Though I've used it in my books, I've never really believed in a psychic sense, but I know the moment I put my key in the lock of the front door something is not right. Cautiously, I push open the door and look around, but all looks normal, so I shrug and dismiss the feeling as fantasy, my imagination as having gotten the best of me for the moment. After all, I am a writer and mysteries are my specialty.
In my books it's the old Victorian mansions that are haunted, not a small house that's only a few years old like mine. Sure, I don't have any close neighbors, the very reason I bought this place, but I bought it from the couple that built it, so it's highly unlikely there would be any ghosts hanging around, even if I believed in such things. After switching on the coffee maker, I sit down at my computer, read the last two paragraphs to get myself back into the mood of the story, and begin writing:
'John continued to tap the paneled wall, listening closely for any slight difference in sound that might betray a hidden door. He worked his way along until he was within six feet of the fireplace. Ah, he thought to himself, I should have started here, the classic place. He rapped the panel with his knuckles, hearing the change. He took a step back and looked over the wall carefully. They always had some cleverly hidden latch, now if he could ….' Beep!
Good, the coffee is ready. I go into my kitchen, but as I reach for a mug I see a nicely washed dish, glass, and two plastic food storage containers in the drain rack. I reach up and scratch my head, for I don't remember leaving them there before I left this morning. "Ah, well, guess I was thinking about the story," I mutter to myself as I pick them up, dry them with a towel and put them away as is my usual habit.
I continue with the story, taking breaks for more coffee until the darkness forces me to turn on a light. I put my computer into 'slumber' mode and go back to fix myself something for dinner. It's warm enough for a cold salad plate and I'm in no mood to cook. I have chicken salad, potato salad, lettuce, and grape tomatoes from my tiny garden in the fridge. When I pull open the fridge door and look in, I'm astounded! I know damn well I had plenty in here, but the shelf is bare and the bottle of milk is almost empty. I continue to look at the bare shelf and shake my head, wondering if I'm going senile at the age of twenty-eight. I shut the fridge door.
Feeling uneasy again, I make the rounds of the house, but all the windows are locked, the doors, except for the front door which I came in, solid and secure. Weird! I shrug and rummage in the freezer for something to nuke. After eating, I go back to my writing for a while, then pick up a new book I had gotten at my favorite bookshop in town and go to bed to read. I think once or twice about getting a big dog to guard the place, but decide it will be more trouble than its worth.
The next day I do not go out, spending my time writing after making up another batch of chicken salad and potato salad. I'm pleased with the results when I sit down to eat, though I have been a bit heavy handed with the pepper. Later, getting ready for bed I curse myself for not having made up a shopping list, for I use the last of the toothpaste and notice I'm out of several other items. I take time to make up a list, but it's the thought of another trip into town that bugs me. When the writing is going well, I resent anything that takes me away from it.
I spend the morning writing furiously, then go into town for some lunch at a small restaurant I like. It's after three when I finally finish my shopping and get back home. The moment I open the door, the feeling is back. There's a clean plate and glass in the drain rack again. When I open the fridge to put in the milk and cheese, I find the supply of salads considerably diminished. No way I could have eaten that much yesterday.
The groceries put away, I take the rest of my purchases up to my bathroom. The air is moist, and when I feel the towel and cloth draped across the rod, they are damp. I showered last night, so there's no reason they should not be dry by now. I make the rounds of the house again, but nothing appears out of place. Oh, well, mother always told me I was absentminded, so I go back to my work. After I'm in bed, I pass off the unusual feelings I've had to my mind being absorbed by the plot of the story I'm working on.
I work all the next day with nothing unusual breaking my usual concentration, then sleep soundly. By noon on Thursday, I have finished the manuscript and, after lunch, begin to give it a final edit. By continual revising and editing as I write, one final run-through is all I usually need.
I finish Friday morning and print it out. I look at my watch and decide that if I hurry, I can get the manuscript off to my agent, then relax. I should have known; the line is wrapped around the post office lobby, but I squeeze through the door just as the custodian is about to lock it. While standing in line and fretting, I decide to buy some stamps and a small postal scale as well, to avoid further delays.
Finally I'm next, and the last, at the window; the manuscript is in the post. I stop at a butcher shop to treat myself to a steak I'll grill in celebration of the completion of another book. Sure it's a formula potboiler, but they are fast to write and pay the bills. When I'm back home, the feeling returns the moment I put my key in the lock. I open the door cautiously, then feel a fool, for everything looks just as I left it, except the dish and glass are in the drain once more.
I'm finishing my dinner when the phone rings. It's friends inviting me for the weekend. The timing couldn't be better, and I'll enjoy getting out of town. I pack so I can get an early start.
Before I leave the next morning, I double check to see that everything is locked securely. My friends are welcoming as always; I feel quite at home with them. When I happen to mention my ghost, Ferd starts to tease me about my vivid imagination. I retort that it's my stock in trade, and he laughs. But what else can one expect from a scientist? He writes, too, but dry factual texts.
During the drive Monday morning I have several good ideas for stories come into my mind. As soon as I'm home I drop my bag in the entry and switch on my computer, then take my bag to the bedroom and return to note the ideas down before I forget them. When I stop to fix some dinner, I find the fridge almost empty. I had plenty in there when I left for my trip, and the dish and glass are in the drain again. I also notice the door to the dryer is ajar. I know I closed it tightly Friday night. I go through the house again. The towel and cloth are damp, and my bed is not made as smoothly as I know I left it. Do ghosts sleep? I don't know, but mine sure did, and in my bed! I can tell from the depression in the pillow which I never fail to fluff first thing each morning.
I bring up my mail glance at a couple of messages and delete them, then open one from my agent. He's inquiring about a point in courtroom procedure I used in my story. I know darn well I've answered him on this, so I bring up my Sent file and open the last one to him. Just as I thought. I address a new message to him, paste in the paragraph, then send it. When I go back to close the Sent box my eye is caught by the last message with an address I don't recognize. I open it.
'Hi, buddy. Thanx for helping me get away. I'm okay and hiding out. If I can, I'll come into town late some night to see you, so don't yell if I knock on your window. Don't try to answer this, cause I don't want the guy lives here to know I've used his computer. Love ya, R' I get a rush of satisfaction. I hope I can trace him with this, but when I look at the address line it's: email@example.com. I e-mail an inquiry to the service desk of statepath, and go to bed.
The next morning I have a reply. It's a blind address and paid by bank transfer, so even if they knew the registered user, they couldn't give me a name or address. Then inspiration! I copy the address to a new e-mail form and type: 'Hi, buddy. Looks like the guy is going to be out of town for a few days, so send me a line or two, R' I send it and settle back to my work. Some three hours later I hear the chime announcing new mail. I open it eagerly.
'Don't know who you are but you ain't R. Forget it.' Damn! I thought I was being so smart. Got to be kids with some secret word. Yeah, just kids. I'd still like to know how he gets in my house. That worries me. I get a cup of coffee and go back to my work dismissing it from my mind.
The story is developing well, so I'm annoyed by a phone call from my dentist's receptionist reminding me of my appointment tomorrow at one. I'll make the appointment, then have lunch, and do some grocery buying. My ghost is making fast work of food.
I actually enjoy myself the next day. The dentist had only to clean my teeth, saying they are in excellent shape. Lunch was the best in some time, and the market uncrowded, so I could shop at leisure. The good mood evaporates the moment I open the door, for I can smell that something has been cooked. I go into the kitchen to put the groceries away and see a skillet added to the dish and glass in the drain. When I open the fridge, I immediately miss a large ham steak I had in there, along with a container of string beans I'd cooked the day before. It was bad enough for my ghost to be eating me out of house and home, but now he's started cooking!
Enough is enough! Since I live outside the city limits I call the sheriff's office to report the intrusion. The deputy who responds to my call is young and inexperienced. He looks around the house, then at the mail on my computer. He shakes his head. "No sign of forced entry. You sure somebody's been here?"
"Damn right. I ate out at lunch, so I didn't cook anything here. And how else would a message to someone I've never heard of be on my computer? You know well a bath towel doesn't wet itself."
"How do you expect us to find out anything with no more than some cookin' being done and a wet towel? Maybe you done had an intruder like you said, but it ain't much to go on. Best I can tell you is to call us if you see anybody strange hanging around. We'll get here fast."
Might as well call the Keystone Cops, I think to myself as he drives off. I spend the next three days at work. There's no sign of anyone, nor am I bothered. When friends call and ask me to come for drinks and dinner, I'm glad to accept. I need a break.
It's raining slowly when I leave my friends after a pleasant evening. I drive home slowly with a sense of what must be anticipation, for I will feel rather let down if my ghost hasn't paid a visit while I've been gone. I can't believe this is becoming so familiar that my senses are no longer outraged.
The moment I switch on the lights I see tiny spots of drying mud on the entry floor. Yep, he's been here. The glass is back in the drain, but the dish is still in the dishpan and the water is still hot. He must have seen my car lights when I drove up. I switch on the floodlights mounted under the eves, but they don't throw light far enough for me to see anything, though I think I detected a slight movement near the woods. I flip the lights off and glance down to see an empty frozen dinner package lying on top of the trash bin which I had intended to empty earlier. I go up to bed, finding the air in the bath moist, the towel and cloth damp again. I'll give my ghost one thing, he's clean.
I rouse during the night, but go back to sleep almost instantly. When I go down to fix breakfast the next morning, my eyes fly open. The trash bin is empty. Curious, I go outside to look in the big trash bin I put out for the county to empty once a week. It's not there! I walk around the house and see it where the pick-up takes place. I go back in scratching my head. Now he's getting helpful. Small enough repayment for the food, I suppose, but I would like to see this ghost at least once.
As I eat breakfast, I begin to think of a comic way to write a story about a helpful ghost. The idea becomes so strong, I grab a mug of coffee and get to my computer before the ideas flee my mind. By taking short breaks for two more meals, I have a cute short story to send to my agent by bedtime. I can think of several kids publications he can sell it to with no difficulty.
The next day I take time to cook, this time for two, and after I've eaten lunch I go into town to pick up a new book the shop had called to let me know was in. When I turn into my drive, I notice the big trash bin is no longer at the side of the road. I start to read my new book and don't bother to check the kitchen until I get up for a mug of coffee. The dish and glass are in the drain once more.
A couple of days later, I fix a pot of stroganoff intending to invite a couple of friends for dinner that evening. Finding I don't have enough rice, and needing a bottle of decent wine to go with it, I make a list of things and go to the market. It's crowded as I expected, so it takes me longer than usual. I hate crowds, so I'm in a surly mood when I get back home.
The plate and glass are in the drain as is a small pot and a skillet. I open the fridge to see that heavy inroads have been made on the stroganoff, and the box of quick rice is lying in the trash. My temper pops! Enough is enough! I call my friends and cancel the dinner with abject apologies. If the sheriff won't do anything, I'll do it myself.
The next morning I make a sandwich and fill a thermos with coffee not knowing how long I'll have to maintain my stakeout. When I'm ready to leave I put them in a small overnight bag hoping my ghost will see it and think I'm leaving for a day or two. I drive a couple of hundred yards and park my Cherokee in a long unused road leading into the woods. Taking the bag, I cross the road and walk through the woods until I reach a thick growth of wild myrtle across from the front of my house. I push in until I find a place where I have good line of sight to my front door and settle down to watch. After an hour, I'm wondering how cops manage a stakeout for I'm ready to scream from boredom. The thermos is already nearly empty and the coffee has gotten to me. Reluctantly I push a few yards deeper into the thicket and relieve myself. I'm just back in time to see my front door closing. I race to my car and use the cell phone to call. Within ten minutes the deputy pulls along side me. I'm glad he hasn't used his siren, just the flashing blue lights on his car.
"You sure he's still in there."
"So far as I know. I called soon as I saw the door close."
"Can you get to the back of your house without being seen?"
"If I stay this side of the hedge row until I get to the woods."
"Do that in case he comes out the back. Give me your keys and I'll take the front."
I haven't been in position five minutes before I see my backdoor open and hear the deputy yell for me. When I enter my kitchen he's holding a pistol on a skinny terrified kid of no more than fourteen or fifteen who's backed into a corner. He's wearing ragged jeans and T-shirt, and is supported by crutches because his right leg is gone just above the knee.
He looks at me with cocker spaniel eyes of turquoise. "Please, mister, don't let him take me to jail. I didn't steal nothing."
"What you call breaking in this man's house and eatin' his food?" the deputy snaps.
I hold up my hand to silence him. "How did you get in?"
"I … I have a key to the door."
That makes no sense to me. "How'd you get it?"
"I used to live here."
"You what?" I exclaim.
"My dad sold you this house last year. I guess he forgot about my key."
"You're Rory McAndrews' son?"
"Unh, huh. I'm Rory junior."
"That doesn't explain why you're here."
I see tears well up in those beautiful eyes. "Mom and dad were killed in an accident about six months ago, and I was hurt." He points to his stump. "When I got out of the hospital, they put me in a foster home. Those people didn't give a damn about me, they were just in it for the money, so I ran away a couple of weeks ago. I couldn't think of nowhere else to go 'cept here, cause this was always home."
"Where have you been sleeping?"
"Dad built a shed back in the woods for firewood and stuff like that. I've been hiding out there. I didn't have any money left and I was getting awful hungry, so when I saw you leave, I let myself in and ate whatever you had fixed." He turns those eyes on me, and pulls a key out of his pocket, holding it out. "Please let me go. You can have the key. I'll go somewhere and not bother you no more."
By now his tears are running freely. Call me a fool, but I'm really touched by his story. I tell the deputy to put the pistol away then walk over to the boy and put my arm around his shoulders. He leans against me sniffling.
"How old are you, son?"
"You don't have any family to care about you?"
He shakes his head.
"Yeah you do," the deputy says.
Rory looks at him as do I. "Who?"
"You got an aunt and uncle. Sheriff was gonna call 'em to come get you, but you'd done run off."
"It's settled then. You can stay with me while the sheriff contacts your family."
The deputy shakes his head. "I got to take him in. You reported an intruder and I caught him."
"But he's just a kid, and I know who he is now."
"Don't make no difference. Got to follow the rules. Come on, kid."
I can see him trembling. "Please …." he beseeches me.
"You go ahead with the deputy. I'll be right behind you and I'll talk to the sheriff. It'll be okay."
Twenty minutes later we're in the sheriff's office and I'm explaining the circumstances to the large man.
"You ain't gonna press charges, then?"
"Then I got no reason to keep him, but he's underage so I'll have to put him in detention 'til I call welfare."
"Please don't make me go back to that place," Rory begs. "They said a cripple didn't do nothing so he didn't need much to eat. I was always hungry. Cold, too. They made me sleep on an old mattress in the attic."
"The hell you say!" The sheriff exclaims. "I got a boy of my own and I sure wouldn't want him treated like that." He looks at me. "If you take good care of him 'til his uncle and aunt get here for him, it won't hurt welfare to think he's missing fer another day or two."
"He'll be safe."
"We got some stuff belongs to him too." He looks at the deputy. "Johnny go get them boxes what belong to the boy and put 'em in Mr. Thorpe's car."
"Thanks for keeping me out of jail, Mr. Thorpe," Rory says on the way home.
"I was happy to. Call me Tim, Rory."
His look is one of amazement. "You're the guy writes all those mysteries."
"Well, yes. You mean you've read some of them?"
"Yeah. I had to wait 'til they came out in paper, cause I couldn't afford 'em in hardback. I sure hope they're in one of those boxes so you can autograph 'em for me."
"I'll be happy to.
When I stop in the drive, I ask, "Where are the rest of your things?"
"In the shed."
"It's not quite dark yet, so let's go get them."
I have to walk slowly, because he's still not completely steady on his crutches. He opens the door to the shed, and in the gloom, I can see a makeshift bed of pine straw covered with an old blanket. He picks up a Walkman, some tapes, and crams them into one of two shopping bags, then picks them up and tries to carry them as he comes toward me. I reach out to take them and we walk slowly back to the house.
"Which room was yours? I ask when we're inside.
"That one." He points to the door of a room I put a single bed and a few other pieces of furniture in and haven't touched since.
I open the door and drop the shopping bags on the bed. "You can sleep here. Get ready to eat, and bring me your dirty clothes. I'll put them in the washer."
I'm glad now the steaks were so beautiful I had bought two. Rory eats ravenously, his plate clean almost before I'm half way through mine.
"Do you want something else?" I ask.
He shakes his head. "That was good. Dad used to grill them just like you did, Tim."
After I have the last load of wash in the dryer, I bring in the boxes from my car and put them in Rory's room. He immediately starts to look through them. He's disappointed when the books are not to be found.
"Don't worry about it, Rory. I think I have one or two I can give you from those the publisher sends me."
"That'll be great."
He opens the last box and sits on his bed to sort through obviously personal things taken from his room. I leave him; he needs to deal with his memories alone. He doesn't come back into the living room as I had expected. When I'm ready to call it a night, I look into his room. He's fast asleep, sprawled across the bed clutching a worn teddy bear, dried tears on his cheeks. I slowly undress him to his briefs, ease the covers from beneath him, and pull them over him.
I'm about to call him to breakfast when he appears. "Sleep well?"
"I haven't slept so good since we left here."
"What do you want to do today?" I ask while we're eating.
"Can we go swimming?"
"The mill pond back of the woods, if they haven't torn down the old dam."
"I didn't know there was one."
He grins. "Not many people do. We'll have to walk cause the road isn't there any more. It's not that far."
I get towels and change into swim trunks. He's waiting for me by the door, wearing only a pair of cut off jeans. "Don't have a swim suit, so I'll skinny dip. Won't be nobody else around."
In way I'm pleased for I have a sudden desire to see him nude. I've never admitted to myself that I'm an admirer of teenage amputees, but having him to look at is swiftly turning me into one. I thoroughly enjoy my walk through the woods with this nice looking boy.
The pond is larger than I had envisioned it, but it looks inviting in the heat. I jump in when Rory does. The water is shockingly chill, so after a few minutes I get out and spread an old beach towel to lie on as I watch Rory diving off the top of the rock dam and swimming. A delightful picture I wish I had a camera to preserve. When he tires, he hops across and flops down beside me.
"I think I missed this more than anything when we moved."
"I glad you got to enjoy it again, but its getting chilly and I don't want either of us catching colds. We'd better get back to the house."
As we walk the old trail back to the house, I realize Rory is starring at me.
"Is something wrong?"
"Naw," he smiles. "I just realized that nobody's given up a day's work to spend with me since dad died."
I simply smile back at him.
After we shower and have dinner, Rory asks if he can read my newest book. I download the one I just sent my agent to a floppy and give him my lap-top to read from, then begin work at my desk-top which I prefer to use. When I go to fix dinner, he smiles and shuts the lap-top down. "I'll help. This is a good story. How do you get ideas?"
I tell him how little things can spark a story, and continue our conversation over dinner. He seems so interested, we spend the evening chatting about my books and writing in general.
"This has been the best day I've had in a long time." He says as we're going to our bedrooms.
"I'm glad you enjoyed it. I enjoyed our swim, too. Its nice to have company for a change."
"It feels good to be home, Tim. I was scared you were gonna let the cops lock me up."
"I couldn't do that, especially knowing after I found out who you are."
The next morning I begin working on a story outline while he finishes reading my book. It's late afternoon when I hear a car in the drive. I look out the window to see the sheriff getting out of his car along with a slightly younger, nicely dressed man and woman.
At the door he introduces them as the Johnstons, Rory's aunt and uncle. Rory says, "I heard mom speak of you, but I thought you must be dead or something. I mean you never came to see me or anything."
His aunt hugs him. "We were in Europe when the accident occurred so we couldn't be notified. When we got home and learned what had happened, no one we talked to seemed to know what had happened to you. Dan finally thought to call the police in Aberdeen. They told us you had run away from your foster home, and referred us to the sheriff. He told us he had just found you."
"What's going to happen now?" Rory asks plaintively.
"We've come to take you home with us, Rory."
"That's right. Your aunt and uncle want you to live with them," the sheriff says. "They're your family and have a legal right as your next of kin."
"Please, Rory, we want you with us so badly. Our house is large and you can have a room and bath to yourself. Dan's a professor at the university in Montridge so you'll be able to attend it when you finish high school."
"Rory, I realize you don't remember us, because it's been too long since we last saw you. You probably thought we didn't care, but we would have come immediately had we known. We want you, son," his uncle says quietly.
"But I like it here with Tim. It's my home."
I put my arm around his shoulders. "It was your home, Rory, but now it's mine. I'll miss you, but it's right for you to be with your aunt and uncle. You can always come to visit me on your summer holidays if you like." I see his aunt and uncle nod. "I know your aunt and uncle want to get back home as soon as possible."
"We do need to get back so Dan can hold meetings with the people in his department, and we have to get your records transferred to the school in our district. We'd like to leave tomorrow if that gives you enough time to pack."
"That's fine. I'll help Rory pack his things tonight for shipping. We'll have everything ready by early tomorrow morning. Have you a place to stay?"
"We're at the Inn. Do meet us there at six for dinner so we can get to know you and Rory better."
The dinner is superb and Rory warms up to his aunt and uncle quickly, but despite my efforts to be pleasant with these kind people and feeling happy for Rory, I feel a gloom settle over me at the thought of his leaving.
After a UPS truck picks up Rory's things, I help him pack the suitcase his uncle bought for him. I drive him to the Inn and take his bag to the desk, then turn and hug him. "I'm going now, Rory. Have a safe trip."
"Can't you wait until we leave?"
"No, it'll just be that much harder. Go ahead now, and God bless."
He hugs me tightly. "You're a great guy, Tim. I'll never forget you. I love you."
"I know. I love you too, Rory."
He tightens his hug for a moment then turns quickly away to keep me from seeing his tears. "Write me," he calls as I walk away.
We've spent only two days together, but I have to wipe my own eyes before I can drive away. Yes, I'll write him, and hopefully the extra box I put with those to be shipped will often remind him of me. It contains autographed hardbacks of every book I written. I'll send him the one I'm working on as soon as it's published, for I'm dedicating it to him.
The clouds and slow drizzle depress me further, but I'm finally able to push Rory to the back of my mind enough to get on with my story. I persist in my work, knowing I'll probably delete half of what I'm writing later on.
Two days later it's sunny and I need to weed my garden if I'm going to continue to enjoy it's yield. I leave the back door open to air the house while I work. When I start in to fix some lunch, I see spots of mud on the top step and just inside. Have I a real ghost?
I peer in cautiously, but all looks as I left it. I take a step inside and hear a chittering. Sitting on the far end of the counter is a raccoon, holding an apple he's swiped from the bowl of fruit. I close the door to the living room, grab a broom from the corner, and chase him out the back door, closing it firmly behind him.
The Ghost Returns
My streak of luck has run out apparently, because my mail consists of a bank statement and a small Kraft envelope from my usual publisher containing the floppy I submitted my latest book on, a rejection slip, and a scrawled note telling me he thinks I've fallen in a rut. He's added a stern warning that I had better shape up or ship out. I open the bank statement. A little joy, for I see that by careful living I can afford a hiatus from the garbage I've been turning out. Time for me to pick up work on the serious novel I started last winter. A few ideas for it have been running in the back of my mind for sometime now.
It's now fall and the grass has stopped growing, so I can happily put my mower away until next spring. I try to write Rory an e-mail at least every two weeks, because of my promise. His responses grow less frequent, dwindling down to a short one each month. In a way it pleases me that he's happy in his new home with his aunt and uncle and making new friends, but I miss him. Working on the novel lessens the void, until I happen to think that Rory will make a great character.
I spend several days in the public library searching microfilm of the local newspapers for an account of the accident. Mostly just the bare facts of the event are given without comment, but I happen to think of looking at the weekly column. The town is still small enough to have one old biddy writing a weekly gossip column that I never read because I can't stand her. She interviewed me once, and totally lost her cool when I demanded to approve what she wrote before publication. After I got her out of my house, I called her editor and threatened to sue him and the paper if the interview was published - it wasn't. A day later I got a note from her consigning me to the flames of hell in language I thought an old lady had never heard, much less used. I've never been strong on people skills.
But I finally locate the right column. Here are the nuggets of gold to weave into my story, even give it a note of suspense. If they're fiction, as I suspect a lot of what she writes is, so what? Reading the printout carefully later in the evening, I find two extremely snide comments I'll not use in my book so as not to hurt Rory's feelings when, and if, he reads the novel. I'll send him a copy from my comp copies after it's published. My work is pure fiction, but I know Rory's bright enough to see himself in the character depicting him. I read her comments again, wondering how she avoids defamation suits. Sheesh! Small town weeklies. I don't know much about the situation she's described, but it can't be more than a half-truth, if that. If I had the money I'd sue her in Rory's behalf. The only kind thing I can say is that she's given me something to play with in my novel.
I've been so wrapped up in plotting the new version of my novel now that it includes Rory, Christmas catches me by surprise. I have only a couple of gifts to buy and one of them is easy. My long-time friend Bill is worse than I about books, so for years we have exchanged gift certificates from our favorite book shops, knowing each of us could ask for nothing better. I find a gift for my other friend, then think of Rory. Can't afford much and I have no idea want he would like, until I happen to think that he once told me he wanted to try writing. I go by the discount stationers and find a nice Cross pen and a neat folio in leather-look plastic made to hold a legal pad. It's all I can afford, and I hope he knows it's sent with love more sincere than a note usually conveys, especially to a kid.
I put up a small tree to try to regain some of the spirit I seem to have lost along the way. Christmas morning there are three gifts under it. After getting a cup of the coffee I made from a half-pound of imported Blue Mountain beans as a special holiday treat to myself and find some Christmas music on the stereo, I sit down before the fire and open them. Two are the gift certificates I expected, but the third is a treasure! It's a small but well posed and sharply focused snapshot of Rory standing in a lovely garden. It had to have been taken on a warm day, for he's wearing cut-off jeans and a T-shirt. I know this was intended for me because he's using his forearm crutches, his stump clearly visible. He had e-mailed me the day he got his new leg, ecstatic at being able to walk easily again. I said this picture is a treasure, and it is. He's scrawled across the bottom: I love you, Tim.
"I love you, too, Rory," I say as I place the picture next to my computer as a constant reminder. A moment of wonder crosses my mind as I look at it again. How could a kid burn his way into my heart in just two days as Rory did. Though I'm a devotee of amps, teens especially, my thoughts of Rory have never been sexual. I truly love the kid to the extent I would have kept him even had it meant giving up writing to find steady employment and income. Yes, Rory, I do love you, and I vow that when I can save enough money I'll come see you.
I look through my address book, then pick up the phone and punch in the numbers. I'm crushed when I get the Johnston's answering machine. "Just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas, Rory, and say thanks for the beautiful picture. I love you," is all I can manage to say before hanging up and wiping my eyes.
That evening I check my e-mail for messages and find one with a name I have to think hard to remember. Merry Christmas, Tim. I know you miss Rory as much as I do. He told me you're a great guy and helped him a lot. Thanx. Wildman. Then I recognize their secret code; it's the typeface. I have to look it up, because I've never seen Modern 20 used before. I switch fonts and answer: I hope you've had a good Christmas, too, Wildman. I want to meet you someday. I'm curious to see if you live up to your name. Have a Happy New Year. Tim
A few minutes later the chime announces new mail. You're sharp as Rory told me. Hehehe. I read it and shake my head. Kids!
Though I write to him faithfully, Rory sends only three messages during the rest of the winter and early spring. It's a real surprise, then, when on Good Friday I get a note asking me to pick him up at the airport that evening. He's coming to visit during his spring break instead of the summer because he'll be taking advanced placement courses in school.
I'm standing at the arrivals gate when the little Lear jet taxis in. A few people straggle through the gate, then I can't believe my eyes. The Rory I remember as a skinny sharp-faced kid has changed completely in eight months. Even with his jacket I can see he's developed a body-builders form. He's drop-dead handsome!
"Tim!" He yells, then swings easily over to me on his crutches and grabs me in a crushing hug. "Oh, God it's good to see you, man."
I vigorously return his embrace. "It's even better for me to see you, babe." I pull away and look him over. "Damn! I wouldn't have recognized you, if it hadn't been for the crutches."
He grins. "Not the skinny kid you knew, am I?"
"No way. Where's the leg?"
He hugs me again. "Left it home. I know how you like to see me."
"The picture I sent you. I could read between the lines when you wrote back."
"Looks like I've got to add one more thing to the list of reasons I love you, Rory."
"Whatever, man. Let's go."
"What's going on with the writing? You haven't sent me a new book lately." He asks on our way home.
"Got tired of writing shit. I saved enough to live on for a while and started work on a serious novel."
"Great! Don't take this wrong, Tim, but you were getting repetitious."
"So my publisher reminded me."
"What's the new one about?"
"You," I answer with a smile.
"Come on! Nothing about me would make a book. What's it really about?"
"Seriously, babe, it's a sort of true fiction and you play a part in it. While you're here, I want you to read what I've written, if it won't bother you too much, and give me your okay. If you don't, I'll destroy it."
"You're not kidding, are you?"
"No. I just hope it isn't too tough for you to read about the past."
"I'll read it for you, Tim. I owe you that. Hey, look, there's my old school. Wonder if Jase is back there yet."
"My best buddy. You know, Wildman. He's the same age as me."
"Never knew his name before, but why wouldn't he be in school?"
"He was supposed to have an operation. Guess he did, because I didn't hear from him like for a month. He said he'd be going back soon. Will you bring me to see him while I'm here? I promised him I would when Dan told me I could come."
"Of course. We can have him at the house for dinner, if you like."
"Not a good idea. I mean you'd have to come pick him up. He can't drive yet."
"That's no problem."
"I'll see if he wants to come." Rory punches me on the arm so unexpectedly, I let the car swerve. "He's awesome with a computer."
"Easy. I want you in one piece when I send you back home."
"Yeah. Lost enough already."
"Just enough to make you beautiful, babe."
He laughs. "You and Wildman are the only ones think so. Otherwise I'd be wearing the leg."
I'm not believing the maturity of this sixteen year-old. But after some of the things I discovered in my research, I guess he grew up fast.
"Oh, man, I wish I had brought my leg," he says when I turn into my drive, "your grass needs cutting bad."
"You're on holiday, babe. The grass can wait, cause I'm spending the time with you."
He goes in the house like he's home. "You've got my room fixed up nice," he says when I take his bag in.
"Hope it says welcome home. It's yours and it's been waiting for you."
He hugs me again. "I love you, man. I hope it's always here."
"It will be, Rory."
"Sure wish it was warm enough to go swimming. I had a lot of fun that day we went to the pond."
"So did I. Haven't been there since. Let's go find something to eat."
As soon as we've eaten, Rory grabs the phone and punches in numbers from memory only to hang up a second later in digust.
"Wildman's on his computer again, cause his line's busy. You got ICQ on yours?"
"What the hell is that?"
"Oh, man, you don't know what you're missing. It's a free chat program. If you had it I could get his attention."
"Does it interfere with anything?"
"Nah. Can I load it on yours?"
"The lap-top, as long as it won't screw up any data I have on it."
"It won't. I can take it off if you don't like it."
I watch him, envying his familiarity with the process. Once the program is loaded, he types in a series of numbers and Wildman's name pops up. Rory types: 'get your scrawny ass off line so we can talk R'
A few seconds later I hear my computer make an 'uh oh' sound and Rory clicks on the flashing icon. 'where are you'
'at Tims I put ICQ on his lap-top you do it'
'yeah go back to school after the break when you coming over'
I shake my head at their lack of punctuation, but they apparently understand each other. "Let me add a word, Rory. What's his name?"
"Jase." He passes me the lap-top.
'Tim here, Jase. Would you like to spend tomorrow here with Rory and have lunch with us? I'll pick you up any time you say.'
'Let me talk to R a minute.'
I hand the computer back to Rory and they chat a few minutes longer, then Rory passes it back to me.
'Thanks, Tim. Be good to get out of the house. How about 10?'
'See you then. Looking forward to meeting you.'
'Don't expect a lot.'
Rory hugs me the minute he's closed down my lap-top. "Thanks. Sure be good to see Wildman. I hope everything went okay."
"What was this operation he had? If I need to make any special plans, I'd best know."
I'm surprised to see Rory grinning broadly. "If you like me with one leg, you're gonna love Wildman."
"Yeah. He finally got his dad and mom to let him have both his legs cut off."
"What!" I exclaim in shock.
"He was born with some kind of problem. From his knees down there wasn't nothin' but skin and bones. He had braces and crutches, but he still couldn't get around very well. He mostly uses a wheelchair. After I told him about my new leg, he wanted his legs cut off so he could get ones like mine."
"Watch it, man, me and Wildman aren't kids any more. Bet I can take you."
"Not going to take you up on that. So?"
"He hates anybody looking at him like he's a cripple. I told him you wouldn't, that's why he's coming."
The next morning Rory directs me to a lovely brick home in a nice part of town. He's hardly out of the car when a nice looking kid wheels himself out onto the stoop. "R!" He yells.
"Wildman!" Rory yells back. Then they're hugging each other.
Rory yells for me to come get Jase. When I'm on the stoop, he introduces us and tells me to carry Jase to my car, then come back for the chair. Jase is a little reluctant to let me pick him up. "Ugh, my stumps are a little tender, so be careful, will you?"
"I'm glad you told me."
He wraps his arms around my neck, my arms go under his butt. Once I've got him settled in the backseat, he and Rory start yacking a mile a minute. I go back for Jase's chair. As I'm folding it, the door opens.
"You must be Tim," a lovely woman says.
"Tim Thorpe. I'm sorry, but I don't know your name."
"Helen Roberts. I'm Jase's mother. This is awfully nice of you, Mr. Thorpe. Jase doesn't get out much, but he's been excited ever since Rory told him he was coming to visit you." She looks me up and down. "I'm glad you're such a young man, you'll need to be to keep up with those two."
"I'm delighted Rory had such a good friend when he was having a tough time of it. He's a fine young man."
She's misunderstood me. "Yes, he is. Ed and I never believed any of the things that were said about his father."
"Would you tell me what happened sometime?"
"We never knew much, and I see no sense in bringing it up again." She smiles. "Don't let Jase and Rory wear you down. You have no idea what they're like when they're together."
"They give me any trouble and you may find your son on your doorstep sooner than you expect."
"I should hope so."
"Seriously, I'll enjoy them. You have a very nice looking son."
"Yes, he is, isn't he. He can hardly wait to get his legs. I hope his are as good as Rory says his is. Why isn't he using it?"
I don't dare tell her the truth, so I fib. "He told me he occasionally needs to leave it off for a while. It's something to do with his stump."
"Oh. I hope Jason won't be disappointed then, because he thinks he'll be wearing his constantly."
"I expect Rory has filled him in on what to expect. I'll ask him."
"Thank you. The one amputee we know of refused to talk about it. Have a good day, though with those two, I rather doubt you will."
I turn the radio in my car off. With the boys talking I don't need more distraction, though I might as well be alone for all the attention I get. The minute we're in the house, Rory brings up my desk-top, then calls, "Hey Wildman, get your ass over here and show me those sites you were telling me about."
Watching Jase slip out of his chair and swing his butt between his arms as he crosses the room is fascinating. Rory has pulled another chair up to my desk, Jase lifts himself into without any difficulty. He pulls the keyboard over and types rapidly. "Here. Drool all you want, you perv." Jase punches him on the upper arm, almost knocking Rory off the chair.
Rory punches him back, equally as hard. "Perv, huh? Think you're better than me just because you've got two stumps now?"
"Twice as much to looove, dude. Get a load of these guys."
My curiosity gets the better of me. I cross and look at the monitor. It's a site of pictures, all double leg amputees. Jase looks up. "Uh, oh."
"Don't mind Tim, Wildman. Told you he loves amps."
"No way, buddy. Ask him."
Jase stares at me for a few moments, then says, "How you think I look?"
I point to the screen. "A whole damn sight better than any of those guys. You and Rory are beautiful."
His face lights up. "You're okay, Tim. I'm glad to be rid of those useless legs. Can't wait to get my new ones."
"If I see you after you get them, I hope you aren't using them."
"Because you won't be half as handsome as you are now."
He punches Rory on the arm again. "I thought you were lieing, buddy. This guy's a real devotee."
"Told ya. Sorry now you didn't wear your cut-offs?"
"Nah. I still got those stump shrinkers on."
"Bookmark that site for me, Rory."
"'Kay. You must not search the net."
"I know three more just as good," Jase says.
"Mark 'em all. They might give me some ideas for stories." I should let them be alone, but the pictures are too fascinating as are the insults they are throwing at each other. They spend the rest of the morning playing around on the net. I leave to fix lunch.
"Need me," I call to Jase when I come to tell them it's time to eat.
"For what? You think I'm a cripple or something?" Jase is grinning when he says it. He lowers himself to the floor. Rory stands up, towering over him, he's taller than I now. "Come on Shorty, I'm starved."
Jase sticks his tongue out at him, then butt walks easily to the kitchen table and hoists himself into the chair with no trouble. I eat a normal lunch, but the boys shovel their food down like they're starving. I look at Jase and wonder how he stays so slender.
Immediately after they finish eating they go to Rory's room. I clear away and wash the dishes. Since they're talking I bring my computer back up and make some notes. When I have to stop long enough to take a leak, I pass the partly open door to Rory's room just in time to hear him say, "Let me see your stumps."
"Nah, dude, I can't wrap 'em again if I take the bandages off."
"I know how to do it. They taught me in the hospital."
On my way back to my computer, I overhear Jase say, "Let's do it, dude. I've been desperate. Nobody else likes me, specially now."
"'Kay. Tim won't bother us in here."
I suspected that Rory was gay, and I'd wondered about Jase since he maintained some physical contact with Rory all morning. I shrug. What the hell, I was always horny at their age, too.
An hour or so later they come back into the living room looking quite pleased with themselves. Jase is wearing a pair of cut-offs as is Rory. His stumps are bare.
"Don't you think you should wrap your stumps again, Jase?"
"They feel so good, I'll do it later. Can we go to the pond?"
"For what? It's too cool for you guys to go skinny dipping if that's what you have in mind."
"Nothin' like that," Jase says quickly. "Rory and me went back there one time when he lived here. I liked it a lot. I want to see it again."
"Into your chair, then. I'll push you since Rory seems to have an excuse not to."
Jase grins. "He's just got a halfway excuse now."
"Least I don't sit on my ass all day like you, " Rory fires back, laughing.
Pushing a wheelchair through a woods is more of an ordeal than I expected. I'm quite ready to sit down and rest when we finally get there. It's worth it when the boys start reminiscing. Because it's been a dry winter, the water is well below the dam. Jase slips from his chair and starts to make his way out on the dam before I realize what he's doing.
"Damn it, Jase, come back here. I'm not about to go after you if you fall in, and your mother will kill me if I bring you home wet."
He gives me a wicked grin. "Not going to fall in. Come on, dude," he says to Rory. Once they're both sitting on the top of the rock dam, I pull out a disposable camera I bought on impulse one day and take all eight shots of them. Two great looking young men in washed out demin cut-offs make a nice contrast to the drab gray of the rocks, the green of the bushes behind them, and the sparkling water. If these pictures come out they'll be gorgeous. I like the way the gray stones set off their stumps so nicely.
"Okay, you idiots, come on. Time to get back."
"Thanks for pushing me, Tim," Jase says when we're back home.
"I ought to skin you for getting on that dam. Your mother is right, you're a daredevil."
"Hey, a guy has to do something exciting once in a while."
"But taking unnecessary chances is a bit much. No wonder Rory calls you Wildman."
Rory's grinning. "That ain't the real reason."
Instantly, the reason hits me; they weren't exactly quiet while they were in Rory's room. I wink at both of them and see Jase's face flush.
"Oh, shit," he mumbles.
Rory walks over and kisses him. "It's cool, dude."
Jase looks up at me, and I nod. "And just between us."
He sighs in relief, then looks at his watch. "I gotta go. Mom expects me by five."
"Don't forget your stumps."
Jase lies back on the sofa and I watch Rory wrap them with professional skill. Jase only says, "Not so tight, dude," once.
When I reach in for Jase at his house, he wraps his arms tightly around my neck. "I like the way you carry me, Tim. Can I come back to see you?"
"Rory and I will be happy for you to."
"Nah. I meant sometime after he goes home. You're a cool guy to be with."
"I'd be happy to have you, but what will you tell your parents?"
"I'll think of something."
I sit Jase in his chair, not surprised when Rory leans over and kisses him. "Wednesday, dude?"
"Yeah." He pushes the door open and yells, "I'm home," as I push his chair over the threshold.
His mother comes into the entry. "My goodness, just look at you! Into the tub with you right now."
Jase slips from his chair onto the stairglide and starts up. "See ya Wednesday," he calls.
"You didn't invite him back, did you?" His mother sounds astonished.
"Well, yes. He and Rory enjoyed themselves tremendously."
"I can't believe you aren't exhausted."
"Jase is very independent and good company. He also fixed a minor glitch in my computer."
"That's one thing he excels at. If he wasn't so absorbed in his I don't know how we'd ever keep him entertained."
"Oh, I took them for a walk in the woods this afternoon. They had a good time and the exercise did me good."
She shakes her head. "You must have the patience of a saint. This is the first time I've seen Jason excited about going anywhere."
"He's welcome any time."
The first thing Rory does when we're back home is hug me. "You're cool, Tim. I love ya."
"Love you, too, babe. Go get a shower and change. We're going out to dinner. You guys didn't leave anything to eat, and I don't feel like cooking."
"Cool. I hate left-overs."
Where the week has gone I'll never know. Friday night I let Rory read what I've written about his situation. I ignore the sobs I occasionally hear, He needs to know the truth. Finally he shuts my lap-top and calls to me. I go over and sit down beside him. Tears are still streaming, but he hugs me, and I hug him back.
He wipes his eyes. "I … I knew some of it, but not all. They told me I lost my leg in an accident. I didn't know it was because my dad shot me."
"You don't remember that night?"
He shakes his head. "The shrink told me I was in denial."
"I'm sorry I didn't know. I'd never have let you read this if I had."
"Did my dad really intend to kill my mother and me before he shot himself?"
"I'm afraid so. All of this is from public records. Do I go on with this, or would you rather I destroyed it? I wouldn't have you hurt further for anything. I love you too much for that."
"I know. I wanted to know the truth, but nobody would tell me what happened. The way you've written it, only a few folks around here would know it's about my dad and all."
"That's why I call it true fiction. It's a fiction story based on some actual facts."
"This means a lot to you, don't it, Tim?"
"It's my chance to publish something good, but you mean far more to me than a book."
He stares at the floor for a while. At least he looks up. "I don't live here anymore, so I don't see how it can hurt anything. I don't care 'bout anybody but you and Jase. Go with it, Tim."
He hugs me. "I trust you, Tim. You ain't never let me down."
"I'll try to never let you down, Rory."
"I know." He tries to smile. "Rub my stump. It's hurting a little."
I'm almost moved to tears myself, for this is the highest level of trust he could place in me. He's told me often he doesn't like to have it touched. I rub it gently. He falls back against the pillows, eyes closed, and smiles. "Feels so good when you do it."
The next morning it's time for me to take Rory to catch his flight back home. As we're about to get in my car, he throws his arms around my neck and kisses me firmly, though he knows I'm not gay.
"Didn't figure I could get away with that at the airport. I've sure had a great time, Tim. I'm coming back the first chance I get."
"That room's yours any time."
"Yeah. Forgot how much I love you, dude."
"Love you, too, babe. We'd better get going if we're picking up Jase. Oh. Don't you think you should pin up your jeans leg?" He's tied it in a knot below his stump.
He gives me his wicked grin. "Hell, no. Wildman goes wild when I do it like this. Got a couple of pins in my pocket. I'll do it before I get home."
"Whatever." I've got to admit it's eye-catching, and he doesn't give a damn.
Jase is neatly dressed in slacks with the legs folded back neatly under his stumps. We're not a block from his house before he and Rory are in a clinch that lasts until we're at the airport. They separate as I put Jase's chair by the back door and open it.
"Break it up you two, before you're arrested for public display of affection or something."
When I put him in his chair, Jase lifts his stumps for Rory to fold the slacks legs underneath. Rory doesn't miss the chance to feel him up. "Cool it, you sex fiends," I whisper.
Jase grins. "Had to give him something to remember."
We get a lot of looks in the terminal, but how often do people see two good looking teen amputees together. I know Rory doesn't care, and neither does Jase apparently. Me? I'm delighted to be seen with them.
Their good-byes include a surreptitious kiss. I get a crushing hug from Rory, then he practically runs, if one can be said to run on crutches, towards the gate. Jase spins his chair around. "Let's go. Now!"
I can tell he's close to tears, so I speedily wheel him back to my car. "God, I miss him," he says when I lift him into the seat.
"I do, too, buddy. I hope he comes back soon." I know Rory won't because of school, but I hate to see Jase so upset.
He has me put him on the stairglide as soon as I carry him in and he zips upstairs. His mother comes out as I'm putting his chair in the entry hall.
"It's was so thoughtful of you to take Jason to the airport to see Rory off. Where is he?"
"He went up to his room as soon as I brought him in."
"I was afraid of that. He misses Rory so much."
"I couldn't help but notice how close they are."
"Rory's the only classmate Jason's ever had that spent a lot of time with him. They are almost like brothers. I know I'm selfish, but I was very upset when Rory went to live with his aunt and uncle, because Jason has been inconsolable ever since. I hope it will change after he gets his legs and can walk."
"I'm sure it will."
"I must thank you for what you've done this week. Except for school and his time in the hospital, Jason hasn't been out of the house so much in ages. You wouldn't believe the change in him."
"I've done nothing. He may ask you to let him visit me again. If he does, I hope you'll let him. He's a fine young man."
"We couldn't impose on you that way."
"No imposition. I sometimes need help with my computer, and he seems to enjoy being at my house. He's good company and no bother."
"I'm glad you feel that way, and if he can help you, I know he'll be happy to."
The minute I close the door behind me, I'm no better than Jase was. It takes me a full day to get accustomed to the silence after having Rory and Jase around. Finally, I can begin to focus my thoughts and get back to work.
For a month or so, Rory's e-mails to me are frequent, then taper off, but Jase sends me one at least every other day. He's back in school and spends every afternoon in rehab learning to use his new legs. The afternoon he tells me he walked the length of the room assisted only by a cane, his message is so ecstatic it's filled with typos. I wish I could fully understand how he feels being able to walk at last.
I'm in town to do more research at the library, but finish earlier than I anticipated. On a sudden whim, I go by to see Jase. When he opens the door, his face lights.
"Tim! Come on in. How do I look?" He's as tall as I and walks into the living room with a slight hesitation at each step.
Before he can sit down, I hug him. "You look great. You're walking so well, too."
His grin threatens to split his face. "Not very fast, but no crutches or cane. I can't tell you how wonderful I feel. I'm a new man."
"You look it, but …"
He gives me a mischievous look. "I remember what you said, but it'll have to wait until I come see you at home."
He grins. "Yeah. Promise."
"Who was …. Oh, Mr. Thorpe." His mother says coming into the room.
"Yes. I happened to be in town and thought I'd drop by to see Jason."
"How nice. Would you care for a cup of coffee?"
"If it's no bother. Straight from the pot, please."
"I've really enjoyed your messages, Jase. My work's leveling off, so would you like to come for a day with me? It's warm enough we can go swimming in the pond if you want."
"Great! Don't tell mom about that, though." He winks at me. "Tell her you need me to work on your computer or something."
As she hands me a cup of coffee, I ask. "I'm having a few problems with my computer and Jason tells me he knows how to solve them. Would you object terribly to him spending Saturday with me? I'll pick him up about 10 and give him lunch. Thought he and I might write a note to Rory together."
"If you're sure you can help Mr. Thorpe."
"I can. I know exactly what to do because I had the same trouble with mine."
"Then, of course you may. I was planning to be out Saturday. It's nice you have something to do as well."
When I rise to leave, I'm surprised that she doesn't come to the door with me, but lets Jase.
"This is great, Tim. I'll be ready."
"See you Saturday."
Saturday morning he walks out to my car and gets in. He grins. "I didn't forget. Soon as we're at your house the legs come off."
"Good. I thought you might be using your chair."
"Haven't since I learned to walk. The folks like seeing me this way. I'm sure lucky R got his leg and told me how great it is. That's how come my folks finally let me get my legs cut off. Just wish it hadn't taken so long."
"I'm delighted you're doing so well, Jase."
"Yeah. I'm having a lot of fun now. Got some friends at school, too. Hey, did those shots you took of me and R come out?"
"Just like I wanted, buddy. I'll show 'em to you. I had another set made for you and Rory. I was afraid to give you yours in case your mother might see 'em."
"Got a place she won't ever find 'em. She doesn't bother my stuff much any way."
The minute we're in the house, Jase flops down on my sofa and drops his jeans. He's wearing a pair of cut-offs underneath. It's fascinating to watch him slip his stumps out of the legs, then roll down the stump socks. He gives me an evil grin. "Better?"
"You bet! Now you're handsome again."
He waggles his stumps. "Come rub 'em for me."
I sit beside him and begin to rub them gently. Jase leans back and closes his eyes, occasionally emitting a contented sigh. "That feels so good."
I suddenly wish I had a stump, too, so I could experience the feeling Rory told me is indescribable. It must be quite erotic, from what I'm observing.
Jase suddenly uses his arms to lever himself up, then hugs me. "You aren't gay, are you?"
"No, babe. Just a devotee."
He looks disappointed. "Wish you were." He slips down and butt walks to the bathroom. A few minutes later he's back. "Can we go swimming now?"
"Sure. Let me get some towels."
He looks up expectantly when I return. "How are you going to get there if you don't put on your legs?" I ask.
"Carry me, Tim? I like the way you do it. I'll hold the towels."
As I pick him up, it dawns on me he likes the close physical contact more than anything else, for he could walk it easily if I held his arm for balance.
"Okay." I'm glad I've been getting a little exercise.
This time he spreads his stumps and grasps my waist firmly with them, his arms around my neck. I can tell he's gained some weight. "Another pound and you'll be walking instead, buddy."
"You're just getting old."
"Old, hell! You're getting fat."
"What do you call it then?"
"Growing up, dude. Already taking drivers ed. and got my learner's permit. Dad says he'll get me a car when I turn seventeen."
"How do you manage the car they use to teach in?"
"The teacher's got a friend who's a para. His car has hand controls, so he teaches me in that. It's great, but he's going to teach me to drive a regular car, too, cause I want a sports car. It'll have to be automatic, though."
"I want a ride when you get it to pay me back for toting you around."
"I'd give you one anyway."
I set him down and spread the big towel to sit on while I recover, but Jase slips out of his shorts and is in the water before I can think.
"It's great! Come on in, Tim," he calls.
I'm worried. "Wait 'til I can help you."
He grins and swims out strongly. Damn kid never told me he could swim so well. It's so hot the cold water feels refreshing. I sit on the bottom, the water up to my neck.
He swims over to me, puts his hands on my shoulders and stands on his stumps. "Didn't know I'm taking swimming class, did you?"
"Why didn't you tell me? You scared me half to death."
"Got to learn so I can keep up with R. Coach says I might even make the team next year."
I hug him. "Good for you, babe. Race you across."
He's half way across the pond before I get a good start. When I get to where he's sitting in the shallow water, he looks at me and shakes his head. "Told you you're getting old."
"Am not!" I pick him up and toss him out into deeper water. I almost panic when he doesn't come up, then he's pulling my legs out from under me. He's swum back under water. We start playing until I'm exhausted, but he's insatiable. I finally have to pick him up and carry him to the towel before he's ready to quit.
"Damn, babe. You gave me a workout."
"Did ya good. I like swimming with you, Tim. You're fun. Coach don't ever let us play around like this."
"And he shouldn't. He wants you to learn to swim safely."
"Let me catch my breath, then we'll go back and get lunch."
I swear I'm not gay, but there's something appealing in carrying this nice looking legless kid, feeling his body pressed against mine. Oh, hell! I don't have a tub in the house. How's he going to shower?
I might have known. He tells me he needs me to hold him in the shower when I take him into the bath. I'm very reluctant to do so until I remember the swim is a secret from his mother. I set him on the shower stall floor and wash his hair, then soap the rest of him. He waits until I'm covered myself in soap then holds up his arms. I pick him up and turn until we're both rinsed completely. He lifts himself out and I toss him a towel, taking another to dry myself, then carry him to the sofa to put on his shorts while I fix us some lunch.
He calls me to carry him to the table. "How come I've suddenly got to carry you everywhere?"
"Cause I like it. I wish you were gay. You're the only guy I want to make it with besides R."
"I'm not, you know."
He grins. "I know. But when you carry me it's like you're holding me because you love me like R does."
"I do love you, Jase, but in the same way I love Rory."
"Then just hold me sometimes, Tim. Let me pretend it's more."
"That I can do."
After we eat and I've washed the dishes, I carry him back to the sofa. "Let me get the pictures, Jase, and we'll look at them together."
I sit down beside him and he snuggles close as he can get. "Oh, wow! That's great," he says when I show him the one of he and Rory sitting on the dam. "Look how well you can see R's stump. He's so beautiful."
"What about the guy sitting next to him?"
"You mean that stupid looking dude with the silly grin and two stumps?"
"Yeah." I ruffle his hair. "He's no slouch either. I think he once told Rory two stumps gave him twice as much to love."
He grins. "When it's R doing the loving."
"You guys are too much."
"Hey, you see the updates on the wannabe site?"
"Hadn't thought to look."
"Man, you're missing something. He's got some great looking dudes. Come on."
He's at my computer before I can move. When I get there, he's brought up a picture of a good-looking double amputee. "If I didn't love R so much, this dude would be my dream man. Only one problem, though."
"He's not for real. All the guys on this site are e-surgery. But I'd never be able to find out who he is anyway."
"Probably a professional model. It says on the homepage most of these came from magazines."
"Yeah. You going to send the pics of me and R to the Garden?"
"I wouldn't do a thing like that without permission from you guys."
"R told me it's okay. I wanted to, but I don't have a scanner. You do."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah. You can show me how it works."
"I can't believe there's something about a computer you don't know."
"A few things. I'm gonna get one with my birthday money."
I switch the scanner on and run the pictures I took of them. "Okay, pick out the one you like best. They won't take nude shots, so forget that one."
He switches back and forth then stops at the shot of them wearing their cut-offs and sitting together on the dam. It's my choice, too. "Can you brighten it a little?"
"Sure." I adjust it until the colors and contrast bring out the two boys.
"Perfect," he says.
"Okay. Let's send it." I address an e-mail and attach the picture. "It'll take a while. Probably be tonight before it's up."
"'Kay. I'll look when I get home." He glances at his watch. "This has sure been fun, but I guess it's time I got home."
He goes to the sofa and gets his legs on, then pulls up his jeans. He holds out his hands for me to pull him up. When I do, he hugs me. "Can I come back again?"
"You know you can. I'm sorry it's taken so long for us to have a day together."
"Me, too. I wish my mom wouldn't ask so many questions when I want to spend some time with somebody older than me. She thinks all my friends should be my age."
"I imagine she's over protective because you've always had difficulty walking until now."
"Guess I never thought of it that way, but I ought to be able to pick my own friends."
"We all should, babe. Ready?"
His mother opens the door the minute I pull up in front. I get out in case Jase needs a hand, but he doesn't, the little faker. I'm betting that it she weren't standing there he'd be waiting for me, because he glances at me as he pulls himself up.
"I hope Jason wasn't a bother." She says to me.
"On the contrary. He was quite a help and I enjoyed having him very much."
"Yeah, mom. I had a great time. See you, Tim."
"Right. Take care."
Got to find someway to enjoy his company more often, I think to myself as I drive back home. He's a nice affectionate kid who makes me realize how bereft I've been of the real affection I received from Rory.
A few weeks later I hear a car drive up. It annoys me because I wasn't expecting anyone and I'm trying to do a final edit of my book so I can send it to my agent. Before I can save my work and get up, the front door opens. It's Jase, so my annoyance vanishes.
"How'd you get here?"
He hugs me. "Come see!"
Sitting in my drive is a dark blue sports model Mercedes convertible that makes me drool. "Wow!"
"I passed my drivers license perfectly, so Dad gave it to me a day early. You're invited to my birthday dinner tomorrow night. Wanna go for a ride?"
"You bet!" I get in and admire it. "Never even been close to a car this nice. You hit the jackpot."
Even with no special equipment beyond the automatic transmission, he drives smoothly and easily. Once we're on an Interstate he lets it out for a few moments then slows to the legal limit. "I'd love to see what it'll do, but dad told me if I got a ticket he'd take it away from me for six months. He would, too."
"I'm glad, because I want you around for a while."
He gives me another of those grins. "Because you like me, or just because I let you look at my stumps?"
"If you weren't driving, I'd turn you over my knee and paddle you. You know damn well you and Rory are special to me."
"Just checking. Can I come get you soon as I'm out of school tomorrow?"
"Why? I thought the invitation was for dinner."
"I already got birthday money from my aunts. I want you to go with me to the computer shop and pick out a scanner."
"If you want, and your mother doesn't object."
"She won't. I told her you would teach me how to use it."
"I'd better meet you at home so I'll have a way back."
"I guess. Dad won't let me drive alone at night yet. He wouldn't bring you home, either."
Jase is home when I arrive the next afternoon, but it's his mother who opens the door. "Really, Mr. Thorpe, you shouldn't let Jason presume on you so freely."
"It's not that often and I enjoy taking a break from my work. It clears my mind so I can look at it fresh."
"Tim!" Jase comes down on the stairglide. "Let's go."
"Drive carefully, Jason."
"I will." When we're outside I hear him mumble, "Women!"
We find a scanner that's high resolution and easy to use. Jase is ready to buy it, until I see that it's connected through a USB port. When I ask, he says his computer doesn't have one. I call a clerk over and ask for the same unit with a parallel port connection. He shakes his head.
I can see his disappointment when we leave, so I direct him to the smaller shop I use. They have it, and Jase is happy until the clerk rings the total. It comes to twenty dollars more than he has.
I haul out my billfold. "Okay, babe. I haven't gotten you anything, so this will be your present from me."
His face lights; he hugs me. "Thanks, man."
The moment we're at his home, he drags me to his room over his mother's protest. "Really, Jason, you should let Mr. Thorpe have a cup of coffee and rest for a minute."
"Please call me Tim." I wink at Jase. "It's his birthday, so I think I can hold out long enough to help him connect his scanner."
She shakes her head and goes back downstairs. Jase does need me to pull his desk away from the wall so he can get behind it to make the connections. When he's done, I push the desk back. "Okay, guy, got something to scan?"
"Yeah." He picks up a snapshot of Rory and him that must be more than a year old, because Rory still has his leg and Tim is in his chair, the braces he wore obvious. "Mom made this last summer. You know, before."
He scans it, then I show him how to save it in a special file for pictures and use the software that came with the scanner to make changes. He plays with it for a few minutes then says, "I got a special picture to show you." He opens another file and brings up the shot.
"Damn! That's Rory and me. Where'd you get it?"
"Rory sent it." I recognize it then. It's one his uncle made when they came for him. "Like what I did?"
He enlarges it and I see that my left arm has been replaced with a prosthetic hook. "How'd you do that?"
"Copied the hook from one of the pics on the site and used paintbox to make it look right."
"You're better than the guy does all the e-surgery."
"Took me a long time to work out how to do it." He looks up with a grin. "You ever read any of the stories in the Garden?"
"If what was in Surgeon was true, would you get your arm cut off? I mean you're awesome with that hook."
I hate to admit that the hook makes a nice picture with Rory on his crutches. The prospect has a certain appeal, but I'm not a wannabe, and I'm always honest with the kids. "Sorry, babe. I'll stick with my original equipment. A writer really needs both hands to type fast, and that's my bread and butter."
"I guess. I like my replacement equipment better."
I ruffle his hair. "You had good reason, I don't. I like the picture though. Send it to me by e-mail."
"Yeah. I'm gonna send it to R, too. Bet he likes it."
We're called to dinner about then, so he closes the program and puts the computer in slumber mode.
Jason's father is graying at the temples and very formal. I can tell instantly he's a cold fish. No wonder Jase is so starved for affection. Jase introduces us.
"I'm pleased to meet you at last, Mr. Thorpe. Jason has made some kind of idol of you. He thinks you can do no wrong."
"Quite untrue, as you can imagine. But I do enjoy his company and his help with my computer. He's a fine young man."
"It's good to hear that he behaves himself. I never knew what he was up to, especially when Rory was around."
"Nothing bad, I'm sure. They are fine young men. They've taught me to be less demanding of myself when I get caught up in a story."
"Jason mentioned that you are a writer. Isn't that a risky and unremunerative occupation for a young man?"
"I live simply, so it's no hardship to live on what I get paid for a book and the royalties coming in if it sells well." It's then I recognize his name. He was the defense attorney for Rory's father before the murder/suicide. I smile at him. "Like any other writer, I would like to produce a best seller."
He snorts. "I haven't read any of your work," Thank God, I think to myself, "but I've glanced at several on the best seller list. It appears that all you have to do to produce a best seller is use crude language and have vividly described sexual activity in every chapter. Books are worse than television."
"What is your preference?"
"The classics, of course."
What an ass! If he knew the English language well, he'd realize many of the classics are racier than modern works. "Shakespeare can hardly be surpassed as a model of writing."
"Quite. I wish I could get Jason interested in reading more, but it's impossible to get him away from a computer."
I can't resist getting in a dig. "Perhaps if you spent an evening with him, you would find innumerable sources of excellent information. Even the Folger Library is on-line now, as is the Library of Congress. I use that frequently for research."
"Interesting." The serving of dinner by their maid ends the conversation. I look at Jase sitting across from me, and open my mouth to say something to him, but he shakes his head, so I keep silent.
As soon as desert has been served and eaten, no birthday cake I notice, Jase excuses us, and we go back to his room. "Thanks," he says.
"Telling dad that computers are good. He hates them. Says they're a total waste of time outside an office."
I smile at him. "We know differently, don't we?"
"Yeah." He grins. "It's the only way I can write R and you and not have to explain. He takes all the outgoing mail to his office and mails it from there. Guess I'd better get my homework done cause he'll check later."
"In that case, I'll be going." I hug him. "Thanks for asking me to share your birthday dinner with you."
He hugs me back. "Thanks for coming and helping me get the scanner. I know dinner with the parents was awful for you, but you helped a lot just being here."
"I'm glad, Jase. I love you."
I take my leave of his parents in as dignified manner as I can and breathe a sigh of relief before I'm off the step. Poor kid. Now I understand his need for love and physical contact. It's as strong as Rory's, perhaps more so.
Three weeks of intense and uninterrupted work, except a few moments to e-mail Rory and Jase, sees the book completed. I mail the two floppies to my agent, and turn my attention to my yard and garden that I've shamefully neglected. It's relaxing to be outside after all the work I've done, and it'll give my eyes a chance to recover from endless hours of looking at the computer screen.
Finding I need to do some grocery shopping and a new garden hose, I go into town for lunch, then shop. When I get out of my car at home, I'm puzzled that the garage door is down. I thought I left it open. I pick up the bags of groceries and fumble for my keys, but the front door swings open when I try to insert the key. I scowl and go on to the kitchen. There are two plates and glasses in the drain. Oh, damn! Not intruders again!
I've no more than set the bags down on the table when two pair of arms surround me from behind, and a kiss is placed on each cheek. "Surprise!" I turn to see Rory and Jase standing there with wide smiles.
"What … what are you guys doing here?" I stammer.
"School got out last week and I have a week before summer classes. Dan said I could come see you. Jase picked me up. He can stay too."
"This is wonderful. Why didn't you let me know? I was getting ready to call the sheriff again."
Rory laughs. "Wanted you to think you had ghosts, like the first time. We even stuck the dishes in the drain. Thought it might give you a clue. Hell, man, you write mysteries and can't pick up on a clue when it's right under your nose."
I hold both hands up. "I surrender. Or do I plead guilty?"
"Better do both," Jase says with a grin.
I put my arms around their shoulders. "I'm glad I'm not working right now. We'll have some fun."
Jase looks at Rory. "Yeah. Just as soon as we get like you like to see us."
They rush off to their bedroom to remove their legs. I'm one happy devotee.