© Jess Mercer

Keith

My last class is over and I'm walking back to the dorm. Nothing unusual, but it's a great day, and I wish I had a friend to walk with. After years of being a loner, I ought to be used to it, but warm and sunny days like this the loneliness presses in. I'm about to walk on past the campus commons where a bunch of guys are playing soccer on the closely-cut grass, when my eyes lock on one of the guys - my dream in reality. His thick dark brown hair is fairly short, he's stocky, and got a face I'd kill to have. It's not a pretty face, just masculine gorgeous. The ball rolls my way and he comes running up. When he turns to kick it back into play, I clearly see what brings my vision of him into perfection, his left arm ends a little below the elbow.

I sit on one of the benches to watch him, especially when play comes near where I'm perched. As the game ends, I pick up my books and start to walk on, but he runs past me and gives me a wink. I'm still not sure how I make it to my room, but I'm suddenly lying on my bunk with my eyes closed so I can see him. I wake when I hear the other guys in the dorm stampeding down the hall, yelling at each other. Chow time. I stop in the doorway of the cafeteria hoping I'll see him, but he's not there. I finish my supper and go back to my room.

The walls seem to press in on me. My last roommate moved in with one of his buddies, which is fine with me cause I didn't like him, but I'm surprised the college hasn't moved somebody in on me since a few of the rooms have three guys in them. I guess my former roommate told everybody I'm gay. Life's hard enough as it is without that. I am, gay I mean, but I don't advertise it by acting weird or anything. He wouldn't have known it either, if he hadn't knocked my dictionary off the desk and my favorite picture of a young guy with one leg fell out. I figured the picture was safe in my dictionary, my roommate, being a campus jock, sure doesn't know what a dictionary's for. He picked the picture up, looked at it, and gave me a sneer. "Queer," was all he said, but that was enough. He packed all the hate in the world into the way he said that one word and moved out the next morning.

I have a computer lab the next afternoon, so by the time I'm out, the guys are finishing up their game. I'm disappointed I didn't get to watch his play, but then he runs past me and gives me a smile so magical I feel faint. When I awake the next morning I almost go into shock; there's a completed term paper laying on my desk. I don't remember doing it or anything else after he smiled at me.

As soon as my last class is over, I jump on my bicycle and ride into town to pick up a five hundred-sheet pack of paper for my printer at an office supply place. I could have gotten paper at the campus bookstore, but they sell small packs at a jacked up price I can't afford. Bike riding is something I like anyway, great exercise for somebody who sits as much as I do. I grab a shower and dress just in time for dinner.

After I've eaten, I swing by the campus center and check my mailbox. I don't bother very often, cause it's usually empty, but this time there's an envelope with the student housing office logo on it. I rip it open expecting to see they've raised my rent since I don't have a roommate, but it's a slip informing me that my new roommate is going to be Keith McDaniel. I cram the note in my pocket and wander back to my room, wondering how long this one will last.

I'm sleeping in Saturday morning when I wake to the sound of a key in the lock on my room door. I've been careful to keep it locked ever since my former roommate trashed my room one afternoon while I was in lab. It took several hours of hard scrubbing for me to get rid of the QUEER he'd written in big letters on the wall above my desk with a magic marker, but if the light is just right the word can still be made out.

I roll off my bunk, glad I'm at least wearing my briefs, when the door swings open. I look up as a neatly dressed guy comes in holding out his hand. "Hullo, old chap, I'm Keith. You must be Tod."

Somehow I manage to get up to shake his hand, then fall back down on my bunk in disbelief. It's him! He stands there looking at me, and finally says, "I could use a hand with my things you know. It's all down in the entry."

I know he must think I'm stupid as hell, but it's a few seconds before I can stammer out, "Sure, guy." I slip on my jeans and deck shoes and follow him.

After we've gotten his footlocker and other stuff in the room, he starts to put it away. I should offer to help, but I'm still too tongue-tied to speak. Then I see him giving my lap-top computer the once over. He turns with a smile. "I hope you'll be kind enough to teach me to use your computer. We didn't have them in the schools I attended, so I find I'm at a bit of a disadvantage here. I'll have my father wire me funds to get one like yours."

As if he wasn't so gorgeous I'm already in love, he speaks with an accent I'll never tire of hearing. "Mind if I ask where you're from? You sound almost British, but there's something more."

He grins. "You have a good ear. I'm Scots, though we formerly lived in a small university town in the north of England. Father and I recently moved to this country." Then he points to the wall above my desk. "I say, did someone write that disgusting word on purpose?" My heart sinks. This guy doesn't miss a thing.

"Yeah. The son of a bitch that used to be my roommate."

He looks at me steadily with a straight face. "With justification?"

I gotta give him an answer, but I hedge a little. "Not really. He found a picture I had of a guy and jumped to the conclusion I'm gay. He was mostly looking for an excuse to move out because I was always on his ass about keeping the room neat. He's a slob."

Keith smiles and looks the room over again. "I like a well kept premises. That's the reason I asked to be reassigned. Have you an electric kettle by any chance?"

I shake my head. "Sorry. I make instant coffee with hot water from the tap."

The poor guy shudders. "Dreadful stuff. Don't see how you can stand it. I drink hot tea, but you colonials don't seem capable of making it properly. I shall obtain an electric kettle at the first opportunity. I trust you have no objection. You may use it also."

"Thanks. We can go into town this morning if you want. I saw some in a hardware store not long ago."

His eyebrows rise. "Have you an automobile, then?"

"Just my bike. I ride a lot for exercise."

"Oh, very good. I have one also."

I shave and wash up, then we take off on our bikes. He grins at me when I caution him to ride on the right side of the road. He swings in next to me and rides along side at the easy pace I've set.

In the hardware store we look at the few electric kettles they have, but Keith shakes his head. "Not at all suitable, old chap. Is there another shop that might have them?"

"Wal-Mart might, but that's about it."

"Shall we be off, then?"

"If you want, but it's a couple of miles further on."

He waves his hand. "Nothing. Back home I rode five miles to school each day."

There's little traffic, so he picks up the pace to a point that has me sweating by the time we've secured our bikes to the rack at Wal-Mart.

"What's the big rush?"

He grins. "Not to worry. I needed the exercise. I find it difficult to ride in the traffic you have here. I was taking advantage of a clear motorway."

Keith zeros in on a large expensive kettle, but I point out a smaller hot-pot type made by West Bend. "This is big enough. We don't have but so much room for it, and if it gets ripped off you haven't lost much."

"Ripped off?"

"You know, stolen."

"Oh, I see. I think you will have to teach me some of your more quaint terms. But you're quite right, this should serve our purposes adequately." He looks around. "Is there a clerk?" Only he pronounces it clark. I love it.

"Pay at the check-out." I pick up a boxed pot and look for a checkout lane that doesn't have a long line.

When the girl rings up the pot and tells Keith the amount, he looks at me with a puzzled expression. "What did she say?"

"Eight-forty-nine."

His eyebrows rise and he fumbles in his pocket and holds out several bills and coins to me. "I'm not accustomed to your money just yet."

I take a five and four ones and hand them to the girl. She hands Keith the change and I pick up the plastic bag she drops the pot in.

"I'll give you a quick lesson tonight. Our money is decimal like yours, so it won't be hard to learn."

He shakes his head. "But all your notes are the same colour. Most confusing."

"Just look at the number on the top corner of each bill. I'll have to teach you all the names we use for our coins."

"What did the kettle cost in your terms?"

"Eight dollars and forty-one cents."

"Cents?"

"Yeah. Pennies."

His face lights up. "Oh, pence. I understand now. We simply say p." He puts his arm around me, then I realize it's his stump since he's on my right. It feels good and I'm happy he seems to like me so quickly. I reach up and pat it with my hand, but to my dismay he drops it quickly.

"Oh, I'm sorry," he apologizes. "I didn't think you would mind."

"I don't mind at all, I liked it. You're a great guy."

"But you put your hand on it."

"Just showing you I don't care. I like you, Keith, and I like your stump. It's really neat."

"Neat?" His forehead wrinkles.

"You know, looks good. I'm glad you don't try to hide it."

"I see, now. That's the other reason I asked to be reassigned. The chap I was rooming with grimaced every time he looked at it. I touched him with it one time without thinking and he screamed at me. I felt dreadful. I never think of it because it's been gone so long." He looked at his watch. "I'm a bit peckish, shall we have something to eat?"

"Sure. What you want?"

"I'm quite fond of McDonalds hamburgers. I believe we passed one on the way here."

"Okay by me. But if you want a really good burger, I'll take you to Pargos sometime. Their American classic is the best I've ever eaten. Their fries are great, too."

"Fries?"

I scratch my head trying to think of a term he'll understand. "I think you call them chips."

"Oh, quite." He gives me that beautiful smile again. "You must take me there if it's as good as you say. I quite miss the fish and chips at home."

After we've had burgers and fries and a Coke at McDonalds, we ride back to the dorm. As soon as we're in our room he takes the pot out of the box and goes to the basin to wash it. When I see he's having trouble holding it with his stump, I take it and finish the job, then fill it with water and hand it to him.

"Thank you." He holds his stump up. "This can be bloody awkward at times."

He plugs the pot in and takes tea bags and packets of sugar from a small metal box he had earlier put on the bookshelf above his desk. "You will join me?"

"Thanks. I like tea on occasion. I drink coffee because I don't use anything in it and it's quicker."

He comes over and sits beside me on my bunk, putting his stump around my shoulders again. It feels so good to have someone beside me, liking me, especially a guy I've only dreamed of.

He takes my hand in his and squeezes it. "That word on the wall. You never did provide me with a satisfactory answer."

I wish he hadn't remembered the way I evaded answering before. I move enough so I can grab his stump and bring it to my lips for a kiss. When I look up, he's staring at it. "I can't believe you kissed it!"

"I like it, Keith, and I like you. You want the truth and you're getting it. I'm gay and I'm in love with you."

His face lights up in a way I want to see again. "I couldn't be more delighted, old chap. I'm quite captivated by your charm and handsome appearance. Not to mention your acceptance of this." He holds out his stump once more, and I can't resist giving it another kiss.

"I can see we're going to be the best of chums." He says and grabs me in a hug, kissing me hard on the lips.

The pot's boiling away, but who cares?

*******************

Thanksgiving

Had Keith been my roommate from the beginning, I would never have come so close to dropping out of school a year ago. Only when I saw the anguish the idea caused my dad did I manage to bring my grades back to the point I was taken off the academic probation list. Keith settles in quickly and I'm happy I'm here for the first time, especially since he seems to enjoy having me rub and admire his stump.

Within a week after he moved in, we got a game going which amuses him no end. It's whether I'll learn to speak with a British accent before he learns American, so we spend a lot of time laughing at each other's attempts. He takes it in stride and teases me back. Another first for me, because I've always hated being teased until Keith.

Another benefit for us both is that he's a whiz in English, which I hate, while I'm good in math, which he declares he detests. We have a mutual aid society going in those two subjects, and he's just gotten his lap-top which I'm teaching him to use. I get a kick out of that because he learns quickly and his computer's faster than mine.

Another 'first' for me is my interest in a team sport, but that's only because of Keith. He gripes because there isn't an official soccer team at the college, but most every afternoon he and some of the other guys get together for a game. I'm learning to call it football, which it is, our football being more 'carry ball' from what I can see. Once in a while I see my former roommate pass by and sneer each time he sees them playing. "What a sissy game," I hear him remark once to another jock. I'm not surprised. He's a hunk of beef that likes nothing better than trying to cripple the guys against him in what he calls football.

Our first real date comes when I take Keith to Pargos for that burger I promised him. He wants to dress up, but I convince him that slacks and a sport shirt are dressy enough; we have to ride our bikes, after all.

He's a bit shocked when the waiter asks us if we want smoking or non-smoking. Since neither of us smoke, we're shown to a nice table in the atrium.

"Good, Lord, you Americans are about to make everything against the law," he exclaims when we're seated.

"You've got it."

"It seems rather narrow minded to me. My father smokes, so I'm used to it."

"My folks don't, but it doesn't bother me one way or the other. I smoke a cigarette occasionally."

"Quite. I just do not understand so many things, here. There are no pubs, just what you call bars where there's no food served and the main attraction appears to be getting thoroughly intoxicated. And I have yet to see a gay book at the news agents."

I have to grin at him. "Welcome to the Bible-belt, my friend."

His eyebrows rise. "The what?"

"The Bible-belt. You know, where anything that might be considered fun is a sin."

"I say! Really?"

"Just about. The right-wing religious groups have a lot of political power and they use it. If I had to listen to that stuff in my church, they wouldn't catch me at Mass."

"I agree. I go to church only at Christmas. Back home I used to go to York and London on occasion when there was something special. The music in the Minster is exceptional during the York Festival, and I was fortunate to attend Mass at St. Pauls in London when they did the Haydn 'Lord Nelson Mass' for a service. They had an orchestra with the organ, and the choir is superb."

"You like music, then?"

"Oh, yes. I was a boy chorister in our parish before my voice changed."

I admire the easy way he holds his billfold with his stump while he pulls out a picture and hands it to me. He looks adorable in his robe and ruff collar. I can't tell if he still had his arm then, but the mischievous grin is the same.

"I've not seen any CD's or a radio in our room. Do you like music?" He asks.

"I can take it or leave it. I took all my CD's back home because my former roommate threatened to trash them. He liked country and western. I hate that stuff, so I had to study in the library because he was always playing it when he was in the room."

"I'm delighted we agree on so many things." He might have continued, but the waiter sets our plates before us. Keith looks at the size of his burger, then at me. "How does one eat something this huge?"

They are thick with everything stacked on them, but I refuse to eat a burger with a knife and fork. "Just like any other burger." I answer, and pick mine up in both hands and stretch my mouth wide to take a bite.

He gamely follows my example, using his stump neatly on top of the bun to hold the burger together.

"Smashing!" he exclaims, after he manages to swallow a mouthful. "The chips are excellent as well. I like the seasoning."

When we're back in the dorm and he's brewed up a pot of tea for us, he says, "I'm so fortunate to have you for a roommate, Tod."

I grab him in a hug that's returned. "No more than me, luv."

We settle down to his computer for a quick lesson. Some of the terms used in Windows are incomprehensible to him, so he takes notes as I show him how to use it. He has a growing stack of notes on his desk, but when I see him thumbing thru them to find something, I usually show him instead. It may not be good teaching, but it saves him a lot of time. I reach for my mug of tea and knock my calendar off the desk.

He picks it up for me and uses his stump to point to the four days I've checked off. "Why have you marked these days red?"

"Thanksgiving break."

He frowns in thought. "I'm not certain I know of that."

"Goes back to the founding of this country. It's an annual thing."

"Oh. Does that mean the college shuts down?"

"Yeah. Who wants to stick around here on a holiday."

He looks distressed. "What shall I do? I've no where to go, because my father is going to be away at that time, and I don't have a key to his flat."

I've been looking forward to the break so much that I hadn't given a thought about Keith not knowing the holiday. Now, the thought of four days without him shakes me. "You're coming home with me. We'll have to share my bed, because my little brother has what used to be the guest room."

"But I haven't an invitation from your parents."

"They'll be happy to have you. My mom's really happy that I've got a roommate I like and dad's happy with the way my grades have come up since you've been here. Guess they got tired of my bitching about the other roommates I got stuck with. I'll give them a call and let them know you're coming."

"Are you certain it's no bother?"

"Of course. You're going to have to watch out for my little brother. He's got a mouth that won't quit; he's likely to say anything."

His thanks are another hug. As far as I'm concerned, I don't get enough of them from him, but we play it careful after the problem I had with the jock. I like the idea of us sharing my bed, but then I think of the Brat, as I call my brother with affection, but sometimes he can be a real brat. It wouldn't be so bad, I suppose, if there wasn't ten years difference in our ages.

I call my mom to tell her Keith is coming home with me, and then arrange to get a car from Rent-A-Wreck for the long weekend. Their cars may not look like much, but they're reliable. Besides being cheap, it's the only place I can rent one without a lengthy hassle and paying extra for insurance because of my age. I wish I had a car, but only juniors and seniors are allowed to have cars on campus. This is my junior year, but with what school costs, my folks can't afford to give me one. It's for sure I sure can't afford it on my own.

Wednesday, Keith and I take off as soon as our last classes are over. It's just on dinner time when I pull into our drive. The brat comes flying around the house to see who it is.

"Tod!" He yells and grabs me around the waist. I pick him up and swing him around. "Who's that?" He asks, pointing to Keith.

"Keith's my roommate. Didn't mom tell you I was bringing him home?"

"Yeah, I forgot." He looks at Keith standing by the car and points again. "Look, Tod. He don't have but one arm."

I glance at Keith, but he's smiling as he walks over to us. "Quite right, young fellow. You must be Mikey."

"Yeah." He hesitantly touches Keith's stump. "Does it hurt?"

Keith ruffles Mikey's hair. "Not in the least."

"Why'd they cut it off?"

"That's enough, Mikey. You know you don't ask questions like that."

"But I wanna know."

Keith hunkers down on his heels so he's eye level with Mikey. "When I was about your age I was riding my bicycle. I didn't look where I was going and I got hit by a lorry. The wheel ran over my arm and made a dreadful mess of it, so they had to take it off."

Mikey's eyes are wide. "What's a lorry?"

"It's a big goods van. I think you call it a truck."

"Oh."

"Sorry about that, but I did warn you," I tell Keith after Mikey's running toward the house, calling mom.

"Don't give it another thought, old boy. I like kids and they're naturally curious. Your little brother is delightful."

I put my arm around his shoulders. "Only sometimes, buddy. Let's go in."

One of the things I like most about him is his lack of self-consciousness about his stump. The one time I mentioned it, he shrugged it off. "It's a fact of life, old boy."

Mom meets us at the door and after she's hugged me, I introduce Keith to her and my dad who has come in from the garden.

"I'll put Mikey on the sofa and you can have his bed, if you don't mind a messy room, Keith," mom says.

"Oh, no, I shan't hear of it. Tod and I will share his bed. He's told me it's quite large enough. I'm certain Mikey prefers his own room."

"Gee, you talk funny," Mikey chimes in.

"Mikey!" Dad exclaims, frowning at him.

"Not at all, sir." Keith says to my dad, then to Mikey, "I'm recently from England, young man. We speak a bit differently from you Americans."

"Tod's talking funny, too. Is that cause he rooms with you?"

"I rather expect so. He's trying to teach me American, and I'm teaching him proper English."

"Gosh!" Mikey takes off after mom's Siamese cat who wandered in just then and let out a yowl. That beast always lets us know when he wants to eat.

At dinner, Mikey proudly tells me he's learning to play soccer at school. From the way dad smiles, I can tell he's proud that one of his sons has some athletic ability.

"Smashing!" Keith says. "I play football, too."

"It's not football, it's soccer."

"I know. We call it football at home. Your football is quite different."

I can tell from Mikey's look of adoration Keith has made a conquest.

Dad's grilled steaks and puts the largest one on Keith's plate. Luckily, mom's put Keith next to me at the table, so it's easy for me to hold the dishes while Keith serves himself. I've gotten so used to doing this for him in the chow hall, I slide his plate over and cut his steak, then push his plate back. Everything else he can handle with one hand. I see the brat watching, but he keeps his mouth shut for once. Mom's look of distress when she remembered Keith's stump vanishes, and I get a smile of approval.

Dad talks with Keith about school and so on, whenever Mikey lets him get a word in edgewise. The brat's thrilled to have a real soccer player to talk to, and Keith tells him a lot about the team he played with at his school in England.

I'm just hoping the brat doesn't come busting in my room like he usually does when I'm home, because soon as Keith and I are in bed, he grabs me in a hug. "I like your family immensely, old boy. They're delightful."

"Thanks." I kiss him. "It's good to be in bed with you. I wish we could have a bed together at school."

Keith grins. "Unthinkable. Can you imagine the gossip that would cause? This is a treat because it's a rarity. We might grow weary of each other if we slept together all the time." This guy doesn't miss a trick, but it's quite a while before we get to sleep.

We're awakened next morning by the brat bouncing into our room earlier than I like. "Come on, Keith. Show me how you play soccer." He demands.

Keith is one of those who wakes up happy every morning, instead of being a grump like me, so he smiles at Mikey. "After a bit, old son. Tod and I have to get dressed first, then there's breakfast. You must eat properly so you will grow up strong. It takes a lot of energy to play football."

"Beat it, Brat." I growl, and Mikey takes off. He's learned not to bother me before I've had my coffee.

"You're very fortunate to have a little brother, you know. You must be more patient with him," Keith says. "I wish I had one, but..." I can't read his expression. "No, it's just as well I don't. That would make things worse."

"Why?"

"If I had a younger brother, my father would favor him, of course, since I'm a disappointment. He would constantly be holding him up to me as a model of what I should have been, and it would make him even more furious because our estate is bound by primogeniture."

"What's that?"

"Literally it means 'first born' son. The way some of our laws were written in the old days, it meant that the first born son inherited everything and the other children got nothing, except what the father might give them in terms of money or personal possessions. The estate would then remain intact for his first-born son, and so on. It galls father terribly to know I'm in line to inherit and there's nothing he can do about it."

"I'm sorry about you and your old man, but that kind of stuff is too heavy for early morning."

"My word. Even at home you don't change."

"Sorry 'bout that, but you should know by now. You take the bath first."

By the time I stagger into the kitchen still half asleep, Keith has brewed his tea and is sitting at the table chatting with the folks. I grab a mug of coffee from the maker and slump down in the chair next to him.

My dad looks at me and then at Keith. "I see some things never change. How do you stand living with a morning grouch, Keith?"

Keith grins. "I pay him no mind at all until he's had his coffee. From then on I couldn't ask for a better man to room with. He's been immensely helpful in many ways."

"It's good of you to say that. I suppose he does have a few redeeming qualities." I'm awake enough now to know my dad's kidding.

About that time, the brat runs into the kitchen with four or five of his neighborhood friends in tow. "See, I told you Tod brought a real English soccer player home," he announces proudly.

Ever the gentleman, Keith stands up and shakes hands with each of the kids as Mikey tells him their names, then demands that he go out and play with them.

"You may as well, old man; you won't get any rest until you do." I tell him.

"But I've nothing suitable to wear."

We're about the same size so I give him a pair of my old cut-off jeans and a sweatshirt. Luckily he brought his sneakers. I dress the same when he asks. He's taught me to play a little, when he couldn't get enough of the guys he usually plays with, so I'll go out with him, more to protect him from the kids than anything else. I know if I don't, those kids will be all over him with the brat leading them on.

Dad's set up a net in the vacant lot next door to our house and keeps the grass mowed, so we have a fairly decent surface to play on. Keith puts me at goal and runs the ball while the kids watch. I get lucky and deflect his first shot, but from then on it's his game. After another goal or two, he gets the kids on the field and gives them some coaching.

The game ends differently than I expected. Keith is little thicker through the thighs than I from all his running, so my cut-offs fit him snugly to begin with. But when he twists to block a kick by one of the kids, the seam in back lets go with a terrific ripping sound. The kids collapse in hysterics, and I'm doing my best not to laugh with them. Poor Keith looks mortified. I put my arm around his shoulders. "Sorry about that. Let's get in and change."

His face is dark red. "But your mother " he stammers.

"I'll walk close behind you. She'll be so busy cooking she won't notice."

"I should hope not."

Keith breathes a sigh of relief when he sees that mom isn't in the kitchen and we make it up to my room without anyone seeing us. I can hear the TV going and realize that it's time for the Macy Christmas Parade to start. Watching it has been a family tradition since I was a small kid. After Keith and I have showered and changed, we join my folks in the den. I'm surprised that Keith looks as entranced as Mikey at the spectacle, because I keep forgetting how much of this is new to him. When it's over, it's time for our turkey dinner.

Mom's a good cook and Keith seems to enjoy everything, until the brat tells mom and dad about the ripped seam. Despite his blush, Keith joins in our laughter good naturedly. Then he gets to laugh at my expense. Mom tells him about the time my pants ripped as we were going into church one Sunday. She saved the day by marching me to the church office where she made me take off my pants and used the stapler on the seam. While she tells it, I can still feel one of those damn staples sticking me in the butt every time I knelt.

The next day while I'm showing Keith the town, we run into a couple of my friends from high school and have a beer together at a small bar. Steve really takes to Keith, because his little brother is one of the kids Mikey brought home for the game. "I wish you were closer," he says to Keith. "It would be nice for the kids to have some professional coaching. Their PE teacher knows damn all about soccer."

Keith blushes as he always does at a compliment. "Oh, I'm not at all a professional. I just played at my former school."

"When did you get into soccer?" I ask Steve. He made the football team when we were in school, but we've remained good friends.

"When Donnie started playing. It's a good sport for guys his age."

"Perhaps it will be offered by the time he's in upper school," Keith says. "I've noticed it appears to be gaining place in this country."

"I hope so." I'm stunned when Steve adds, "It looks to me like it takes more skill than football."

Sunday morning mom wakes us in time for breakfast and then we head off to church. That's the one thing we're given no choice on, though dad did offer to drop Keith off at the Episcopal Church. I'm wondering how Keith will manage, so I'm surprised when he sings the chants and hymns in a strong bass voice. I see the choir director turn to see if he can spot who it is. When he sees our pastor greeting Keith after Mass, he hurries over.

"I suppose it's too much to believe you might join our choir. We could certainly use a beautiful voice like yours."

Keith blushes, as usual. "Thank you, but I'm just on holiday with Tod. The music was lovely, I quite enjoyed it."

"I can tell you've had training."

"I was a chorister in our parish at home until my voice changed."

"You must be C of E, then. You read well to have kept pace with our service."

"Surprisingly, I find your Lutheran liturgy more akin to our C of E Mass than I find the Episcopal Mass in this country."

"The next time you bring this young man home with you, Tod, let me know and I'll have him join us in the choir. With such a beautiful voice, perhaps he might consent to sing a solo." The choir director doesn't ask me to sing because I have a voice like a bullfrog. I'm so self-conscious about it, I always mumble my way through the chant and hymns. The little talent I have is playing piano. After suffering through four years of lessons when I was in high school, at mother's insistence, I haven't touched one since. Nor do I admit to knowing anything about music, except I learned to like some classical stuff.

After dinner, we head back to school as soon as I can peel the brat off Keith. I think he would trade Keith for me as a brother in a second. My parents have suggested that Keith spend Christmas vacation with us, if his father has other plans.

When I pull in a rest stop along the highway to take a leak, we're the only ones there. I'm hardly out of the car when Keith grabs me in a hug. "I can't begin to say how much I've enjoyed our holiday, old man. You have a most gracious family."

I have to grin at him. "Yeah, man. And you know what I enjoyed most."

This time he doesn't blush.

******************

Christmas

There are papers to be written and tests to be taken before Christmas vacation begins. Somehow I manage to get most of my Christmas shopping done at odd moments. I'm glad I don't have that much to do, just presents for my parents and the brat. But there's one more to be bought this year and it has to be something special. No way I'm gonna leave Keith out. I just wish he would mention something he wants, but the closer the holiday comes, the quieter he gets.

He looks depressed most of the time and he's become distant. When I ask, he gives me a weak excuse for a smile and says, "Nothing at all to do with you, old boy. I don't care to discuss it."

I know at times he needs privacy as much as I, but it really hurts to see the guy I love on a downer.

One afternoon about ten days before school is out for Christmas I'm at my desk studying for a test when there's a knock at the door. I open it to see a tall thin man with graying hair.

He gives me the once over like I'm not worth his notice and says in a lofty voice, "I believe this is my son's accommodation, may I ask who you are?"

With that accent, I figure it's got to be Keith's dad, but his attitude has pissed me off, so I answer in the best English accent Keith has taught me. "Should you be referring to Keith McDaniel, this is his room. I share the premises."

I see him raise one eyebrow, but his attitude remains. "And just where might he be?"

"I believe he is at his ablutions, sir. If you should care to await his return, you may have a seat."

He sits stiffly at Keith's desk and idly flips through a couple of his texts, while I start for the showers to warn Keith. He's coming down the hall with a towel wrapped around him, carrying his toilet kit. I meet him half way.

"There's somebody in the room to see you. I think it's your dad."

He turns a little pale and says, "I hate to disturb your study, old man, but do you mind leaving us alone for a bit?"

"Sure. I'll go to the library. Come by for me at chow time, if you don't go somewhere with your dad."

He gives a thin smile. "No bloody chance of that. I had hoped to be fully dressed when he arrived. I'll join you when he leaves."

I dash back to our room long enough to pick up my notebook, and head for the library to look up some more material for a paper coming due. In an hour I have everything I need, so I start writing.

When the campus tower bells begin ringing as they do for a quarter hour before dinner, I realize I haven't seen Keith. I'm a little worried about him for some reason, so I get my stuff together and go back to our room. Luckily I have my key, because the door is locked. I open it to see Keith stretched out face down on his bed. I drop my books on my desk, then sit down on his bed and put my hand on his shoulder. When he turns his head; I can see his eyes are wet.

"What is it, babe? Are you sick?"

He manages a strangled, "No," then suddenly sits up and wraps his arms around me. He lays his head on my shoulder and I can feel him shaking slightly. I sit there holding him until he calms and pulls away. I remember what he once told me, so I get up and make tea for him. He doesn't speak until he has drunk half a cup, then he sets it down and looks at me.

"That was my father, as you guessed. It appears that I'm soon to be cut adrift."

"What do you mean?"

"Just that. Father says he can't abide America, so he's returning home at first opportunity. He told me I could accompany him or not, as I chose, but he was pretty emphatic that I would never get into a first rate university back home, and he had no intention of supporting me in a lesser school. I told him I intended to finish my education here, so he was furious with me when he left. I don't know whether I shall see him again."

The poor guy looks so sad, I hug him. "It's alright, Keith. I won't leave you."

"I don't know what I would do without you, particularly at this moment. I love you, Tod, but I'm in a dreadful dilemma. With the college about to close for a holiday lasting over a fortnight, where am I to go?"

"Home with me. Don't you remember my mom asking you at Thanksgiving?"

"Surely she was being polite."

"No way. She meant it. When I called dad to tell him we were back safely, he told me to ask you as well. It's all set."

"How kind. I look forward to seeing them again." He even manages a little smile.

"Good. Now how about something to eat? We're running late."

He shakes his head. "Couldn't possibly eat at the moment, old boy. You go ahead."

"Not without you. We can get something later at the student center. Want to tell me about it?"

"About what?"

"Whatever's been bothering you the past couple of weeks."

He grabs my hand and holds it so tight it's painful. "I shouldn't trouble you, Tod, stiff upper lip and all that. But you should know. It was the anticipation of hearing what my father told me, and knowing I had to make a decision I didn't wish to make. Perhaps I'd best begin at the beginning so you can understand. My mother died quite soon after I was born. Father never forgave me for that. I was raised by a succession of nannies, then tutors until I was old enough to be sent away to school. I almost never saw him, and when I did he wanted nothing to do with me. I think it was the loss of my arm that finished it. He ordered me to excel at university so that I might find an adequate position afterward, saying my being a cripple would make it more difficult.

"When he was given an invitation to lecture at one of your universities, he accepted in hope that he might benefit from the experience. He made me come with him because my grades were not what he expected. He told me I would likely succeed at one of your provincial schools since I couldn't meet his expectations at home. He certainly wasn't about to bear the expense of keeping the house open and a full staff of servants on just for my holidays, so here I am."

"Can you stay here without him?"

"I have my own passport, of course, and an educational visa. If all goes well, I shall apply for resident alien status when I graduate."

"Oh, jeez, Keith, I'm so sorry. You can count on me and my folks."

We sit in silence with our arms around each other for quite a while. Comparing my home life with his makes me so grateful for mom and dad and Mikey, I say a silent prayer of thanksgiving and ask God to help Keith.

A couple of days before school's out, I need to do some last minute shopping and ask Keith to go with me, hoping he'll see something he likes and mention it, so I can get it for him.

He brightens up and says, "But of course. I must find something for your brother. Where shall we go?"

Mom collects the silver snowflakes, and I've been lucky enough to find the ones that were issued before she started her collection. I found the last one she didn't have in a catalogue that came to the house over Thanksgiving and ordered it pronto. Keith saw it when I opened the package, so over my protest that it cost too much, he ordered the one for this year to give her. I knew dad wanted a new electric trimmer for the lawn. It was more than I could afford, so Keith went in with me. That leaves only Mikey and Keith on my list.

We ride our bikes to the mall just to look around. I spot a display of regulation soccer balls in a sports shop, so I get one for the brat. We're wandering along when Keith suddenly darts into a shop that carries Christmas decorations. He's holding out a box when I catch up. "Would Mikey like this?"

It's a set of ten Christmas lights made up like miniature soccer balls. I wish I had seen them first, because the brat will be wild over them. "Believe it, buddy. If I know him he'll hang them in his room and keep them up all year, specially because they're from you."

Keith wants to stop in the bookstore, so while he's looking, I wander back to the record section and flip idly through the CD's. In the section where they have CDs remastered from older recordings I look at the Christmas selections for one I've been wanting. I have a weakness for Christmas music. One looks interesting so I pull it out and read the cover. It's an English release by the choir of the cathedral Keith said he had sung in when he showed me his picture. Though I'm not supposed to, I rip the covering off and take the booklet out of the case and read it. Oh, damn! Keith's name is there as a boy soprano for one of the solos. They have two copies so I grab both, one for Keith and one for mom and dad, and run for the checkout.

I'm glad Keith's waiting for me outside the store so he doesn't see the CD's.

"I could do with another of those fantastic burgers, old boy. Isn't Pargos just across the way?" He says when I join him.

"Sure."

The place is crowded, but there are open seats in the smoking section. Keith immediately orders the Classic for both of us and, with a wink at me, glasses of the house red as well. "Why not," he says when the waiter leaves, "wine is appropriate with dinner." My mouth drops open when he pulls a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and offers me one. "I found these in the tobacconist's shop. It's the brand I smoked back home."

We light up and it's so mild I don't cough once. Keith gives me a wicked grin after he takes a sip of wine. "Now we're proper men of the world."

It's good to see him smiling and being the Keith I know after seeing him so down for a couple of weeks.

Dad drives up for us when the break begins. I guess anybody left on campus knows who Keith is from the way the brat screams his name and jumps on him as soon as dad's stopped the car. Keith grabs him up in a hug, holding him with his good arm while he ruffles his hair with his stump. Mikey's in heaven and, from the look on his face, so is Keith. I'm a little jealous at first, but seeing Keith's happy expression makes me ashamed. As soon as he sets Mikey down, he jumps on me.

I had talked with mom and dad about Keith when I phoned them, so dad shakes hands with Keith, then puts his arm around him. "We're delighted you're coming for Christmas, Keith. We've been looking forward to your visit ever since Tod called. Our home is yours."

Keith looks subdued for a moment, then breaks into a radiant smile and says in a voice expressing more emotion than I've ever seen from him, "Thank you, sir." I'm proud of my dad, but never more than now.

The week is a whirl of activity with us trimming the tree and trying to wrap presents. I don't do my usual complaining because Keith is so happy in all the confusion, especially when we both get drafted to help mom get ready for the Christmas party she and dad have every year.

A couple of days turn unseasonably warm, so Keith takes the brat and his friends out for some serious soccer practice. I can't believe the magic he works with those little devils, for by the end of the second day they are playing as if they had been coached all fall. He has only to speak and the brat falls to in a way that even dad can't get from him.

When Keith and I put on slacks and sweaters for the party. Keith holds out his stump with the sleeve dangling. "Come fasten this up neatly for me."

"Why don't you just roll it up?"

"I hardly think your mother's guests will enjoy seeing my stump. I wish I had my prosthesis."

"You have a hook?" I've never seen one in all his stuff.

"Oh, no. It's a hand. Totally useless, of course. That's why I don't wear it, but father demanded I have one for dress occasions."

I roll both his sleeves just above his elbow like I've done mine. "Nobody will care. It's just a lot of my parents' friends I've known all my life. Steve will probably be the only one our age to come and he's already seen it. What the hell, I like seeing your stump." Just to remind him, I give it a kiss.

"As if you'll ever let me forget." He hugs me.

Toward the end of the party, I see the choir director off in a corner talking with Keith. Keith shakes his head at first, then nods a couple of times. A short time later he walks over to the table for another cup of punch and more shrimp, which he calls prawns. When everyone is gone, he takes the brat upstairs to make sure he goes to bed, while I help mom and dad clear up.

About ten-fifteen Christmas Eve, we all leave for church. I show Keith to the choir room and join the folks in our usual pew, the fourth from the front. We're a little early, but the music begins at ten-thirty and by then the place is standing room only. A small string orchestra and a harp play with the organ. At Christmas, our choir director blows the music budget, the main reason I'd never miss that service.

When the processional starts after the opening liturgy, I can hear Keith's voice clearly. As he passes our pew, he gives me a wink.

At the offertory, only Keith stands. I see he's holding the old service book we used to have, the one I like far better than the new one. He begins to sing Love Came Down at Christmas, one of my favorite carols which hasn't been sung in our church in my memory. It isn't even in the new book. I close my eyes so I won't be distracted, but dad nudges me to pass the plate. I can't believe how beautifully Keith sings, his accent making every word clearly understandable. I see nothing but him, and, when he reaches the words: 'love shall be our token, love be yours and love be mine,' he's looking directly at me. I have to reach for my handkerchief. Mom's wiping her eyes, too. When we stand for the presentation, I see quite a few people holding wadded up handkerchiefs. No one has ever sung with such feeling in our church before.

Keith waits to join us at the rail for Communion. It's all I can do to keep from putting my arm around him when he kneels beside me.

While we're waiting for Keith after Mass, I tell mom and dad about what happened between Keith and his dad. I've just finished when he comes up. Mom gives him a hug and a kiss. "I'll never forget how beautifully you sang, Keith. It's made my Christmas."

"Mine, too, son," dad says. "Thank you."

Then we're surrounded by people wanting to tell Keith how much they enjoyed his singing. He's blushing the whole time, especially when our organist shakes his hand and tells him he's the most outstanding artist he's ever accompanied, then begs him to think about doing a big piece sometime in the future.

The minute we're home from church, the brat wants to open his presents, but dad puts his foot down.

"But it's already Christmas!" The brat howls.

"You don't open your gifts on Christmas, do you?" Keith asks him.

Mikey looks stunned. "Sure. That's what Christmas is for. Don't you?"

Keith smiles at him. "Our tradition is to exchange gifts on Boxing Day. Christmas is a religious celebration."

"I can't wait that long!" The brat has no more idea of boxing day than I, but he's sure it means he'd have to wait to open his presents.

"Well you're going to have to wait until we've all had some sleep, young man, so off to bed with you." Dad says sternly.

What I really wanted to get Keith was a silver ID bracelet I saw, but he wears a watch on his one arm and I can't see him wearing both. Because he's Scots, I got him a silver Celtic cross on a heavy chain instead. I had it engraved 'Love always, T' on the back.

It's a little after eight when Mikey wakes us. We have breakfast before mom will let him get to the tree, but then it's a free-for-all, the brat ripping paper from his presents as fast as he can.

He's all set to kick the soccer ball I gave him, but dad snatches it away just in time. "Not in the house."

But when he opens soccer lights Keith got for him, he gives a yell and jumps on Keith so hard he knocks him back on the floor where they wrestle a bit, Keith loving every second of it.

After dad, Keith, and I help the brat set up his new electric train and he's busy running it, we start to open our own presents. Keith opens the cross and looks at the back, then gives me a hug when I fasten it around his neck. Be damned if he doesn't give me the same ID I was looking at for him. On the back is 'I love you. K', and the date. I put it on quickly so my folks won't see that, though they would probably think it some sort of British thing.

My parents give both of us hugs for our gifts. Keith seems a little uneasy at the open affection between adults, but my family has always been that way. When everything has been cleared away, I reach under the tree skirt where I had hidden them and hand one small flat package to Keith, the other to my mom. Keith opens his and just sits there staring at it with his mouth open. When Mom opens hers, I pull out the booklet and point to Keith's name. She hands the CD to dad to put in the player and we hear Keith singing. His clear soprano voice soars through the room. Mom gets tears in her eyes at its beauty.

Keith's still sitting on the floor staring at the CD. He finally shakes his head and looks at me, before grabbing me in a crushing hug. "Where did you get this? The recording has been out of print for years. It was an LP."

"The book store we were in that afternoon."

"It's the only recording made by our choir when I was in it. I had a copy, but my father took it away. He said I shouldn't be so vain as to listen to myself. I was crushed, because that recording meant everything to me. God, I love you, Tod."

When friends of my folks start dropping in later that afternoon, mom plays the CD for them all. We must have listened to Keith singing a dozen times or more. Of course he blushes each time he's complimented, but I can tell he's pleased mom's as happy with it as he is.

When we're in my room getting ready for bed, Keith slips the chain and cross over his head and hands it to me. "I realize you couldn't put this on me properly with others looking on, so do it now."

I smile at him as I open the catch then put the chain back around his neck, this time with a kiss. Then I hold out my arm. He takes off the ID and replaces it with such ease I can hardly believe he's done it with one hand and a stump, then my kiss is returned.

He wraps his arms around me in bed. "I've never had such a wonderful Christmas before. Everyone in your family has gone to such effort to make it joyous for me, when being with you would have been enough. I still don't know what to say to you about the CD. Just know that it's my most treasured possession."

"Having you here has made everybody happy, luv, me specially."

"It's quite strange to me, but I like the way your family is so open in expressing their feelings. I'm glad my father wasn't a witness to our pleasure."

"Why not? Maybe it would thaw him out."

"Oh, no! He would say it was a most unseemly display. His attitude is that expressed emotion is weakness, and he detests weakness in anyone." He holds up his stump. "That's why he hates the sight of this. To him it is another of my faults. Were I not his son, I would not be tolerated at all."

"Well, you've got a new family now. Think you can stand it?"

His hug says it all.

Capricious weather is something we expect in winter, so when it turns warmer again, Keith and I are out playing soccer with the brat and his friends. I'm even beginning to like it, and the exercise makes me feel a lot better. Keith tells me I might make a football player, yet. No way, but I like being able to play with him.

The time flies by so fast I can hardly believe it's time for us to go back to school. Mom hugs Keith and begs him to come back any time. After I've peeled the brat off Keith at school, I'm surprised to see him hug my dad, then run into the dorm. I go up as soon as I've seen my dad and the brat drive off. Keith is sitting on my bed with tears in his eyes, so I sit down beside him wondering why he's unhappy. Instantly his arms are around me.

"You have the most wonderful parents anyone could have, Tod. I hope you fully appreciate them."

He knows I love my family, so I ask. "What brought this on?"

"You told them about my father, didn't you?"

"Maybe I shouldn't have, but I did. I wanted them to make Christmas special for you, so you'd feel better."

"It most assuredly did. But your father has to be without peer. He talked to me last evening while you were out. He offered to help finance my education, if I needed assistance. No one has ever been so kind before. I feel any expression of gratitude I made to him in my surprise was woefully inadequate."

"He meant it, you know."

"Oh, I do. It was just so unexpected. I can hardly believe they would be so generous to a stranger."

"It's none of my business, but do you need money?"

"Not at all. I came into a trust set up by my mother and my grandparents when I became twenty-one. The income is more than adequate. My being financially independent is another situation my father is unhappy over, not to mention that the estate is bound as I told you. I inherit automatically on his death. He has no control over either."

"Does that mean you're going back to England?"

"Perhaps some day, but I hope to stay in this country with you. Would you come with me if I returned home?"

"I'd miss my family, but, yes, I'll go anywhere with you." His kiss is longer than ever.

Later on, a letter from my dad tells me that Keith will inherit a title as well. I love the guy, but the thought of calling him 'my lord' goes beyond my imagination. He's just my beautiful Keith. He's never mentioned it, so I soon forget about it.

Roommate Episode 4 - Spring Break
 

A week after we're back from Christmas break, UPS delivers a large box to our room. It's addressed to Keith, but he's in the library, so I sign for it.

 He stumbles over it when he comes in. "What is this?"

"I don't know. It's for you."

"I could use some help, old boy. It's fastened too securely for me to open with one hand."

I pull out the pen knife the brat gave me when I left home to come here and cut the plastic strapping, then rip the tape and pull open the flaps for him.

He pulls out some bubble wrap and goes pale.

"What?"

"It appears that father has returned home and cut me adrift as he threatened. These are things I left in his flat when I came here. He told me when I turned twenty-one that I was a man and should be able to rely on myself, so I rather doubt that I shall see him again. I'm quite alone."

"The hell you are." I reach in the neck of his sweater and pull out the cross. "I meant what I had engraved on here. I love you, Keith, and don't you forget it, so there's no way you're alone. The folks and the brat love you, too."

He turns my ID over and taps it with his finger. "After what your father offered to do for me, I'll never be more aware of it. I meant what I had placed here as well. I do love you, Tod, and your family. I don't know what I would do without the comfort all of you give me."

I help him unpack the box and his bed is soon littered with books and clothing - a full tux, three suits, and some beautiful slacks and sweaters. He picks up the first thing he took from the box and laid on his bed. It's long and not too big around. He unrolls the bubble wrap and holds out a hand and part of an arm.

"I can't believe father touched this. He would never so much as look at it, unless I was wearing it."

He slips it on his stump and holds it out for me to see. The color matches his skin perfectly and the fingers have nails and light brown hairs that match the ones on his right hand. It even feels like skin when I touch it. If it had been warm, I would have sworn it was real.

"Does it work?"

"Oh, no. It's strictly for looks. Father insisted I have it and made me wear it whenever I was with him."

"Couldn't you take it somewhere and have it fixed so the thumb would move sort of like a hook?"

"It would be a dreadful expense and quite unnecessary. Even if they could make it functional without destroying the covering, I wouldn't use it. I'm far more comfortable using my stump."

I move some of my stuff in the closet we share to give him more room for his clothes. When it's all put away, we go back to our study.

We both have more classes this semester, so the spring break is on us before I'm aware of it. When dad calls to say he'll pick us up, I'm in a computer lab so it's Keith who talks to him.

We pack our stuff Thursday night, so all we'll have to do is grab a shower and change after classes Friday. When I start to dress after my shower, I'm grumbling about not having left anything out to put on. Keith points to two pair of identical slacks and sweaters he's laid out on his bed. "Wear mine. We'll dress alike." He knows I can wear his clothes because we sometimes get our laundry mixed up.

While we're dressing, I get a wicked idea. "Since we're dressing the same, put your arm on and lets see if we can fool the brat."

We take our bags down and are waiting in front of the dorm when dad pulls up. Mikey is out of the car and running toward me, yelling, "Keith!" He stops short. "Aw, you're Tod," he says disgustedly and turns to jump on Keith. After Keith has hugged him and set him down, his mouth drops open and he points. "Your arm grew back! Look, dad, Keith's arm grew back!"

Keith hunkers down and rolls up his sleeve. "I wish it had, but this is my prosthesis."

"A what?"

"Prosthesis. It's a plastic arm I can wear so it looks as if I have two arms."

"I wanna see it!"

"No," dad tells him. "We've got to hit the road."

We load our bags in the boot and, since Keith sits in the back to please Mikey, I sit up front with dad. Immediately, the brat grabs Keith's arm. "I wanna see."

Dad says 'no' again, but Keith's already pulled it off and handed it to Mikey. He looks at it, then shoves his hand inside and waves it around. "Don't it do nothing?"

"Not a thing. It's just for looks."

Mikey looks disappointed and hands it back to Keith. When Keith starts to put it back on, Mikey says, "Don't. You don't look like Keith with two arms. I like you better without it."

I twist around in the seat so I can see him. "Me, too."

"Two devotees in one family. I can hardly believe it."

Dad's been concentrating on the traffic, so he's missed most of what's been going on, but he picks up on what Keith said. "If you mean that Tod and Mikey are devoted to you, son, you should add Mrs. Hendricks and me."

Keith gives me a wink that says he'll explain later, and says, "Thank you, sir."

Mom greets both Keith and me with a hug and a kiss. "You boys take your things up to your room, then bring your wash down. I'm going to run the machine and there's plenty of room, if you haven't brought home everything you own, Tod." She knows I hate to wash and wait until I've nothing clean left to put on before I'll go to the laundromat.

Keith leans over and kisses her on the cheek. "Thanks, mom." This is the second crack I've seen in his reserve with my parents.

She smiles, then points her finger at us. "Now."

We had crammed all our dirty clothes in my laundry bag at school, so I grab it up and take it down to the cellar. Keith helps me sort the wash. When I start the machine, he says, "I had no idea you were so domestic."

"Who the hell you think's been doing your laundry? The tooth fairy?"

He gives me the oddest look I've ever seen. "You've been doing it? I assumed it was the laundry service." He frowns in thought. "Now that you mention it, I can't recall filling out a laundry slip since I've been rooming with you."

"Right. I have to do mine, so it's no big deal. I can do it better and cheaper, too. I guess you've figured out by now you're not company any more, so you're likely to start getting all sorts of odd jobs to do."

He grins. "I like feeling part of your family. Your parents are awfully kind. But you shall have to show me how they like things done. I've no experience."

"Who does it when you're home?"

"Father maintains an adequate staff for the house and garden. I never think of it."

"You have servants?" I ain't believing this.

"But of course. One simply can't do without them in a large house. Father often grumbles about the difficulty of finding adequately trained servants to replace those who leave, not to mention that they now cost the earth."

Just then mom calls us to dinner. I'm sorry, because this is the most Keith has ever said about his home. I wish he would tell me more, but he changes the subject whenever I ask. He hasn't even shown me a picture of it.

When we go up to bed, I remember what I wanted to ask him. "Okay, what was that about devotees?"

He grins. "You have a phone here?"

"Yeah. On the desk."

He opens his lap-top and attaches a phone cord which I plug it in the jack behind my desk. I hear the modem connect, then Keith pulls up a website, hits a few more keys, and starts to scroll down some pictures. He stops and clicks on one. It fills the screen.

"Recognize this guy?" he asks me.

The picture's a little out of focus. "He sure looks like you."

"It is me."

"How the hell did your picture get on a website?"

He scrolls down to the bottom of the page and hits the Home button. The screen fills with a message about it being a site full of pictures of amputees. "I played a football game not long before Father and I came to this country. Someone took my picture as I was coming off the field and sent it in. One of my tutors was a devotee and happened to see my picture, so he showed it to me one night. Even though I didn't have a computer, he gave me the address, which I've kept."

"When you say devotee, you mean a guy who gets off looking at amputees like you?"

He nods. "I should say you are quite a devotee, old man." He gives me that smile, then holds out his stump. "This seems to crave a bit of that devotion at the moment."

The minute we're in bed, his stump has my complete attention as does the rest of him.

Mom lets us sleep in the next morning, so it's a bit after nine when we sit down to breakfast. I'm having my second cup of coffee and Keith's working on another cup of tea when the phone rings. It's my dad asking me to come down to the store.

When I hang up, Keith looks at me.

"Dad wants me to go down and help out John at the shop. Want to come with me?"

"I'd like that, but I shall have to change." He has on a pair of my old jeans and a sweatshirt because he doesn't own any of what I call grubbies.

"No need. We'll be in the repair shop."

We walk the few blocks to the store. When I start to open the door, Keith looks up. "I had no idea your father is an ironmonger."

"It's a hardware store."

Keith looks perplexed until we're inside and he looks around. I'm proud of the place. It was an old supermarket building dad bought and fixed up so that it's clean and well lighted. Despite a couple of big chain outfits on the edge of town, dad does a good business because he specializes in everything he can find that the big stores don't carry. He offers appliance repair service as well. People have learned if they can't get it at the big places, they can always find it at Hendricks.

Keith looks around a bit more. "Oh, I see it's a combination of a - what did you say - hardware store and DIY."

"What's DIY?"

He grins. "Do it yourself. Such shops are becoming quite popular at home."

I laugh. "Most of the time I say, do it to yourself. You wouldn't believe how bad some people can screw up simple jobs."

Dad sees us and comes down from his office. "I'm sorry, Tod, but John really needs your help today. He's got all he can do and appliances keep coming in."

"That's okay." John taught me a lot when I used to work with him after school.

Keith follows me to the repair shop at the back of the store. I get him planted on a stool out of my way, but close enough to watch what I'm doing. There are eight or ten lamps on my bench to be repaired. John knows I like doing them, and he's involved with an electric mixer that has him cussing under his breath.

I read the repair slip attached and take the first lamp apart. I get a new three-way socket to replace the old one, then ask Keith to hand me the spool of amber lamp cord, since he's sitting in front of the shelf where John keeps it.

"Why would you want to tie the lamp together? I thought you were to repair it."

John chuckles softly. He's too nice a guy to laugh out loud and embarrass Keith, but I know he's going to tease hell out of me later on.

"I meant the amber coloured electric wire behind you."

"This one?"

When I nod, he picks up the spool of wire and hands it to me. "Now I understand. We call it flex."

I'm finishing up the last lamp when dad comes in and tells us it's time to go home for lunch.

Keith can't resist telling mom how amazed he is at the things I can do. Dad laughs. "Well, son, if you had spent as much time in the shop with John as Tod has, you would know all this stuff, too."

After lunch, we walk back to the store with dad. I replace the heating coils in a waffle iron, which is a snap, because the grids are removable, but when I test it out, I find the thermostat is shot, so I replace that as well. Then John hands me a toaster oven to fix. I'd almost rather take a beating than work on one of those. They're a pain to take apart, and never seem to go back together like they should. This one is so old, I'm not sure we'll even have the heating element to fix it. I'm doing a bit of swearing while I'm taking it apart, and John starts to laugh.

"Saved you the best 'til last, Tod." He rummages around in a big box of odds and ends and finally finds the element I need.

"Don't know why she didn't junk this and buy a new one. It's going to cost her almost as much." I growl, but I get it back together and it works.

John grins at me. "Good job, Tod. I can finish the rest of this, so why don't you and your buddy take off."

He doesn't need to say any more. We stop at the front of the store for me to grab a couple of drinks from the machine. I have a key to it because my first job every day after school was to refill it.

Keith's eyes get wide when I hand him a can of Coke and start for the door. "You forgot to pay for these, old boy."

"Dad doesn't care. The machine belongs to the store. Besides, I worked for 'em."

"Most irregular," he says, then grins. "When I come into my estate I shall have to employ you as my head steward. There seems to be nothing you can't repair and there is always something needing repair in a place that large."

He's gotta be teasing. "I suppose I might consent to work for you, but I'll tell you now that I'm going to demand a place in the master's bed."

"That you will have, old boy, with no complaint from me."


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