Holiday Renewal

by Addym Kehris

kehris@outlook.com

Thanksgiving

The house was a bit over-large for a single man into late middle age, but this location in the Vermont countryside was idyllic; a picture postcard that I could live in year round. Our little slice of heaven sat on a rise amidst the rolling hills of New England; high enough to be able to look down onto the forests and meadows, yet low enough to still be dwarfed by the surrounding undulations of nature’s land bound, stationary waves.

The snow was a bit heavier this year. What made it particularly beautiful is that mother nature seemed to be going out of her way to ensure it always looked its absolute best, by providing a light snowfall every three or four days; just enough to freshen the look.

I was sitting in my usual spot in the late morning. My second story library had a magnificent view of the countryside. I’d bought this place two years earlier primarily because of this view.

I say our, because it’s just me and my Shetland Sheepdog, Rogene Autumn Haze; a pedigreed Sheltie that had earned herself a vast array of awards. I called her Hazy. Can you imagine having to wade through her pedigree every time I called her? To make it clear, I am not the sort of man to go traveling from show to show, just to show off my best friend to strangers. Hazy has earned the awards because the breeder I’d bought her from did all the work. I didn’t even attend most of the shows.

Still, I think my tiny collie enjoyed the attention she garnered from all the appearances, but there was never any doubt in my mind that she was more than pleased to be home and with me. The things I loved most about my bundle of fur were her energy and her affection. I always got a good workout during our daily ‘walks’. These usually turned into a game of cat and mouse with the two of us chasing one another around the large estate and even into the surrounding countryside. Neither of us ever came home in anything less than a mild state of exhaustion. Our ‘walk’ was usually followed by a shared nap on the huge pillows I had perpetually piled in front of the fireplace, whether it was lit or not. That was ‘our place’. I knew this because Hazy was fanatical about chasing anyone else off the pillows.

In the evenings when I’d finally settle down for a glass of wine and a bit of a read, she’d always jump up onto the love seat and worm her way onto my lap. It was such an ingrained habit for the two of us that I seldom even noticed. In fact, the only times I knew I’d been neglecting my responsibilities as the affectionate master is when she’d wait for me to notice that the typical weight was missing from my lap. On those occasions I’d close my book and coax her into my lap and then spend the next hour or so petting and cooing to my partner.

As I say, our walks were a favorite pastime. But I have to admit that Hazy was all girl. I say this because she made it perfectly clear that my primary role as her master was to ensure she always looked like the quintessential picture of sheltie perfection. The one word in my vast vocabulary that would get her immediate and undivided attention was the word ‘brush’.

It wouldn’t matter what she might have been doing. If I noticed that her coat was looking the least bit unruly, I’d simply have to say the word and she’d stop whatever she’d been doing and run to the basket I kept by our pillows and she’d nose through the contents and return with the brush in her mouth, her tail wagging in anticipation.

Grooming my small partner was a very relaxing form of entertainment. I was always able to blank my mind and forget my limited concerns. I swear that there were times when she’d enjoy the attention so much that she’d fall asleep in my lap. But generally, she’d stand ever so patiently, her eyes half closed, and she’d actually coo.

The only thing missing from making this perfection was Jason. We’d been partners for twenty-five years and his sudden death was still something I struggled to accept. The cancer had overwhelmed his systems so rapidly that there was nothing modern science could do but try to ease his departure.

I’d really tried to continue life in our condo in New York City but had been unable to live with all the memories. Everywhere I turned was a reminder of all I was missing and so I’d moved as far from all the memories as I could bring myself. I adored the east coast so never even considered anything more drastic. The stark contrast between the country living and the city was precisely the anodyne I’d needed. It was far from the concrete jungle and bustle of all that humanity, constantly reminding me of my loss.

It was fortunate that I am an author and have done very well for myself over the years. My science fiction and fantasy novels had all done well. But it was the few that I’d sold to Hollywood that allowed me the freedom I now enjoyed. The three blockbusters that had resulted were still bringing in respectable royalty checks each quarter. I was even in the middle of negotiations to have yet another of my works turned into a movie. Only this time would be different, because it was being planned as a CG production.

The most astounding benefit of all that Hollywood attention was that I was able to extend invitations to many of the celebrities that I’d come to know. The names that had been involved in bringing my stories to the silver screen were impressive. And no, I’m not going to name drop here. They already have to deal with more than enough of the glitz and glamour. They accept my invitations precisely because they know that they’ll be able to escape the paparazzi and the constant intrusions to their lives.

But there were times, like today, when all the quiet and serenity became a bit much. It always seemed to settle in about this time of year…the holidays. Thanksgiving was less than a week away and I had forgone my habit of yet another spate of begging old friends to give up their preferred city entertainments. In fact, I hadn’t broached the subject with any of them this year, which I’m sure pleased them all. But I was not looking forward to a solitary holiday.

So, I was sitting at my window, letting the melancholy set in. Even the beauty of nature wasn’t enough to ease the ache that was settling in.

The air was cold and crisp. I’d discovered that earlier when I’d let Hazy out for her morning business. The other thing it was, this Saturday morning, was beautifully bright, which always seemed to be the way in these cold regions. The colder and crisper the air, the clearer the sky and thus, the brighter the sun. That, of course, only served to heighten the effect of the newest snowfall as all that white did much more than simply lay there; but seemed to sparkle in silver and white. That effect was enhanced by the snow that was collected on the green boughs of the evergreens, and the stark, bare limbs of the black and white trunks of the birch trees.

It was a shame that all this natural wonder could not raise me from my doldrums. But the sound of snow machines heading in my general direction was. That was an all too familiar sound. It meant that the Three Musketeers were on their way. It was Saturday, after all, and it was time to clear the accumulated snow from the porch and walks.

They were a rambunctious bunch. All three of the boys were twelve. They’d approached me tentatively just as the summer school vacation was about to begin and had asked if they could care for the lawn and hedges. They were, all three, eager to have some money of their own for the summer.

All three of them had worked so diligently during the summer, that my yard had been the envy of many. So, when the school year had drawn near, I’d had a talk with their parents and we’d agreed to some winter chores for the boys on Saturdays. This had thrilled the boys. And truth be told, it had thrilled me just as much. It would certainly save my aging back and give me some much needed time away from my solitude.

Dark haired William was the quintessential farm boy. Well muscled for a boy his age and ‘sturdy’. There was nothing the least bit boyish about his physique. This boy worked hard on the family dairy farm. It was clear, however, that he was all boy when he wasn’t having to discharge his duties at home.

Blond Eric was a typical skinny kid of small stature. There was none of the workaday development in his body that William had. He was thin as a rail, with no definition to his body whatsoever. What he lacked in bodily development, however, he more than made up for with his mind. This was one very intelligent boy. There was nothing of the nerd in him, but he was an absolutely dedicated student. He’d happily have been schooled year round if he had his way. Summers were always hard for him, as he sat on the sidelines and watched his friends playing baseball and soccer. And then, of course, there was football and basketball when the school year began. He just was not the athletic type, despite his energy. But he was well liked by his peers.

The final member of the three musketeers was Archie. Shocking red hair was always the first thing anyone noticed about him. Then it would register that the boy was nearly man height. That, in a boy of twelve, always brought people up short. But it was entirely reasonable considering that his father and uncles all topped out at nearly seven feet. Archie was still the runt in the family; a standing joke. He was a happy child that fit in somewhere between the workaholic of William and the dedicated academic of Eric. His body was almost alarmingly skinny. But that was completely natural, according to his pediatrician, for a boy whose body was determined to achieve its final height before it began to concentrate on filling itself out. He was a perfectly healthy boy.

What was most surprising about the three of them is that they were a complete team. There never seemed to be any shuffling for dominance between them. When there was a decision to be made, they would discuss it and formulate a satisfactory compromise they could all live with. In the six months that I’d known the boys and their families, I’d never seen them in anything more than a minor disagreement. It was a refreshing situation.

You see, I’d been a middle school teacher for five years after graduating from college. I’d witnessed all the little dominance games that kids could play with one another. I was so sensitive to the consequences that I’d had to leave teaching. I’d had more than my share of similar abuse growing up and I found myself in a constant state of anxiety over what I was witnessing with some of my students. Since there was nothing I could do to stop what I was seeing, under the current restrictions of the education system, I chose to leave.

Some who knew my story have accused me of taking the coward’s way out, but I saw it as escaping a situation that could have gotten me into serious trouble because there was no way I’d have been able to stay clear of the land mines of interference. Hell, it was a sticky situation all those years ago, and it had only gotten worse as teachers and administrators were handcuffed further by the ‘experts’.

Well, the career change had been a good one for me, because it had forced me to pursue my ambition of becoming an author. My first book saw modest success; enough to make me believe I could actually make a living. My second book had gone straight to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list. It was all I needed to set aside any regret about my move.

It was at a book signing in New Jersey for my third book where I’d met Jason. He’d stepped up to the table just like any of a hundred other fans. But when I’d looked up into his piercing green eyes, it’d been like an electric shock going through my body. And then he’d smiled at me and I melted on the spot. I signed his book and did the unthinkable…I included my phone number.

Fortunately, my publisher never learned of that lapse in good judgment. Obviously, it’d turned out to be the best decision I’d ever made in my life…better even than my decision to leave teaching. We’d fallen madly, deeply in love during that first date, which had happened the very night of the book signing.

The roaring of snowmobiles grew rapidly and I smiled. The boys could always be relied on to brighten my day, no matter how low my spirits were. So I abandoned my post at the window and headed downstairs. I got there to find, as usual, Hazy jumping up and down in the entry hall, barking her excitement. The boys were, after all, great favorites with her, because they could be counted on to entertain her for hours as they went about their work.

I had no fear as I opened the door for her, even though the boys hadn’t quite arrived yet. They all knew exactly what to expect upon their arrival and were very careful as she ran around their arriving vehicles, barking and jumping in her excitement. The minute the boys stopped and shut off their snowmobiles, they jumped off and the next fifteen minutes was spent in entertaining my little bundle of love.

That was more than enough time for me to go back inside and pull on a down jacket and then return to the porch and sit, watching the antics. Damn, I remember having that much energy once upon a time. I do my best to entertain my furry friend, but it’s clear when the boys stop by that she is totally in her element. The boys are nearly as quick as she is and their play together makes me tired just watching it. Tired, that is, once I stop laughing at it all.

It’s also clear that the boys adore Hazy. Their family dogs are all great, hulking brutes and the boys stand no chance with them. With Hazy, the competitive ground is much more even. Besides, when one of the boys falls and she jumps on them they aren’t crushed under the weight.

Yes, Saturdays were always a joy for the two of us. She got energetic playmates and I got the tremendous satisfaction of watching three very happy boys.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking…I’m just interested in their bodies. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. I’m not the least bit inclined toward sexual antics with boys. Oh, don’t get me wrong. If any of them were to stand naked before me, I would certainly take in a complete view. The male body is a joyous thing to behold in all its facets and ages. But the idea of being intimate with a child holds no appeal to me. I much prefer my partners to be able to carry on an adult conversation, with adult interests.

No sir, my interest is much more in the realm of older mentor to insatiably curious boys. And these three were definitely all of that. Their questions as we came to know each other ran the gamut of topics. And yes, there had even been a few questions about sex and their own bodies.

It appeared that Archie, despite his rail thin physique, was developing a bit earlier than his compatriots. The fact that the questions had initially come from the other two lads and had been directed at Archie’s development made it quite clear that they were going through all the typical exploration that close friends were capable of. The fact that I was neither shocked nor inclined to lecture them about the evils of their curiosity in each other, quite stunned them.

I always smile when I remember that day in late July. The boys had finished their work for the day and were roughhousing in the front yard. Their antics had included quite a bit of crotch and ass grabbing between them. Of course, they hadn’t realized that I’d come out onto the porch during the sporting about. I remember laughing to myself as I set the tray of lemonade and cookies on the porch table. It took me right back to my own friends when we were that age and I remember thinking, ‘damn, was I really ever that age?’

I’d called out to the boys. “Snacks have arrived!”

That had brought the expected stampede of shirtless boys to the porch. As always they chimed in as one. “Thank you, Mister Adam.”

“You’re welcome, boys.” I gave them a few minutes to down a couple of cookies each and refresh their parched throats. “So, boys, I hope you’re a bit more circumspect when you’re around your families.”

Billy had looked perplexed. “What’s that mean…circum…?”

“Circumspect,” Eric finished for him. There was a definite look of fear in his eyes.

“What’s that mean?” asked Billy.

I’d smiled slightly and nodded to Eric to continue. It was obvious he knew what I was referring to.

It took him a moment or two to gather his courage. “I…I think Mister Adam saw us grabbing each other.”

I nodded and the other two boys got the same fearful look on their faces. Billy even teared up a bit. Well, I certainly couldn’t prolong their agony.

“Relax boys. I’m not offended in the least. And before you ask, I have no intention of mentioning it to your parents…or anyone else for that matter. It’s nothing that a gazillion other boys haven’t done together. It’s been going on since the beginning of time.”

The stunned looks on their faces was priceless.

“Isn’t it gay?” asked Archie.

“Come on, guys, relax. At your age it’s called curiosity. But it’s the sort of curiosity that most people in this country would be offended to see. I just thought I’d warn you that you needed to be careful about where you did that sort of thing. Like I said, I’m not offended by it. I was your age once too, ya know.”

That got raised eyebrows and half open mouths.

“You mean you did it when you were our age?” asked Billy as he wiped away the unshed tears.

“Yes I did,” I answered and then smiled. “Sort of hard to imagine, isn’t it?”

They blushed.

I laughed. “I remember at your age trying to imagine my parents having sex at night. I distinctly remember thinking…ewww, gross.” I made the appropriate face.

That got them to laughing and they finally began to relax a bit. Well, needless to say, that started our journey toward a more open friendship. It was fun as the boys slowly started opening up with the details of their lives. It wasn’t long before they were turning the tables and asking me about my life.

I had the time of my life when I was finally able to convince the boys that I really was the author of books that had been turned into movies. Especially when they found that the movies were ones that were among their very favorites. Of course, I’d had to take them inside and pull one of the DVDs from my collection and point out the credit on the back that named the author of the book on which the movie had been based.

Well, this raised my status to that of celebrity. Of course it didn’t hurt that I allowed the boys into my writing warren to see the pictures covering the walls of the various Hollywood celebrities that I’d been seen and photographed with. What really sealed my fate, however, was when one of the male stars of the last blockbuster arrived for a week-long visit.

Fortunately, my friend was not the least bit shy about his presence. He loved the fans, especially the kids, and was actually excited about the prospect of spending a day with only three. He and I had carefully choreographed his appearance that late summer day. The boys had just finished their initial play session with Hazy and were making their way to the porch to get their assignment for the day when my friend had casually stepped out onto the porch.

“Damn, Adam, what’s all the noise?” he’d asked as he stretched and inhaled deeply.

I bet you can imagine the reaction. The boys stopped dead in their tracks. All three mouths opened in silent awe as their eyes threatened to pop from their heads.

My friend smiled down at the boys a moment and then looked over at me. “The colors are really vivid on your new statues, Adam, but couldn’t you have found ones with better expressions? Those looks are pretty silly.”

I swear you could hear all three mouths slam shut as they blushed and smiled slightly.

“Well, boys,” I’d said, “As you can see we have a guest.”

Needless to say, there was no work accomplished that day. It did take a bit to get the boys to relax, though. My confident young companions had turned suddenly very shy around the Hollywood megastar. Fortunately, my friend was young…in his early twenties…and was able to coax the boys into more natural behavior in less than half an hour.

The day began with a Q & A session about movies and movie making, naturally enough. But then it had moved into personal questions, at which time my friend turned the tables on the boys and surprised them by wanting to know about their lives.

I’d warned the man about the boys when he’d called to invite himself for the week, so he’d come prepared. When it got toward supper time, we took the boys into the formal dining room where the man had spread out some souvenirs. Each boy got a fall jacket with the logo for the last movie on the back and their names embroidered on the front.

My friend and I were touched and gratified when each of the boys had accepted their jacket gingerly and with just a touch of moisture in their eyes. The thank you from each boy had been breathless and quiet as they had shaken his hand.

He next signed and dated a poster of the movie for each boy. Then we’d taken pictures. One with the four of them together and then an individual shot for each boy with the movie star. I printed those immediately.

The last thrill for the boys was when we loaded their bicycles into the truck and drove each of them home. My friend had made the suggestion, knowing full well that there would be considerable doubt about the boys’ story of meeting him.

Well, sir, the boys became minor celebrities themselves when the school year began. They’d each worn the jacket to school and taken the group shot to prove their story.

I smile every time I think about that day.

There was one last revelation that cemented our friendship. It had happened just before the school year began as I was setting about preparing my flower beds for the rapidly approaching autumn weather. I knew just enough to be dangerous where my horticultural efforts were concerned. I knew I needed to pile fresh mulch around the perennials. So I’d gone to the nearest Lowes and purchased a dozen bags of the stuff.

When I’d explained what I needed from the boys that day, Eric had stared at the pile of bags critically.

“Uh, Mister Adam, where are the rest of the bags?”

Fortunately for these boys, I was not one of those adults that automatically dismissed a child’s skepticism or ideas simply because they were a child. These boys had long since convinced me that they truly understood how to live in this part of the country.

“That’s all I bought, Eric. I assume from your question that I’ve made an error.”

“Yes, sir. I help my Gran with her flower beds every year. I couldn’t tell you for sure without measuring, but this looks like enough to do only about a third of your beds.” He flipped over the top bag to the back and all the instructions. “See here, Mister Adam?” I stepped next to him and looked down where he was pointing. “This chart tells you how much square footage one bag will cover depending on how deep you want the mulch.”

“Well Eric, since your Gran has the finest looking gardens I’ve seen in these parts, I would be wise to enlist your expertise in ensuring the job is done right. So, how deep should I make the mulch?”

“Gran says at least six inches, but she prefers to heap it a little higher…about eight or nine inches.” He looked about the yard. “Uh, how many square feet of gardens do you have?”

“I don’t suppose ‘a lot’ would be terribly accurate?”

Eric laughed. “No sir, that’s not going to help us.”

“Well, you boys know where I store my tools. Go find a tape measure and we’ll calculate the area.”

“Ewww, math,” said Billy.

I frowned from one boy to the other. “Haven’t you learned about areas, volumes and ratios yet?”

“Yes, sir,” answered Archie. “But Billy’s not very good with math. But our teacher last year really wasn’t that good. Eric tried to help him, but he just got more confused.”

“Billy,” I said gently, “Areas, volumes, and ratios aren’t really that hard. And they really are something a boy who will one day be running the family dairy farm should know about.” As I watched the poor boy, it was obvious that he was truly frightened about something.

“Eric, why don’t you and Archie go get what you need out of the work shed.” They ran off. “Come on, Billy, you can help me round up some paper and pencils.” I put an arm over his shoulders and I could feel him shaking. “Billy, please, calm down.”

“I’m just too stupid to understand that stuff. Dad was so mad at me for almost failing math last year. He’s going to take away my snow machine if I don’t do better this year.”

Damn, the boy was nearly in tears. “Shh, Billy. Tell you what we’re going to do. I’m going to show you that you aren’t too stupid to understand this stuff. Would you give me a chance to show you?” He nodded…reluctantly, but he nodded.

We rounded up our supplies and then proceeded to measure my beds. It was immediately obvious that Billy had a good understanding of fractions. He was easily able to read the tape correctly and had minimal difficulty in adding them together. It helped that Archie and Eric were very patient and encouraging.

It took a bit over an hour of sitting with the boys, but by the time we were done, Billy was shocked.

“I did it! I got it right!” he yelled and then jumped up and hugged my neck.

Well, sir, that was unexpected. It’s the first time that any of them had hugged me. And I found that I really enjoyed it. Especially when I realized the boy was actually crying his joy.

“I did it,” he said into my shoulder.

“Yes, Billy, you did it,” I said as I hugged him back.

“You made it real easy to understand, Mister Adam,” said Archie. “Even I understand it better.”

“You’re real good,” said Eric. “You should have been a teacher.”

“I was for a while after college. But then I took up writing and that made me more money.”

“Yeah, the good ones always end up leaving because of the money,” sighed Eric.

“I have to admit, though, that I miss the moments like this, when one of my students suddenly realized they weren’t hopeless.” I then pushed Billy upright. “So, what d’ya think? Better?” He nodded. “Good. Now you boys remember…I’ll be here this next school year if you’re having troubles. You stop by with your books and we’ll see if we can’t smooth out the rough spots…Okay?”

“Yes, sir!” they cried out in unison.

Billy came by frequently as the school year began. But as the year progressed and he became more confident, his visits dwindled. Instead of coming over for every little thing, he was more able to work out the solutions. I only saw him now for the really complicated new concepts. Archie and Eric would stop by every once in a while as well. It wasn’t just the math either. They were bringing me questions from all their subjects.

Life was good. I had my writing successes and I had one of those rare opportunities to shape young minds. See what I mean about the boys? Just sitting here watching them cavorting with Hazy and remembering our travels, metaphorically speaking, and the depression lifted. Yes, I missed Jason still, but that was no reason to let myself fall into a holiday funk.

It took the boys an hour and a half for clear the walks of snow and check all the flower beds to ensure the exposed branches were not overloaded with snow. That was more than enough time for me to prepare something a bit more than the usual after work snack for the boys.

As usual, the boys arrived at the back door and there was much stomping and groaning in appreciation for the warmth. Also as usual, they entered the kitchen in their stocking feet, with flushed faces. Archie was carrying one exhausted dog. They stopped as they entered, surprise clearly on their faces at seeing the breakfast bar set with bowls instead of the usual platter of cookies.

“Get a move on, boys. Lunch will get cold.”

“Whoa!” they called out as one.

Archie headed to the den to deposit Hazy on her pillows for her nap and then joined his compatriots in the downstairs powder room to wash up. By the time they returned I’d set out the tureen of homemade tomato soup and was just lifting the first batch of grilled cheese sandwiches off the griddle.

“Mister Adam, this is great,” said Billy as the boys took places.

“You’re welcome, boys. I thought it was about time I cooked up something hot for my little buddies.”

They smiled as one as I began to ladle the soup into their bowls.

“Oh, I love Campbells Tomato Soup,” said Billy. And then he took a spoonful and got the most comically surprised look on his face. “Wow, what did you do to the soup, Mister Adam?”

“You like?”

“Yes, sir!” they cried in unison.

“Well, my friends, I hate to disappoint you, but that is not canned soup. I got it started this morning, early, and it’s been simmering on the stove all this time.”

That got stunned looks on all their faces.

“You mean you made this from scratch?” asked Archie.

“I promise you, the tomatoes were red and round when I started.”

“Wow, Mister Adam,” said Eric. “That sounds like a lot of work. Thank you so much.”

“How come the cheese is white, Mister Adam?” asked Billy with a slight frown. It was obvious that he hadn’t taken a bite yet of the sandwich half he held.

“Try a bite and see if you can figure it out. I promise it won’t kill you.”

Archie and Eric chuckled as Billy took a small bite and then almost immediately took a bigger bite. “Mmmm,” was his only response.

The other boys followed his example once they stopped laughing.

“Ooh, Swiss cheese,” exclaimed Archie.

Well it was smooth sailing from there. By the time the boys left, all I needed to do was rinse the empty soup tureen and the sandwich plate. The soup had been such a hit that their bowls were spotless as they’d all sopped up every drop with their final sandwich. It was very satisfying. You could never quite predict how young kids will react to something out of the ordinary. I even got a hug from each boy before they left for home.

As I was loading the dishwasher, I reflected on the three musketeers. Despite how close we’d become in the past six months, the boys never forgot their manners. They’d been raised well. They never forgot their please and thank you’s. I never had to reprimand them for not asking permission. But none of this was stuffy or forced. It was simply a natural part of who they were. There was a lot to be said for country living. These three were a direct contrast to the selfishness of the city kids I’d taught in New Jersey.

My good mood lasted well into the week. Until Thursday morning, that is. I woke depressed. Thanksgiving and Christmas had been our holidays, Jason and me. Every year we would pull out the stops and dive into the decorating and preparations for feasts and parties held at our condo.

Since his death, I found it hard to generate any enthusiasm for this time of year. And this year was particularly powerful in my depression. I’d received many cards from friends and that had only heightened my loneliness as they’d each mentioned their plans for the holidays.

I coasted through the day by reading and accepting the attention of Hazy, who could sense my mood and did her best to be that one spot of cheer in my day. And really, it did help immensely to have her undivided attention as I spent my day primarily with a book or attempting to write a bit on my next project.

It was just two in the afternoon and I was sitting before the fireplace reviewing what was in the kitchen in the form of leftovers when my front yard exploded with sound; the sound of numerous vehicles, all honking their horns.

“What in the devil!” I’d said aloud as Hazy and I jumped up and headed for the door.

We arrived on the front porch and were both stunned by the four vehicles completing their approach. When they came to a stop at the foot of the porch I could see the three musketeers, one in each vehicle, along with each set of parents. The first vehicle in line was an SUV and had one of Billy’s older brothers behind the wheel and no one else. There is only one thing about this event that immediately shattered my concern; everyone was smiling like loons.

Uh, okay, I’ve never seen a loon smile. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a loon. But it’s one of those overused clichés that everyone accepts without question.

The boys remained in their cars as the parents all got out and stepped up onto the porch. It seemed that the spokesman was going to be Billy’s father.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Adam,” he said.

“Uh, Happy Thanksgiving, Herb,” I stumbled. “Uh, what’s going on here?”

The man smiled, obviously amused by my shock. “Well, Adam, it seems that the boys believe you’re spending your Thanksgiving alone this year. They pointed out that there were no cars present, like there was last year.”

“Well, yes, that’s true,” I answered hesitantly.

“They also mentioned that you’d lost your best friend a few years ago and that they believed you’d be feeling a bit depressed.”

Well that one choked me up a bit. So all I could do was nod. But I had to glance in the direction of the cars at my young friends. This was awful mature reasoning for boys that were still so young.

Herb smiled again. “Well, Adam, good country etiquette tells us that it is our duty as good neighbors to invite our friends to our holiday table. You know, all those good Christian values.” He actually chuckled at that. “But we had a small problem. We couldn’t decide just which family it should be to host our neighbor.”

“Adam,” said Herb’s wife, Veronica, “It seems that our sons were worried that you’d decline any invitation because you wouldn’t want to be seen as favoring one of them over the other two. That left us with an insoluble situation.”

“It surprised us all when it was the boys themselves that came up with an answer,” said Jeremiah, Archie’s father. “They have invited themselves to Thanksgiving dinner with you.”

“With me? But I haven’t…”

“Of course you haven’t,” interrupted Marsha, Eric’s mother, “That’s where we come in.”

I was still so stunned by it all that I just could not fathom where these people were going with this.

“Adam, this means a lot to the boys,” said Herb. “And I must confess that we’re awfully proud of them for it. So proud, that the mothers and grandmothers have pooled their many talents and prepared a Thanksgiving meal that you and the boys can share.”

“But this is supposed to be a family holiday,” I objected.

“Family and friends, Adam,” said Jeremiah. “Family and friends.”

Herb shook his head. “Adam, this means so much to the boys that I witnessed my son do something I haven’t seen in quite some time. He actually shed a couple of tears while he was trying to convince us.” He then reached into his jacket and pulled out a slip of paper. “And I have to admit that it means just as much to us as the boys’ parents. The boys received their quarterly report cards this week.” He unfolded the page and turned it so that I could see the marks. “Do you see that ‘B’ next to Math, Adam? My son was a solid ‘D’ student last year in math. He gives all the praise to you for helping him understand what his teachers were too stupid to teach him. They just don’t care enough about the individual student. It’s all about their class average. So long as that number is in the acceptable range, they don’t worry themselves about the struggling students.”

“Each of the boys has improved grades,” said Marsha, “Even Eric. There can be only one reason for this. That is you.”

“So, Adam, the question needs answering,” said Herb. “How would you like to spend your afternoon enjoying a Thanksgiving supper with your Three Musketeers?”

“I…I’d like that…very much.”

Everyone but Herb did an about face and headed toward the SUV, motioning the boys to join them. When the boys got out of their cars, I saw that they were dressed in suit and tie for the affair. That got raised eyebrows from me.

Herb chuckled as he looked at what I was responding to. “It was their idea, trust me. We usually have to threaten them with dire consequences to get them to wear the darn things. You’ll have to ask them what prompted it.”

I chuckled in return. “Damn, Herb, this means the world to me.”

“I can tell. But I’ll simply repeat…we’re awful proud of the boys for this. And once the decision was made, the women went on a cooking binge.” He laughed as the rear hatch and the two back doors were opened and platters, casseroles, and pie plates began exiting the vehicle. “Hope you have plenty of room, because you’re going to have lots of leftovers, even with the appetites of those three.”

I was stunned. And then I glanced down at my casual self. “I certainly feel under dressed.”

Herb clapped me on the shoulder. “Well, go and change if you wish. I’m sure the boys can get everything headed in the right direction.”

And so I did. Hazy remained behind to properly supervise the parade. As I was getting myself properly attired, I suddenly realized that Hazy had certainly acted out of character. Normally, she’d have been all over the boys. Today, however, she’d remained quietly sitting on the porch, her tail sweeping with much enthusiasm as she watched it all happen. Sometimes I wondered just who was in charge in this household.

When I came back down, now properly attired, the parents were all waiting just inside the shut door.

“You clean up rather nicely, Adam,” chuckled Herb.

“I think my suit sees just about as much wear as you claim for your boys. I’m sort of surprised it still fits.” I then looked them all in the eye. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Adam. But please know this; it’s not just the boys that are thankful for your friendship. You’re a good neighbor, Adam, and we are thankful for your presence.” He then paused a moment and I got the feeling there was going to be a serious addition. “We want you to know something before we leave, Adam. When the boys came home this summer with the news that you were a famous writer, I admit we got curious. So we asked our resident computer guru, Marsha, here, to do a bit of research.”

I nodded…and I admit it was with a certain amount of trepidation.

“As I’m sure you know, there’s been quite a bit written about you and your success. So we know that your best friend was more than just that. He was your partner.”

Well, what was I to do? I nodded.

Herb shrugged. “Believe it or not, not everyone that embraces the country life are straightlaced, religious bigots. We’re not offended. But we are sorry for your loss. Marsha says your partnership lasted twenty-five years. That’s a long time to share your life with someone, whatever your sexual preferences are. And yes, we told the boys about what we’d learned. You know what their response was? All they said was, ‘yeah, so?’”

Herb smiled at my surprised look. “Yeah, we were sort of surprised too. But they added that it didn’t matter to them so long as you weren’t all girlie about it.” He laughed. “Their logic was inescapable. They said you were their friend. And your private life was no one’s business.”

Silence reigned for several moments.

“I don’t know quite what to say.”

“Then don’t say anything,” said Veronica. “We just wanted you to know that we were aware and that you needn’t worry about our reaction. The boys are right. You’re a good friend and a fine neighbor.”

We shook hands all around and then they left. I simply stood there on the porch and watched them depart wondering what I’d done in my life that warranted such remarkable behavior from these people.

“Uh, Mister Adam,” said Eric from behind me. “Supper’s ready.”

I smiled as I turned. There they stood, my Three Musketeers. Each of them looked mighty dapper in their suits and ties.

“You make a handsome bunch, boys.”

Eric and Billy each grabbed one of my hands while Archie led the way into the formal dining room…a room that I’d rarely used. The boys had certainly been busy while I was changing. The table was set with the formal china from the cabinet and the silver from the drawer. There was even a horn of plenty centerpiece; one that I was sure had real fruits and vegetables in it. What really impressed me, however, was the amount of food that was covering the white tablecloth the boys had selected. Herb was right; I was going to need all my available space for leftovers.

They led me to my place at the head of the table and then sat themselves down as I stood there looking at the enormous spread before me. And then I did it; I looked down into the eyes of each of these marvelous children. Well, there was no controlling my reaction. I teared up immediately. But I fought down the intense emotions so that only a single tear traced down my cheek.

I chuckled. “Leave it to a gay man to be unable to control his emotions.”

That first open declaration of my sexuality was met with smiles and nods.

“Boys, I can tell you without any hesitation or exaggeration, that this is the nicest thing anyone has done for me since Jason died. When you arrived I’d just been thinking about the contents of my leftover bins, wondering what I was going to do.”

Silence filled the room for several moments before Eric piped in.

“Go on, Billy,” he whispered.

Well, it was clear that Billy was nervous as he stood at his place. I chose to sit, so as not to tower over the poor boy. It was obvious that they had something to say and he’d been elected as their spokesman.

It took him a moment to gather his courage. “Mister Adam, you are the best adult friend any of us has ever had,” he began softly as he slowly turned his head to face me. “You’re the only adult we’ve ever met that has treated us like people and not just kids.” He then looked away and down to the far end of the table at the large portrait on that wall. “Is that a picture of your partner?”

I had to take a deep breath as I looked at the smiling face hanging there. “Yes,” I said softly. “His name was Jason.”

“Were you married?” he asked hesitantly.

I chuckled and was able to relax a bit. “Not legally, but certainly spiritually and emotionally.”

He looked back at me slowly. “You never talked about him, but we could see the look in your eyes every time you mentioned your best friend. We may only be kids, but we could see that you really missed him. Thanksgiving and Christmas is supposed to be all about family, and we just knew that you were missing your family. So we decided that we would be your family this year. Happy Thanksgiving, Mister Adam.” He then stepped over and gave me a hug…a serious, family type, lingering hug.

“Happy Thanksgiving, Billy,” I choked slightly. That was followed by the other two boys stepping up and repeating the hug.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to take up several pages here describing our meal. Wouldn’t that make for some truly exciting reading? Not! It was a meal. It wasn’t the contents of the table that made it extraordinary, despite that everything was absolutely perfect. It was the company. We spent a great deal of time moaning with delight at the numerous tastes…and by the end of the meal groaning at how much we’d all over eaten.

What is worth mentioning is that I did not spend the meal thinking about how much I was missing Jason. I didn’t sit there and make comparisons to past holidays. The explanation for that is simply that I was able to put that part of my life behind me, because these remarkable children were ensuring that we created a whole new set of memories. Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t something they thought about consciously. To them it was simply a great meal in the company of a special friend.

For me, this was the very first holiday meal I had not spent with the friends from my old life, reliving all the old memories. It also helped that I wasn’t stuck in conversations with other adults, rehashing the difficulties of our adult responsibilities. No, I was having conversations with children who were old enough to speak intelligently, but without any of the great and mighty concerns that most adults just could not leave behind. In fact, the boys seemed intent on reliving all the little moments of our friendship.

I was particularly amused when the boys started pointing out which of the dishes had been prepared by which mother or grandmother, and then began to compare the merits. But it was all in good fun and none of them took the gentle criticisms of their fellows seriously. The meal was filled with reminiscences, gentle ribbings, and a great deal of laughter.

Our coats and ties lasted for almost a full half hour before we had to shed them and begin loosening our belts. It was another hour before we all finally set our utensils down and gently pushed our plates away and gave a collective groan of satisfaction. No one even suggested we cut into any of the pies.

“So, boys, what shall we do until our bodies decide there’s enough room for dessert?”

“Do you have a TV?” asked Archie tentatively. “We could watch some football.”

“Hmm,” I smiled, “We’ll probably have to dust off the cobwebs. I can’t remember the last time I actually turned on the darn thing.” That, of course, was a gross exaggeration.

We spent a half hour clearing the table and storing the copious amount of leftovers. “Well, this will ensure I have plenty to eat between now and Christmas dinner.”

The boys really hadn’t seen all that much of the interior of my home. It was a very large house; a two storied colonial farm house of nearly five thousand square feet. Yeah, it was a bit large for a single man and his undersized collie, but I hadn’t bought it because of the size. It’d been solely about the view. So, anyway, the boys had visited my kitchen, den, living room, and office, but not much else.

I led them to the back of the house where I had set up my media room. Actually, I’d spent a considerable chunk of change before I’d even moved in and had three rooms in the back of the house converted into one.

Jason and I had never been much for the typical television watching. It wasn’t really until the food and decorating channels started coming onto the scene that we spent any amount of time in front of a TV. My home was equipped with a satellite dish and DVR so that I could record shows of interest during the week. I’d usually spend my Sundays in here watching what had accumulated in that time.

And yes, though it probably goes completely against any of the stereotypes, I enjoyed the occasional sports show. There wasn’t a one of the current sports that I was the least bit fanatical about following. I could go for several weeks without watching a NASCAR event, and I was never interested in following any particular sports team. It was just a way to enjoy an occasional bit of no brainer entertainment.

As I led the way to the back of the house, I had to smile, because this was going to turn into an event. I was very proud of this bit of remodeling. We’d never had the room in New York for this sort of thing, but it was something I’d always wanted. When we turned the final corner, I didn’t have to turn to see the reaction of the boys. I could hear their feet come to a halt on the hard wood floors. But mostly it was the gasp.

What we’d just entered was a seriously cut down version of a movie theater lobby. There were several movie posters on the walls…mostly from the movies made from my books. There was a counter, complete with popcorn machine, soda dispenser, and displays of numerous candies typically found at today’s movie houses. And, of course, I hadn’t forgotten the velvet rope barrier. You just could not have a home theater without the velvet rope and brass stands.

I turned slowly, smiling like the cat that had just been able to snatch something fresh from the local fish monger. I didn’t say a word. I simply enjoyed watching their young bug-eyed faces slowly taking it all in.

“Oh…my…gosh,” said Archie finally, as they all settled their gaze on me. It took a moment more for them to shake the stunned looks. Then they smiled. “Wow.”

I laughed outright at this point. I swept my hand around at the posters. “I decided when I moved in here that since I’d had the great good fortune to have several of my books turned into movies, I absolutely had to have somewhere appropriate to watch them.”

That was when they finally took a closer look at the posters. They were surely familiar with each one. But what they hadn’t noticed initially was that each of the posters was covered with signatures. Now they took the time to step up and look at each one.

I’d been involved in the creation of each of the movies in question. I hadn’t been one of those irrational writers that complained about the artistic license producers and directors often had to take. My contracts that allowed them the privilege of making a movie of my efforts had all been carefully constructed to ensure that the most important details of each book were not compromised. Otherwise, I was simply there to provide interpretations of what I’d been trying to do if the director got confused.

Really, all it was, was me taking advantage of the fact that I had the right to be in on the creative process, so long as I didn’t become a pain in their asses. Each movie had been a joy to be involved with.

The one thing I’d insisted upon was that I would receive one of the very first movie posters. I’d have that poster framed without a glass cover and it would be on the set every day. The poster would sit on a table near the food buffets with a sign asking everyone to take a moment and sign the author’s poster.

These posters, now protected by glass, hung there for anyone to admire. I was very proud of those things.

The boys oohed and aahed over the various signatures. I waited until they’d exhausted the possibilities in that realm.

“Well, boys, shall we go see who’s playing whom?”

After the surprise of the ‘lobby’, the boys were better prepared for what lay beyond the heavy curtain that separated the theater. Still, they were forced to stop and gape once again.

My theater was large enough to seat twenty-five people comfortably. And when I say comfortably, I mean that the seating was mostly oversized lounge chairs, with a deep and very long day bed sort of arrangement filled with pillows against the back wall of the theater for those that preferred to lay about. The screen was one hundred and fifty inches wide.

I was a little afraid that the game selection would be an ordeal. I was paying for the full package of channels available. That meant that if there was a football game being played anywhere in the country, I’d be able to receive it. Since I was not a faithful fan of any sport, I hadn’t really realized that the games on Thanksgiving were few and carefully orchestrated by the networks.

Well, my young companions were thrilled, is all I can say. Since I was paying for the full package, we were able to watch the game in high-def with the sound all around us.

We watched the final quarter of the first game of the day. Then, while the preliminaries of the second game were in progress, and the boys had shown a passion for the game, I pulled out three laptop computers and showed the boys how they could log onto the NFL network and get more out of the experience by watching the stats and sidebars as the game progressed.

By the end of the second game, we were all ready for the dessert portion of our meal.

As each boy placed his laptop on the shelf they’d come from, they each stepped up and gave me a huge hug. I was really coming to enjoy this side of our friendship. I mean, just how much affection does a single gay man living out in the country receive? It was all the more profound now that I knew that the boys were aware of my sexual orientation and weren’t put off by it. In fact, now that I had the opportunity to really think about it, it was probably that very fact that made it easier for them to demonstrate their affection, knowing that I probably wouldn’t go all macho on them about it.

Whatever the reason, I was touched. I certainly wasn’t feeling that little knot of depression any more. I was, in fact, a bit giddy from it all.

When we arrived back in the kitchen, I was expecting a certain amount of competition about the pies. But it was the boys that suggested we each have a small piece of each of the three pies that had been included in our feast. Eric was the one that explained how the mothers and grandmothers had all sat down together to work out who would make which dish.

So, we had our choice of apple, pumpkin, and pecan pies. The boys, in their usual fashion, worked together to serve the pie that their family had made. And then, to my great enjoyment, they praised each pie as we ate. There was that non-competition between them. Or maybe it was some deep desire that they not mar this marvelous holiday with any bickering. Besides, I certainly couldn’t decide which of the pies was better. Since I liked all three styles, I was very content.

It was eight o’clock when I loaded the boys into the car and drove them home. It was fortunate that we all lived on the back roads, because when I’d dropped the last boy off I found that I just had to take a moment and express my feelings. I pulled off the edge of the road and put the car in park. I then leaned back and simply let my tears fall; tears of supreme and utter joy and peace.

What had started out as a day of monumental depression had been turned into something that could only be described as magical.

I don’t know how long I sat there, but a set of headlights pulling in behind me got my attention. I quickly wiped the tears from my face, thinking it was a Sheriff’s Deputy checking to see why I was sitting here. I couldn’t see anything to really warn me as the figure walked up, so I was mighty surprised to see Bradley, Billy’s oldest brother, step up to my window…smiling gently.

I rolled the window down.

“Hi, Brad.”

“Hi, Adam. You okay? I happened to be looking out my bedroom window and saw you stop.”

“Yeah, Brad, I’m fine. Just sitting here being a bit overwhelmed by what the boys did.”

He reached up and gently wiped away a tear I’d missed. It was such a tender gesture. “So I see.”

“Brad?”

He chuckled. “Why do you think all these country folks were so accepting of your lifestyle, Adam? I’ve been out since I was sixteen.”

Well, hell, he might as well have hit me on the side of the head with a baseball bat. And then I got worried, and it must have shown.

Brad chuckled again. “No, Adam, I’m not here to hit on you.” He shivered. He wasn’t wearing much. “Uh, could we continue this with me over there?” he asked pointing at the passenger seat.

Well, sophisticated and oh so worldly me could only manage a stunned nod.

Once seated, he turned and took my right hand gently into his. “Look, I have a lover of my own. I’m not looking for another. I just came out here because I had a feeling you might like a shoulder. I can’t imagine you’ve had many of those lately.”

Well, that set off my tear factory again. And as soon as that happened, this marvelous young man, whom I knew was twenty-two, scooted over and pulled me into a gentle embrace.

I’d been a long time without any affection from anyone and I was coming to enjoy what the boys were willing to give me. But this…this was different. This was ‘family’, despite our age difference. This was a young man that was completely comfortable with who and what he was; a young man with a tremendous amount of compassion.

We sat there for several minutes as I vented my joy into that remarkable shoulder, feeling his hands gently rubbing my back. When I finally quieted and pulled away, he was ready with a handkerchief for me. He didn’t say a thing until I’d managed to dry my face.

“So, were those happy or sad tears?” he asked.

“A bit of both, I suppose. But mostly happy…no…primarily happy…very little sad.”

“Good, that’s what the boys were hoping for.”

“You talked to them?”

Brad laughed. “Those three can be real brats sometimes. But they’ve been brave enough to actually come talk with me quite a bit. I suppose you know how curious those three can be…about everything.”

“Don’t I know it,” I chuckled.

“What’s surprised me is that their questions have all been carefully worded. They’ve never been the least bit crude or cruel. They came to me Monday night when they noticed that there weren’t any cars collecting outside your house like last year. They were really worried about you. I thought it was the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen from them. They can really be a handful sometimes, but they’ve also impressed me quite a bit lately. They’re a lot more conscious of their actions. Somehow, I think you’ve had a lot to do with that.”

“I suppose I have,” I said quietly. “Mostly it’s that I try not to treat them like little kids. They’re on the cusp of having all sorts of things changing in themselves and that can lead to a lot of bad choices.”

“Isn’t that the truth. So it’s you I have to thank.”

“For what?”

“The little rascals have started asking me questions. Personal questions.” He grew quiet for several moments. “You know, I never thought I’d really be able to have a close relationship with my little brother…not after I came out. I know it made him uncomfortable at first. Then they started working for you and three months later they learn that you’re gay. I think it was an aha moment for them.”

“Ah. All gay men are perverts and you have to steer clear of them when you encounter one.”

“Something like that. Anyway, they discovered that their new best friend was gay and that none of the horror stories were true. Billy even came to my room one night a couple of weeks after they found out and apologized to me. Then, when everyone had gone to bed that night, he appeared at my bedside before I’d fallen asleep.”

“Oh no.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought too. But he was in his pajamas for a change. He looked me in the eye and asked: ‘you wearing pajamas?’ I told him it was too damn cold in my room not to. That was during that first cold snap we had. So, what does he do? He climbs into bed with me, hugs me, kisses my cheek, and says ‘goodnight, Brad’. And then he promptly falls asleep.”

“What did your parents say about that?”

“They don’t know. He’s never done it again. It was his way of saying he loved me and that it didn’t matter anymore.”

“What did you do?”

He chuckled. “What do you think? I cried myself to sleep.” He then pulled me into another embrace. “The boys are right; you’re a good friend, Adam.” He then released me and started to turn.

I stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “You know, you and your friend could stop by from time to time and be friendly. I haven’t been able to simply sit with gay friends in a long time.”

Brad smiled. “Jack’s been trying to convince me to do just that. But I was afraid you wouldn’t welcome that sort of company, reminding you of your loss.”

“You’re probably right, I might not have. But after today, I’ve come to realize that I’m wallowing and I need to get on with my life. I had a long and loving life with Jason. But that doesn’t mean I can’t start new and makeover my life. Bring Jack by…soon. We’ll have a glass of wine and get to know each other. Just don’t pick a Saturday, okay?”

“I won’t. But I’ll warn you that I plan to tell the boys. They’ll be real happy.”

“Thanks for coming out here tonight, Brad.”

“You’re welcome…neighbor.”

We smiled and he left. After he’d gotten himself turned around, I resumed my trip home.

“Okay, Jason, I get the message,” I said aloud into the empty car. “Thanks for the boot in the ass, lover.”

Well, that was all it took. The holidays took on new significance for me. My head was spinning with plans by the time I got home. It was time. I was finally ready to dive into the holidays. I had a reason once again. And people to share them with.

Christmas I

Fortunately for me, Gaia seemed to sense what had happened and didn’t grace us with another load of snow. That meant that there wasn’t really anything for the boys to do on Saturday. But, since it was my habit to come up with little chores they could do on these types of days, the boys showed up at their usual time. It was my way of always making sure they had a little change in their pockets.

This Saturday, Hazy and I were waiting on the front porch. The minute we caught the distant sound of snowmobiles, my miniature golden collie began running back and forth on the porch, occasionally jumping into my lap…in case I wasn’t aware of what she knew, I imagine. I’d been a little worried that she might run off in the direction of the sound, but she simply carried on there on our porch until the boys appeared through the nearby trees. Only then did she take off.

Hazy was so excited this morning that Billy finally had to resort to picking up the dog and holding her tightly so that they could finish their approach. It was the funniest thing to watch the boy try to maneuver his snowmobile with one hand, all the time trying to fend off her joy as she continually licked at his face, squirming to try and get free.

I was in stitches by the time the boys finally arrived at the foot of the steps. And that only got worse as they hopped off and began seriously entertaining her. Now it only remained to be seen how the boys would feel about the chores I’d chosen for today.

The boys had apparently made some decisions, now that all the little secrets were out in the open finally. Once they’d finished with their play session with Hazy they made their way onto the porch and each gave me a huge hug.

No, I did not go all emotional on them. Actually, I didn’t feel all the wracking emotions this time. I simply enjoyed the affection and moved our day forward.

“Well boys, I was thinking that since there isn’t anything to do out here today, maybe you’d lend me a hand with a project I’ve come up with inside; a warm day for a change.”

“Sure, Mister Adam,” they said in unison.

I began by leading them into the kitchen after they hung their coats and lost the boots. I started the morning by bribing them with hot chocolate and a small piece of pie around the breakfast bar. Once the cups and plates were in the sink, I led the boys into the formal dining room where they discovered I’d filled the room with boxes I’d spent all day Friday pulling down from the attic.

“What’s all this, Mister Adam?” asked Eric.

“This, my dear boys, is Christmas.”

That got me smiles and slightly perplexed looks.

“I’ve decided that this year I’m going to renew an old tradition. Jason and I used to be the toast of the town during the holidays.” That got the boys to glance over at the portrait. “I’ve decided it’s time to share that tradition with my new friends. These boxes contain all the decorations Jason and I collected over our long life together. But there’s a lot of work involved in checking the lights and deciding where everything should go. I haven’t used this stuff since I moved in here.”

“Really?” said Billy. “You’re really going to let us help?”

“I gather from your response that you don’t normally get to help decorate for the holidays?”

The boys shook their heads in unison. “We only get to help decorate the tree.”

“So, you want to give this a go?”

“Yes, sir!” they responded, bouncing slightly in their excitement.

“Great. But I’m going to have to ask you to calm down. A lot of what’s in these boxes is expensive. Some of it is even antiques.”

“Brad and Jack would love this,” said Archie.

That got a huge smile from Billy. “They sure would.” He then looked at me, a world of question in his eyes.

“Well, boys, if you’d like to include them in our fun, then you certainly have my permission. You think they have the time free?”

“Brad told me last night that they were just going to sit around together.”

“Well, go call him then.” And with that the boy pulled a cell phone from his pocket, something I hadn’t realized that any of them had. That got a raised eyebrow from me, one that caused Archie and Eric to laugh at.

“You didn’t know, eh?” said Archie.

“We can only use them to call each other and home,” said Eric. “Our parents got them for us this last summer so they could keep tabs on where we were.”

“Ah, come on Brad,” I heard Billy say, “You two have to come over. You can’t believe the number of boxes Mister Adam has.”

“Billy, let me talk to him a moment.” He handed me the phone. “Hi, Brad.”

“Hi, Adam. I thought you didn’t want us over there on Saturdays.”

 “This wasn’t my idea. The boys came up with this. Now, do you really want to disappoint them? It’s something they really seem to want to share with the both of you. Now, if you don’t have anything planned, get off your asses and get over here.”

There was a moment of silence and I thought I heard a bit of a sniffle from the other end. A new voice continued our conversation.

“This is Jack, sir. What did you just say? Brad usually doesn’t get this emotional about things.” I explained what was in the offing. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he continued after a moment of his own silence. “Those three are becoming unpredictable. Uh, are you sure this is okay?”

“I think the boys would be really disappointed if you didn’t come join the fun.”

“We’ll be there in ten,” he responded with some excitement and then hung up.

I closed the phone and handed it back to Billy. “They’re on the way.” I then looked at each of the boys. “You know, you’re confusing them.”

All three boys hung their heads a moment.

“We haven’t always been real nice to them,” said Eric. “It was all so confusing.”

“I can imagine. But you’ve learned a valuable lesson and now you’re making a real effort to understand…or so Brad has told me. Instead of simply accepting the prejudice of your friends and society, you’re trying to understand. I’m awful proud of you three.” I then smiled. “So, who is Jack?”

“My cousin,” said Archie. “He’s lived with us since he was sixteen. He’s twenty-one now. His family couldn’t accept him being gay. My dad is the one that offered him the opportunity to come live with us instead. He was having a real hard time of it with his family. Dad hasn’t talked to his brother since Jack came to live with us.”

“That’s sad, but an all too familiar story to me. It’s nice that your dad stepped in like that.”

“Well, we all knew about Brad by then.”

I simply smiled. “All right, why don’t I show you what I had in mind while we wait for the two of them.” I led the boys around the main floor pointing out the tables I’d cleared in each room. “When we decide where something should go, one of you will bring the item in and set it on the table. Nothing will go up until we’ve emptied the boxes.”

“Are you going to have a tree too?” asked Eric.

“It’s being delivered about lunch time. I talked to Mister Franks yesterday about what I needed. He promised he had just the thing. He’s going to help us set it up.”

“Oh, I hope he doesn’t bring Vince with him.” said Billy.

“Vince a problem?” I asked.

“He always tries to start a fight with Brad,” he answered. “He’s a real asshole.” He immediately got a shocked look on his face. “Oh, I’m sorry, Mister Adam! I shouldn’t have cussed.”

“Don’t worry about it, Billy. We’ll let it slide this time, okay? Every once in a while you just have to say it like it is. Maybe I should call Mister Franks.”

“I’ll do it,” said Billy. “He knows about Vince and Brad. He’s really nice and always wants to be told when Brad will be around so that he can leave Vince behind.”

I sent him to the kitchen to make the call while the rest of us settled in the living room and waited for the boys to arrive. Billy was just returning to join us when we heard the arrival of Brad’s SUV. The boys raced out to welcome them, and I followed along to watch. Somehow, something told me that this might be interesting. I was not disappointed.

My musketeers ran down the steps and tackled the older boys as they got out of the truck. Every one of them hugged each of the boys and I could see the stunned surprise on the two young men’s faces. I simply smiled and shrugged as they glanced at me. But they accepted the affection.

Eric and Billy pulled Brad up onto the porch, but Archie held Jack back and began speaking to him softly. It wasn’t hard to see what was being said even though Archie’s back was to us. The four of us simply stood there and smiled as we watched Jack fight real hard to hold back his emotions as he stared wide eyed at his cousin. The poor guy finally lost it, though, when Archie pulled him into a fierce hug and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“Okay, that had to be intense,” chuckled Brad, with just a slight catch in his voice. “Jack is always able to hold in his emotions.”

When they separated, Archie gently took his cousin’s hand and slowly led him up the steps. “Mister Adam, this is my cousin Jack. Jack, this is Adam Richards, the author.”

I allowed a moment for Jack to decide how he wished to be greeted. Needless to say I was pleased when he chose a heartfelt hug.

“Welcome to my home, boys,” I said when he finally released me.

The two older boys got raised eyebrows when they entered and were having their coats taken by the boys, as they got their first look at what I’d done with the interior. I was very proud of what I’d accomplished. My home was a testament to quiet elegance. Neither Jason nor I had been the over the top sort of gay men. We were not the least bit interested in flaunting our sexual identity. We never enjoyed all that in your face decorating that some of our New York friends seemed to think was required. Ours was the style of quiet elegance. Masculine, but soft. A difficult thing to achieve.

“Gees, Adam,” said Brad, “This is beautiful.”

“Thank you. So, I was just thinking that I’ll have us pair up. Brad, why don’t you and Billy work together? Archie, you take your cousin in hand.” I then put my arm on Eric’s shoulders. “I’ll pair up with Eric.” No one seemed the least bit disappointed as I watched Brad and Jack put their arm on their working partner’s shoulder.

We spent the next three hours opening boxes and moving materials to their designated room. I particularly enjoyed the oohs and aahs I got from all of them as we pulled items from the boxes. What was most fun for me, and something that surprised me, was explaining where Jason and I had picked up the unique items. The boys seemed fascinated by it all. It didn’t take Jack and Brad long to relax and simply begin to enjoy this unique opportunity to simply let their enthusiasm express itself. I was sure they hadn’t had much opportunity to simply let go the constant attention they paid to the image they projected to the rest of their families.

I particularly enjoyed watching the younger boys as they smiled at some of the expressions of their older relatives. And then had begun the gentle, and at first tentative, teasings.

The first of it had begun with Billy, when Brad had actually squealed at something that he’d pulled from a box. Everyone in the room came to an abrupt standstill when Billy had said, “That is just so gay.”

I thought the boy had lost his mind and was about to say something when he busted up into laughter and hugged his brother. “Come on, Brad, can’t you take a joke?”

Brad had taken his brother’s head into his hands and pushed him slightly away and I thought for a moment that he was going to kiss the boy’s forehead. Instead he smiled and slapped the side of Billy’s head lightly. “Brat.”

Everyone dissolved into fits of laughter. That was the event that melted all the ice of uncertainty. The older boys stopped worrying about their actions and simply acted naturally…and the younger boys encouraged them.

After the first half hour, the older boys suggested switching partners, so that by the time we’d emptied the last box everyone had partnered with everyone else. I was sure that there had been little conversations between all of them during the course of their partnerings. I had no idea what they’d shared, but it was quite clear that the older boys were much more comfortable with the younger ones by the end of it all.

It was particularly warming for me to watch them all finally having an opportunity to express themselves to one another. Yes, this was just the thing to get me over my hesitation at resuming my holiday celebrations.

We were standing in the den when I declared that I needed to set about putting together some lunch for us.

“Can I help?” asked Archie.

Well, I was not one to miss an opportunity to teach. “May I help,” I said in that tone the boys knew I used when I was correcting them.

The boy frowned, not understanding my distinction.

“When you say ‘can’ you are asking if you are capable of doing something. When you say ‘may’ you are asking permission. Can I help, means you are asking me if I think you have the skills to do the job. May I help, means that you are requesting permission.”

Brad and Jack simply smiled at my method of teaching the boys.

“Oh,” said Archie, getting the point. “May I help you?”

“If you’d really like to then yes you may.” We all laughed.

“Uh, Mister Adam,” asked Billy tentatively. “Uh, would you allow the rest of us to decorate the den for you?”

Well now, that was not something I’d considered when we’d begun this project. Jason and I had always done that ourselves. But looking into the four boys’ eyes I saw a desire to do something they’d never been allowed to do before.

Well why not? It was apparently something they felt they wanted to do for me, and it might be nice to have a room that wasn’t strictly about my touches. Besides, if this was a holiday I wanted to share with them, they should have more of a hand in it.

“All right, boys.”

Billy jumped in place and clapped his hands in his excitement. I saw a wicked little twinkle in Brad’s eyes at the gesture. I was afraid he was going to embarrass the boy. Instead, he leaned forward and whispered into this brother’s ear, making sure no one could hear what he said. Billy blushed at what was said. But he smiled realizing how his brother had done it and then he turned around.

“Brat,” he said.

Brad smiled. “I learned it from my little brother.”

Archie followed me into the kitchen.

“Wouldn’t you rather help the others?” I asked.

“No sir. I really like working in the kitchen with my Gran. She’s teaching me.”

“All right then. So, what do you think of open face turkey sandwiches?”

“I don’t know. What’s that?”

“One slice of bread covered with turkey and then topped off with warm turkey gravy.” No it wasn’t fancy. But I did not want to spend a large portion of the day fussing in the kitchen. This would be simple yet filling. And with all the other items available to heat up, there would be more than enough for the crowd.

“That sounds wonderful,” he smiled.

When we opened my industrial fridge, the boy frowned.

“Uh, Mister Adam, my Gran says it’s not a good idea to leave the cooked turkey on the bone too long. She always carves if off and throws the bones away.”

“Well, I suppose I need to take care of that then. I could have you work on the gravy.”

Archie shook his head. “That wouldn’t be a good idea. My Gran says I still have a lot to learn before I can make decent gravy. But I know how to carve a bird. She lets me do the left over chickens all the time.”

“Well, sir,” I said as I lifted the foil wrapped platter from the fridge, “If you promise not to cut yourself, I’ll let you have at it.”

“Where are your knives?”

I pointed out the drawer. He went over and spent only a second making his decision. He returned to the counter with the correct boning knife in hand, along with the meat fork that had also been in there. Well, the boy obviously wasn’t lying about his experience. Those are precisely the tools I’d have chosen.

I admit I kept a close eye on him as I began pulling the bean casserole, stuffing, and two kinds of potatoes from the fridge and set about warming them in the oven. I determined right away that the boy hadn’t exaggerated his experience. He was very careful and very methodical about his task. I simply left him to it after that while I proceeded to warm the left over gravy and add to the pot so that there’d be plenty for all of us…hopefully with some left over. It was always easier to create a gravy if you had a quality starter.

I was checking the items in the oven twenty minutes later when I heard Archie wrap the carcass in the used foil. Before I could suggest it, he was already heading for the back door with the waste to put in the trash bin. I glanced at the cutting board and was quite impressed by the mounds of meat. He’d even separated it into dark and white meat.

“Very nice job, Archie,” I said as he returned and I was just setting the warmed dishes on the counter.

“I always do it for Gran. Her hands shake so much these days that I’m worried she’ll cut herself.” He chuckled. “She always complains that I don’t trust her. But she always gives me a kiss afterward.” I couldn’t resist. I gave him a quick peck on the cheek. He got a momentary look of surprise on his face that immediately turned into a smile.

There was no doubt that Archie thought the world of his Gran and enjoyed the time they spent in the kitchen together.

“So, is this something you want to do for a living?”

“No, sir. But I would like to do it for the family. Mom is okay, but even she admits that she doesn’t have the touch of Gran. Gran even let me help with her canning this year.”

And there it was, yet another insight into the boys. What was it with these three? Twelve years old and yet so complicated already. Certainly, they were still boys and all that implied. But they were also so much more mature than any other twelve year olds I’d ever met. Look at the way they were going out of their way to finally bond with their gay siblings.

“Okay, kiddo, how about you set the kitchen table while I get all this stuff into serving bowls.”

We were just seated when the doorbell rang. Unfortunately, I’d positioned myself in the corner.

“Would you like me to get it?” asked Brad. I nodded. It was only a few moments later. “Mister Franks! What a surprise. What did you do to the truck? You can normally hear that thing coming a mile away.”

A deep, hearty laugh followed that. “I finally decided to save my hearing. How are you, Bradley?”

“I’m fine, sir. Come in, come in. We were just sitting down to lunch.”

“Brad, invite Mister Franks to join us!” I called out.

“I don’t want to impose.”

Brad laughed. “You haven’t seen the spread, sir. There’s more than enough. Come on, join us.”

After the requisite stomping on the porch and a few moments to remove boots and coat, the two of them entered, Franks in his stocking feet. By that time, Archie had already set another place at the table.

“Good morning, boys,” he smiled as he took in the crowd. “And to you, Mister Richards.”

“Adam, please. It’s nice to meet you too.”

“Charlie, Adam.” He smiled as he looked at the spread. “Ah, more leftovers.”

We all laughed. “The ladies got just a little carried away when they prepared the feast for the boys and me.”

He took the indicated seat between Jack and Archie. “I heard something about that.” He then looked around at each of the younger boys and smiled. “That was a mighty fine thing you did, boys.” Then he sighed. “Wish my boy could be so accepting.”

We had a fun lunch with plenty of laughter and stories all around. Charlie didn’t seem the least bit uncomfortable with the company. When we’d finished, the four boys insisted that everyone come and see their decorating job.

I was amazed by how quickly they’d gotten it done. And I was very pleased with the result. No, it was nothing like I’d pictured the room when I’d chosen the components, but there was nothing at all childish about the outcome. It was really very well done, especially for a group of boys that didn’t have much experience. I could see several things that I might have done differently, but I wasn’t going to tell them that, and I certainly had no intention of changing any of it. This was their room and anyone who visited would know that.

I was very fortunate that Billy had invited the two older boys because there was no way I’d have been able to help Charlie with the twelve foot tree he’d brought. The other major change I’d made to the house when I’d bought it was to have the rooms above the formal living room removed completely so that the living room now had a nearly twenty foot ceiling. The loft condo in New York had come with high ceilings and I loved the tall trees on the holidays.

“I know you asked for something just a bit taller, Adam, but when I saw this one I just knew it’d be perfect. I think you’ll be pleased.”

It was a good thing it was securely bound together, because it would never have fit through the doors. Fortunately, the front entry was a set of double doors and the arched entry to the living room was just as wide. It took Charlie and the boys a full hour to haul it in and get it into the stand. Finally I stood back with the boys as Charlie began cutting the wrapping twine.

As the first of half a dozen pieces of twine fluttered to the floor I was encouraged. The top of the tree could only be described as perfect. The top branch looked plenty sturdy to be able to handle the tree capping ornament that was always Jason’s favorite. As Charlie worked his way down the tree I saw what he meant about his choice. I couldn’t see a single thing about the tree that wasn’t perfect. The shape was a perfect triangle. I couldn’t see a single bare spot.

When the lowest branches finally snapped out Charlie simply stood there and smiled. “Did I do good?”

I laughed. “Charlie, I’ve always believed you had to buy artificial to get something this perfect.”

“It’ll look even better when the branches relax back into their natural place,” he said to me.

Well, I was not at all familiar with caring for a cut tree. Jason and I always used artificial in the city. So I asked Charlie for advice in getting this thing to last all through the season. When he asked for a hundred for the tree, I handed him a hundred and fifty, I was that pleased.

The boys and I spent the remainder of the day decorating the living room, dining room and a bit of the front porch. I had plans for the yard that I intended to keep secret. I’d already made a call to a friend in Jersey, along with pictures and basic dimensions. He’d promised he had what was needed and he’d bring a crew up in a week’s time to put it together.

Brad brought the decorating crew over after church the following day so that we could decorate the tree. It had relaxed just as Charlie had said. As impossible as I thought it was, the tree did indeed look even better when I descended the stairs on Sunday morning.

Oh, I know what you’re thinking, I haven’t mentioned Hazy. Well, my best friend was completely content with all the activity, despite that she’d never encountered the like before. There were suddenly six people in the house that were quite happy to pet and love her, just as I always did. She’d simply wander from room to room as everyone went about their tasks. There was always someone with empty hands that was more than willing to give her the attention she craved.

So anyway, the boys and I managed to get most of the job done before they were required to go home for family supper. What was left after they departed was easy enough for me to complete. It’d been fun when the boys arrived because I started by unwrapping the top ornament. It only made sense to start at the top when I had help with the ladder.

I’d made a big show of unwrapping the very delicate blown glass ornament. The creator had been a true artist. I have no idea how she’d managed it. The hollow interior had another star in silver inside, perfectly suspended in the center.

I spent the first part of the week online. Monday was all about candles. Nearly a hundred of them from a chandler in the Village that is the only place that carried the holiday scent I preferred. I paid for overnight shipping on that one. Tuesday was about Christmas dinner. That would be overnighted too, but not until two days before my planned party. All the major ingredients for a seafood feast for an army. It remained to be seen if I’d be able to arrange the party I’d envisioned for the week before Christmas.

My friend from Jersey surprised me by arriving on Wednesday at noon. Three vans pulled into my drive right after lunch.

“Dickie, you old queen!” I yelled as I ran down the steps to properly greet him. “How in the hell did you pull this together so quickly?!” I continued to yell as we embraced like the old friends we were.

“Ah, you know me, Adam. I’m a sucker for a gushy story. You had me in tears with your description of what those boys did. I just had to make this happen for you. I know how lonely you’ve been the last few years.”

I laughed remembering what a pushover he was. “Well, it’s gotten even better since I called you. It turns out two of the older brothers are gay and we’ve had the chance to get to know each other.”

“How older?”

I smiled, knowing what he was hoping. “Twenty-two and twenty-one. But you’re hoping in vain, missy. They’re already a couple. Besides, I’m not looking for a companion, you know that. But it’s sure going to be nice to have some ‘family’ friends.”

He gave me another hug. “Well that’s great. So, you ready to get started?”

“Don’t you want to settle in somewhere?”

“We arrived in the wee hours and got rooms in that town down the road. We’d have been here first thing this morning, but we ran into some construction on the way here. Slowed us down.”

“Well, in answer to your question, of course you can start. How long will it take do you think?”

“We should be ready for the big reveal by Friday night.” He then looked around the yard. “Damn, Adam, this is even better in person.” Then he looked up into the surrounding countryside. “It’s like a picture postcard.”

Fortune smiled on me because none of the boys needed to come by for help with school work. I called each of their homes right after Dickie had gotten his men started and talked with one parent or another and arranged for them to bring their entire families by at precisely eight on Friday night. Of course, I didn’t tell them exactly why, just that I had a surprise to share with all of them.

Dickie, I could tell by all his questions during the installation, really wanted to be present for the reveal. But he wanted to get his men headed toward home as soon as they verified that everything was operational just before noon on Friday. So I offered to pay for plane fare for him. After putting this together so quickly for me, it was the least I could do.

Once his men were on their way, Dickie lent a hand and helped me with the snacks I was making for the big reveal. He was as much into the season as I was.

Dickie and I took my golf cart to the gate at the bottom of the hill, a half hour early, to meet everyone as they arrived. I have to admit that I can’t remember the last time I’d been this excited. I was actually shaking and it had absolutely nothing to do with the freezing temperatures. I was really pleased that we were in a waning moon phase and it hadn’t risen yet. That meant that the entire yard was pitch black. The only light in the area was that being cast by the headlights of my small golf cart.

There were slightly more than two dozen people gathered by the time the last truck disgorged its occupants. I was particularly delighted to see that the grandparents had all chosen to come.

“Good evening, everyone. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve felt the desire to really celebrate the holidays. You all know why that is. But that all changed last week. And again you all know the reason. This week has been…well, a joy just doesn’t do justice to the renewed feelings I’ve had. I’ve asked you all here this evening to share what your sons have helped me create inside my home. But you’re also here to see what my friend from New Jersey has created for our enjoyment. This is Richard Price. The company he founded has been responsible for many spectacular lighting displays in the last twenty years. But I believe, that for my money, this one will certainly be the best.”

I nodded at Dickie who lifted the remote control in his hand.

From the speakers he’d placed throughout the yard came the drum cadence of my favorite holiday song, The Little Drummer Boy. The cadence went on for a couple of bars before the show truly began. The minute the voices entered, lights began illuminating in various parts of the yard and on the house. The dance of the lights as the song progressed was ingenious and spectacular. The rousing near finale of the song produced what could only be described as a land bound fireworks display in light. And then it quieted at the final bars with just the drum and the repeated perum, perum, perum of the voices.

The song finally ended, leaving only a single star shining on the roof of the house, pulsing gently to some unheard beat. Yes, Dickie had certainly outdone himself this time.

It took several moments for everyone to realize that the spectacle was over. But it took Archie’s Grandmother to finally break the silence. She stepped forward and pulled my head down and planted a gentle kiss upon my cheek.

“That was the most beautiful display I’ve ever seen, young man.” Just as she finished her statement, the lights began to slowly turn up to illuminate all the trees and figures in the yard, as well as the house. It was a display that I’m sure would be seen for miles.

Her action finally awoke everyone to the moment and they burst into applause as they began stepping forward and thanking me, then moving over to Dickie and praising him for his spectacular work.

It took several minutes for everyone to calm down so that I could move on to the next step. “If you’ll all get in your vehicles and come up to the house, I’d like to also share what has been done inside. I’ve got drinks and cookies for everyone. I’d like to give your five sons the opportunity to show off what they’ve had a part in creating.”

My Three Musketeers smiled at that. But what I particularly enjoyed seeing was Brad and Jack standing in the midst of this huge gathering…holding hands. Yes indeed, these were some remarkable families.

The Three Musketeers helped get coats to the second story closet at the top of the stairs, pitching in even before I could request their help. Dickie had hopped out as soon as we arrived and ran around turning on the lights in all the first floor rooms and porch. I managed a few words to each boy, suggesting that they let their families wander, but to be available to answer questions. It wasn’t long before each of them had stationed themselves permanently at one room or another, just like tour guides.

It was a great pleasure watching the adults walking about in a sort of stunned daze at all the holiday elegance we’d achieved. The smaller children were a joy because there was no disguising the fact that they were all convinced they’d been granted access to a Christmas wonderland.

During the hour and a half that everyone stayed, I was able to talk with each of the parents and my party invitations had been accepted. I was also very pleased to see that parents, grandparents, and older siblings were very careful to enforce a strict look but do not touch policy with the youngest children.

Jeremiah managed to corner me in the kitchen at one point during the night. “The adults have been talking and we were wondering if you’ve given any thought to how you’re going to show off that spectacle of yours? Because it’s not going to remain a secret for very long once the kids get to school on Monday.”

“Uh, no, I hadn’t.” And it was nothing but the truth. My thoughts had been centered on producing something unique for these families. I hadn’t given a moment’s consideration to what this might mean for the rest of the parish.

He smiled at my obvious chagrin. “Adam, there’s never been anything like this around here. Once the kids get through spreading the word people are going to become curious. You might want to sit down with your friend Richard and put a plan together. Maybe run the show once an hour. If you put a sign on your fence explaining, then people would know when to be present to see the entire show.”

I went to bed that night with the old feelings of happiness and enjoyment of the season. I particularly enjoyed the farewells. The Three Musketeers had made a particular point of hugging me several times through the night in front of everyone. I don’t know if it was some scheme of theirs, but the effect is that all the women had hugged me as they prepared to leave. But best of all had been when every single one of the smaller children had stepped up and hugged and thanked me for inviting them and for the wonderful cookies.

As I lay there running the night through my mind, I determined that this had turned out so much better than I could have hoped. There’d never been children present during the holiday affairs that Jason and I held. To see the wonder in all those young faces, and even some of the not so young, had made the expense of all this more than worthwhile.

Saturday morning arrived in the usual fashion. The only difficulty I had was in getting Hazy to come to the back door instead of the front. I finally had to resort to picking her up and carrying her. I’d told the boys the night before that their play session with Hazy would need to happen in the back yard during the holidays. I wasn’t about to chance any damage to the light display that I was unqualified to fix.

The earliest reservation we could obtain for Dickie wasn’t until Sunday morning, so he was around all day and was able to add a couple of things to the sound and lighting. The boys had arrived with a large roll of butcher paper and we spent our morning making a sign for the fence explaining that there would be a unique light show at the top of each hour between seven and ten each evening. It also explained that the lights in the yard would flash several times just before the show would begin and that they needed to turn off their vehicles and lights so that everyone would better enjoy it.

The boys remained until suppertime, but surprised me by returning a couple of hours later on their snowmobiles. They’d brought Jack and Brad with them too. I’d hustled them inside the back door before asking any questions. It was a particularly brisk night out.

“What’s up, boys?”

They all laughed, but it was Jack who piped in. “Have you looked out your front windows lately?”

“Uh, no.”

Dickie immediately ran to the front of the house while I helped the boys with their coats.

“Oh glory, Adam!” yelled Dickie. “You’ve got to come see this!” Okay, this had to be something. The poor man had actually squealed. Of course, that got the boys to smiling and chuckling.

We all marched to the den where only the candles were burning and I was absolutely stunned as I finally looked out the window. There at the bottom of the hill and across the road was a stationary sea of orange fireflies. It took a moment for it to register with me that what I was seeing were parking lights.

“Oh my god,” I whispered.

“Your guests last night have spent almost the entire day calling friends to tell them about this,” said Brad.

I quickly glanced at my watch and saw that it was five minutes to seven. “Is everything set to go, Dickie?” This was definitely not the time for something to go amiss.

“All up and running.”

“Adam,” said Jack, “How about we go sit on the porch and watch their reaction?”

I smiled at the suggestion. “All right, that might be fun at that. But let’s wait to step out until the lights go out.” Dickie and I ran and closed the heavy drapes in the two front rooms so that the front of the house would be nearly as dark as it’d been the night before, while the boys went and retrieved their coats and boots.

We were all standing in the entry with the light out, watching through the sidelights. First came the three flashes of the lights as the program began. That was followed one minute later by all the lights dimming slowly to total darkness. Only then did we open the door and quickly step out.

We watched as the parking lights quickly went out across the street. I’d been a bit worried that the music might be a little too loud up here at the house. But I was pleased and surprised that it wasn’t any louder than we’d experienced the night before.

It wasn’t as good a show this close up and from behind, but still, I enjoyed the music. The area was draped in silence for several moments after the last perum. Then the lights began to slowly come up. What happened next truly surprised me. First there was the distant sound of cheering. And then, horns began honking, with headlights being flashed on and off. The honking continued for quite some time as the vehicles began pulling away.

The boys went home shortly after that and Dickie and I watched the response to the next three shows. There were only three cars for the final show and I mentioned that maybe I’d cut back to only three showings each night.

“Oh, I’d give it a couple of days before you drop a show. I think attendance will go up once the word really starts to spread. I mean think about it, Adam. Tonight has been the result of only three families spreading the word. Imagine what’s going to happen now that all these people have seen it.”

Dickie and I had to get up early the following morning to get him to the airport on time, but I was home by ten. Hazy and I were lounging in front of the Christmas tree at one when we were surprised by the doorbell.

When we arrived at the entry, I could see through the sidelights that there was an unfamiliar vehicle sitting at the foot of the porch, a middle aged woman standing next to it. When I opened the door, there stood this precious little girl, still in her church dress. She was also carrying a tin box in her small hands.

I immediately knelt down so as not to tower over the small thing.

“Hello, sweetheart.”

“He…hello, sir.” She then glanced back at her mother.

“Go on, sweetie, he won’t bite,” her mother chuckled.

She turned back to me and held out the tin. “Thank you for the beautiful lights, sir. Mommy and me made you some cookies.”

“Ah sweetheart, you’re quite welcome. I’m really glad you enjoyed them.”

That finally got a small smile from her. “I’ve never seen anything so pretty.” And then she surprised me yet again by jumping forward and hugging my neck and kissing my cheek.

“Merry Christmas, sweetheart.”

“Merry Christmas, sir.” Then she turned and bounced down the stairs, her mother smiling and waving up at me.

The rest of the day was like that as time and time again, Hazy and I had to answer the door and accept some small token of appreciation from our neighbors. Once, during it all, I’d heard a vehicle pull up, but several minutes passed without a ringing bell. So I went to see what was going on. When I opened the door, I witnessed something truly touching. There was a young boy slowly helping his elderly grandmother up the steps. The boy looked to be about the same age as my musketeers.

He smiled up at me as I stepped out onto the porch. “She insisted on coming herself,” he said softly. “Good afternoon, Mister Ada…I mean, Mister Richards.” That got raised eyebrows from me. He laughed. “Eric and I are friends at school, sir. I’ve heard all about you.”

“In that case,” I smiled in return, “You may certainly call me Mister Adam.”

“Thank you, sir. I’m Allen Miller, and this is my grandmother, Francis Baker.”

I shook Allen’s hand and then turned my attention to his grandmother.

“Whew,” she sighed, “That was more of a climb than I thought it’d be.”

“Miss Francis, you should have let Allen come up here.”

She chuckled softly. “I couldn’t do that, boy.” She then looked me in the eye. “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful as what I witnessed last night. Amanda called and said we had to see what you’d done.” I knew that Amanda was Archie’s grandmother’s name. “I’ve known that woman since we were mere girls in grade school. I haven’t heard her so excited about anything in many years.” Her eyes softened and there was just a touch of moisture there. “That song has always been my favorite. But I’ve never seen it presented so spectacularly.”

Allen laughed as he gave his grandmother a gentle hug. “Gran and I cried as we watched it, Mister Adam.”

That got a chuckle from Francis. “We’re both a couple of softies. Anyway, I wanted to thank you in person, Adam. There’s never been anything like this in these parts. It’s going to make everyone’s holidays very special.” She then handed over a beautifully wrapped rectangle. “I thought you might enjoy a loaf of my fruitcake.”

Well, you can imagine what I thought at that moment. Fruitcakes did not have a great reputation.

Allen obviously had heard more than enough about them. “You’re going to love it, Mister Adam. Gran even brought you one of the first batch; it’s been aging for three months.”

“Well then, you can’t get a better recommendation than that.” I then leaned forward and lightly kissed her cheek. “I promise I’ll give it a good tasting.”

“You’ll never look at fruitcake the same way if you do, boy,” she laughed. “Now all I have to do is get down from here in one piece.”

Well, it took a moment or two of discussion, but she finally agreed to let me carry her back to the car. The woman was light as a feather, and her daughter was very appreciative when I set Francis in the passenger seat.

I stood there at the bottom of the steps and watched them drive toward the gate. I was suddenly beginning to really feel like part of the community…a participant in the lives around me, not just the boys. And as I had that revelation, I sighed, feeling a great warmth suffuse my body. This is what had truly been missing from my life.

Jason and I had always been popular. A lot of that had been our celebrity. I was, after all, an award-winning author. But Jason was very much sought after for his jewelry creations as well. But that had been mostly about the celebrity, the glitz and glamour. Here it was about simple truths, friendship, and community.

I was starting to draw nearer to something completely new and delightful. And I was, in many ways, a bit overwhelmed by it. You read stories about the uncommon generosity and closeness of country communities. But until you experience it for yourself, you can’t truly understand the impact it can have.

Being close in the city had always been about a cup of coffee shared, maybe a lunch. It was certainly always about the restaurants and clubs. And then, of course, there were the parties and events, the shows and parades, the shopping…oh yes, let us not forget the shopping. A lot of it was about the people you knew and how one might benefit from the association.

Yes, I know, I’m sounding a bit cynical. But I have to tell you that it was true. In the circles that Jason and I ran, it was all about getting invited to the best parties, being seen with the right people. Rarely was there anything done for simple friendship. Being a celebrity came with expectations from others.

But here I stood, freezing my feet off I might add, watching yet another neighbor departing, feeling warm and toasty inside. In the city when friends departed it was a relief most of the time. But in this moment I felt a tug of regret. We’d met only this one time, and may never meet again, and yet I missed their presence. These gifts had been presented simply and in person. These people had gone out of their way to make a special trip for this single purpose; to present something handmade with open-handed appreciation.

Then, of course, there’d been Allen; a boy of twelve who, instead of being off playing with his friends, stood at his grandmother’s side. There was nothing in the boy’s demeanor that suggested for one moment that he regretted being where he was. If this had been a situation in the city, the child would have felt very put upon to have to deal with an elderly relative. And it would have clearly shown on their face.

In Allen’s face I’d seen only respect and love for his Gran. To him, it was a joy to be allowed to help her in any way. He’d gone out of his way to share the moment with his Gran by admitting to the shed tears the night before. And I’d seen in his eyes the concern for the woman at insisting on making the relatively short, but for her arduous climb up the steps.

Then had come the moment, just after I’d set his Gran in her seat and his mother was fussing with the seatbelt. I’d reached out to shake his hand and he’d surprised me by taking my one hand in his two and he’d said very quietly, ‘Thank you, Mister Adam’, glancing briefly in his Gran’s direction.

I know that the citizens of New York considered themselves to be the heart of the nation. It was, after all, the center of finance and theater. But…they were wrong. Here, in this wide open country, where concrete was scarce lay the true heart.

Most of the inhabitants of the city thought of the country life as simple and uncomplicated. But I knew better. These people dealt with many of the same issues that their distant cousins in the city had to deal with. Yet they seemed, for the most part, to deal with them better. Look at the acceptance that Jack and Brad had found. Was it easy? No, it was not. There were certainly plenty of people, even here, that preferred to be judgmental. The name Vince came to mind in this moment.

I had no doubt that the people that had been stopping by this day had been perfectly aware of my background. And yet they’d taken the time to come and show their support and appreciation, many of them even sending their children up the steps with the gift. That was not something I ever encountered in the city.

The warmth of their acceptance enfolded me as I climbed the steps and entered the house. And yes, I could have gotten emotional at this point. I could have become overwhelmed with emotion. Instead, I let go. I released my stranglehold on the loss of Jason. I tossed off the carefully choreographed image I presented to people. I cast off the hesitation. No, I did not succumb to weeping. Instead I stood in the middle of the entry and I smiled. This is the way life was meant to be lived.

I knew now why this spot had spoken so loudly to me when I’d first seen it. It had to have been Jason’s doing. He led me here. I thought I’d chosen it for the solitude I believed I needed for my long mourning. Instead, it turned out that I’d chosen it, with his help and blessing, so that I could learn to live again. And not just live, but thrive.

And it had all begun with three young boys coming to my doorstep.

I was brought out of my introspection by yet another ring of the doorbell. Yes indeed, this was the way to live life. I opened the door and was surprised and very pleased to find Brad and Jack standing there with their hands loaded down with boxes and tins.

“Adam, you’re going to have to start checking your gate more frequently,” laughed Jack.

“We found all this stacked by your mailbox,” said Brad.

I laughed as I motioned them in and then led them to the kitchen. “Those must be from the bashful ones,” I said as I motioned to the kitchen table that contained almost a dozen gifts I’d already received.

The boys deposited the half dozen packages and then began removing their coats.

“Did I see one of Gran Baker’s fruitcakes on the table?” asked Brad.

“Yes. But how did you know?”

“She uses the same paper every year. I notice you haven’t tried any yet. You scared?”

“I’ve always disliked fruitcake. Dry and tasting more like rubber than fruit.”

“Oh but you have got to try Gran Baker’s. I’ll gladly throw out any fruitcake I receive…except hers.”

“Well, in that case, how would you boys like to christen the loaf with me?”

“You don’t have it cut yet?” said Jack. That set them both to laughing as they returned to the entry to hang their coats.

By the time they returned, I’d unwrapped the loaf and set it on the cutting board. I was just looking for the knife.

“So, what would a visit from your gay friends in the city be like?” asked Jack.

“Oh gods, boys, you do not want to encounter that crowd. It was a mix of the quietly closeted that overcompensated for their normal heterosexual image, and the screaming queens that just could not live without that in-your-face shock treatment.”

“Eww,” cringed Brad. “Were all your gay friends like that?”

I laughed. “No, not really, but the vast majority were. Jason and I knew about half a dozen that were just plain folks. None of the extravagance, but none of the hesitation about themselves either.”

“Like you,” said Jack. “You know, Adam, Brad and I are really happy that you’ve moved in here and we’ve finally met.”

“Not nearly as much as I am to have finally met the two of you. So, boys, I hope you’re not going to be disappointed, but I don’t drink beer, so there’s none to go with your fruitcake.”

“Eww, fruitcake and beer? Even the thought is revolting.”

“All right, how about a small glass of brandy instead?”

“Well, that’s an improvement over Gran Baker’s yearly suggestion of moonshine,” laughed Jack. “She swears it’s why she’s lived so long. She says it burns off anything that might be trying to kill her.”

I didn’t know anything about moonshine, but I had to agree with Allen and these two, the fruitcake was an absolute delight. Miss Francis had been right…I’d never look at fruitcake quite the same. I should know better than to judge something by its label.

We spent the next hour in the living room simply being three gay friends getting to know one another. We shared our stories of personal discovery, coming out, and meeting that first love. The boys weren’t quite ready to admit that theirs was the one great love for them, but they enjoyed hearing about my life with Jason. But best of all was that I loved sharing what Jason and I had. I could see in their eyes the dawning realization that life as a gay man could indeed include profound love and success.

When I invited them to stay for supper, they eagerly cleared the idea with their families. It was, after all, Sunday, and that normally meant family supper. We spent the next hour or so in the kitchen as I demonstrated my love of cooking for friends as we continued our discovery of one another.

Was it a fun evening? Not one bit. It…was…glorious. For three years since Jason’s death I had been avoiding the gay community. I was now ready to embrace it once again and here were these two marvelous young men wanting the same.

The other thing we did, besides get acquainted, was discuss what I had planned for the Christmas dinner I was going to host. The boys helped immensely with suggestions of gifts I could buy for the children. They even offered to take me into town the next day and help with the grocery shopping. That was an offer I readily accepted. Shopping with friends was always more fun, as well as being much more efficient.

As I watched them drive away just before the first show of the evening I could only marvel at how quickly we’d bonded. For despite our considerable age difference, we were fast becoming good friends.

I was somewhat surprised at how well attended the four light shows were. It was, after all, a Sunday night and the kids still had one more week of school before the break.

Monday was a bit overcast, but I’d rested well and felt more than ready to take on the tasks of the day. The boys arrived at ten sharp and we headed straight for the large grocery store I preferred. It was a bit more expensive than the outlets, but I was damn near guaranteed to find everything I needed. It was unlikely that we’d have to make more than the one stop.

We’d just picked up the last item on my list and the cart was nearly overflowing as we headed for the checkout area. We’d just taken our place in line at one of the checkouts when our day took a decidedly rotten turn.

“Hey look, guys. It’s Jaqueline and Brad.”

Brad and Jack simply froze in place, while I glanced back in the direction of the voice. I was pretty sure of what I’d find. Sure enough, there was a group of four young men about Brad’s age and one of them bore a striking resemblance to Charlie Franks. Oh hell.

“Well, Brad,” I said, “Seems your old friend Vince has gathered his courage finally. He’s brought three of his cheering section along.”

“Who the hell are you, old man, and what do you know about me?”

“Oh, I’ve heard a few things.”

“Yeah, from the faggot twins.”

“No, actually, from your father.”

His eyes squinted at me for a couple of moments and I could almost hear the gears spinning in that empty little head of his. And then I saw the light of understanding illuminate behind those eyes. “You’re that faggot author, aren’t you?” He then stepped forward and made the fatal error. “Get out of my way you fucking faggot.” He touched my arm, trying to push me out of the way.

For a split second I felt a wave of pity for the boy. But only for a second. After that, there was no thought. It wasn’t until someone grabbed my wrist as I was making another swing that I came back to myself.

You see, I’d learned about bullies and protection on the streets of New Jersey. I’d spent many a night nursing bruises and cuts through my early teens. Then the day had come when I was sixteen and was being attacked just like dozens of times before. I’d suddenly blacked out and awoke again to find my attacker on the ground bleeding and battered. My best friend had spent several hours trying to convince me that I was the one responsible for all the damage.

After that I just accepted the fact. It wasn’t until Jason and I had become a couple that anyone was finally able to make any sense of it. One time and one time only after we’d met, I had to defend us. Afterwards, Jason had calmly taken me home and nursed my knuckles and knees. It was his description of the phenomenon that finally made sense of it all.

“You’re a throwback, Adam.”

“A what?”

“Throwback…to the age of Vikings probably, since you have Norse ancestry. Adam, you’re a berserker.”

Well hell, I was a writer of fantasy novels and I knew exactly what he was referring to. A berserker was the one thing a fighter never wanted to encounter on a battlefield. The reason is because they could count on the fact that a berserker had no style they could fight. A berserker was the ultimate brawler. The other thing you could always count on is that the berserker would be fast and much stronger than normal. The best explanation I’d ever read was that it was probably the result of a tremendous surge of adrenaline, many times the norm. A berserker was always described as having the strength of ten men and the speed of a lightning strike.

So here I was, in the middle of the grocery, my hand poised to strike my opponent, when my wrist was grabbed and there was real strength in the grip. My head spun back as I gathered myself to strike this new threat when I was suddenly looking into Charlie’s eyes. That simple fact drained the fight out of me. I then slowly turned and looked down, knowing full well what I’d find. The body that lay beneath me bore little resemblance to the cocky, angry young man that he’d once been.

“He’s had enough, Adam. I think he gets your message.” The words were spoken so calmly…and sadly…that I wasn’t sure I could trust my ears. I looked back once again. Charlie sighed deeply as we made eye contact. “He’s been spoiling for something like this for a long time, Adam. I’d always figured the boy would eventually bite off more than he could chew. Certainly nothing his mother or I have said has made any impression. I’m just sorry it had to be you.” He then pulled gently on my arm. “Come on, Adam, get up. The paramedics have just arrived and they’re going to need room to work.”

Just as I reached my feet he released me and quickly moved to block Vince’s three accomplices. “What is the matter with you three?” he said angrily. “You just watched that man tear your leader into tiny shreds. Do you really want to try and take him on? That’s assuming, of course, that you could get through me. What d’ya say, boys, want to go a couple of rounds with me?” There was a significant pause and some mumbling. “Well that’s the first intelligent thing you’ve decided in quite some time. Now go sit over there until the Sheriff arrives. I’m sure they’re going to have more than a few questions for you. You might also think about what you’re going to say to your parents, because when they find out about this there’s going to be a reckoning.”

I looked up in time to see the three of them blanch at that statement and then move off to the spot Charlie had pointed to. Charlie then turned back to me.

“How are you doing, Adam? I’ll be blunt, you don’t look all that well.”

“It’s always like this. Having all that adrenaline suddenly dropping out of my system is going to make me pretty worthless for the rest of the day.”

The rest of the morning was primarily a big blur. I remember giving Jack my wallet and telling him which card to use. Then there were some questions from the sheriff’s deputy. Charlie assured me later that I’d given intelligent answers, even if they were a bit sluggish. Beyond that, I remember nothing. I woke up some indeterminate time later in my own bed.

Christmas II

The very first thing that registered in my mind was the hushed whispering nearby. I smiled slightly recognizing it as my musketeers. But I was also saddened because I could tell they were worried and anxious. I got all their attention even before I opened my eyes.

“Boys, I really am all right.”

I heard and felt the rush as they ran to my bedside. I opened my eyes and smiled slightly. “Boys, please, I’m just exhausted.” I lifted one hand, knowing full well what I’d find. My knuckles had obviously been carefully tended and bandaged. “This is all the damage I ever have after something like this. The rest of me is simply tired…and a bit sore.”

That brought out a flood of tears from all three boys; tears of relief, I figured. And then they surprised me by climbing onto the bed and hugging me. Billy and Archie lay on either side of me, hugging my chest and each other, which left Eric to hug my stomach.

“Shh, shh, boys. Tomorrow you won’t know that anything happened, except for the bandages. I’ve been through this before.” It took several minutes before they were able to calm themselves and sit up.

“So, what time is it?”

Billy glanced at the bedside clock. “Five-thirty.”

Yes, that sounded about right. It usually took five or six hours for my body to get my chemistry adjusted enough for me to begin functioning properly.

“Well, boys, I’m going to need you to find someone to lend me a hand. I need to soak my body in a hot tub for a bit.”

“We know,” said Archie. “Doc Martin came out and looked you over. He said you’d need a long soak in a hot bath with Epson Salts. Mom already measured out what we’d need.”

“We?”

“Yes, sir. We’re going to help you into the tub, draw the water and then sit with you to make sure you don’t fall asleep. Doc Martin said that might happen.”

“And your parents are okay with that?”

“Of course!” they answered together, as if they couldn’t believe I’d question it.

Well, I needed the soak more than I needed to worry about my modesty or their presence so I threw back the sheet and blanket to find that I was only wearing my underwear. Archie and Billy helped me sit up and then stand up, while Eric ran to the master bathroom and started the water running.

I was definitely shakier than I remembered being after one of these episodes, but then I wasn’t thirty anymore. My fifty-five year old body was taking longer to recover. It wasn’t until I was settled in the tub and Eric had begun reducing the flow of cold water, slowly adding the salts under the stream, that Archie left and announced from the top of the stairs that I was awake. If I’d had the energy for it, I think I would have blushed when Eric reached up and pulled my briefs off.

All in all, they were good nurses; very solicitous, if still a bit anxious. They explained that they’d be spending the night with one of them sitting in my bedroom awake for two hours while the others slept. Brad and Jack were scheduled to come in the morning. Jack would take over while Brad drove them to school.

It seemed that all the important decisions had been made and it was my task to simply sit back and enjoy the ride. Since I knew that Jason had done much the same thing that time, I chose not to argue.

Since I was much steadier on my feet after the water cooled, the boys only helped me to dry and then allowed me a bit of privacy to dress…in clothes that they’d already chosen and laid out for me. When I exited my room, Brad and Jack were leaning against the wall, obviously waiting.

“What happened to my nurses?”

They both laughed as they stepped up and gave me a gentle hug.

“Well, sir, as capable and willing as they’ve proven themselves to be, they all agreed that they were probably still a bit undersized to stop a full grown man if he decided to take a tumble down the stairs.”

We laughed together at the truth of that as I gathered first one and then the other into a more robust hug, just to prove that I really was on my way to full recovery. Supper was waiting for us when I finally reached the first floor, courtesy of Eric’s mother.

I could go into a long discussion of who did what and when, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that everything went precisely as it had been choreographed. I awoke early the following morning to the sound of quiet activity in the hall, feeling much more myself. I threw back the covers and grabbed my robe. It’d been less than twenty-four hours, but I was definitely back to normal, except for the slight stiffness of my hands.

I spent a few moments being affectionate to my furry companion, as was our tradition, then rose to take her down so she could go do her morning business. But when I opened the front door she simply sat down in the middle of the entry and looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. I smiled as I closed the door. Someone had obviously seen to it that she’d been properly taken care of. Instead, I lifted her into my arms and we walked into the kitchen to find the musketeers just picking up their packs.

“Mister Adam,” they said as one. Then they stepped up one at a time and simultaneously hugged me and petted Hazy. Then they were out the door, a bit of a spring in their step.

I was glad that I’d awakened in time to relieve their worries. What a marvelous way to begin a day.

Jack poured me a cup of coffee and we sat at the kitchen table.

“So,” he began, “What’s on the agenda for the day?”

“Well, you can start by telling me how bad it is.”

Jack set his coffee down slowly and sighed. Fortunately, I didn’t have to explain what I meant. “One shattered knee, a broken arm, three missing teeth, and enough bruises to look like he’d fallen into a blackberry barrel. At least that’s how Mister Franks described it.” That got raised eyebrows from me. “He stopped here after he left the hospital, to see how you were. He said…”

He was interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell. He returned shortly, Charlie by his side.

“Well, at least one of you is looking better,” said Charlie by way of greeting. Then he glanced over at the pot of coffee.

Jack chuckled. “Sit, sir, I’ll get you a cup.”

Silence reigned while Jack poured a bit of milk into his cup and stirred it.

“Look, Charlie, I…”

“Don’t you dare apologize,” he interrupted sternly. “The only person needing to apologize is Vincent. I already told you that he’s been walking toward a confrontation like this for some time.” He then looked at me and smiled slightly. “I did not expect it to be someone like you, though.”

I shrugged. “I don’t really know where it comes from. One day when I was sixteen my body just suddenly decided it was tired of all the beatings. Word got around and I was finally able to finish high school without having to be constantly looking over my shoulder.”

“Well, you needn’t worry about any legal consequences. There were more than enough witnesses. Besides, his group of cronies fessed up. It only remains to be seen what sort of charges you and the DA decide to press.”

Silence filled the room once again as I considered the options.

“Answer me this, Charlie,” I said finally, “Would it really serve any purpose to land the boys in an environment where their prejudices could be reinforced? Honestly, I’m inclined to just forget the entire incident ever happened.”

Charlie shook his head. “I don’t think we should let them get off that easy. They need to pay a price for their actions. But, having said that, I have to agree with you. I worry that sending them to prison won’t really help. Besides, the whole community is up in arms about what they tried to do.”

I considered that for several moments. “How about if I pressed charges, but asked for leniency and probation instead of jail?”

More silence.

“I suppose that might work,” he said finally. “They certainly won’t be able to get into any trouble with the entire countryside keeping an eye on them.”

“Well, let’s see if we can’t make that happen then. If they refuse to change, they’ll eventually violate their probation and end up in jail. But we’ll have made the effort to keep them clear of that environment.”

He laid a hand gently on my arm. “Thank you, Adam.”

“You’re welcome. Now there’s just one more thing I’d like to do. Let me help with the medical bills.”

“You don’t have to do that, Adam,” he said, clearly stunned by my offer.

I sighed. “Truth time, Charlie. With all the injuries Jack told me he has, I bet Vince is slated for a prolonged stay in the hospital. Are you really doing well enough to afford it all?”

Several moments passed before he finally relaxed and shook his head. “No, not really.”

“Then let your neighbor lend a bit of a hand.” I sighed. “Look, Charlie, Vince may be your son, but you shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of all the expenses. I have a big part to play in his condition. If I were better able to control my reaction to such situations, he wouldn’t be so battered. So please, allow me to assuage some of my guilt in this by helping out. It’s not like I can’t afford it.”

“I’ve never been very good at accepting charity.”

“This isn’t charity, Charlie. This is your neighbor accepting his percentage of the responsibility.”

“All right, Adam. When you put it like that I suppose I can’t really refuse, now can I?”

“Nope.” I smiled and chuckled, and that finally got him to relax.

He turned to Jack. “Could you do me a favor and run out to the truck? There’re two loaves of pumpkin bread on the front seat.” He waited until Jack left before turning to me. “My wife told me that if you accepted our apology that I was to give them to you.”

I shook my head. “Well, you just tell her that I refused to accept any such thing… because it isn’t your place to apologize.”

“Gees, Mister Franks, these things are still warm,” said Jack as he returned.

“The kids ate cold cereal this morning because she wanted these baked before I came over here.”

I laughed. “I better go out and buy this book that everyone seems to be using on country etiquette.”

That finally got the man to laugh. “No book involved, Adam. It all comes from the heart. Just watch your musketeers. Sounds like they’ve got it down in spades.”

“I’ll do that. Now I was wondering if I could ask a bit of a delicate question.” He nodded. “Do you have any idea where Vince got this attitude? I can see it wasn’t from you or your wife.”

“It’s funny you should ask that, because it’s been the only thing I’ve been able to think about since this blew up. And surprisingly, I think I’ve begun to get a glimmer of a possible explanation.” He turned to Jack at that point.

Just then I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. When I turned, Brad was standing so that the other two couldn’t see him. He was also indicating that I shouldn’t say anything just yet.

“Has Brad told you anything about his friendship with Vincent when they were younger?”

Jack didn’t answer immediately. He seemed to be carefully processing what would be the most appropriate response. “Yes, Mister Franks, he has,” he said slowly and softly, but maintaining eye contact. “But I can’t repeat what he’s told me, sir. I’d be breaking a confidence.”

Charlie smiled and patted the boy’s near hand. “That’s answer enough.” He then turned to me. “I started noticing his attitude about the time that Brad came out to his family. I thought it was simply that he couldn’t accept the fact that his former best friend was a homosexual. But I think I’ve been looking in the wrong direction.”

Well of course I understood what he was implying. “I’ve seen it time and again, Charlie. The inability to accept what they feel for another male has screwed up more boys than I care to contemplate. It’s all fine so long as everything is in the shadows. But if what you’re thinking is true, then the fact that Brad came out and they could no longer be friends because of the possibility of others figuring it out would lead to resentment and eventually hatred.”

I glanced up and saw tears falling down Brad’s cheeks. I reached out and tapped Charlie’s hand and nodded in Brad’s direction. When he saw the distressed boy, he jumped up and embraced him and began whispering in his ear. Shortly they walked off in the direction of the living room.

“Finally,” said Jack softly and his eyes were tear filled.

I moved around the table and put a compassionate arm across his shoulders, to which he leaned over and rested his head on mine.

“He’s wanted to talk to someone about it for a very long time,” he sighed.

“At least he had your sympathetic ear.”

“True, and I know it helped, but it wasn’t enough. He still felt responsible. But at sixteen he had that great epiphany that told him he couldn’t continue living the lie… regardless of the consequences. In fact, it was his courage that finally prompted my own epiphany and declaration.”

“Do you think he’d still like to get back together with Vince?”

“No, that’s not what this is about. You know, you asked us the other night if this was our one true love. I have to admit that I’d love that to be the case. I’m never more complete than when I’m with Brad. But he’s got all this pain inside that he hasn’t been able to purge. It’s holding him back.”

“Sometimes all we can do is just be there to hold them until they figure it all out.” He nodded against my shoulder at the truth of that. “So, since Brad’s involved in something much more important, how would you like to help me with some internet searches? I want to find out which stores have the things I’m looking for before we go to make the purchases. I hate all that driving from store to store only to be disappointed.”

“Yes, sir, I think that’d be just the thing. I can’t just sit here and worry about what I have no control over.”

“Spoken like a true friend. So, let’s hit it then.”

The two of them spoke for over an hour while Jack and I searched and located everything I wanted. I was even able to purchase half of the toys for pickup later that day. All in all, it was a very satisfying morning. Especially when Brad and Charlie entered my office and it was immediately clear that Brad was feeling much better. His very first act was to walk over to a hesitant Jack and pull him into a fierce hug.

“I love you so much,” said Brad.

Charlie simply stood at the door and smiled affectionately at the display. Then he walked over and sat in the chair Jack had been using.

“Well, that certainly clears up the situation. Now all I have to figure out is how to use the information without letting on just how much I know. It’s going to have to be a delicate balance. The last thing I want to do is let on where I got the information.”

“Well, I don’t know how, but if you feel like I might help, just let me know.”

“Actually, I might need some advice. Bradley has given me permission to share with you.”

“When are you planning to begin confronting this?”

“After the holidays. Vincent is going to be heavily sedated for a couple of weeks according to his doctor. That will give me time to talk to you and work out a strategy. For now I want this information to stay in this room. If my son and I can work this out, it’ll be him who decides what is to be done.”

He got up and joined in the boys’ hug. “Remember, Bradley, he who hesitates…”

“Yes, sir, I won’t forget.” He then released Jack and just as fiercely hugged Charlie. “Thank you so much, sir.”

“You’re welcome, son. But I’m the one who’s most thankful. What you’ve told me gives me the chance to rectify some wrongs and maybe an opportunity to turn this whole situation around.” He pushed Brad gently away. “You’ve done all you can to help your friend, Bradley. Now I want you to get on with your life.”

After Charlie had gone, we gathered our outdoor gear and headed out the door.

“Adam, would you drive, please? I need to talk to Jack…right now.” He smiled. I could see there a hint of decisions made, but needing to be shared.

“One chauffeur coming up,” I answered with a chuckle. Obviously he intended to take Charlie’s advice to heart. No hesitation.

Fortunately, Brad’s SUV had three rows of seats. The boys were able to take the rear most so that they could have a bit of privacy. I simply deposited my purchases in the second row. And yes, I ended up making the first four stops solo. The situation was humorous and touching at the same time. There was a lot of potential here for a real love story, if you know what I mean. And after what happened yesterday, that’s what we really needed.

My next stop was Toys-R-Us. By then, the boys were laughing in the back. We made the rest of the stops together and then they helped with the wrapping when we got home.

There was definitely a new ease between the two of them. This was evident in all the little touches, quick smiles, and yes, loving looks. Damn, I was dying to be nosey. Instead, I simply basked in the glow. It took me back to what I’d felt during that first date with Jason.

I spent the next two days completing my gift shopping during the school hours. After school the musketeers would arrive, since none of their teachers was inclined to give out homework right before the holidays. They’d stay until suppertime at home. After supper the older boys would arrive for a bit of wine and fruitcake.

I woke Friday morning with a profound sense of anticipation. This would be my first party since Jason had died. And surprisingly, that thought was not accompanied by a sense of loss or sorrow. I was about to spend most of today and tomorrow with my new accomplices in party giving. First would come Brad and Jack, who’d arrive about noon today and we’d begin prepping ingredients for tomorrow’s massive cooking endeavor.

But then would come the musketeers as fast as their snowmobiles could get them here after school. All five of them would be bringing clothes for an overnight stay. As soon as the younger boys arrived we’d begin making hors d’oeuvres. Then we’d begin baking cookies of several types. And last of all would come the dessert course. I planned to make banana crème, coconut cream, and lemon meringue pies; three of each. There was no way I was going to try and match the pies we’d had over Thanksgiving. I did not want to give any impression that I was competing. This dinner was going to be completely unlike anything they were used to. Saturday would be all about the meal. Oh, and did I mention that all the ingredients I’d ordered over a week ago arrived exactly on time Thursday?

Friday went without a hitch as all the boys dove into the work. No one complained about how much work we were putting in.

Saturday morning was when I finally revealed what we’d be eating as our main course. I’d kept it a secret because I knew that the boys really enjoyed a surprise. And boy did I surprise them when I began pulling out bag after bag of lobster tail, gigantic shrimp, and enormous scallops.

“Oh my gosh,” said Eric as the last bag was deposited in the sink. “Mister Adam, this is incredible.”

“I’m just hoping that everyone will enjoy it,” I said. “I don’t imagine this sort of thing has ever graced your tables.”

“No, sir,” answered Archie. “But they’re popular when dad treats us to a dinner out.”

Well, all I can say is thank god for enormous industrial ovens…two of them…and my eight burner gas range. When we reached the point where the only thing left to cook was the seafood, I began sending the boys off two at a time to change for supper.

Our guests began arriving at two and we took turns going out to mingle with them and ensure that everyone was enjoying themselves.

It was four o’clock when I placed the last sprig of parsley on the lobster platters and all the guests had been hustled to their places in the dining room. I stood for just a moment and looked at each of the boys.

“Well, boys, it looks like we’ve done it.” That got smiles and sighs all around. “I think you understand that this would not have been possible without your willingness to pitch in. You’ve worked your butts off for two days to make this possible, and I couldn’t be prouder of you.”

“I didn’t think we’d get it all done,” said Eric, with Archie and Billy nodding at his side.

“It’s all in the timing, boys,” I laughed. “Now, I don’t want to keep everyone waiting, but I just want to make sure that you understand that this is not my party, this afternoon. This is our holiday celebration, shared with family and friends.”

I was about to say a bit more when Billy stepped up and wrapped me in one very serious hug. He was actually shaking ever so slightly with emotion. And then he leaned slightly back and looked me squarely in the eye. “Merry Christmas, Mister Adam.” Then he kissed me. I mean, really kissed me. I was so stunned. And then Archie and Eric repeated the gesture. They were kisses such as I’m sure they gave their parents. Nothing the least bit lingering or suggestive, just appreciative and heart filled.

When Brad and Jack stepped up to express their feelings, their kisses were definitely more intense. But the younger boys didn’t seem the least bit embarrassed. They just continued to stand and smile.

I stood in stunned silence for just a moment. “Merry Christmas, boys.” Then I took a deep breath to calm my emotions and let it out slowly. Finally, I smiled. “Well, shall we get this show on the road?”

I stepped out into the dining room as the boys shuffled to retrieve the serving trays. We’d carefully choreographed this part of the afternoon. I stepped up next to the chair at the head of the table and the room grew silent.

“Good afternoon, friends. Normally, I’d have a long-winded speech for this moment. But really, what’s the point? Your presence alone is testament enough to our friendship. So I’ll simply say that my co-hosts and I bid you welcome and Merry Christmas.”

The boys stepped out confidently. Brad and Jack carried trays full of shrimp and crab cocktails. Eric carried one of salad bowls, with Archie following closely behind to serve the bowls. Billy entered with another tray of salad bowls and I followed him to serve.

As soon as everyone had their salad and cocktail we all rushed back to the kitchen for the platters of seafood. Brad and Jack carried the lobster platters, the musketeers each had one filled with the shrimp, and I carried two that had the scallops. The oohs and aahs as the platters were set on the table were very satisfying.

The meal lasted for a bit more than an hour and to try and relate all that took place would be ludicrous. But I will relate just a couple of points that were particularly noteworthy for me.

The first and foremost of all were the looks I shared with my co-hosts. We spent the entire meal seeking each others’ attention. But the thing that was certainly a close second were the reactions of the youngest children. Curiosity and surprise at the foods presented. And of course, all of their observations and questions were blurted out without any thought to discretion.

“I don’t like the big bug, Mommy. But the shimpes things are real good.”

As I knew would happen, the two intact lobsters had garnered the most attention from the youngsters. A couple were revolted, but most found them fascinating. One even asked his daddy if he could get one for a pet.

Toward the end of the feast Amanda, who’d sat to my left all evening, leaned over and patted my hand.

“Adam, this has been a truly marvelous meal,” she said softly.

I smiled as I looked down the table at all these people who were ignoring us and continuing their conversations. “Yes, ma’am, it has been,” I answered as I finally turned to look at her.

She smiled…a knowing little smile. “I was referring to the food, young man,” she chuckled. “But I can see that you mean something entirely different.” She took my near hand in hers. “Didn’t you and your partner have friends with children?”

“No ma’am. There’s one thing you can count on in the city. If you’re a gay man, everyone will be suspicious of your intentions if you pay any attention to a child. There are too many men that have made things difficult for the rest of us.”

“Well, I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that in these parts. I know that most people around here won’t go assuming anything.”

When I looked at her closely, I could tell that she was saying much more than what the simple words implied.

“Is this something I have the musketeers to thank for?”

“Mostly. But their families have begun playing a large part in it too. Look, Adam, I read the paper and watch the news. I know the troubles that gay men and women are facing out there. I’m old, not senile. And I worry about Jack and Brad. They have many battles ahead of them. I’ve worried that we couldn’t help them understand how they could deal with the issues.”

“They’re fine young men, Gran.” She smiled at my use of her family title.

“I can see that they’re coming to admire you. And I don’t think it has anything to do with your celebrity. In you they’ve found a role model and mentor.”

I sighed as I glanced at the two of them down there at the other end of the table, talking with their relatives…a set of clasped hands on the table. “I’m certainly trying. I never had a mentor when I needed one most.”

“Well, whatever you’re doing, I like the results,” she said as she followed my gaze. “I’ve never seen them this comfortable before. You know, this is the first time I’ve seen them hold hands so openly with us. I think it’s the sweetest thing. They may be two males, but who can deny that love.” She laughed. “But we were talking about the younger ones. They’re awfully proud of the friendship you all share, Adam. When their teachers began questioning them about their improved grades, they proudly gave all the credit to you. Their friends have learned never to invite them to anything on a Saturday. They’ve made it absolutely clear to anyone who asks that Saturday is for being here.”

“It’s been the highlight of my week for a long time now. I just wish there were a way to bottle all that energy.”

She laughed at that one. “It wears me out just watching them sometimes.” She then patted my hand. “But now it’s time for us to clear the table.”

“Oh, Gran, I’m just going to leave it for now.”

She simply smiled at me and stood. “All right, gentlemen,” she announced, “time for you to go off and smoke your cigars. Children, I want you to take your brothers and Mister Adam with you. They’ve worked hard to create this spectacular meal and it’s time they got an opportunity to relax. Ladies…if you will?”

She then turned to me and smiled at my stunned expression. “You can’t deny us, young man. This is what we women call our gossip hour.” She then leaned over and whispered in my ear. “We’re just going to rinse the dishes and store the food. Go on, it really is something we enjoy.”

“Well, I suppose it won’t do me any good to protest. Archie has told me that the real head of his home is his Gran.”

“And don’t you forget it, sonny. Now go.”

I laughed as I got up and accepted the hands of the two children that had arrived to escort me.

The next hour wasn’t anything like a vintage painting of old men sitting around a pickle barrel, smoking and charrin’ tabakee, a checker board poised on the barrel. And not one of the men seemed to have any desire to go smoking a cigar. Jeremiah is the one that explained it as an old family joke that dated back to his grandfather’s time when that is precisely what the men would do while the women folk toiled in the kitchen.

At one point I noticed five of the youngest children gathered around a diorama carved in wood that Jason had picked up at a little shop in Venice. It depicted a turn of the century shopping district with many shops decorated for the holidays. There were a dozen shoppers, obviously rushing to complete their errands. But what had captured the attention of the children were the two boys. One was obviously very poor, sitting at the end of an alley, looking very forlorn. Over him stood another boy, well dressed, obviously not wanting for anything. The well-dressed boy had his hand extended toward the poor one.

I got up from my chair and walked over to join the children. I still hadn’t sorted out which children belonged to which family. So I don’t know who she was, but a girl of about six looked up as my shadow fell over them.

“We weren’t touching, Mister Adam.”

I knelt down and patter her back. “I know you weren’t, sweetheart. I just came to see if you had any questions. You’ve all been standing here for quite a while.”

“We were wondering if it means something,” she said boldly.

Nothing on the diorama was moveable, so I lifted the whole thing off the table and sat on the floor, setting it there before me. The children all gathered close and sat down obviously hoping for a story. I sat there for probably ten minutes spinning them a tale of the hard life the poor boy had. Then I shifted to the well-dressed boy and how easy his life was. And I wrapped it all together with a warm message of caring and charity and love.

Before you ask, no, I wasn’t reciting from memory. I made it up as I went along. I am an author, after all, and spinning tales is what I do for a living. I admit, however, that I’d never had an opportunity to tell a story in this fashion. The children hung on my every word. It wasn’t until I’d finished the story that I realized that the entire room was silent. When I glanced around, I found the women all standing at the living room entrance and all the other occupants simply turned around, watching this little scene.

I admit it, I blushed slightly at having been caught out. I lifted the diorama back onto the table. When I turned I was very gratified when the five children tackled me in a huge group hug and thanked me for the story.

“Well now, children, I see that your moms and grandmas have finished their work in the kitchen, so how would you like to do presents now?”

“Presents?! Really?!” It was funny because the five little ones screamed that nearly in unison. That immediately got everyone laughing as the mothers hustled up and got control of their children, settling them near the tree. I gathered my Three Musketeers and I began handing the gifts to them and they, in turn, delivered the package to the designated recipient.

There was an awful lot of ‘wow, that’s just what I wanted’ as wrapping paper was ripped from the gifts. I’d expected each child to immediately find a spot to begin playing with their new toy, so I was greatly surprised when, with no prompting from any of the adults, the little ones came over one at a time to hug and thank me. Then they ran off to find a spot for their play.

I walked over to stand in front of Brad and Jack at that point.

“Well, boys, I had a bit of quandary when it came to the two of you. We’re only just getting to know one another. But even in this short time I’ve begun to feel a growing bond as family, in a spiritual and emotional sense.” They smiled and nodded. They also squeezed each other’s hand and leaned against one another.

“I’ve been at this a very long time, boys. I’ve watched a lot of men grow close, only to fall away later on. But once in a great while I’ve had the privilege of watching men grow close and then simply continue to grow closer. It’s always a miraculous thing when it happens in a heterosexual couple. But for me, it’s profound when it happens between two gay men. To witness two men decide that their love is so perfect that they are willing to ignore the prejudices of the society around them and simply be true to themselves…well, what can I say, I’m a sucker for a love story.”

I took just a moment to glance at the adults and witnessed a marvelous thing. Every husband and wife were cuddled together with clasped hands, smiling. I returned my attention to the boys.

“Like I said, I’ve been at this game of love for a long time. Jason and I shared something unique in this world. Many people frowned on it, but we didn’t care. We loved each other completely. And we did so for a very long time.” I sighed. “I’ve been keeping an eye on the two of you.” We chuckled together at that. “What I’ve been seeing in the last few days is a lot like what I saw when I looked at Jason and me. Someone recently told me that they had never seen you as comfortable with your relationship. You seem willing to allow people to witness what you have between you. Well, heck, look at you this minute.”

I walked over to the tree and pulled two small boxes from where I’d set them on branches. When I returned to stand before them, I held the boxes close to my chest.

“If I’m not mistaken, the two of you have decided to take your relationship to a new level of commitment.” They nodded. And there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation in their response. I handed each of them a box. “Well then, boys, as a man who just can not resist the opportunity to encourage a love story, I’ve gotten you these so that you may have a physical acknowledgement of that new commitment.”

I think they did it on purpose. They opened their gifts with agonizingly slow precision. But then again, maybe they were just a bit overwhelmed. If they were, they were controlling their outward expression of it.

What they pulled from the boxes were two necklaces. Each one was a heart encrusted with diamonds. What made them different was that one had the diamonds set in gold, the other in silver. They looked at them for just moment and then reached up to put them on.

“Huh uh, boys,” I said. I then indicated that they were to swap the necklaces.

Okay, that finally did it. They understood what I was really trying to convey here. The realization brought tears to their eyes as they slowly reached toward each other and put the necklace in their hands over the head of the other.

Now, I could have chosen rings for them, and I’d considered just that. But I’d remembered all the added pressure Jason and I got when we began wearing our rings. We’d regretted it for a time, wishing we’d gone for something a little less public. So I’d chosen the necklaces for the boys. It was something that did not have to be exposed for the world to see, but it would keep the heart of their partner right next to their own. It wasn’t that they needed a symbol for others to see. They only needed some physical expression of their love that would always be there, whether they were physically together or not.

In that moment, Gran’s words came back to me about being a mentor for the boys. This was surely an expression of that. I was saving them from the mistake that Jason and I felt we’d made. After all, a commitment like theirs usually required the exchange of rings. I’d take the time later to explain why I’d chosen this.

The fact that I could see they understood what I was implying and the fact that they didn’t hesitate for a moment in completing the gesture told me that I’d been exactly right. They had, in fact, committed their hearts to one another. The looks I got from the two of them as they lowered their hands was all the thanks I needed.

I smiled briefly. Then I closed my eyes and took a deep breath before I turned to face the Three Musketeers where they sat on the floor next to my chair.

“Now I come to the three of you.” I held up my hand as Billy opened his mouth to say something. “Oh please, don’t say anything right now, and please, please, stay right where you are. I have some things to say and if you do or say anything I won’t get through it.”

I had to close my eyes and take another deep breath as I saw the slight glistening in all their eyes. When I finally felt in control again I opened them back up before continuing.

“I moved here two years ago so that I could bury myself in my grief over the loss of the only person I believed could make me happy. And being a gay man, and one with a certain celebrity, I was certain that once the truth about my life became known I’d have little chance of being accepted in this community; which, at the time, was exactly what I was willing to accept.”

It only registered peripherally that the entire room was silent. Even the children had stopped their play to listen.

“And then came the day that three boys came knocking at my door, hoping that they’d be able to convince the old guy that was new to the area that he needed help caring for his large yard. To them it was simply a wish for a bit of pocket money for the summer.

“Well, the old guy had not been enjoying all the work that was being required of him. He’d lived his whole life in a large city and hadn’t realized all that was entailed in having a home in the country. I knew concrete and potted, artificial plants. Grass and flowering beds were a mystery to me. Oh yeah, and raking leaves. Gees, I thought the trees would never become bare.”

The four of us laughed at that. For me it was a brief moment to clamp down on my emotions.

“So, here were these three rascals offering to lend me a hand…for a few dollars in their pocket, of course. What I never told you is that I’d been trying to figure out where I could hire someone to help take care of the place as she deserved. Boys, you were like an answer to a prayer.”

I smiled down at them. “Do you remember that I turned away for a moment?” They nodded. “Well, I damn near started crying right then. I had to turn away to get some control. I’d been looking out at the yard starting to get green that morning. The flower beds were staring at me as I sat in my library window, and I could almost hear them asking what I planned to do with them this year.”

I smiled and chuckled. “It took all my control not to blurt out my acceptance. And then we got into a lengthy negotiation.” I laughed outright. “You bargained hard too, as I remember. I realized right away that I was going to have to keep a close eye on you three. I knew if I didn’t, I might find my wallet far lighter than I cared for.”

At just that moment, Hazy padded over and sat at my feet. I knelt down and petted her as I continued.

“Well, I was amazed at all that you said you were willing to do. And I really had to agree that your price was quite fair. But do you know what really sealed the deal?”

They shook their heads, now fascinated by my speech.

I looked down at Hazy, just as she looked up at me. “Hazy is the one that really gets the credit for you getting hired. You see, boys,” I continued as I looked back at them, “Shelties, by and large, are a skittish breed. They don’t take to strangers. It takes quite a bit to get past their skepticism. So when she walked out of the house when she’d awakened from her nap I was shocked and more than just a bit confused when she ran out and immediately began jumping on you and encouraging you to play with her.”

Hazy chose that moment to pad over and lay in Eric’s lap. That got a chuckle from the adults.

“Well, that was all I needed. It was like a sign from on high. But I have to admit that I wasn’t really expecting a lot of enthusiasm from you three. Doing the chores you were offering to do would take up a large portion of your Saturdays. I just knew in my heart that your willingness to work would probably wane as the summer moved along.”

I stood up and walked to the tree and began pulling the last three boxes from there as I continued. It was just a way for me to finish this without losing my limited control.

“But that never happened. You worked hard and never complained. And then we slowly got to know one another. The only time in my life I’d had any prolonged contact with children was during that short spate as a teacher in New Jersey. It was not a terribly positive experience. The kids at the school were, for the most part, selfish and cruel. So I didn’t really know what to expect from you.”

I set a box in front of each boy, but none of them made any move to open them.

“Life was suddenly fun with you three around. Saturdays rapidly became my favorite day of the week. And then you went and did something that shocked me to my core. I’ve met very few adults that had such heart as you demonstrated when you invited yourselves to Thanksgiving supper. And then I learn that you’d done it knowing what my sexual preferences were, despite the fact that we’d never discussed it. I’d been very careful to hide the fact, just knowing that I’d lose your friendship if you were to learn.”

I turned my head slightly toward the rest of the room. “Brad, did you tell the boys about coming out to my car that night?”

“No, Adam.”

I focused on the boys before me. “He came out that night because he’d seen me stop on the side of the road after I’d dropped Billy off. What he found when he arrived was an old gay man crying…in supreme happiness. Until that day I could never really make myself believe that I’d have any sort of love or truly close friends in my life.”

I lifted an arm and swept it around the room. “All of this is your fault. All of this would have remained in my attic for another year if you hadn’t come along and shown me that there was love and friendship out there in the world for me. To have had the revelation come in such young packages simply added to the marvel. So, what you have before you is a very small token to demonstrate my appreciation, my pride in who and what you are, and yes, my dear boys, my love.”

They didn’t move, even though I was obviously done. They simply continued to look at me, with tears streaming down their cheeks. So I crept forward, on my knees, and set the box in front of Archie into his lap, lifted his hands and set them on top of it. Then I leaned forward, took his head in my hands and kissed his forehead. “Merry Christmas, Archibald.” His only reaction to my use of his full name, which he’d never told me, was to smile.

I then did exactly the same thing to Eric and finally William. Of course, it took a moment to convince Hazy that she had to move.

The moment of silence stretched out as the boys all sniffed back their happiness and wiped at their eyes. But finally they each looked down and slowly tore the paper off the front of their box. All three of them froze when that first rip revealed what was inside. That first look finally got the boys to relax and react like children. They frantically ripped at the paper until everyone could clearly see the image of the boys’ new laptop computers.

“Oh my god, Adam,” said Marsha breathlessly.

I raised my hand to stop their immediate reaction of jumping up to thank me.

“Not yet, boys. There’s more.” I smiled, thoroughly enjoying their stunned happiness. “I believe I’ve made it clear over our growing friendship that I have many unique friends back where I came from. One of them is a real character with a very unique combination of talents. Besides being a complete computer geek, he is an accomplished artist as well.”

I chuckled. “Of course, I should probably mention that so is his wife. She’s the artist that created the ornament at the top of our tree.”

I waited for just a moment, knowing that everyone had glanced up at the thing.

“Anyway, when I ordered these computers, I asked him to give them a special treatment. Open your boxes, boys, and pull out your computers.”

Fortunately for them, I’d already had each of the computers out of their box to ensure that everything I’d asked for had been done. I’d also taken considerable care in setting up parental controls on them. Anyway, what this meant is that they didn’t have to fight the yards of tape that had previously sealed their boxes.

All three of them froze as the computer lid came into view. What I’d asked from my friend was a custom cover for each computer. They simply stared in awe at the picture of the Three Musketeers on each cover. They had no doubt that these were custom pieces, because the faces of the musketeers were their faces. I’d sent my friend copies of the pictures we’d taken that summer with my Hollywood friend.

I’d given Christian a general idea of what I wanted. I’d left the specifics to him. What he’d given me was far more than I’d expected. The painted Musketeers were identical on each computer. What made them totally personal is that Christian had placed each boy in the center position on his own computer. Below them was written Three Musketeers in Old English calligraphy. Below that was each boy’s name under his figure…the owner’s name under the center figure being slightly larger.

I laughed at their stunned looks. “Well, go ahead and pull them out and show everyone.”

When the expected sounds of amazement ended I finished my presentation. “I’ve had those computers loaded with all sorts of programs, boys, and if you can come over tomorrow after church I’ll give you all the details. For now, I’ll only mention one program. Each of you has a program that will help you with the one subject that you struggle with most at school. The program is comprehensive enough that it will last you all the way through graduation from high school.”

I smiled and looked first at Billy. “Which subject do you think you got?”

“Math?”

I nodded and turned to Archie.

“It has to be English.”

I smiled and then turned to Eric. I could see that the poor boy was struggling to make a decision. After all, the boy didn’t really have a subject that caused him any problems.

“I’ll save you the effort, Eric. We all know that you really don’t have any problems at school. What you do seem to have is one subject that completely captivates your attention.”

“Animal biology.”

“Yes, sir. Your program is one specifically tailored to someone that seems to be heading toward a career in veterinary medicine.”

They all stood at that point and gave me a brief hug before they stepped over to their parents and handed over the computers for them to admire. Then they returned to me empty handed and did what I never expected them to do in front of their families. I got a much more serious hug and then they’d each kissed me, just as they’d done in the kitchen earlier.

I know you’re not going to believe me, but I didn’t cry. And honestly, it sort of surprised me too. I simply basked in it all. I hadn’t felt this warm and fuzzy since before Jason’s illness.

I spent the rest of the evening with the parents telling them what I’d ordered in these computers. I first explained the parental controls I’d set up. They were very appreciative of that forethought. Marsha, at least, understood some of the potential with the programs I’d had included. Everything I’d put in there would help the boys excel in their school work. But what really surprised them is when I told them about the GPS tracing devices I’d had installed so that there was little chance of theft. I also explained about the plate that was cemented somewhere inside the housing that contained all of the boys’ personal information.

I was pleased, but not surprised, when they all agreed with my wish that the computers never be allowed anywhere but at home or my house. I was pretty sure the boys wouldn’t have a problem with that restriction. I didn’t intend to tell the boys about the GPS or identification plate, however. It might turn into a point of pride that they shared with their friends and that was something that couldn’t be allowed to happen.

Everyone finally departed at nine, but I was still far too keyed up to seek my own bed. So I spent an hour in the kitchen loading the dishwasher with pots and pans, and washing the china and silver by hand. I decided to leave off putting it all back into the china cabinet until the next morning, mainly because by the time I was done I was starting to fade.

Fortunately, Brad and Jack had taken it upon themselves to collect all the debris and cart it off to the trash bin. My Musketeers had reverted to pure boys as they sat together in a corner and began exploring their new bits of technology. So it was that I only had to walk around and extinguish candles and turn out lights before I gathered up my little collie and took us to our beds.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Hmm, I’ve just taken a moment to review what I’ve written. I don’t think I’ve done the best job at keeping my point of view consistent. Most of the time I seem to be writing as if I were living the experiences at that moment. At others, it’s obvious that I’m writing from a future perspective, reliving what happened.

Well, in all honesty, I should probably say that I am, in fact, looking back on events. The reason for the confusion, I suppose, is that I’ve been reading through the diaries I began when it became clear that the boys and I were growing close.

That would be the first two diaries. I’ve got dozens more of them on my shelves now, all carefully labeled, standing proudly in my office. They are, after all, a sort of shrine to my second life.

You might ask why diaries, in the old manner, instead of on the computer. It’s simple. These events were so important at the time that I had no intention of losing the thoughts during those days because of some failure of my electronics. And after so many years it’s simply a habit that I truly enjoy.

Oh yes, years. Thought you might catch that. It’s now dusk on an early June day and I’ve just returned from witnessing the graduation of my Three Musketeers from high school. I was particularly proud of the fact that all three of them had been high on the honor rolls.

Let’s see if I can’t summarize this last six years so that I don’t bore you.

All right, you’ve already seen the biggest news of my boys. I’ll only add that they worked on my yard faithfully until the beginning of their sophomore year. The previous summer they’d scoured the countryside to find more boys to take their place. None of them have been as dedicated as my musketeers, but there always seems to be someone to take the vacated space.

I’ve become a respected member of the community. I’m frequently called upon to come and speak to students about gay issues.

Let’s see, Brad and Jack are still a strong couple. The summer after that first Christmas, they moved into the cottage Brad’s grandmother had insisted they have; the one she and her husband had lived in during the early days of their lives. It had stood unused for many years, but maintained just enough so that it didn’t disintegrate.

You see, the boys wanted to continue working the dairy, with an eye to eventually controlling it all. Allowing them to move into an apartment in town seemed ludicrous to everyone. But the boys desperately wanted to have their own place.

On a warm summer’s day, a dozen families had gathered at the cottage with enough materials to nearly rebuild the entire structure. It was a three day barn raising, or at least that’s what we called it. In fact, it was just an updating and fortifying of the existing structure. New windows and appliances appeared as if by magic; along with insulation, drywall, and paint, not to mention all the lumber. The thing that made it possible is that one of the family friends was a local contractor. He’d sent us a small crew of experienced men who directed our efforts.

When it was all said and done, the boys had a modern, weather-tight home. But the two of them had insisted that if it was at all possible, they wanted the exterior to be a faithful restoration of the original structure, to honor the grandparents that had started it all. They got their wish.

Let’s see, what else? Oh yes, there is one sad note in all those years. Vincent Franks was never able to reconcile himself to his feelings. A year after that incident, he took his life. The other three boys got a year’s probation and turned their lives around.

In all these years, I’ve never had an opportunity to become lonely or depressed. My musketeers have been faithful friends and companions, even after they gave up the task of keeping my yard. I became amused when they started dating because every new girl friend since they turned fourteen has been brought by to visit. My approval of their choices was always very important to the boys. Only once in all those years did I feel the need to advise dropping the girl in question.

As you might imagine, Brad and Jack are frequent guests. In fact, I seem to visit them at their small home as much as they come here. A week never goes by without us getting together once or twice. It’s been amusing to watch them as they’ve experimented with décor, trying to determine precisely what their style was. What they’ve finally settled on is a nice combination of contemporary and vintage. It’s a clear statement that they are modern boys that wish to acknowledge the debt they owe to their past.

I’m waiting for them now, in fact. They are going to take me to the big family celebration. I only came here to bring home my gifts from the graduation ceremony. I plan to build a shadow box to put them in so that they’ll always be protected, and always present. You see, the boys each signed their mortar boards and gave them to me in gratitude for all my help, support, and love. I know that’s what they intended, because that’s precisely what they’ve written on the boards.

So, I suppose that leaves only Hazy. She’s hanging in there with me. She’s ten years old now and not nearly as frisky as she used to be. Of course, at sixty-one, neither am I. We don’t ‘walk’ as much as we used to. And when we do, they are strolls instead of the cat and mouse games we used to play. Oh yes, and our naps afterwards are certainly longer.

My point in all of this is that I’m trying to speak to those of you who have been thrown a curve ball in life. Just because the perfection of your life has been disrupted, is no reason to stop looking for the opportunities for something new. And please, don’t overlook an opportunity because the source seems so outlandish.

I mean look at me. I got an opportunity at a second supremely happy life. And what was the source of that happiness? It was three young boys stopping by to try and make a buck. And I’m convinced that both my lives have occurred because of Jason; the first one by his presence, the second by his intercession on my behalf.

Don’t automatically reject the unexpected or unusual. Go ahead and embrace it…at least for a time. Give it a chance to develop. I won’t say that you will get the same stellar results that I’ve had, but who can say.

I suppose the only way to really close this is to send out a heartfelt thank you to my one true love. I believe with all my heart that you brought this opportunity to my doorstep, you rascal. You never were one to let me wallow when life took a nasty turn.

I just hope you’re patient, Jason. I know the day will come when we will be reunited and be able to renew our commitment. In the meantime, I’m having far too much fun in this new life you devised for me to give it up quite yet.

So, until that day arrives, I’ll simply continue to end my day as I’ve always done.

Good night my love, and thank you.