© 2000 Jess Mercer

Fag

There's nothing like a totally unexpected and furious phone call from an older brother who hates your guts.

With a fifteen-year difference in our ages, Jeff was my guide and protector from the day our mother died. A father to me really, because our dad, a medical equipment consultant, was on the road much of the time. When Jeff left for college, my dad hired an older widow to take care of me, but Jeff came home nearly every weekend so she could visit her own children.

The summer I turned fourteen the widow died. I already knew how to take care of myself and our neighborhood is quiet, so I was able to talk dad out of hiring someone else to take care of me. I was home alone a lot, but Jeff came home every weekend if dad was out of town.

I had known I had feelings for other boys for over a year, but after I heard Jeff start swearing when they showed a little of a gay pride parade on the evening TV news I knew I couldn't talk to him. I finally got up the nerve to tell my dad about it one Friday night when he came home. He asked if I was sure, telling me it was a kid thing I'd grow out of, because all kids my age experimented. Though he looked embarrassed, he even told me he and the kid that grew up next door to him had done it a few times before they discovered girls. He told me a lot of the things I should know, and finished by telling me to be careful and not come out until I was older.

Jeff married his girlfriend later that summer and went to work for his father-in-law as a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company. Eric came along a year later, so I didn't get to see much of them, other than a few days each summer.

I was sixteen when Dad discovered me and my best friend sleeping together one night. We had another talk, and he hugged me, saying, "I don't like your being gay, Rik, but I was afraid you might not grow out of it. I've done some reading and I know it's not a matter of choice, so I want you to know I'm always here for you, no matter what. I love you, son."

The break up between Jeff and me came when Jeff, Trudy, and little Eric came home for a surprise visit. I didn't even hear them come in, but Jeff knew I'd probably be in my room, so he came upstairs and caught me and my best friend in bed together. He practically threw my friend out of my room stark naked, then stormed back in. I'll never forget how he looked at me before he backhanded me half way across the room. "Fucking little faggot! You're no brother of mine!"

I didn't go down for dinner, though dad came up to get me. For the rest of their visit then and all the time since, Jeff has acted as if I don't exist. That's why his call this afternoon came as such a shock to me.

I'm standing in the airport watching the people file through the concourse when I see a gorgeous blond kid on crutches looking lost. Since he's the only kid I've seen deplane from the commuter flight, I walk over to him. "You must be Eric. I'm your Uncle Rik."

He looks me over. "Gee, Uncle Rik, I didn't even know I had an uncle, til..."

I hug him. "I'm glad you're here." I see tears start to form, so I put my arm around his shoulders. "Let's get your bag and go home."

"Have you had any dinner?" I ask after we're in my car.

He nods. "They served dinner on the plane." Then he looks at me with a tiny smile. "I could sure go for a burger and fries, though."

Typical teenager, always hungry, so I say, "Me, too, guy." I really don't want one, but I know he must feel confused and a little uncomfortable being suddenly dumped on an uncle he didn't know existed. I'm well aware that my name has never been mentioned in his home.

I stop at the drive-thru of an independent restaurant that has the biggest and best burgers I've ever eaten, a place I visit often when I don't feel like cooking. I take the bag from the attendant and hand it to Eric. "Let's eat these at home. It's not far."

"'Kay."

Ten minutes later, we're at the kitchen table. I've poured a glass of milk for Eric and gotten a cup of tea for myself. After Eric has wolfed down his burger and fries, and I've poured him another glass of milk, I ask, "What's going on, Eric? Your dad only told me you were on the plane and for me to meet you if I wanted you around."

Erik immediately starts to cry, so I hand him a tissue. "Let's go sit in the living room and you can tell me what happened."

I sit next to him on the sofa, my arm around his shoulders, and wait until he's cried it out. At last he looks at me. "Dad's thrown me out. He called me a fag and said I wasn't his son any longer. Are you going to throw me out, too?"

The memory of my encounter with Jeff flashes past in my mind. "Not a chance! Are you really gay?"

He nods and starts to sniffle again. I squeeze his shoulders. "I know how your dad is, because I'm gay, too."

"I... I know. He said two fags deserve each other. I didn't know what he was talking about, then he told me I had a fag uncle. He never mentioned you before."

"I thought as much." I shake my head sadly. "When I was your age I loved Jeff more than anybody in the whole world because he was always there for me, but when he caught me in bed with a friend, he beat the shit out of me and we haven't spoken since until he called about you."

"Oh. I guess that's why he and mom never mentioned you, but gran'dad mentioned your name one time when we were there. The old man almost had a fit." He gives me a tiny smile. "He started cussing and granddad told him to put a sock in it."

"Good for dad. He was really great when he found out I was gay. He won't care that you are either."

"I'm glad. I like granddad."

"You should. We'll go to see him when I can take a long weekend off."

"Great." This time his smile is broad.

"How did your dad find out you're gay? For that matter, are you even sure you are?"

He looks sad again. "I was on the JV team last year, cause dad wanted me to be a jock like him. My best friend is on the team and he came home with me today after practice. We were going to study for a history test, but he started fooling around. I liked it, so we were laying on the bed," he looks at me and blushes, "then dad came home early. You know the rest."

"That I do." I rest my hand on the end of his just-above-the-knee stump. "What happened here?"

He drops his head. "I got hit by a car last year cause I was riding my bike one night and I didn't have a light on it."

"I'm sorry."

He looks up. "Dad was pissed cause I couldn't play football any more."

"He hasn't gotten you a leg?"

Eric shakes his head and tears start to roll down his cheeks again. "Said I didn't deserve one because I'm so stupid."

I hug him to keep him from seeing my anger. Frankly, at this moment I'd cheerfully kill Jeff if he were here. "Don't worry, guy. We'll work everything out because this is your home now. I'll take tomorrow morning off and we'll go to the school and get you back in classes. I don't want you falling behind."

"Tomorrow's Saturday, Uncle Rik."

In all the rush I'd quite forgotten this is Friday. "Okay. We'll do it Monday then."

He sits quietly, content to have my arm around his shoulders. Though it's only a bit after nine, he yawns several times. "Sleepy?" I ask.

He nods. "I'm tired, cause dad couldn't wait to throw me out."

"Okay, let's get you in bed then." He follows me to the spare bedroom where I put his suitcase. "The bath is next door, so brush your teeth, then get in bed. If you need anything, just call. Sleep as late as you want, because I like to sleep in on Saturday, too."

He nods, suddenly shy, so I leave him and get a beer out of the fridge, then sit in my recliner pondering what to do. When he calls "Good night," I go back to his room. He's in bed the covers pulled up to his chin, crutches beside the bed.

I reach down and stroke his hair. "Try to sleep well, Eric. I'm glad you're here."

After I finish my beer I peep in his door to see he's asleep. Leaving the door ajar so he can see by the nightlight in the hall if he has to get up for some reason, I go back to my chair and pick up the phone, dialing dad's number. Dad seldom swears, but as soon as I tell him what's happened, he has a few choice words about Jeff, the kindest being that he's a self-righteous prick. Once he runs down, I tell him that I intend for Eric to stay with me and go to school. He offers to help in any way he can and for me to keep in touch at least once a week. He tells me to bring Eric to see him at the first opportunity.

The next morning I'm finishing up shaving when Eric comes to the bath room door wearing only his bikini briefs. "Sorry, Uncle Rik. I thought you were through."

"That's okay, just us guys here. I'll be done in a second." I finish washing my face, then comb my hair, and leave to dress.

I have breakfast ready by the time Eric comes into the kitchen. He looks surprised when I set a plate of eggs and breakfast sausage before him, and start the toast. "Didn't think to ask what you wanted, so tell me and I'll fix it after this."

"This is fine. Don't you eat anything?"

I shake my head. "Fruit or juice, a cup of tea, and a donut or pastry is all I want in the morning."

"That'll do for me," he says, but I can tell from the way he's digging into his food that he usually eats more.

"Not enough for a growing boy. I don't mind fixing you something."

"That was good," he says as he pushes his empty plate aside. "What we gonna do today?"

He knows nothing of me, so I explain. "I have a book shop downtown. It's open from ten until two on Saturday. I'd like to have you go with me today so we can have lunch together and get to know each other better. After I close, I'll show you a little of the town so you won't get lost. Okay with you?"

He smiles. "I like to read, but," his face clouds for a moment, "dad said I read too much, so I didn't get much chance unless he was on the road. I had to hide the good books or he'd of thrown them out."

My shop isn't that large. My inventory runs about a thousand and I have no competition, for our town is too small to attract a major chain store, so I make a decent living. My specialty is special orders and fast personal service, which has brought me a loyal group of customers.

The moment I unlock the door, Fat Cat comes running. Fat Cat is a large tabby I found abandoned as a tiny kitten in the alleyway back of the store winter before last. He's spoiled because my customers always stop to pet him, and he's calm with small children, so they play with him while their parents are looking at books.

"Gee! You've got a cat," Eric exclaims.

"Doesn't every good little book shop?" I ask with a grin. "Actually, I'm not sure whether I own him or he owns me," I reply, switching on the lights.

After I set out food and fresh water for Fat Cat, I bring the cash box from the back room and switch on the register and computer. Eric is looking around. He finally sits in one of two upholstered chairs near the door. Fat Cat immediately jumps into his lap begging attention. I take the other chair while I'm waiting for the electric kettle to come to a boil.

"Don't you have more stuff than you brought with you?" I ask him.

He nods. "There's two big boxes at home. Mom said she'd ship it to me when I found some place to live."

"You think you'll be happy living with me?"

"I guess."

"I hope you will after you get to know me. I love you, Eric, but you know why I've not been able to get to know you."

He looks close to tears, as he nods.

"I'll call and tell your folks to send your stuff to me if you want."

He nods. "I guess. I wish I could have the book I've got hidden."

"Won't they send it if you tell them where it is?"

"Unh, unh," he's shaking his head. "I don't want 'em to know about it."

I start to ask him why, then the reason hits me. "Is it a gay book?"

He nods.

"Come with me and see if I have it." I take a key from my desk drawer and lead him to the back of the shop where there's a small room in which I keep 'special' books. I have a small group of gay customers I supply on the quiet. Call me paranoid if you want, but I'm not eager to have some religious group boycotting my shop. So when one of my gay customers comes in, I hand him or her the key and let them browse to suit themselves. I've put a comfortable chair and a good reading lamp in there for them to use, along with catalogues from the major gay publishers. I was surprised at how much that increased my business.

Eric's mouth drops open when he sees the room. "All these books gay?"

"Yes, and I'm trusting you not to say anything about it. This room is for special customers."

"Can I read some of 'em?"

"If you're very careful not to damage them. I can't sell books that look shopworn or used, and most of these don't have a return privilege. If you find something you want to read, we'll take it home. I don't want anyone seeing someone young as you in here because it could get me into a lot of trouble."

"Oh."

"I don't want my other customers to know about this room, but you can look around when there's no one in the shop."

"Cause they'd act like dad?"

I nod. "That would probably mean I'd have to close the shop, and it's my living. I enjoy it, so I don't want to have to try to find another job."

"I understand." He looks around while I go fix a mug of tea. He comes out holding a book I recognize as one written especially for gay teens. "This is the book I have at home," he says with a smile.

"Did you know there's a second book?"

"Unh, hunh, but I was afraid to order it, cause mom opens my mail sometimes."

"I'll tell you what, Eric. I'll go get that one and you can take them both home to keep, if you want."

"I can?" he grabs me in a hug. "Thanks, Uncle Rik."

I get the other volume, lock the room, and put both books into a bag I slide under the counter. "I don't want anyone seeing you reading them in here, so see if there's something else you want to read for now."

"Okay." He finds a science fiction paperback and settles down to read, Fat Cat in his lap again.

Typically, there's a flurry of customers all at once, one wanting several books ordered which means I'll be at the computer for a few minutes. I do have a limited-time clerk who comes in on days I regularly receive shipments, but no other help. When I've helped all of them, I grab another mug of tea and sit down with a sigh.

"Uncle Rik?"

"Yes?"

"I wish I knew enough to help you. If you show me how to use your computer, I can look things up while you wait on someone else."

"You'd do that?"

His smile is beautiful. "Yeah."

"Then come back here and let me teach you."

"Oh, boy!"

In twenty minutes he has grasped the program I use for orders perfectly, so I let him look up, verify, and then order five books a customer wants. As soon as he receives verification of the order, I ruffle his hair. "Great job, guy. Want to learn the register, too?"

"Sure."

It's relatively simple because it has a bar code scanner. I show him how to bring up the total, add in the tax, the amount received, and the amount of change to return. A customer comes in and buys a book off the shelf, so I stand behind Eric and let him make the transaction. He hands the bagged book to the customer with a smile and a, "Thank you. Come again, ma'am."

"Nicely done, guy. I couldn't have done better myself."

"Really? I like doing this."

"Good, I may make a bookseller out of you. What you want for lunch?"

"Where we going?"

"During the week I get a lot of customers during lunch hour, so I get a sandwich and something to drink from the deli across the street and bring it back here."

"I'll go," he says eagerly.

"Can you manage?"

"Sure."

"Okay. Get me a chicken salad plate. I'll make my tea here. Get what you want." I hand him some money. As soon as he's out the door, I call the deli and ask them to put everything in a bag so he can carry it, otherwise Sue will just hand him the plastic plates.

I watch him returning from the shop window, marveling at how easily he carries the bag while using his crutches.

"They're nice," Eric says as he puts the bag on the coffee table in front of the two easy chairs. "She asked me if this was for Rik and put everything in the bag for me when I said it was."

"Sue is a nice woman. You'll get to know her if you help me on Saturdays."

He grins. "She gave me a piece of apple pie when I told her I had come to live with you. She said she was glad."

"That's her way of saying welcome to Riverton. Let's eat while we have a chance."

Eric has gotten a sub for himself. I'm surprised that he manages to eat the entire thing, for Sue's subs are not small. He holds out a sliver of ham to Fat Cat who gobbles it down.

"Don't give Fat Cat any more, Eric, it's not good for him. You can give him one of his kitty treats."

"'Kay."

We get another customer or two, one of them I know well, so I hand him the key to the room without a word. Eric watches as the man unlocks the door, enters, and closes it.

"How'd you know, Uncle Rick?"

"I know all of my regulars. Let me decide who gets the key and when. Some of them don't want anyone else in the room when they're there, others don't care. Some won't even go in there if there's someone else in the store, especially if it's Marty."

"Who's he?"

"She. She helps me on the days orders come in."

"Oh."

It's time to close when John comes out of the room, but he has one book in hand and a list of several he wants me to order. I handle this myself, then close the register, and begin to close the shop.

I take Eric by the high school he will be attending and ask if he wants to go home or come to the shop after school.

"I want to come to the shop."

"Good. I can use some help once in a while. There isn't a bus comes downtown, so I'll pick you up each day."

"I can walk that."

"Not yet. It won't take me but about fifteen minutes, so I can close the shop that long." I don't want him walking to the shop after school until he's known. There are a few gangs I'm afraid will try to pick on him once he's off school grounds. "I'll get you a cell phone so you can call me at the shop if you are going to be late for some reason."

"'Kay."

As soon as we've eaten dinner and he's curled up with a book, I go into my bedroom and call the school's principal at home, a man I know slightly because I supply the school's library. After I've explained the situation, he says he'll meet us in his office at eight-fifteen Monday morning.

Sunday, Eric reads his books and I the papers and a new trade journal. After dinner I take him for a ride so he can see the town.

When he's ready for bed, he hugs me. "Thanks, Uncle Rik."

"For what?"

"I...  I was afraid you wouldn't want me."

I hug him back. "I do want you, Eric. This is your home, and I'm really happy to have you here. Just call me Rik, okay. A guy your age calling me uncle makes me feel old."

I'm not used to getting up at a quarter to seven, so it takes a moment for me to realize why I set the clock. I wake Eric, and go to fix breakfast for him. While he eats, I'll shave and dress.

The meeting with the principal goes well, until I mention that Eric will have a cell phone, which I hadn't realized the school prohibited. When I insist because I'll need to know if he's going to be detained, the principal tells Eric he can use the office phone and his secretary will be notified once his schedule is set. Eric looks apprehensive when he's turned over to a guidance counselor and I leave for home.

"How was it?" I ask when he gets in the car after school.

"Okay, I guess. Sure is different from the school back home."

"You'll be fine as soon as you make some friends."

"I guess." He looks at me questioningly. "There's one cute guy in three of my classes. He sat with me at lunch and asked all kinds of questions about why I was here and about my leg and all."

"Did you mind?"

"Not really. He's cool, but none of the others seem to like him."

"Is he new, too?"

"Unh,unh. He said he's lived here all his life."

"Then I would think he'd know a lot of people."

"I guess."

"If he seems like a good guy and you like him, there's nothing wrong with being his friend. He probably needs one worse than anybody else."

Eric brightens up. "Yeah."

Fat Cat comes running when we get back to the shop and Eric calls him. I hand Eric a couple of kitty treats to give him, and Fat Cat is in his lap the minute Eric sits down. When I get busy, Eric comes behind the counter and takes over the computer for me, even handling a couple of phone orders very nicely. I couldn't be more proud of him.

"Well, guy, have you decided to stay with me?" I ask after we've eaten dinner.

"You bet. I like being with you."

"Okay. I'll call your dad and tell him to send the rest of your stuff. You have any homework?"

"Yeah."

"Then get to it. You can use my desk. If you need any help say so. What's your dad's phone number?"

"You don't have it?"

"No. He doesn't talk to me."

"Oh." He writes it down for me and turns to his homework.

I go to my bedroom and place the call, but as soon as I tell Jeff who I am the bastard slams the phone down. I call dad and ask him to relay my request for Eric's things to be sent to me. Dad agrees quickly and has some more choice words for Jeff when I tell him what happened.

It's not as hard to get up early the next morning. Eric wants to take the bus, but I refuse. In fact, this way I can get to the shop earlier than usual, get some housekeeping done there, and get some of the paperwork out of the way. It's been my habit to clean after I close on Saturdays, but I want to spend as much time with Eric as possible.

When I pick Eric up that afternoon, he comes to the car grinning.

"What's up?"

"I'm only a little behind in one class, so I won't have to work so hard to catch up. All I've gotta do is write a story this week for English."

"I'm proud of you."

"An' that guy Nick I was telling you about, he's real nice. He wants me to go home with him some afternoon."

"I'm glad you're making a friend, but don't limit yourself to just one. I would feel a lot better if you could bring Nick by the shop so I can meet him before you go to his house."

"'Kay. Mom made me do that, too. Nick rides his bike to school, so I guess he could come by. I'll ask him."

"Fine. Do you know where he lives?"

"He said some place called West Hills."

I have to laugh, because he's just named a pretentious up-scale development. Its name is ridiculous because the only hills in this area are anthills.

"He said he knows where the shop is because his dad buys books from you."

"Oh? You know his last name?"

"Unh, unh."

"Please don't ask him to come tomorrow. That's the day I get my shipment of books in, and it's going to be a big one this week. I'll need your help when you're out of school."

"Great."

He grabs a Pepsi from the small fridge in the tiny workroom and fixes me a mug of tea while I wait on a customer. It's slow so Eric reads until closing time, then helps me close up shop. I don't feel like cooking, so we both shower and change and go out to eat. It's nice to have someone with me instead of eating alone.

Marty, a woman several years older than I, comes in just after I open up. She helps me a few hours on the day shipments come in and fills in if I have to be out for a day. I like her quiet efficiency, and she's popular with my customers. Both of us look with amazement at the six large boxes and one smaller box UPS delivers. I open the one marked as containing the invoice and hand it to her to check as I unpack the books. After looking at the label on the smaller box I set it aside to do after she's gone. It contains gay and sexually explicit items.

We break for lunch then resume work. When the alarm on my watch buzzes to remind me to pick up Eric, I leave her to check the new books against the special order list and set them in a bookcase behind the counter for customer pick up.

"Wow! Look at all the books!" Eric exclaims when we walk in.

"Told you. This is Marty. Marty, this is my nephew Eric. He's living with me now."

"Hi, Eric. My aren't you the handsome one."

He blushes, but beautiful he is.

"Got the calls all made, so I'll be taking off if you don't need me," Marty says, getting up. "I put a check beside the ones I couldn't reach."

"Fine. I doubt there'll be much tomorrow, so I'll see you next Wednesday."

As soon as she's gone, I pick up the special box. "Get the key, Eric, and help me check these in."

"'Kay." When I close the door behind us, he looks at me. "How you gonna know if somebody comes in?"

"There's a buzzer on the door, and I've brought the cordless phone. If someone comes in, you can go help them."

We're almost done when the buzzer goes off. Eric slips out the door, but a few moments later he comes to the door and calls me. I slip out, and go to the counter to find the five books the man has ordered. It's good Eric called me, because I'm handed a credit card. I run it through the reader then have him sign the receipt.

"See how I did that?" I ask Eric when the man leaves.

"Cool."

"The books are piled together by customer order; I mark them off in the order book when they're picked up. Best let me take care of those until you're more familiar with my customers, unless they know the title of the book they ordered."

"What if it's books from the back room?"

"I know all of those, so if someone asks for me let me handle it."

"'Kay."

We finish up with those, and I ask Eric to bag them, attaching the sales slip to each bag, so all I'll have to do in the main shop is ring the slip up on the register when the buyer comes in. I make a few phone calls to let them know their books are in.

Most come immediately for their books, keeping both Eric and me busy for a while. I get raised eyebrows from a couple of customers when they see Eric, but say nothing because he's working from the sales slips without opening the bags as I had told him. My only moment of concern is when one man a few years older than I hangs around longer than is characteristic. He can't take his eyes off Eric, not that I blame him.

When he finally leaves, Eric asks, "Why'd that man keep looking at me?"

"He's a devotee."

"What's that?"

"Someone who enjoys looking at handsome young amputees like you."

"You mean he thinks I'm good looking because my leg's gone?"

"You've got it. He probably spends his nights drooling over the pictures in a website for young amputees."

"You mean there's a whole website with pictures of guys like me?" I nod. "Gee, I'd like to see it."

"At home. I'll show it to you after dinner."

Eric looks fascinated when I bring the site up. I show him how to bring the pictures up from the thumbnails and leave him to enjoy himself.

"Wow!" he exclaims when he gets up from the desk. "I didn't know there were so many guys like me. You think I look good with one leg, Rik?"

I pull him down beside me on the sofa. "No! You look beautiful. I know you want a leg, but you look great on crutches."

He snuggles against me. "I was hoping it didn't make any difference to you, but you haven't done more than hug me since I've been here, so I thought you didn't like me or something."

I put my arm around him. "I love you very much, Eric, but I'll never touch you in a sexual way."

"Why not? I want you to."

"Because you're too young and you're my nephew. Find a gay friend your own age if you want, but nothing is going to happen between us. Your grandfather trusts me, and I'm not going to lose his trust after all he's done for me."

Eric looks disappointed. "Aww. I was hoping."

"Sorry. Now go do your homework."

When I pick Eric up at school the next afternoon, he tells me his friend is already on his way to the shop so I can meet him. Not five minutes after we're there, a nice looking well dressed kid leans his bike against the tree outside and comes in.

"Hi, Nick. Come meet my uncle," Eric says.

Looking at Nick I can see he looks rather familiar, then he says, "I'm Nick Conover, sir." No wonder. His father is a prominent businessman and one of my best customers.

"Nice to meet you, Nick. Thank you for being so kind to Eric."

"Eric's really cool, I like him a lot."

"Good. Eric, get Pepsis if you want." I turn to serve a customer who has just entered.

The boys play with Fat Cat for a bit, then Nick looks at some of the paperbacks. He pulls one out and he and Eric discuss it before Nick brings it to the counter. It's a science fiction that's been on the shelf so long I'd intended moving it to the sale rack, but hadn't.

"Eric, come ring this up for Nick. It's half price so I'll show you how to do it."

"This didn't come from the sale books, sir," Nick says.

"No, but it belonged there." I show Eric which key to use for discounts and bag the book for Nick. "Enjoy it, and come back any time. It's nice to meet you."

"Can Eric come to my house after school tomorrow?"

"Of course. It's nice of you to invite him. I'll pick him up after school and take him. I think I know where you live."

"Thanks. I gotta go, Eric. See you tomorrow."

"'Kay."

I drop Eric off at Nick's after school and go back to the shop. I have a few of my special customers and, after placing their orders, close and go to pick Eric up. It's Nick's father who answers my ring. "Matheson, I thought it might be you when Eric told me who he was living with. Come in and have a drink. The boys are upstairs in Nick's room."

"We really should be going, Mr. Conover. I have to fix dinner for Eric and me."

"Please come into my study and join me in a drink. There are some questions I'd like to ask you."

All I can think of is he's found out Eric is gay and I'm going to hear about it, but the man is smiling. He fixes me a light vodka tonic with a twist, and takes a scotch on the rocks for himself, then sits down.

"Matheson, I've made a few inquiries among close friends I trust and hear that you're very discreet in your business."

"I try to be. A customer's choice in reading material is his own business. I merely sell books, not judge. I will give an opinion on a book if I'm asked, but that's all. I'm a strong advocate of free speech."

He looks past me to see if the door is closed, which it is. "Matheson, I..."

"Please call me Rik, sir."

"Thank you. As I was about to say, I need some information of a special nature, but I do not want it made public."

"I handle books on sensitive subjects at times. I can assure you that no one other than I sees them or knows whom the order's for. I'll be glad to help you if I can."

"Thank you. I was in one of the chain stores and saw a book I thought might be of help, but I couldn't bring myself to buy it, because I was with friends at the time."

"I understand."

He takes a healthy gulp of his scotch. "Matheson... Rik, my son is having some difficulty at school, not in his studies, but I'm told he's being taunted because the other boys think he's gay. Your nephew is his only friend."

"And you want some information on young gays, or are you looking for something else?"

He takes another pull at his drink. "I don't like it, but I'm preparing myself to accept that he's probably gay. What's available for information useful to me and to him?"

"Mr. Conover, I can recommend several books, but while we're speaking confidentially, let me tell you something about Eric."

He doesn't interrupt once while I'm telling him what's happened. "I suspect that's why Eric and Nick have become friends so quickly," I end.

"And that doesn't bother you?"

"Not at all. I love my nephew and I'm determined to give him all the support I can. My dad feels the same way."

"He's a fortunate young man. I believe I can trust you to select books for Nick and me."

"I'll do my best. I've already given Eric two that Nick should read; I'll include those, if I may. I'd like to make another suggestion."

"Please."

"I've found out there's an organization of parents of gays in the Tidewater area, so I'm going to a meeting. If I think it will be of any help, I'll join. Would you like to go with me?"

"There are enough parents with gay children to have an organization?"

"Apparently so. It's national with chapters in a lot of cities."

He wipes his forehead with his handkerchief. "I... I'm not sure I could go. I know a lot of people in that area."

"Are you ashamed of your son being gay?"

"Yes," he answers quickly, then shakes his head. "I ... I should have said I don't know. This is all so new." He looks at me again. "Rik, you know how narrow minded people in this town are. I love my son, but I want to protect us both."

"I can understand that. I'll go to a meeting and let you know how I feel about it, if you like."

"Thank you. Go ahead and order those books for me anyway."

"Certainly."

"What are you going to do with Eric if you go to the meeting? He told me you're not married."

"He's old enough to stay home alone, but not at night. I'll probably have to take him with me."

"I'm sure Nick would like to have him visit while you're gone."

"I won't have time to fix dinner for him before I leave."

"I'll be happy to have him eat with us."

"That's an awful lot of bother for you."

He smiles. "Not at all, Nick and I like to eat also, you know. I have a live-in housekeeper. She'll take care of them, and I'm home most evenings."

"I'll ask Eric if he wants to stay."

"No time like the present." He picks up the phone on his desk and punches in two numbers. After talking with his son for a minute, he hangs up and smiles.

"They're delighted. Please let me know how the meeting goes."

I glance at my watch. "Eric and I do have to go now, but call me if you have further questions."

"I have so many I can't begin to think of them just now." He wrings my hand. "Thank you, Rik. I was at my wit's end and there's no one else I felt I could turn to."

"I appreciate your confidence in me. Show your support for Nick all you can. He and Eric are going to have a hard time at school if the other kids find out."

On our way home, Eric reaches over and squeezes my arm. "I'm glad you told me about devotees and showed me that site last night."

"Oh. Why?"

"That's why Nick was so friendly my first day at school. He thinks my stump is awesome."

I have to smile. "Then I can assume you guys had a good time this afternoon?" I glance at Eric to see he's blushing. "Didn't mean to embarrass you, guy."

"That's okay. I felt kind of funny at first, you know, letting him touch it and all."

"And now you don't mind so much?"

He grins. "Something like that."

"People are always going to be curious."

"I know. I don't mind talking about it any more, 'specially when they like me like Nick does. We'll have a good time Wednesday night. He's got a computer so I'll show him some more of the sites."

"I'm glad you're getting comfortable with your stump. You want a burger tonight? I've got a little work to do and I'm not in the mood to cook."

"Great!"

After dinner, Eric goes to study while I call the phone number of the parents of gays chapter. At the expressions of concern and kindness I get from Mary, the woman who answers, I'm looking forward to attending.

Tuesday afternoon just as I'm about to leave to pick Eric up at school, I get a call from Nick's father asking me to meet him in the principal's office ASAP. I lock the shop and drive as fast as I dare.

When I enter the outer office Eric and Nick are sitting in chairs looking at the floor. Eric's clothing is a mess, he has a cut on his cheek, and he's holding a blood spotted handkerchief to his nose. Nick looks no better, his shirt is ripped. I start to speak but Mr. Conover calls me into the principal's office.

"There was a fight during the class break," he says.

"Between Eric and Nick?"

"Heavens no! With other boys." He turns to the principal. "This is Eric's guardian. Explain what happened."

The man shakes his head. "I still don't know all the details. Someone apparently called Nick a name, and Eric hit him."

"Have you talked with them?" I ask.

"They won't tell me anything. Since fighting is against our rules, I'll have to suspend both boys for three days unless I'm satisfied with their explanation."

"I'll not accept that," I tell him. "Eric isn't the type to start fights, especially with his handicap."

"I should think not," Conover agrees. "We'll take both boys home and talk with them. Nick knows better than to lie to me."

"We'll see you tomorrow when we bring them back to school," I add.

Conover looks at me. "My house?"

"As soon as I can get Eric cleaned up. Say an hour."

As soon as we're in the car, Eric looks at me. "I'm sorry, Uncle Rik."

"Save it until we're at Nick's. I've got to close the shop first."

"You don't have to do that, do you?"

"Who's going to run it if I'm out? Marty only comes in Wednesday mornings unless I tell her ahead of time I'll need her."

I can tell from his expression that Eric is beginning to understand this means a loss of possible income for me.

At home he takes a quick shower and dresses. His nose has stopped bleeding as has the small cut. We drive on to Conover's home.

"How's Nick?" I ask as we walk in.

"Just shaken up. Seems those boys started pushing him back and forth between them. Is Eric okay?"

"Yes. It was just a nose bleed fortunately."

We're following Conover down the hall to his study when I hear a sharp crack and Eric stumbles against the wall. I steady him, and see one of his crutches has broken.

"I'm sorry," he says.

"We'll stop on the way home and get you another. Can you make it on one?"

He nods, but I wrap my arm around him and help him into the study. When he's seated, I start to go back and pick up the crutch, but Conover tells me to leave it.

"All right, Nick, what was this fight about?"

"It ... it was four of the football players. They were pushing me back and forth between them."

"And?"

"Eric saw them and told 'em to stop. The biggest guy told him to bug off, they were playing with the fag boy. That's when Eric hit him."

I look at Eric. "I'm not lettin' nobody pick on my friend," he snaps.

"How did you get the cut and bloody nose?"

"He said he was gonna beat my ass for hitting him. Said I deserved it for taking up for a fag. He pushed me and I fell right at his feet, so I jerked them out from under 'im and hit 'im when he fell. He hit me back before a teacher came out and stopped him."

"Do you know the boys' names, Nick?" His father asks."

Nick nods. "Don't make me tell, it'll just make things worse."

"I won't force you if you think it will cause you a problem, but if it happens again I damn well will take action, against the school if necessary. I'll take you to school tomorrow and talk with the principal."

"Eric, no more fighting. Do you understand?" I tell him.

He looks at me with a stubborn expression. "I'll fight anybody picks on Nick or me."

"I appreciate your loyalty to Nick, Eric, but fighting is no way to settle a problem, especially with older and larger boys. You're at a disadvantage at the start," Conover tells him.

"But I love Nick!" he blurts out, then his hand flies up to cover his mouth. He looks at Nick, then at me.

I smile at him. "It's okay, Eric. Mr. Conover and I thought as much."

I see Nick look at his father with fear.

Conover walks over to him and pulls him up, giving him a hug. "Don't be afraid, son. I'm not mad at you."

"You ... you're not?"

"Mr. Matheson and I had a talk the other night. He told me Eric's gay, and answered some questions I had. He's ordered some books for both of us to read."

Nick hugs his father. "Thanks, dad."

"Just because Mr. Matheson is helping me understand your feelings, don't think anyone else is going to accept you so willingly."

"I know. Eric and I try to be careful at school."

"Then how did the fight come about?"

"I guess cause I don't play any sports."

"Naa," Eric says, "most likely cause you don't wear clothes like the rest of us."

I think for a moment and it's true. Eric wears jeans and pullover shirts, but Nick is always neatly dressed in nice slacks, sport shirts, and polished loafers.

"I mean you look great and all, but you do sorta stick out," Eric finishes.

"Oh."

Conover looks at me. "That's my fault. I hate the way boys dress now-a-days."

"I know you're used to dressing nicely as a man in your position should, but you're not around a bunch of kids," I tell him.

"You're right, of course. Nick, I want you to let Eric take you shopping tomorrow after school, if he will. Buy what he suggests."

Nick finally smiles. "Yes, sir."

As we're leaving, Conover stops me. "Rik, about that meeting tomorrow night. In light of what's happened, I've decided to go with you."

"Fine. I think we both need it. Shall I pick you up? We'll have to leave about quarter past six."

"I'll be glad to drive and I know Norfolk well. Nick, I'll meet you at school and take you and Eric to the mall. You can call me when you're ready to come home. That way Mr. Matheson won't have to close his shop."

Eric and I go by a medical supply shop on our way home. The minute he sees the forearm crutches he wants them. The attendant adjusts them to fit, and smiles at me when I hand him my credit card. "You made a good choice, sir. These will keep him from trying to use one as he did when you came in."

"There's a problem with that? I mean other than being awkward."

"Yes. He's still growing and using a single crutch would eventually deform his upper body. It will also keep him from leaning heavily on his crutches which can cause nerve damage after a time."

"I'm glad you told me. Fortunately, he broke his other crutch just this afternoon."

"These are cool," Eric says when we're in the car.

"You sure you wanted black?"

"Yeah. They look hi-tech."

"Fine. Let's go eat."

When I arrive at Conover's the following evening, he's shaking his head.

"What's wrong?" I ask as soon as we're in his huge Lincoln.

"The things kids wear. Nick came home with several pair of jeans, some pullover shirts, and a pair of those dreadful looking shoes they wear now."

"Just being kids. I wore jeans at school, too."

"So did I on occasion, but I almost died when Nick gave the credit card receipt. Do you know what those things cost now?"

I smile. "If they were designer jeans, I do."

He shakes his head again. "Why? Dear Lord, Nick could buy nice clothes for what they cost."

"And he wouldn't fit in with the crowd. Don't you take advantage of something that's popular in the market?"

"Well, yes. I'd be a fool not to." His frown eases into a smile. "I see what you're trying to tell me now."

"Exactly."

Conover looks surprised when the meeting place is a church. "Are you certain this is the right place?" He asks.

"Yes."

"Unbelievable! I mean most churches are so set against gays ..."

"Except the Unitarians and the Metropolitan Church."

I start towards the lighted door of the parish house. Before we reach it, another car pulls in and stops. The couple who get out see our indecision and ask, "Are you here for the parents' meeting?"

"Yes. This is our first time, so we weren't exactly sure where to go." I answer.

"Welcome. I'm John and this is my wife Kate."

I hold out my hand. "Rik, and this is Jase."

Everyone goes by first names and, with the warmth of our reception, Conover and I quickly relax. John introduces us to the group of some twenty people. After a short business meeting, they become informal, asking anyone who wishes to speak to do so. After several have asked questions and received help, I stand.

"This is my first meeting as you know. My fourteen year-old nephew is living with me now because his parents threw him out when they found he's gay. I need all the help I can get, because I want him to be happy."

Apparently I have helped Conover because he stands as soon as I've finished.

"My name is Jason. My son is the same age as Rik's nephew. They're in the same classes at school and have quickly become friends. Day before yesterday at school they were harassed by several football players. I didn't know my son was... g ... gay until then. I need help worse than Rik, so I'll be grateful for any information you can give me."

A motherly type seated in front of us stands and gives Conover a hug. "It hurts the first time you have to say your son is gay. I know, because I found the word hard to say myself. You're among friends who understand because we're all going through it with our own children. We'll give you all the help and support we can." She turns to me. "You don't seem as upset as Jase."

Feeling at ease, I answer, "I'm not. I'm gay, so I know what it's like."

I see Conover looking at me, his mouth open. After several others have spoken, the leader comes over carrying two large clasp envelopes and hands one to each of us. "I'm Terry. This is information about our organization and a list of materials you might find helpful. My card is inside, so please give me a call at any time I can help you. Now, come have some coffee and meet the others."

After a bit of socializing, we leave.

"I had no idea you're gay," Conover says when we're in his car.

"I wouldn't have admitted it anywhere else. I hope you won't either."

"Of course not. I'm just surprised. Does Eric know?"

"Yes. That's why my brother sent him to me. I'm sorry to say Jeff is completely unreasonable about gays." Then a thought hits me. "I hope this isn't going to cause you to keep Nick away from Eric. I've not the slightest sexual interest in children."

Conover takes his eyes off the street long enough to glance at me. "I'm glad you told me that. In fact, I appreciate the interest you've shown in helping me understand my feelings. Please call me Jase, because we'll be seeing a lot of each other, especially now."

"Thank you, Jase. I was worried about how you might feel."

"To speak honestly, I can't say I'm comfortable."

"I appreciate your honesty. But our main interest is the boys. If we work together, I think we'll become quite comfortable with each other. What did you think of the meeting?"

"I can see how the experiences of others will help me cope. I felt very awkward, though."

"They all seemed quite sincere about helping us, so I'm joining. Mary told me there are a couple of college students who organize activities for the kids during the summer. If Eric wants, I'll bring him up if there's any that interest him."

"You want him around a bunch of gay kids?"

"Why not? He's gay, and with them he won't be under a strain trying to keep it a secret as he does at school."

Jase seems to mull this over for a few moments before he nods. "That's true. If Nick is interested, I'll bring them up so you won't have to do all the driving."

"Fair enough."

I stay at Conover's just long enough for him to call Nick's room for Eric to come down. We hear a flurry of activity then Eric comes down the stairs, Nick with him.

"Do I have to go now?" Eric asks.

"That you do. You have school tomorrow, and I'll bet you and Nick haven't done a lick of homework."

"Yeah, we did," Nick says, "cause Eric said you'd say that."

Jase looks at me and gives a nod of agreement. "Another half hour, then, if Mr. Matheson will have a drink with me."

I nod and the boys take off. "I hope they've done their homework. I used to use any excuse to get out of it."

Jase chuckles. "So did I. But Nick's conscientious about it and, as I told you, he doesn't lie to me."

"I hope that rubs off on Eric. Nick has been good for him. Eric was lost changing homes and schools so suddenly."

Jase and I chat over our drinks, until I tell him we must go. When Eric comes down, he has a big smile. He thanks Jase and we leave.

"You must have had a good time tonight."

"I did. Nick's cool. You know what he did, Rik?"

"What?"

"You know my busted crutch we left there?"

"What about it? Mr. Conover said it would be put in the trash."

I glance at Eric and see a broad grin. "Nick made some kind of peg leg out of it. He showed it to me tonight."

"Why'd he do that?"

"He showed me a picture on one of the sites of a little kid with a peg leg made like that. That's where he got the idea. I let him play with my crutches the other day and he liked it."

"How do you feel about it?"

"It's cool. He says he likes me because I've got one leg and he wishes he did too."

"I hope he's not serious about that."

"I told him it wasn't all that great."

I reach over and ruffle his hair. "You're a good kid, Eric."

"Wish my folks thought so," he says sadly.

I have no answer for that.

When I go to pick Eric up from school the next day I'm running a few minutes late. I see him and Nick being faced down by a husky boy who looks to be about eighteen; all three look very serious. This boy has to be the one that was tormenting Nick, so I get out of my car and walk over to them.

"Hi, Rik," Eric says.

"What's going on, guys?"

The husky boy looks at me and walks off.

"Want me to take you home, Nick?"

"No, thanks. I've got my bike. See you tomorrow, Eric."

"Was that one of the guys giving you and Nick trouble?" I ask when we're in the car.

"Yeah. He's the one hit me."

"So what was this all about?"

"I was scared when he got us after school, but he said he was just gonna talk."

"May I ask what about?"

"I don't know. You got there just when we did."

"You and Nick try to steer clear of him. I'll try to be there when the bell rings."

"'Kay, but I'll walk to the shop after this, so you don't have to come for me."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah. It's not that far."

"How are you doing with the new crutches?"

"Pretty good. Make my arms hurt a little if I walk a lot."

"That's because you're carrying all your weight on them instead of leaning on them like you did your old ones. Your muscles will build up pretty fast."

I'm surprised but pleased there are no further incidents at school. When Eric comes in Thursday afternoon, I ask, "You want to go see dad this weekend?"

"Yeah, man."

"I asked Marty to come in tomorrow afternoon and all of Saturday, so we can leave as soon as you get out of school tomorrow."

"That's great."

Dad is nearing seventy, but is still fairly healthy and as independent as always. I did talk him into selling the big house after mom died, so he bought a two-bedroom cottage in a managed retirement center. He opens the front door the minute he hears my car, and comes down the walk toward us with a broad smile.

"Hi, Gran'pa," Eric calls as he gets out.

I look at dad and see the smile vanish. He staggers a bit and I run to help in case he falls.

"Oh, Eric! What happened to you, boy?" Dad says.

"Nothin' Gran'pa. I'm living with Uncle Rik. He's cool. Where's Poochie?" He's referring to a mischievous little beagle dad has had for several years.

"He's in his pen out back."

Eric swings off. Dad looks at me sadly. "Why didn't you tell me about Eric's leg?"

"I thought you knew. Didn't Jeff tell you about the accident?"

Dad shakes his head. "He don't say much when he calls, and he hasn't been by in I don't remember when." Dad hugs me. "Glad I got one son hasn't deserted me."

"I love you too much for that, dad. You don't know how much it meant to me when you accepted my being gay. It's helped me with Eric, too. I could use a cup of tea after that drive."

He smiles. "When can't you? I already got the kettle on."

I glance out the kitchen window to see Eric sitting on the ground with Poochie all over him. Dad joins me. "Nothin' like a boy and a dog," he says. "You sure did love Shep."

"That I did. Maybe I ought to get a dog for Eric."

Dad shakes his head. "He's gonna have other interests soon, and you already got that cat."

"Yeah. He and Fat Cat get along fine, and he's at the shop a lot after school."

Dad gets a cup of coffee and we sit down at the table. "Tell me what happened to Eric," he says.

I tell him as much as Eric has told me, but when I tell dad Jeff refused to buy Eric a prosthesis and dad says, "Jeff's turned into a real asshole." I almost drop my mug of tea.

"What you gonna do about it?" Dad asks.

"I'd love to get him one, but after I checked the prices for a good one like he needs, I just couldn't swing it, not with buying him some clothes."

"I told Jeff to send his stuff to you. Hasn't he done it?"

"Not yet. But Eric's growing so fast I doubt they'll fit.

"Damn Jeff!" Dad snaps. "Is there a prosthetics shop in Riverton?"

"A good one from what I hear."

"Then don't say nothin' to Eric about this, but you take him in next week and get him a leg. I've got some money set aside you can have."

"Thanks, dad. Eric's going to be mighty happy. He's doing fine with crutches, specially those new ones I got him. He's proud of 'em, likes the hi-tech look."

Dad grins. "Then he's going to love the legs they're making now."

"Oh?"

"I may be retired, but I keep up with the medical equipment industry. It's getting a little too complex for me to understand now, all this digital stuff." He grins. "I got a journal on the newest prosthetics the other day. I'll leave it out for Eric to find. I think I can still answer a question or two."

"You never cease to amaze me, dad."

He grins again. "Jeff was the only one ever looked at the brochures I carried around back when you were children. You never were interested in selling."

I shake my head. "Never wanted to spend all that time on the road like you did."

"I didn't like it either, son, but it was the best paying job I ever had. I wanted you and Jeff to have a college education, even if it meant I couldn't be at home when you were little."

"I know, dad. My little shop isn't going to make me rich, but I love books and the quiet life I have."

Dad smiles. "You mean quiet up 'til now. I have a feeling Eric is going to cause some noise once he settles in."

"True, but I'm enjoying him. Jeff's loss is my gain, and I won't pretend that I'm unhappy over it. I feel sorry for Eric, but I'm going to make him as happy as I can."

Dad shakes his head. "I'll never know how your mother and me had two such different sons. If I could, I'd trade Jeff in on a better model. Let's get dinner started."

After dinner dad and I take our coffee into the living room and continue to chat. Eric flips through the channels on TV, then shuts it off and starts looking at the magazines dad has on a table. Suddenly he shouts, "Wow!"

"What?" I ask.

"Look at this." He hops over and sits on the arm of my chair, holding out the journal of prosthetics dad had put out. He points to a leg. "That's really cool." It's comprised of a stump socket, a complicated looking knee mechanism, a rod, and a formed foot. Eric turns the page and show me another, basically the same, except the foot has been replaced with a flattened Y shaped strip. Everything is black except the socket.

"Wonder why that one's made that way?"

"Ask dad. He knows this stuff, I don't."

"'Kay." It takes one short hop for him to be sitting on the arm of dad's chair. "Tell me, gran'pa?"

"Sure." Dad launches into an explanation I can't pretend to follow, but Eric seems totally absorbed and asks questions I would never have thought him capable of.

I get up to refill dad's coffee mug and get myself more tea. I'm fascinated enough now to pick up the journal when dad has finished and Eric goes to let Poochie in.

"Eric seems to know his mind, and he made a good choice." He leans across and takes the journal from my hand to point out the leg with the formed foot. "Take this with you when you leave so you can show it to the men there. It's an expensive one, but I think it's adjustable, so it'll last until he's full-grown. And before you ask, I've got the money, so I don't want to hear any excuses."

"Are you sure? I don't want you cutting yourself short. You worked hard for everything, so you should enjoy it now."

"Seein' that grandson of mine out running like other kids will be the greatest joy I can have, besides, I have a feeling the money I spend on Eric's leg is going to be replaced. You quit frettin' and do like I told you."

"You know I will. Thanks, dad."

Saturday dad suggests we go to the community pool where he takes a class in water aerobics every morning. We can join him, if we like, then swim afterwards. Since I'm not any larger than dad, I borrow a pair of his trunks.

Eric says, "What about me?"

"Let's see what you brought along from home."

He shakes his head. "Nothin'." I go to the room we're sharing and look through his bag. I hold up a pair of black nylon bikini briefs.

"You're kidding," Eric says.

"If I didn't know they were briefs I couldn't tell. For sure none of these old people will."

He comes out with them on, making a very beautiful picture. Dad looks him up and down. "You look good enough to eat. Come here and let me see that stump."

This is really the first time I've seen it, too. It ends about four inches from where his knee had been, nicely shaped with a taper, and the anterior scar has already faded to a pale pink.

Dad feels it over carefully, then looks at Eric with a smile. "The doc done a good job, Eric. A leg should feel very comfortable."

"If I ever get one."

Dad slaps Eric's stump gently. "You will. Maybe sooner than you think. Now let's go so I can show those old folks what a good lookin' grandson I got."

I trail behind watching Eric swing along on his crutches with total ease. From the way he's laughing, I know dad's got to be telling him some of his awful jokes. It's only a block from dad's cottage to the pool. When we get there, a young woman is getting several older people in the pool deep enough for the water to come to their chests.

"Brought my son and grandson along, Sherry. They want to swim after class." He introduces us.

"Why don't you join us for the workout? You'll find it easy to stand in the water, Eric."

I help him in the pool, lining us up with dad. Eric's grinning the whole time, but by the time the half-hour is over I'm whipped.

Dad grins at me. "What's the matter, Rik? Don't tell me you're gonna let an old man like me beat you in a little exercise."

"Spending too much time on my butt, dad. How you feel Eric?"

"Great. That was fun. It's no trouble standing in the water like she said."

"Good. Come on, boy, let's swim," dad tells him.

"I'm gonna dive," Eric says, and pulls himself up on the tiles surrounding the pool.

"Need your crutches?" I ask.

"Naa. I'll hop." Which he does. I'm a little fearful for him when the board begins to spring under his hops, but he gets to the end and, after a couple of springs, makes a beautiful dive, then swims nicely to the edge of the pool so he can do it again.

Dad swims over to me. "Damn, I'm proud of him."

"I am, too, dad. I'll find out where his friend swims and see he gets to go often."

"You do that. I'm proud of you, too, son, the way you've taken him in and made him so happy."

"It's mutual, dad. He's giving me a new lease on life."

We take dad out to dinner Sunday and then start our trip home.

"Gee, that was fun." Eric says. "I love gran'pa."

"So do I. We'll have to come more often."

After I've dropped Eric off at school Monday I go back home and dress, then get to the shop early to make a couple of phone calls before I open. Finding it to be a slow day, I close long enough to go to the school and talk with the principal, who agrees to my request.

Eric is burning with curiosity when I tell him I'll pick him up at school the next day at noon. "Marty's coming in so we can have lunch and the afternoon together."

"What's up, Rik?"

"You'll find out. It's a surprise."

"Tell me. I can't wait."

"You're going to have to, but I think you'll like it."

Eric is in my car almost before the noon bell stops ringing.

"Where you want to eat?" I ask.

"Can we get one of those great burgers again?"

"Sure. This time we'll go in. We have to be somewhere else at one-fifteen."

"Where?"

"That's the surprise."

He has no idea where we're going until I park in front of the building and he sees the small sign: Riverton Prosthetics. His eyes get huge. "I'm getting a leg? Oh, wow, Rik!" He comes close to strangling me with his hug.

I pull out the journal dad gave me. "You still want the hi-tech one?"

"You bet!"

The young technician introduces himself to us as Mark and establishes a quick rapport with Eric, who takes the journal from me and points to the leg. "This is the one I want."

Mark looks at me. "If it's suitable," I add.

"I'd not suggest that. It's made for adults and the most expensive we make."

"What do you suggest then?"

"This one." He flips a few pages in the journal and points to one of less complicated construction. "This will serve him until he reaches full growth. It has some of the features of the other model for comfort and excellent knee action. It's made to be adjusted over a range of several inches."

I look at Eric. "Well?"

"It is black, too?"

"Yes."

"'Kay."

I go to the examining room with them and watch the process of making the mold of his stump. Mark is not satisfied with the first one and makes another. He talks over his shoulder to me.

"I suggest we let him use a silicone liner with the latch point. He's young and his stump hasn't been wrapped, so a vacuum socket will be difficult for him to manage."

"Whatever you think. I just want him to have a leg he can use as much as possible in comfort."

"That's what I want to make for him."

"Can I have the stump socket black, too?" Eric asks.

Mark looks startled. "We always make them flesh colored. Why do you want black?"

"Everybody's gonna know the leg's fake when I wear shorts. If it's all black it'll be really cool."

"I can make it black if you want, but are you sure it's what you want?"

"Yeah. Gran'pa showed me that picture and I thought about it a lot. I really like my black crutches."

Mark looks at me. I shrug. "It's his leg. Make 'im happy."

After Mark washes off Eric's stump, we go back to the front desk and set the date for fitting. He has a four o'clock opening which is fine, because Eric won't miss any school.

"He's going to be spending some time with our therapist learning to use it. I assume you'll be bringing him, so is four okay with you?"

"Fine. I don't want him missing school any more than necessary."

The next Wednesday, Eric can hardly contain himself as Mark shows him how to roll on the silicone liner. "Where's my leg?"

Mark opens a cabinet. "And here's ...," he swings around with it in his hand, "The Terminator!" He announces theatrically.

"Oh, wow!"

He shows Eric how to slip his stump into the socket and latch the pin of the liner in place. "Okay, buddy, stand up straight." He helps Eric off the table and onto his feet. "How's it feel?"

Eric's face is radiant until he tries to swing the leg forward. "It's heavy."

"Only because the muscles in your stump have lost tone. Grab your crutches and let's go to therapy. I want to check several things."

When Eric is standing between parallel bars, Mark attaches several electrodes to the leg and Eric, then asks Eric to try to take a few steps. Eric manages, but he's sweating after four steps.

"It's hard," he complains.

"Like learning to use anything new. But you couldn't do a lot of things with your computer when you first got it, could you?"

"No."

"This is just like that. I have to make a few minor adjustments then we'll start the real work tomorrow afternoon." He gets up and swings open a full-length mirror. "Like the way it looks?"

Eric grins. "Yeah, man. I can't wait 'til I wear it to school the first time. It's gonna blow my friends' minds. It's wicked!"

I make a sign for the shop that for the next three weeks I will be closing at four instead of five on Thursdays.

"You don't have to do that, Rik," Eric protests.

"The shop is too far for you to walk, so I'll have to take you."

"I didn't know it was going' to take so long to learn to use the leg. I'm sorry."

I hug him. "Hey, nothing to be sorry about. I wanted you to have a leg as much as you wanted it. You can ride your bike now."

"It got busted in the accident. Dad wouldn't get me another one."

"You learn to walk and I'll get you a bike. How's that?"

"Great! I can ride it to school and to Nick's, and everything."

"You're going to have to pay for it," I tease.

His mouth drops open. "How?"

"There's an elderly lady living in a condo not far from the shop. She buys a lot of books, but I have to take them to her because she doesn't get out much. You can deliver them for me after school."

"No sweat."

After a couple of weeks Eric's walking fairly well, though slowly, because he's still consciously having to remember to throw the leg forward at each step. At the end of the session, Mark tells him to wear the leg to school all day Friday, and to let him know how it goes.

The weather's quite warm, so when Eric comes out to go to school he's wearing medium blue field shorts and a matching knit pullover.

"You aren't going like that are you?" I ask.

He grins. "Yeah. All the guys are wearing shorts. The reason I didn't is cause I didn't want 'em seeing my stump." He holds out the leg proudly. "I want 'em to see this, cause I haven't told anybody I was getting one."

The blue clothing, his blondness, and the black leg do present a beautiful contrast. "Let me get your picture, Eric. I want dad to see you on your first day."

"Yeah. Gran'pa really told me a lot about legs. He's sure smart."

When I stop at the school to let Eric off, Nick is just riding up on his bike. "Hey, Nick! Look at this!" Eric gets out and walks toward Nick.

I wish I had my camera, because Nick's expression is unbelievable. Finally he gasps out, "Rad, man!"

"Yeah. Rik's gonna get me a new bike so we can ride together."

"Cool! Now we can do all sorts of things. Let's see you walk some more."

Nick's so absorbed in watching Eric he almost walks into the brick wall on the side of the steps. I drive off, knowing Eric can manage and wishing dad could see how happy he is.

When I go back to pick Eric up after school, knowing he can't walk to the shop yet, I see him surrounded by the older kid Eric finally told me was named Mike and what have to be three of his football player buddies. Apprehensive, I get out of my car and hear one of them say, "I ain't never seen nothin' like that, man."

"Wild," another says.

I see Mike kneel down and lift the leg until it's straight. "Looks like somethin' I seen in the movies." He lowers Eric's leg cautiously, then puts his hand on Eric's shoulder. "That's really somethin'."

"I gotta go. Rik's here."

"How'd it go today?" I ask when we're in the car.

Eric's grin is as broad as possible. "Awesome! My leg blew everybody away, even those guys didn't like me. Mike can't even believe how it works."

"So I noticed. I'm glad he's not bothering you and Nick any longer, or is he?"

Eric shakes his head. "Unh, unh. Not really. He wants me and Nick to meet him after school tomorrow."

"Did he say what he wanted?"

"Just to talk to us."

"Are you going to meet him, then?"

"I guess."

"Be careful."

"I will."

"You'll be spending tomorrow after school with Nick again. His father and I are going to another meeting in Norfolk. I want your homework done when we get back."

"It will be. Nick and me'll have a good time."

"Nick and I."

"You're gonna have fun with Nick, too?"

"Correcting your grammar. It's Nick and I, not Nick and me."

"Oh."

Jase and I enter the parish house confidently, surprised when we're immediately greeted by name by several of the people already present. We grab cups of coffee and sit down as Terry opens the meeting. A few more people straggle in, but I hear Jase suddenly gasp and drop his head.

"What?" I whisper.

"The man taking the seat two rows in front of us is my biggest competitor. What could he be doing here?"

"Probably for the same reason we are. Don't let him freak you out."

When the time comes for us to reassemble into small groups, the man Jase pointed out joins ours. Jase looks pale; I see the man's eyes widen when he looks at us, but he pulls his chair into the circle without saying anything. During our talk Jase contributes nothing, but I relate the experience Eric and Nick had with the football players, and mention a book I hope I can get into his hands, because it will contribute to an understanding between the boys. Several ask the title and write it on their note pads along with others I mention regarding young gay athletes and the age levels appropriate to each book.

The moment the social hour begins, the man comes over. "Conover, what are you doing here?"

Jase pulls himself together. "Watkins," he acknowledges and shakes the man's hand. "This is Rik Matheson. Rik, David Watkins."

We shake then Watkins looks back at Jase. "I'm surprised to see you here."

"I'm here because Rik found out about this group. His nephew is gay and so is my son."

"How old is your son?"

"Fourteen. It's been hard for me to come to grips with it."

Watkins nods. "Dave Junior's sixteen. He's on the soccer team and the swim team, so I never thought for a moment he was gay. I was crushed when he came out to me."

"And now?" I ask.

He smiles. "He told me about this group because a friend of his, hell, his boyfriend, told him his parents got a lot of help here. You've probably met them, John and Kate."

"Lovely people," I respond.

"That they are." David puts his hand on Jase's shoulder. "I'm glad you're seeking help. If I can help you any, give me a call anytime. You have my number at the office and at home."

"That's most generous of you, Dave," Jase says.

"We may be hard competition for each other, but you're an honorable man and I respect that, Jase."

"Thank you, Dave. You have my respect also."

"I've often thought what a dynamite team we could make if we worked together. I hear there's a big job in the offing, too big for either of us alone. If I can learn more about it, would you be interested in going in on it with me?"

Jase smiles. "I'd certainly like to consider it."

"Excellent! I'll give you a call when I find out more." He glances at his watch. "Got to run pick up Dave Junior from swim practice. He's just gotten his license, but I don't let him drive alone just yet." He grins. "My hair will probably go completely white when he does."

"Oh, Lord, don't mention driving. I've two more years before Nick qualifies. I'll be a wreck when he starts."

"I'll give you a call about that job," he says, and leaves.

Jase looks at me. "First time I knew Dave had a son. Odd I should meet him here of all places."

I can only think of a cliché. "It's a small world."

"Jase, Eric wants to cook-out Friday night. I know he's asked Nick, so I'd be glad to have you come. I think I need some moral support." I say on the way home.

"Know what you mean. I'll be delighted. I need to spend more time with Nick outside of home, but you know how touchy teens are about their parents."

I nod. "I'm glad my situation is a little different. Eric seems to regard me more as an older brother. Reminds me of the way it was with me and Jeff before he found out I was gay."

"There's one big difference. You're gay, so you won't turn on Eric like his father did."

"God forbid! You don't know what having him around has done for me."

I'm surprised to see Jase smile. "Yes, I do. You've always been so somber and business like when I've been in the shop. Now you're a totally different man; you're happy."

"More than you can know."

Thursday afternoon I'm surprised to see Eric, Nick, and the big kid coming in. The big kid looks a little uncomfortable.

"Uncle Rik, this is Mike."

Mike looks surprised when I hold out my hand. "Mike," I say quietly.

He shakes my hand, then looks down. "I ... ah ... I'm sorry I gave these guys a hard time," he says. "It wasn't right for me to pushing a one legged guy around. Eric's okay, so I wanna to like get to know him and Nick better, but Eric said I couldn't less I met you."

"Mike, I'm impressed that you came to apologize. That takes a real man."

He looks up in surprise. "Thank you, sir."

"If there's no repeat of the problem you guys had, I don't mind Eric associating with you, but that's for him to decide."

"Cool," Eric says. Nick grins.

Fat Cat jumps from his chair to the counter then places his front paws on Mike's chest. I'm surprised to see Mike gently rub him, then put him on his shoulder, something Fat Cat loves.

Nick laughs, and I look up to see Fat Cat drooling in ecstasy as he does when happy.

"He must like you, Mike. Not everyone gets drooled on."

Mike grins. "We got a cat at home."

When Eric doesn't come in right after school as he always does on a Wednesday, or let me know he's going somewhere with Nick, I'm worried enough to close and drive to the school. An ambulance is there, and nearby is a car where a policewoman is trying to calm a hysterical woman. I see two cops trying to clear a crowd of gawking students; I push through until a cop stops me.

"My nephew hasn't come in from school. Are there students hurt?"

"Two."

"Damn it, man, let me through. It might be Eric."

He escorts me to the middle of the street. Eric's new leg is slightly bent, but he's sitting by Mike, holding his hand while the ambulance attendant is cutting Mike's jeans.

Mike is pale; he stares into Eric's eyes. "Don't let 'em cut my leg off, Eric."

Eric squeezes his hand. "They aren't going to cut it off. It's just broken."

He winces as the attendant jars his leg. "You hurt?"

"Naa." Then he grins at Mike. "Bent my leg is all. Didn't hurt a bit. See, I told you a fake leg is good."

Mike manages to smile a little.

"Okay, we're going to put you on a stretcher now. "It's going to hurt." The attendant tells Mike.

Mike grits his teeth, but doesn't cry out as they slide him on the stretcher then lift it to the ambulance. "I'll come see you," Eric yells as they close the doors.

I help Eric up. "Can you walk?"

"Let's see." He takes a couple of steps with me holding his arm. "Hurts' my stump."

I put my arm around him and help him hop to my car. I open the door and let him sit down, then open his jeans and slide them down so he can remove his leg.

"You can't go yet." A cop has materialized beside us.

"The hell you say! He's hurt and I'm taking him to my doctor for a check. He has to get his crutches, cause his leg's bent, too. I run Matheson's Books. You can talk to Eric later, because we're out of here."

"He told me he wasn't hurt."

"I want to be damn sure, so move it!" I snap. I hand Eric his leg and close the door, then in and start the motor. When I shift into Drive, the cop sees I mean business and moves back.

The receptionist takes us back to an examining room immediately, and Karl comes in a second later.

"Okay, young man, what happened?"

"I got hit by a car outside school," Eric responds.

Karl checks him over carefully. Eric winces when he applies pressure to his stump.

"You're a damn lucky guy, but you've got a hell of a bruise on your stump. I hope you use crutches, because it's going to be a week before you should use your leg."

Eric grins. "That's what the car hit. I gotta get it fixed."

"Then soon as I disinfect these abrasions on your hands, get going. You need a prosthetics man a lot worse than you need me."

I try to make Eric stay in the car, but he insists on coming in with me, so I put my arm around his waist and help him hop into the shop.

"Man!" Mark says when he looks at the leg. "What you go and mess up the Terminator for?"

"Got hit by a car at school."

"Guess it's better you got the Terminator beat up instead of your good leg." He looks at me. "The socket's fine. I'll have to replace the adjustable rod and get him a new liner, the latch pin is broken. I'll have it ready day after tomorrow if I don't find anything else. I'll give you a call."

"No real rush. He can't use it for a week at least. He bruised his stump."

"I'll give it a good going over then."

I take Eric home intending for him to stay there, but he washes his face, changes clothes, and comes out on his crutches. "Let's go check those books in, Rik."

"I can do it. Stay here and rest."

"Naa. Doc said I should move to keep from hurting."

"Let me know if you start to hurt, then." I make him take a couple of Tylenols before we leave.

On our way back to the shop, Eric tells me he saw this car coming down the street and Mike didn't, so he ran out and pushed Mike out of the way. Both of them got hit by the bumper.

"I'm proud of you, Eric. I'm not sure I could have done something like that."

"But it would have hit Mike dead on if I hadn't."

I shake my head. "And you don't even like the guy."

The cop I told to move is standing at the door of the shop when I park. He waits without speaking until I've unlocked the door and we've gone inside. I tell Eric to sit down, and point to the other chair for the cop.

"You okay, son?" the cop asks.

"Yeah. The doctor said I bruised my stump, and my leg's in the shop. That's all."

"Can you tell me what happened?"

Eric tells him the same thing he told me.

"You have any idea how fast the car was going?"

Eric shakes his head. "It wasn't slowing down any, and I knew it would hit Mike."

"You're a smart guy. It took guts to do what you did. Is Mike a friend of yours?"

Eric shakes his head. "Don't know him, 'cept he tried to rough up a friend of mine right after I first came here. I hit him."

The cop's eyes widen. "You saved a guy you don't like? You're a damn good kid. Wish there were more like you." He stands. "Guess that's about all for now. Hope you feel better real soon, Eric."

"Let's get to those books, Rik," Eric says as soon as the cop is out the door.

I get a stool for him to sit on at the table, as we sort out the books and bag them. When we're done and Eric is in one of the chairs by the door, Fat Cat jumps in his lap and begs for a treat. I hand a couple to Eric to give him and begin to close out for the day.

"Rik, can we go by the hospital and see how Mike's doing?"

"If you want to. Want to carry him a book to read while he's there?"

"I know one he'll like." Eric goes to the paperbacks and picks up one I know is eighth grade reading level. It's about a gay kid who is beaten up by a homophobic football player at his school. I wouldn't normally stock it, but it was an error in a shipment so I didn't bother with a return.

I raise my eyebrows. "You think he'll read that?"

"I hope so. Maybe he'll see how Nick and I feel about each other, and he's wrong to hate us."

"Your choice."

Mike is stretched out in bed, his left leg encased in plaster from above the knee down. He looks startled when he sees us. "What you doing here?"

"Came to see if you were okay."

Mike motions Eric closer and grabs his hand. A tear trickles down his cheek. "The cop told me you pushed me out the way and saved my ass from getting' killed." He squeezes Eric's hand hard enough to make Eric flinch. "Why'd you do it? Hell, you don' even like me after the way I pushed you around."

Eric shrugs. "I don't know. I just didn't want you to get killed."

Mike struggles up to a sitting position and pulls Eric into a hug. I can see his tears running freely. "I ain't never gonna forget this. You're a real buddy. Anybody gives you any shit at school you tell me."

"Thanks," Eric says and hugs him back. "Hey, I know you like football, so I brought you a book about it. You can read it while you're here."

"You givin' me a book?"

"Yeah. It's a good one. I read it."

Mike is staring at Eric. "Ain't none of my buddies ever give me anything before. Thanks. I ..."

He's interrupted by a worn looking woman dressed in a convenience store smock rushing into the room. "Mike! Are you okay?"

"Hi, mom. Yeah. Got my leg busted by a car."

She breathes a sigh of relief. "I'm glad that's all. Who are these people?"

"That's Eric. He pushed me outta the way so I wouldn't get kilt, an' that's his uncle."

She grabs Eric's hand. "Oh, thank you. That was so brave."

Eric shrugs, embarrassed. "Wasn't that much."

"When they lettin' you go home?" His mother asks.

"Right now." A young doctor comes in holding a pair of wooden crutches. "You're going to have to use these for a while. I want you back for a checkup in two weeks."

Mike's mother wrings her hands. "You can't walk home on crutches an' I ain't got no money for a taxi."

"I'll be glad to take you home."

"You will? I don't know how to thank you, sir."

Mike struggles up, wincing as he stands. "Man, I'm sore."

"You're going to be a lot sorer tomorrow. Don't go back to school for a couple of days, and try to soak in hot tub, but keep your cast dry," the doctor advises. "Wait, and I'll get an orderly to take you down in a wheelchair."

"We'll meet you at the entrance," I tell them.

His mother gets in the back seat, and after the orderly helps Mike in the other side, lifts his leg across her lap. As I drive off, she notes the book he's holding.

"Where'd you get that book?"

"Eric brung it to me. It's about football."

"That's real nice of 'im. I want you to read it, cause you ain't gonna be able to do nothin' an' I gotta work."

"Okay."

I ask Mike for directions. A few minutes later I'm appalled when he points to a rundown house in the worst slum in town and tells me that's where he lives.

I help him out of the car and steady him until he's on the sagging porch. He and his mother thank me, and she pushes open the door for Mike.

Eric is silent all the way home.

"What's the matter?" I ask when he suddenly hugs me once we're inside the house.

"I might be living worse than Mike if you hadn't been here when dad threw me out."

"Dad would have taken you in, but I'm glad you came here instead."

"So'm I. I love you, Rik."

"I love you too. Now go do your homework, and let me get to work."

"'Kay." He hugs me again before taking off to his room.

I open the evening paper and whistle. There's a picture of Eric holding Mike's hand as the attendant is working on his leg. The caption reads: One-legged High School Hero Saves Life of Another Student. The story is short, giving me only one fact I didn't know. The woman driving the car is in the hospital as a result of a reaction to some drug her doctor had given her earlier. Charges are pending. I cringe, because Eric's not going to be happy at this. I do make a mental note to buy two more copies of the paper. Dad will want to see this, and I'm going to send one in a plain envelope to Jeff for pure spite.

After I finish reading the paper, I start dinner, leaving the paper by Eric's place at the table. I call him when dinner's ready.

"Oh, shit!" He says when he sees the picture.

"What's wrong?"

"Now everybody's gonna be on me. Why the hell did they have to call me a hero?"

I ruffle his hair. "Cause that's what you are."

"Naaa," he says disdainfully.

He's in no mood for teasing, so I drop it.

I drop him off at school the next morning, and go for him at three-thirty. Three guys that look like Mike's buddies are surrounding him, keeping other students away. They walk with him to my car, one of them opening the door for him. "See ya, tomorrow, guy."

"What was that all about?"

"They're Mike's friends. He told 'em not to let anybody bother me, and they stuck with me all day when I wasn't in class." He grins. "I like having bodyguards."

"With a body like yours, you need one all the time. Bet a lot of girls were making passes at you."

"Yeah." He wrinkles his nose. "One tried to kiss me. Yuck!"

"What did those guys do?"

"They laughed, but they pushed her away. They almost didn't let Nick hang around with me, but one of 'em knew he was my buddy, so it was okay."

"Aren't you enjoying your moment of glory?"

"You kidding? I don't like all this fuss over nothin'."

"Well Fat Cat's wanting you to make a fuss over him."

"Cool."

About eight that evening, the bell rings. I open the door to see Mike's mother holding a plate covered in plastic wrap. "Come in."

"I can't. I ain't got no other way to thank you and Eric fer bein' so good to Mike, so I made you this here cake. I hopes you like chocolate."

"Please come in." I take the cake. "This is lovely and very kind of you. We certainly didn't expect it, but we appreciate your thoughtfulness. Eric loves chocolate, and I'm not much of a baker."

"Won't you sit down?"

She shakes her head. "I got to get to work."

Eric comes down just then. "Oh, wow! Look at that cake!"

"Mike's mother brought it to us. Isn't that nice of her?"

"Thank you, ma'am. Chocolate is my favorite. How's Mike?"

"He's doin' a lot better, but he's mighty sore. I gotta go, but I thank you fer savin' Mike's life. Jus' wish I could do more fer ya."

Eric rises to the occasion. "This cake is far more thanks than I need. Tell Mike I hope he's better soon."

"I will."

When she's on the steps I don't see a car. "Are you walking?"

She nods. "Only way I got."

My God, I think. That's nearly two miles she walked. "Then wait a moment and let me get my keys. I'll be happy to take you home."

"I ain't gonna ..."

"Yeah, I can see Mike," Eric says, coming down the steps.

He opens the car door for her, Defeated she gets in, saying nothing until I pull up at her house. "I sure thank you fer bringin' me home."

"No bother at all."

"Yeah." Eric's out of the car. "I want to see Mike."

She shakes her head. "I'd ask you in, but the house ain't fittin'."

Eric looks up to see Mike propped up on his crutches, standing in the door, Eric, starts towards him. "How you feel, Mike?"

"Awful sore, but I got tired o' sittin'."

"Man, that's a beautiful cake your mother brought us. I can't wait to get some."

Mike smiles. "She can make a good one, fer sure."

"Your buddies sure helped me out today. Thanks."

"I figured you might be getting' a hard time. Anybody gives you any shit, jus' tell the guys."

"No problem. When you coming back to school?"

"Monday I guess. Don' know how long. Season'll be over afore my leg's fit to play."

"I'm sorry. See you Monday."

Monday afternoon Eric comes in the shop smiling. "Mike was back at school today. I showed him how to walk on crutches. He was doing it all wrong."

"How is he?"

"A lot better. He told me he read that book and asked me to explain a couple of things to him. I don't think he reads very well."

"And did you explain?"

"Yeah. He said it was almost like the story was about him and Nick and me. He told the other guys to read it, too. They act like they like Nick and me now. Well, maybe not like, but they take up for us."

"I can tell Mike isn't the brightest light on the Christmas tree, but that doesn't mean he's not a nice guy. I'm glad you took time to explain the book to him."

Eric's still grinning. "For sure Nick and I aren't gonna get any static long as he's around."

"Mike has probably needed a friend like you. I know he can't feel the same about a gay guy now."

"He told me it didn't make no difference to him and the other guys if Nick and I were gay, long as we don't make a pass at them."

"Good. I'm sorry about the accident, but something positive came out of it."

"Yeah. I guess Nick and I are out at school, now, but we aren't getting any grief about it. One guy passed me a note in English class saying he wished he could come out, cause he's in love with another guy in class, but he's scared."

"Smart of him to be. You and Nick hit it lucky. As long as Mike and his friends protect you, you've got it made, but I wouldn't temp fate by being affectionate in front of them. Knowing you're gay is one thing, rubbing it in is another."

"We sure know that. One of the guys said he couldn't have done what I did for Mike, but he sure couldn't take seeing two guys kiss either."

"Good. You and Nick cool it until you're alone."

Eric gets his leg back the next Thursday and the bruise has diminished enough he feels comfortable. As promised, I buy him the ten-speed bike like Nick's that he wants. Both boys are constantly off on some excursion after school, but Eric always comes to the shop on Wednesdays to help me with the special orders after Marty has left. He's so nice about delivering books to my elderly customer, she calls me just to compliment Nick. I miss having him around the other days, but I'm glad he's having a good time.

Two weeks later he tells me Mike is finally off crutches, but walking very carefully. If anything, it has increased Mike's benevolent protection of Eric and Nick.

The next day a Bermuda high takes over and the temperature soars into the mid 90's. The forecast is for it to continue through the weekend. I'm break into a sweat just thinking of firing up the grill tomorrow night. When I open the shop, there's a message on the answering machine for me to call Jase. I do and immediately fall in with his plan. He asks if we can have the cookout at his house because the service has his swimming pool ready for use. Since I've already bought everything for the cookout, I'll supply the food and he the pool.

Friday evening we're about a block from Conover's when Eric suddenly tells me to stop. "What?" I ask, pulling over to the curb, then I see Mike trudging along, head down. "Hey, Mike! Where you going?"

He walks slowly over to my car and leans in the window Eric has lowered. "Home, man. I seen the cop look me over when I got on this street."

"For what? We asked you to the cookout."

Mike waves his hand around. "This ain't no place fer a guy like me."

His well worn jeans are clean as is his T-shirt. "Get in, Mike, we'll take you." I say.

"I dunno."

"Nick and I want you. It's going to be fun. Bring your swim trunks?" Eric asks.

"Ain't got none. I brung an old pair of shorts." Mike reluctantly gets in the back seat.

When we get out at Conover's, Mike stands by the car looking at the house in awe. "Man, this is a fuckin' palace," he says.

"It is nice. Mr. Conover is a fine man. You'll like him," I tell Mike.

Nick comes flying around the house in nothing but a skimpy speedo and hugs Eric, giving him a kiss. Mike's eyes pop wide open.

"Come on, the water's great."

The boys change in the small pool-house and jump in while I join Jase on the other side of the patio. He hands me an imported beer, and we sit on the lounges.

"Why on earth would Nick invite that boy? Isn't he one of those who roughed Nick up?" Jase asks.

"Yes, but he apologized to them and actually came to the shop to apologize to me as well."

Jase looks at the rough features and bulk of Mike then turns back to me. "Unbelievable."

"He's the one Eric saved in the accident."

"I thought he looked somewhat familiar. I can understand why he would think well of Eric, but it does seem odd he would socialize with much younger boys."

"You aren't going to like my answer, but I have a feeling he's totally confused as to his sexuality and the boys are the first gays he's been around."

Jase looks alarmed. "Has he ..."

"No. He's fascinated with Eric's leg, and I think he's beginning to understand a little about the feelings Eric and Nick have for each other. I hate to say it, but he's thick as two planks. From what Eric tells me, he stays in school only to play football. Eric and Nick have apparently been helping him with some of his homework."

"Then what attraction would he have for the boys?"

"Mike and a few of his friends have become the boy's protectors. Eric says he and Nick haven't had a second's trouble since."

He nods toward the pool where the boys have gotten Mike into deeper water and are tossing a ball around. Mike obviously doesn't swim. "He doesn't act any older than the boys."

"Probably younger mentally. I'm almost certain he's been socially promoted."

"Pitiful." He glances at his watch. "Time to fire up the grill."

A few minutes later we call the boys. "Dry off and let's eat."

The boys fix their burgers and start to walk toward the chairs away from Jase and me. I see Mike's longing look at the beer bottle I left by the lounge chair. "Sure wish I had one of them beers," I hear him mutter. Jase has set out soft drinks for them.

"Mike?" I call.

He comes over. "Sir?"

"You're eighteen aren't you?" I ask.

When he nods I reach into the small fridge near the kitchen door and hand him a beer. He almost drops it in his surprise. "Th ... thanks, sir." His grin goes from ear to ear.

The burgers are good, if I do say so myself, but perhaps it's the setting. The boys eat two each, but Mike comes back for a third, heaping his plate again. He looks at me, so I get him another beer. "This is the last one for you," I tell him.

"That's cool, sir."

Jase looks at me in surprise. "He's polite enough in his way."

After they've eaten, Nick tells Jase they're going up to his room to play with his computer.

"Fancy another beer?" Jase asks.

"No, thanks, but a cup of coffee would go well."

"My thoughts exactly. Let's have it in the study."

"What about all this?"

"Mrs. Henderson will see to it."

A little after nine I ask Jase to have the boys come down so we can go home.

"Okay. Eric, time to go."

"Do we have to?"

"Yes. It's been a lovely evening but I have some things to do when we get home."

Mike stares at Nick and Eric when they kiss, then he says, "I had a good time, Nick."

"Nice of you to come. See you at school."

"Yeah." He turns to Jase and holds out his hand. "Thanks, sir."

"It was nice having you. I appreciate your looking out for Nick at school."

To my surprise Mike blushes. "He's awful smart."

"I'll be glad to take you home, Mike. There's no need to walk," I tell him when he starts down the drive.

"Thanks." He starts talking to Eric. "I ain't believing all them pichures you and Nick showed me. Mus' be sumppin to know how to use a computer like you guys."

Eric grins. "Rik's shown me a lot of things I didn't know about before."

"Wish I had somebody could teach me all that stuff. You're lucky."

I can't help wondering what will become of him, when I pull up in front of his home.

"Sure good of ya to bring me home, sir. I had fun tonight." He pats Eric on the shoulder. "See ya, buddy."

"'Kay."

A few weeks before the end of the school year, Eric is helping me when the buzzer sounds in the room. Eric slips out to wait on the customer while I finish the last of the orders. When I've finished, I leave the room, locking the door. I see Mike and Eric standing in the corner.

Eric is saying, "... but you can't leave now."

Mike shakes his head. "You know I ain't very smart, an' I ain't passin' nothin' but math an' history. I only got a D in them cause you and Nick was helpin' me."

"Where are you going?"

"I'm goin' up to Richmond and work fer my uncle. He's got a car repair shop. I allus wanted to work on cars an' he says he'll teach me how."

"I'm going to miss you, Mike. You've been good to Nick and me."

Mike looks at Eric for a moment, then reaches down and lifts him clear of the floor in a hug. I hear him sniff loudly before he says, "Ain't nobody ever been good to me like you been, Eric. You he'ped me in school and never quit when you foun' out how dumb I am. You take good care of yourself, cause I ... I love you, man." He sets Eric down and wipes his eyes.

"You take care, Mike. Come see me any time you get home."

"I will."

I reach behind me for a new book a customer didn't want after he looked at it. It's a large encyclopedia of automobile repair, heavy with illustrations showing how to break an engine down. Intended for fast reference, it's perfect for someone with low reading skills.

I stop Mike as he's about to pass my desk. "Mike, Eric and I want you to have this to remember us by."

He looks at it with surprise. "I ain't never seen no book 'bout cars like this one."

"It's an excellent book. I think it will help you if you're going to be a mechanic."

He flips through a few more pages, then hands it back to me. "I can't pay fer nothin' like this," he says in a regretful tone.

I open the cover and write: To Mike with wishes for his success. Eric takes the pen I'm holding and adds: I'll always remember you. He signs it: love Eric.

Together we hold it out to Mike. "Come to see us any time you're home. You're welcome," I tell him.

"Thanks a lot. I ... I ain't never goin' to ferget ya." With those words, Mike runs for the door holding the book tightly against his chest.

A few days later I'm checking my mail, tossing most of it into the trash, when I see that one envelope is from a law firm I've never heard of. I open it to find a letter ordering Eric and me to be in court in Springdale as witnesses in Matheson vs Matheson. Springdale is my hometown, but I don't understand why Eric and I should be in court. I'm not suing anyone, nor am I being sued as far as I know. I pick up the phone and call dad. He just laughs and tells me Eric and I should come up the day before and he'll explain it all.

This is quite a nuisance. I call Marty to see if she will open the shop while we're out, then call the school. The principal asks me to send him a copy of the summons for their records, but says there's no real problem with Eric being out for a day or two.

Damn! Eric will need a suit and so will I. I hate shopping, but Eric, after grumbling about having to get a suit, makes our excursion fun. We argue a bit about the color, compromising on dark navy-blue suits to match. Eric picks nice blue and gray ties in a geometric pattern and I, on the advice of the clerk, choose very pale gray shirts to match. The combination makes Eric look older, very much a young man, and I'm not displeased with my own appearance.

Dad is waiting for us when we arrive. Eric immediately goes to play with Poochie. Dad fixes me a cup of tea, taking coffee for himself then we sit at the kitchen table.

"What's this all about, dad?"

"Eric. I'm sorry this is disrupting your schedules, but I told you I'd be getting back the money for Eric's leg. I did some snooping around and found out the accident was actually Eric's carelessness, but Jeff's insurance from work is comprehensive and covers orthopedic needs. I hate to believe he's so callous that he'd take the money and not provide for Eric, but that's what he did." Dad reaches across and squeezes my hand. "I'll tell you now that I've cut him completely out of my will and made Eric a co-beneficiary with you."

"That's kind of you, dad, but knowing Jeff, he'll contest the will."

Dad grins. "You think I'd hire a shyster? Not a chance. This one is iron clad. My lawyer said if I left Jeff fifty bucks there was no way any court would break it. I just wish I was gonna be around to see Jeff's face when it's read."

"I hope it's a hell of a long time before that happens, dad. Eric needs you in his corner for the next four years anyway."

"Why? He's got you, and you're doing a great job with him."

"Because he knows I'm gay. Knowing you're not but still love him the same means everything to him."

"I'll just have to tell him more often, then, cause I expect tomorrow he'll find out."

After we've had dinner, dad's lawyer comes by and interviews Eric and me separately. Eric's crying when he comes out of the bedroom. Dad immediately sits down on the sofa and puts his arm around Eric, while I go talk to the lawyer.

When we come back into the living room, the lawyer walks over and takes Eric's hand. "I'm sorry this is all so painful for you, son, but you have two people who love you very much and want to make you as happy as possible. I hope after tomorrow is over, you will be able to resume your life in the best way possible."

When Eric and I come out the next morning dressed identically for court, dad looks at us in surprise. "I swear, you look like brothers. Eric, I didn't realize you were so handsome."

"Thanks, gran'pa. Rik and I shopped together. Most of the time he don't even act like an uncle, he's fun."

"And the rest of the time?" I ask, teasing.

"You make me do homework an' all that stuff."

"If he didn't, I'd move down there and make you do it myself," dad says. "You need an education, Eric."

Eric smiles. "I like my new school okay, and I got a cool friend. We do our homework together."

Dad nods and smiles.

Hoping to save my time, dad's lawyer has gotten our case to be heard first. Jeff and Trudy are already in the courtroom with their lawyer when we go in.

"Mom, dad," Eric calls and starts toward them, but Jeff scowls at him and turn his back. Trudy only nods before doing the same. Eric stops, bewildered. Dad puts his arm around Eric's shoulder and leads him to seats in the front row. Eric looks close to tears again.

Dad's lawyer makes a concise opening statement that the suit means no personal gain for dad, but has been filed in behalf of Eric, his grandson. He outlines his case and sits down.

I have no idea where Jeff found his lawyer, but he comes across as a real shyster, accusing dad of trying to get money out of Jeff that he has no right to. I see dad's face turn red with anger.

He may be getting along in years, but dad's still sharp. When he's called, his testimony is right on target without an extraneous comment. When Jeff's lawyer takes over, dad gets red in the face again, but has to admit that a lot of what he has said is hearsay.

Eric is called to the stand. Dad's lawyer whispers something to him before Eric starts to walk to the witness box. Dad's lawyer leads Eric nicely through the details of the accident, his dad's reactions, and why he was thrown out. Eric stays composed until Jeff's lawyer asks if he is indeed Jeff's son, but when Jeff yells, "I have no son!" Eric falls apart. The judge gavels for quiet and glares at Jeff, telling him to be silent. Then, over the objections of Jeff's lawyer, the judge tells Eric to go back to his seat between dad and me.

We both hug Eric, then I'm called. I repeat pretty much what I had told dad's lawyer last night, and that's it. Jeff's lawyer's first question is if I'm actually Jeff's brother. He looks furious when Jeff yells out, "I have no brother!" before I can answer. I didn't know judges displayed temper, but this one sure does. He calls Jeff and his lawyer up and tongue lashes them both.

After that, Jeff's lawyer doesn't have a lot to ask me, but then pops the question I've been dreading. "Isn't it true, Mr. Matheson, that you're a homosexual?"

I stare him down. "Yes."

"And you have taken one Eric Matheson to live with you?"

I can tell he's trying to make me lose my temper, so I stick with "Yes."

His eyebrows raise and he smirks at me. "Why?"

"Why what?" I snap.

"Why did you take this young man in?"

"I'm his uncle. I believe that at my age I can cope with a teenager in my home better than my father."

He smirks again. "That's all? Eric is a very attractive young man," he says in an insinuative tone of voice.

I'm surprised when the judge says, "What are you trying to prove by a statement like that?"

"Fitness, your honor. A nice looking young man must be awfully tempting to an older gay man."

"I object!" dad's lawyer yells. "That has nothing to do with this case."

"It has everything to do with it, your honor. It's obvious that Mr. Matheson Senior clearly favors his youngest son, and this is nothing more than an attempt to extort money from my client by using his son as a pawn."

The judge calls dad's lawyer to the bench and takes the papers he's handed. I recognize them as the receipted bills and canceled checks for Eric's leg, plus others I was asked to bring.

The judge looks at me, telling me to remain seated, then calls Eric up behind the bench next to his chair. He whispers something to Eric. I see Eric nod and pull up his pants leg to show the judge his prosthesis. The judge nods and whispers something else. Eric mumbles, "Yes, sir." This time the judge's whispered question is sharp. Eric shakes his head violently, and I hear him say intensely, "No way!" The next question is quiet, but Eric smiles at him, then at me, and whispers his answer. The judge smiles and lets him go back to dad.

"Counsel, I wish to hear what Mr. Jeffrey Matheson has to say."

"But I haven't finished with this witness, your honor."

"You can recall later." He nods at the clerk who calls Jeff to the stand.

Dad's lawyer goes first. "You are Jeffrey Matheson Junior?"

"Yes."

"And you are the father of Eric Matheson in whose behalf this case is centered."

"No! I told you I had no son."

Dad's lawyer nods and hands Jeff a form. "Please read the three names on this birth certificate to the court."

Jeff mumbles so indistinctly the judge tells him to speak up clearly.

"Eric Matthew Matheson, Gertrude Henrietta Matheson, mother; Jeffrey Andrew Matheson, father."

"And is not the Eric Matheson seated next to Mr. Matheson Senior your son by birth?"

"He was until I found out he's a filthy fag just like my so-called brother. I've disowned him and ..." his lawyer tries to stop him but Jeff loses his cool, "I'm not giving any of my money to filthy cocksuckers."

The judge bangs his gavel so hard the handle breaks and the head flies half way across the courtroom, coming so close to the deputy he ducks. I see Jeff's lawyer slump in his chair, knowing he's just lost a case.

The judge manages to call for a five-minute recess and is out of the room before we can stand up. Dad's lawyer comes back to us, shaking his head and says, "Whew!"

"Jeff always was a hot tempered kid," Dad says.

"In this case, thank God. Soon as the judge cools off and comes back, I expect we'll be out of here with a favorable ruling."

But the judge has other ideas. When he comes back, he calls me to the stand and asks me if Eric has all his personal effects at my home. I tell him no. Then he asks if the checks he's holding are the only expenses I've had on Eric's behalf.

"No, your honor, but the rest have been incidentals I'm happy to provide. Nothing major."

"You feed and clothe him, and provide a roof over his head, don't you?"

"Of course, sir. But I need those things, too."

"I understand you operate a small book shop. Is it successful?"

"It provides a reasonable living for me and Eric, but not enough for large expenditures. That's why my dad provided most of the money for Eric's leg."

"I have noted that from the checks you wrote. Now that he can move around well on his artificial leg, what does Eric do after school?"

"He usually comes to the shop if he's not out with his friend. He's a big help when orders come in."

The judge calls Eric to come up, then asks him, "Does Mr. Matheson require you to help him in the shop?"

"No, sir. I like books and it's fun. I asked Rik to teach me how to use the computer and all. He says I do it almost as good as he does."

"Do you work every day?"

"Oh, no, sir. After I made friends at school, I mostly go on Wednesday when Rik's orders come in. I help him with special orders after Marty goes home."

The judge looks at me. "Who is Marty? An employee?"

"Just on Wednesday morning when my shipments are due, and she runs the shop for me when I have to be out, like today. She helps me with regular orders, but I usually have a large number of special orders. Eric helps me with those if Marty and I don't finish by the time she leaves."

"How do you like living with Mr. Matheson?" He asks Eric.

"He's cool. We have a good time together."

"He's not tough on you?"

"Only when he makes me do my homework."

To my surprise, the judge laughs and looks at me. "I had to get on my kids, too, when they were his age. Okay, son, go back to your seat."

The judge looks at me. "Are you receiving any help with the problems I know a gay minor must have?"

"His best friend at school is also gay. Nick's father and I have both joined a parents of gay children organization. They have provided us with support and large amounts of information. The leader holds a doctorate in child psychology."

The judge looks pleased. "Hmmm. I see. Then you're doing the best you know."

"Yes, sir."

"You may return to your seat." The judge looks at Jeff's lawyer. "Counsel, you and your client approach the bench."

When they're there, the judge scowls at Jeff. "Your actions toward your son are reprehensible. No matter what one of my children might do, they are still my children and I love them. But you have let prejudice overrule your common sense. You can claim to disown your son if you choose, but that does not relieve you of your responsibility for a minor child you brought into this world.

"I have decided that it is in the best interest of Eric Matheson, minor, that he remain with his uncle Mr. Eric Matheson who provides him with the loving home you don't. You are ordered to turn over to the deputy any and all of the personal effects of the aforesaid Eric Matheson, minor. You are ordered to pay to this court the sum of eighteen thousand dollars the insurance company paid you to provide him with the prosthetic leg your father and brother had to obtain for him." I see Jeff open his mouth, but the judge snaps, "I haven't finished. You will pay to this court the sum of five hundred dollars a month in child support until Eric Matheson, minor, reaches the age of eighteen."

"I won't!" Jeff says.

The judge points his finger at Jeff. "You will or go to jail. You will also pay all costs of this trial, including the fees of Mr. Matheson Senior's attorney. Do you understand me?"

Jeff's lawyer grabs Jeff's arm, and says, "We understand, your honor."

"You had better. You will make the payments I ordered to my personal clerk no later than Friday."

"Dad?" Eric says as Jeff passes, but Jeff ignores us all.

"Let's go home, son," Dad says to Eric.

"Yes, because as soon as we change, we've got to head back home. I don't want you missing any more school."

Eric manages until we're on the way home. He slides over next to me and raises his tear-streaked face. "Am I still going to stay with you?"

I put one arm around his shoulder and squeeze, driving with the other. "As long as you want. I love you, Eric, and so does your granddad."

He manages a little smile. "I love you, too, and Poochie and Fat Cat."

"I'll bet Fat Cat has missed you, because Marty doesn't give him kitty treats."

"Yeah. I'll give him some soon as we get home."


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