Ren

~    P a r t   2    ~

Chapter 16

> 1 <

Ren watched Andy run for the storage building and held his breath. He could hardly bear to look but couldn’t not look, either. When he saw Andy make it, he started breathing again.

Now it was his turn. His part was just as risky as Andy’s. Andy had had a wide gap between the corral and the storage building to negotiate. Ren had a similar open space between the back of the vet’s house and the side of the Aguilar house.

Ren was already behind the vet’s house. He saw what Andy had seen, the two lead bandits’ gaze focused on the women close to the Hanson House, and he ran for it. He was carrying two rifles. One, he left behind the two-story Vargas house. The second was going to be the problem. It was planned for the Hanson House roof.

When he got to the gap between his own house and the Mendoza house and peeked out, he had to pull his head away immediately. He was exactly in Mesa’s line of sight.

What to do? He just couldn’t take the chance of being seen. Too much depended on him.

Gus was supposed to climb onto the Hanson House roof. This was because he was helping the raiders ransack his own house, which was close to the Hanson House. The boys were all helping rob their own houses; Mesa’s thinking was that they’d know where anything valuable was hidden. Ren was supposed to leave a rifle for him near the fire escape that led to the top of the Hanson House. Now, that wouldn’t be possible. Ren needed to change the plan, and needed to somehow let Gus know.

He was crouching behind the Mendoza house when he heard a window just above him slide open. He looked up, and there was Gus.

“Just making sure it would open,” Gus whispered.

Ren stood up and whispered back. “I’ll leave the rifle here. Use the top of my house instead of the Hanson House. It’s not as tall, but will have to do.” And then he was gone, scurrying back, again cutting across the open, exposed area, and eventually ending up at the stable.

> 2 <

Ren waited as long as he could. Four o’clock came and went. Ren could see nothing happening, hear nothing happening.

Perfect.

While he was simply waiting, getting more and more scared as the time passed, he saw Ryan take the last rifle, check the load and walk into the barn. Ryan! The plan was for him to stay with the horses in the corral so anyone looking that way would see a boy there. Well, he couldn’t think about that now.

Ren moved to the corral so he could be seen. He watched the lawn, watched Mesa. All of Mesa’s men were coming out of the houses, carrying things. Ren didn’t see any of the boys who were supposed to be helping them.

Carlos, the second in command, stepped up to talk to Mesa, waving his arms a little, then walked away. Mesa stood and began looking around—frowning. Ren knew he had to go now. He also knew the chances were very good, actually much better than good, that within minutes, he would be dead.

Nervously, not trying to hide his fear at all, he walked out of the corral and across the lawn toward Mesa. He was afraid but walked without hesitation. He wondered whether his life would begin flashing before his eyes. He’d read that. He’d used reading all through his childhood as an escape. But his life didn’t flash before him now. He did remember things. He remembered being whipped by his mother’s boyfriend. He remembered how that had felt. He remembered his mother’s frequent scorn. He remembered feeling powerless, recalling how helpless, weak, and impotent he’d felt throughout his childhood.

He remembered his dad telling him the ranch would be a fresh start for him. That he could be whoever he wished to be.

He looked around as he walked and saw two of Mesa’s men walk from the bunkhouse. He almost smiled, seeing that. The worst weakness of his plan was these men. They and another man were guarding the men from the ranch who were locked in the bunkhouse. They had rifles, and he had no way to deal with them. He’d been hoping they’d come out for dinner, feeling they were safe being away for long enough to get some food. The smell of roasting beef had been present for the past half hour. He wasn’t surprised to see the two men emerge and was thankful. He just wished it was all three.

He’d been hoping they’d come out for food, but that’s all it had been, a simple hope. His plan hadn’t been foolproof. It was simply the best thing he could come up with. Now, seeing those men, he felt some small relief. Now, at least there was a better chance than before. He still probably wouldn’t survive, but others would have a better chance to. If things went well, a lot of them probably would.

He stood a little straighter. If he were to die here, and it was likely he would, he wasn't going to do it crying, screaming, feeling useless like he had on that bed back in Jackson, the whip lashing across his back. He wouldn’t be making a cringing retreat to his room to avoid his mother’s hateful words.

Mesa had his back to him at the moment. He was turning in a slow circle, looking at the people on the grass. Ren stopped several feet away from him and waited. Mesa’s circling ended with him finally seeing Ren in front of him.

Ren spoke. “Señor, ¿puedo hablar con usted?” [“Sir, may I speak to you?”]

The man studied the boy in front of him. He was small and anglo, probably about 12, and was standing with slumped shoulders, looking very afraid. Nothing for Mesa to be worried about, but possibly someone to make an example of. There was something wrong, however; he sensed it, and perhaps this boy being shot would make things feel right again. Might make for a good object lesson. A little violence always got people’s attention.

He was surprised the boy had addressed him in poorly accented Spanish. Maybe the boy thought he, Francisco Mesa, couldn’t speak English well. But he’d just spoken to everyone in English! This one certainly knew he spoke the language. Could it be the boy was trying to show him respect? Well, if that were the case, he needed to learn to speak it properly so it sounded right, not like the accented, mispronounced garbage he’d just heard. This was just more insult, talking like a gringo, and to him! This boy had a lot he needed to pay for.

Mesa had learned brutality was a fine leadership technique; it kept even his own ragtag group scared. All his prisoners were already scared and weak, but more reason for them to fear him would serve him well. Maybe he’d play with this boy a little before killing him. Get everyone watching before shooting.

“What you want, boy?” he growled and moved his hand toward his holstered gun.

Ren had thought about this moment. He’d pictured it in his head. This was the critical moment. Somehow, he had to capture Mesa’s attention and keep his hand off his gun.

Ren had considered how to do this. He could act scared, but he’d thought perhaps the man welcomed fear, enjoyed it, and so Ren behaving that way would encourage him.

He’d considered other ways to stop him from drawing his gun, like falling to his knees and pleading or laughing or praying or being friendly, and he’d rejected them all. He’d only been able to think of one thing that might work, and he had very little confidence that he could pull it off. But it was the only chance he’d thought of for getting Mesa to listen rather than react.

He had to use the tone of voice and the commanding presence his father had demonstrated to him twice. Once had been on the phone to his mother, when, to his total surprise, Cal had convinced her to send his things to Ren. The second had been when Cal had confronted Hec, and the boy had caved. Cal hadn’t done either of these by ranting, or, in Hec’s case, threatening. What he’d done was simply add a quality to his voice and his carriage that had demanded respect and attention, demanded that Cal be listened to and taken seriously. There had been charisma and character in his voice, but more than that, there’d been an edge of command that almost in itself forced compliance.

But could Ren—13-year-old Ren; 5’ 3-1/2”, 105-pound Ren—command the attention of a killer?

He had to try.

“Stop!” he cried out, using every fiber of assertion he could muster. His posture straightened, his shoulders rose, his chest inflated, and his face was as serious as he knew how to make it. His muscles were tense, his eyes dark and gleaming.

But it was that voice that made Mesa hesitate. It cracked with energy and wasn’t a boy’s thin, shaky rasp. Certainly not a scared boy’s mewl. This voice was hard and confident and was delivering an order that was meant to be obeyed.

The hesitation was all Ren required. He continued, his voice maintaining its tone and now was in English. “Senor Mesa, I just saved your life. You must keep your hand away from your gun. You were reaching for it when I stopped you. Had you touched it, you would now be dead.”

He had Mesa’s attention. The man’s eyes had narrowed, and he took a moment to look around him. While he did, Ren continued. “I will prove to you what I say is true, but you must be very careful. Any attempt to draw your gun, even touch it, any attempt to grab me, and you’ll die.

“That’s why I came over here to speak to you—to save your life and that of each of your men. I have something to tell you. If you don’t believe me at least long enough to listen, a lot of men will die. Probably some of my friends, certainly myself, but all of you, and you’ll be the first. So listen to me.”

Mesa was uncertain. His hand seemed to want to draw his gun. The urge to shoot this upstart kid was strong. Yet something was telling him he needed to listen.

Mesa had lived as long as he had by paying attention to his instincts. He hesitated, his hand still almost touching his pistol, then, very slowly, he edged it away, and saw the boy immediately look less frightened. Good. He liked to control the people he was with, making them fearful and then relaxed as he saw fit. Control was good. When he wanted this boy to be afraid again, he would make it be so.

The boy started to speak again, then hesitated. Mesa thought it was to recover his nerve. In fact, Ren did it to gain as much time as he could. He had no idea where all the boys were, or how much time it was taking them to get where they needed to be. Any time he could gain them was important. Critical even.

His pause only lasted for a couple of seconds; it didn’t seem likely Mesa would wait longer. Ren could only hope it was long enough.

“Please, sir, I don’t want you to die. I don’t want any of us to die. If you touch your gun again, you will. Immediately. I needed to tell you that—to save you. Also, I want to ask a favor of you. Please. I want you to ask three of your men to toss their hats on the ground. I need to show you something, and for that, if they could toss their hats out onto the grass? Away from the people. But—and this is very important—also tell them not to touch their guns after they do that. They’re going to hear shooting. You’re going to hear shooting. Their natural reaction would be to grab their guns. If they do, they’ll die. So will you. The shooting you hear won’t be aimed at any of them. So can you tell them not to reach for their guns? Will they pay attention to you?”

Mesa was sure he wasn’t hearing right. This was crazy. Maybe he should just shoot the boy now. He started to move his hand toward his holster, and the boy suddenly came alive.

Ren was about to speak when suddenly three shots were heard coming from the bunkhouse where the men from the ranch were being kept. Ren was stunned. His father was in there! But he knew he had to keep his composure. Everyone on the ranch depended on him doing so. People were going to die today. Of that he had no doubt. But not his dad! Please, not his dad.

He rallied himself and said, “Please—don’t touch that gun! I don’t want you to die like this. I need you!”

Mesa hesitated. There was something about this boy that told him to be more careful right now. The boy was acting all scared, acting very excited, but his eyes were very steady. Mesa knew eyes; his reading them correctly had saved his life many times. This boy was acting scared; probably he was scared. His eyes, however… His eyes were alert, steady, watching, and showing no fear at all.

Leaving his hand where it was, Mesa looked around. Everything was as it should be, everything except the one thing that had been troubling him before. He could see no danger anywhere, but still... And then the boy spoke again.

“Please humor me. Three hats out on the ground and no touching of guns. By anyone. That is very important. Can you do that?”

Well, of course he could do that. He could do anything. But he wasn’t going to be bossed by a boy. That was unimaginable. Still, what was the harm in humoring him? If he did this, it was because he chose to do it. He’d do it, then laugh and kill the boy.

“All right. I will tell my men. And then, for your impertinence, you’ll go out in the center of the grass and I’ll shoot you.”

The boy nodded, and the man was surprised the words didn’t seem to scare him to death. They didn’t even register in the boy’s eyes. Instead the boy had the gall to remind him again to tell all the men not to touch their weapons! This boy would be punished for his impudence. Mesa would gut-shoot him, let him take a while to die in pain. Let all the others witness that.

Another shot was heard from the bunkhouse, just one this time. The two men who had come from there for dinner looked back, but they were waiting now to see what would happen with Mesa and the boy, and they didn’t leave the lawn.

In Spanish, Mesa called out, “Juan, Romero, Cisco, take off your hats and toss them out on the grass. And, everyone, no one touch your gun. No matter what happens, no guns!”

Then he turned back to the boy. “You hear those shots? Your men are being killed in the bunkhouse. You’ll be next, you know.”

The boy had partly turned, watching the men Mesa had called out to. He was forcing himself to ignore the shots he’d heard. The men Mesa had selected were in a group with several of the girls, who were looking very scared. The men, looking like this was the craziest thing they’d ever been asked to do, took off their hats and skimmed them out toward the middle of the grassy area.

Almost immediately after the hats landed, the distinctive crack of three rifles was heard, and all three hats jumped.

And just as immediately, in a very loud if still high-pitched voice, Ren shouted, “No toques las armas!” Then he turned to the leader. There was no fear at all in his voice now. It was hard and serious.

“Anyone who touches his gun dies. Every single one of you has a rifle, a different rifle, trained on him. You do, too. Had you touched your gun, earlier, you’d be dead now, and so would all your men. I didn’t want us to have to kill you all. I did save your life. You are alive now because you listened to me and did what I told you to do. If you continue doing that, you will continue to live.”

Mesa was stunned. He looked at where he’d heard the shots come from and realized all the shots had come from above. From the tops of the houses and buildings. From different ones. Looking, he now saw heads and rifles around the perimeter of the compound lawn, all from high roofs except for one that was poking out a window. The guns were all pointing down toward the people on the lawn.

Ren spoke again, and the man realized that the boy was now leading this conversation. A boy! And this time, he wasn’t asking a favor, this time he was giving an order. “Tell three more men to throw their hats out there. Then I want to show you something.”

Mesa gave the order and three more hats hit the ground. Ren saw Mesa was being clever. He was still thinking. The hats came from three different knots of men, all spread out. Ren realized Mesa was trying to get an idea of the rifle coverage he was up against. That pleased Ren as it would show the man that the rifle coverage was extensive, which should work in Ren’s favor.

As the hats hit the ground, three more shots rang out. This time, there was absolute quiet afterwards, and the faint echoes of the shots were easy to hear.

“Have a man collect all six hats and bring them here. Have him stop and drop them right there,” he said, pointing to a spot next to the leader and a few feet away from both him and Mesa.

While this was being done, Ren said, “I saw you looking around, earlier. I know you were wondering why there were so few boys in sight. Now you’ve figured that out.”

He watched Mesa closely as he talked. “I know you’re thinking. You’re looking for a way out of this, for a weakness, and the first thing that’ll occur to you is to grab human shields and use them as hostages. You’re thinking of grabbing me. But that is why we’re doing this demonstration with the hats. I want you to understand something.”

The man who’d collected the hats dropped them where Ren had pointed, and Ren told him to go back and join the others, which he did after the leader nodded.

“Look at those hats,” he told Mesa. “Look at each one of them.”

Mesa walked to them and bent down. “Hah,” he said, standing up again. “They didn’t hit a single one of them in the middle! Not very good shots are they? A bunch of kids. I’m starting to like my chances here. I’m going to shoot you first.” He said that, but he didn’t reach for his gun. Ren saw that, and he smiled a very grim smile.

“They weren’t aiming at the crowns of the hats. Every shot was aimed at a brim. Every shot hit the brim that was the target. At this distance, these boys are all dead marksmen. I’m telling you this because I know you want to make a fight out of this. You want to grab someone as a shield and start shooting. But whoever does that will be dead almost instantly. Anyone who grabs a human shield will die. Why? Because these boys are all dead shots, all of them are aiming down on us and so your men will be exposed even in a crowd of people. You need to know that these boys all love the people you’re holding captive. If you try to use them as shields, these boys will not hit the shields. They’ll shoot your men in the head, and nothing you or your men can do will prevent that. Each of you now has a gun trained on you. Anyone who does anything wrong will die.”

He stopped. He was still nervous, but it was more like nervous energy now. He had gained the upper hand. To continue to hold it, he needed to show command, show a steady and strong presence. Show no softness, weakness, fear. Ren had never done anything like this in his life. He’d never been in charge. He hadn’t been aware he was capable of it.

He spoke again, and his voice didn’t betray him. It was still rock solid. “We know your plan was to kill us. You did with other ranches you invaded. Every boy with a rifle knows that. If you had remained in control here, we’d all have died—after the women had been raped, and who knows what had happened to the men. We would rather die here and now, fighting, than let you do what you want.”

Ren saw Mesa stand taller. He wasn’t good at reading people, but realized that this could mean the man was considering whether or not to believe all he was hearing, considering whether fighting was better than capitulating. He lived by guns and violence. He took chances and always came out on top. Maybe this was bluster from Ren, maybe the boy was simply hoping that these men would give up without a fight. Maybe boys could shoot hats, but shooting men, men holding their sisters and mothers, that was much different, and maybe he and his men would have a chance after all.

Wouldn’t anything be better than submitting to the will of this frightened little boy?

Ren kept speaking, his voice not losing its edge. “If you want an all-out war, that’s your choice. A few of us will probably die, I’ll certainly die because I’m out here in the open, but none of the kids with rifles will die. You’ll be one of the first to die because the one who’s aiming at you cares about me, in fact wanted to be the one to come talk to you instead of me doing it. All those above us have feelings for me and for the rest of the ranch people. One of them wanted to put himself in danger so I wouldn't be. The fact was, I’m a terrible shot and the one with the gun pointed at you is the best shot on the ranch. I trust him to protect me. You’ll be shot down with no regrets whatsoever. I believe all of your men will die, too. We won’t know, you and I, because both of us will be dead.”

Mesa paused, thinking, and then two things happened simultaneously. One of Mesa’s men grabbed Lu Rivera and pulled his revolver from its holster. As he was still trying to control Lu, who’d let herself go limp and was now hanging on his arm, a rifle crack came from atop the storage building behind him, and the man fell forward, the back of his head a mass of blood. Lu was taken down with him, but she moved, crawling from under him. The man didn’t move at all.

Then something else happened. The ranch hands began to emerge from behind the bunkhouse. They came out cautiously, one or two at a time, but they came out. Ren saw them and blanched. This could be a disaster! He called out to his dad, who was in the lead, never taking his eyes off Mesa. “Dad! Stay against the building, Dad! All of you! Don’t come out on the grass!”

Mesa was deciding what to do. Fight? One man had tried, and he was dead. But what if he didn’t fight? What if he gave up? That would be as good as dying. He wasn’t going to live in a prison cell. Dying fighting would be better.

Ren was still looking at him. “Here’s what we’re going to do. You will tell your men to unbuckle their gun belts and let them fall to the ground. They must be very careful doing this. Some of those boys heard them laughing at the girls and saw the looks they gave them. They know what was to happen tonight. They saw you shoot a very proud and honorable man who was not capable of taking your humiliation. Those boys would very much like to shoot you and your men. None of you must give them any more incentives to do so. You all must be very careful.”

Ren paused to allow that message time to sink in. Then he said, “Also, you must do this. You must drop your gun belt, too. Your men will see this and follow suit. I will tell you this, so you know. You will get your gun back. I know you wish to remain free. And I don’t want a fight. I want you simply to go away. So, I promise you this. If you don’t fight us, if you do as I say, you all will be allowed to leave here. We don’t want to try to keep you here. We want you gone. So all of you will drop your weapons. Then, I will unload your gun so there will not be any accidents, and I will give it back to you. Just you, because you are the leader. We will collect the rest of the weapons. When we have them all, you can get on your horses and ride away. We will watch you, aiming rifles at you, till we can no longer see you. My promise is that, in return for you doing this, we will not call the sheriff for eight hours. We will give you that much time to get away.”

Mesa looked at him, and Ren could see by looking into his eyes that he was thinking hard. Ren looked back at him, his eyes showing nothing at all.

While this was happening, Ren saw movement in his peripheral vision. Without taking his eyes off Mesa’s, he half turned his body so he could see what was happening. He saw that a few of the girls had dropped to their knees and were now crawling away from the men. The men looked agitated, but were waiting for Mesa to tell them what to do.

It was the girls and then the women moving away from their captors that seemed to change the dynamics of the standoff. Being down on the ground, they couldn’t be used as screens as easily. The farther they moved away from the men, the less control of things Mesa seemed to have, and he knew it.

“You’ll let us go?”

“As soon as we’ve collected your weapons. I don’t want you here, figuring out how to regain control. I don’t want someone trying to guard all of you, waiting hours for the sheriff to show up. I want you out of here. We’ll have the guns, we’ll post guards so you can’t get back, and you’re not silly enough to try that. I just want to be rid of you.”

Mesa looked hard into Ren’s face and then seemed satisfied. He turned to his men and said, “No toques las armas o morirás. Desabroche el cinturón de pistola y soltar.” Ren had learned enough Spanish that he could understand him—“Don’t touch your guns or you will die. Unbuckle your gun belts and drop them.”

The men looked very unhappy, and they didn’t immediately comply. Only a few began to unbuckle their guns. Ren continued his staring contest with Mesa. “Now you,” he said. “You must show your men what to do.”

Mesa, staring at Ren, didn’t hesitate. He removed his gun belt too, holding it in his hand, the holstered gun dangling. Ren didn’t say anything, just watched. After a half-minute, Mesa opened his hand and the belt dropped to the ground. That was the signal his men needed. Now they all followed suit.

“OK, now take five steps backwards, away from the guns. Tell your men to do likewise. Make no mistakes now. This is almost over, but some of those boys would be happy to take a few more of you out.”

Mesa gave the order and the men complied, stepping away from their weapons.

“Dad!” Ren called. “Can someone collect those weapons? Make sure they don’t get in the line of fire. Make a very wide berth around where the men are, and then stay low when getting close. We don’t want to start a battle at this point. And I’d like you over here—with me.”

Several of the ranch hands did as Ren asked. Ren himself stepped forward so Mesa’s gun was at his feet. He said to Mesa, “If you want to die, this is when you can. Just move toward me when I lean down, and you’ll be dead.”

Ren didn’t like what he saw in Mesa’s eyes, but without hesitation, he stooped by bending his knees, keeping his back straight and his eyes on Mesa’s. He picked up the gun belt, and leaving the weapon holstered, started to fling it to where the men were collecting the other weapons. Then he stopped, changing his mind, and just held it. When his father came, he handed it to him.

“We get on our horses now.” Mesa was rapidly reassessing the situation. He had the boy’s promise, but with his father now standing next to him, the boy seemed diminished, somehow. “And I get my unloaded gun back.”

Ren moved his eyes to his father, then back to Mesa. “I guess you’ll have to take that up with my dad. He’s in charge now.”

“I had your word,” said Mesa. “Have you no honor?”

Ren almost smiled. “Well, I might have fibbed a bit. But it was in a good cause. I have more honor than you do. I don’t shoot an unarmed man who is only trying to protect his family and is no threat to me at all.”

Mesa looked at Ren, and Ren saw his eyes darken. Then, suddenly the man leaped forward, toward Cal who was still holding his gun belt and holstered revolver.

He’d not even taken a full step forward before he staggered. The sharp report of a rifle accompanied a sudden look of dismay on Mesa’s face. Red spurted from his chest, and as his eyes widened, his legs collapsed from under him, and he sprawled in a disjointed heap on the grass.

Mesa’s men appeared undecided. Their leader was dead, but they knew what awaited them if they were captured. Carlos, Mesa’s second in command, was ready to speak, but was forestalled by Juan Rivera, one of the men who’d been collecting the Mexicans’ gun belts. He now held a drawn pistol. Several of the other men were also holding their captives’ guns.

Juan spoke, looking directly at Carlos. Juan was a kind, gentle, soft-spoken man. No one would have thought that, listening to him then. "No te muevas, dijo. Estaríamos encantados de matar si lo haces.” Andy told Ren later that what he’d said to Carlos was, “Do not move. We would be happy to kill you if you do.”

There appeared to be a standoff, the ranch men holding guns, the invaders facing their destiny: death now—fighting—or either death or life in prison. But the decision was made for them. One of the boys holding rifles above the men fired up into the air, and was joined by several of the others. The captives, being reminded of what they were facing, stopped fidgeting, their shoulders slumping. It was obvious to all that they had finally given up.

Ren watched, and then to Cal’s surprise, slumped to his knees. He grabbed his dad’s legs and buried his face in his thighs. Cal sank to his knees, too, and wrapped his arms around the trembling boy. He held him for several minutes, feeling the trembling ease as the time passed.

Ren pulled away, eventually. “I was certain I was going to die, Dad. It feels strange, somehow, that it’s all over and I’m all right.”

Cal stood up. “How did all this happen? How did it come down to you talking to him and all the boys having guns and spread out and all?”

“I’ll tell you later. It was a miracle, I think, that it worked out like it did. Right now, we have to secure those prisoners, call the sheriff, and pick up the dead men.”

Cal pulled back a little and got a half-smile on his face. “You seem to like this being-in-charge business.”

Ren barely smiled and then only briefly. “I don’t know if I do or not. It’s all happened too fast. I had to do something, and I did. What I want now is to go back to being a 13-year-old. Not leading an army.”

Cal had his hand on Ren’s shoulder, and he squeezed it briefly, then left his hand there. He was looking down at Mesa. “Did you expect him to do that? It was like he was committing suicide.”

Ren shook his head. “I don’t know. I’m not really surprised, I guess. He was somewhat like Mr. Gonzales. Mr. Gonzales couldn’t stand living with himself if he didn’t do everything he could to protect his family. That was who he was, what he stood for. I think Mesa was the same in that he had some personal pride, some personal ethics. He was not going to be made a prisoner. Especially by a boy. He had pride the same way Mr. Gonzales did. The only difference was, Mr. Gonzales knew the difference between right and wrong and cared deeply about that difference.”

Ren hugged his father and then was bumped. He let go and turned, and there was Andy. Andy was there, and tears were running down his cheeks. Andy didn’t hesitate. He grabbed Ren and then, in front of everyone, he put his arms around him and kissed him hard on the lips.

He held the kiss for some time, and Ren contributed his part by wrapping his arms around Andy and kissing back. When they finally pulled apart, Andy said, “I was sure you were going to die. Certain. I didn’t see how you wouldn’t. But you’re still alive, and I’m not wasting any more time. You may not feel the same way, but I love you. I started doing so the first time I saw you, looking so cute with our dishes on the floor and an eager and innocent smile on your face, trying so hard. I’ve just been too much of a coward to say anything.”

Ren reached out and took Andy’s hand. He looked him in the eye and said, “Me too.”

He was going to say more, but was interrupted. Izzy had come up.

Ren dropped Andy’s hand and hugged her. “You saved my life, Izzy. I was sure I could count on you, and you came through. You’re wonderful. I’m just sorry I can’t have the same feelings for you that you have for me, but I’m gay. And I love Andy.”

Izzy smiled a wan smile at him. “I know. I’ve seen how you two are with each other. I think everyone knows. We’ve all been waiting for one of you to say something to the other. I guess now you have.”

“Everyone knew?”

Izzy laughed. “Everyone except two dumb boys.”