– Sebastian –

Happiness

Cary

A short story by

Cole Parker

He sat at the front window looking out down the street. It was five o’clock. They should be home soon, the ones he was staying with. First the taller, thinner one. His name was Fred, although the other one called him Freddie. Then the second one would come about half an hour later. Fred would start dinner after he’d had a drink, sometimes, and when the second one, whose name was Tom and who was shorter and louder, came home and had a drink, too, and relaxed, then they’d eat.

He had ventured out a little during the day, walking around the block. It was summer so he didn’t have to go to school yet. After a while, when he’d got so he was feeling a bit bolder, he’d sometimes gone as far as two blocks away. But he always got nervous then, and sometimes when he turned around to go back, he’d ended up running.

They’d given him a key, which had shocked him. He’d never had a key before. These people seemed nice, which was good, he supposed, but he didn’t trust them, and for all the smiles they gave him, he didn’t give many back. He was polite, of course. He’d learned the hard way to be polite. But being polite and giving away much of himself were completely different things.

He glanced up at the clock again. Five ten. He hoped Fred would come home soon. He was hungry. They’d both told him, he didn’t know how many times, that if he was hungry he should get something to eat, that this was his home. It wasn’t, though, and he knew that. It was his foster home; he’d been there and done that and knew how these homes worked. Sometimes, people changed their minds about things, things like permitting him to get food when he wanted it. They’d give permission for something and then go crazy when whatever they’d agreed on happened, and getting something to eat when he wanted could be something like that. He’d learned it was safer to wait till they were here and gave the food to him. Even if he was hungry.

He wondered if he should turn on the TV. He decided it was better if he didn’t. The smaller the footprint he made on their lives, the better. It was better if the TV was off when they walked in the door. It was better not to leave any footprints at all.

Five fifteen. Maybe Fred was staying over at work. His stomach rumbled. He pressed his nose against the window so he could see better in both directions.

*

Mr. Darvin slammed his book closed so it made a cracking sound. Some of the kids jumped. “The End,” he read, shouting jubilantly, and just then the bell rang.

“I did it!” he crowed. “I finished before the bell! Perfect timing! The school year’s over, and I finished the book! Hey, you guys, have a great, great, great summer. Stay outside as much as possible. Run some. Hike. Sit against a tree and think about happy things. Daydream. Watch a bird pull a worm from the ground. Wade in one of the creeks around here. And whatever you do, don’t you dare read a book this summer. Not one! But if you simply can’t help yourself and do find a book, make it a great one that stirs your imagination. Now, go! Git! And thank you for being such a great class.”

The kids jumped up and shouted. Last day of school! They were 13- and 14-year-olds, and the summer stretched ahead of them.

They made their way noisily out into the corridors, joining the teeming horde, each and every one of them making as much noise as he or she could. When they were all gone, when the din had subsided a bit, Peter Darvin shook his head, laughed, and looked up to see Sebastian Collier still there, still in his seat.

“Sebastian?”

Sebastian smiled. He had a great smile. Mr. Darvin hadn’t seen enough of it until the last month of the school year. That was when Sebastian had been transferred into Mr. Darvin’s history class and a new English teacher had come aboard. Mr. Darvin didn’t think that was the only reason for that smile. He’d seen how Sebastian acted around Dylan Spenser. That was the source of the happiness he could see in Sebastian’s eyes now. And the almost constant smile on his lips.

Sebastian stood and walked to Mr. Darvin’s desk. “I didn’t want to go without saying goodbye and thanking you for what you did for me.”

Mr. Darvin marveled at the boy. He’d been so closed into himself when the school year began. Now he was simply a normal boy, a happy boy. So much had changed.

“I might have helped just a little, Sebastian, but it was a pleasure. Look, have a wonderful summer, and I’ll see you here next year. I’m planning a change for then. I’ve been too nice too long. I’ve decided: next year I’m going to be a real ogre. Take all the fairy tale ogres you’ve read about and roll them into one, and I’ve decided to be worse than that. I’ll pick the bad features of all of them and combine them. Fair advance warning for you, don’t you think?”

He scowled at Sebastian and made an ugly face.

Sebastian took one look and broke out laughing. “Sure you will, Mr. Darvin. Sure you will. Just to show you how scared I am, I’ve asked at the office if I can be in your class next year. So has Dylan. We decided if we have to go to school, we might as well be with our favorite teacher.” He stopped and blushed but managed to get hold of himself and said, “You have a good summer, too.” Then he did something very un-Sebastian-like. He reached his hand way up high with his palm toward his teacher. It had to be way up high because Mr. Darvin was very tall.

Mr. Darvin slapped palms with him, Sebastian grinned, and then he left the classroom, looking back from the doorway for a final wave, his trademark smile still attached.

*

“Sebastian isn’t up yet, Dylan.”

Dylan was standing at the front door. Mrs. Collier grinned at him. “He said he was going to sleep late all summer, maybe not get up till afternoon. You want to invade his cave?”

Dylan laughed. “Yeah, I do. No way are we wasting this summer sleeping all day!”

Sebastian and his mom lived in a one-story ranch house, a very small one but big enough for the two of them. Dylan walked down the hall to Sebastian’s bedroom and softly opened the door and entered. Sebastian’s mother watched him and smiled. She liked Dylan, was a good friend of his mother, and felt good that they could be young boys with a summer’s worth of adventures ahead of them and no worries.

Dylan felt a little embarrassed about doing what he was planning on doing knowing Sebastian’s mother was in the house. He didn’t want her to know about the two of them being more than friends. So he closed the door after slipping inside.

Sebastian was fast asleep. He had his curtains closed, and the room was only lit by light that sneaked in around the edges and through where they didn’t entirely overlap in the middle.

Dylan moved to the bed and looked down at Sebastian. He thought Sebastian was the best-looking boy he’d ever seen. He had shiny, ebony-colored hair that curled uncontrollably around his head, eyes that matched the color of his hair, and a face a half-shade darker than Dylan’s own. When he was awake, his bright eyes, full of intelligence and humor and often compassion, lit up that face and brightened Dylan’s world. Asleep, Sebastian was simply beautiful.

Sebastian was lying on his side, facing Dylan. Dylan crouched down and softly kissed Sebastian’s upturned cheek. Sebastian stirred. His eyes slowly opened, and when he saw Dylan leaning over him, a slow smile formed on his lips.

“Hey,” he said sleepily.

“I love you,” whispered Dylan.

“Mmmm,” said Sebastian and closed his eyes again.

Which meant that Dylan simply had to tickle him. It wasn’t till fifteen minutes later when the aroma of bacon sizzling in a pan had permeated the house that the two boys emerged from the bedroom.

“I already ate, Mrs. C,” Dylan protested when a full plate of French toast and bacon was laid in front of him along with one for Sebastian.

Sebastian’s mother laughed, because while he was protesting, he was also reaching for the syrup pitcher.

“So what are you boys going to do today?” she asked, putting her cup of coffee down on the table before sitting.

Dylan’s mouth was full, so Sebastian answered. “Don’t know.”

“Well, it’s going to be a perfect day. Low 80s, bright and sunny. I think you should spend a lot of it outside. Wear sunscreen. I’ll rub it on you, Sebastian, if you need me to.”

Sebastian gave her a look, and she laughed. “OK, you can do each other, then.”

Which was an unfortunate thing to say when Dylan was in the process of taking a drink of milk. Paper towels had to be used, and Dylan ended up wearing a shirt from his friend’s closet that was a little too big for Sebastian.

Mrs. C could never understand why young boys laughed about some of the things they did.

*

The town was quite small, and it took very little time on their bikes before they were in the country. They were riding for the sheer enjoyment of being away from anyone else, being free as only boys in the summer with school but a memory and no responsibilities can be. They were riding on country roads that were considered busy if they saw one old pickup truck every fifteen minutes.

“Let’s turn here,” Dylan said, looking at a dirt road leading into a small woods off to their right. “I think there’s a lake at the end of this.”

The road was hard-packed and easy to ride on. They rode for a few minutes through the woods and came out of them to see a medium-sized lake ahead, surrounded by a grassy shore. A few trees had grown right up next to the lake, and their branches overhung the water. Two or three wooded islands dotted the lake, begging to be explored.

The boys dropped their bikes and walked to the water. Sebastian knelt down and felt it with his hand. “Not too cold. We could even swim if you wanted to—if we’d brought swimsuits.”

“Why do we need suits?” asked Dylan. Of the two of them, he was the more free-spirited with a devil-may-care attitude toward life.

“Well,” said Sebastian, frowning. He was practical where Dylan was spur-of-the-moment. Sebastian liked to think things through.

“What, you chicken or something? There’s no one around. Besides, I’ve seen you naked and you’re beautiful. Certainly nothing to be ashamed of even if anyone did see you, Sebby.”

Sebastian frowned, as much as he could; it was difficult to frown when he was happy as he was just about all the time now. “I’ve told you not to call me that. It sounds like a girl’s name. I’m already too small for my age. I don’t need people mistaking me for a girl!”

Dylan laughed. “How about Seb then? And no one seeing you naked would ever confuse you for a girl.” He managed to leer at Sebastian before laughing.

“It’s a better name than Sebby,” Sebastian conceded, “but I like my name. I don’t know any other Sebastians.” He raised his arms and shouted with a grin, “I’m unique.”

“That’s for sure,” Dylan said and grabbed the smaller boy, took him in his arms and kissed him.

Sebastian kissed him back, and it was several minutes before the boys finally decided they needed that swim to cool off. They stripped and jumped in and swam and played in the water together for maybe a half hour. When they were finished, they wiped as much water as they could off their bodies and then sat in the grass, letting the warm sun finish the job.

“Next time, we’ll bring towels,” said Sebastian. “This grass is too itchy. We can’t even lie down.”

Dylan glanced at him and smiled, his eyes flashing. “And just why, sir, will we be wanting to lie down?

Sebastian laughed. They eventually rode their bikes back up the road and headed back toward town. They’d decided they needed to bring food and drinks next time, too.

*

He liked the fact it was warmer outside now. There’d been times in the winter, when he was younger, he’d not been warm enough. One of the group homes had been kept on the chilly side of comfortable because, they said, it was too expensive to heat it properly. He also had been given a coat that wasn’t warm enough at one point. He’d developed a hatred for winter, and that had turned into a deep appreciation for summer. That feeling had persisted. He always cheered up somewhat with the advent of summer. This year the summer was warm, perfect most days. Not too hot; just right.

He was getting more adventurous. So far, the men he was living with had been friendly and hadn’t bothered him or come for him in the night. He still didn’t trust them, even if he was beginning to like them just a little. They were gay; he knew that. He’d been told that before he came to live with them. He’d been asked if that was all right with him; that had almost been funny. If he’d been told a family of gorillas was available for him, he’d have jumped at the chance.

He was walking several blocks away from the house now. It was riskier, of course, but the warm, soft air and happy sunlight calmed him, and the bright skies seemed to waylay thoughts of danger. He’d discovered a park not too far from his house. It wasn’t a large park, more like a small area with a number of trees in the back and on one side. It was set aside from the neighboring houses to appeal to buyers when the development had been built around it; it was more or less a private park for the local residents. Because it was small and only held a few benches and play equipment for small children, it was usually deserted. Which was perfect for him. Had the park been used by any kids his age—young teenagers—he wouldn’t have dared go there. But the only people he’d ever seen in the park were mothers with small children, and so he felt OK there. Not really safe; he never felt really safe. But it was OK. He could sit on a bench that was partly hidden back into some of the trees and catch the patchy sun and close his eyes—hearing birds chirping and fluttering—and relax and escape into himself.

*

The boys spent every day together unless one of their mothers needed them for something. They spent many nights together, too. They were in the thrall of young love, and time apart seemed to physically hurt.

“Have you ever camped out?” Dylan asked one day when they were at the lake again, a place they visited often. They’d come to think of it as their lake; they’d never seen another person there, never seen any evidence that another person had ever been there.

“No, have you?” Sebastian asked, idly picking a blade of grass and sucking on it. They were naked, lying on their towels after swimming and other activities. Their ‘other activities’ were pretty basic. Neither one seemed to want to become too adventurous. Simple things were enjoyable, and that’s all they’d needed so far.

“A few times. It’s really fun, and I think we could do it. Pitch a tent out here, have a campfire, cook dinner, swim, spend the night. What do you think?”

Sebastian looked around. The sun was high above; the day was warm; no one was around but them. “Would it be safe—at night?”

“Sure. Well, I mean, why not?”

“I don’t know. I guess if we had our cell phones and our moms knew where we were…”

“No one comes here during the day. All the times we’ve been here, we’ve never seen anyone. If it’s deserted during the day, it would be even more so at night. And if you wanted to, we could move down the lake farther away from the road. Down where the woods come closer to the water. We could pitch the tent there or right at the edge of the woods, and no one would know we were there even if they did come down the road to the lake.”

Sebastian thought about it, then smiled at Dylan. “OK,” he said.

And so, three days later, they camped out. Sebastian’s mom, after fretting mom-style for a day, had finally agreed and driven them down the day before and helped carry the stuff they needed to where they were setting up the tent. The next day, they’d ridden their bikes to the lake.

They swam and played in the sun, hiked through some of the woods they hadn’t been in before, and when it was getting dark they lit the campfire they’d set up, let the wood burn down, and cooked hamburgers they’d brought and kept in an ice chest. When those were disposed of, Dylan added more wood to the fire, let it burn down again, then showed Sebastian how to whittle sticks for roasting marshmallows.

“You really never had s’mores?”

“For the fourth time, no.”

“Well, I’ll show you. The trick, one a lot of people don’t know, is to get the marshmallow just right.”

“I have roasted marshmallows. At home, in our fireplace.”

“Well, watch how I do this.” Dylan carefully held his marshmallow about a foot above the embers and slowly rotated it. It took a bit of time, but finally he had it golden brown. “See that? Not burned at all. That’s the secret. A lot of guys are impatient and catch the marshmallow on fire when they do it that way. It’s OK, I guess, if you enjoy the taste of charcoal. This way, it’s much better.”

While talking, he’d been pressing the hot marshmallow and a piece of a Hershey bar between two graham crackers. He handed it to Sebastian.

“Wow!” said Sebastian.

“Damn right,” said Dylan, and each boy began toasting another marshmallow.

When they were done and the fire was put out, they pulled their sleeping bags out of the tent onto the grassy bank and, after stripping naked, lay down on them. The stars were brilliant, filling the black sky in a way they never did in town. Both boys looked up at them in awe. Sebastian reached over and took Dylan’s hand.

“Thanks for this,” he said. “I was a little bit worried about coming. I worry too much. You’re good for me. I’m glad we’re here.”

“OK, but we’re not done yet. We’ve got all night, and we’re alone,” Dylan said, looked at Sebastian and smiled seductively, trying to look as sexy as he could.

Sebastian laughed and squeezed Dylan’s hand.

*

School was going to open soon. He knew he’d have to handle it. He couldn’t talk about his fears with the men he was living with. Even if he was slightly more comfortable with them now. They could turn on him at any time; he knew that. He found himself occasionally laughing at some of their jokes, and he spoke just a little bit at meals when they spoke to him instead of just keeping his eyes down and eating. They still acted like they cared about him, but he was pretty sure they were just pretending. He’d trusted people before, and look how that had turned out.

School was something he’d have to handle by himself. He couldn’t expect any help. He couldn’t say anything to anyone, either. When he’d complained before, everything in his world had fallen apart. No, surviving school was up to him. He just had no idea how he’d do it. But he knew he’d have to do it like everything else: alone.

*

“We’ve only got a week left!”

“Yeah, so let’s make the most of it.” Sebastian was eating a bowl of cereal. He’d spent the night at Dylan’s house.

“We’ve done most of everything we could think of this summer.” Dylan was spreading jam on his toast. Sebastian always put peanut butter on his, something Dylan thought was nuts. He’d told Sebastian that, and Sebastian had agreed, saying very seriously that peanut butter was indeed nutty. He’d gotten tickled for that.

“We could grab the other guys and get up another baseball game,” Sebastian volunteered. “Or soccer.”

Dylan didn’t bother to reply. Then he looked up. “Hey!”

Sebastian grinned. Sudden inspirations were par for the course for Dylan. “What?”

“Canoeing!”

Sebastian looked at him. He often thought Dylan was just as nuts as Dylan thought Sebastian was. “Uh, OK. Let’s. You organize it. We’ll need a canoe and a way to get it to the lake and a way to get it back. While you’re setting that up, I’m going to take a nap.”

“A nap! You just got up!”

“Uh, someone kept me up late and then woke me up twice during the night. I’m tired!”

“Oh… yeah. Well, maybe I’ll take a nap, too.”

“Great,” said Sebastian, feigning disgust. “Still no rest for the wicked.”

Dylan grinned at him, and they headed upstairs, a bounce in their steps.

*

The first week of school had gone like it usually did; it had been chaos. Some new kids not being enrolled on time and starting school a day or several days late, kids’ schedules being changed, sorting out textbooks and not having enough in some classes, new kids not knowing where they were going and having trouble with their lockers and/or with finding their classrooms before the late bells rang—all the usual stuff contributing to the oxymoronic controlled pandemonium. But things were finally settling down.

Peter Darvin stretched. He’d just finished his last class of the day and of the week, and it felt good to look out over a room filled with empty desks instead of faces. Not that he didn’t like all those faces. He did. But he liked having time without them, too.

He had a quiz to grade. The kids had all groaned when he’d given it, but he’d told them he had to know what they knew and didn’t so he could concentrate on only teaching them things they knew—it made his life a lot easier that way. Some of them realized it was a joke.

He was working on the third paper in his stack when he thought he might possibly have heard something that could have been a knock at his door; he assumed that more likely the door had merely rattled from the noise of the rats deserting the ship till next Monday, yelling at the tops of their lungs while doing so, and he ignored the sound. But then the door opened. He looked up to see a boy standing in the doorway.

Peter smiled at him. “I know you, don’t I? Cary? Cary Anders? Sorry, I’m still learning a hundred new names. But I think I’ve got yours right, don’t I?”

The boy nodded without smiling. Peter seemed to remember now. Cary was a new student who never said a word if he didn’t have to. Peter had never seen him talking to any of the other kids, either. Some new kids were like that. It took them awhile to warm up, get to know the other students and to fit in. It took some longer than others.

Peter waited, hoping the boy would say something, but he didn’t. He just stood in the doorway, watching Peter.

Peter finally asked, “Did you want to see me for something?” Then he smiled. He’d found kids much more likely to relax if he smiled.

The boy just stood there a few moments longer, then looked down at the floor. Peter kept watching, thinking he shouldn’t force the issue. The boy was either very shy or just didn’t know how to say what he wanted. Perhaps if Peter just gave him time, he’d open up. So, Peter waited.

And waited. Finally, Peter said, softly, “I need to work on these papers. If you’d like to come in, you’re welcome. You can sit down or look out the windows or wander around the room. Whatever you like. What I’m going to do is grade tests.”

And with that, he picked up the next quiz from the stack and started in on it. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched the boy who remained in the doorway before, finally, stepping into the room. He seemed undecided but eventually moved back a few rows of desks, away from the door, away from Mr. Darvin, and sat down. He had a book bag with him, and he took a book and a notebook out and opened both. Then, without looking up at Peter, he began to do his homework.

*

It was a week later when Sebastian was stopped as he was leaving Mr. Darvin’s classroom. “Could I have a second, Sebastian?”

“Sure,” Sebastian answered.

Mr. Darvin waited till all the other kids were out of the room, then closed the door to prevent his next class from interrupting them. He turned to Sebastian.

“I was wondering—could you do me a favor, Sebastian? I need to explain before I ask. I’ll give you a late pass to your next class. Let’s sit down, and I’ll make this as brief as possible.”

Sebastian sat at a classroom desk, and Mr. Darvin brought his chair over next to him. “There’s a new kid in one of my classes. His name is Cary Anders. He’s your age and in your grade. Do you know him?”

Sebastian shook his head.

“I didn’t think so. He’s very quiet, never saying a word if he can help it. Well, for the past week, he’s come into my classroom after school each day. He doesn’t say anything, just comes in, sits down, and begins doing his homework. Sometimes, he just reads a book. I asked him once if he wouldn’t prefer using the library. It stays open longer than I stay here. He just looked at me. He looked, I don’t know, almost scared. I quickly told him he could stay, that I didn’t care if he did, but that I just thought he might be happier in the library with other kids around.

“He shook his head, then went back to his book.”

Mr. Darvin frowned. “As I say, he’s done this every day. Never speaks to me, just stays till I’m ready to leave, then packs up and walks out. I’ve tried talking to him, but usually he doesn’t answer any questions I ask him. Just looks at me for a moment before dropping his eyes.”

There was some commotion outside the classroom, and Mr. Darvin got up and began moving in that direction but kept talking as he did so. “I got the idea of calling on him in class; then he’d have to speak. So I did that, and he answered. After that period was finished, he waited till the other kids were gone and came up to my desk and asked me please to not call on him in class. I asked why not? He just said one more word—please—and left.

“It’s not that he doesn’t know the answers. He’s gotten A’s on every quiz I’ve given. But he doesn’t speak much, and I’ve never seen him interact with any of the kids in class or outside it in the halls or cafeteria, either.”

The noise outside the door was getting louder. Mr. Darvin glanced at it, then back at Sebastian.

“Sebastian, I don’t know what’s going on with him, but he doesn’t look happy. I don’t think he knows anyone. Sometimes I’ve even seen him looking scared. Maybe he’s just very shy, I don’t know. I was wondering: could you sort of, well, look him up if you have the chance? See what’s going on with him. What would be great is if you could get him to talk to you. Maybe he just needs a friend.”

Sebastian smiled and nodded. “I can do that. First I’ll have to figure out who he is, but someone will know him, and I’ll have them point him out to me.”

Mr. Darvin reached for the doorknob. Someone had started knocking on the door and now for the past half minute it had gotten more insistent, but Mr. Darvin was about finished. “Thanks, Sebastian. Here’s a pass to give to Mrs. Tanlick. You’ve got her next, don’t you?”

Sebastian almost made a face, but stopped himself. “Yes, sir.”

“OK, give this to her. Now I’ve got to let all these kids out in the hall in before they tear the door down.”

*

He had found school a challenge, but it hadn’t been as bad as he’d thought it would be. So far, he’d been left alone. He’d done what he could to ensure that. He brought his lunch from home so he didn’t have to mingle with others in the cafeteria. There was an outside eating area, and if he sat on a low wall surrounding it he found he was left alone. That was just what he wanted.

The bringing-a-lunch deal had been difficult, too. On the first morning, Fred had come into the kitchen while he was making a sandwich for himself. He’d immediately backed away from the counter.

Fred had looked at him, and he’d seen sadness come into the man’s eyes. “Cary,” Fred had said, “you don’t have to do that— back away when I come in, I mean. And it’s certainly OK to make a lunch for yourself. I wish you’d loosen up a little. And if you want, I can make a lunch for you every day. They have a cafeteria there, too, and we can buy you a lunch ticket so you can get hot food. Whichever you’d like. But I’d be happy to make your lunch for you.”

Cary had looked down and said in his soft manner, “I don’t mind making lunch for myself. I just wasn’t sure…” He’d broken off, his words faltering as they so frequently did, his thought unfinished because he was not sure if what he had to say would be OK.

Fred stepped over and reached out but then hesitated and didn’t lay a hand on Cary’s shoulder as he wanted to. The boy always flinched when he did, and that simply made Fred sadder.

“It’s OK,” the man said. “It’s all OK. Please believe that.” Some of the sadness that had been in his eyes was in his voice as well.

Cary kept his eyes on the floor. He knew the man would want a response to what he’d said, so he nodded. But since then, he’d been making his own lunch in the morning, and he didn’t feel quite so guilty doing so. After a couple of days, he didn’t even stop when Fred came into the kitchen and said good morning to him. He answered softly and then just went on with his work.

He’d overheard Fred tell Tom that ‘the boy was making progress.’ He didn’t know what that meant or whether he should worry about it. But he did see Fred smile when he continued making his lunch each day without stopping or withdrawing.

Leaving school at night was a real problem. That’s when all the kids were outside, lots of them in groups. He’d taken a look out the door and come pretty close to panicking. He’d turned around and walked back into the school, wondering what he could do. He thought of the library and walked to it, but there were quite a few kids there, too, and when he walked in, they all looked up at him. So that wasn’t going to work.

He’d walked around a little and found a quiet corner that was out of the way in a corridor that was deserted. He sank down to the floor and just sat there. Waiting.

He’d done that until Thursday, when a teacher found him there. That hadn’t been pleasant. The woman wanted to know why he was there, and he had to make something up. That meant lots of talking, lots of lies, and he was almost shaking by the time he managed to get away from her. He knew he couldn’t sit there any longer. He had to figure something else out, something else that would allow him to stay in the school till all the kids outside were gone.

Friday, he’d thought of something. It was really scary and probably wouldn't work, but it was the best thing he could think of. He had a teacher for his history class, a man named Mr. Darvin, who seemed not only very friendly, but kind, too, and perceptive. He went out of his way not to embarrass kids. Mr. Darvin had called on him once, and he hated that, but Mr. Darvin had seemed to become aware of his discomfort and, unlike lots of teachers, had let him sit down quickly. Mr. Darvin was great with all the kids in his class. He was funny and joked a lot, and his eyes… There was compassion and intelligence in the man’s eyes. The man seemed to actually care about the kids.

So, scared but thinking maybe, just maybe, and not knowing what else to do, he’d walked to Mr. Darvin’s classroom after school. Many of the teachers stayed after school in their classrooms to grade papers or prepare their next day’s lessons, and he knew Mr. Darvin did that because he’d seen him at his desk when walking the halls after school.

He’d stopped in the doorway. He didn’t know how to say what he wanted. How could he tell Mr. Darvin that he needed a safe haven until all the kids outside left? If he spoke up, if he tried to explain, Mr. Darvin would have all sorts of questions. No, he had to stay as silent as he could. But, would Mr. Darvin allow him to do that? Would any teacher?

Much to his surprise, he’d gotten away with it. It was almost like Mr. Darvin could read his mind, could see he didn’t want to say anything and was OK with that.

Since then, he’d been going to Mr. Darvin’s room every night and staying there till he left. Mr. Darvin spoke to him rarely, just acknowledged he was there with a gentle smile, and if he did speak, Mr. Darvin did so in a way that he didn’t have to answer.

He thought that maybe, maybe, Mr. Darvin understood. Well, there was no way he could understand, but at least the man allowed him to stay in his room after school without any problems. That in itself seemed like a miracle.

*

Sebastian asked around and was surprised that none of the kids seemed to know who this Cary Anders guy was. He asked Dylan about it. “I know we’ve only been in school a couple of weeks and that there’re a lot of new kids, but still. Someone should know him. He’s in the 9th grade with us.”

Dylan was rubbing his knee. He’d been knocked down playing soccer in gym and scuffed it. “Someone must. You just haven’t asked the right people yet.”

“I’ve asked a lot, though. And I’ve been thinking.”

“There’s a surprise,” Dylan said sarcastically. “You’re always thinking.”

“Yeah, and you’re always jacking off, but do I tease you about it?”

“Yeah, sure you do! And that’s not right because I don’t any more than you do!”

“You’re changing the subject,” Sebastian said, grinning. “As I was saying,” he continued, emphasizing the last word and giving Dylan a sarcastic glance, “I was thinking. One reason no one knows him, maybe, is that he doesn’t want anyone to know him.”

“Why not?”

“How would I know?! But any normal kid sets right off trying to get to know the other kids at school and to make friends. School would be awfully lonely without anyone to talk to or hang with. But if he’d done that, someone would know him, and so far, nada. So that’s what I’ve been thinking: he’s been keeping to himself on purpose.”

“Maybe he’s just shy,” Dylan offered.

“Maybe. But if that’s it, he’s got to be lonely. We need to find him and find out.”

“We? What’s this ‘we’, kemo sabe?”

“Why not we? If he needs friends, two are better than one.”

Dylan poked his knee to see if that hurt, then asked, “How are you going to find him to make friends with him? You must have a plan. You’ve always got a plan. I think it comes from all that thinking.”

Sebastian laughed. “Well, one of us has to think. I’ll come up with something.”

As it turned out, planning wasn’t needed. Sebastian normally ate lunch in the cafeteria with Dylan. He’d had a bad experience eating outside, and in any case, Dylan always ate inside, so he did, too. Except that day Dylan had to talk to his guidance counselor, and knowing that in advance, Sebastian had brought his lunch. He wanted to eat outside just to show himself he wasn’t afraid to.

He picked up one of the free cartons of milk and made his way outside.

The tables were mostly full of chattering kids. It was a fairly large area, and the tables were spaced out enough that there was a sense of separateness, almost privacy among the groups. Sebastian looked for a table with kids he knew and saw one or two, but they were full. The tables that had room for others to join were mostly comprised of upper classmen, and he wasn’t about to try to invade their private sanctums.

So, he could sit at an empty table all by himself, an unattractive proposition as it marked him as a loser, or maybe choose the wall surrounding the area. That choice had bad memories attached to it, but if he was eating out here to show himself he could do it— well, sitting on the wall again would be the acid test. And it was definitely a better choice than the empty-table-all-alone one.

There were some good places to sit on the wall because several trees had branches that overhung and shaded parts of it. He looked for a spot and then saw a boy sitting alone on the wall with a lunch bag next to him. He was sitting in the shade, sitting sideways to the rest of the food court with his back mostly toward Sebastian.

Sebastian looked for a private spot of his own to eat. There was one near where he was standing, where the wall made a turn and was at right angles to where the other boy was eating. Sebastian chose that place and sat down, setting his milk on one side of him, his bag on the other. He was facing the patio and all the other kids at the tables in front of him.

His eyes seemed naturally drawn to the other boy on the wall. Where he was sitting, Sebastian could see the boy, but the boy couldn’t see him. Sebastian got his sandwich out, checked to make sure it wasn’t tuna fish, and took a bite.

He let his eyes scan over the rest of the kids but kept returning to the lone boy. Finally, he simply watched him. There was something about him, something that attracted Sebastian’s attention. That got Sebastian wondering what it was that caused his interest in the boy.

He pondered this, and while he was doing so, the boy finished his lunch. As Sebastian watched, he folded his bag and slipped it into the book bag that he wore on his back; Sebastian always just crumpled and tossed his own into the trash. Then the boy stood up and took a quick look toward the door that led into the school from the patio. In doing so, he looked directly at Sebastian because Sebastian was sitting between him and the door.

The boy quickly looked away and then, never looking at any of the other kids at the tables, keeping his face down, he walked in the opposite direction from Sebastian, taking a route to the door that kept him at a maximum distance from all the tables and all the kids eating there, taking a long, roundabout route so he wouldn't have to pass by anyone sitting on the patio, or by Sebastian, either.

Sebastian saw this and then realized what it was about the boy that had been so intriguing. It was his whole appearance. Sebastian himself was sitting on the wall, but he was facing everyone else. The boy had been sitting in a way so he wasn’t looking at the others, which was a wholly unnatural and probably uncomfortable way to sit. Now, he was walking in a completely unexplainable way to reach the door, walking around the periphery of the wall in the longest way possible instead of simply going across the patio.

And Sebastian had a sudden thought; he thought maybe he’d figured out why the boy would do that. And in doing that, it came to him who the boy might be.


Sebastian was only half done with his sandwich but stuffed it back in his bag with his unopened carton of milk. He didn’t have to hurry. The boy had a long way to go to get to the door, which was only several steps away for Sebastian. So, unhurriedly, Sebastian stood up and headed for the door. Instead of stopping there, he walked past it, then stopped and leaned against the school building, and waited. The boy would have to pass him to get to the door.

He watched the boy out of the corner of his eye, watched him approach. When the boy was about to reach Sebastian, Sebastian saw him look up and suddenly stop, look around, and then half turn, ready to walk the other way.

Sebastian spoke before he moved. “You’re Cary Anders, aren’t you?”

*

He always ate lunch outside. There were fewer kids there than in the cafeteria where they were all jammed so closely together, and outside he was able to eat by himself without looking odd doing so. He’d been very relieved when he’d found this place. Lunchtime had been a big worry for him.

He felt pretty good about school. His big fears—being in a crowd of kids walking outside after school and eating lunch—hadn’t proved to be setbacks at all. He was able to keep his head down in his classes so far, and no one seemed to notice him in the halls. Gym class was still a worry, but he hadn’t been singled out yet. If that happened, he’d have to deal with it; how, he didn’t know, but so far, so good.

He hadn’t relaxed yet. School was still scary. But he wasn’t trembling all the time, either, like he had on the first day.

It was a beautiful day, and he had a good lunch. He was still making his lunches for himself. Often Fred would come into the kitchen while he was doing so. He’d smile and say good morning, and Cary knew how to be polite and always answered him. He’d go on with making his lunch, less nervous about it now, and Fred would usually pour a cup of coffee, sit at the kitchen table and try to talk to him.

He’d answer politely but never said much. Fred wanted to know about school, about whether he needed more clothes, if the ones he had were appropriate, if he was having any problems—he’d go on and on, and Cary knew he was trying to get him to open up, but he’d learned the hard way to say as little as was polite to say. He could see Fred would get frustrated, but so far the man hadn’t got mad. That was good.

He finished his lunch and folded up his bag as he always did. He’d been scolded for wasting things that were still usable, and he’d seen other boys punished for doing it more than once. How many times had he heard, “Money doesn’t grow on trees, you know, and just because you get fed and clothed for nothing doesn’t mean we’re rich or that it’s OK to waste things. If you want to see what happens when we run out of money, I’ll be happy to show you what that’s like!” Even though Fred had never asked him to save or reuse his lunch bag, it was now automatic for him to save things that other people threw away.

He turned to walk back into the school and saw a boy sitting on the wall between him and the door. He turned to go the other way; doing so was automatic. If he passed next to the boy, he might get spoken to. Or called out. Then what? No, it was better to avoid all that.

He had a longer walk this way, but that didn’t bother him. What did, however, was to see, when he turned his final corner to get to the door, that the boy who had been on the wall was now standing against the wall of the school, again between him and the door—just standing there.

His heart started beating a little faster. Why was he there? Why had he moved from where he’d been sitting, and why was he now standing up? Was that on purpose? Was he going to say something to him? Was he going to stop him?

His heart started pounding. He stopped walking and started to turn when the boy spoke.

“You’re Cary Anders, aren’t you?”

*

It had taken more effort than Sebastian had expected it would, but eventually he and Cary were back on the low wall again, seated where Cary had eaten lunch, which incidentally was also where Sebastian had been attacked by Norman Pensker the year before.

When he’d used Cary’s name, he’d been surprised at the reaction. Cary had initially looked frightened. Sebastian was entirely unprepared for anyone to look scared of him. Mr. Darvin had told him that Cary was in his grade, which meant they were probably the same age, or perhaps Cary was even older. Sebastian was small for his age. Cary was larger than he was. So, why fear?

Cary hadn’t wanted to speak to him. That was clear. After his initial fearful glance, Cary had finished turning around, and Sebastian had said, “Cary? Please, I want to talk to you. Mr. Darvin asked me to.”

That had stopped him. He stood still, his back to Sebastian, and Sebastian had walked up to him and said, “Can we talk? Please? Let’s go back over to where you were eating. We can sit down there and talk privately. Just us.”

Cary had looked around. No one was watching them. Sebastian had smiled at him and taken a step in the direction of the wall. He’d purposely taken it that way so they’d avoid the tables of kids. Sebastian thought that this had to be the shyest kid he’d ever met.

After a moment’s hesitation, Cary had nodded once and followed Sebastian, who made his way to the exact spot where Cary had been sitting.

They sat, and Sebastian looked at Cary, who was looking down, not meeting his eyes. Sebastian realized if they were going to have a conversation, it would be up to him to lead it. Even then, the boy might choose not to talk. Then what could Sebastian do?

Well, he thought, perhaps if he began with something that had to spark Cary’s interest.

After a few moments of silence, Cary couldn’t help himself. He glanced up at Sebastian. It was what Sebastian had been waiting for. Instead of staring back at Cary, he turned so he was looking at the lawn on the other side of the wall. But in his peripheral vision he saw Cary hadn’t dropped his eyes.

“This was where I was last year when another kid hit me. Knocked me over the wall, onto my back on the ground. Right here.”

Cary spoke then, and Sebastian grinned because he’d figured that if he talked about being hit, Cary would have to ask about that, and he’d been right.

“Really? Someone hit you?”

“Yeah. I was a real wimp then. Still am, I guess, but I’m better than I was. I was afraid of everything back then. But my friend helped me. Talked to me, and that helped. But this kid didn’t like me, and he caught up to me here. I’m really proud of myself, though.”

He stopped, knowing Cary would have to ask him why he was proud. Which the boy did.

“You’re proud he knocked you down?”

Sebastian laughed. “No. That hurt! And it was a little embarrassing, but I looked at the kids at the tables and no one seemed to have noticed. So that was OK. But I was proud because I hadn’t run away.”

When Cary didn’t respond to that, Sebastian continued. “The kid was bigger than I was. But everyone’s bigger than I am. See, before that, I’d been scared whenever I saw a fight, whether I was in it or not. If it looked like I’d be in one, I’d always run away. And my friend—his name is Dylan—convinced me I’d feel better if I stood up to anyone who wanted to fight. That’s why I was proud after he hit me. Because I hadn’t run away. Dylan was right. Getting hit hurt, but I felt better about myself, and that was more important than the hurt was.”

Cary looked at him, and Sebastian took a quick glance before turning away again. In that glance, he could see a lot of emotions in Cary’s eyes.

Sebastian remained quiet then, hoping Cary would say something. If he did, it would be progress. If he didn’t, Sebastian would have to talk again before the boy left.

Cary did speak. It was soft, and hesitant, but he did speak. “Why did you say that about Mr. Darvin?”

That was just what Sebastian had been hoping for. He turned so he was looking at Cary, which caused the boy to drop his eyes again, but Sebastian waited till Cary looked up again. Then he answered.

“He said he was worried about you. He said that maybe you needed a friend. He asked me if I’d look you up and talk to you. Mr. Darvin’s my favorite teacher. We’re sort of friends; at least I think of him that way. So, I started looking for you. Do you have any idea how hard it was to find you?” He wiped his forehead as though he’d been sweating, then laughed. “I just lucked out when I asked if you were Cary. I really had no idea.”

He was surprised to see Cary get a look of concern on his face, a look which disappeared almost immediately. It disappeared so quickly that it made Sebastian wonder if this boy consciously concealed his emotions.

Sebastian could see how unsettled Cary was talking to him. He wanted to ask why but instinctively knew this would be the wrong approach. Instead, he asked a question.

“Are you going to hang with Mr. Darvin tonight?”

Sebastian thought the glance Cary threw him looked suspicious, but after thinking about it, the boy nodded.

“Would it be OK if I waited for you and then walked home with you? We could talk and maybe get to know each other. It’s got to be hard, being here and not knowing anyone.”

Cary seemed to think about this, then shook his head. “Thanks,” he said, “but not tonight. Maybe some other time.”

“OK,” Sebastian said, smiling. “But if you ever want to talk to someone, someone who’s on your side, my name’s Sebastian, and I’ll be around. And I’ll ask you again about getting to know each other better. Maybe you’ll think about it, and we can do that. I’ll introduce you to Dylan, too. You’ll like him. He’s like me, but funnier.”

Sebastian expected Cary to laugh at that, but he didn’t. Instead, he simply nodded at Sebastian and walked away.

*

Sebastian was not easily deterred. What he’d seen with Cary bothered him. Cary didn’t seem like a happy kid to him. He seemed like someone who needed a friend to talk to. Sebastian had Dylan, and Dylan had him, and he didn’t know what he’d have done without a friend like that to talk to. As far as he knew, Cary didn’t have anyone.

Sebastian’s plan was to find Cary a friend, but to do that, he’d have to make friends himself with Cary first. He had to get to know him—what he liked and didn’t, how he liked to spend his spare time—so he could find someone of similar interests to hang with. So, what he needed to do first was get friendly with Cary.

That proved difficult. Cary was adept at making himself invisible and in not being where Sebastian expected him to be. But there was one constant: Cary kept showing up at Mr. Darvin’s classroom each night and staying there till the teacher left.

This made it easy, if inconvenient, for Sebastian. Luckily, as Sebastian was to learn, there was something else working in his favor: Cary lived in Sebastian’s neighborhood.

That wasn’t too unusual because the town where they lived was small, and there were only a few decent neighborhoods in the entire town. But the fact the boys lived close to each other made it easy for them to walk together going home.

As Sebastian hadn’t been able to make contact with Cary at school—Cary was no longer eating lunch outside on the patio wall—he decided to get together with the boy outside Mr. Darvin’s classroom after school. To this end, he spoke to Mr. Darvin. He got him to agree to leave early so Sebastian wouldn’t have to wait at the school the full two hours that Mr. Darvin usually spent there doing paperwork after the close of school each day. When Sebastian told him why, Mr. Darvin agreed readily enough.

So it was that the next day, Mr. Darvin started packing up early. He was shoving his papers into his briefcase when Cary looked up from the desk where he was working.

“Sorry, Cary. I’m leaving early tonight.” Mr. Darvin stood up from behind his desk. “I’m afraid I have to kick you out now.” He smiled at the boy. Cary looked at him without much expression at all.

“You OK?” his teacher asked.

“Yes, sir,” Cary said and began gathering his things.

Mr. Darvin got to the classroom door before Cary and stood there waiting. When the boy had everything together and walked to the door, Mr. Darvin wished him a good night, and Cary politely returned the courtesy.

Cary was walking down the corridor toward the outside door when he saw Sebastian at his locker, putting some books in and taking others out. He closed the door just as Cary approached.

“Oh, hi, Cary! Did you have detention, too? No, I would have seen you in there. I’ve got to learn to keep my mouth shut better.” He grinned at Cary.

Cary seemed a bit nonplussed and unsure whether he should walk by without stopping, but, at the last moment, stopped in front of Sebastian.

Sebastian kept speaking. “You on your way home? I am. Maybe we could walk together. I told you I’d like to get to know you better. Is that OK with you?”

Sebastian began walking toward the door as he said that, leaving the decision up to Cary whether he wanted to come along but also showing that Sebastian wasn’t about to force the issue. Cary hesitated but then joined Sebastian.

This was when Sebastian learned Cary lived fairly close to him, which made walking with him easy. Sebastian carried the conversation, but that was fine. He spoke about teachers and kids at school and some of the fun he’d had with Dylan during the summer and what he liked about some of the restaurants in town and what he didn’t like and how he wasn’t very athletic and wished he was and what movies he’d seen recently and how he wished he were taller and on and on. He’d pause now and then to let Cary speak, but Cary never did.

When they came to the park where Sebastian had admitted to Dylan that he thought he was a coward, Sebastian asked if Cary would wait for him a second as he needed to use the restroom and didn’t want to wait till he got home.

Cary sat on the bench he’d found in the small park previously. When Sebastian came back, he sat down next to Cary. For the first time since they’d left school, he didn’t assault Cary’s ears. He sat silently for a spell.

Finally, he said, speaking softly this time, “I can tell, Cary. I don’t know how, but I can tell. You’ve got a lot inside you that wants to come out. I think it’s the way you keep throwing glances at me, then looking down again. I think you want to talk. But you don’t. Something’s stopping you. So I want you to know: that’s OK with me. Someday, maybe you’ll feel comfortable enough to talk, and when you are, I’ll listen. Until then, you don’t have to say anything at all, and I’ll still like you. Now, I’ve got to get home. You ready?”

Cary stood up with Sebastian, and they began walking again. This time Sebastian was silent, and they walked that way together until it was time to go their different ways. “See you tomorrow,” said Sebastian, and Cary almost smiled, and that was that.

*

So began a period of several weeks where every few days Sebastian would find a reason to stay late at school. He’d ditch a cooperating Dylan and end up walking most of the way home with Cary. Sebastian would do what talking was done. But Cary seemed to become more comfortable with Sebastian as the time they spent together grew, even if he wasn’t talking to him.

And then, one afternoon…

“I suck at gym. We were playing soccer. I was a fullback. That’s where you’re the last line of defense.” Sebastian grimaced. “They put me there because I’m not fast enough to play in the midfield or at forward. Anyway, I’m playing fullback, and you know what happened?”

Sebastian wasn’t expecting an answer. He hadn’t even asked the question with any thought to getting one; it was entirely rhetorical. And so he had already opened his mouth to continue with his story when he heard, “What?”

It took all Sebastian’s willpower not to react. He even stopped himself from looking at Cary. Instead, he just carried on, telling how the boy dribbling the ball toward him had got him so confused Sebastian had ended up trying to go right and left at the same time and had tripped over his own feet, gone sprawling, and the boy coming toward him had started laughing so hard, the other fullback on his team had had time to come over and steal the ball away.

“I was laughing, too. The gym teacher—well, he’s a good guy—came over and patted me on the back and told me that was the best defensive maneuver he’d ever seen.”

Sebastian had stopped then, and they’d walked on, and then, out of the blue, Cary had said, “We’re playing soccer in my gym class, too. They’ve put me at both keeper and in the midfield.”

“You must be good, then! Fast.”

Cary didn’t laugh or boast. But he did answer. “Just average, I think. I didn’t like playing keeper. Everyone was looking at me.”

From then on, their walks home were different. Cary was never effusive or even very talkative, but he was able to chat a little about things at school. But about his life outside school or his past, he remained mute. He didn’t seem reluctant to spend time walking home with Sebastian, however, and Sebastian thought that was a very good first step.

Sebastian spoke to Mr. Darvin about what he was doing. “I’m trying to be his friend, Mr. Darvin. He doesn’t talk much. He was scared of me at first. No one’s ever scared of me! He’s better now, but he keeps an awful lot of stuff inside. He doesn’t talk about home at all. He generally seems OK with me doing all the talking. I’m not getting very far very fast with him.

“Why isn’t he more…well, why is he like this, Mr. Darvin? Most kids, if you’re friendly and show that you care about them, they respond. But Cary…” Sebastian stopped, trying to say what he felt. In frustration, he finally said, “It’s just like you said when you first spoke to me about him. He just doesn’t seem happy. No matter what I do or say, he’s not happy.”

Mr. Darvin shook his head. “I agree with you. Yet, everyone wants to be happy, Sebastian. There are some that just can’t be, though. You know, you’re taking me back to my college days and a psychology class I had. We were taught all humans have needs, and until some of our more basic ones are satisfied, reaching a higher level of the human condition—and happiness is a higher-level human achievement—can’t be done.”

Mr. Darvin sat back in his chair, getting more comfortable as he explained. “To be happy, we need to have enough food, to feel safe, to be warm enough and secure—that sort of thing. Without those, a person spends all his time worrying about and trying to get those things, and doing so stands in the way of happiness, even of feeling good about ourselves.

“But I think you’re right. I think you’ve nailed the problem. I don’t think he’s happy, either.”

“Why isn’t he?”

Mr. Darvin sighed. “Well, perhaps some of the things I mentioned that allow us to be happy are missing in his life. I just don’t know. I don’t know him well enough.”

“I don’t, either, and he doesn’t talk about himself at all, so I don’t see how I can find out.”

“Well, you’re trying, Sebastian. Thank you for that. He does need friends. All kids do. So you’re helping. He has to want to be happy. Some of whether he’s happy or not depends on him.”

*

That conversation with Sebastian gave Peter Darvin a thought, and he made a point to talk to the new gym teacher. Showers were required of all 9th- through 12th-grade students. Peter asked the gym teacher if he could manage to look at Cary Anders when he was stripped down to see if there were any signs of physical abuse like bruises or other marks. The gym teacher reported back a few days later that he’d found a reason to be in the locker room after Cary’s class and had seen the boy and he’d looked perfectly OK, but that when Cary had seen him there, he became very nervous. The gym teacher said Cary had dressed and left the locker room as quickly as he could and never met the teacher’s eyes. That maybe the boy was simply body-shy.

Peter thought of scheduling a meeting with Cary’s parents, but why? The boy was doing A work; he wasn’t causing trouble in class; he seemed to be getting to know Sebastian, so he wasn’t entirely alone. Teachers in his other classes said he was the same in theirs as in Peter’s—that is, he was quiet, didn’t like being called on, didn’t seem to associate with the other kids at all, but he did great work and was no problem—so what would be the reason for the meeting?

Peter decided he needed to think about this a bit more.

*

Cary was feeling a little better about some things but not good at all about others. He couldn’t believe he’d allowed it to happen, but there was a boy at school, a smallish, non-threatening sort of boy who had a great smile and seemed determined to be friends with him, and when he thought about him, he felt calmer.

There was Mr. Darvin, too. He was nice. Just the way he acted, he could tell the man cared about him. It wasn’t being put on for effect. It was real; he knew that. And that was a great help, too.

But there were bad things at school, too. He had to walk through the halls between classes, and it was noisy, and the few teachers monitoring the class changes couldn’t see everything, and once he’d been bumped, and he just about panicked every time the class-changing bell rang.

But that wasn’t the worst. He had to take showers at school after gym, and that terrified him. All the other boys seemed to either enjoy being naked together, laughing and teasing, or at least they weren’t bothered by it. He couldn’t avoid being naked with them because putting up any sort of fuss or even covering himself up like he so desperately wanted would simply draw attention to him. At least no one seemed to pay him any more attention than they did anyone else, but it could happen any time.

And then, the gym teacher had come into the locker room last week, and the man definitely had been staring at him. Cary knew when people were staring at him; his heart began to beat faster, it was more difficult to get enough air into his lungs, and it was all he could do not to run. Seeing the man looking at him was awful. He’d dressed quickly and left, but he’d been scared about what it meant ever since.

The other bad thing, really bad thing, was at home. He’d been with the two men for several months now. They were kind to him, and he was polite with them, of course, and tried to be as unnoticeable as possible, but lately…

Well, lately, the men, and especially Fred, were paying more attention to him. Talking to him more, asking about school, and friends, and teachers, and if he was doing OK. That was hard, because it meant they were noticing him, taking an interest in him. And that was really scary.

*

Sebastian was sitting on the park bench with Cary. Cary had been acting as usual with Sebastian, very calm and relaxed. Not open, not voluble, but relaxed. That was better than how the boy had been at first.

But, now he was edgy. Sebastian had told him he wanted him to meet his friend Dylan. Dylan had been getting annoyed that he had to be absent every time Sebastian wanted to be with the kid. And Sebastian realized he had a point. So, when they were at the park on the way home from school…

“Cary, I want you to meet Dylan. He wants to get to know you, too. Then you’ll have two friends at school. You’ll really like him.”

Cary hadn’t reacted the way Sebastian had hoped he would. Instead of smiling and saying that would be great, he’d almost shut down. He’d looked away and seemed to shrivel into himself.

Sebastian was on a mission, however, getting the two boys together, seeing the positives of it, and not paying much attention to Cary’s body language. He kept talking and finally got Cary to agree. The agreement was only a hesitant, small nod, but Sebastian said ‘great’ and used his cell phone to call Dylan. Dylan had been waiting out of sight and so showed up only a minute later.

The meeting didn’t go especially well. Dylan joined them on the bench, sitting so Cary was between the two. Sebastian introduced them, and Dylan, being Dylan, was effusive and funny. He teased Sebastian but in a way that wasn’t a bit offensive or demeaning, a way that simply showed how close the two boys were.

It took a while for either Sebastian or Dylan to notice that Cary wasn’t saying anything, and when they did, Sebastian asked him if anything was wrong. Cary shook his head, then quickly stood up. “I’ve got to go,” he said, and then was walking, then running off.

Dylan turned to Sebastian, looking puzzled. “What was that?”

Sebastian was frowning. “I may have made a mistake,” he said.

*

Cary felt awful. He’d thought he had a friend, but he’d been wrong. Sebastian wasn’t his friend! He’d been doing what all the others were: watching him, fooling him. Today it became clear. He’d gotten Cary relaxed, then brought Dylan into the picture. Dylan was bigger than either of them. He sat down with Cary pinned in the middle. He’d acted jovial, but Cary knew better. He’d been part of that before.

So he was feeling bad, thinking of what had happened; he’d been brooding about it ever since getting home. He never said much at home anyway, but tonight he’d not spoken at all. His head was churning with what had happened that afternoon. He was upset and unsettled. And then it got worse, much worse, when it was time for bed.

Every night when he went to bed, he said goodnight to both men. And they wished him a goodnight as well. So even though he was quite upset and hadn’t felt like saying anything to anyone, it was now a ritual, and he performed it as usual.

The two men had been finishing up in the kitchen. He never had understood, from the day he’d arrived, why they did the kitchen chores and did not have him do them. He’d been sure when he’d been told a foster family had been found for him that he’d be doing all the household chores for them. But that hadn’t been the case at all. All he had to do was keep his room tidy. They even did his laundry for him.

But last night, they’d been finishing up in the kitchen, and he’d gone in to tell them goodnight. Tom was at the sink, washing, and Fred was still moving back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room, bringing in dishes for Tom.

“Uh, goodnight, Tom,” he’d said softly, standing in the doorway. “I’m going up now.”

“’Night, Cary,” Tom had said, turning to him and smiling. “Have a good one. Hope you’re feeling better in the morning.”

Cary had tried to smile back, knowing Tom had noticed how silent he’d been and recognizing that he’d been spared questions about his mood. That was when he encountered Fred. Fred had just come into the kitchen, wiping his hands on the towel he had draped over his shoulder.

“Good night, Fred,” Cary said.

And that was when it happened. Fred was right there, right next to him. He’d smiled, too, and said, “Goodnight, Cary,” and then, looking Cary in the eyes, he’d said, “I know something’s bothering you. I’m sorry about that. Please know you can tell us anything. We’re here for you and really want to help.” And then, he’d reached out, put his arms around Cary, and hugged him.

He’d hugged him! Neither of them had so much as touched him before, other than shaking hands when they’d first met. But now, Fred had gone past that, way past it.

Cary went upstairs and closed his door and sat on his bed, trembling. He knew what that hug meant. It meant it was finally time for them to get physical with him. It meant that, probably tonight, they’d be coming for him.

He’d so hoped this wouldn’t happen. He’d been getting used to living here. He’d even been getting used to the two men and wishing they weren’t gay, because in spite of himself, he’d been starting to like them. But they were gay, and so he’d known this was coming.

First Sebastian had let him down, and now the men he lived with had as well. His whole world was falling apart, and there was nothing he could do about it. He now could see that Sebastian was gay. He saw how he was with Dylan, and Dylan was with him. This explained why Sebastian had been trying so hard to be friends with him. Trying just as hard to get inside his head as the two men had been.

He looked at the door but knew there was no lock on it. He’d known that as soon as they’d shown him the room and told him he could decorate it however he liked; they would buy him anything he needed for it, too. But he hadn’t known how to ask for a lock for the door.

These guys had never done anything, anything at all, to make him feel unsafe. But they’d just been leading him on. He saw that clearly now. He’d been suspicious, of course, but as time had passed, he’d started to worry less and less. But now he saw he’d been right from the first. They’d been grooming him. Just breaking down his resistance. He should have known never to trust them!

Damn! He’d been so hoping this home would be permanent, too! But it was going to simply be the same all over again.

With pounding heart, he undressed and slipped into bed, curling up into himself as tightly as he could. Waiting for the door to open.

*

At school the next day, he was antsy, fidgety, upset, unable to concentrate. He sleepwalked through his first class and then couldn’t get his head together at all in Mrs. Tanlick’s keyboarding class.

She’d given an assignment: to type several sentences she’d written on the board that used all the letters in the alphabet and one that used all the numbers. After that, she walked around the room, watching that her students were all using the right fingers on the right keys. She did this often. The students didn’t like her looking over their shoulders, especially because she carried a short pointer with her, much like an orchestral conductor’s baton, and she’d tap the offending fingers when she saw them. She wasn’t a popular teacher.

She came up behind Cary and stopped. He was hardly typing at all, and when he did, he was only using his two pointer fingers, desultorily poking at the keys.

Standing just behind him shaking her head, grimacing, she grasped his shoulder with one hand and rapped his fingers with the pointer.

She was entirely unprepared for what happened next.

Cary exploded out of his seat. His face was almost white, his lips in a rictus, his eyes wild. He grabbed the pointer out of Mrs. Tanlick’s fingers and slammed it across the edge of his desk, snapping it in two. Throwing the piece left in his hand on the floor, he faced Mrs. Tanlick and shouted as loudly as he could, “Don’t you EVER touch me again!” Then he turned, looked around the classroom with eyes that didn’t appear to register anything there was to see, and abruptly took off running up the aisle, then to the door. He yanked it open and without looking back ran through it and down the hall, yelling at the top of his lungs as he did. The sound was pure pain and terrible to hear.

Classroom doors were thrown open, and teachers stepped into the hall to confront the commotion. Mr. Darvin emerged from his class just as Cary ran by. Mr. Darvin called to him, but Cary’s frantic dash to the outside world didn’t slow. As Mr. Darvin watched, Cary came to the end of the hall and smashed through the door, and was still running, still screaming as the door swung shut, cutting him off from view.

Mr. Darvin turned to find Sebastian, who was in this class, standing next to him. “Was that Cary?” he asked his teacher.

“Yes. He looked wild, like he’d snapped. I’d better call the office and have them call the police and his parents. I have no idea where he’s going or where they should look for him.” Then he glanced down at Sebastian. “Do you have any idea where he might go, upset like he is?”

Sebastian thought, then said, “I might know one place. It’s the only place I can think of. He told me he only comes to school here and goes home and doesn’t know anyplace else. I’ve tried to get him to look around the town with me, and he wouldn’t.”

“Could you go look for him? You’ve got a cell phone, don’t you? If he’s there, call me, and I’ll tell people where he is. If he’s still acting crazy, stay away from him and just call me.”

“Can I have Dylan come with me?”

“Sure. That would be safer.” Mr. Darvin looked back into his classroom and beckoned for Dylan to come to where he and Sebastian were standing.

*

He ran all the way to the park and could hardly breathe when he arrived. He thought to sit on the bench but didn’t want anyone seeing him. If they found him, he knew what would happen. He looked around and decided to hide in the restroom. He was sure that this time of day it would be deserted.

He took a minute to catch his breath, then stepped into the restroom. It was small with a sink, a urinal and one stall. The door to the stall was closed. He stepped to the sink and ran some cold water, which he splashed on his sweaty face. He was wiping it dry with paper towels when he heard a noise behind him.

*

Sebastian and Dylan had to wait while Mr. Darvin called the office and told Dr. Jacobs what he’d seen. Dr. Jacobs had already heard from Mrs. Tanlick about what had happened in her class. Dr. Jacobs told Peter he’d call the police and Cary’s parents. Peter told the principal that Sebastian and Dylan had an idea where Cary might have gone and got permission for them to go see. He said the same thing that Mr. Darvin had: if the boy still looked as wild as he had leaving the school, they were not to approach him but instead to call the school and they’d see to it that adults came to handle the situation.

Finally, with both Sebastian and Dylan becoming more and more anxious to be off, Mr. Darvin put down his phone and gave them the green light, and they left the school and took off at a jog in the direction of the park.

*

A man stepped out of the stall behind him. He was wearing a grubby tee-shirt that was being stressed by his bulging stomach. He was a large man with uncombed hair and a face that hadn’t seen a razor in the past few days. Even from the five-foot distance he was from Cary, his rank odor reached the boy almost as soon as the stall door opened.

Cary didn’t notice any of these things. His eyes were fastened on the man’s erection. The man’s jeans were crumpled around his ankles, and his hand was stroking himself.

“I saw you through the crack at the edge of the stall door. You’re just the age I like. I know guys your age think about sex all the time. Now we’re going to have some fun.” The man waddled toward Cary, his pants keeping his steps short and slow.

Cary took a quick glance at the door, but knew he couldn’t reach it. Instead, he moved toward the back of the restroom. It would only save him a few seconds, but it was all he could think to do.

The man saw the fear in Cary’s eyes, saw him cower in the corner, and smiled. “Playing hard to get, huh? That works for me. More fun when they resist.”

The man started toward the boy again, his eyes flashing with anticipation.

Cary screamed.

*

Sebastian and Dylan reached the park out of breath. The place was deserted. Sebastian went to the bench where he and Cary sat and looked among the trees that were in the area. No one.

“Dammit!” he said.

“Did you check the restroom?” Dylan asked.

“No,” said Sebastian and ran to it.

The door was locked. “Cary, are you in there?” Sebastian shouted.

This was answered by a scream, then, “Help! Help!”

This was followed by a low voice saying, “Shut the fuck up!”

Cary then screamed again.

Sebastian pounded on the door. “Open this door!” he shouted. “Open it!”

Cary stopped screaming, and then they heard the man’s voice.

“Who’s out there?”

“I am. I’m a friend of the boy in there.”

“Are you alone?”

Sebastian recoiled when he heard that. All sorts of things went through his head. Then Dylan’s hand fell on his shoulder.

“Say yes,” Dylan whispered in his ear.

Sebastian’s eyes widened. “Really? I think he wants to maybe grab me, too!”

Dylan nodded. “But he won’t. If he comes out, just duck away from him. If he just opens the door and invites you in, well, don’t go in, but that’s what we want. So, say yes.”

Sebastian had no idea what was going on, but he trusted Dylan. So he turned back to the door and shouted, “Yes, I’m by myself, and I want to see Cary. Now.”

There was a pause, and then the voice said, “Hold on. I’ll unlock the door, and you can come in and see that he’s fine.”

At that, they could hear Cary begin to shout, but it was cut off. Then there was another short pause, after which Sebastian could hear the lock being opened. That was followed by the door opening just far enough so they could see the man’s face in the crack.

He looked out and saw the two boys. “Hey! You said you were alone!”

“He lied,” said Dylan. “We just wanted you to open the door so you can see this.” He held up his cell phone. “I called the cops when I heard the first scream. The dispatcher said they’d be here in four minutes. That was—” he glanced at the screen of the phone “—three minutes ago. You have about a minute to run if you don’t want them to find you here. Hostage situations never work out well. You probably know that. I’d run if I were you. Seconds are ticking away.”

The man stared at the two boys. Then they all could hear a siren in the distance. That was all it took. He shoved the door open, the two boys jumped aside, and the man took off running.

Sebastian ran inside. Cary was in the far corner of the room, drawn up into himself, crouched down on the floor. Sebastian hurried to him, then squatted down next to him. “Are you OK? Did he hurt you?”

Cary looked up at Sebastian. At first Sebastian didn’t think he was going to say anything and then was surprised when he did. Just as he was surprised with what he said.

“I’m sorry, Sebastian. I was wrong.”

Sebastian was able to get him on his feet after being assured he was OK, that the man hadn’t had time to do anything but threaten him. When they got outside, the police were already there, and Dylan was pointing in the direction the man had run as well as describing him and what he was wearing. “He only has about a 45 second start on you, and I don’t think, as fat as he is, he’ll exactly be an Olympic sprinter.”

*

They were in Fred and Tom’s living room. The group included the two foster fathers, Cary, the other two boys and their mothers.

Earlier, the boys had been taken to the police station to make statements, which they weren’t able to do until the adults were present because they were all underage. The statements they all made were barebones recitals of what had happened after Cary had entered the restroom. Nothing had been said about why any of the boys were at the park during school hours. When they were done, they were asked to look at a lineup of men, separately, and they all had identified the man who had been in the restroom with Cary.

When that was over and done with, they were brought back in a group to the lobby of the police station. Sebastian’s and Dylan’s mothers knew each other, and, to the surprise of the boys, they knew Cary’s foster fathers, too. Fred was a legal researcher working under the DA, and Tom was a well-known figure in town, on the school board and manager of the city’s largest grocery store.

Cary was sticking close to Sebastian. He was also throwing glances around at everyone else, especially the foster dads. Every now and then he’d shake his head.

The lobby of the police station was brightly lit. Sebastian speculated that maybe that was what was discomfiting Cary. But he didn’t really think that was what it was. Cary was making an effort to stay right next to him. In the past, he’d made certain to maintain a space between them. Something had changed.

The adults had been chatting together. When the boys returned, the men said goodbye to the women and asked Cary if he was OK and ready to go and told him that they’d talk at home. Cary took half a step closer to Sebastian and asked, “Can Sebastian come with us? I do want to talk. I have a lot to say, but I’d Sebastian there, too.”

Fred looked at Tom and seemed to get some message from the glance, because he turned back to Cary. “Sure, if it’s OK with Shelly.”

Mrs. Collier looked at Sebastian, who looked at Dylan. “Can Dylan come, too?” Sebastian asked his mom.

And that was why all seven of them were gathered together in the men’s living room. The boys all had soft drinks, the adults cups of coffee. When they were all comfortable, Fred looked at Cary who was sitting between Sebastian and Dylan on the couch. “Can you tell us what happened, Cary? I mean from the beginning. Dr. Jacobs called and told us about what happened at school, but we don’t know why it happened. Or any of the rest of it.”

There was compassion in his voice when he asked, and Cary heard it. It was just like always in that house. He was treated with respect and allowed to express himself however he wanted to. Before, he’d chosen to be silent as much as possible. All the way here, driving with Fred and Tom, he hadn’t said a word, but he’d been thinking. He’d been doing a lot of that ever since being rescued from the restroom.

He sat up a little straighter on the couch, then looked at Sebastian sitting next to him. He reached out and took his hand. “Is this all right? Can I do this? I have a lot to say, and I’m not sure I can. This will help.”

Sebastian was surprised, but nodded yes, and gave Cary’s hand a squeeze. Cary smiled, then turned back to Fred and Tom.

“I have a lot of stuff to tell you, like I said at the police station. A lot of it is awful. I hope I can get it all out. You won’t want to hear it. But I want to say it. I’ve kept so much to myself for so long. It’s going to be difficult for me to unload all this, but I’m going to try. I’ve reached the point where I think I can.

“I haven’t been talking much. I haven’t been saying much to anyone. I’ve been hiding as much as possible. There’s a reason for that that made sense to me. But I learned today that my reason, at least some of it, was false. I’ve made a mistake, and for the first time in about forever, I realize that.

“The reason this is going to be so hard for me is that I’ve learned not to trust anyone, and now I’m going to do the exact opposite of that. I’m going to trust everyone here. And you have no idea how hard that is after spending years not trusting anyone.

“But I learned something today. I learned how mixed up I’ve been, how wrong I’ve been. Sebastian showed me that.” He squeezed Sebastian’s hand. “Sebastian brought me out of my messed-up self and showed me what’s real. And I’m going to try to talk about all that. I think telling you about it will help me get rid of all the false stuff I’ve been accepting as true. At the very least, you’ll know why I’ve acted like I have.”

He stopped then. He’d been beating around the bush because it was easier that saying what he had to say. It was time for him to begin, though.

He reached for his Coke and took a long drink. He set it back on the coffee table in front of him, squeezed Sebastian’s hand again, looked around the room at all the eyes regarding him, and started.

“I’ve been mixed up for a long time. But I didn’t know it. Kids don’t know things. They know what they see and what people tell them, but mostly they know what they themselves have learned. And that’s what I knew: the things that I’d learned—mostly before I came here. And today, I learned that much of what I’d learned was wrong.”

He looked around the room. The expression on his face made it look like he was seeing everything in it for the first time.

“This started—” Cary stopped for a deep breath. “This started for me when I was eight. That’s when my uncle began coming into my room at night. He told me he loved me and was going to show me how much. It hurt at first, the first few times. But he kept coming anyway. I screamed the first time, it hurt so much. He told me that was fine. I could scream all I wanted, that eventually I’d like it. And the screaming wouldn't make any difference. I never understood that. I never understood why my parents didn’t come in and stop him. Why my screams didn’t make them come.”

He saw Fred and Tom looking at each other. He saw Fred fighting back tears. He looked back at Sebastian. He had tears, too. Seeing that, Cary had to rub his own eyes. He’d known this would be hard for him. He now saw how hard it was for people who cared about him. But this was just the beginning, and the reaction of the others simply was more motivation to get it all out.

“He kept coming, not every night, but many. When I was ten, I got up the courage to tell someone at school: the teacher who’d talked to us all about sexual abuse. After she spoke, I went to her and told her what was happening. She called the police and social services. That’s when I got taken away and put in a home. I got taken away because they found out when they investigated that my parents were involved with other children. They went to jail, along with my uncle, and I went to a temporary facility for boys like me who didn’t have parents who could raise them. My whole life was turned upside down. Because I’d told.”

He stopped, remembering what that had felt like: when all of a sudden, everything he’d known was torn from him.

“The second week in that place, four boys got me in the shower. They all had a turn with me. They didn’t hurt me all that much because I was used to a much bigger man. They didn’t hurt me much physically, but mentally…”

He reached for his Coke and drank half the can before putting it down. Sebastian could feel him shaking. He leaned over and whispered in Cary’s ear, asking if he was OK. Cary nodded. “I need to finish this,” he replied, not bothering to whisper.

He turned back to his audience. He saw Fred looking even more upset. Before Cary could continue, Fred spoke, speaking softly.

“We knew about your uncle and parents, Cary. It was in your file. It was one of the reasons we wanted to take you in. Both Tom and I were abused, too, when we were kids. We thought we could give you a good home and talk to you about this. Help you. But you never wanted to talk. We’ve been waiting. But you never said a word. We didn’t know what to do. We weren’t sure if you were still traumatized by what had happened or if it was something else. We didn’t want to force you to talk about something that still may have been too much for you to discuss.”

Cary shook his head. “It wasn’t your fault, and I wasn’t traumatized. That isn’t why I was so shut down, why I didn’t talk much. I could have talked. I haven’t said much to anyone, but I could have. I didn’t because of my misconceptions and because of how I thought I had to behave because of them. I’ll get to that. But, the reason the four boys weren’t in my file was because I never told anyone. I’d learned. I learned that when you told people things your whole world collapsed on you. So, I didn’t tell. What I did instead was go to the ringleader of those boys the next day. I told him I wouldn't tell anyone what had happened the night before. I’d just accept it as an initiation. He said it wasn’t an initiation, that they were all gay and they were welcoming me to the club and that they had sex with each other all the time and they wanted to include me.

“I told him I wasn’t gay. I was ten. I had no idea if I was gay or not—didn’t even really know what gay meant—but I knew I didn’t like what had happened to me. I told him I didn’t want to be in their club, and it could never happen again. If it did, I’d tell, and they’d all go into some sort of juvie system for sexual predators. Even though they were 13 and 14, I was only ten, and for doing that to a younger boy they’d be sent to a much worse place than this one.

“After that, they left me alone. But then, a foster family took me. The dad waited an entire month before he came into my room at night. He told me he was gay but had gotten married because his family had expected him to. He told me he’d picked me out to foster because I was cute and he liked to have sex with young boys, and he was going to do it with me. It would be our secret, I wasn’t to tell anyone, and my reward would be that he’d give me a good home.”

“Cary!” It was Fred. He was weeping. Cary got up and walked to his chair. Fred got up, and Cary tentatively hugged him. He hadn’t hugged a man for years. This was another trial for him but something he wanted to do, something he was resolved to do. Both of them cried together for a minute, and then Cary said, “I have to get through this.”

Fred sat back down, and Cary went back to Sebastian.

“I was with him and his wife for over two years. I hated being forced to have sex. It made me feel like I was nothing, like I had no right to be a person who had any control over what happened to him. It was only a couple of times a week, but I lost a lot of myself because of it. And, it taught me not to trust anyone ever again, especially not a gay man. I learned to distrust gays, especially after he told me they were sending me back to the group home—that I was getting too old; that he wanted a younger boy.”

He heard Fred moan and watched Tom put his arm around him. “That had to seem like the worst betrayal imaginable. Yet you still didn’t tell anyone?” Tom asked.

“When I learn something, I learn it well.” Cary sat up a little straighter. “I’d learned telling someone was about the worst thing I could do. And the fact was, I’d put up with this man doing what he was doing for over two years. How could I complain after all that time?”

“But you were a kid! He was wrong doing that, no matter if you didn’t try to stop him or not.”

“Yeah, I was a kid—a bad kid who’d traded sex for a home. That’s what the man told me while he was telling me I couldn’t tell anyone. He made it very clear that he’d deny anything I said and say that’s why they were sending me back, because I was a liar about things and stole from them, too.”

Cary stopped. He was shaking again, and Sebastian wrapped an arm around him. It was the memories that were affecting him. To Cary’s surprise, he was finding that talking, getting both his history and his feelings into the open, was actually helping him.

Dylan, sitting on the other side of him on the couch, did the same as Sebastian. Cary felt a second pair of arms around him. The day before, he would have panicked, feeling those, misjudging their meaning. Now, he was able to see that they signified care and concern, not impending danger.

Even as he accepted the physical support of his friends, it took a few moments for Cary to collect himself. Then he continued.

“Back in the home, I got raped a couple of times by older boys. The people running the place left us all alone after lights out. A lot of older boys preyed on the younger ones. Then I was told that two men wanted to foster me. Two gay men. I knew what that meant. I knew about gay men and boys. I’d learned. It meant more sex. But I hated that home I was in and wanted out. And I figured I was old enough by now that if the foster home worked out like it had for me before, I could run away when the sex started.”

“Cary!”

He couldn’t look at them, the shame he was feeling not permitting him to. He kept his eyes forward. “I tried to keep as low a profile as I could. I was scared here at home and scared at school. I knew sooner or later my door was going to be opened during the night. I knew at school at some point a gang of kids would notice me, and it would happen there, too. I was afraid to walk home after school with all the kids out there watching me, waiting for me. I found a teacher, one who actually seemed to care about me. I began going to his classroom after school. I’d tried the library, but kids looked at me there, and my main way of staying safe was trying not to be noticed.

“And then the strangest thing happened. Sebastian met me at lunch. And he told me he was going to be my friend. And for the first time in about forever, here was a boy my age that I found I could trust, a boy who wasn’t gay, wasn’t a bully, a boy who didn’t want to have sex with me. It took me a long time to accept that. I’d built a pretty strong wall around myself. But he was persistent.”

He squeezed Sebastian’s hand again and smiled at him.

He looked back at his foster parents and the smile left his face. “And then it all went bad. Our gym teacher came into the locker room and looked at me when I was naked. I knew what he wanted. That upped my fears. And Sebastian brought Dylan to meet me, and when Dylan sat down I was between them; they had me trapped, just like I am now, but now I’m seeing things clearly; now I know how things really are, and I didn’t then. Then, I was still thinking like I always had, like I’d learned to think. What added to that was that I could tell, just by how Sebastian and Dylan acted with each other, that they were gay, and since they were gay, I knew I was being targeted by them.”

“But—” Dylan started to protest, but Cary ignored that and kept going.

He was rushing now, talking faster. He could see the end in sight, and he so much wanted to get through this—get it over with.

“I was feeling awful that night. I’d been wrong about being safe at school, wrong in thinking Sebastian was my friend, wrong in thinking things maybe were going to work out for me now, and then the worst thing possible happened. Right here. For the first time, Fred hugged me. He’d never done that before, but last night, just when I was so mixed up with everything else happening, he hugged me, and I knew my safe period here was over. I knew that Fred, or Fred and Tom both, would come for me during the night.”

“But we didn’t,” said Tom, shocked and outraged. Fred didn’t say a word. He was simply weeping. Silently weeping. He got hold of himself, however, wiped his eyes, and said, “We had no idea about all this. We knew you had problems because you were so reclusive but thought if we just let you get used to us and your new home, things would resolve themselves. We didn’t figure this out at all. You should be seeing someone. We can do that. We can find someone. Oh, Cary. I’m so sorry we failed you. We just didn’t know!”

“No, of course you didn’t. And no one came to my room last night. But I was sure you would. I barely got any sleep at all. First, I figured it would happen when you came upstairs. When you didn’t come in then, I figured you’d wait till I was asleep and completely out of it. Then I figured it would be first thing in the morning. But, no one came at all. I didn’t understand that but was too tired to think clearly about it. I’d hardly slept at all.

“Then, today at school, Mrs. Tanlick grabbed me, and I came unglued. I hadn’t had any sleep, I never like people touching me, she hit me and I just…” He stopped. His voice was shaking. Sebastian squeezed his hand, hard, and Dylan scooted over to press up against him and wrap his arm around him again.

It took a moment or two before he was able to resume. He spoke more softly now, lacking the energy he’d had before.

“I ran to the park. I couldn’t go home; I wasn’t safe here. The park was the only place I knew where only good things had happened. Except for yesterday when I’d learned I couldn’t trust Sebastian or Dylan, but that was too recent. In my mind, my sleep-deprived and very fuzzy mind, the park was safe. So I ran there. I was out of breath when I arrived, but I knew I had to avoid the people who would be looking for me. I still needed to be invisible, more so right then than ever. So I went into the restroom.

“A man came out of a stall, and I immediately knew what he wanted, what he was going to do. His pants were down and he was stroking himself and told me I was just what he liked. I screamed. But no one heard, and he just laughed. He kept stroking himself, watching me, and his eyes got all glassy. He was enjoying seeing me scared of him. He started toward me. There was nothing I could do. And then, someone knocked on the door. I screamed and called for help. The man told me to be quiet and then whispered he’d break my neck if I made another sound. So, I was quiet after that.

“It was Sebastian and Dylan outside. They were heroes. They got the man to leave, and then Sebastian came in. At that point, I was in an awful state. I figured maybe he’d do what the man had been going to do. He was gay, and that’s what gay people did. I couldn’t defend myself against him. I was pretty much in shock. All I could do was look up at him. And he looked back at me. And suddenly, just that fast, things began to change.

“He got me up and took me outside, and all the time, I was thinking about what I had just seen, what was different. It was like I was waking up. It was because of Sebastian and what I’d seen when he’d come in and rescued me.”

He looked at Sebastian, and he didn’t speak for a moment, just looked. When he resumed, his voice was stronger. “When he was standing over me and I was crouched into the restroom corner, and we looked at each other, I was looking into his eyes, and that was when I remembered all those other eyes.

“That’s what made all the difference.”

He stopped. There wasn’t a sound in the room. Everyone was focused on Cary. He fidgeted in his seat a little, and then squeezed Sebastian’s hand again. He took a deep breath and then said, “See, every time I’d been in that position, where someone—either a man or another boy—was about to molest me, I was under them, looking up, looking into their eyes. Every time, I could see lust there, and excitement, but something else, too. I hadn’t ever put a name to it before, but I think I can, now. It was power. That’s what it looked like to me. That every one of them was excited by the power they had over me, what they were going to be able to do, that I couldn’t stop them from doing. And that’s why I realized, when Sebastian helped me up and took me outside, that he was different, and that I might have been wrong. I might not have been molested by all those people because they were gay, like I had convinced myself was the reason. Maybe instead of being gay, it was something else. Maybe they were just doing what they were doing because it was a way for them to show themselves how powerful they were. Maybe they just loved feeling powerful.

“Sebastian’s eyes didn’t have any of that in them. All I could see in his eyes was that he was worried about me. He had no intention of doing anything bad to me. I only saw compassion in his eyes. And I remembered how I valued him as a friend, how much walking home with him meant to me. He was a good person, and I could trust him. He proved that to me. I’d been wrong.

“He just wanted to help me. I was safe with him. That’s what made me feel like things were changed, were different. Being safe meant I didn’t have to be afraid. And I was able to think, something I haven’t been doing much of. I’d just been trying to stay safe. Spending all your time trying to be safe doesn’t allow much time for anything else.

“But knowing I was safe, it seemed I finally had a clear mind. And I’ve been thinking clearly ever since. I’ve realized some things. One thing that helped confirm what I’d just figured out was at the police station where I overheard a policeman say this guy they’d just arrested for what had happened in that restroom had been run in before for sexual assault. The charges hadn’t stuck, which was why he was still loose. But, I heard the policeman say that his assault had been against a girl.

“He wasn’t attacking kids because he was gay; it was because he was a predator who got his kicks by dominating his victims. It was easy for him to dominate kids, and that’s who he attacked. Kids. Boys and girls. He wasn’t gay, he was just a predator.

“This just reinforced what I’d thought after seeing what I had in Sebastian’s eyes when he saved me.

“And that’s when I started being so ashamed. Because I started thinking about you two.” He looked over to Fred and Tom. “You’ve always been more than kind to me and respected me even when I wouldn’t talk to you and never allowed myself to warm up to you. You didn’t know why I was like that, but you didn’t push me to explain or change. You accepted me as I was. Never, not once, did either of you try to dominate me. And every time I’ve looked in your eyes, which wasn’t often because of my preconceived notions, all I’ve ever seen was compassion—and maybe even love.

“I’m really ashamed of how I’ve acted with you. I hope you’ll give me a second chance.”

Cary began crying at that point. Fred was over to him in an instant. He reached for Cary to take him in his arms, then stopped. “May I?” he asked plaintively.

Cary practically jumped up and into his arms. Tom quickly joined in a group hug. They held it for a while, and then the two women, who hadn’t spoken a word, looked at the boys and stood up. They weren’t sure the other three were even aware when the four of them left the house.

*

Two days later, Sebastian walked home with Dylan as he usually did and stopped at his house. They walked in and discovered both their moms waiting for them.

“Hi, guys,” said Dylan’s mom cheerily. “Come in here. We need to talk.”

Dylan glanced at Sebastian, whose heart had immediately started beating faster. They tentatively walked into the room together, and, when their moms nodded at chairs, they sat down. Not on the chairs, however. On the couch, next to each other.

Their moms sat down, too, and Sebastian’s mom said, “We want to talk to you about Cary.”

Dylan’s mom saw the worried look on their faces and laughed. “You two are not in trouble. Far from it. I think you, Sebastian, should get some sort of award. And Dylan, that was very brave of you—and smart, too—getting that man out of there like you did. We’re both very proud of the two of you.”

On the couch, both boys took a breath and relaxed just slightly. They looked at each other, then back at their moms. They knew there was more to come. They were right.

“But we thought, since Cary kept mentioning it, we should clear the air.” Sebastian looked at his mom to see if he could tell anything from her face. Her voice sounded just like it usually did. “He said you two were gay. Do you want to say anything about that?”

Sebastian sat up a little straighter, his heart pounding again. “He didn’t say that… well, he said it, but then later said he’d assumed it. He was speculating, that’s all. He didn’t really mean it. He said his brain was all screwed up. His perceptions were messed up by what had happened to him. You can’t really think he was thinking straight—”

“Whoa!” His mother interrupted Sebastian. “You don’t need to get all defensive. Just so you know, neither Jean nor I care one bit if you’re gay. Isn’t that right, Jean?”

Mrs. Spenser smiled at Dylan. “What we want is for you both to be happy. And last summer, you were happier than I’ve ever seen you. Something changed, because you were calmer and more focused and, well, happy. Really happy. And you spent just about the entire summer with Sebastian. Sebastian was happier, too. Much happier than was usual for him. He came out of his shell a little.”

“More than a little, and you were happier,” his mother agreed. “And Jean and I talked about it. All those sleepovers! Of course we talked. And we talked about whether you two might be experimenting—you’re that age—or if maybe you were gay. Neither of us had any problem with either of those things. And why didn’t we? What have I just been telling you, Sebastian?”

“Uh, that you want me to be happy?”

“Exactly! And if you’re gay and happy, that’s much better than being gay and not happy, or being straight and not being happy. So, whatever you are, whatever you’re doing, we want you to keep doing it—with our blessings.”

Both boys jumped up and ran to hug their mothers. When the hugging was done, the boys said they were going up to Dylan’s room. Mrs. Spenser stopped them just as they reached the stairs. “Uh, boys? Was there something you wanted to tell us?”

Both boys turned back to look at them. Then Sebastian got one of his trademark crooked grins. “Oh, yeah. Sorry about that. We just were so, well, happy, I guess. But we do. We need to tell you this. We want you to be happy, too.” Then he turned and ran up the stairs, Dylan following, both laughing so hard they kept stumbling on the steps.

*

“Perfect timing!” Peter Darvin said, slamming his book closed. “There’s the bell ending the school year, and I just read the last word of the book.”

A voice spoke up from the middle of the classroom. “You said that last year. You need to get some new material.”

“Quiet, Dylan,” Mr. Darvin barked, “or I’ll make you stay after school. Show some respect!”

All the other students were already on their way out. Dylan stood up, too, and retorted, “Hah! Fat chance. There’s no more school to stay after. We’re done!”

‘Well, maybe I’ll get a chance for revenge. There’s always next year!”

Sebastian had made his way to the front desk. “What are you going to do this summer, Mr. Darvin?”

“Relax. I’m going to relax. You don’t have any idea how much I look forward to relaxing after putting up with all you guys for nine months. How about you guys?”

“We’re going camping. Out by a lake we found last year. It’s always deserted, and there’s room to pitch a tent. This year Dylan’s arranged for us to have a canoe, too. I think he’s crazy, but he says we’re going to become great canoers this summer. Is that a word: canoers?”

“Don’t ask me,” said Mr. Darvin, a broad grin on his face. “I’m on vacation.”

*

“Stop rocking! You’re going to tip us over!”

“Dammit, Sebastian, I’m just moving a little. My leg gets a cramp, crouched like this. Are you sure we’re supposed to sit like this to paddle?

“That’s what the guy told me. As he wants to rent these things to people more than once, I don’t think he’d give us bad advice. If he did, we’d never want to rent one again.”

“Well, I still have to straighten out my leg for a moment. Hold on.”

“Hey! You almost have us in the water here!” Sebastian was holding on to both sides of the canoe, and it rocked violently in the water, the sides dipping very close to the surface of the lake.

“Sorry. Ahhhh! That’s better.” Dylan was sitting up and shaking his leg. “Hey, don’t stop paddling just because I did. We want to reach that island sometime this morning.”

They’d been at their camp on the lake for three days. They were much better in the canoe now than at first. The first day, they’d spent more time falling out and trying to get back in than actually paddling the thing. Dylan had kept laughing so hard that Sebastian hadn’t had a chance to get upset with the entire business. Dylan had a way of seeing the funny side of things that kept Sebastian, the more serious of the two, much cheerier than when Dylan wasn’t around.

“Are we really going skinny-dipping when we get there?” Sebastian asked. He was undecided if he wanted to do that.

“Damn, you’re such a prude. You didn’t have this problem last summer. We skinny-dipped all the time.”

“Well, we were alone then.”

“Hey. Don’t worry about me.” Cary was sitting in the middle of the canoe holding on for dear life. He was much more nervous on the water than the other two, both of whom were both very good swimmers. Cary had his life jacket securely tied up. The other two wore theirs untied and perhaps wouldn’t have worn them at all if they hadn’t promised their mothers. “It won’t bother me. I’ve been surprised we haven’t done it already.”

“Really?” asked Dylan. “I wish you’d have said something. I’ve been wanting to ignore the bathing suits all along. We just didn’t want you to get the wrong idea. You know, like what you used to think.”

Cary grimaced. “I was really screwed up, wasn’t I? That counselor I’m seeing is really good. And the fact I’m talking to Fred and Tom—that makes a huge difference. They can tell me when my perceptions are a little off base. Those thoughts and fears I used to have are all gone. I’m still working through some of the things that happened to me, but there’s no way I’d ever be worried about either of you guys doing anything to me that I didn’t want you to.”

Sebastian nodded. “We’ve seen how much you’ve changed. You’re so much happier. That’s the big difference. You’re normal! You talk; you’re not afraid of other people; you’re just normal!”

“I hope I am. I sure feel better.”

“And you’ll feel even better when we get these suits off and jump in the water. Sebastian wants us to do it over on the island, even though our campsite is just as deserted as the island is.”

Sebastian grinned. “I just wanted to investigate the place, and knew the easiest way to get you to go there was to tell you we could be naked there.”

Cary laughed, and Dylan moved his paddle a little higher in the water, took a short stroke, and splashed Sebastian.

“Hey!”

“That’s what you get for manipulating me. Now we’re even,” said Dylan, but from the look on Sebastian’s face, Cary could see that the feeling wasn’t mutual. He relaxed a little, loosening his grip on the sides of the canoe. Sebastian was right, he thought. He couldn’t ever remember being so happy. He had the two best friends anyone could ever imagine and two foster parents who would soon be his dads, two men who loved him unconditionally. He had begun to love them the same way. And best of all, he felt safe and wasn’t scared.

They finally reached the island, then paddled around it. On the far side they found a cove that made a great place to land. They pulled the canoe up on the shore, and Sebastian said, “Let’s look around a little.”

“I want to swim,” said Dylan.

“You just want to get naked,” rejoined Sebastian.

“Well, that too,” said Dylan, and he pushed down his bathing suit.

Cary did the same thing, the two boys looked at each other, and then with a whoop, they both ran to the water and jumped in.

Sebastian was left on the bank, wanting to explore, watching the boys romp. “Oh, what the hell,” he said, dropped his bathing suit and leaped into the water to join them.

The End

My sincere thanks to my hardworking editors for their knowledge and efforts and daresay their courage. Facing and going into battle with the errors I leave in my wake can be daunting. And to Mike for hosting this story and his marvelous site; not enough thanks and praise can be lauded. AwesomeDude is a trove of excellence to be treasured. Your support is encouraged. With contributions from readers, the site will remain vital.

The cover drawing is by Paco. Used with his permission. I am indebted to and humbled by him for his generosity.

Cole