What's The Difference Between Me and You?
"Can you spend the night after my party?" Taylor asked hopefully, sending a wave of stress through Nick that must have shown, because his hopeful look seemed to fade and was replaced with one of disappointment. Before Nick could speak, Taylor looked at the ground and sadly muttered, "Never mind."
"I can ask my dad," Nick said, trying to sound enthusiastic but feeling badly because he knew Taylor's feelings were hurt.
"Can you ask him now?" Taylor said, his hopeful tone back. Nick shrugged and turned toward the end of his driveway, where Jim and James were standing at opposite ends with a tape measure stretched out between them.
"Dad," Nick started, summoning all of his courage, not because he thought his dad would say no, but because he knew his dad would say yes. "Can I spend the night at Taylor's house after his birthday party?"
"Is that what you want to do?" Jim asked, raising an eyebrow at Nick.
"Yes sir," Nick answered, knowing full well that he was fibbing but not having the heart to say it in front of Taylor. Jim just shrugged and said, "Sure," then he went back to what he was doing as if he weren't fazed by Nick's predicament.
With that, Taylor smiled widely at Nick, who knew the deal was sealed. He'd have to brave it for a night at Taylor's house, and as he pondered the possibilities, his knees got weak. He thought about what would happen if he got thirsty in the middle of the night, or if he had a nightmare. Even worse, he thought, was what would happen if he had to pee and didn't wake up in time. He turned to Taylor, determined to relay his fears, but the look of excitement on his face took the wind out of his sails. He knew Taylor would be crushed if he backed out, so he kept his fears to himself and tried to put them to the back of his head.
That afternoon Jim's friend Mark came by with his son Anthony, who was James's age. Mark, his wife Shelly and Anthony went to the same church as Jim and the boys. Since Cindy and Charles went there too, they immediately recognized Taylor and greeted him warmly.
The men worked on the driveway while James, Anthony, Nick and Taylor rough housed in the front yard. It was nothing too physical, but they wrestled and play fought for the better part of an hour before they finally got tired and stopped. Just as they were calming down, though, a boy from Nick's school, Danny, rode by on his bike. Taylor's eyes got big, and Nick just stared at him as he rode by giving Nick dirty looks. They'd fought once before at school, when Nick was still new at the school, and they never made up.
Danny was a fifth grader, much bigger than Nick and Taylor. He was even a little bigger than James, but Anthony was much larger than he was. Still, he rode by slowly, then he turned his bike around and rode up onto the sidewalk, stopping in front of the yard.
"What do you think you're looking at, retardo?" he taunted Nick, who was just staring him down.
"Get the fuck out of my yard!" James yelled, shocking Nick more than anything.
"Hey!" Jim shouted at James, but he went mostly un-noticed. Almost as soon as James said that, all four boys advanced on Danny, knocking him to the ground and hitting him in various places. Anthony hauled him up by the hair and swung him wildly around before Mark and Jim had a chance to stop him, and as Danny lye on his back and wailed, Jim grabbed Nick and James roughly and led them to the garage.
Once they were in the garage, Jim went back out to the yard and confronted Taylor, who looked scared. Nick couldn't hear what his dad was saying, but he knew that whatever it was, it was serious, because he pointed at the garage, and Taylor stepped to it as if his life depended on it. Anthony joined them in the garage and together, they watched as Jim and Mark tended to Danny. There was no blood that Nick could see, but his face was bright red and he was crying hysterically. Jim gently led him into the garage and gave the boys a look that served as their warning to stay put.
"Where do you live buddy?" Jim asked him, and through his crying, Danny told him his address. "What's your phone number?"
Danny gave it to him, then he added sadly, "My mom's at work. No one's home but me."
While Jim was tending to Danny, Tom came out of his house and walked over. Nick could tell that his grandfather must have seen the whole thing unfold, and wondered how it must have looked to him. The thing was, no one heard Danny call him a name. Tom and Mark talked in the yard, then they walked up the driveway to the garage, where Mark confronted all four boys.
"What happened?" he demanded.
"He cussed at us," Taylor lied. "He called Nick the F word."
"Nick, is that true?" Tom asked, and Nick nodded, knowing it wasn't.
"That's not what I said," Danny cried. "I called him retardo."
The sincerity in his voice was overwhelming, and Nick knew he was busted. Mark looked expectantly at Anthony, who simply looked down while Tom cleared his throat and gave James a similar look.
"I thought I heard him say the F word too," James said, not committing either way, effectively giving himself cover in case the truth was convincingly discovered.
"Okay, never mind who said what," Tom said in an exasperated tone. "You four attacked that boy, and there was no call for it."
"But he was in our yard, Grandpa," Nick whined. Jim turned his head to look Nick's way, flashing him an impatient frown.
Jim looked Danny over, then he asked him if he wanted a soda. Danny nodded, still calming down, and with his nod, Jim looked at Nick and said, "Go get him a Coke. Hurry Up!"
Nick turned on his heels and ran into the house, straight to the refrigerator for a cold Coke. He was back in a flash, too, handing the Coke to Jim, who handed it to Danny with a sympathetic smile. Instead of opening it right away, Danny held the Coke can to his forehead for a moment and closed his eyes while he took deep breaths. When he finally opened it, he took small sips and smiled at Jim, who seemed to be calming down.
"Danny, would you like for me to call your mom at work?" Jim asked, and a look of panic crossed Danny's face.
"No sir," he said. "I'll get in trouble for riding my bike."
"You aren't supposed to be riding it?" Jim asked curiously, and Danny shook his head. "I'm grounded right now, sir."
"Can you tell me why you and Nick are still fighting?" Jim asked, and Danny nodded.
"He makes fun of me at school," Danny tattled. "He calls me lard ass and blubber butt."
Jim looked disappointedly at Nick, who simply looked down in shame. He knew he'd been ratted out for doing something he was explicitly told not to do by his dad.
"Is that true, son?" Jim asked, and Nick just shrugged. "What have we talked about?"
Nick looked up at his dad but didn't say a word. Instead, he looked back down and sighed, realizing that he was in a lot of trouble. Probably enough trouble to keep him from going to Taylor's birthday party. From his right, he heard someone trying to contain laughter, so he turned just in time to see James and Taylor grinning at each other. Unfortunately for the two of them, Jim saw them too.
"You two," he snapped. "Go inside and wait in the living room. I'll deal with you in a minute."
"Anthony, you go too," Mark said pointedly. The trio all turned and walked up the steps and into the house, leaving Nick behind with Danny, Jim, Tom and Mark. Suddenly, Nick found himself wishing his dad had sent him in the house too.
"Danny, you can go if you want," Jim said. "But I'd like it if you and Nick talked things over first."
"My mom's going to come home in an hour," Danny said, and Jim sighed.
"Nick, do you have something you'd like to say to Danny?" Jim asked expectantly, and Nick nodded reluctantly. "Go ahead then."
"I'm sorry," Nick said.
"Why are you sorry, son?" Jim asked, and Nick had to think. He really wasn't sorry, but he knew he had to think of something or else he'd be in hot water.
"I'm sorry for making you mad at me," Nick said. "And I'm sorry for ganging up on you today."
"Are you sorry for calling him names at school?" Jim asked firmly, and Nick sighed.
"Yes sir," Nick said.
"Well don't tell me that, boy," Jim said. "Say it to Danny."
"I'm sorry for calling you names at school, Danny," Nick said quietly. "I promise not to do it anymore."
"Okay," Danny answered, swinging one foot around with his hands in his pockets. "I won't be mean to you anymore either."
Before he left, Jim walked down the driveway with him and stopped at the edge to talk for a few minutes. Danny must have liked what he heard, because he nodded and smiled at Jim, then he got on his bike and rode off. When Jim walked back up the driveway, he wasn't frowning anymore. He motioned for Nick to approach him with his forefinger, then he squatted and placed a hand on Nick's shoulder.
"Son, I know you've had trouble with him," Jim said. "But it's obvious that he isn't as lucky as some of us are. He has to stay home alone while his mom works, and he doesn't have very nice clothes or a nice bike, does he?"
"No sir," Nick answered guardedly.
"So why treat him that way, son?" Jim asked. "Maybe if you were nice to him instead of making fun of him you'd have another friend."
"I'll try sir," Nick said quietly.
"That's all I want you to do," Jim said. "By the way, I told him to come tell me if you called him names again. So I suggest not doing it anymore."
"Yes sir," Nick said dejectedly, looking at the ground with a sick feeling in his gut at the thought of having to be nice to Danny, his arch enemy.
When they went inside, Nick sat down on the love seat next to Taylor across from James and Anthony, who were seated on the couch at opposite ends. Jim pointed at Taylor, then motioned him to the couch. Taylor followed the silent instruction without delay. With the three of them seated together, Jim gave them the same speech he gave Nick. He gave James an extra dose of grief for cussing, and told him he'd think of a suitable punishment, but that fighting was not allowed in his front yard and that he wouldn't stand for it.
Mark told Anthony he was grounded in front of everyone for his role in the fight, and Nick cringed because he was afraid Jim would feel obliged to ground him and James. Instead, Jim waited for Mark and Anthony to leave, then, with Tom there, he pulled his belt off and warned James and Nick that they'd be whipped if it ever happened again.
"And Taylor, I'll call your parents," Jim threatened him. "If you can't behave yourself over here, I'm not going to let you spend the night anymore. Do you understand me?"
"Yes sir," Taylor answered almost tearfully. Nick felt awful for him, and wanted to tell him that his dad didn't mean it, but he knew better than to even try.
"You're all good boys," Jim lectured them. "You have no reason to act that way. I think you're all smart enough to know that. If something's happening that I need to know about, tell me. But do not, and I mean do not, take matters into your own hands like that again."
When Jim was finished with his rant, he went out to the garage with Tom and shut the door. While he was outside, Nick got up and sat next to Taylor, who looked stunned by the tongue lashing Jim had given him. Nick put his hand on Taylor's shoulder and gave it a squeeze, but it didn't seem to make a difference. He looked sullen and depressed, and finally he stood up and said, "I have to go home."
Nick walked with him down the hallway to the front door, which Taylor opened just as Jim was wiping his feet on the dust mat on the porch. Jim looked down at him sympathetically and told Nick, "Taylor and I need to have a talk, okay buddy?"
"Okay dad," Nick said obediently. Jim came inside, led Taylor into the dining room and pulled two chairs out, facing them towards each other. He sat in one and patted the other for Taylor to sit down. When he did, Jim spoke while Nick leaned up against the jam of the doorway, watching and listening to the conversation.
"Taylor, I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings," Jim said. "I didn't mean to do that, kiddo. But I'm serious when I say not to act that way. You're a smart kid, and you always behave yourself when you're here."
"He was calling Nick names," Taylor said quietly.
"I know he was buddy," Jim said gently. "And I know you and Nick stick together. But that doesn't mean it's okay to hurt people, and it's certainly not okay to lie afterwards. You know, you never took it back and told me the truth."
Taylor gulped and looked up at Jim, then back at Nick, who had a sinking feeling in his stomach that he was about to be busted for lying. Nick watched as Taylor turned his head back toward Jim and took a deep breath, then he spoke.
"I'm sorry I lied to you Mr. J," Taylor said. "I didn't want us to get in trouble."
"Taylor, nobody wants to get into trouble," Jim lectured him. "But it's so important to always be honest. How can anyone trust what you say if you start lying?"
"I was scared I was going to get in trouble," Taylor admitted, looking ashamed of himself.
"Well, I don't know what your parents are going to do," Jim said. "But Nick and James aren't in trouble for the fight. James might get it for cussing, but we'll see."
"He was just protecting Nick," Taylor said defensively.
"I know that too," Jim said. "But it's never okay for him to use that kind of language."
"Are you mad at me Mr. J?" Taylor asked, and Jim shook his head.
"I'm disappointed in what all four of you did," Jim explained. "But I'm not mad."
"Will Nick still get to go to my party?" Taylor asked, and Jim nodded with a smile, causing Nick to breathe a sigh of relief.
"I wouldn't do that, Taylor," Jim assured him. "I promise he'll be there."
"Will you and James and Ms. Lori come too?" Taylor asked hopefully, and Jim grinned before he answered.
"You bet James and I will be there," he said. "I'll have to ask Ms. Lori, but I'm sure if she can make it, she'll be there."
"I hope she can," Taylor said with a grin of his own. "We're having chocolate cake. My mom said I get to cut it this year all by myself. I'll make sure I cut really big pieces for you and Miss Lori."
"That sounds great kiddo," Jim said with a chuckle. "So are we okay now?"
"Uh huh," Taylor said with a happy nod, hopping up from his chair and giving Jim a small hug. "I'm sorry for being bad, Mr. J. Are you going to tell my mom and dad?"
"I'm afraid I have to, buddy," Jim said. "If I didn't, it wouldn't be right."
"I understand," Taylor said solemnly, then his smile returned and he seemed to perk up again. "I'll still give you a big piece of cake on Saturday."
That night, instead of riding his bike home, Jim put Taylor's bike in the back of the Bronco II and drove him home with Nick and James in tow. The three of them told the story, and with Charles and Cindy's disapproving glares, Taylor admitted to lying about what Danny said.
"Well I hate to have to do this, Sport," Charles said. "But I'm going to have to ground you tonight. After dinner, you'll need to spend a half hour in your room. Do you understand why?"
Taylor looked over at Nick and James ashamedly, then back at his dad and sadly nodded, then he added, "I'm sorry daddy."
"I'm sorry too, Taylor," Charles said. "You know better than to lie, and you know better than to fight. How can you expect Mr. J to invite you to his house if you can't behave yourself?"
Instead of answering, Taylor slid his hands into his front pockets and pouted. Cindy gave him a sympathetic smile and held her arms out to him, and he was quick to go to her. He kept his hands in his pockets but leaned into her so she could hug him tightly. Charles gave her a sarcastic look and rolled his eyes, then he turned to Jim and the two boys.
"I'm really sorry he gave you trouble today, Jim," Charles said.
"Don't worry about it," Jim said, then he looked down at James and Nick and said, "It was just as much these two as it was Taylor."
"Well, boys fight," Charles said. "But it won't happen again, will it Taylor?"
Taylor never spoke a word or looked at his dad. His head was buried in Cindy's stomach, but he shook his head at Charles's prompt, affirming what his dad said. On the way home, Jim talked to James and Nick about the fight.
"I want you two to know how disappointed I am," he said. "If it had just been a regular fight, I might not have cared. But for you to gang up on that boy was ridiculous. Nick, I've never taught you to do that, and I don't want to see it or hear about it again. That goes for both of you. Do you understand me?"
"Yes sir," James said quietly in the front seat.
"Nick, what about you?" Jim demanded, looking in his rearview at Nick even though it was dark outside.
"Yes daddy," Nick answered obediently.
"Good," Jim said, sounding satisfied. "Now that we have that all cleared up, what do you boys want for dinner? I don't feel like cooking tonight."
"Can we eat at Golden Coral?" Nick asked hopefully.
"Yeah, can we go dad?" James agreed.
"I guess," Jim said, handing James his cell phone. "Call your Auntie Linda and Uncle Tom and ask if they feel like meeting us there."
When they got to the restaurant, there were practically no cars in the parking lot, which seemed uncharacteristic for any night at Nick's favorite buffet restaurant, but he didn't mind. He was eager to get inside, but Jim said they were waiting for Tom and Linda to get there. Nick frowned and wondered how long they'd have to wait, but he didn't dare say a word about his displeasure to anyone for fear of landing in more hot water than he'd already been in that day.
Luckily, they didn't have to wait long at all. Linda's stomach was incredibly large, and Nick thought to himself that she couldn't get much bigger than she already was. Her appetite was insatiable, it seemed, and she had been getting moody lately, something Nick had never seen.
A few nights earlier, Nick had been sitting by his window at night, looking through his telescope when he saw his grandparent's bedroom light come on. He thought he heard shouting, but was sure he was mistaken until he heard it get louder. It was coming from his grandma, who was berating Tom for something and screaming at him that he didn't understand what she was going through. He wanted to go tell his dad, but was afraid his grandma would be mad at him for listening in on the fight, so he said nothing and worried about whether or not his grandparents were going to get a divorce or something.
On this evening, though, Linda appeared to be in a jovial mood. Tom helped her out of the car and she hooked his arm on the way into the restaurant. There was no stopping her, it seemed. She sent Tom up again and again for rolls, chicken, roast beef, fresh fruit and an assortment of other goodies. Long after Nick, Tom, James and Jim stopped eating, Linda kept going. When she finally seemed satisfied, she sent Tom up to get her some dessert. She had a variety of slices of cake, cookies and soft serve ice cream. By the time they left the restaurant, Nick was certain that she had eaten more food in one meal than he ate in a week. Still, despite her veracious appetite, she looked fit. True, her stomach and hips were expanded, but she didn't look fat.
That night when they got home, Jim sent Nick and James upstairs to get ready for bed. They would normally tear up the stairs, trying to beat each other to the bathroom for the prime spot in front of the sink to brush their teeth, but tonight they walked peacefully up the stairs without a word. Nick knew they were being calm because of the trouble they'd been in earlier that day, and he wondered if Jim would pick up on their cautious attitude. After changing into his pajamas, Nick walked to the bathroom, where James was already brushing his teeth.
"Can you zip my jammies up?" Nick asked. James let his toothbrush go, keeping it in his mouth, and lined the teeth up on Nick's pajamas so he could zip them up. Once they were secure, he reached up into the medicine cabinet and handed Nick the toothpaste while he went back to brushing his teeth. When they were done, they both walked silently downstairs, where Jim was waiting in the kitchen with their vitamins. They chewed them up, then followed him into the family room, where they each took a side on the couch and Jim sat in the middle.
"Who wants to say the prayer tonight?" Jim asked quietly.
"I will," James offered. With that, the three of them joined hands and closed their eyes while James prayed out loud. Nick noticed that James asked for forgiveness for himself, Nick, Taylor and Anthony for beating Danny up, and he wondered if that would be enough atonement for Jim. When James was finished, they opened their eyes and Jim pulled them both close.
"That was a very thoughtful prayer, son," Jim said approvingly. "I'm glad you thought to include that tonight."
"Does God get mad at us?" Nick asked, and Jim shook his head.
"I think He sees what we do, and He knows when we sin," Jim said introspectively. "But God loves us, and He's perfect. I think He might punish us, but it isn't because He's mad. It's because He wants us to be the best Christians we can be."
"We weren't being good Christians today, were we daddy?" Nick asked, and Jim shook his head.
"Son, we're all sinners," Jim said. "Nobody's going to get through their life without committing sin. It's our nature. But what we can do is think about what happened, and use it to be a good Christian in the future."
"How come we sin, dad?" James asked, and Jim took a deep breath before he answered.
"Because we're human," Jim said. "Do you know what a sin is?"
James shook his head at Jim, then Jim looked at Nick, who did the same thing.
"It's when we fall short of the glory of God," Jim said. "But you know what else? We're all forgiven."
"I know daddy," Nick said with a smile. "Because Jesus died for us."
"That's right son," Jim said. "But we don't just go around doing whatever we want because our sins are forgiven. We still have to try to live up to the glory of The Lord."
"Is being gay a sin?" James asked, and Jim leaned down and kissed the top of his head.
"No," he answered. "Is having brown hair a sin?"
James smiled and said, "No."
"You have brown hair because God gave that to you, right?" Jim said, and James nodded. "Well, God made you gay, too. We don't know why, son, other than that it's His will. Otherwise, you'd be straight. But that makes you special. Do you know why?"
"Uh uh," James answered, shaking his head for emphasis.
"Because that means He has a plan for you," Jim said, then he looked down at Nick and said, "You too, buddy."
"What kind of plan?" Nick asked intently.
"No one knows yet," Jim said. "We may never know ourselves, but God knows."
By that time, James and Nick had both curled their legs up and were resting their heads on Jim's chest as they listened to him talk. Nick felt his eyes start to get heavy, and he fought it for a while, but he eventually lost the fight. When he opened his eyes, he was still on the couch watching as Jim hoisted James, who was fast asleep, up into his arms and turned to carry him upstairs. Nick closed his eyes again, but had to reopen them when Jim stood him in front of the toilet and told him to pee. When he was finished, he closed his eyes again and didn't reopen them until the next day.
When he got off the bus with Taylor the next day, he was shocked to see Jim just walking up to the bus stop with a miffed look on his face. Jim was never late, so he knew something was wrong. When Jim approached, he didn't say a word to either Nick or Taylor, which was especially odd. Instead, he took their backpacks and carried them the entire way back to the house. As they passed by Tom and Linda's, Nick noticed a newer looking car in the driveway with Tennessee license plates and stared at it until he felt his dad's hand on his shoulder, urging him to keep walking. When they got inside, Jim spoke to Nick and Taylor.
"Guys, this isn't a good day for Taylor to be here," he explained. "When James get's home from school, he's going to visit his mom and dad next door. They might even come over here, so we need to have it be just us. You understand, don't you Taylor?"
"I do," Taylor said, nodding his head with big eyes.
"I'll drive you home, okay kiddo?" Jim said, then he loaded Taylor and Nick into the Camry and did what he said he was going to do. As they pulled off, Nick had a few questions for his dad.
"Are they going to try to take him away?" Nick asked, and Jim shook his head confidently.
"They just want to see him," Jim said. "This is going to be really hard on James, so I want you to be on your best behavior, okay?"
"Yes sir," Nick said. "Are you going to get him at the bus stop?"
"Actually, we're picking him up at school right now," Jim said. "Don't say anything to him about this, okay? He doesn't know they're here."
"I won't," Nick promised. When they pulled up to the school, James walked out to the car and got in. The bell hadn't rung yet, and Nick knew it was early. James looked distressed when he got in, but Jim reached over and took his hand, which seemed to calm him down. The rest of the drive home was silent, aside from Jim asking James if he'd had a good day at school and James answering with a simple "Yes."
When they turned right onto their street, Nick's heart started to beat fast. He felt nervous for James, and he was nervous for his dad and himself, too. He wondered what James's mom and dad would be like, and if he'd get the chance to finally meet them. He knew that they were mean to James, and he remembered the fight Jim had with them on the phone months ago and how he shouted obscenities at James's dad.
He also knew that James's dad said he wanted him back, but then something happened and he stopped trying to get him. Jim had said they were there together, and maybe they had decided together that they wanted James back. Nick hoped not. He knew that if his dad said James wasn't going away with them, though, that he wasn't going anywhere.
When they pulled into the driveway, Nick watched James set his eyes on the car in the driveway next door, and he heard the pace of his breathing quicken. James's eyes got huge, and he seemed to be transfixed on the car in the driveway as his breathing got louder. Jim gave his hand a firm squeeze that Nick could see, then he spoke.
"They're next door, son," Jim said. "You don't have to go see them if you don't want to. If you do decide to, I'll be right there with you, okay?"
James didn't answer. He just looked at the car, seeming to be processing thoughts and emotions at a thousand miles a minute. Out of the blue, he let go of Jim's hand and opened his door. He got out and dug into his front pocket, pulling his house keys out and heading straight to the front door. Nick and Jim got out behind him, following him inside. Instead of his normal routine of going to the bathroom and getting a snack, though, James swiftly moved up the stairs to his room and slammed the door, letting out a sob loud enough for Nick and his dad to hear from the foot of the stairs.
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