A Penny on the Train Tracks

“WHAT!?!” Josh shouted as he halted in his tracks not turning back to look at me.

“Josh, I have no idea why you would think anything would ever make any one of us hate you but, I think it’s a safe bet that you are wrong.” I said watching him stand a few feet from me, obviously wiping tears from his eyes. “I can promise you, if you want to talk, I’m here to listen.”

Josh finally turned to face me. He had a look on his face I don’t know how to describe, almost as if fear itself had just smacked him in the face.

“They aren’t my parents.” He said flatly as his breathing became erratic once again and the tears started flowing.

“You can’t think that we would hate you over that? Sit back down buddy, talk to me. I promise, I won’t get mad. Ok?” I said as I slowly sat back down, not once breaking eye contact.

He seemed to think about it for a few seconds before he sat back in the seat and stared at the ground, much like I had been earlier.

“My real parents… got killed in a car accident two years ago… and it’s because of me.” He said between heaves. “If I had been where I was supposed to be, they’d still be here.” He said as I began rubbing his back while he cried his heart out.

“Can you tell me what happened?” I asked as he began quieting down some. “You don’t have too, but I may be able to help if you let me try.”

“I don’t want you to hate me too.” He said looking back at me with an expression that could melt the coldest person’s heart instantly.

“I promise you, nothing you could have done in your past could ever make me hate you. I’m not that kind of person.” I said hoping he would believe me.

He seemed to think over what I said, then sat back in his chair and once again wiped his tears off on the sleeve of his shirt. “You mean it?” He asked, staring at my face probably looking for signs that I may not have honestly meant what I said.

“Swear to god, there may be things about me that you may not like but real friends are there to help, not hurt.” I said hoping it all came across the way it was intended. “I’ll just sit here and listen. I won’t say anything unless you ask me to, and you say only what you want or need to. OK?”

“Ok.” He said as he sat back in his chair, looked back at the stars we were admiring just a few moments earlier, took a deep breath and began …

“Two years ago, I slept over my best friend Mike’s house. We’ve been friends since we went to kindergarten together. We spent the whole day riding our bikes and swimming and stuff. The next day we were supposed to go to a birthday party and since we only had one car, it was easier if I stayed at his house and went with him. Well, that night, his parents went to bed and we were in his bed and really bored. We were talking about all kinds of stuff when he asked me if I had ever kissed a girl. I said no, and really never thought of it until he started sayin’ that he wanted to try. I thought he was kidding so I started makin’ fun of him and got up on top of him and we wrestled a little, then we just sorta ended out hugging. It felt nice and stuff so I held on tight. We were both in our underwear so I guess I just, liked the feeling of it. Anyways, we stayed like that for a while until I started thinking about the kissing thing again. I asked him if he really wanted to try it and he said yes and hugged me tighter. So I kissed him, on the lips real quick and put my head back on his chest.”

I sat and quietly listened to him go at his own pace. This has been building up pressure inside him for a long time. I thought to myself.

“Well, we tried that a couple of times, and it felt really nice so we laid on our sides and kept doing it. Both of us got really… um… hard. You know… down there? So we took our underwear off and hugged and kissed some more. I mean we’ve been naked together before; we took baths together and stuff when we slept over each other’s house when we were little and it was more comfortable I guess. I don’t know how long we laid like that before his dad came into the room. Didn’t knock or nuthin’, just swung the door opened and saw us both naked and kissing. We didn’t even have a chance to cover up or nuthin’. He started yelling and throwing things. Called me a ‘Fuckin Queer’ and a ‘Little Homo’ and said how dare I turn his son into one. I never told him it was his idea cause he probably would have killed him. Anyways, Big Mike, that’s what we called him cause he had the same name as Mike just like you guys, called my dad and told him what happened, and to get me out of his house and that he didn’t want to see me around anymore, ever.

“My dad came in and Big Mike started yelling and screaming at Mike and his mom, then hit Mike and sent him up to his room. My dad tried to talk to him but, he wouldn’t listen and he kicked us both out, saying we better not dare ever come back. When we got home, my dad and mom sat down and talked about what happened. My mom was upset but, my dad really listened to what I said. He said not to worry about it and he’d see what he could do and said that it was ok for me to go to bed and let him and mom talk about it. I thought everything was fine, cause he didn’t seem mad or nuthin’. So I went up the stairs and pretended to go into my room but I went back to the stairs to listen. They started arguing about what happened and the stuff Big Mike said to Dad, then he said that ‘No son of his was gonna be a homo’ or something like that and told my mom she babied me too much and stuff, I guess blaming her. I got tired of listening to them argue so I went back to my room and slammed the door, jumped on my bed and just started cryin’. Dad came running up the stairs and yelled at me for listening to them, then said that he was taking me to a doctor, cause there was something wrong with me and he was gonna have it fixed. I just ignored him and he got mad and left the room.”

Josh looked at me with tears still flowing but seemed much more calm, probably because I showed no signs of being upset. I just nodded my head reassuringly and he looked back at the ground and continued…

“The next morning, I got up and got dressed for school like I always did. I went down stairs and Dad was sitting at the table reading his paper before work. He was quiet and waited ’til I got my cereal and sat down before he said anything. He said ‘After school today your mother and I are taking you to the doctor’s office so we can find out what’s wrong with you’ like he was talking about taking the car to a mechanic to get it fixed. I tried to tell him I was fine and that we were just playin’ around when he cut me off and said ‘We WILL be there to pick you up at the front doors, end of discussion.’ and he folded his paper and just walked out of the room. I tried saying goodbye but he just slammed the door shut on his way out.”

He took a deep breath, cleared his throat and closed his eyes. Leaning back in his chair he stared back up at the night sky…

“All day at school, I thought about what Dad said, without even letting me talk. I didn’t want to go see a doctor, not for this. Mike met me in the schoolyard during lunch. He had bruises on his arms and a black eye. He told me that his dad said he was going to make him into a real man while he beat him up. I just cried, and we both said we were sorry to each other even though we didn’t think what we did was that bad. I told him what my dad was gonna do and we decided since my dad didn’t beat me up, that he would come over the house and talk to him with me. We planned to leave from the back door, so he wouldn’t take me right to the doctor’s office, and meet him at the house. I knew it would make him mad but he never hit me like Mike’s dad hits him so I knew it would be safe, so did Mike.

“School ended, and we did what we planned by sneaking out the back door. We thought we could go straight to the house and just wait for them. We got out of the school yard and across the intersection when I guess my dad saw me, cause I heard a car screech it’s tires.”

Josh started crying harder, with his face in his hands. This was tearing his heart out, and mine from just hearing him this way but, he was strong enough to continue on telling me…

“I turned when I heard the noise and saw our car skid out of its parking spot in front of the school. He was so mad and I was too scared to run. I just stood there and watched, like it was all going in slow motion as he ran right through the stop sign at the corner and…”

“It’s ok Joshie…” I said only making him cry harder. I kept rubbing his back as he cried and gasped for air. “Just let it out” I repeated as softly as I could.

“Th… There was a big truck going the other way… He drove right out in front of it… It crushed our car… My mom and dad…” He said between sobs. “It killed them both, right in front of me, it was all my fault…”

I had no idea what to say. I mean I was ready for anything I thought, but this was just overwhelming. I tried my best to soothe his tears, just to let him get it out of his system. I reached over his back and wrapped my arm around him in a half hug, kissed the back of his head and softly repeated “Just let it out Joshie. I’m here, just let it out.”

He sat upright and turned, quickly locking me in a hug and cried his heart out onto my shoulder. Tears had developed in my eyes as I continued to mutter that everything was going to be ok. I looked up and across the parking lot to see Ed and Marion standing at their doorway. Ed had his arm around his wife who looked as if she had been crying. How long have they been watching? I silently wondered but didn’t worry because Ed had a calm, almost understanding expression on his face. He did notice that I saw them because he almost smiled and nodded his head slightly to me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Mikey standing in the doorway and judging by the look on his face, he heard some of what was said. I just put my hand up to let him know that Josh needed some space, which he seemed to understand since he remained silent and even shushed Dale who I hadn’t known was right behind him.

“If I was where I was supposed to be, they would still be here…” Josh said as his crying was reduced once again to sobs and gasps. “I never saw Mike again… After the funeral… I came here with my aunt and uncle; they adopted me last year but keep trying to make me see a doctor… I don’t want to talk to a doctor… I just want my parents back.” He said through clenched teeth. The doctor he keeps bringing up must be a psychiatrist or counselor or something . I thought making a mental note to talk to Ed about it.

Once Josh’s crying let up. He finally loosened his grip and sat upright in his chair. I left my arm draped across his shoulders and looked deep into his eyes. He hurt, I saw it, I could feel it but I don’t think I can fix it. Maybe just make it a little easier by being a friend.

“Josh, It’s my turn now, ok?” I asked getting a weak nod as a reply. “I didn’t hate you before I knew what happened and that feeling hasn’t changed a bit. We have all done things against our parents’ wishes that later in life wish we hadn’t, you are no exception.” I said trying to watch for signs that he believed me. “Your father was driving the car, not you. He may have been mad, but you aren’t to blame for his mistakes. No matter how severe the mistake may have been. From where I’m sitting, you have done nothing any boy experimenting at your age wouldn’t do. I’m no exception. Your dad acted on ego because you had been caught I think, not because of what you did.”

Josh just sat in silence, periodically looking away from me while I spoke, but not once did he ignore me, that much I knew for sure.

“But what if I am a queer?” He asked sending a chill down my spine. What a “god-awful” term.

“If you are gay, and that’s the right way to say it,” I added with emphasis, “then you are gay. That doesn’t make you any less of a friend, or any less of a person.” I added bringing back some of the light in his eyes as the corner of his mouth turned up in just the slightest smile. “Joshie, just be who you are. I’m willing to bet your parents wanted you to be happy growing up. It’s up to you to make their hope still come true. I’d also bet, they are still with you every step of the way, and hurting only because you think that this is your fault. It was an accident. You had no control over it, they know that just as I do, you just need to accept it as the truth, and live your life in whatever way makes you happy. That will make them proud I’d bet.”

Josh wiped the last of the tears from his eyes, leaned in and gave me a tight hug then sat back and just stared into my eyes, as if he was trying to see what was behind them.

“My dad sent you.” He said more as a statement than a question.

“I don’t know about that, but anything’s possible I guess.”

“I think he did.” He said, tilting his head a little he added, “He used to call me Joshie, he’s the only one who ever called me Joshie.”

Well, I have a nephew named Joshua, and we call him Joshie. It just came out naturally but for this Joshua, it meant so much more.

“So maybe all this is happening for a reason then. I wouldn’t discount him knowing what kind of guy I was and helping me to become closer to you, maybe knowing I wouldn’t turn you away. If he did all that, then I’m sure he loves you very much and this is his way of showing you now.” I said as I glanced over and saw Ed and his wife go back into their room.

We both settled back into our seats and stared at the stars some more. After about a minute, I was reminded that the boys were still in the doorway when I heard Josh turn and say “How long have you guys been standing there?” Bringing Mikey and Dale out into view.

“Long enough to hear everything you said. We heard Mike yell and came running to the door. We didn’t mean to listen but, we were scared that you would be upset and not want to be our friend, so we kept quiet.” Mikey said as he looked at Dale then back at Josh. “We’re sorry; we didn’t mean to listen like that.” He added earning a smile from Josh.

“You heard everything?” Josh asked being answered by a pair of head nods. “And you still want to be my friends?”

“Why wouldn’t we?” Dale asked, looking at me then at Mikey.

“Cause I’m a qu… I mean gay.” He said correcting himself mid-sentence. “People hate gay people.” He said turning to look at me.

“Narrow minded people hate gay people. Ignorant people hate gay people. Anyone can find a reason to hate, if that’s the kind of person they are.” I said ruffling his hair. “It’s easier to hate and walk away when you don’t understand something than it is to face it and learn. We aren’t the kind of people to hate for no good reason.” I said as the boys stepped closer to Josh.

“We want to be your friends,” Mikey said putting his hand on Josh’s shoulder. “You were nice to us, even though we’re younger than you. You’re fun to be with too.” Mikey said as Dale shook his head in agreement.

“Mike?” Josh turned back toward me.

“Yeah Kiddo?”

“That question I wanted to ask when I came over and couldn’t. I, Um…” He said obviously stumbling for words.

“Anything, just go ahead and ask. I promise you I won’t get upset or mad, and you know that I mean it this time” I said with a smile.

“Well, I was sort of hoping that since we were gonna be working together tomorrow, that I could sleep over. I mean I can sleep on the floor but that way I will be up when you guys are up.” He said scrambling to justify his question.

“No way.” Mikey said, getting a stunned look from me thinking he was opposed to him sleeping over. I thought it was a good way for him to relax with us knowing we accepted him for who he was. “Dale and I want to sleep on that fold up bed thing in the storage room. We found it earlier. It’s plenty big enough for the two of us and that way you can share the big bed with Josh so he won’t be on the floor.” He said as he obviously had planned on slipping the cot idea in somewhere throughout the course of the night.

Josh looked at me wide-eyed waiting for my response. That coupled with a pair of pleading looks from the other two made me realize I didn’t have much control over the plans for the night, which gave me a chuckle.

“Well Josh, I hope you don’t snore too loudly.” I said with a smile when I realized that both boys were fully dressed and dry still. “Why don’t we go set up the bed for you two and then get you both into the shower before the dirt becomes permanent?” I said as they almost knocked the door off the hinges tearing through it with excited shouts.

“Josh, why don’t you go talk to your family and make sure a sleepover is ok with them.” I said adding “If it is, you’ll need clothes for tomorrow and something to sleep in unless you just head over in the morning and shower and change.” I said as a smile crept across his face.

“Ok,” he said bounding into me for another ‘death grip’ hug. “Mike, can I ask you something dumb?”

“Only if you want a dumb answer,” I said with a laugh.

“Would you keep calling me Joshie? I miss it when my dad used to call me that and it sounds kinda the same when you do, almost like my dad told you how he used to say it. I know it’s weird but, that’s what it feels like to me.”

“Joshie it is then,” I said while standing up. “Now go talk to your folks, I’ll get these clowns settled in before you get back.” Sending him sprinting across the parking lot to their home/office.

So much hurt in such a small child. I thought, watching the spring in his step as he ran. I’ll do my best for him. No one deserves to suffer like that. I thought as I heard bumping and banging from inside the room.

“Better make sure they don’t trash the place” I said turning back to the room to check on the boys. “It’s been one hell of a night so far.” I said to the door before going inside.

“How you guys found this thing underneath this pile is beyond me.” I said digging through a pile of old mattresses and junk to the one lonely fold up cot at the bottom. “I just hope this poor old thing is in one piece.”

“Dale spotted the corner of it, I saw a mattress on it so it must be good.” Mike said putting down a box of ‘unidentifiable parts’ I handed him from the pile.

A few minutes later, I finally pulled it from the wreckage that was once the corner of the room. “Well, let’s see if this thing is whole,” I said carrying it into the living area of our room.

“Dale cleared a spot next to the big bed; can we set it up there?” Mike asked looking like a kid on Christmas morning. “This is gonna be cool, like camping out.”

“To complete the camping affect, why don’t we set this ratty old thing up out behind the room. You can sleep under the stars and if you get cold, use it to start a bonfire.” I said chuckling while trying to get the old frame to unfold, which was no easy task.

“Goof,” Mikey said with a playful push before grabbing one side and helping to pull the two halves apart.

“The hinges on it must be rusted or something, it shouldn’t be this hard to unfold,” I said looking over the stubborn piece of aluminum.

“Mike…”

“Yeah Dale?”

“Is that thing on the side a lock or something?”

Hmmm… a latch to keep it folded? I thought as I looked in the direction he was pointing.

“Well, ya think that’s why it doesn’t want to open?” I said with a laugh as I flipped the latch and it easily opened into a complete bed. “Much easier that way, isn’t it? We need to remember that for the next time we decide to beat this poor old thing up.”

Both boys giggled knowing I was kidding and started to inspect their new bed.

“Looks good,” I said watching them sit on it and bounce up and down. “Actually, it doesn’t even look like it’s seen too much use.”

“It’s soft too,” Dale added patting the mattress all around him.

“You two happy?” I asked getting ready to spring some orders on them.

“Yup.”

“Good, I’m gonna find a couple of pillows, blankets, and sheets for this thing while you two get ready for bed.” I said thinking I was going to get the ‘Bed?!? This early?!?’ routine but, was shocked when both boys shot for the bathroom.

“Mike, we can take a shower, right?” Dale asked while Mikey dragged their bags into the bathroom.

“I think so, is it clean enough?”

“Looks clean.” He said motioning toward the bathroom for me to take a look.

After a brief inspection, including running the water and making sure it had Hot and Cold, clear running water, I said “Go for it, looks fine to me. You guys shoot for who jumps in first.” Knowing they would probably just jump in together. I remember there was no real modesty between Dale and me so they could care less.

“I guess you can go in first.” Mikey said in sort of a ‘Ho-Hum’ way.

“Look, I don’t care if you go in together, as long as you are clean and you don’t horse around in there. Love to explain to one of your moms that I had to rush you to the hospital because of a wild shower accident.” I said with a laugh turning to leave the room.

“You don’t care?” Dale asked sounding a little shocked that I brought it up.

“You guys have showered together before; remember the Boy’s Club swimming pool? I seem to remember an incident involving a full bottle of shampoo that ‘Someone’, not mentioning any names, unloaded over someone else’s head one time being helpful.” I said with a huge smile, knowing a war was about to begin. Hehehe… Adult 1 – Kids 0.

“That wasn’t my fault Mike, I didn’t know…” Dale started to yell at me but then stopped in mid-sentence.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, wondering why he halted the retaliation so quickly. “I was only kidding.”

Dale looked at me, then at Mikey before giving me a seriously lost or confused look. “Nothing, I just kinda forgot, well… It’s nothing, forget about it.”

I knelt down in front of him, now wondering if there really was something wrong. “Dale, if something is bothering you, the worst thing you can do is keep it to yourself. Tell me, I won’t get mad or upset. I promise.”

“Nothing’s wrong. Look, I know what you told me earlier. About you and Mikey. It’s just that I forgot that you were him until just now, and I just really felt weird.”

“You felt weird? Does all this bother you? I mean it really is confusing to me too but if it bothers you we need to talk about it.

Dale looked at me and began to smile answering, “That’s not what I mean. I mean that when I started yellin’ at you, I just sorta felt that it really was you, I mean him, I mean… You know?”

“I think I do. You had me scared there for a second.” I said relieved that Dale wasn’t showing signs of being creeped out on his first-night camping in the twilight zone.

I ruffled his hair and then decided to lighten the mood a little by opening the shower curtain and grabbing the shampoo bottle. I made a big production about making sure the ‘Pop-Top’ on the bottle was tight before replacing it and saying, “Ok Mikey, it’s safe.” and turning to make a quick exit.

“Oh, shut up!” Dale said pushing me the rest of the way and slamming the door shut. “Kids, No respect for their elders,” I said loud enough to be comical, before beginning my search for blankets and stuff for the boys.

I had just enough time to finish making up their bed before I heard a light tapping on the door.

“It’s open,” I shouted over and sat on the edge of the bigger bed.

I was a bit surprised to see Ed come in and alone. “Hi Mike, sorry to intrude.” He said as he closed the door behind himself. “Just wanted to talk to you.”

“No intrusion, grab a seat,” I said patting the bed.

“Oh, I won’t be long. I just wanted to come over and double check that you invited Joshua to sleep over. You know, I just wanted to know you were okay with it.” He said staring off at the wall.

‘Sure I am. Already got two monkeys in the room, what’s one more?”

“Well, I just didn’t want you to feel pressured into thinking that anyone would wrong you for not wanting him here with your kids. I know he told you all that happened to him. Seems like any time people find out about him, they either shove him away or shelter their kids from him, like he’s some sort of disease that might be contagious. I just wanted to make sure you didn’t agree to let him sleep here because you felt that you needed to, just to keep the job. I would understand, and wouldn’t hold it against you.”

“You shouldn’t understand. In your shoes, if I did feel that way I would kick my ass clear out of here. He asked if he could sleep over and the three of us are excited to have him. He met the boys and they all hit it off. We all know about his past and not one of us has a problem with it.”

Ed looked at me with surprise clearly written on his face. “Honestly, I was surprised that he told you. With all the heartache he’s been through over the past couple of years, I assumed he’d never attempt to tell another living soul.”

“He placed a lot of trust in me then, huh?” I asked, for the first time realizing just how much harder that conversation must have been for him. Even just to touch on the subject at all. “I can promise you here and now, his trust won’t be misplaced. He is more than welcome here, anytime he wants or needs to be. You could fire me tomorrow and I’d be here visiting.” Then after a brief grin added “Besides, the boys like him. Once they like you, there is no escaping them.”

We just sat at the edge of the bed and I filled Ed in on the details of some of what Josh had told me. It surprised me that he refused to talk to anyone, not even Ed and his wife in detail about the loss of his parents. Anytime he was confronted about that day, he would just shut down. Today was a sort of breakthrough for him. I can’t just turn my back on him.

After about half an hour of chatting, the bathroom door burst open and out came two much cleaner kids, clad only in their briefs. Once realizing we had company, made a complete U-turn for the bathroom and grabbed a pair of shorts each on the way.

“Well, either the water was really hot, or you actually got them to blush,” I said with a laugh getting a couple of nasty looks from the duo. “Ed, these are the boys,” I said as they both returned to the room, with a bit more on. “Dale, Mikey; this is Mr. Stewart, The owner of the motel, and Joshie’s dad.”

Ed put on another surprised look. “Don’t let him hear you call him that. I did once and he wouldn’t speak to me for a week. Something to do with his dad.”

“It was a nick name that his dad used to use. You may have come out with it too soon because I accidentally called him Joshie during our conversation. I don’t know if it was the way I said it or the fact that he somehow chose me but, he didn’t freak” I said not saying that he asked me to. I didn’t want Ed to get upset or anything.

“Well, you have seemed to make one hell of an impression on him, in less than a day. I don’t know if it was just you or the kids but, I’m going to back off and give him some space.” Ed Said while standing. “Just promise that if he becomes too much, you’ll send him home.” He said as he opened the door receiving a nod of agreement from me. “I’ll tell him it’s ok to come back over. Nice meeting you boys.”

“G’night Mr. Stewart.” The boys chimed as he closed the door. “He seems nice,” Dale said as he sat on the edge of the bed.

“Yeah, he really is. That family has been through some rough times.” I said as they both nodded their heads. “I want you two to promise me that you will be nothing but angels around Mr. And Mrs. Stewart. If word gets out what terrors you really are…” I tried to get out as Mikey pitched the pillow from the cot, nailing me right in the side of the head.

In my best Bugs Bunny impression, I looked at Mikey and said: “Of course you know, this means war.” And heaved the pillow back at him and grabbed my own to start a barrage of squealing and giggling as I pummeled him, being attacked from behind by Dale.

I’m not sure how long the war went on, but it came to a cease-fire once we heard a knock at the door.

“Hey Joshie, I coulda used you a minute ago,” I said as Mikey clapped me one last time with his pillow before falling backward on the bed and curling up with it.

“I thought my dad was gonna say no when I asked if I could sleep over cause he just said ‘Let me talk to Mike first’. He really likes you guys though, said so when he got back.” He said with a smile as he plopped a duffel bag on the floor in the corner.

“Wow, you guys gave a good impression,” I said with an evil grin. “Completely fooled him.”

I got a pair of matching “Yeah Right” looks from the boys, but not much more.

“Joshie, do you need to jump in the shower before I do?” I asked knowing a hot shower after today was gonna be more than a quickie.

“Nope, my mom made me take a shower and brush my teeth while Dad was here.”

“Cool, you guys are on your own, maybe there’s something on TV.” I said then adding, “Remember, we need to be up early to get started.”

“Yup, we’re ready for bed already, just was waiting for Joshie to come back,” Dale said with a huge smile, as Josh’s head seemed to rise a little with what I think may have been some pride.

“Well don’t torture him too much, remember he is the oldest and has permission to use force if needed,” I said with a chuckle and retired to the bathroom for a much-needed relaxation break.

Almost an hour passed before I finished and opened the bathroom door releasing the steam cloud that had built up. I froze in my tracks, wishing I had a camera. Dale and Mikey were curled up in a ball on the fold up cot, sound asleep. The television was the only light in the room so I left the bathroom light on and the door cracked open, so it wouldn’t shine in the boy’s eyes.

“They didn’t last too long.” Came a voice from the bigger bed.

“Guess not. It has been a real long day for those two. I’m surprised they didn’t fizzle earlier.” I said as I reached the other side of the bed and pulled back the covers to climb in. “What ya watchin?”

“Johnny Carson, Rich Little was on it,” He said with a grin. “He’s so funny.”

“Yup, that’s what you get when you mix talent with insanity,” I said with a chuckle as I stretched out and got comfortable.

“Mike?”

“Yeah Buddy?”

“Are you sure you don’t mind me sleeping here?”

“Joshie, I wouldn’t have said yes if I did,” I said thinking he was afraid of being an imposition.

“No, I mean in the bed, you know… Cause of what I said earlier.” He said as I reached over and turned the bedside light on so I could see him clearly.

“You know, I don’t think we really know each other all too well…” I said rolling on to my side to face him. “…since we just met today.” I finished once getting comfortable.

“It doesn’t bother you?” He asked, in a serious tone that told me jokes had no place in this conversation.

“You know, I wasn’t all that much older than you when I started questioning myself. I had a real rough time growing up, I had to be the man of the house and take care of my younger brother and sister when I was just about Mikey’s age. There were more important things than ‘how I felt’ to be dealt with.”

Josh curled up with his pillow facing me. He had that ‘Lost Puppy’ look in his eyes so I knew he was looking to me for answers. I just had to find the right ones.

“You’re Gay too?” He asked.

“That’s what I’m getting at. I never looked for the answer. I just blew it off. I had girlfriends and stuff but also had friends who I played around with. Guys my own age who wanted to experiment around as they learned about themselves. To me, it didn’t mean anything until I got older. But I never really answered that question for myself. It is possible that you could grow up and find this is just a phase of your life that you just needed to get through. You could also grow up and realize that you really are gay. To me, it makes no difference, you are a 12-year-old boy who grabbed my heart and asked to keep a piece of it, which I gave knowing who you are, what you’ve been through and what you are going through now. This is a tough time in your life. No decisions are final yet at your age. Every deep hole you fall into and climb out of now will probably look like little potholes once you get older and look back at them.” I said as a thoughtful smile crept across his face, almost as relief was setting in and finally allowing him to relax a bit.

“So you’re saying I’m too young to know?”

“Nope, I’m saying you’re too young to worry yourself about finding answers to these questions. If I haven’t found the answer yet at age 33, what makes you think you’re going to?” I replied, then adding, “Spend too much time looking for answers and you just could be missing out on parts of your life. Parts that will create memories that just may have some of the answers you are looking for.”

“But I know I’m gay, I mean I liked what Mike and I were doing. I think I loved him but couldn’t tell him.” He said, his voice beginning to crack, and one lonely tear began to roll over his cheek.

“Joshie, Roll over and look at those two over there,” I said wiping the tear away getting a confused look from him but he did just as I asked.

“They’re cute together like that.” He said looking at the two bodies beneath the blanket that appeared to be just one lump with two heads.

“It would be easy for them to think they were gay because they sleep together so closely, or that they like to shower together and can’t stand to be apart from each other. They share a closeness that some lovers rarely ever achieve. But I’d be willing to bet, neither of them worries about what that closeness means to anyone else but them. They are comfortable, secure and most importantly they love each other enough to not be afraid to show it without the fear of what other people think. They aren’t gay, they aren’t straight. They are just Mikey and Dale. Anyone who would look at it any other way is a blind fool or insecure about himself. And believe me, there are plenty of those people on a crusade to define what ‘Normal’ is for the rest of the world. Their idea of normal is to show no love to anyone of the same sex. Contact is forbidden because it would make you less of a man in their eyes, even something as stupid as holding a handshake a little too long could make someone uncomfortable. Unfortunately, too many people have decided that those narrow beliefs are what the world should consider ‘Normal’, simply because the world has way too many insecure people trying to fit into that category. While worrying about what the rest of the world thinks of them, they will miss out on relationships like those two have, like the one you and your Mike had and like I had when I was younger. I just never cared to fit anyone’s definition of normal. What and who I am is normal to me, and to the people I care most about, that’s just fine.”

Josh continued to watch the two boys sleeping as contently as two twin babies in a crib. I could feel his erratic breathing, tipping me off that he was crying, but trying to be as quiet as possible other than an occasional sniffle.

I put my arm around him and he pushed his back deeper into my chest allowing me to give him a hug. He grabbed my hand and pulled it into his chest and continued to silently cry.

“You are normal to anyone who isn’t blind enough to see it. Just like everyone in this room. Those two over there want you here, and so do I.” I added then kissing the top of his head and curling up with him, knowing I wasn’t about to get my arm back anytime soon. “Try to get some sleep. Just remember, we all want you to be our friend just the way you are right now, and no other way will be good enough. Okay?”

He just nodded his head and squeezed my hand tighter as he finally relaxed his head into my other arm, using it as his pillow, and slowly drifted off to sleep, tension draining from his body as he did.

I won’t let this kid down. I thought as I closed my own eyes. No one should ever hurt like this, ever. Not for this reason, not for any reason. I continued to roll through my mind before I finally let my thoughts fade and relaxed to try to let sleep take over.

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

Morning came all too soon for me. I had that damned dream again. This one was as if there was absolutely nothing or no one around me this time, just a long quiet darkness. I actually wouldn’t mind dreaming about my family, at least in some ways I would be able to see them. My brain can be so cruel to me sometimes.

As I opened my eyes, all I could see was the back of Joshie’s head who hadn’t moved the entire night by the looks of it. In the background, I could hear cartoons coming from the TV and the occasional snicker from Mikey or Dale meaning they were awake.

I lifted my head just a little to see them both lying on their stomachs in their briefs, feet in the air and chins resting on their folded arms. I really wish I had a camera; those two are a constant reminder of what a friendship should be. I thought to myself as Mikey looked over and spotted me.

“You’re up?” He whispered flashing a toothy smile at me.

“Yeah, you two been up long?” I asked trying to be careful not to startle Josh.

“Nah, we woke up maybe a half hour ago, and since the TV was already on, just started watchin’.” He said as Dale sat upright and began stretching the sleep from his frame, reminding me that I really should do the same because the pillow Joshie is sleeping on, used to have feeling.

“Mikey, you and Dale wanna talk to Joshie. I think it would make him feel good if you two woke him up. He had a real bad night and could use all the friends he can get right now.” I said knowing they would know that I meant to be nice cause he needed it.

“Ok.” They replied as they crept up to the side of the bed, and took turns whispering his name.

“Josh, it’s time to get up,” Dale whispered one last time as the body that seemed to be stuck to mine began to stretch and move.

“Hmmm… I don’t wanna.” He said as he rolled over and buried his face in my chest.

Mikey smiled at me while we watched Joshie attempt to become part of me to avoid having to wake up.

“Joshie Buddy, You have to let go. I need to use the bathroom.” I said giving him a squeeze and hearing a muffled “Ok.” That seemed to come from somewhere near my stomach.

He released his death grip and I was able to get out of bed and rush to the bathroom before the trip wasn’t needed anymore. As I was closing the door, I saw the boys climb into the bed, one on either side of the lump in the blankets.

While in the bathroom, I could occasionally hear giggling then finally Josh say “I’m up, I’m up… Stop it!” through fits of laughter. That’s what I like to hear.

Opening the door Josh was climbing out of the bed, half asleep but with a grin on his face as he padded his way past me for his turn to the bathroom. “They don’t fight fair.” He said as the other two broke out in giggles.

“They never do,” I said as I turned my gaze toward the two still sitting in the bed. “What did you two do?” I asked while stifling a snicker.

“He tried to get us to leave him alone by tickling Mikey, so I tickled him and when he jumped Mikey got him too. We won.” He said with a proud look on his face.

“They Cheated,” Joshie shouted through the closed door. Before coming back out, with a smile on his face that showed he wasn’t upset. “I hope I wake up first next time.” He added as he walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. “You won’t know what hit you.” He said playfully as Mike and Dale looked at each other then back at Josh with an evil grin on their faces.

Dale nodded his head and they both pounced him from behind, pulling him back onto the bed and got him again.

“Okay, okay… I give up!” He screeched as Mikey started tickling his sides and Dale grabbed his feet and did the same.

“See what I mean? They cheat!” he said to me between gasps for air.

“Yup. That’s what makes them a dangerous pair.” I replied with a huge smile as I sat down on the cot and wiped the sleep from my eyes. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m starving, and need a coffee.”

“Yeah, coffee sounds good” Joshie replied sitting upright after the attack, getting two scowls from the tickle patrol.

“You drink coffee?” Dale asked with his nose all scrunched up.

“Yeah, I used to have one in the morning with my dad while he read his paper. He used to tease me cause I put 6 sugars and milk in it.”

“It all starts there gentlemen,” I said pulling out some clothes to change into. “How about we go out for breakfast, I haven’t done any real food shopping yet,” I said going into the bathroom.

“Can we go to Denny’s again? I wanna try that Grand Slam thing.” Mikey said with an evil grin.

“Ok, Josh. Why don’t you call and check with your parents and make sure it’s ok with them if you come with us.” I said before closing the door.

Shaved and dressed about 15 minutes later I emerged from the bathroom feeling much more awake. The boys were dressed and waiting with toothbrushes in hand on the bed, but one seemed to be missing.

“Where’s Joshie?” I asked as they stood to take their turn in the bathroom.

“His dad wanted him to go home before we left. I guess he wanted to talk to him.” Mikey said while being pushed into the bathroom by Dale, who was obviously trying to hurry things along.

“Dale? Are you hungry?” I asked holding back a laugh as he just looked back and responded with a huge smile and nod, pushing Mikey all the way to the sink. “Ok then, I’ll meet you guys out at the truck.”

A few minutes later, Mikey and Dale emerged from the room and scampered over to the truck where I was sitting on the curb, trying to figure out how the four of us were all going to fit.

“Wassamatta?” Dale asked putting his hand on my shoulder as he stepped off the curb.

“Three people are tight in there. I think someone is going to have to sit in a lap for us all to fit.”

“That’s easy.” He replied in a ‘Matter-of-Fact’ manner. “Joshie in the middle and Mikey can sit in my lap.” He said with a smile.

“You guys don’t mind being cramped up?” I asked getting two nods in reply. “Well then, we just need one more to complete the set, and then we can go.”

The boys sat on the curb next to me just waiting for the door across the parking lot to open. When it finally did, Josh followed by Ed came over to our group.

“Morning Ed,” I said standing up and brushing off my pants.

“Hey Joshie, Morning Mr. Stewart.” The boys chimed and all ran over to the side of the truck, probably to discuss the seating arrangements.

“You can handle that much energy in such a confined area?” He asked with a smile. “You either love the hell out of those kids, or you love punishment.” He continued with a chuckle.

“Eh, they’re putting up with me. Fortunately, I know how to pace myself and still have energy left when they finally wear down.”

“Uh-huh…” He responded knowing I was full of it. “Heard you’re taking the boys out for breakfast.”

“Yeah, can’t work ’em to death without feeding ’em first,” I said with a smile.

“Well, I can’t have you feeding the crew out of your own pocket. You know, since today is a work day and they are all planning on working hard.” He said as he pulled out his wallet.

“Ed. Ed no. I promised them breakfast, put your money away I have this.” I said attempting to turn for the truck and being stopped by a hand grabbing my arm.

“I do believe I am the boss, and it is a work day. Take this money and feed your crew, stop at the store and get some sodas for later on, and don’t argue with me.” He said stuffing some bills in my hand and ushering me to the truck, not allowing me to say anything.

“I have no choice?” I asked getting a grin from him.

“You have less than that, now feed your crew.” He said with a smile as he closed my door for me.

‘Yes sir.” I answered getting a giggle from the trio sitting next to me.

I started the truck up as Ed walked up closer to the window. “Josh, be real good for Mike ok?” He said getting a smile and a nod from him.

“Let’s go fill those empty pits you guys call stomachs,” I said as I put the truck in reverse, let out the clutch and gave it some gas. We rolled about a foot when the engine bogged out and stalled. “Ok, cranky this morning I guess,” I said to the little pick-up glancing over to Ed giving him a meek shoulder shrug. “Let’s try that again, shall we.” I said turning the key, starting the truck back up with no problems.

“Sounds ok,” Mikey said looking intently at the dashboard.

Before letting off the brake, I tried to give it some gas and the second I hit the accelerator, the engine once again died.

“Not again, not now,” I said while setting the parking brake and getting out.

“Everything OK Mike?” Ed asked.

“No, not really. This has happened before. A while back I got a bad tank of gas, it ruined the lining of the gas tank and has been pushing all kinds of crap into the fuel filter. I just haven’t had the money to replace the tank so, I guess it’s my own fault. It was bound to happen again.” I said raising the hood and opening the air filter cover. “Ed, could you start the engine again, and when I tell you to, just feather the gas please. I need to find out if it’s the same thing again.”

“Sure, no problem.” He answered climbing in.

He did as I asked and started the engine, which fired up with no problems. Just as I suspected, as soon as he gave some gas, the fuel became choked out and stalled the engine once again.

“May as well climb back out boys, It’s not going anywhere without the help of a tow truck now.” I said as I re-assembled the air breather and closed the hood, looking up to three sets of disappointed faces. “Sorry guys, we’re gonna have to come up with another plan.” I said as I rested my elbows on the hood.

“Dad, what about my mom’s car?” Joshie said walking around as Ed was climbing back out.

“You don’t mind?” He asked the boy with a concerned look on his face.

“What’s up guys?” I asked wondering what I was missing.

“No, I don’t mind. It’s just sitting there and it would be nice to ride in it again.” Joshie said putting his arm around Ed’s waist.

“Ok, as long as you’re sure,” Ed said once again patting Josh on the head and then directing his attention to me while reaching into his pocket, and pulling out his key ring, removing a couple of keys. “I keep doing this and soon it will be light enough to keep in my pocket, and not cause a limp.” He said handing Josh the keys. “You want to take him over to go get it?” He said getting a huge smile from Joshie who turned and ran for me grabbing my arm and lead me out and around the back of the building.

“What are you two up to?” I asked once we were out back before noticing the covered car behind the building.

“Well, after My mom and dad died, Uncle Ed had to take care of getting me moved in here. My dad’s car was ruined in the accident but my mom’s car was parked at the house. No one wanted it, so he decided to bring it here, in case we ever needed it, and when I get my license, he said it’s mine if I want it.” He said as he grabbed the cover and began pulling it off. “He takes it out every once in a while to make sure it’s ok, and to put gas in it.” Josh said as I grabbed the other side of the cover and pulled it the rest of the way off.

“Red Mercury Zephyr,” I said looking at it sort of in a daydream. “It looks exactly like the one my grandfather owned,” I added looking at it and noticing just how well Ed was caring for it.

“Mom just bought this… She only drove it a couple of times before the accident.” He said beginning to tear up as he put the key in and unlocked the driver’s side door. “I haven’t been in it since she took me for my first ride in it when she bought it.” He said staring at the opened door. “That was the last time she ever drove it.”

“You sure you’re ok with riding in it again? I mean, if it bothers you we can walk somewhere to get breakfast.” I said walking up to him and putting my hand on the back of his neck.

Joshie turned to me with tears in his eyes but a smile on his face. “Yeah, I want to go for a ride in it again…” He said dropping the keys into my hand. “…and I want you driving when I do.” He said as I pulled him into a hug.

“Do you know how to start a car?” I asked the top of his head now beginning to tear up myself.

“Yeah, I used to start my dad’s car sometimes when he was going to drive me to school.” He said looking up at me.

“Would you like to start it?” I asked holding the keys out as I released him from the hug.

“Me?” He asked, wiping the tears from his eyes in almost a surprised tone of voice.

“Yeah, you. I’ll drive, but I want you to start it.” I said as I grabbed his hand and dropped the keys back into his.

“Ok.” He replied as he seemed lost in thought. He stared at the key ring for a good few seconds before sitting down in the driver’s seat. “It still smells new in here.” He said as he put the key in and brought the sleeping car to life.

Joshie sat there listening to the purr of the engine for a few seconds before he slid over to the passenger seat and I sat in the driver’s seat and closed the door. I looked around the interior and was amazed at both how new it all looked and the fact that it was identical in every way to the one my grandfather owned when I was a kid.

Once the car warmed up a little, I shifted it into drive and we rolled back out and around the building back to the parking lot, and parked next to the truck. As we got out, I looked over at Mikey, who obviously was thinking the same thing I had when I first saw it.

“Whose car is that?” Dale asked when we were both out of the car.

Joshie looked over at Ed, who had a slight smile on his face as he nodded to his adopted son. “Mine.” He said, causing Ed to smile a bit more.

“Mike, It’s just like Grampie’s car” Mikey said as he walked around it inspecting it from bumper to bumper. “But it looks newer.”

“It’s been sitting back there for a couple of years.” Ed said walking over to Josh and putting his arm around his shoulders. “You going to be ok with Mike driving it for a while?” He asked as Josh smiled and nodded his head. “Ok then, Mike the registration is in the glove compartment. It’s legal. I kept it up just in case we ever needed to use it. It has a full tank of gas and all the fluids were changed a couple of months ago, she should give you no troubles.” He added as he knelt down in front of Joshie and whispered something into his ear.

Josh seemed to think something over before he left his father’s side and came up to me. “Mike, you can drive it until you get the truck fixed. Dad said you can put the truck out back until you have the money saved up.” He said with a smile. “Even after you get it fixed, if you want we can use this car cause there’s more room when we all go somewhere.”

“Are you guys sure about this?” I asked not knowing whom I should be looking to for approval at this point.

“We’re sure.” Ed answered while Joshie wrapped his arm around my waist and squeezed. “Besides, if you’re going to tote this clan around it will be much more comfortable than the little truck.” He said patting Mikey on the head. “Now get out of here, daylight’s wasting.” He said with a smile before turning and walking back to his home.

Mikey and Dale just looked at each other before climbing into the back seat without a word. I just looked down at Joshie literally seeing the memories flooding back into him but his eyes remained dry this time and his smile never left him.

“Come on buddy.” I said bringing him back to the here and now. “There’s a pot of coffee with our names written all over it.”

“Mmmm… sounds good.” He said as he hopped into the passenger’s side and I climbed behind the wheel.

I took one last look at Josh as he put his seat belt on and heard the two following his lead in the back seat before heading to the end of the driveway. While waiting for a clearing in the traffic, I felt a hand grab on to mine. Josh had one single tear running down his cheek but still his smile remained.

“She really liked this car.” He said squeezing my hand.

“Then I’ll bet she’s watching over us wherever we go in it.” I replied squeezing his hand back earning another smile as I pulled us out into traffic.

“I know she is.” He said as he laid his head back against the seat and closing his eyes. “It feels like she’s in the car with us.”

The sun was shining brightly through the clouds this morning I noticed. Rays of sun in obvious beams cast shadows on the open road but somehow we never passed through the shadows. It was as if the clouds and sunbeams were following us.

“I know she is too,” I said staring down the road feeling as if we were being looked after somehow. His mother was with him, and I silently prayed for her help with her son while navigating her car. “Keep him safe.” I whispered as we pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant a few minutes later before the boys, who had been silent came back to life and rushed for the doors.

I was the last out of the car and hung back watching them playfully pushing at each other and playing around in their excitement. “I’ll do my best to keep him happy.” I finished my prayer to his mom, watching as the rays of sun became less visible, as if an approval had just been voiced and I had been granted permission to watch out for her only son. I smiled to myself and hoped that I was right, and decided it was now time to save the waitresses from the excited group of hungry boys before they started chewing on furniture.

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

To Be Continued…


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