to the dining services building. Word had spread and several students passing us congratulated Sean, or gave him a high-five.
"So, can I give you a ride half-way to Miami?" I asked him later as we cleared our plates onto the tray.
Sean gave me a wry grin. "Naah. I think I need to graduate first. I hear the pay scale for ship's bitch is higher if you have a degree."
I smiled back. "Be sure to send me and Mike a brochure for the voyage!"
"I'll do that. By the way, I'm glad you noticed!" he grinned at me.
"You said that Philip turning on that change thing saved my cute ass. I'm happy that you thought it was cute – I kinda thought you hadn't been looking!"
I gave him a wry look out of the corner of my eye and grinned. "You stay close to Philip. He's a good guy."
The resumed hearing turned out to be anti-climatic. Less than a third of the people who had been at the morning session were present. Of Nathaniel Charles Burwood III there was no sign. As expected, the charges were declared unfounded and Sean was cleared of any wrong-doing. The chairman banged his gavel once more, adjourned the meeting, gathered up all his papers and followed the peer-group out of the room.
"What's happened to the other guy?" I asked Adrienne.
"He's been assigned a student counselor and I expect they'll do some plea bargaining."
"With Daddy's help," I remarked.
"The Judiciary Committee is very aware of the importance of their duty and that they act, and are seen to act, without bending to outside pressures. Nat's father's influence won't be felt much below the Dean's level, so it'll prevent him from being expelled, which is a sanction the Judicial Committee can only recommend. The cheating and the lying are serious enough, but pale before the false accusation – especially in front of the Judiciary Committee – of another student. That is deemed pretty fatal as far as career advancement at this college is concerned.
"So, my advice to him, were I his counselor, would be that he leave Beyer and try somewhere else." She gathered her papers and PC and held out a hand to me. "It was nice meeting you, Chris. Thanks for your help." We exchanged the pleasantries and she headed out the room.
"Oh, well, I'd better be headed off home," I said to Sean as we moved toward the door.
"You're not going to try driving all the way through, are you?" he asked anxiously.
"Naah. I'll find a motel somewhere around Atlanta."
I placed the projector beside my PC in the Jeep and turned to him. "OK, buddy. Be good. Take care of yourself."
"Chris, I don't know "
"No sentimental stuff, OK. It was a serendipitous meeting for us, some predestined plan, perhaps. And it sure was an interesting couple of days. I've learned some stuff I didn't know before."
"Thanks, Chris. Keep in touch, OK?"
"Sure will." He put his arms around me. Our faces were mere inches apart and I felt the muscles tightening in my lower abdomen. I kissed his cheek briefly. "I'd better get going," I said. And not only because I had a long journey ahead of me.
Leaving the town, having dropped off the projector at Kinkos, and with my hormone level slowly dropping to normal, I was surprised when my cell-phone rang. I glanced at the caller ID and saw Mike's name so I pulled off the road to take the call.
"Hey, where you at?" he asked. No sign of attitude.
"Just leaving Maynardville."
"Cool. I caught you in time, then."
"Well, there's this lawyer guy stranded at Knoxville Airport. He's trying to hitch a lift to Savannah and he wondered if you were going that way."
My gut tightened. "Man, you know I don't pick up hitch-hikers."
"He's wearing tight jeans!"
"Has he got a cute ass?"
"All the Gays in New York thought so. He thinks he caught a couple of heteros sneeking a look, too."
"Well I guess it's worth the risk then. I'll be there in about an hour."
The terminal area was pretty much deserted when I raced in a bare fifty minutes later. As I approached I saw a familiar figure get up from a bench and stand at the curb, bare-chested, his T-shirt tucked into the back of his jeans – and with his right arm extended, fist closed, thumb raised.
"I thought your meeting ran through today?" I asked as I held him in my arms.
"I was called back."
"Oh." I loaded his roller-board and suit bag into the Jeep and then the oddity struck me. "To Knoxville?"
We got into the Jeep and he pulled his baseball cap around so the wind wouldn't get under the bill.
"Who is in Knoxville that needs you?"
"It's this real important guy. Apparently he was going to pieces and I am the only person that can sort it out."
"Oh." He was making no sense at all. "So must I drive you into Knoxville?" I asked as I shifted into gear.
"Naah. Head for Atlanta."
"Geez, Mike, what are you talking about? Why were you called back to Knoxville if we're headed to Atlanta?"
"Well, let me put it this way, as far as I know, this morning was the first time that a lawyer from the Georgia Bar has been woken up at 6am in New York city, to have some piss-ant arts student tell him that he's being a big dickhead."
The embarrassed look on Sean's face when I returned from the shower clicked into my mind. I opened my cell phone and, with one eye on the road, scanned the `calls dialed' list. Sure enough, there had been a call to Mike's cell phone at 6:35 in the morning. "The little fucker!" I said and snapped the cell phone closed.
"Yeah, that's what I said at first, too"
"Oh shit! What did he tell you?"
"He told me I was being an ass-hole. He said that you were busting your butt to help him – even though he didn't deserve it. He informed me that I was acting like a jerk. He admitted he'd given you several opportunities to have some fun together, but that you hadn't taken him up. He said you were a really good guy and maybe I should decide whether I really deserved you or else I should cut you free so you could find someone with the brains to see it. That was when he called me a dickhead."
I pulled over, cut the engine, leaned over and grabbed the guy and held him close to me.
"Mike," I said hesitatingly, "it wasn't quite like that. There were a couple – three or four – times when I was real close to jumping into bed with him. If he'd pushed a bit harder or tried a different tactic, I can't honestly say that I wouldn't have."
Mike ran his hand up and down my back and laughed. "You know what one of the greatest deals is about being Gay?"
"It's that I'm a guy, too. I know what it feels like to be around a good-looking guy that's playing along. Chris, I know you don't cruise, but if you had jumped this guy it wouldn't have been the end of the world – or of me."
"Mike I really love you. I always want us to be together. It's just that I'm so frightened."
He pulled back. "Yeah. So what? Do you think I'm not frightened, too, sometimes? What do you think made me turn into such a jerk these last couple of days?" His eyes bored into mine. "Chris, I had no idea what you were doing, who this guy was, what was going on between you two. The more he seemed to screw you around, the more you were doing for him. Man, it seemed like you were falling in love and I thought I was losing out big time."
"You never have to fear that, Mike. You are the guy I want. I know that."
"So what frightens you then, Chris?"
"What I'm scared of," I swallowed, "is letting you see inside me, into my soul."
"Why, Chris? What do you think I'll do?"
"I'm frightened of what will happen if I tell you what my dreams are; what is important to me; what despair and desolation I feel sometimes when I lie awake in the wee hours of the morning. I worry that you won't think that they're important or, even worse, that you'll laugh at them."
"Chris, as God is my witness, I promise I will never devalue anything that is you. That's why I love you, man! I want to spend time learning what IS the real you." He held my hand, "Like why, for ninety five percent of your life you are the total, logical geek, and then, out of the blue, you go and follow your heart in some crazy stunt like this."
I nuzzled into his neck. "I'm so glad you're back. I felt like shit when we were fighting."
He placed his lips on mine and then sat back. "Let's go. We'll see if we can bum a night's accommodation from Rob and Pete – unless this student guy of yours likes threesomes!"
I reached over and gave him a gentle slap in the groin. "He's got a boyfriend who's probably jealous – as do you!"
He laughed and ran his hand up my thigh. "Let's head for Atlanta, then. I'm told that making up after a fight can be a lot of fun."
I turned the key in the ignition, shifted into gear and swung back out onto the road. My spirit was clothed from head to foot in song and I could feel the fire on my lips.
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