© 2000 Jess Mercer

College Days

My idea of hell is being thrown onto a university campus directly from a small high school having a graduating class of 15. The first year I was lost and lonely and drew a real dork for a roommate. He might have changed rooms, but there were none open so I put up with his prissiness and he managed to tolerate my sloppy housekeeping. When the year was over his sigh of relief was as great as mine.

I spent the summer on my bicycle shopping and delivering groceries for summer people. A lot of them can't be bothered going to the supermarket about fifteen miles up the beach for the things they can't find in the general store. Needing money for school, I put a small ad in the tourist tabloid the agencies leave in the rental cottages that for a fee I'll drive my dad's truck up to the supermarket twice a week, shop, bring it all home and deliver it on my bike. Word gets around that I'm picky about what I buy, so the phone starts ringing. Soon I have so many clients I have to start shopping every other day. It was either that or work with my dad in his fishing supply business for a lot less money. I love dad, but fishing fanatics turn me off, and this way I get to spend a lot of time outdoors getting exercise on my bike. By the time school is ready to start, I've made enough to buy my computer and use the rest to pay my tuition for this semester, easing the financial burden on dad.

Now I'm back at school, lonely as ever. I never developed any social skills in high school, but how could I, living in a place so small everybody's practically like family? Besides there's something I'm keeping a secret, so I'm a loner and get ignored by everyone other than one special friend who went to another college. My parents keep telling me to mingle, but how? I'm clueless.

I'm first in my new dorm room, so take the side I want and put my things away, all the while praying I don't get a roommate, or he turns out to be one that I can get along with, maybe even draw me out of my shell.

I'm putting my suitcase in the back of the closet when I hear the door open and the sound of stuff being dropped on the floor. When I back out of the closet, I see a guy I know will haunt my dreams. He smiles and holds out his left hand. "You must be Damian. I'm Hank."

I just stare at him. He's tall, slender, with a fine face that's topped by a head of thick black hair in a lengthening brush cut. His right arm ends just above the elbow, his stump half the size of his muscular left arm.

"Something wrong?" He asks, jarring me back to reality.

"Huh? Oh, sorry. I … I just never expected a roommate like you."

His smile disappears. "You have a problem with an amp?"

"Oh, hell, no! It's just … well … you're so damned good looking." This slips out before I think. Shit! Now he'll twig that I'm gay and take off.

"You're kidding!"

"No way." I reach over and shake his hand. "Welcome to the dungeon."

He pulls his hand away from mine and looks around. "Dungeon? You should have seen the room I had last year. I've got a footlocker outside. I could sure use a hand getting it in."

"Glad to." I follow him outside, not believing it when he pops the boot of a new sports car with the remote on his keyring. "This is a great car," I say admiringly.

He smiles. "I enjoy it. Got it right after school was out last spring."

We wrestle his footlocker into our room, at least I wrestle with it, he's handling his end as if it weighs nothing, and I admire the way its weight makes the muscles in his arm stand out.

"Need some help?" I ask as he opens it.

"Naa. The linen service leave sheets and towels?"

I nod. "On your bed."

"Okay. After I get this stuff put away you can help me make it up."

"Gladly."

I sit on my bed and watch him unpack and put his stuff away, noticing he doesn't use his stump at all. He's also a neat freak, everything is arranged just so, and he hangs his clothes in the closet in an order he's worked out in his mind. Looks like I've either got to shape up or he'll be moving out fast. Most people would say I'm a typical student, things tend to come to rest wherever I drop them. I just haven't had time to drop things yet, this being the first day.

"Now I need you," he says, breaking into my reverie.

I look up to see him trying to shake out a sheet with his one hand, so I get up and grab the other side. I could make his bed faster without his help, but I'm afraid to open my mouth.

"Thanks," he says when we're done. "I can do it, but I'm slow. Where do we park?"

"I don't have a car, but the lot for this dorm is out back."

He grins. "Come show me how to get to it. I don't want a ticket my first day."

"You a transfer?" I ask while we're walking out.

"Yeah. Hated that rinky-dink college I was going to. I'm going to depend on you to show me around."

"My pleasure."

When we're back in the room he arranges his desk to suit him and puts his lap-top to one side where it's convenient but out of the way, then grumbles to himself.

"What? I ask.

"Where the hell am I going to put my printer? Damn these small desks."

"Let's push our desks closer together and get a piece of plywood to make a shelf between them. I need to put my printer out too. I stuck it under my desk for the time being."

He looks around our room, frowning in thought. "Naa. I got a better idea." He pulls an office supply catalogue out of his desk drawer and flips toward the back. "Take a look at this. Like it?" He's opened it to the section showing modular work centers.

"They're great, but too big for this room."

"What about if we push our beds next to each other with the night stand in between? That way we can have the back wall from the window around the corner and most of the other wall for it. You can use the right-hand side so we won't bump elbows."

I love the idea he wants this much togetherness, but I'd like a lot more. "Damn, man, it's nice, but I can't afford something like that."

"Look at these beat up desks; they're not large enough for anything. You've got that big computer, and I've got a docking station for my lap-top that takes some room."

"I know, but there's no way."

"The hell there isn't. You like any of these?"

I flip a page or two and see a set of units in cherry finish with black laminate tops. There are hutches with built-in desk lamps to go on top. Together it looks great. Hank glances down and says, "We like the same one."

"This looks great. I'd love to have it instead of a desk."

"Done," he says with a smile.

"No way, man. This costs nearly a grand and I told you I don't have the money."

"You willing to do some work?"

"Like what?"

"These come knocked down and have to be assembled. Think you can do it?"

"Sure. I assembled some stuff for one of the stores at home during the summer."

"That's all I wanted to know." He takes the catalogue and lays it on his desk, holding it open with his elbow while he punches in numbers on the phone. Phones are a new addition to the dorm rooms since students are required to have computers and need access to the campus net.

I leave to take a leak. When I return, Hank's saying, "… and tell dad to put my hook on the truck along with one of those little fridges that'll fit under the unit. … Yeah. Thanks, Bennie." He hangs up and grins at me. "We're gonna be working Friday."

My mouth drops open. "You … you didn't order that stuff, did you?"

"Hell, yes. We're both going to be spending a lot of time on our computers, right? So I'm getting a couple of chairs that don't bust butt when you sit in 'em, too."

"But …"

"Don't sweat it, buddy. When I share with a guy, it's because I like him. Besides, the old man gets this stuff at cost."

"How?"

Hank grins. "Ever hear of Supco?"

He's just named a large office supply chain. "Yeah. So?"

"It's my dad's."

That pops my eyes. He's got to be loaded and I barely have the proverbial pot. No way this stud will ever be more than a dream for me, so I take my frustration out on my half of the room, arranging my things as neatly as Hank has done his.

I see him looking at me. "If you're done, show me where the book store is, unless you've got yours."

"I haven't, so let's go." Since I've already told him I don't have much money, I add, "I'm going to try to get what I can at the used book shop first."

"Makes sense. If the profs here are like the ones at the school I just came from, they'll change texts just to screw the students."

"Yeah. Just got to watch the editions."

"What's your major, Damian?"

"Not sure just yet, but I'm leaning toward accounting."

Hank shudders. "You're welcome to it. I hate accounting so I'm doing business. The old man made me spend the summer being a flunky in as many departments as possible to give me an idea of what I need if I follow him."

"A business that big must have plenty of specialists."

"Yeah, but what I did was the only way to really see what's going on overall. The old man's idea is that if he didn't know the big picture, he'd never know if somebody was screwing him on the sly."

"Better you than me. I'll be happy if I can get a decent job working for somebody else."

"That's no way to get rich," Hank says somewhat scornfully.

"Maybe not, but I'll avoid a hell of a lot of headaches and ulcers. No way I'm cut out to be a leader. Hell, I don't even have any close friends."

I'm totally surprised when he moves behind me to walk on my other side and puts his arm around my shoulders and stops. I look up; he stares into my eyes. "You're well on your way to making one."

"Who?"

He slaps me gently on the back of my head. "Me, stupid. You've been honest with me about yourself and didn't even turn on the charm when I told you who my dad is."

"Why would I want to do that?"

"Jeez, guy, you are a babe in the woods. How big is the town you come from?"

"Maybe five hundred in the winter. I don't really know."

"No rich people there?"

"One guy, but he doesn't have any kids. Most everybody there is just average."

He shakes his head. "Most people start cozying up when they find out who I am, wanting to get a piece of the action."

"That sucks, man! I like you, but I sure as hell don't expect you to spend any money on me. I'll carry my own weight."

He grins. "See? That's exactly what I mean about you being honest. I know you're pissed at me for ordering the workstation. I like that but, damn it, I intend to be comfortable in our room so you can accept it as a given that I want a great guy like you to be comfortable with me, and I mean with me as a person."

I have to smile. "I already am. You're a fantastic guy."

He winks at me. "One arm and all?"

"Hell, yes. You're a dream come true."

"Sooner or later I'm going to find out why you think that."

"I hope not."

He stops again and looks at me. "We're going to have a long serious talk about that, buddy. Let's get our books."

I'm lucky enough to get used books for all of my classes but one. The lab manuals will have to be new anyway. I had a class last year with the student working the used bookshop, so when I go to pay he takes one of the texts I picked out because it was clean, and hands me another with lots of notes written on nearly every page. "Take this one. The guy had it aced the course so I know his notes are good."

"Thanks."

Hank has found all the texts he'll need, but when he goes to pay, the student looks at me. "He with you?"

"Yeah, we're roommates."

He takes two of the texts out of Hank's pile and says, "Get new ones. The profs just changed editions."

"Thanks for the tip. Can we leave these here until we get the rest of our stuff?"

"Better not. Another guy is taking over from me in a few minutes."

Hank whips out a platinum credit card. "Sorry. Cash or check," the guy tells him.

Hank looks at me. "Damn, I don't have my checkbook with me. Would you be a buddy? I'll pay you when we get back to the dorm."

The total is going to make a big dent in my small account, but I shrug. "Why not."

I pick up the bag containing our books, and we walk over to the main bookstore. When we've gotten the rest of what we need, Hank hands his credit card to the cashier and points to my books, too.

"I'll get mine."

"Deduct it from what I owe you."

I hide my expression of relief, because I don't want him to know I'd have practically nothing left. Prices have gone up again. He carries this second bag and we walk back to our room in silence, though I'm more than ever aware of his presence if that's possible.

The minute we're in our room he sets the bag down, locks the door, and slips out the paper drawer of his printer, taking out several bills from those hidden beneath the paper. He counts out what he owes me. "Thanks, Damian. If you ever run short, I keep a stash here, so get what you need."

"Thanks, but no way."

He pushes me down on my bed and sits down beside me, his arm around my shoulders. "I may hate accounting, but that doesn't mean I'm not fast with figures. I happened to see what your balance was, so take what you need. There's plenty where that came from."

"You're a great guy, Hank and I appreciate the offer, but I won't do it. I may not have everything I want, but I'll get by."

His big hand goes under my chin and turns my head so he can look into my eyes again. "You're the kind of guy who will and I didn't mean to imply you wouldn't. I like a guy who has pride. I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings."

I can tell he's sincere. "No hard feelings, roomie."

His smile is beautiful. "You just proved again what I knew about you." His arm squeezes me. "Thanks."

"What did you know?"

"You're completely honest and you've got real pride. In addition, you trust me even if we've known each other just a few hours. You proved that when you paid for my books."

"So?"

"I'll say this only once then it's forgotten. You're the complete opposite of that leech I roomed with last year. He was always sucking up trying to get money out of me. You're the first guy I've ever met doesn't want anything from me."

"Oh, yes, I do."

He looks astonished. "What?"

"Respect and friendship. I don't get much from anybody but my parents."

He jerks me up and hugs me tightly. "Both are earned, but you've sure earned all I can give you." He turns me loose and smiles. "Let's blow this joint and go somewhere for a good meal. My treat."

"Dining hall isn't that bad."

"You gonna make me kick butt?" He grins. "Go get ready, cause we're eating out and you're going to tell me the good places in town."

When we're in his car, I admire the easy way he puts the key in the ignition and drops the selector into Drive with his left hand. I couldn't do better. He turns the wheel easily without a spinner. "Where to?"

I direct him to a small reasonably priced restaurant I get to maybe once a semester as a special treat, like when I do well on exams. He looks at it and shakes his head. "I mean a good place."

"The Barn is probably what you're used to, but it's too damned expensive."

"Don't give me that. Where is it?"

Twenty minutes later he pulls up and parks in the lot. The odor of roasting beef is heavy from the chimney of the open-hearth grill they use. He sniffs appreciatively. "This is more like it."

I'm glad he insisted I put on slacks and a sports shirt instead of my usual jeans and T-shirt. I'll barely make the required dress as it is. We're early enough to get a table without waiting.

"You like steak?" He asks.

"When I can afford it."

"Let me order, then." He refuses the menu and rattles off an order for two filet mignon, herbed potatoes, fresh asparagus, and salads with avocado. Then a campari and soda with a twist of lime, chilled but with no ice. He looks at me. I only shrug, so he orders one for me too.

When it comes, I sip my drink cautiously. It's mildly bitter, but refreshing and the aftertaste is pleasant.

"What do you think?" He asks.

"Unusual, but it's not bad."

"You're not a drinker?"

"Can't afford more than a beer once in a while."

"All the more reason to like you. One's my limit."

A few minutes later the waiter sets our plates before us. He tries to be discreet when he points to Hank's filet and says, "Sir?"

"No."

He leaves hastily and Hank smiles at me. "You don't mind helping your poor one armed roommate, do you?"

I grin. "I'd of killed you if you'd let him cut it."

"'Kay, buddy." He slides his plate across to me. "Have at."

I cut his filet and push his plate back. "It's so tender I think you could have cut it with your fork. How do you manage when you're alone?"

He smiles. "Most of the places I eat alone when I'm home know me, so they cut it in the kitchen. Otherwise I use my arm. I forgot to bring it from home because that's where I use it most."

This is one dinner I'll never forget - food that's out of this world and the stud of my dreams sitting across the table for me to admire. Heaven can't be any better than this.

Hank doesn't ask if I want dessert, but orders two demitasse and B&B. Our waiter looks perplexed. "I don't think we have any demitasse, just coffee."

Hank nods. "Coffee, Blue Mountain."

"We only serve Columbian, sir."

"That'll have to do then."

The minute I get back to our room, I'm hiding the jar of instant I bought.

"I don't remember ever eating that good. Thanks, Hank." I say when we're headed back to campus.

"My pleasure, buddy. That's not a bad place; we'll have to do it again before long."

"Wish I could return the favor." I saw the century note he put on the tray. I didn't see all the change returned, but it was darn little.

"Forget it. This is our kickoff to a great year. The gods smiled on me when they gave me you for a roommate."

Friday is our first day of classes and I have only one prof that holds a full class, so I'm back in our room when Hank comes in. He drops his books on his desk and looks at his watch. "Better get in some old jeans, buddy, cause it won't be long before we're going to work."

"At what?"

Before he can answer, there's a knock at our door. Hank opens it and greets the two guys standing there. "Right on time. Haul it up while Damian and I make some room."

I help him push our beds to one side of the room, dump what's in our desk drawers on our beds, just in time for the men to set our old desks in the hall before bringing up a large flat cardboard wrapped section of the work station. After they've made six trips the floor is stacked. I look at it shaking my head, wondering if I'll ever get it together. Hank tips them each a twenty. As they turn to go, he asks, "Isn't there something else?"

The bigger man snaps his fingers. "Almost forgot. There's a box in the cab. Be right back."

Hank takes the box he's handed and puts it on the bed, then rips it open. "Okay, buddy. Here's your chance to see my hook."

I watch him slip a sock on his stump, put his stump in the plastic socket, and work his way into the harness. I don't see how he does it, but I see the arm lift, then the hook open and close. Hank smiles. "Let's go to work." He points to one of the cartons. "That one first."

I prize the big staples out with my jack knife and rip it open. Hank lays each piece out carefully. When he picks up a large plastic bag of hardware, he looks at me. "Got a screwdriver?"

"No. What are we going to do?"

"If I haven't got one in the car, I'll have to go get a couple."

He returns a few minutes later with two screwdrivers and a smile. "Success. Lay out the instruction sheets and let's get busy."

He's more facile with the hook than I expected. He notices me watching. "What? You didn't think I could use this thing?"

"Never saw one in action before."

He smiles. "Be glad it is in action, buddy, or you'd be doing this by yourself."

When we have the base units made up he asks, "What time is it? I'm getting hungry."

I glance at my watch. "Nineteen thirty. Dining hall's closed. Want me to run down and get a couple of burgers?"

"Where?"

"It's off campus, but I've got my bike."

"Hell, I'll drive. We'll get take out."

It feels good to relax a little, but as soon as we've eaten we're back at the assembly. About midnight the workstation's complete and in place.

"That was a lot of work, but it's worth it."

"We aren't done yet," Hank says, pointing to three big boxes in the corner. "You get one and I'll get the other, and be damned careful with your knife when you cut the box open."

I lift out an upholstered chair of the type most secretaries use, and plop down in it. Hank lifts the other chair out of the box and sits down too. "Like it?"

"Oh, man, it's so comfortable I probably won't get any work done."

"Better than those butt busters came with the room." He grins. "One more to go."

He gets up and rips the top off the remaining box. I help him lift out a small refrigerator that fits neatly under the far end of the workstation.

"Any more surprises?" I ask.

"That's it. Let's hit the hay. We can finish up the room tomorrow."

We wake about noon and run over to the dining hall for something to eat. As soon as we're back in our room we push our beds against the other wall with the nightstand between them. To my surprise, the room seems larger and it's certainly easier to get around in.

"This is great. How'd you plan it out so well?" I ask.

"Setting up display rooms in the main store. This worked better than I thought."

Hank is such a great guy to room with I keep my resolve to mend my ways and be as neat as I can, but it depends on my mood changes. Not a week later I'm curled up on my bed when he comes in from class. This is the first day since we've been together that I'm on a real downer. Hank reaches over and puts his hand on my shoulder, but I shake it off.

"What's wrong? You pissed at me about something?"

I just shake my head, keeping my face buried in my pillow so he won't see my tears.

"Snap out of it, guy. What's got you so down?"

I roll over and look at him. "Don't mind me. I get like this once in a while."

"I don't like seeing a guy I like hurting like this."

"It's just one of those days. I got a D on that paper in Business Organization. The prof said it was bullshit, but, damn it, I did it this past summer."

"Hell, some people wouldn't recognize the truth if it bit 'em in the butt."

"I guess, but it seems like I'm always getting put down."

To my surprise he holds out his stump. "Think this didn't get me down a lot? Well, it did. I heard 'poor little cripple boy' so much when I was a kid I actually began to believe it." He grins. "That's why I don't use my hook. Hell, let 'em look. I don't care any longer." He drops his stump. "Why are you looking at me that way?"

"This is the first time I've seen you really move it since we put the workstation together."

"I don't use it much to keep people from noticing, not that I care. It's habit more than anything else now. I just hated being different."

"I know. I try to keep my difference hidden, too." I wouldn't have said that if I'd been capable of thinking clearly.

He looks at me with raised eyebrows. "The only thing different about you is when you space out." Then he smiles. "And you're better looking than most of the guys I seen so far on campus."

"Ha!"

"I'm not kidding. That's why I can't understand why you don't have lots of friends, specially women."

"You're the one I thought would be drawing women like flies to honey."

"Not likely to find many want a guy with one arm. Besides, what makes you think I'd be so interested?"

I have to smile. "A stud like you? Come on."

He narrows his eyes and rakes me over so intensely I'm worried. "You tell me your big secret and I'll tell you mine."

I snicker. "God, this sounds like a couple of kids in grade school. You show me yours and I'll show you mine."

Hank grins. "So?"

I shake my head. "I like you, Hank, but if I tell you, you'll be out of here."

"I doubt it. You're gay, aren't you?"

I nod and drop my head because I can't trust myself to speak the word. When I look up, he's smiling. He gets up and comes over to sit on my bed beside me, putting his arm around my shoulders and pulling me closer. I go into shock when he kisses me.

"I wanted to do that the first time I saw you."

That's all I hear, because the next thing I remember he's slapping my face fairly hard and saying, "Wake up, buddy. Wake up."

I struggle back up to a sitting position. "What happened?"

"You blacked out. You do this often?"

"Once or twice before."

"Did you hear what I said just before you passed out?"

I shake my head. "Something about … did you kiss me?"

"Yeah. Don't pass out this time." He kisses me again.

"You … you're gay, too?"

"Always have been." He holds out his stump again. "This was always good as a distraction when I thought somebody was about to ask me that."

It distracts me to the point that without thinking I lean over and kiss the end.

He looks at me wide-eyed. "Damn! Are you a devotee, too?"

"I'm sorry, but when you walked in the room that first day and I saw it I wanted to do that. This, too." I kiss him.

He pulls me up and hugs me. "I've got a feeling we're going to have a great year together."

"Hank?"

"Yeah?"

"When a guy hugs me I want both his arms around me."

He pulls back a little. "I've only got one as you just nicely reminded me."

"Nothing wrong with what you've got left."

This time I feel his stump pressing against my left side. After I kiss him, I say, "That's more like it."

"This is gonna be a great year." He grins at me. "Gonna make one more change in the room."

"What?"

"This." He unplugs the clock and lamp and drags the night stand to my side and pushes our beds together. "I want you where I can touch you any time."

My dream's come true. "Your best idea yet."

I've seen Hank's awesome bod every morning, but that night is one I'll never forget. He's bigger than I in every way and my hands explore every inch of him, but his stump gets any attention I have left after we kiss. I love feeling it back of my neck when I'm drifting off to sleep.

I'm smart enough not to try to help Hank do anything unless he asks, but I love watching him. When he catches me at it he just smiles. I'm up on all my homework and reading for relaxation when he gets up from his desk and stretches.

"Done?" I ask.

"Yeah. You want a drink?"

"You fixing a pot of coffee?"

"Naa." He opens the fridge. "Damn! Out of drinks. Guess I'll get a Coke from the machine."

"Get me a Pepsi, then. Need some change?"

"Naa."

He comes back with the Coke in his hand and my Pepsi under his stump. "Get it quick. My stump's freezing."

I take the can and set it on the table, then rub his stump to warm it up.

He sits down beside me and rewards me with a kiss, then pulls the tab and takes a drink before setting the can down beside my Pepsi. "Do me a favor, buddy?"

"You have to ask? What?"

He holds out his hand so I can see. "This is asking a lot, but would you cut my fingernails for me? There's no way I can do it."

I smile, because I love to hold his hand. "Anytime." I pull out the manicure set my mother gave me when I left home. "How close?"

"Very. You know, like musicians'."

In other words, he wants them like mine. I have to keep mine cut close because I play piano a little, and while I was taking lessons my teacher was always on me about it. Now it's habit.

While I'm filing them smooth, he grins. "You do it a lot better than the guy at the barber shop that used to do them for me. Why?"

I raise his hand, turn it over, and kiss his palm. "Because I love holding your hand."

"Now I'm just sorry I don't have the other hand for you to do."

"And deprive me of this? No way." I lift his stump and kiss it.

"I love the way you make me feel, even there."

"What do you mean 'even there'? Hell, how often do I have to remind you it's beautiful?"

"Until you make me believe it." He leans over and kisses me.

For lack of a better term, we settle in to domestic bliss. We both go to our classes and labs, but we're too happy together to mingle with other students, though I often see some girls giving us the once over in the dining hall and library.

The week before Thanksgiving, Hank asks, "What are you doing over the long weekend?"

"I'll probably stay here. It's too far for me to go home for just a long weekend with exams and then Christmas break coming up."

"You're really not going?"

"Can't stretch the budget that far even if there was some kind of public transportation to where I live."

"I'm sorry, but I'm glad, too."

"That's a hell of a thing to say."

He pulls me closer and kisses me. "I'm glad because that means you're coming home with me."

"Naa, man. You'll be with your family."

"For Thanksgiving dinner and that's all. I need you to come with me, love, cause I'll be lonely as hell without you."

"You sure?"

"Hey, if I've got anything to be thankful for, it's you. Having you there will make it better than it's ever been before. Please?"

"When could I resist you, stud? I'll go if you really want me."

"I do. You just don't know how much."

Tuesday night we start packing so we can leave as soon as our last class is over Wednesday. "What am I going to need?"

Hank looks over my meager wardrobe. I have plenty of jeans and all, but nothing really dressy. He reaches in the closet and pulls out my one suit, then my only blazer and pair of slacks. "These will have to do. You can get by with jeans the rest of the time." This leaves me wondering just how they live.

The drive takes only an hour and a half. Hank's not much for talking when he's driving, so I settle back and enjoy the classical music he's got going on the radio. I look up when he slows and says, "Here we are."

"This is where you live?" The house ahead looks big as a hotel to me.

Hank grins at me after he's stopped in front. "Unless the old man decided to move somewhere else. Welcome to home not so sweet home."

I'm getting out when the front door opens and a middle-aged man in striped trousers, white shirt with a black bow tie, and a black vest comes down the steps. I start to speak, but Hank says, "Put our bags in my room, Barton. I won't be using the car again today."

"Of course, Mr. Henry."

Hank grabs my arm and says, "Come on, buddy. You'll meet the parents at dinner."

Hank snickers at my expression when we're in the entry. He has every right because I must look like the village idiot gawking at the walnut paneled walls and marble floor. He takes my hand and practically pulls me up the sweeping stairs. We walk down a broad hall then he opens a door to a room that looks big enough to hold our entire house. "This is it."

He has a king-size four-poster bed, a big antique chest of drawers, a huge armoire, and near one of the double windows a large partners desk. There's a twenty-inch flat monitor and a keyboard on it, but no sign of the computer itself.

My looking is interrupted by Barton bringing in our bags. He sets them down and looks at Hank. "Dinner will be served in forty-five minutes, sir. Shall I put the gentleman's bag in the room next door?"

"Leave 'em here. This is my roommate at school, Damian Pharoh."

He nods, says, "Sir," to me and leaves.

"Okay, buddy, let's get a shower and shave. Tonight's informal, so your blazer will be fine."

I start to strip as does Hank. "You want the shower first?" I ask.

He grins. "It's big enough for both of us, but we don't have time for any fun, damn it."

I find out what he means, because besides a big Jacuzzi, the glass shower stall is big enough for four people I'll swear. There are three shower heads lined vertically. We get in and Hank turns them all on. Oh, man, pure luxury, especially when he puts a lightly scented body gel on the bath cloth and begins to scrub me. I've dreamed of showering with him in privacy, but the bath at school is shared. When he's finished, I get to wash his beautiful bod. I'd like to take this further, but he playfully slaps my hand and gives me an evil grin. "No time now, but tomorrow I'm making up for it."

We have to rush to get dressed, but I'm fascinated when Hank puts on his arm and switches the hook for a hand that looks almost real. I tie his tie for him and slip into my blazer, which thankfully is dark blue. Hank's is almost the same shade.

He leads me down to what he tells me is the family living room, and across to the older couple. The man is wearing a dark suit, and the woman a fancy dress. "Mother, father, this is my roommate Damian Pharoh."

I speak to her and shake his father's hand. His mother looks me over carefully then says, "What an unusual name. May I ask its derivation?"

"I have no idea, ma'am."

"Your accent is unusual also," Hank's father says. Lots of people think I talk funny because of the way I pronounce i as oi. My dad told me it's old English.

Hank hands me a drink, but I've no more than taken a sip when Barton comes in wearing a white jacket and says, "Dinner is served, madam."

I start to follow them, but Hank tells me to leave my drink. I don't drink except when Hank and I go somewhere nice to eat, but I was taught not to waste and this seems ridiculous.

When we enter the dining room, my eyes open wide. There must be a dozen chairs at a long table. Hank's parents sit at either end, and Hank motions for me to sit across from him midway. The light from the big crystal chandelier is dim and two tall silver candlesticks hold five lighted candles each. The expanse of silver on each side of my plate leaves me clueless. I'll have to watch what Hank does.

A maid brings in a loaded tray, and Barton sets a small bowl of soup in front of me first, then serves the others. When I see Hank's mother pick up a spoon with a round bowl I do the same. Whatever it is, the soup is so good I could make a meal off it alone.

While the bowls are being removed, Hank's father looks at him. "How do you like the university, son?"

"Quite a bit, father. I never expected to have such a fine roommate as Damian."

"Oh?" There's a note of skepticism in his voice.

"Damian is kind and considerate in every way." He winks at me. "He also keeps me from being distracted when we study."

His father looks at me. "How do you manage that?"

"I don't know, sir, but when I study, Hank does also. We do most things together."

"Then I'm pleased. Henry has needed a steadying hand."

Barton begins to pass dishes around, so conversation ceases until he's finished.

I don't recognize half the stuff I'm served. It's all good, though I don't care for the gravy served with the slices of beef. Dessert is an apple dumpling which I love, but I'd prefer plain cream to the hard sauce.

I'm surprised when Hank's mother folds her napkin, and Barton pulls her chair back. She stands and looks at me. "We'll have coffee in the lounge."

We go back to what I'd call the living room, and Barton passes around coffee and an orange liqueur. I can't resist walking over and looking at the Steinway concert grand piano. I'd love to give it a try.

"Do you play?" Hank's mother asks.

"Just a little. I haven't had time for lessons since I started college."

"Make time, then. You will be happy you did later on. I had so hoped Henry would play, but after his foolish accident …," she leaves it unfinished.

Since I'm not invited to try the piano I go back to my seat.

"What does your father do?" Hank's dad asks.

"He has a store up by the inlet sells fishing supplies."

"Fishing supplies?" I'd swear I see their noses go up slightly.

"The kind used on charter boats. Lot's o' summer people go fishing, so he's got a pretty good business. Not many people know how to repair reels the right way, specially the big ones, so if he's busy with those my mom and I run the store. I worked as a mate on my uncle's charter boat when I was in high school."

"Is that a responsible job?" Hank's mother asks.

"Yes, ma'am. If somebody hooks a big one like a marlin or swordfish, I have to standby in case they need help."

"Extraordinary. I thought fishing was a commercial enterprise."

"It is, but we cater to sport fishing."

"What are you studying at the university?" Hank's dad asks.

"Accounting, sir. There's a need for one in our area. I hope to take some tax law as well."

This gets me a smile. "I'm delighted to hear that you're trying to improve your situation. Law is a worthy profession. I have several tax lawyers working for the company."

Hank stands. "If you will excuse Damian and me, mother?"

She nods.

When we're in his room, Hank says, "Sorry. I should have warned you you'd get the third degree. My parents are rather stuffy." He grins. "But wait til you meet grandmother tomorrow. You'll like her. She can really put the old man down. Want some coffee?"

"Yeah. Any more of those apple dumplings left? They're sure good."

He winks at me. "Mamie will love you for that. Let me get this arm off and we'll go down the backstairs. Hell, let's get comfortable."

We change into jeans and sweatshirts, then I follow Hank to the kitchen. The cook and Barton are sitting at the table having a cup of coffee. Hank nudges me with his stump.

"That was the best apple dumplin' I've ever had besides my mother's." I tell the cook. The white of her teeth, displayed in a smile against her dark skin is dazzling.

She stands up. "Why bless your heart. I'm so glad you like 'em." She looks at Hank. "That why you boys come down?"

Hank grins at her. "You bet, Mamie. Got some left? Damian wants one with plain cream, so do I."

Her smile is genuine. "Just set yourselves down while I heat one up fer you."

Barton drops his stiff ways and smiles. "You seem real happy now, Hank."

"You don't know how much. Damian's a great roommate."

"Good. I bet your grandma is gonna love 'im."

Hank grins. "You know it."

At my first bite of the dumpling swimming in heavy cream I close my eyes and groan in pleasure. "This is a lot better than the one I had at dinner."

"I 'spect you like plain food like my boy here. Dumplin's best with cream 'stead of that other stuff."

"Always was, Mamie," Hank says.

"That's all right, baby. Your momma told me to cook pumpkin pie fer tomorrow but I got more dumplin's in the fridgerator, so you all can have one tomorrow night if you want."

"Thanks, Mamie."

"Baby, don't you go off back to school widout coming to say goodbye, cause I's fixing you somethin' to take back."

"Great. The food at school's okay, but it sure isn't yours."

She gives him a big smile.

We sleep late the next morning. Hank wakes me about ten with a kiss. "Morning, love." I kiss him back.

We go down to the kitchen where Mamie fixes us some breakfast, and tells us dinner will be at five. Hank takes me for a ride so I can see his hometown. It's beautiful to me because of the hills.

We get back in time to enjoy a little fun during our shower. We dress in our suits for dinner, then join his parents in the living room. It's only a few minutes before Barton opens the door and a tiny old woman using a cane walks in. I'm not sure what to expect, because she looks so prim. "Mother," Hank's mom says. His dad goes over and kisses her, but she pulls away when he puts his hand under her arm to help her. "Where's my boy?" She demands.

Hank rushes over, hugs and kisses her. "How ya' doin' gran'ma?"

"Tolerable well." She points to me. "Who's that?"

"Damian Pharoh. My roommate from school."

I take her frail hand in mine. "It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am."

She pokes Hank with her cane. "I like this 'un already. You come talk to me, young man."

I put my hand under her arm and help her to a sofa on the far side of the room. When she sits down, she nods. "Got manners, too. Where you from boy?"

I tell her and the questions begin. I answer as best I can, liking her direct way of speaking. She finally nods. "Damn good people down on the Banks. Talk funny like you, but salt of the earth," she looks over at Hank's parents, "unlike some I can name."

"What 'cha been up to, gran'ma?" Hank asks.

She cackles. "Kickin' ass at the poker table, if you must know."

"Mother!" Hank's dad exclaims.

"Stuff it, Henry. I'll say what I damn well please."

"But we have a guest, mother."

"Damn nice boy, too. Glad Hank's found one with some gumption. He's cute too. I like a kid talks straight. Ain't heard that accent since your daddy and me used to go down there fishin' together."

"You like to fish, ma'am?" I ask her.

"Lord, yes! Henry and me, that's Henry's daddy, used to go down to the beach every year an' fish. Course there weren't so many boats would take you out in the Gulf Stream in those days, but Henry always used the same one."

"Do you remember the name, ma'am?"

"As best I can recollect, it was the Princess."

"That was my grandfather's boat!"

"I knew your name sounded familiar." She hugs me. "How's the old fool?"

"He died about ten years ago."

"Damn that's a shame! He was one fine man. Why I'll never forget the day I caught one of those big swordfish. Made the mate cut 'im up into steaks. Now that was good eatin', boy."

"It sure is, ma'am. Most people now-a-days want 'em mounted for a trophy. Waste o' good meat to my way o' thinkin'. But, you know, I bet the mate was my daddy."

"That so? You come from good folks, boy, an' don't you never ferget it, neither."

"No, ma'am. If you'll let me know, I'll get my uncle to take you fishin' again."

"Oh, Lordy, boy, don't I wish! Hell, I couldn't even pull in a little minnow now, but I thank ya fer askin'. Help me up."

I do and hand her, her cane.

"What would you like, mother?" Hank's dad asks.

"Nothin' that concerns you. I'm goin' to speak to Mamie."

"She's busy with dinner, mother," Hank's mother says.

"She can take a minute to talk to me. Ain't goin' to hurt nothin' if dinner's five minutes late." She squeezes my arm. "Let's go, boy."

Hank takes her by the other arm. She looks at Hank's dad and chuckles. "Ain't had two handsome young men walk with me since I was a belle."

We have to walk slowly for her, but the minute I push open the kitchen door she yells loudly,"Mamie, damn it, come talk to me."

"Miss Trudy! Sure is good to see you." Mamie hugs her. "How you doin'?"

"How the hell you think an old crock like me's doin'?"

Mamie laughs. "You don't never change, Miss Trudy."

"I hope not. What's fer dinner?"

"Cornish hens."

"Damn scrawny excuses fer chicken. What the hell's wrong with turkey on Thanksgiving, I want to know. What's fer dessert?"

"Punkin pie, like always."

"Hate punkin pie!"

Mamie smiles, "I 'members Miss Trudy. I got some apple dumplin's made."

"Knew you wouldn't ferget me ner Hank, Mamie. I want heavy cream on it, too."

"Yes, ma'am. Just like the boys."

"Knew Hank had good sense. This boy's," she looks at me, "got plenty. Comes from good sensible folks."

"That he does, ma'am."

"You always was a good judge of people, Mamie." She takes my hand and Hank's. "Alright, I've bothered Mamie long enough. Let's go."

"Lord, you ain't no bother, Miss Trudy."

"I know, but you know how Eleanor gets on her high horse if things ain't done on time."

After Hank's grandmother is back on the sofa with Hank and me seated on either side of her, Hank's dad asks, "A sherry before dinner, mother?"

"Damn it, Henry! You ought to know by now I don't like that slop. Gimme a scotch on the rocks."

"But, mother, you know what your doctor said."

"He's a quack. I'm old an' I know it, an' I'm enjoyin' what time I got left. Hank, go get it for me."

"Yes, gran'ma."

When he's gone to the bar, she points her cane at Hank's father. "Why do you always act like a perfect ass, Henry?"

"Mother!" His face turns red.

"Don't 'mother' me. I don't know why you always act so damn stuffy. I told you life's too short not to enjoy it. It ain't like you don't have enough money."

"I wouldn't have if I didn't work hard."

"I never faulted you for that. You're smart, Henry, but you ought a learn to relax. You, too, Eleanor."

"I do, mother," she replies.

"Hunh!"

"Dinner is served, madam." Barton announces.

Hank's grandmother grasps my arm. "You're goin' in with me. I like you, boy."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Stop callin' me ma'am. Call me gran'ma like Hank does."

"Yes, gran'ma."

She punches me on the arm. "That's better. Now help me up." I help her up and we trail behind the others.

There's a place set next to the one in front of where Hank's standing. I guess it's intended to be mine, but his grandmother points at him. "Go round the other side, Hank. I want this young man next to me."

There's no soup this time. The maid immediately begins to serve dinner after Hank's dad places a hen on each plate stacked in front of him, which Barton brings to us.

Hank's grandmother looks at the plate the maid sets in front of her and snorts, "What the hell's wrong with turkey, Eleanor?"

"It's so commonplace, mother. Cornish hens are much nicer."

"Undersexed chickens, if you ask me. Barton?"

"Yes, ma'am?"

"Where's the cranberry sauce?"

I see him roll his eyes. "I'll see if Mamie has any prepared, ma'am."

"You do that, an' if she ain't, open a can."

"Of course, ma'am."

I don't dare look at Hank, because if I do I'll start laughing. Barton is back immediately and places a dish of whole-cranberry sauce in front of her. She helps herself liberally, then punches me. "Want some?"

"Thank you, ma'am."

"Save some for me," Hank says.

His mother looks at us and sighs. Barton fills our wineglasses with white wine. Gran'ma takes a sip of hers, then smiles. "You picked a decent one, Henry. It's about time."

"I'm glad you like it, mother."

The Cornish hens are good, but I hate to eat chicken with a knife and fork. I'd feel more comfortable holding the drumstick in my fingers, but I try to copy what Hank does. It's hard for me to eat instead of laughing at the comments gran'ma keeps whispering to me. I look up and see Hank grinning. He hasn't heard her, but he knows his grandmother.

Hank's mother looks surprised when Barton sets an apple dumpling in front of gran'ma first. "Did something happen to the pies, Barton?" She asks.

"No, madam. Mrs. Allison told me to serve her and the boys dumplings with cream."

She sighs. "Very well."

As soon as we've finished our coffee, gran'ma looks at Hank's mom. "That was a very nice dinner, Eleanor."

"Thank you, Mother. I wish you would dine with us more often."

"I'd die of boredom," gran'ma whispers out of the side of her mouth to me, then says loud enough to be heard, "Thank you. Eleanor, but it's far too much trouble. If you will excuse us, I want to talk to the boys in Hank's room."

"Of course, mother."

I look at Hank. He gives me a slight shrug, then gets up. We help gran'ma to the little elevator, then run up the stairs to meet her. After she's in a comfortable chair, she tells us to sit down where she can see us, so we sit beside each other on Hank's bed.

"Hank, you and Damian are having dinner to my place tomorrow. Your Uncle Ted is coming."

"Ted! Really?"

"He always comes to see me over Thanksgiving. If Henry wasn't such an asshole, he'd invite him here."

"You're gonna like Ted, Damian."

"Shut up, Hank. I got a question, and don't you lie to me."

"Yes, gran'ma?"

"You boys room together at school, don't you?"

"Yes."

"More than that?"

Hank smiles. "Yes, gran'ma. We sleep together."

She looks at me sternly. "You in love with Hank, Damian?"

"Yes, ma'am." Somehow it's easy to say it to her.

"That nub of an arm he's got don't bother you none?"

"He's beautiful, gran'ma. Nothin' about him I want to change."

She gives me a big smile. "I knew I liked you, boy. You keep Hank happy cause I love you both. You be good to each other too, cause you make a handsome couple. Hell, if I was a girl I'd be chasin' you, queer or not."

"It's gay, gran'ma," Hank says.

"Fancy way of sayin' queer. Don't make no difference to me, cause I love you, Hank, an' ain't nothin' goin' to change my mind."

He gets up and kisses her. "Love you, too, gran'ma."

She looks at me so I kiss her too.

"Help me up and you boys take me home. I'm too tired to listen to your daddy's mouth."

Hank's sports car has two seats so we use one of his dad's sedans. Gran'ma lives in a beautiful retirement home. The minute we're in, she picks up the phone and tells somebody she's back and wants to go to bed. She gives us each a kiss on the cheek.

"Thanks fer bringin' me home. Now you boys go have some fun."

"See you tomorrow night, gran'ma," Hank says.

"Me, too," I add.

"An' bring me a bottle of scotch. You know the brand, Hank."

"I will."

"Your grandmother's terrific," I tell Hank on our way home.

"I love her more than anything. She and Mamie raised me. Mother was always busy with her clubs and things."

I reach over and stroke the end of his stump. "What happened?"

"Lawn mower. I had just turned eight. The yard man had gone to the shed for something and left it running, so I got on it and got it in gear. He came running yelling for me to stop, but I didn't know how. It hit the coping around the patio and turned over. That's when it got my arm."

"Damn, that's tough."

"Saved my butt from getting a beating for messing with it, but dad fired the gardener on the spot."

I squeeze it gently and let go. "Improves your looks, as if they needed any help."

"You just had to say that, didn't you?"

"Yeah. You're perfect, just like I told gran'ma."

The next day Hank shows me the main Supco store. He must be liked, because every employee stops to talk with him. I wander over to the computer department and look at all the things I hope to have someday, like a scanner and a CD writer. Hank comes over while I'm looking at the writers.

"You don't have one?"

"Couldn't make it, but I'd like to."

"If you're going to get one, get the rewritable kind. The blanks cost a little more, but you don't have to load it all at one time, and you can write over old files." He picks a box up and holds it out. "Here's the one you want."

I look at the three hundred dollar price and shake my head. "In my dreams, just like a scanner."

"Know what you mean, buddy."

"I do need some floppies."

"Glad you reminded me. I do, too." He picks up a couple of double packs. "I'll get 'em, so we'll get my employee discount."

When we start out, he hands them to the cashier to scan. "Thanks, Amy."

"Sure thing, Hank."

"I'm paying for mine."

"Forget it. She's already scanned them to my account. It's just pocket change."

I know arguing with him is hopeless.

We get lunch at a barbecue place he likes. The sandwiches are oversized hamburger buns so piled with barbecue and slaw it's almost impossible to bite into it.

"Good," I mumble with my mouth full.

"Yeah. I like it a lot. I always have to remember to use my arm cause they're too big for one hand."

It's turning colder so we go back to his house. I stop to look at the piano again.

"Go on and try it," Hank says.

"Sure it's okay?"

"Yeah. There's some music in the bench if you need it."

I find a book of Chopin and play one of the simpler pieces.

"That was nice. Why didn't you tell me you could play like that?"

"Been so long I made a couple of mistakes. This is wonderful to play on."

"Doesn't get much use. Mother plays a little, but it was gran'ma could really play it."

"I noticed she has arthritis in her fingers. That why she quit?"

"Yeah. Wish she could have heard you. Play something else. I'll put the top up."

I find some of the Bach Inventions and play a couple. With the top up it sounds a lot better in the big room. I love playing it because it's so much more responsive and nicer sounding than the old upright I've got at home. Our climate is hell on a piano though.

"Damn, guy! You've got to start taking again."

"Don't have time."

"Make it. You've got talent."

"Not much. I enjoy it, but I'll never be really good."

"You already are." He looks at his watch. "We'd better get ready to go to gran'ma's. Don't let me forget to get her scotch before we go."

"You're not going to get it on the way?"

"Naa. I'll get a bottle out of the case in cellar. The old man won't miss it. I'll get some campari for us and Ted."

When we get there, Hank just opens the door and we walk in. Gran'ma is playing cards with a guy looks a lot like Hank, except he's in his thirties and has a thick black mustache.

"Hank, baby!" He yells and lays his cards down, jumping up to hug Hank. I go over and kiss gran'ma.

She smiles at me. "Glad somebody's got some manners. Come give me a kiss, Hank."

He does, then introduces me. "Ted, this is Damian."

"Damn, boy! Where'd you find him?"

"At school."

"I told you Hank finally met up with the right man, Ted." Gran'ma says.

"Good looking, too. I'll run you a race for 'im, Hank."

Hank grins. "Not a chance. He's all mine and special."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. He loves my stump more than you do."

"Another devotee? I know we're going to have a talk now."

"You ain't talking til you get over here and finish this last hand," gran'ma says.

"Alright, momma." He goes back to the table, picks up his cards and grins, then lays them down on the table, face up.

"Damn it!" Gran'ma says, slamming her card down. "That's twenty I owe you."

Ted winks at me. "Don't ever play cards with momma. I'm into her for fifty already."

"One day you're gonna learn how to play, Ted. You bring my scotch, Hank?"

"Right here, gran'ma. Brought some campari for Ted and us."

"Then don't stand there babblin'. Go mix us one."

"Got'cha, gran'ma. Come on, Damian."

I'm not in the least surprised to see Mamie's round face in gran'ma's tiny kitchen, nor is Hank. He told me on the way over that what gran'ma wants, gran'ma gets because her husband started Supco and gran'ma holds controlling interest. Hank's dad plays it very careful where she's concerned.

Dinner is great, crispy fried chicken which we all eat with our fingers after gran'ma picked hers up and said, "This is the way to eat chicken." There are more apple dumplings for dessert, too.

After dinner gran'ma keeps us in hysterics with some wild stories about the people that live in the retirement center. She tells us a few on Ted, too, but he just laughs, then tells some on gran'ma.

When we're leaving, Ted pulls me to one side and hands me a piece of paper. "When you get back to school, pull these sites up and show 'em to Hank. Make sure he sees all the pictures in the last site."

"Sure. What kind of pics are they?"

Ted grins. "The kind you'll like from what momma told me. Hank's in for a big surprise."

Sunday morning Hank's parents drag us to the Episcopal church. I'm glad Hank keeps me on track because it's a lot different from the little Methodist church I'm used to. Frankly, I find the sermon so dull I almost go to sleep. Good thing it was short.

When we're ready to leave for school after dinner, we go back to the kitchen. Mamie opens a small cooler. "I made you some more dumplin's, and that pimento cheese you like. There's some nice sliced ham, an' Barton done got you some o' that barbecue and slaw you likes, too. There's plates an' cutlery in the picnic basket. Barton done put that in your car."

Hank hugs her. "I love you, Mamie."

She returns his hug. "I loves you too, honey. You bring your friend back real soon."

It's nice to know we'll eat well for a few days.

Our good-byes to his parents are as stiff as my welcome, giving me an idea they're glad to see me leave, but it makes me glad I've got the family I have. I know I've got to write them a bread and butter note, as my mom calls them, but it's going to be a tough job.

The moment I've gotten everything put away from our trip, I sit down at my computer and pull up the last site from the list Ted gave me; the one he said I should make sure Hank sees. It's all pictures of amputees. A lot of them are young and nice looking, but they don't come close to being as beautiful as Hank. I look at the thumbnail pics, plus pulling up a few full size. In the last group I see a good looking one armed guy playing ping-pong. I click on it and almost fall out of my chair. It's Hank! And he's playing against another guy whose right arm is gone just below the elbow. I wouldn't kick the other guy out of bed, but Hank is beautiful with his look of concentration.

I must have made some kind of noise, because Hank scoots over in his chair. "What's up?"

I point to the screen. Hank's mouth drops open. "Where the hell that come from?"

"You don't know?"

"I played that guy in a tournament at school last year." He slaps his forehead. "Ted! I forgot he was there."

"He gave me the address and told me to make sure you saw this."

"Scroll down."

Below the picture are several comments from people who've seen the pic wanting to know who he is and where he lives. "If Ted tells them, I'll kill 'im," Hank says.

"I'll help you." I reach over and grab his stump. "This belongs to me."

"Always." He kisses me. "You can look at the pics all you want, but don't go finding anybody you like better."

"Fat chance. It's you I love."

With Christmas break coming up soon I begin to plan out the little shopping I have to do, but it's something for Hank that has me sweating. He has everything, and I can't afford to give him something really nice like I want. I wish I could get something for gran'ma too, but that would have to be equally as special. I've also got to start studying for exams.

My last exam is in the morning; Hank has two that day, so I get on my bike and head for the mall to look around. I find something for my dad and mother and Todd, my younger brother, by which time my checking account is nearly flat. Then, passing a jewelry store I see it - a small silver heart cut in half in a zig-zag way, each half on a silver chain. There's nothing else I could give Hank to show him how much I love him. I go in and ask to see it.

"This is heavy sterling silver. A nice choice for someone you love," the clerk says. "There's room on the back for engraving, if you wish."

"How much?"

"Forty-nine, ninety-five. Engraving is fifty cents a letter."

I shake my head sadly. "More than I've got right now."

She smiles. "If you like it don't wait too long. We only have two in stock."

I wander on down the mall, but I know there's nothing else I want for him. I stop at the food court for a cup of coffee. When I go to pay for it, I see a spot of green in the back of my worn billfold. After I've paid for my coffee I sit down on a bench and lift the flap. A fifty-dollar bill I had forgotten tucking away back in the summer. Coffee forgotten, I sprint back to the jewelry store.
 
I've finished packing my small suitcase by the time Hank comes in from his exam.

"What's your bike doing in here?" he asks.

"So it'll be safe while I'm gone."

"You all ready to go?"

"Tomorrow morning. I've got a ride part of the way and I'll hitch the rest. If I'm lucky I'll be home by suppertime. I'm going to miss you, Hank."

He looks at me thoughtfully, then says, "You aren't going to miss me so quick."

"Why not?"

"I'm driving you home and I plan on sticking around for a day or two. I want to see where you live."

"But it's Christmas! You won't have time to drive me home and all that."

He looks sad. "What else have I got to do? I wouldn't even go home if it weren't for gran'ma. The folks will drag my ass to church Christmas Eve for appearances and we'll have gran'ma over for dinner. That's it."

"No parties and all?"

"Stuff at the club and a few at my parent's friends, but they don't want me around any more than I want to go." He looks up. "Bet it's not that way at your house."

I grin. "No way! We have two Christmases."

He frowns. "How?"

"We celebrate Christmas like you do, but there's Old Christmas, too. That's when the whole community gets together."

"I've heard about that. Sounds like a lot of fun."

"It is. I wish I could invite you to join us."

"Why can't you?"

I shake my head. "Our house is little and nowhere near nice as yours. There's no extra bed, so you'd have to sleep with me."

He grins. "Since when is that a problem?"

I pull him up and hug him. "My folks might think it's funny."

He pulls back and looks me in the eyes. "You willing to try to see if it flies, love? If it don't there's gotta be a motel somewhere close."

"You sure you want to do this? Like I said, we live plain. Nothing fancy."

"I don't care about anything but being with you."

I'm not ashamed of my home or my parents and brother, but I can't see Hank in our house after what he's used to. "I want to be with you, too. I'll call mom and tell her you're coming with me."

Hank goes to the bathroom, so I call mom and explain why I'm bringing him home with me. She tells me not to worry we'll work something out, so it's with a much lighter heart I get in Hank's car the next morning.

When we get to Williamston, Hank stops to get gas. I get us drinks from the machine, but almost drop mine when he tells me to drive. "Hey, look, you know the way. I've never been this way before."

"You don't ever go to the beach?"

"Yeah, but the old man got a condo in Myrtle Beach so he can play golf."

His car is so smooth it sets me to dreaming of the day I can get one like it. Now that 64 is a freeway practically all the way home, we cruise along until I hit the old two-lane highway. Hank looks amazed when we cross the Sound bridge.

"That's not the ocean?"

"Naa. It's the Sound. You can't see the ocean from here. I'll show it to you tomorrow if you want."

I drive through Manteo and on to the south end of the island where I turn off on a sandy lane just outside Wanchese. Our little house backs up to a canal in the marsh. When I stop, I see Hank looking at the weathered plank siding, and screened in porch.

"This is it, buddy. I think my brother's in school, but watch out fer 'im."

We're hardly on the porch when mom rushes out and kisses me. "It's good to have you home, Damian."

I pull away. "This is Hank, mom."

To his surprise he gets hugged. "You're right welcome, Hank. Come on in and make yerself to home."

I look around. "You ain't got the tree up yet?"

"Todd wanted to wait for you. I think he's got his eye on one down the road a piece, but your pa won't let him drive the truck yet so he don't have no way to git it here." She looks at Hank. "Set yerself down. There's coffee if you want."

The pot's always on at our house.

"Thanks, but I need to walk some around after that drive."

"You'll need a jacket; it's a little cool out. Damian, you go show Hank around. Be back by noon cause your daddy'll be wantin' his dinner."

"We will. Thought we might walk down to the store and walk home with 'im."

"He'll like that."

We're walking down the road when Hank asks, "What's that smell?"

I wouldn't notice if I hadn't been away so long. "Mostly the marsh; the tide's out. Some of it's from leavin's."

"Leavin's?"

"You know, where they've cleaned fish and all."

"Oh. That the industry here?"

"'Cept for people in the summer. Been so much fishin' catches ain't what they used to be. The state wants to stop fishin' fer a few years, but if they do, what are people 'round here gonna do fer a livin'?"

Hank grins and punches me on the arm. "Sure didn't take you long to start talking like your mother. I almost didn't understand you."

"It's hard up to school, cause if I talked like this everybody'd make fun of me, but this is how I really talk."

"I'm not laughing at you, love. It's just a side of you I haven't seen before."

"Wha'cha ya see here is what you git."

"And I love it, just like gran'ma did."

We detour so I can show him the docks and the seafood packing plant the state built. It hasn't been that big a success because the way the inlet keeps silting up the big boats can't get in half the time.

"Man, those boats safe?"

"Them's workin' boats, not fancy like them yankees bring in. They may not look like much, but they're sound."

"This what gran'ma and grandad went out on?"

"They was on a sport fishin' boat. Cap'ns keep them prettied up some. I'll show 'em to you. They's some over to the inlet marina."

Dad's store is just a skip from the dock. The building has never been painted so it's weathered to a silver-gray. I walk up on the porch and push the door open, getting a blast of heat from the old oil stove.

Dad looks up from his workbench, then gets to his feet. I go over and hug him. "You lookin' good, son. How be school?"

"Think I done fair good on my 'xams. This is Hank, my roommate. We come to walk you home."

Dad holds out his hand. "Good to make yer acquaintance."

Hank awkwardly grasps dad's hand. "Nice to meet you, sir."

"Stayin' busy, dad?"

"Midlin'. Got some big reels to rebuild fer a few o' the charter boats." He shakes his head. "Folks jus' don' take care o' nothin' no more. Cap'n Scarboro said he was of a min' to quit. Some idiot made a real mess o' his best rig."

Dad doesn't talk much, so the rest of our walk is in silence. When we get to the house, I tell Hank to put on his hook. He looks at me but does.

Mom has fried up a platter of flounder, has some little boiled potatoes with butter, and some butter beans from the freezer. But I'm waiting for the pan of biscuits she takes out of the oven and sets on the table. I grab two and butter them while they're hot. Hank does the same. I love his expression when he takes the first bite. Mom makes the best biscuits I've ever eaten.

Mom's seen it too, because she says, "Don't be shy, Hank. Eat up cause if you don't you won't get much chance when Todd's to the table."

I grin, cause Todd is skinny as a rail but eats like a horse.

"That was a delicious dinner, Mrs. Pharoh. I've never had fish as good as these."

"Ought a be. They was caught this morning," dad says. "Them as been on ice don' taste the same."

"My grandmother's thought exactly, sir. She and my grandfather used to come down here fishing on a boat named the Princess."

"Well, I'll be. What's 'er name?"

"Trudy Allison. She caught a big swordfish one time."

Dad frowns in thought. "She a little tiny thing not bigger'n a minute?"

"Yes, sir."

"I swear I do believe I 'member her. I wasn't more'n Todd's age back then." He grins. "If 'member rightly, she sure could say what she thought."

Hank laughs. "You remember her precisely. She still does. Drives my dad crazy."

"You give her my regards, boy. My daddy was one of the few cap'ns would take a woman out in them days. Women was always considered bad luck on a boat."

"I wish she could have been here today. She won't touch fish back home."

The sun has warmed things up enough to be pleasant with a sweater, so Hank lowers the top on his car and I take him sightseeing. He asks me dozens of questions which luckily I can answer. The sun's about to set when we get back home.

Todd comes flying out the minute he hears the car. "Wow, Dam! Where'd you get that car?" That's pronounced dame, by the way, and only Todd gets away with calling me that.

"It's Hank's," I manage to say before he squeezes the breath out of me. "Damn, guy, you're getting' strong. Turn me loose and meet Hank. He's my roommate at school."

Todd holds out his hand then looks down at Hank's hook. "Damn! Look at that." Though Hank's holding out his left hand, Todd grabs his hook and shakes it. "Good to meet ya. Ya keeping Hank straight?"

Hank laughs. "More like he's keeping me straight."

Todd's still holding Hank's hook. "How'd you lose it?"

"Lawnmower got it when I was a kid."

"I wanna see the rest o' this thing tonight."

"Todd, stop embarrassing company. Mom taught you better than that."

"But I ain't never seen one afore."

"I'm the only guy around with one arm?" Hank asks him.

"Naa, couple of men down the road got arms gone too, but they don' have hooks."

"I don't use mine a lot, but I'll show it to you later."

"Cool. Hey, Dam, I got some clams t'other day. Chowder fer supper."

"Great! Haven't had none since I left home."

"Mom's gonna fix sea gull fer dinner tomorrow."

Hank's look is priceless. "You … you really eat seagulls?"

Todd howls in laughter.

"He's just funnin' you, Hank. He means chicken."

"Whew! I thought he was serious."

"He gives you any crap, just whack 'im side the head with your hook."

"I just might."

Mom's chowder is first rate, full of potatoes and onions. Plenty of clams, of course. It's a good thing she always makes a big pot full, because Hank and I both have two bowls. That and saltines make supper, with plenty of coffee.

Todd asks Hank so many questions, dad tells him to shut up and let us have some peace. Ten is our customary bedtime, so mom tells Todd he's sleepin' on the sofa.

"Please don't do that, Mrs. Pharoh. I'll go to a motel."

"No call fer that."

"Hank can share my bed," I tell mom.

"That will be fine," Hank says.

"Won't hurt Todd none to sleep on the sofa."

"I wouldn't put him out of his bed for anything, and I'm used to Damian being in the room with me. We had to push our beds together to make room for our desks."

"Them rooms that small? Don' seem right."

Hank smiles. "Not so much a matter of the rooms being small, which they are, but we needed big desks for our computers."

"You boys is ol' enough to know yer own minds. Do what you want."

"Thanks. I'll be fine."

Todd follows us down the hall to my room. "What?" I ask him.

"Hank's gonna show me 'is hook."

I look at Hank. "You might as well or you won't get any peace."

Hank pulls off his long sleeve shirt; Todd's attention is riveted on him. He reaches up and touches each part. "How you make it work?"

Hank demonstrates.

"Man, that's sump'en. You do it real smooth, too."

"Takes a lot of doing." Hank slips out of the harness, and holds out his stump for me to rub.

Todd shakes his head and goes to his room. "Sorry, love," I say.

"No sweat. Your brother's a character."

"Typical of kids 'round here, I guess. I hope dad don't never catch him sneakin' a beer. He'll tear his butt up."

"Glad you warned me."

"We're over eighteen, but he still don't like it."

The next day we're off to get the tree Todd has found. We make Hank stay with the truck, because he doesn't have boots on and Todd says it's back on a hummock. We tromp through the marsh about a quarter mile when I see it.

"Ain't it a beauty?"

"Sure is, Todd."

Hank looks surprised when we get back to the truck. "That's a pretty cedar, but aren't they awfully scratchy?"

"When they get dry."

"Don' you use 'em fer Christmas trees?" Todd asks.

"We always use Fraser firs from the mountains."

"Them's the fancy ones I seen in town, ain't they?"

"I expect so. But we don't have a woods we can go to for a tree."

"You missin' a lot o' fun."

I keep expecting Hank to laugh at our tree, because I can just imagine what the one at his house is like. Probably like one I saw in a fancy shop in the mall. But near everything on ours is homemade and carries a lot of sentiment.

"You boys done a nice job," mom says. "Got a fresh pot o' coffee on."

"I should be getting home tomorrow," Hank says when we're around the kitchen table with our coffee, "but this has been wonderful. Thank you for the way you've made me feel so welcome."

"Be our pleasure, Hank. You're welcome any time."

"Damian said something about Old Christmas. I might just come back for that if you don't mind. That way I can take him back to school."

"Oh, my. That's a long way fer you to drive."

"It's no trouble with the new road. Oh, I'm sorry."

"'Bout what?"

"I didn't mean to invite myself back like that."

"You welcome any time like I told ya. If ya get a hankerin' to, just come on."

Mom has boiled some shrimp for dinner. Poor Hank looks completely bewildered when Todd grabs one from the bowl and shells it.

Mom smacks Todd on the hand. "Where's yer manners? He'p yerself, Hank."

He takes the bowl in his hand, the spoon in his hook, and piles some on his plate. After I've gotten some Hank looks at me. "I need some help."

I show him how to hold the shrimp by the tail in his hook and use his fingers to pull the shell off. He grins when he succeeds, but by that time mom has put a handful on his plate. She's fast at shellinghem.

"Damian, I'm ashamed o' ya not helpin' Hank."

"Oh, no," Hank says. "This is something new for me. Damian always helps me when I really need it."

"He better. We tried to raise 'im right," dad says.

"I couldn't ask for a nicer man to room with. We've already put our names together in the housing office so they won't put us with other people next year."

"He done really come out this year. Last year he was awantin' to quit school."

"Not now. Hank's great."

"Mus' be. Sump'en brung yer grades up," dad says. "You're doin' good."

From my dad that's high praise. I don't mean he's unkind, just that good is expected. I'm glad I've made him happy.

After we're in bed, I whisper, "You drivin' straight through tomorrow?"

"Plan to. Why?"

"I saw the cooler still in your car, and gran'ma said she'd love some fresh shrimp. I ain't got her nothin' fer Christmas, so I'll send her some if you'll give 'em to her the minute you're home."

He kisses me. "There's nothing she would like more, specially coming from you. Put in some for me, too."

"You sure that what ya want me to give you fer Christmas?" I tease.

"Yeah, love. This has already been the best Christmas I've had."

"Get on with you."

"I'm not kidding man. The only other place I feel so welcome is at gran'ma's."

"I'm glad, cause we sure don't live like you do."

"That's what's so wonderful. Your parents and brother make me feel wanted."

"You are. Best we don't say how much I want you though."

He covers his snicker with a cough and returns my kiss.

I ask dad about shrimp the next morning.

"Go see if Billy got any first, I think he was agoin' out last night."

Hank and I drive the short distance to the dock. My uncle's sitting on the fantail of his boat heading a few shrimp. "Hey there, boy. How ya doin'?"

"Good, Uncle Bill. You got 'bout ten pounds?"

He laughs. "Thas 'bout half what I got las' night. You wantin' some?"

"I want to send 'em to Hank's gran'ma. She won't eat them frozen things."

"Smart woman. Get yer lazy butt down here and he'p me head 'em."

I sit down a box and start helping. Hank reaches over and picks one up by the tail in his hook and looks at it, then tosses it to me. "Strange looking. Never saw one whole before. Messy job."

"It is, but good eatin'."

'Looks like you're throwing away half of it."

"Jes' 'bout. That's how come they's cheaper with the heads on, but people don' wan' 'em that way," my uncle tells him.

Doesn't take long to finish up, then I get a heavy plastic bag and weigh out ten pounds. I put 'em in the cooler and ice 'em down, then wash off my hands and give Uncle Bill fifteen dollars. He nods and stuffs it in his jeans pocket.

"I can't believe they're that cheap," Hank says on our way home.

"That's what he'd get from the dealer if he had enough to fill a box. He got some free help, too."

I help Hank get his stuff in the car. When he's not looking, I put my tiny gift in the plastic socket of his arm where I know he'll find it when he gets home and goes to put it on. Todd don't understand why I want to ride to the main road with Hank, but when we're there, I reach over and pull him into a hug. "Have a good Christmas, love, I'll miss you."

"I'll miss you, too." We give each other a lingering kiss, then I get out and watch until Hank is out of sight. I walk slowly back home, not feeling the chill.

"Look, Dam, Christmas done come a'ready," Todd says when I walk in. There are several beautifully wrapped packages under the tree.

"Quit playin' with 'em. Ain't Christmas yet."

He brings me a cup of coffee and sits down beside me. "You really think sump'en o' Hank, don' ya?"

"You know it. Not a nicer guy anywhere. An' gran'ma's sump'en else."

"Ain't he got no momma?"

"Yeah. His folks is cold as a chunk o' ice."

Todd shudders. "Bad. Must be mighty rich, his car's real cool."

"They got more money 'an we'll ever see. Don't make 'em happy though, cept fer gran'ma. She's real people."

"You been to their house?"

"Thanksgivin'."

"What's it like?"

He won't stop 'til I've given him a complete description, but he shakes his head at the thought of servants doing everything.

Todd answers the phone when it rings about nine that evenin' and yells, "It's fer you, Dam. Sounds like a real old woman."

I run to the phone and give him a knuckle aside his head. It's gran'ma tellin' me how good the shrimp were and how much she and Hank and Ted enjoyed them for dinner. I know she's gotta be lying, but it makes me feel good when she says it's the nicest Christmas present she's had in a long time. Then Hank gets on the phone to tell me he loves me. With Todd standin' there, all I can say is "Me too. Have a good one."

Christmas morning we open our gifts, but mom won't let Todd touch the prettiest until last. He rips the paper off a small box and lets out a yell, holding up a genuine Swiss army knife.

"Who give you that?" Mom asks.

He pulls a card off the ribbon he cast aside. "It's from Hank."

Mom carefully takes the gold paper off a big box, lifts the top and gasps, "Oh, my." She lifts out a gorgeous damask and lace tablecloth for us to see, then carefully folds it back into the box. I see her wipe a tear. "Hank ought'en done that."

Dad opens his. "Well looky here." It's a nice wooden box containing a graduated set of miniature screwdrivers. I can't believe Hank remembered my telling him dad worked on reels. Dad looks pleased.

"Come on Dam, what you get?" Todd asks, scooting over next to me. I pull the card off and stick it in my pocket to keep him from seeing the 'I love you,' Hank wrote on it. When I pull the paper off, I fall back on the floor.

Todd takes the box out of my hands and looks at it. "You drop that and you're dead meat," I tell him.

"Sump'en fer yer computer, ain't it?"

"Yeah. Like a CD rewriter."

"Cost a lot, I bet."

"Way too much. I love him for it, but he shouldn't o' done it."

"He's done way too much fer all o' us," mom declares. "I hope he comes back like he said so we can thank 'im proper."

"He will. He always does what he says he'll do."

Dad nods. "Good boy that. Wouldn't never know he's got that kind o' money. I'm glad you got a roommate like 'im, Damian."

"I am too, dad. You just don't know how much."

A couple of days after Christmas it turns warm. Mom wants some lemons from the store, so I walk along with Todd. When we're out of sight of the house, he stops. "Dam?"

"Yeah?"

He looks dead serious. "Ya one o' them queers?"

My heart almost stops. "What the hell are you talking about, squirt?"

"We got sex education to school this year but the teacher don' let us talk 'bout nothin'. The book said sump'en 'bout men lovin' other men being ho-mo-sex-u-alls." I grin at his pronunciation. "Teacher said it meant they was queers."

"That's right, but what's that got to do with me?"

"It said some of 'em act like women."

"You ever seen me act like a woman?"

"Naa, but you ain't never had no girl friend neither."

"That doesn't mean a damn thing, and you know it. I don't have many friends anyway."

"Yeah. Ya act like ya don' care 'bout nobody 'cept the folks an' me."

"You'd appreciate that if you ever met Hank's parents. His gran'ma's the only one'll give 'im the time o' day. Look, Todd, I was lonely as hell last year and Hank says he was too. We're both damn glad to be rooming together and we like each other a lot, but that don't mean we're queer."

"Oh. I jes won'ered why you let 'im sleep wid you."

"Because he's too nice a guy to make you sleep on the sofa. I don't mind sharin' my bed with 'im cause our beds ain't that far apart in our room. Anyway, you slept with me a lot when you were a little guy."

"Guess I did. Tha' don' make me queer, does it?"

"No way. Damn, I wish you had a good teacher. It's time you started learnin' about that stuff. Just you remember what momma told you. You don't hate nobody just cause they's different from you."

"I won't. Hell, wouldn' bother me none if ya was queer."

"The word's gay, Todd." I hug him. "I'm glad you'd still like me if I was gay, but don't you go frettin' yourself 'bout it."

"Yeah. I like Hank, too. He's cool."

"He sure is."

I'm relieved to see Todd instantly become his usual carefree self once more.

New Year's Eve Hank drives up. I run to hug him. "I'm glad you came back so quick."

"Oh, man," he sighs, "I couldn't take it at home any longer. I guess gran'ma saw it cause she told me to get my butt back to you. Let me get my bag and let's go to your room."

"Right."

As soon as we're there and I've kicked the door shut, I kiss him. He pulls back a little and pulls the heart I gave him out of his shirt so I can see it, then kisses me hard. "I'm glad I was at gran'ma's when I opened this, cause I cried when I saw what you had engraved on the back."

"Just wanted you to know I love you even if I'm not there to say it."

He kisses me again. "But it's only half. That's the way I feel when I'm not with you."

I take mine out and lay it against his. "Now my heart's whole again, too. I love you, Hank."

"Oh, man, if you only knew how much you mean to me. I …"

The door to my room bursts open. "Hank! Ya come back!" Todd yells.

I reach over and knuckle his head. "Ain't ya ever hear o' knockin', 'stead of bustin' in a door?"

He grins. "Why? Ya guys makin' out er sump'en?"

"Shit head!" I snap at him, but Hank's gone pale.

He reaches up and lifts the heart around Hank's neck. Luckily, I've tucked mine back in my shirt. "Unh, huh, ya got a girl," he crows. "Ya gonna fix Dam up?"

Hank manages a smile. "Your brother does very well for himself. I doubt if he needs my help."

Todd snorts. "Tha's all you know. Hell, I thought being roommates an' all ya'd know he's scared o' girls."

I wink at Hank. "I don't tell you everything, squirt. Some things are none of your business." I look at Hank again. "Guess we'd better go down and let mama know you're here."

"I hope I'm not being a bother to her."

"Naa. Her an' dad'll be glad ya come back. I really love that knife, Hank. I ain't never seen so many gadgets."

Hank reaches over and musses Todd's hair. "Glad you do. Thought a guy like you would find some use for it."

"I'll thank you for mine later," I tell him.

The minute we get in the kitchen, mom hugs Hank. "I'm glad you come back, so I could thank you fer that beautiful table cloth. You ought'en o' done it."

"It's nothing compared to the welcome you gave me. I hope my coming back so soon isn't going to inconvenience you."

"Ya ain't no inconvenience. Ya gonna get treated jus' like Damian and Todd."

"I couldn't ask for more."

"How's gran'ma?" I ask.

Hank shakes his head. "When I told her you got the shrimp straight off the boat just before I left, she went wild. You couldn't have made her happier."

"I was 'shamed it weren't more."

"No way." He leans over and kisses me on the cheek. "She told me to give you a kiss from her for being so thoughtful."

Todd's staring at Hank wide eyed. "Ya done kissed 'im, Hank!"

"Because gran'ma made me promise to. It's from her."

"That's real sweet o' you, Hank. Now ya boys git out o' my kitchen. I got supper to cook."

"Gimme a ride in your car, Hank," Todd demands.

"He doesn't want to give you a ride. He's had a long trip," I say.

"Aww."

Hank tosses me the keys. "You take him, Damian. I'll go get a cup of coffee from your mother and relax."

"No way I'm drivin' this without you in it."

"Then there'd be no room for Todd. Go on. It's just a car."

Todd's already in the passenger seat, looking at me expectantly.

I get in and start the engine. "Okay, where to, squirt?"

"Down main street to Manteo. I wanna show off to my friends."

"I might o' guessed that."

When we hit the main road there's no traffic, so I let it out a little. Todd tunes the radio to a rock station loud enough to rattle my teeth. I turn it down.

"Ya ain't no fun," he growls.

"You turn it back up and it's gonna be a short ride, too."

"Okay, okay. This is cool."

I drive slowly down the one-way street to the waterfront and past a drugstore where the kids Todd's age hang out. There are several standing on the sidewalk. Todd waves more than politician running for office, and I get a few looks from a couple of guys I know.

As I'm driving back toward the highway I see a guy that's always been a bully run for his pickup. I know exactly what he wants - a race. There's no way, especially in Hank's car. When we're on the open highway between Manteo and our village, he keeps taunting me, but I hold a steady speed. It's when he comes up behind me and deliberately bumps the car, my temper pops. I gun it until I reach a turnoff a mile ahead, then skid to a stop and jump out.

He stops beside me making clucking sounds, meaning I'm chicken. I walk around to the door, snatch it open, drags his ass out, and cold cock him before he knows what's happening. Just as calmly I walk back to the car and pull back on the road toward home. Todd's staring at me with his mouth open.

"Damn, Dam! Ya jus' blasted Rob!"

"He shouldn't of hit Hank's car and pissed me off."

"I ain't believing this. Ya whupped his ass."

"Still think I'm gay?"

"Hell, no, man. Ya ain't no sissy. Wait'll Hank hears this."

"You keep your mouth shut. I'll have to tell Hank, but you know how mom is about fighting."

"Yeah." But I can tell he's disappointed. This is the first time I've ever hit anyone in anger.

When I stop at the house, Hank sets his coffee down and comes to the car. "How was it, Todd?"

"Awesome, man. Dam done beat the shit out of Rob cause he bumped yer car."

I get out and look at the rear. There's a dark line on the bumper. "I'm sorry as hell, Hank. This shithead I know bumped us cause I wouldn't race him. I was afraid of something like this, that's why I didn't want to drive it."

Hank licks his finger and rubs the line, then grins. "It's just grease. Forget it."

"Todd, go get a rag and put a little kerosene on it, then come rub this grease off Hank's car."

He takes off fast.

Hank picks up my right hand and looks at my split knuckles. "Damned if you didn't hit something."

I grin. "Been wantin' to get him fer a long time. This time he gimme reason." I grimace. "Might as well go in and face the music."

"For what?"

"Mom don't hold with fightin'. I gotta tell 'er, cause Todd can't keep his mouth shut."

Hank squeezes my hand. "I'll see if I can help you out, but your mom just chased me out of the kitchen, so you'd better hold off."

It goes okay until we're at the table for supper. Dad happens to notice my hand when I reach for the biscuits. "What ya done to yer han'?"

"He done whomped Rob Tayloe's a … butt," Todd blurts.

Dad looks surprised. "Fer what?"

"Hank let me take Todd for a ride in his car. Rob wanted to race and when I wouldn't, he hit Hank's car from behind."

"Hurt it any?"

"No, sir, just a little grease on the bumper. Todd got it off for me," Hank says.

"I'm proud o' ya fer not racing 'im, Damian, but ya know I don't hold wid ya fightin'."

"No, sir."

"Since ya was pertectin' sump'en somebody put in yer care, we'll let it pass this time."

This is most dad has ever said at once. "Thank you, sir."

He looks at Hank. "Ya sure grease were all it was?"

"Yes, sir. Todd cleaned it off very nicely. You can't even tell it was there."

Dad looks at Todd. "Don' ya be pesterin' Hank no more 'bout ridin' in his car."

"No, sir."

The springs on my bed are old, so the mattress sags in the middle. Hank and I immediately roll together the minute we get in.

"I like this bed," he says.

"Why? It sags."

Even in the dark I can tell he's grinning. "Exactly. It puts me right where I want to be."

"Oh?"

"Yeah. Right next to you."

"Fool." I kiss him. "I ought to drop your butt out the window for getting me that CD writer for Christmas."

"You didn't want it?"

"Hell, yes, but it was way too expensive. No way I could buy you anything that nice."

"You've already given me the two best things you could, and money won't buy one of 'em."

"Like what?"

"Your love. That's priceless. The heart reminds me of it every day. I love you too, Damian."

I snuggle up close as I can get. "No more than I love you. I'll be glad to get back to school so we'll have some privacy and I can show you how much."

His arm and stump go around me just the way I like when I want to sleep.

We spend the few days with me showing him the sights, and when we can't stand the separation any longer find a deserted back road for a little cuddling. Then it's Old Christmas. Hank looks at the date on his watch, and nods. "I should have thought, this is the Feast of the Epiphany."

"Wha's that?" Todd asks.

"Traditionally in our church it's the day the three kings presented their gifts to the infant Jesus. It's also the original Christmas because of the change in the calendar."

"How come ya know all this stuff?" Todd asks.

Hank smiles. "A lot of it I learned in confirmation class, but it's covered in history too."

Todd shakes his head. "Dam said ya was smart. Guess he's right."

"You will be too if you study hard in school."

"I hate school."

"And where will you be if you don't get an education? Damian works hard so he can get a good job after he's finished."

"I wanna cap'n a charter boat," Todd declares. "I'll make a lot o' money offen them yankees."

"Huum. Don't you have to know how to read charts to do that?"

"I already know."

"Then you know what to do when the engine quits when you're in the ocean? And what about figuring the expenses of running the boat, keeping records for taxes, paying your crew? That's even before you can think of buying a boat and making the payments on it. They're not cheap."

"Aaaw …"

Dad smiles. "Get outten that if ya can."

"Shoot fire. Guess I better study more. How come ya know all this stuff, Hank?"

"Because I'm majoring in business. Doesn't make any difference what type of business it is, the basics are the same."

Dad nods. "Hank's right. Ya listen to 'im."

"What kind o' business ya want, Hank?"

"I'll go into the family business which is office supplies." He winks at me. "And when Damian has his degree in accounting, I'll give him a job."

Todd's mouth drops open. "Ya gonna be Dam's boss?"

Hank smiles. "More like a partner."

"Oh." Thank goodness his real meaning has sailed over Todd's head.

"You boys git this here food in the truck so's we can go," mom says.

Thankfully it's unseasonably warm so Hank and I are quite comfortable wearing old jeans and sweatshirts. None-the-less I don't feel comfortable about asking him to ride in the back of the truck with Todd and me. He tells me we'll go in his car. When he lowers the top, I see Todd practically drooling, and he hasn't ridden in it but that once.

"Hey, squirt!"

"What?"

"You come ride with Hank and show him how to get to the community center. I'll go with mom and dad."

His expression is worth it. "Fer real?"

I slap him on the butt. "Go for it."

"That were thoughty o' ya, Damian," dad says when I get in the truck with mom and him.

"He loves that car and I get to ride in it a lot. Hank'll keep him straight."

"Ya got a good man in Hank. I hope ya stays together 'til you're done with school anyhow," mom says.

I know what she means, but I wish she were saying it because she knew how much I love Hank. "We signed up as permanent roommates."

"Good."

Hank, of course, has been there at least ten minutes before we arrive. He's standing to one side smiling at Todd who's sitting under the wheel and surrounded by kids admiring the car. I can tell he's bragging his head off and telling lies about how fast it'll go.

Dad spoils his fun by yelling, "Todd, get yer mess o'er 'ere and he'p tote these vittles."

When we go in, Hank stops dead and says, "Dear God!" He didn't expect to see two lines of tables the length of the building already filled with food.

"Takes a lot o' vittles to feed over six hundred people," I tell him.

"That many?"

"Yeah. Most of 'em kin, too."

He shakes his head, then follows me to where mom is setting out what we've brought and we hand her the dishes we've brought in. "I wish my gran'ma could be here for this," he tells mom.

"We'd be pleasured if she was."

"She doesn't travel any more. Is it okay if I take pictures?"

"He'p yerself. They'll be others makin' pictures too."

He goes out to his car and comes back with a funny looking little camera. He flips the back out and pushes a button, then hands it to me. "Take a look."

I point it at mom and see her on the tiny screen in color. "Got film in it?"

"It's digital, stores the picture on a chip. I download 'em in my computer. Let me have it." He takes a picture of mom, one of the table loaded with food, then nudges me. "Let's go outside."

He takes a few more pictures, then pops a chip out and slips another in. Todd's back in his car, so he walks over and points the camera at him. "Take a look, Damian. Todd's cute."

He is. He may be almost fifteen, but he looks like the little kid I remember with his big grin. I hand the camera back to Hank, and he calls, "Hey, Todd!" When Todd looks up, Hank snaps the picture, then a couple more. He backs away to include the entire car in one. "If these come out like I hope, I'll print the best one in color and send it to him."

"The squirt'll love ya forever."

Hank grins. "Not like his brother, I'll bet."

"He tries to get you way from me and he's dead meat."

One of the men is using a speaker system to announce the oyster shoot scores.

"Why does anyone want to shoot at oysters?" Hank asks me.

I can't help but laugh at him. "They don't shoot oysters, dummy. Anyone wants to can shoot at a target. The best shot gets a bushel of prime oysters."

Hank shakes his head. "I'm glad I came for this. Your world is a hell of a lot different from mine."

I put my hand on his shoulder. I'd love to hug him, but no way. "Least ways you don't laugh at us. Some folks do."

"Why? I mean, damn, there's more than one way to live and yours has some history behind it. Nice people, too. I haven't seen a snob since I've been down here."

"That's why we don't invite many outsiders. Want to try yer luck at the shoot?"

"I don't have a gun."

"I 'spect Uncle Billy'll let you use his."

"Are you going to try?"

"Not a chance. I can't shoot fer dirt. You go ahead if you want."

"I have done some target shooting in the past. I'm glad I put my hand on so I won't scratch the gun."

We walk over behind the building where the contestants are lined up. Most of them have already fired. I see dad talking to my uncle.

"Uncle Billy, would you mind if Hank borrows yer gun and give it a try?"

Dad raises his eyebrows, but Uncle Billy grins and hands his gun to Hank. "Think a city boy like you can hit anything?"

Hank can tell from his smile he's teasing. "Yes, sir."

"Hey, John, got another guy wants to try his luck," Uncle Billy calls out.

"Jes' in time." He points to a new target. "Go fer that 'un. Ya gets three shots."

I see some older men smirkin' at the backwards way Hank holds the gun, his fake hand holding the stock, his left forefinger on the trigger. He fires and I can't believe he hit dead center. The smirks disappear. Everyone is looking at Hank now. He ejects the casing and cocks the gun. When the smoke clears from his second shot, the hole in the target isn't a bit bigger.

One or two bet he missed, but John yells at 'em to hush up, it was a clean shot. It gets quiet as a graveyard at midnight. Hank fires his third shot.

"Well I'll be dadblamed!" John yells. The hole in the target is only a tiny bit larger.

Uncle Billy takes his gun. "Hell fire, boy, where ya learn to shoot like that?"

"I was on the rifle team of the high school I attended, sir."

Todd comes running over and hugs Hank. "Hot damn! That were some shootin', Hank."

Normally dad would pop him aside the head for saying damn, but he's smiling, too.

John yells for Hank to come up there. Hank goes reluctantly, Todd pulling him along. When John goes to shake his hand, he realizes he has hold of Hank's left. He whispers something to Hank, and I see Hank lift his fake hand and shove his sleeve up a little. John's mouth drops wide open; he looks like he's going to fall off the platform. There's a lot of whispering until John pulls himself together and holds up his hand.

"Now this here's got to be tha biggest surprise I ever had. This man done shot a perfect target and he done it wid one arm." There's a lot of gasps and talking breaking out. "Now this here young man's a guest o' Tim Pharoh's boy Damian. I'm agoin' to ask him to say a few words afore I gives him the oysters."

He hands the microphone to Hank. I'm proud of how cool Hank looks. "Gentlemen, I have been made to feel most welcome in your community, and especially in Mr. and Mrs. Pharoh's lovely home. My dear grandmother used to come here deep sea fishing every year, and I was delighted to find it was Mr. Pharoh's father's boat, the Princess, my grandfather always chartered. She has often told me there are no better people anywhere on earth than the people here, and I find myself in complete agreement. Damian told me I was welcome to try shooting, but I never expected to do so well with a gun I've never shot before, much less win. I saw your expressions, and I assure you that this gentleman is correct, my right arm is artificial. Since Damian and I are returning to school tomorrow, with your permission I would like to give the oysters to my gracious hosts Mr. and Mrs. Pharoh and thank you all for your kind hospitality."

There's always some clapping, but this time it's longer than usual. When Hank starts back to us, he's slapped on the back many times. Even one or two I know are sore losers speak to him.

Dad shakes his hand. "Ya gives a better speech 'an a politician, Hank. You may o' come here a stranger, but yer gonna be leavin' with a lot o' friends. I don' know how to thank you fer the oysters. Wish you could stay to enjoy 'em."

"That's quite alright, sir. I'm really surprised I even hit the target."

A few of the younger guys come up with Todd. "Hey, Hank, show 'em yer arm. They don' believe it's fake."

Dad raps him on the head with a knuckle. "Where yer manners, Todd?"

Hank grins. "No problem, sir. If I were using the hook they would understand." I help him roll up the sleeve of his sweatshirt, and he lets the kids look all they want, answering their questions. I happen to see a kid about Todd's age standing way off by the thicket all by himself like he does every year. I've always felt sorry for him because I know his left hand's gone at the wrist, and he always keeps his stump jammed in his pocket so no one can see it. I've tried to be friendly to him in the past, but he won't have anything to do with me or kids his age either. He's staring at Hank which gives me an idea.

I tell Todd and his friends to beat it, I need to talk to Hank.

"What?" Hank asks.

I nod toward the kid. "That kid don't have 'is left hand and 'e won't let nobody see 'is stump if 'e can help it. He was alookin' at you, so would you maybe talk to him? He doesn't have any friends."

"I'm glad you told me. Come on." I see the kid start to move on, but Hank calls out, "Wait up a minute."

He stands where he is. "Hi, I'm Hank. What's your name?"

The kid ducks his head. "Tommy," he mumbles.

Hank holds out his left hand. "Good to meet you, Tommy. This is Damian, my best buddy and roommate at school."

Tommy holds out his hand and shakes with Hank, but he's staring at Hank's arm. "It ain't real!"

"You've got it." Hank hold up his arm. "Most of the time I use a hook instead of the hand." He grins. "Damian likes it better when I don't even put it on."

"He does?"

Hank puts his arm around my shoulders. "We room together at school, so he does a lot of things for me I can't do with one arm."

"You don't care if he sees what's left of your real arm?"

"Why should I? He knows it's gone and he doesn't care a bit."

The kid looks at me. "Really?"

"Hey, I wouldn't like this guy half as much if he didn't have a neat stump."

The kid winces at the word. "How much arm you got?"

Hank points to his arm. "Stops just short of the elbow. What about you?"

The kid slowly pulls his left arm out of his jeans pocket so we can see the spread where his hand was disarticulated at the wrist.

Hank reaches out and takes it in his hand. "You're lucky. A hook will be real easy for you to learn to use. It's harder to learn when you have to move both the elbow and a hook."

"I'd rather have a hand like you got now so I won't look different."

"Let me tell you a little secret."

"What?" The kid's interested now.

"You've got all this arm you can use. It'll be real useful 'til you get a hand."

"But everybody keeps lookin' at it."

Hank puts his arm around the kid's shoulders. "I know it's hard, cause mine got cut off when I was eight years old, but I found out most folks were just curious. After they looked at it, it didn't make any difference. My buddy here taught me that. He likes to rub my stump when it hurts, and he doesn't treat me any different because of it. His folks don't either. His brother Todd thinks my arm's cool."

"He does? I go to school with Todd, but he don't like me."

"Why?" I asks him.

He shrugs. "I dunno. He just keeps lookin' at me funny."

"You know why? He wants to see your arm. He'll like it like he does Hank's."

"Really?"

"Bet you a soda."

The kid finally gives us a little smile. "You're on."

"Okay, guy. It's time to eat, and I want to see you use your stump."

He shakes his head.

"Tell you what, "Hank says. "Will you do it if I take my arm off?"

"You will?"

"If you'll stop hiding your stump. I'll even get Damian to roll up my sleeve so you can see it. You can sit with us, if you want."

"'Kay."

He walks with us to Hank's car and watches as Hank slips out of his arm. "Can you drive with one arm?"

"Sure can, buddy. I steer with my stump sometimes. You got a lot more than me, so you can do better."

Hank puts his sweatshirt back on and I roll the sleeve up until half his stump is showing. He pokes the kid on the shoulder with it. "Let's go chow down, buddy."

"Wait a minute." He looks at me. "Roll my sleeve up too?"

"Sure thing." I roll it up to just below his elbow like I do mine at times. "How's that?"

"Good."

Todd comes running up. "Hey, where you guys been? Time to eat."

"Talking to Tommy. You know him?"

"Sure. Wow, Tommy, ya done got yer stump showing. Ya got a lot more 'an Hank. Cool, man."

Tommy looks dumbfounded. "You don' care?"

"Naa. Hank ain't got but one neither an' he's cool. Ya see his car? He let me ride over here wid him. Come on, le's eat."

I'm surprise to see Todd put his arm around Tommy's shoulders like Hank often does me. They walk off ahead of us.

"Thanks, Hank. This is the first time I've ever seen that kid with anybody else, much less show his stump."

"Hell, it's a fact of life. You got through to me when nobody else could. I hope Tommy's as lucky."

"You sure made a dent in 'im. Look."

Tommy has his stump around Todd's shoulders as well. When we're inside, I pick up plastic plates for Hank and me since he's taken his arm off. He stops Tommy as he picks up his plate in his hand. "Let me show you a trick." He lifts Tommy's stump and bends it at the elbow so the end of his stump is against his chest, then places the plate on top of the stump. "Carry your plate like this so you can use your hand to put food on it."

Tommy smiles at him. "Yeah."

Hank serves both our plates since I'm holding his. He's quick to grab Tommy's plate when it start to slip. "Keep your stump up, buddy. You can carry it in your hand when you've got everything you want."

"'Kay."

When we're through the line, there aren't any seats at the tables left, so Todd finds a corner near the door and we sit down on the floor together to eat. Todd and I go to get iced tea for us and come back. Todd hands Tommy a glass. "Here ya go."

"Thanks."

I can't believe how well Todd and Tommy are getting along. Tommy hardly stops talking long enough to eat. It's obvious to me he's been more lonely than I ever was. There's nothing that has to be cut, so the kid's got no problem. He even uses his stump to steady the big piece of chicken breast he's eating. We finish up, toss the plates into the trash, and head for the dessert table. Hank and I walk; Todd and Tommy run.

I see Todd put a piece of sugar covered pastry on Tommy's plate. "You gotta try that," I tell Hank.

"What is it?"

"Mom's dried apple pies."

"They must be good. Todd's got two."

"I'm takin' two, too. Won't be any left in five minutes."

"Give me another one, then." He looks over the assortment and watches me dip into another dish peaked with lightly browned meringue. "What's that?

"Miz O'Neal's banana puddin'. Ya won't find better anywhere, cause it's not so sweet."

He holds out his plate. "Put some on, buddy."

When we're back in our corner, Hank says, "Get Damian and me a cup of coffee, Todd?"

"Sure." He jumps up.

We're enjoying our desserts when a man walks over and looks down at us. I don't know him, but I've always heard he's hard to get along with and don't have much to do with people.

"Hi, dad," Tommy says, lifting his stump.

The man looks at Hank and says, "Can I talk to ya a minute after ya done finished?"

"Of course." He picks up his coffee and stands. "Don't let Todd steal my other apple pie," he says to me.

"Not less he wants a bloody stump."

Hank and the man walk outside together. "Wha's goin' on, Tommy?" Todd asks.

Tommy shrugs. "Don' know."

I'm beginning to wonder myself because it's near fifteen minutes before Hank and Tommy's dad come back. Hank's smiling and Tommy's dad looks like he's been crying, but I know that can't be, not after what dad's said about him. It's even stranger to me when he walks over and says something to my dad.

"What was that all about?" I ask Hank when he sits back down.

"Tell you later."

When Hank and I help mom pack her dishes back in the boxes we brought 'em in, I'm not surprised they're all empty. We carry them out to the truck.

"Did ya get enough to eat, Hank?" Mom asks.

"Too much. I won't need anything for a week. I'm sure glad Damian told me to take two of your dried apple pies. They're good as Mamie's apple dumplings."

"Wish you could try one of 'em, mom. They're great."

"They mus' be special if ya like 'em that much. You uns goin to dance?"

Hank shakes his head. "Don't know how."

"Get on wid ya! A nice lookin' young man like ya's got to be pop'lar with the girls."

"Not many like a one armed guy."

"Ya ain't being fair to yerself, Hank." She smiles at him. "One o' these days ya gonna fall hard."

"I want to finish school before I worry about that."

"That makes good sense. Y'all don' get lost, cause we'll be goin' home afore long."

When we're outside, Hank pokes me with his stump and starts to laugh. "I couldn't tell her I've already fallen hard for the guy I want to live with."

"That's mutual, buddy. What did Tommy's daddy want?"

We lean back against Hank's car. "We got out here and he started crying. Said he'd tried everything he knew to get Tommy to get over the loss of his hand and want an arm like mine. What got to him was the way Todd was treating him and getting him to use his stump. I swear I was embarrassed the way he said my being here and talking to Tommy was a miracle."

"It is in a way. If you hadn't transferred to the university and roomed with me, the kid would still be alone. I hope what you did for him lasts, but with Todd being around 'im in school, it should."

"Hell, Tommy's just another one armed kid. I'm glad I could help him like you helped me."

Now I'm the one embarrassed. I'm also surprised when Hank reaches down in his car and brings out a pack of cigarettes. He takes one out and lights up.

"I didn't know you smoked."

"Don't very often. Just felt like having one. Wish I had a cup of coffee to go with it."

"Be right back." I know the coffee pot isn't put away until after near everybody has gone home.

"Damn, I'd love to kiss you," Hank says when I hand it to him.

"Same here." I give him an evil grin. "Just wait 'til we're back at school. I got a lot of missed lovin' to make up for."

"Oh, man, I can hardly wait."

People are beginning to leave; Tommy and his dad come out and walk straight toward us.

"Hank, let me look at that arm again."

"Sure. I wanted to show Tommy the hook I normally use, but I left it at the house."

"I don' want no hook. I want a hand like that," Tommy tells his dad.

His dad hands the arm back to Hank and pats his son on the back. "If I can, that's what ya'll have, son."

"Thanks, dad."

"It's got to be God's will ya come here with Damian, Hank, but I be in yer debt fer bein' so good to Tommy. And yers for bringin' 'im here, Damian. Ya ever want for anything ya let me know. I mean it serious, boy."

"Yes, sir."

"Good luck, Tommy. The next time I come home with Damian I want to see you using your stump. Maybe with a hand on it."

"Ya will." He turns and waves his stump at Todd who's coming out of the building. "See ya to school, Todd."

Todd looks at Hank. "Mom's ready to go soon as dad gets them oysters in the truck."

"Then we'd better take off," Hank says.

Todd looks at me. "Go ahead with Hank. And put the coffee pot on when you get home."

"I will, Dam."

"Son," dad says when we're in the truck, "Jack Payne were a good man 'til Tommy lost 'is hand, then it seemed to sour 'im on the world. When he come over to tell me what Hank and you and Todd done fer his boy, they was tears in his eyes. He's come agin the man I used ta like. I'm proud of ya and Hank."

"It's all Hank's doin', none o' mine."

"'Tain't so. Hank told yer mother an' me how he was jus' like Tommy 'til he commenced roomin' with you."

"I didn't do nothin' but make him unnerstan' his arm don't mean squat to me."

Mom suddenly kisses me. "Yer makin' yer daddy an' me awful proud, son. Ya jus' keep on bein' a good boy, specially to Hank."

"I'll always be good to Hank. I love 'im much as I do Todd. I love his gran'ma too."

Dad nods. "Ya ain't never give yer mother and me much bother, son. We be behind you no matter what."

"Thanks, dad, mom. I love you."

With the start of the new semester, I have to spend more time with the books, but Hank and I have some time together nearly every day. We also try to get in a visit with gran'ma about every three weeks. Despite the fact that Hank's folks haven't warmed up to me at all, it's okay because we don't see that much of 'em. It didn't help that Hank's mother walked in one afternoon and caught me playing that wonderful piano.

I finish a little piece by Mozart my teacher has me working on. Yeah, Hank bugged me so much I signed up for piano this semester. Anyway, when I finish she applauds politely almost making me jump out of my skin. I didn't know she was in the room.

"That was nicely done. I wouldn't have expected you to play classical music."

"I hope I didn't disturb you. Hank said it was okay."

"I do have a few things I need to do."

"Of course." I go back to Hank's room where he's trying to finish a term paper.

We eat dinner at gran'ma's that evening. She's still going strong with the wisecracks, but she looks more frail to me than she did the last time we were here.

Hank and I are ready when spring break rolls around. He takes me home and stays until Friday afternoon. Right after dinner he thanks my folks for the visit and asks me to come with him so we can see gran'ma before going back to school. I happen to think and get some more shrimp to take to her.

She wants them for dinner, so I cook them up in her little kitchen and make a bowl of sauce for them.

"Oh, Damian, you're so good to me," she says at the table.

"Heck, ain't nothing. I love you, gran'ma."

She smiles. "At least you find two people in this family worthy of love. Eleanor told me she caught you playing my piano. I wish I could hear you."

"That's your piano?"

"Of course it is. I didn't have room for it here, so I had to leave it there."

"If you'd come over for dinner, you could hear 'im, gran'ma," Hank says.

"I'd make the effort for Damian's sake and yours, and even endure your daddy, but I just can't seem to get up the energy now."

"I wish I could hear you play too," I tell her.

"You're about five years too late for that, sonny boy. These old fingers don't work that well now." She looks at Hank holding a shrimp in his hook and shucking it almost as fast as I can. "Where'd you learn that trick, Hank?"

He grins. "Damian. His mom fixes shrimp near every time we go down there."

"I'm glad you're finally using that hook for something. Told you all along it would be useful." She looks at me. "Stubborn cuss. Course half of it was his momma and daddy making him wear that useless hand when he didn't want to. You're good for him, Damian."

"He's good for me, too."

"You boys still happy together?"

"It can't get any better, gran'ma. Damian's the love of my life," Hank says.

"And he's mine. I just wish we didn't have to be so secretive. This is the only place we've got we can be open about it."

"I may be an old woman, but I don't see nothing wrong with love. My Henry was the most wonderful man on earth, so I can guess how much your love means to Hank cause he ain't all uptight like he was before he met you."

"He's the first real friend I've ever had, so his love has changed me, too. My dad thinks what Hank's done for me is great."

"You told him you're lovers?" She asks with a look of surprise.

"No, ma'am! He'd blow his gasket, cause he thinks gays are an abomination."

Gran'ma snickers. "Folk down your way don't change much; still clinging to the old ways."

"Yes, ma'am. I think my brother might be getting' ideas about us, but he already told me he'd still love me if I was queer."

"And would he?"

"I don't know for certain, but I expect he would take it hard even much as he likes Hank."

"You boys be careful then. I don't want you getting upset when you got school to finish. You're both making good grades now and I want 'em to stay that way."

"They will, gran'ma."

"They better. Now come kiss me goodnight and get. I'm tired."

Hank shakes his head on the way home. "I'm getting worried about gran'ma. She's failing a lot. Bet she doesn't even play poker anymore."

"Guess not." When we visit, she always brags about how much she's won, especially if it's from Ted. But not this time.

Thursday afternoon about three weeks after our last visit with gran'ma the phone rings the moment I go off-line. Hank's in class so I answer.

I make some fast notes and hang up. The next moment my head's down on my desk and I'm bawling. When Hank comes in he drops his books, pulls me over to the bed and wraps his arm around me.

"What is it, love?"

I wrap my arms around him until I can get some control. "Some woman called for you about ten minutes ago." Tears start down my face again.

"What's happened?"

I'm crying again cause I don't know how to tell him. Why couldn't she have waited another fifteen minutes, but then I think of how cold and snotty she was.

"Baby?"

"It … it's gran'ma, Hank."

He pushes me away so he can see my face. "Oh, shit! She's dead."

I nod, unable to say it.

He grabs me tightly and starts to cry. I try to be strong for him, but my tears mingle with his. Our arms around each other remind me that we're now alone with our secret, except for Ted.

When we've recovered a bit, I give Hank the notes I made. He looks incredulous. "You mean my dad didn't talk to you?"

"No. It was his secretary."

Hank's eyes blaze; he picks up the nearest thing, a pen, and throws it against the wall with all his strength. "I hate that cold blooded bitch! Damn it! Dad could have at least called me himself. He knows how much I love gran'ma."

"Maybe he's upset at her death too, " I say soothingly.

"Upset, hell! The only thing on his mind is what's going to happen to her stock in Supco." He squeezes me in another hug. "Come home with me, love. I need you with me, especially at the funeral."

"I want to. I loved gran'ma."

"I know. That's why I want you there. Ted and Mamie are the only ones beside us who'll really care."

"I'll write notes to our profs and get the department secretary to put them in their boxes. When you want to leave?"

"Tomorrow morning. We'll only miss our Friday classes that way."

Hank makes me drive because he's still upset. The minute we enter the house his father says to me, "What are you doing here?"

"I asked him," Hank snaps. "He loved gran'ma, and she loved him."

"Huumph!"

Hank grabs my hand and turns.

"Where are you going?" His dad asks.

"To the funeral home. I want to see gran'ma one more time."

"You're too late for that. I had the body cremated. Her ashes were placed in the columbarium this morning. The service will be a memorial."

Hank pales and pulls me toward the stairs without saying anything else until we're in his room. He hugs me again. "Can you play A Mighty Fortress?"

"On the piano, why?"

"It's gran'ma's favorite hymn. She never did get to hear you play, so would you do this for her and me?"

"There's a piano in your church?"

"A big Steinway. Come on, we're going to talk to the rector."

The man is in his office. He greets Hank. "I'm sorry you have to come home in sorrow, Henry. What can I do for you?"

"This is my roommate Damian Pharoh, Father. He loved gran'ma, too. Have you got the service worked out?"

He nods. "Your father wanted it kept simple."

"Is there a eulogy?"

"No. Just the prayers and a few hymns. Why?"

"I want to say a few things about gran'ma, then I want Damian to play her favorite hymn on the piano. She never got to hear him, and he's good."

"Which hymn?"

"A Mighty Fortress."

He nods. "That's appropriate." He picks up a sheet of paper, and puts his finger on one line toward the bottom. "This is the proper place for your remarks and the music, but A Mighty Fortress is one of the hymns we're to sing."

Hank looks stubborn. "Won't hurt to have it twice. Don't put anything in the order except remarks. Damian can play when I'm through."

"You know I want to please you, Hank." He makes a note on the sheet. "I'm glad you let me know, because I was just about to take this to the printer."

"Thank you, Father. Can Damian go practice a little? He's never played our piano."

"Of course. It's in the parlor, but I'll have the sexton move it into the sanctuary before he leaves."

"Thanks. Come on, Damian."

Their hymnal has it in a different key than I'm used to playing, so I put in a good hour's practice. Hank lays on a sofa with his eyes closed and listens. I don't play it as fast as I usually do for singing, slow and stately is better, and the piano is very fine. Hank tells me on the way home that gran'ma gave it to the church.

Saturday afternoon, things go from bad to worse. When Hank and I are dressed and go down stairs, the funeral director's people are lining things up. Hank is to ride in the limo with his parents. When he asks about me, his father snaps, "Absolutely not!"

Before Hank can say anything, Ted comes over and takes his arm, whispering "That's okay, baby. Damian can go with me. We'll sit together." I feel better, because I like Ted.

"You will ride in the family car, Ted," Hank's dad says.

"No. Damian and I will follow in mine."

"So be it."

When we go out and get in Ted's car, I'm struck by how funny it must look with his bright red sports car right behind the big black stretch limo. As we drive slowly along, Ted reaches over and pats my hand. "You know what? I bet momma's looking down and shaking her finger at Henry, saying, "Don't be such an asshole, Henry."

I have to laugh because he mimics her exactly. It makes me feel better.

Ted and I are seated right behind Hank and his parents. I feel bad that Ted isn't sitting beside his brother, though. I'd want Todd beside me at a time like this, Hank, too. The service is nice, though not what I'm used to. I get plenty of exercise getting up and down from the kneeler.

I see Hank's dad suddenly sit up straight with a jerk when the priest says, "Members of the family have requested that they make a few remarks at this point. Ted, Hank."

I follow Ted and Hank to the steps to the chancel. Ted goes up to the top step and turns. "Momma loved life and milked it for all she could get. Deep sea fishing with daddy was the greatest joy of her life. It was by the merest chance she discovered last fall that Hank's roommate at school is the grandson of the captain of the boat they always chartered. It was a thrill for her to reminisce about that with Damian, and he gave her many happy moments helping her to relive happier times. Thank you, Damian."

He steps down, and Hank goes up and looks up to the peak of the vaulted ceiling. "Gran'ma, you loved Damian as much as I do, but you never got a chance to hear him play, so I hope you're listening now," tears start to trickle down his cheeks, "cause just for you Damian's going to play your favorite hymn on the piano you gave this church."

He nods at me and I go over to the piano, put the top up, and sit down. I'm shedding a few tears, too, but I suddenly feel at peace and let my fingers move as they never have before, playing as loudly as I can, cause Ted told me that's the way gran'ma liked to hear it.

When I finish and start back where I was sitting, I pause to look at the big picture of gran'ma that's sitting on a little table at the chancel steps. "I love you, gran'ma," I whisper.

Ted grabs my arm and squeezes it the minute I sit down, whispering, "Thank you, Damian. Momma would have loved it."

There's a final prayer and we walk out while everyone is singing a hymn I don't know. When we're in his car, Ted hugs me. "Hank got himself the best when he got you Damian. I'm glad he's got you to help him through this."

"He helps me too, cause I loved gran'ma."

"I know you did, and she loved you. You mean more to me and Hank than you'll ever know. I don't care what you need, come to me like you would have gone to momma."

"Thanks, Ted."

We go back to Hank's house and walk in together. I'm surprised there isn't anyone there, like more family and friends. Down our way a funeral is kind of like a reunion, lots of people talking happily and eating gives you a lift just when you need one.

"I hope you realize it was inappropriate of you to have played so loud," Hank's mother says.

"Go to hell, Eleanor," Ted snaps. "I told him to because that's the way momma wanted it. She told me many times she hated the dull way it's played in church." He puts his arm around me. "Damian did it to please her because he loved her a damn sight more than you ever did."

"How can you say that, Ted! Of course I loved mother."

"Bullshit! You loved her money. Henry and you could have waited to have her will read, but no, it had to be today."

A thin old man I've never seen comes in with Hank's dad. "If you will all take a seat."

Hank's dad looks at me. "Go to Hank's room, Damian, this is family business."

I get up, but as I do the old man looks at me. "Are you Damian Pharoh?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then sit down."

I sit back down beside Ted, and Hank comes over and sits beside me. He grabs my hand and holds it.

"What's the meaning of this, Gerald?" Hank's dad asks him.

"It is Mrs. Allison's request. Shall we begin?" He sits down and starts to read aloud.

Hank's dad gets impatient. "I know all that, Gerald. Cut to the chase."

"Very well. You and Ted know your mother held 800 shares of Supco, and you each hold 400."

"That's correct. So?"

"Last month Mrs. Allison called me to her apartment and had me make a new will."

"Yes?" Hank's father demands.

The old man shakes his head, but looks down at the papers he's holding again.

"Mrs. Allison directed me to write the following: 'Ted is to receive 400 shares of the Supco stock I hold. The other 400 shares will be divided in equal part to Henry Allison the 4th and Damian Pharoh."

I'm not believing this! I look at Ted and he's smiling at me, then Hank hugs me.

"This is an outrage!" Hank's dad shouts. "Supco stock never goes outside this family. Why would she cheat me and Henry?"

"Mrs. Allison was quite aware of what she was doing, because I talked at length with her. Ted was present and agreed completely with her wishes. He is now the principal stockholder of Supco."

"Sir, I can't accept this," I say.

He looks at me over his glasses. "It is not yours to reject, young man. This is Mrs. Allison's wish and I will see that it is followed to the letter. Because you are not yet twenty-one, the stock is to be held by Ted Allison as your proxy until you become of age."

If looks could kill, I don't know which would get me first, Hank's dad's or his mother's.

Ted stands up. "Okay, guys, get your stuff and let's get the hell out of here before I freeze."

When we come back downstairs with our hastily packed bags, Ted's standing by the door with a big grin, while Hank's dad's face is purple. "Better lighten up before you bust a blood vessel, Henry," Ted says.

"This is the most insane idiotic thing mother ever did, and God knows she did a lot of them," Hank's dad says.

Ted pushes us toward the door, then looks over his shoulder. "How's it feel to be the one gettin' screwed, Henry?" He asks before slamming the door.

"Where we going, Ted?" Hank asks.

"Back to momma's apartment. We'll spend the night there, then I'll call the movers to get her things to the company warehouse. Your dad doesn't know it, but there's space set aside in the little warehouse across town. She left the furniture, silver, and all that stuff for you and me to divide later on. When you and Damian finish school and have a place of your own, let me know and we'll split it up."

"I just want that picture of gran'ma that was at the church."

Ted smiles. "I thought you would, so I had the sexton get it for you. It's in my car so I'll give it to you at momma's. Let's go."

When we get to gran'ma's place, Ted fixes us a drink and we sit down.

"I feel awful 'bout gran'ma giving me that stock," I say.

I almost spill my drink when Hank grabs me in a tight hug. "Feel good about it, love. Gran'ma loved you and she was happy we love each other. She asked me about it, so I told her to do it."

"You knew about it?"

"Yeah, so did Ted."

"But I'm taking what should be yours and Ted's."

Ted smiles. "You gave momma a lot of happiness when she needed it most. She may have been old, but she was no dummy, Damian. If you and Hank ever split up, your shares revert straight to him and there's nothing you can do about it."

"Then I'm not really taking what's his?"

"Right. Long as you hold the stock you're entitled to the dividends and any additional stock that comes by a split. But since Supco's a family owned business, there won't be any splits." Ted looks at Hank and grins. "Know why your old man's so pissed off? Now that I have control I can make some changes that should have been made long ago. I'll keep you guys informed way head of time and if you don't agree with what I propose, Hank, we'll talk it over. I'm not including Damian because he doesn't know anything about Supco."

"Good enough. Thanks, Ted."

Ted looks at me with a big grin. "Well, partner, how's it feel to be a millionaire?"

Fortunately I've just finished my drink, because I drop my glass. "Hunh?"

His look is dead serious now. "The company lawyer and accountant had to run an exact worth as of the time mother died. Two hundred shares, as of day before yesterday, are worth a little over six million."

"Duuh!" I feel like an idiot.

Ted and Hank are laughing at me. "That's just the paper value, of course, and you won't see that much because you can't sell the stock. But you'll have an average annual dividend of a hundred and fifty thousand or there about."

I may be studying accounting, but that's an imaginary figure to me.

"What you gonna do with it, love," Hank asks.

"I'm gonna finish school, and now I can go for a CPA." Then it hits me. "Damn! I got enough for the squirt to go to college, and mom and dad can fix up the house and take it easy." Tears spring to my eyes again when I look the picture of gran'ma Hank's holding. "Thanks, gran'ma, I love you," I say to it.

Ted gets up and grabs me in a hug. "Momma was right, Damian. She told me you had a level head and wouldn't do anything foolish if she left you the stock, cause Hank told her you wouldn't take a thing from him if you could help it." He pulls Hank up into our hug. "Love each other forever, guys. Momma loved you both and so do I."


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