Life From A Distance:
“But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!”
-Alfred Lord Tennyson
"Break Break Break"
Copyright Notice - Copyright ©2004 DeweyWriter Ltd.
This story is copyrighted by the author and the author retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form, physical, electronic, audio, or any other form known or unknown without the author's express written permission. All applicable copyright laws apply and will be enforced.
We were born on April 22, 1985. My brother Michael Benjamin came out kicking and screaming and I, Benjamin Michael, came out four minutes later the color of the deep sea. My umbilical cord was wrapped tightly around my neck two times, but somehow the doctor managed to get it undone in time to save my life. Sometimes I wonder if it would have been better if he hadn't.
Mom tells me I'm her miracle twin, or at least she used to. As I grew up, I had to go to the pediatrician constantly until I started school. The docs were sure that I had brain damage: there was no way I could have been that blue and avoided it. After a time, and after more tests than I care to remember, they decided I was fine.
Mike and I were identical twins. We weighed the same, were the same length, same color hair, same eyes, same features, same everything. My parents had to keep us in separate cribs and dress us differently to know who was who. Dad joked that they wrote our initials on the soles of our feet to help. Somehow I don't doubt they did.
Mom and Dad were just 18 and 20 when we were born. They were young for their age. Mom was barely out of High School in her freshman year at college, dad was a starting junior. It took them one night to conceive us. Dad married mom because it was the right thing to do, and later they actually fell in love. They tell me they were in love before they slept together to make Mike and I, but the dates don't work out. I never called them on it.
My first real memory is of Mike. We woke up and he was laying next to me, staring at me. I think we were two. There was a sense of recognition, a sense of sameness between us. I was him and he was me. If you aren't a twin, you can't understand what it's like. Mike and I were one person split into two bodies. We couldn't stand to be apart even for the shortest amount of time. We followed each other everywhere, and I mean everywhere. We'd even go to the toilet together.
From that first memory of Mike, I can clearly recall everything that has ever happened between me and my twin. My brother had the same capacity. It's amazing what an ability like that can do to a sibling relationship. Since we both knew exactly what had happened, we had no reason to argue with one another. Our parents thought there was something wrong with us because we never fought. One drawback of our famous companionship, however, was that we never tired of each other's company. We made very few friends as we grew up, and neither of us really cared. It wasn't until first grade that we made our first real friend.
Ian was a cute six-year-old boy with brown hair and green eyes. His family had moved to the area just after school started. Unlike the rest of our classmates, who tended to leave Mikey and me alone, Ian came right up to us the first day he was in our class.
The first words out of his mouth were, “Wow! You guys look like twins!”
From then on it was Ian, Mike and Ben. We became inseparable, joined at the hip. Teachers would separate us, our parents would ground us, and no one could keep us apart for more than a day. Ian introduced Mike and me to his parents on the second day he was in school. Edward and Elizabeth Kettenger were in their early thirties when I first met them, and they took to us as quickly as we took to them. It seemed like no time until Mikey and I began calling them Momtwo and Dadtwo after the little robot of science fiction fame. They thought it was cute, but our ulterior motive was to get out of having to say Mister Kettenger and Missus Kettenger.
Our parents were a bit more stiff than the Kettengers, and once they met they became decent acquaintances, but not necessarily friends. My dad and Edward were on edge the whole time they were around each other. My mom seemed to feel that Elizabeth was trying to supplant her role as our mother in some way. Eventually everyone made their peace and we three kids came and went at either house with impunity.
The spring and summer of our first grade year was spent playing baseball. Ian, Mike and I were on the same team. It was there we earned the nickname IBM, and that nickname stuck with us. The parents started referring to us by that as well after hearing our coach use it at some of our games. They thought it was funny.
It was also that summer, July sixth to be exact, the three of us had our own blood-brother ritual. Mike took a knife from the kitchen and we all used it to slice our left thumbs deeply. We were bleeding all over the place, but we completed the ritual. Of course neither set of parents were exactly thrilled that we were playing with knives at seven years old.
Somehow that childhood ritual cemented our friendship even more, transforming it into something else: something beyond friendship. I loved Ian. Mike loved him, and I knew Ian loved us. We became brothers of the soul that day. It had a profound impact on all three of us. Being with Ian became an addiction for us. Our parents thought we were hiding something when we began going out of our way to stay in their good graces so we could be with him. I can't explain it better than that. Life was good.
When we were ten. Ian had “that talk” with his dad, and of course Ian filled us in on all the gory details. Mike and I were full of questions and we'd give him a list to ask his dad the next day. Ed was always a good sport about it. Later, when Mike and I finally got up the nerve to ask him our questions in person, he was cool with it and did his best. Sometimes the questions we asked were beyond his knowledge and he'd direct us to the internet or the library. I don't know if my parents ever knew that Ed taught us as much as he did: they never brought up the subject and neither did Mike or I.
It wasn't long after that when we heard the term “jerking off”. Of course we asked Dadtwo immediately. He stammered a bit before getting control of himself and then invited us into his den, something he had never done in any of our previous talks. We three boys sat on the couch and Ed pulled up his desk chair to sit in front of us.
He calmly explained what masturbation was and how all the stories about going blind and not being able to have kids later and growing hair on your palms weren't true. He also said that it was something we should do alone and in private.
Mike boldly asked, “Do what, though. How is it done?”
“I told you,” supplied Dadtwo, “It's when you rub your penis until it feels really good and tingly.” He seemed to realize that wasn't the question that Mike was asking, and continued, “It's something you're going to have to figure out for yourself, because everyone is different.”
Ian thought for a moment. “Dad, the guys I heard talking were saying that they did it together sometimes.”
“Some boys do that, Ian, and some don't. There's nothing wrong either way, but if you do decide to masturbate with another person, make sure that you are both comfortable and that it's their choice to be there. Never force anyone to do something they don't want to do.”
“So, if I wanted to mas-tur-bate,” Ian struggled with the unfamiliar word, “with Mike and Ben, it would be all right?”
Ed's eyes narrowed and he looked hard at his son, then he stared at Mike and me. After a moment, he nodded and added, “It would be fine, but if you decide to, do it in private. And before you do, please let me know so I can make sure you have the privacy you need.”
Two weeks later the three of us were jerking off together. It was innocence itself, three boys doing what felt good. We were beyond being embarrassed around each other. We didn't know to be embarrassed. It was totally normal for us, and we had no reason to think otherwise.
It was an added bonus that Ian hit puberty before we did, about nine months after we began our group play. He told us what he was going through emotionally, what was bothering him, and because of our activities, we saw firsthand what changes were happening to his body and when. Ian's dad, Ed, was very open with us about what was occurring and why. Ian kept Dadtwo more or less informed about what was happening to his body, and the three of us would ask questions. Dadtwo bore it all with kindness and patience. When Mike and I hit the beginnings of our own adolescence, he was there for us too. It wasn't that Momtwo wouldn't talk to us or anything like that, but she would rather have us talk to Ian's father since he was a man and knew more than she did. She was understanding, easygoing and awesome.
The Kettengers threw a party for Ian the weekend after we noticed his first pubic hair. It was a celebration of the beginning of Ian's path to manhood. It was completely a family affair with Ian's grandparents and an uncle attending in addition to ourselves. Mike and I wracked our brains to come up with a small gift for the occasion, deciding on a nice razor and some shaving gel. He wouldn't need it for years to come, but it was the only thing we could decide on. Ian loved it. Momtwo and Dadtwo smiled widely when he opened it and that made us feel good.
Our parents were as closed about sexuality as Ian's parents were open. We tried to ask dad some questions one weekend and he freaked out. Mom was no better. She told us to ask dad.
For Mike and me, our home life was uninteresting. When we couldn't be with Ian we would be out riding our bikes in the park or playing catch. We didn't do a whole lot in the house because mom and dad wanted us outside enjoying the fresh air, such as it was, as much as possible.
When Ian was available, the three of us would try just about anything. We liked skating, biking, baseball, football, basketball, wrestling, and whatever else the local youth leagues set up. Our parents put up the money without question just to get us out of the house.
Mike and I talked about it a lot. Mom and dad didn't seem to like us very much. They loved us, but we felt we were in the way more than not. They would try to pawn us off on friends or on the Kettengers so they could go out and do what they wanted to do, either together or on their own. My brother and I were just happy that Ed and Elizabeth liked us well enough to rarely turn my mom and dad down. Sadly enough, what my mother once feared was coming to pass: Elizabeth Kettenger was supplanting her as our mother through her own actions.
In January of 1997, Mike and I hit puberty. The hormones were making us more competitive with one another but there were never any hard feelings involved. We still jerked off with Ian when we could, and when he wasn't around we did it with just the two of us.
It was also about this time that we thought we might be gay, or at the very least, bisexual. My brother and I talked about it openly with each other since we didn't hide things like that. We both agreed that Ian was really hot, and that neither of us would do anything to jeopardize our fraternity with him, no matter how much we wanted to.
We also decided to keep our realizations secret from everyone, especially our parents. We had no reason to believe their reaction would be positive.
Mike will always be my best friend no matter how far away he is, and Ian too. Mike knew everything there was to know about me, even the things I didn't want him to know. Of course, I knew all about Mike as well, and Ian knew almost everything. I loved them like my brothers because they were my brothers. We'll always be together, a part of one another.
Saturday, June 14, 1997 started out as a perfect day. We'd just completed the sixth grade and were going into Junior High that fall. Ian was off with his parents taking an early summer vacation, so Mike and I decided to go riding before the temperature rose too high. We toured the various parks and stopped at a convenience store to get a snack before heading over to the Grand Avenue Marketplace, a huge shopping center including a mall and the outlying shops and restaurants. I bought a CD we liked at a music store and Mikey bought a book that we both wanted to read. We ate lunch in the mall food court. I had a piece of stuffed pizza and Mike had a burger and some fries. After eating we went on a leisurely ride back toward home and found mom and dad were still there. Knowing they would send us out again, we didn't even bother to stop.
We rode down to 9th Street and up to Dogwood Avenue. The entire block on Dogwood between 9th and 10th was undeveloped. It was a field of tall dry grass dotted here and there with shrubs and bushes. Along the east side of the area ran a canal that followed Dogwood Avenue through the whole city. There were a couple streets that ran between Dogwood and Elyssum Avenue, but the vast majority of the mile-square tract was overgrown.
The area was bumpy and hilly enough to make for some good bike riding. We'd jump over small hills and bounce along over the rough ground staging impromptu races. Neither of us had ever ridden in a competition, but we both agreed that it would be fun.
By three o'clock we were pretty tired and decided to head home. I took off and led the route back to Deerwood and noticed a decent sized hill standing at the edge of the canal with tire tracks running from the bottom to the top. I veered toward it and pedaled as hard as I could, launching myself into the air and over the water. Sliding to a stop on the other side, I looked back to see what was holding Mike up. When I didn't see him come over the hill, I rode back to the canal to see my best friend, my brother, lying face down in the water. I stood there helpless, unable to move, and watched Mike drown, the water around clouded with his blood. He died, and it was my fault. I had killed my brother. I had killed my identical twin. I had killed a part of myself.
The funeral was held the following Wednesday. I blocked out what happened immediately after I realized Mike had passed until that morning. I remember waking up, expecting to hear Mike breathing or maybe stirring in his sleep, but of course, he wasn't there. I slept in his bed every night, clutching his pillow to me and remembering what he smelled like and felt like. It was all fading so fast.
Mom and dad were quite literally destroyed by the accident. I simply wasn't there as far as they were concerned. My father told me to stay in my room while he helped my mother clean herself. I could hear them arguing back and forth about who was to blame, and they would alternately blame God and then me. They wouldn't let me out of the house. They wouldn't let me see Ian, the only person in the world who would have understood what I was going through. I was completely alone.
It wasn't enough that I blamed myself for what happened to Mike. The fighting between my parents continued, and everything they said about Mike's death seemed, to my hypersensitive ears to lay all the blame at my feet. I reached my breaking point about two weeks after Mike left me.
My parents were arguing loudly right outside my room. It was an argument they had four times a day, and I knew it by heart. I'd finally had enough and I packed myself some clothes and a few mementos of Mike into my backpack and slipped out of my bedroom window. I picked up my bike for the first time since it had happened. My body began to shake and tears flooded my face. My hand released the bicycle and it fell to the ground with a crash. A sound from the garage spurred me into action and I ran as far and as fast as I could and then wandered blindly about town. When I stopped I had no idea where I was. It wasn't hard to find myself, though. I checked the next major road I came to and found I was at Juniper and Third Street, about six miles from home. I really had no idea how I'd gotten there or even where I was headed. I stood at the intersection turning in a circle. I didn't know what to do. Mike's face, my face, kept coming to mind: his smile, his sardonic grin, his frown, his expression when we felt especially close.
A car stopped next to me as I continued to turn.
“Are you okay, son?” queried a male voice.
A glance told me it was a policeman. I couldn't find my voice to answer him, so I nodded slowly. I was so dazed and confused that I didn't realize he'd gotten out of the squad car until he was standing in front of me.
“I asked you where you live,” the stockily built man repeated, staring me in the eyes.
I noticed idly that he was shorter than me.
“Come on, son,” the man said in a kindly voice. “Let's get you home.”
I jerked away from him the moment his hand touched my shoulder.
“I don't want to go home.” I informed him.
“So you can talk. Why don't you want to go home?”
I didn't want to tell the cops that my parents were fighting because they might arrest them. Instead I said the first thing that came to mind.
“I'm on my way to visit my brother and I had to remember how to get there.”
Shock hit me again, but I held the tears back.
“Where does he live?” The officer asked, still staring me in the eyes.
“Down on eleventh and Fir. It was a nice day so I decided to walk.”
Eleventh Street and Fir Avenue was the cross-street for the Legion Cemetery. That was where Mike had been buried.
“That's over ten miles from here. What's your name?”
“Mike… er… sorry. Ben Foster,” I corrected quickly. “Michael is my middle name.”
“What's in the bag, Ben?”
The whole time the guy was talking to me he was staring in my eyes, like he was trying to catch me lying to him or something. I pulled the bag off my shoulder and started to open it. The cop stopped me and his partner stepped out of the car.
“Whoa, there. Why don't you let me open it. Is there anything in here you want to tell me about? Any drugs or weapons?”
I gaped for a moment before responding, “N-no, just a pocketknife and my inhaler.”
“You have asthma?”
“Sometimes. On bad air days.”
He unzipped my pack and went through it quickly, pulling out my inhaler and knife for a brief moment before replacing them and handing my bag back.
“Okay, Ben, there you go. Have a good walk.”
“Thanks. Have a good day.”
“You too, son.”
The cops got back in their car and drove on.
Suddenly the idea of visiting Mike's grave became an obsession. I had to get there as soon as I could. The bus ran right down Highland to Tenth Street, and I could walk from there. What little cash I had was spent on bus fare. The bus got to my stop about twenty minutes later.
The bus stop was right across from the main gatehouse for the Highland Estates, a huge walled-off area where the super-rich lived. I'd never been in there but rumor had it that some of the mansions were in the fifteen-thousand square foot range. I couldn't imagine living in a house that big. My house was barely two-thousand square feet.
The cemetery was a couple miles east from the bus stop. A hole in my stomach that had formed when I told the cop I was going to see my brother was now the size of the Grand Canyon and growing with every step I took. I managed to cross the street without incident, and the next thing I knew I was at the cemetery entrance. The realization that I was uncertain exactly where Mike was hit me. I had already forgotten my other half. Mike's voice sounded in my head.
You're being stupid, Benji. You could never forget me, and I know that.
“Oh, God, Mike,” I said aloud. “I miss you so much I could die!”
You're not going to die, Benji. You have a long life ahead of you.
“I can't live without you!” The words ripped from my throat were cast upon the wind.
“Son? Are you alright?”
Another voice brought me back to reality. Coolness touched my cheeks in contrast to the flushed heat in my face. I realized I was crying.
“I need to see my brother.” The comment was automatic, not a conscious statement.
“Who is your brother?” The man who had interrupted my conversation with Mike asked.
“His name is Michael Benjamin Foster. He…”
Again my throat constricted. I was unable to complete my sentence. The man put his hand on my back and gently guided me into the graveyard.
“Let's see if we can't find your brother, okay?” He said gently
As he started to walk me into the cemetery I pulled away.
“That's okay. I know where he's at,” I choked out through a sob.
I turned and ran out into the field filled with headstones. Flowers in all stages of life and death littered small urns in front of some of them. Some people watched me curiously as I ran through the cemetery as if it were an odd occurrence to see a boy running into a graveyard. I passed two funerals on the way to the back corner where we had put my brother into the ground. I couldn't even look at them. Tears threatened to run down my face. Another kid my age caught my attention as I ran on. He was in his father's arms crying. It made me sick that all my father could do was yell at my mother when we were all suffering.
Slowing as I approached the area of Mike's grave, I looked around to see if I was alone. With the exception of the father and his son almost one hundred yards away there was no one near me. It was easy to find where Mike lay because the sod hadn't really settled in over the grave. A slow walk took me there, and on impulse, I laid down over him. I awoke some time later, feeling the need to talk with Mike. As I spoke, I imagined his voice responding back to me.
“Sorry I haven't been to see you before this.”
It's okay. I understand. You've been busy.
“Mom and dad are fighting. It's driving me crazy.”
Go to Ian's.
“I can't go to Ian's, Mike. It's not right. It's not the same without you.”
I really want you to see Ian, though. He needs someone too.
“I hate being alone! Why did I have to be so stupid?”
You weren't being stupid, Benjamin, so stop it.
“I knew it was dangerous. I know we're not supposed to play around the canal and I go and jump it!”
And I followed you...
“If I hadn't jumped you wouldn't have either!”
I followed you because I wanted to, Ben! This wasn't your fault.
“It's my fault you're dead. Why couldn't it have been me? Why couldn't I be the one who died?”
It wasn't your time. And I could've gone to the bridge instead of jumping. It was my choice.
“I killed you!”
“You didn't kill him, Ben. It was an accident.” The voice startled me. I didn't even hear anyone. “It wasn't your fault.”
I sat up and faced the owner of the voice. He was about my age and height with brown hair and olive green eyes. His face was lined with grief. A tear slid down his cheek as he knelt in front of me.
“I killed him, Ian.” I said stolidly. “He died because of what I did.”
“Benji,” I winced at his use of Mikey's pet name for me, “that's not true. It was an accident. That's all it was.”
Another tear slid down his beautiful face.
“I led him to the jump. If I hadn't, he'd still be here!” I yelled in an agonized voice.
“You don't know that, Benjamin,” said another voice, a man's voice with an English accent.
I looked over Ian's shoulder and saw his father. He too was weeping openly.
“You don't know that,” Edward Kettenger repeated. “Mike might very well have went for the jump anyway. No one knows anything for a certainty.”
“I do,” I barked back. “I know he wouldn't have. I know Mike, and he wouldn't have jumped.”
“You know him because he's your identical twin?” Ed inquired in a quiet voice.
I nodded, trying to ease the knot that was forming in my throat again.
“What makes you so certain, Ben? If you two were identical and he wouldn't have jumped, why did you?”
I stared at the man I called Dadtwo, a man I considered another father. In many respects he was a better father to me than my own.
“I killed him,” I said once more.
“Benji, please stop saying that!” Ian yelled.
“Why?” I asked sharply.
“Because it isn't true!”
I simply stared at Ian. His tortured expression captivated me. As I studied him, he moved closer to me until he was nearly touching me.
“I can never know how much you loved Mike, Ben,” Ian said softly, “but I do know how much I loved him, and it's tearing me apart. I know you must've loved him more than I did, and it has to be tearing you apart, too.”
I remained silent, my gaze locked to his.
“Please talk to me, Ben,” Ian pleaded.
“I can't,” I whispered.
“Why not, Ben? Why can't you tell me what you're thinking?”
“Because if I do, I'll lose it,” I said, still whispering. “I'll die. I killed him, Ian.”
“No you didn't!”
“I killed my brother! I killed Mike!”
Ian's arms shot around me and pulled me tightly against him, forcing my face into his chest. My cries were muffled against him. Ian was shaking but held onto me as I broke down and cried. Another set of arms more powerful than Ian's surrounded us both. Together, a father and his sons mourned the passing of a son and a brother.
Dadtwo knocked on the front door to my house. My father's car was not in the driveway as it had been that morning, so my mother answered the door as I expected.
“Benjamin! Where on earth have you been? We've been worried…”
Without waiting for her to finish her statement, I shouldered my way past her and went straight to my room before the tears began. She called after me a couple times but I heard Mr. Kettenger stop her as I closed my door and leaned against it. My room was nearly identical to the room Mike had. The rooms were large compared to most houses, but that was the way the dwellings were built by the Elyssum Heights developer. A double bed and side tables were against the front wall of the house, and a dresser stood in front of the door next to the closet to the left of the bed. A desk, chair and two bookcases filled the wall the door was in, and another set of shelves stood next to them on the far wall. Even with all the furniture there was still plenty of room to stretch out on the floor. Mike, Ian and I had done that plenty of times before because the bed didn't accommodate three boys very comfortably.
I crawled over my bed and lay down on the floor on the other side, hiding myself from view of the door. My emotions were still running high from visiting Mikey at the cemetery, and I wanted to be alone so I could calm down. I closed my eyes, but a knock sounded a moment later.
“Ben,” Ian called, “Can I come in?”
I didn't answer. I didn't want to see Ian. Every time I looked at him I felt a stab to my heart. My memories of Mike were inextricably tied to him and being around him, even for just the short time I had been that day, was excruciating.
The door opened and closed again. Ian had come inside and sat on the bed. He didn't say anything, and he didn't have to. Already the tears were falling from my eyes and into my ears. An unexpected sniffle caught me up short. The bed began to shake. Ian was crying, but I didn't want to look at him or talk to him. I especially didn't want to touch him. It was unbearable to do so. His touch had broken me at Mike's grave, and I didn't want to be that vulnerable.
A loud sob was followed by the quiet, airy keening that was the misery of a twelve-year-old boy who had lost his blood brother and best friend. It was more than I could take and sobs began to wrack my body as well. We both wept, alone but together in my room. It wasn't long before Ian spoke through his moans and tears.
“Why do you hate me, Ben? What did I do?”
His words struck a physical blow. I didn't hate him. I loved him! He was my other brother. How could I possibly hate him?
“Ian, I don't hate you,” I asserted softly.
“You do to! You do or you wouldn't have avoided me like you are! I miss Mikey! He was my brother, too!
I sat up and hissed, “Yeah? Well he was my twin!” My voice raised from a fierce whisper to a thunderous roar. “I've known him since before I was born! It's like half of me is dead! I should have been the one! I should have died, not him! Every time I see you, I think of him! Every time I look at you, I think of Mike and how I killed him!”
Ian yelled right back at me, “You think of him when you look at me, but I see him when I look at you! I loved him just like I love you, but don't let him take you away from me, too! Please, Ben, don't leave me. I'll d…”
He stopped mid-word as I stood. I knew what he was going to say, and I had a good idea of why he didn't say it. My fury drained away as I studied his tear-streaked face, etched with an indescribable sorrow. Indescribable, that is, if you haven't experienced it. I moved around the bed and sat heavily, feeling numb. Ian was next to me, still sobbing.
“Why did he have to die, Ian?” I asked, my voice flat and featureless. “I didn't want him to die.”
I turned to face Ian. His expression was sad beyond measure as he met my eyes.
“I don't know, Ben. I really don't.”
Something snapped inside of me, and the tears and grief came pouring back.
“I didn't want him to die! Oh, God, I don't want him to die! I don't want him to die!” As my tears took over, the words became a mantra until I could no longer speak for the sobs.
Ian caught me as I fell into him and wrapped me in his arms tightly. We began to rock gently as we cried, allowing more of our pain to seep away. The warmth of Ian's body and the sensation of his arms around me let me feel just a little bit safer, and a little bit loved.
Another knock at the door startled me so badly that I jumped. Ian and I had somehow lain back on the bed and more fully embraced one another. Perhaps we had even fallen asleep, but the sound had awoken us. The door opened. Mr. Kettenger's voice came through the opening without him looking in.
“Boys, may I come in?”
Ian looked at me and I nodded. Dadtwo entered as we sat up and leaned back against the headboard. Ian did not take his arm from around my shoulder and I absently rested my hand on his leg. No matter what assertions they had made, I still felt responsible for Mikey's tragic death. Ed pulled the chair from my desk over and sat by the bed. His eyes examined us for a moment before he spoke.
“Benjamin, you must pack some of your things in a sack. Your mum and dad have agreed to allow you to stay with us. Ian can help you, but don't take too long. We'll be leaving in ten minutes.”
“What if I don't want to go?” I asked tremulously.
Ed looked me right in the eyes with a sad, compassionate expression. “You don't have a choice, lad.”
I blinked as the ramifications of that statement sunk in. My parents didn't want me anymore. I killed Mike and now they didn't want me. Tears came again as I climbed out of the bed and got a large duffle out of the closet. When I turned around, the man who was my second father stood in front of me. He placed his hands on my shoulders and lowered himself until we were eye to eye.
“Ben, this is only temporary. A lot has happened and your parents have things they need to work through, and so do you. They need some time alone, and you need to be with people instead of isolating in your room. Your parents love you very much, but everyone needs some time to come to terms with Mike's passing.”
I knew he believed what he was saying, but I wasn't convinced that it was the truth. If they really loved me, they would have told me instead of letting Ian's dad do it. The very real fear that I had not lost just my twin but my entire family lodged itself in my brain, and tears were still falling when he pulled me into a hug. I stood there passively, not moving. He released me and allowed me to go about packing my things while watching me for a bit. When he was satisfied I was doing as he asked, he opened the door and went out to speak with my parents again.
Ian and I did not trade a single word after Ed left the room. There was nothing I could say that could possibly express what I was feeling. There were no words to be found that could explain the love I held for Mike. The guilt, pain and sadness in my heart were beyond description. Ian helped me in silence. He would hold up items for my approval, and with a nod or a shake of the head I would direct him to pack it or put it back in its place.
We were done shortly before Ed came back to collect us. He opened the door without warning, startling me yet again.
“Finished, are you?” He inquired in a normal voice that was belied by his compassionate visage.
I swallowed hard and nodded, not willing to speak nor trusting that if I did it would be intelligible.
“Okay then, let's go, boys.”
He attempted to take my bag but I refused to relinquish it. He looked down on me and smiled silently. A quick nod from him sent me on my way out of the room. When I passed the door to my brother's room, I stopped and stared at it. There was a paper sign on the door in the shape of an orange construction sign. It read, “Disaster Area - Enter At Your Own Risk.” I turned the knob on the door, and it squeaked about half-way through the motion. It had done that since I could remember. A superhuman effort was required to open the door, and not because of some physical impediment.
I entered Mike's room and looked around. It was set up identically to mine, of course, and it looked exactly as it had the day he died except for the bed. I had slept there every night since. A hesitant step took me to his desk. I opened the bottom drawer and dug behind the junk that Mikey had piled in there to find a book.
One of the things my twin did that I didn't was to keep a diary. Mom and dad gave us both journals on our tenth birthday, but I never did anything with mine. I saw his all the time. It became so common to see him hunched over his journal that it usually passed notice. Out of respect for him I had never read a single word he didn't specifically show me. Since I was leaving my home for God knew how long, I wanted to take it with me. I also grabbed his pillow off his bed, the pillow that still held his scent.
Slowly I turned away and walked back out of my brother's room. It felt empty and cold, which matched my heart perfectly. Suddenly I ran back to my room and picked up a picture from my desk. It showed the two of us standing together in swim trunks at the beach on our last vacation. Mike's grin was especially wide as he had slipped rabbit ears in behind me without my noticing. It was my favorite picture of him. I methodically went through my room and removed every single picture that showed so much as a hint of Mike's presence, including the one he had shot of me with his finger in the way.
When I was done, I turned to see my parents standing in the doorway. They had their arms around each other and my mother was crying quietly. I stared at them for a moment before walking past them. My duffle bag in hand, I walked out the front door to Ian's dad's Cherokee and got in. A short time later Ian and Ed joined me, the boy sitting next to me in the back seat. At another time I would have been touched by the gesture. We buckled in and took the two block drive to the Kettenger's residence.
The house looked identical to my own from the street, and in reality it was very similar inside as well. The interior layout differed in only one major way: a portion of the master bedroom which would have been across the hall from my room in my house had been converted into a media room. Also, the formal living room to the right of the entry hall contained a pool table and a dartboard along with an entertainment center, but none of this enthused me that day.
Ed pulled the Jeep into the garage and closed the door behind us. Mrs. Kettenger's car was there, so I knew she was home. Reluctantly, I got out of the truck and followed Ian and Ed into the house. Ian's mother Elizabeth, or Liz as she preferred, was in the kitchen with Murray, Ian's younger brother.
“Hello, Ben,” she said as if everything was normal. “Dinner's just about ready. Go get washed up.”
I blinked at her for a moment and then did as she said. Ian led me down the hall past the game room and the family room to the back hall. His bedroom was in the same position mine was at my house. Ian led me into his room and placed my duffle on his bed.
“I'll clear out some room in the closet and the dresser for you, Ben. Dad said you'll be staying with me in my room.” He blushed a little bit. “He was going to put me and Murray together, but I asked him to let you stay with me. I hope you don't mind. You can still have Ray's room if you want it.”
His expression displayed some anxiety. He wanted me to stay with him. I wasn't sure if I wanted to. Ian, Mike and I had played sexual games for the past two years or so, but I wasn't sure I wanted to continue in Mike's absence.
As if he read my thoughts, Ian stammered, “It's not… I don't want…. Ben, I want you to stay with me because… I miss Mike, and I know you do, too. Maybe… maybe we could just hold each other? I don't care about those other things. I just need you with me. Please?”
Somewhere deep below the shell solidifying around my heart I realized that I wanted Ian close too. Maybe it would be okay to be scared and lonely and sad with him. I really hoped I could. Only time would tell.
Dinner was a silent affair, at least on my part. The Kettengers' meal was accompanied by family conversation such as that Mike and I had joined in before he died. I couldn't bring myself to participate, and I could tell that my lack of input bothered the other two boys at the table.
Murray was a mouse-haired boy eighteen months younger than his brother. At almost eleven years old, he hadn't yet hit the start of his own journey to adulthood. Ian and Murray were very close compared to most brothers I knew with a similar age difference. I believe one reason that might be so was the example Mike and I set in our brotherly relationship.
When dinner was completed, I quietly found my way through the garage and out to the back yard. The Kettengers house had a cement slab behind the garage with a basketball standard. We four boys had played there extensively in the time we had known each other. We'd also set up their ping-pong table out there many, many times.
I looked around and tried to imagine Mike laughing and smiling as we played, but only silence remained. I sat heavily on the deck next to the court and dropped my head into my hands. Tears threatened to flood my eyes again.
“Why did you have to go, Mikey?”
I'm still here, Benji. I love you and I'll always be with you.
A wave of grief passed through me. The tears finally won. Ed found me later while the tears were still flowing. He didn't say anything, simply sitting beside me and putting his arm around my shoulders. When he did this, the thought that I had to count on Ed to be there for me instead of my own father struck home. What had been quiet sobs suddenly turned into loud wails of anguish. Dadtwo picked me up and held me in his lap tightly, trying to squeeze the pain out of me with the sheer strength of his embrace. When I could speak, it was in a halting manner, much like a child who had cried too hard fighting sudden sharp intakes of breath.
Ed asked, “Were you thinking of Mike?”
“Ye- yeah,” I confirmed miserably. “It started out a- as him.”
“It started out as him?” Ed inquired “Who else was it, Ben?”
I was silent for a moment. Ed repeated his question before I answered.
“My mo- mo- mom and d- dad h- hate me!”
“Oh, Ben… they don't hate you, lad,” Dadtwo chided gently. “They love you so much, Ben.”
“If they lov- love me then why d- did they se- send me away?” I countered.
“All of us have had a tremendous loss, especially you and your mom and dad,” Ed replied. “When a parent loses a child, it takes a long time to get back on track. Your mom and dad know this, and they knew that they wouldn't be able to do a good job taking care of you until they've got it together. They love you, Ben,” Ed insisted again.
“I can hear them arguing all the time,” I said several minutes later. Neither of us had moved, and my breathing had calmed. “Sometimes I think they blame me for Mike being dead.”
“It was an accident, Ben. You didn't cause it, and you couldn't have prevented it, regardless of what you think.”
“It should have been me. I went firs…”
Ed roughly turned me to face him. I was surprised to see tear stains on his cheeks, but his expression was angry. His eyes bore into mine once I met his gaze.
“You didn't cause the accident. You couldn't do anything to stop it. And it should not have been you. I know you don't want to hear this, but you need to. God has a reason for what happened. We can't know what it is now, and we may never know. Without a doubt, you were meant to live, Benjamin, else you would be dead and laying next to Michael. You are meant to live your life, and I never want to hear you say otherwise, do you understand? Never.”
Tears filled his once-dry eyes again, and he pulled me into a tight hug. It wasn't until I rested my head on his shoulder that I realized I was crying again.
God, I thought, am I ever going to run out of tears?
It's okay to cry, Benji, Mike's imagined voice assured me. You have Ed and Liz and Ian and Murray to cry with you.
“I don't want to cry anymore, Mikey.”
“What did you say, Ben?” Ed's voice held a note of concern as he held me out to arms length.
“I don't want to cry anymore.”
“No, after that. Who were you talking to?”
I debated on telling him the truth. He was alarmed by the fact I'd been talking to Mike, and I didn't want to make it worse.
“Ben, it's okay. I still talk to my dad sometimes, and he's been gone for ten years. It's okay to talk to Mike every now and then.”
I nodded. I didn't tell him that Mike had been talking to me a lot since they picked me up at the cemetery.
Ed asked, “Are you ready to come in the house now? It's nearly eight of the clock. Ian's in his room making space for your things.”
I shrugged. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. Apathy had begun to set in.
“Off you go, then. Go get cleaned up for bed.”
Once in the bathroom I decided I needed a shower. I felt physically and emotionally dirty. The water ran hot in no time and I climbed in. Hot water cascaded over my body soothing sore muscles in my shoulders and neck made tight by the incredible stress I'd been under. The crying had only seemed to make matters worse.
What are you doing, Benji?
“I'm missing you, Mikey. I miss you so much…”
I miss you too, but I'm not really gone. I'm there with you, in your heart.
“I can't touch you there, Mike.”
“Ben? Are you all right, son?” Ed.
“Yeah. I'll be out in a sec.” The attention was beginning to annoy me. I just wanted to be alone for a while without anyone pestering me about what I was thinking.
The water began to grow cool. I knew that I could take a ten minute shower without the hot water running out, but it seemed as if I'd just stepped in the tub. In the time I had left I managed to scrub my body, my hair, and rinse myself without freezing my balls off. With my towel wrapped around me, I managed to take the few steps to Ian's door without being seen by his dad. The door was cracked open and I could see light coming through it. A peek inside showed Ian already in bed reading a book with the bedclothes gathered at the foot of the mattress. I stood there watching him for a moment. His face was relaxed except for the tension around his eyes, but I couldn't tell if that was from reading or something else.
He was a good looking boy.
I shoved that thought aside. Ian was off limits. Mike and I had agreed on that. In any case, Ian wasn't gay. All he ever talked about was girls when we discussed sex. Besides, jerking off together didn't mean anything. A lot of guys did that together and it didn't make them gay. No, I couldn't even think of Ian as a potential boyfriend. It felt wrong to do so.
Why not, Benji? The only reason we agreed was because we both couldn't have him. Since I'm not there now…
“Shut up, Mike.”
“Is that you, Ben?” Ian called softly.
Opening the door, I walked in the room. One of the dresser drawers was open and my clothes had been neatly deposited.
“I hope you don't mind, Ben. That I unpacked for you, I mean.” My blood-brother's anxiety was clear in his tone.
My bag was sitting on the desk chair. I pulled it open far enough to see it still held everything else I had brought with me. The pictures of Mikey had been stacked and had a loose rubber band around them.
“Thank you,” I whisper in response as I pulled the pictures from my duffle.
I removed the band and flipped through the photos. Each picture brought a new stab of agony to my heart. When I was about half-way through I replaced the rubber band and dropped the pictures back in my bag. I closed my eyes for a moment to allow the near-constant threat of tears to subside before pulling a pair of shorts out of the drawer and putting them on. I kept the towel around my waist as I did so, uncomfortable with Ian seeing my body, knowing it was ridiculous given what we had done with each other in the past, but since Mike wasn't there, I just couldn't. Ian thankfully let the awkward moment pass.
“Which side do you want, Benji?”
He had to have noticed the wince when he used that nickname again. Still, I let it slide and motioned for the right side of the bed furthest from the door. Ian slid over to the other side and I climbed in with him, pulling the sheet over my body and up to my chest as I lay down. I stare at the ceiling for a time, trying to see Mike's face. I knew where the differences between our appearances were, and I was trying to picture them in my minds eye. I wasn't having much success, and that worried me. I didn't want to forget Mike.
You won't forget me, bro. I'm not worried.
“I hope not.”
“What do you hope, Ben?” Ian murmured.
After a moment, I reply, “I'm afraid, Ian. I'm scared I'm going to forget him.”
Ian propped himself up on his elbow to look at me. I took my eyes off the ceiling and met his penetrating green eyes that were so much like my brother's had been. He wore a serious expression with his brow furrowed.
“There's no way in hell that you'll forget Mike, Ben,” Ian firmly stated. “I know I'll never forget him, and he was just a friend to me. You're his brother. His identical twin, even. You won't ever forget him.”
“Just a friend, Ian?” I asked, surprised that he would characterize their relationship as just a friendship when I know it meant so much more to both of them.
“He was way more than just a friend to me, Ben,” he asserted. “You know that. I was just saying that you were so much closer to him than I could ever be, and that if I can't forget him, then you won't.”
I stared into his eyes, searching for the conviction of his words in his soul. He returned my gaze calmly and confidently. He had such beautiful eyes.
“I'll have to trust you, Ian.”
He rolled toward me and put his arm over my stomach, pulling me into a sideways hug. Again thoughts of Mike intruded because he had made the same motion a thousand times. Tears rolled down my cheeks and dropped on the pillow beneath my head.
“Ben,” Ian began, looking up at me, “I can never replace Mike, and I don't want to. But I can still be your brother if you'll let me.”
Ian's tears filled his eyes, and as I embraced him fully our tears of sorrow mingled before falling to the pillow together.
I woke up the next morning with Ian's head on my shoulder and his arm around my body. The boy's position was much like that Mike would have adopted on similar mornings, but strangely enough the emotions that I would have expected, the grief and the anger, were not present. Disconcerted, I lay dozing until Ian's waking movements disturbed me.
“Morning, Benji,” Ian greeted me sleepily.
My friend stretched mightily and returned to his prone state with his head on my shoulder. A curious warmth spread throughout my body as his hand idly stroked my stomach, and that heat was centered in my groin. I knew immediately what was happening so I pulled away from him, swinging my legs over the side of the bed.
“Ian, I can't.”
His voice shook slightly when he spoke. “Can't what, Ben?”
Turning, I saw a fearful expression on his face, one totally out of proportion to what I had said.
“I can't... do that... with you,” I admitted sadly. “It's not right.”
“What do you mean it's not right?” Again the anxiety in his voice was more than the situation warranted.
“I can't, not without Mike,” I quietly explained. “Not yet. Maybe not ever.”
Ian held his eyes downcast. I didn't understand why this was so, nor did I press the issue.
“I'm sorry, Ben. I wasn't thinking.”
“It's okay, Ian,” I assured him gently. “You said last night that you couldn't replace Mike. You're right: you can't replace him, but you can keep the place you've always had. Right now I need a friend. A very good friend. And you're the only one I have.”
Ian sat next to me and put his arm around me tentatively. When I didn't move away he hugged me sideways.
“I'll be here for you forever, Ben,” he said in a stronger voice. “All you have to do is call me, okay? You're my brother and I love you.”
We put on some gym shorts and went to the kitchen for breakfast. It was Friday, but Liz, Ian's mom, was home. She would normally have been at the professional center where she worked as a nurse, so her presence emphasized the fact they were worried about me. Murray was sitting at the table waiting patiently for his mother to deliver the goods. He was as cute as his brother, and he had the same irrepressible sunny disposition Ian usually displayed. It seemed that Mike's passing had put a damper on everyone's spirits.
“Good morning, boys. Sit down: breakfast is almost ready.”
She smiled at us before going back to the task at hand. We waited silently until she finished her preparations. Murray received his stack of pancakes first. The boy slathered them with enough butter to instantly clog his arteries and enough syrup to send a normal human into insulin shock before cutting off the first bite. He moaned in pleasure as he chewed slowly, savoring the flavor. I shook my head as his antics continued, a grin reaching my mouth.
Ian, who was sitting next to me at the table, leaned over and bumped me with his shoulder. He was smirking at Rayray's clowning around, too. Murray took another bite and completely exaggerated his previous reaction, going as far as intentionally falling out of his chair and rolling on the ground with arms around his stomach, an enormous beatific smile on his face and loud moans of approval. I couldn't help myself. I cracked up and laughed hard, holding my gut. Ian was chortling out of control and joined his little brother on the floor, which increased my mirth to painful levels. I couldn't breathe.
Liz watched us with fond amusement as our laughter wound down. Ian and his brother regained their seats.
In a small voice, Murray said, “I wish Mike could be here.”
Liz looked at me as I looked at Rayray. She was concerned that I would break down again, but my younger friend's words didn't evoke that kind of reaction. A sad smile set itself on my features.
“Me, too, Murray. Me too.”
My twin's happy laughter echoed in my mind as I ate breakfast with my extended family. Mike would have loved to have been a part of the fun that morning. In a way he was, at least for me.
“What do you boys want to do today?” Momtwo asked. “It's going to be very hot, so if you are going to do anything outside, do it early.”
Murray and Ian looked to me for an answer. I shrugged and said, “I don't care. I need to go home and get some things I forgot. Other than that….” I shrugged again.
“I'll call and see when would be a good time to go over, Ben.”
“How about we go out to City Park?” Ian suggested. “We could go to the water park.”
“I don't know…” I hedged. “I'm kind of tired. I'd rather stick around here if you wouldn't mind.”
“No, that's cool,” Ian said, obviously disappointed. “We can go later.”
I dropped my eyes to the floor, ashamed. “I'm sorry, Ian.”
“Hey. There's nothing to be sorry about, Ben. You've… ah… had a lot happen, a lot to deal with.” His words increased the sense of shame I felt. “It's okay, Ben. Really.”
I nodded, and stared at the remaining food on my plate. My appetite had fled.
“May I be excused?” I asked Liz quietly.
Her answering nod did nothing to hide her concern, and a glance at the Kettenger brothers told me they thought I was mad. I might have been, too, because that was the first time I had ever asked anyone to be excused from the table anywhere. I rose slowly and started toward Ian's room, but I stopped in the middle of the family room. I really wanted to be alone. Since I was sharing Ian's room, his bedroom was communal and I wouldn't commandeer it from him. I was a guest, after all. Turning right, I passed by the couch and computer desk to open the sliding glass door to the deck overlooking the back yard. There were some chairs surrounding a low table to my left, and I sat in the corner chair before propping my feet up on the table and hugging myself.
“This is so hard, Mikey.”
It'll get easier. It'll just take some time.
“I don't want it to get easier. I want you back.”
Benji, you know that can't happen. What's done is done and you need to move on.
“I don't want to leave you behind, Mike!”
I left you behind, Benji.
The door opened. Ian poked his head through.
“Can I come out?” he questioned tentatively.
“Sure,” I sighed.
Ian closed the door behind him and sat in the chair next to me. I moved my feet over on the table to give him room. He glanced up at me long enough to make eye contact before dropping his gaze again. I felt a pang of loneliness when he couldn't look at me.
“Were you talking to Mike?”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “I do that a lot. Or I have since you found me at -- where he's buried.”
Ian fell silent for a bit. When he spoke again, his voice betrayed his curiosity.
“What does Mike say, Ben?”
I glared at him, but he wasn't looking at me to see. I sighed again.
“I hear his voice in my head, and it's like I can talk to him. Mostly I tell him how much I miss him. That and how… how he should be here.”
Looking up again, I met Ian's gaze and held it. My unspoken words were clear to him.
“You should be here, too, Ben,” he insisted. “I'm going to keep telling you this until you understand it: you didn't do anything wrong, and what happened to Mike isn't your fault. It was an accident.”
“But nothing,” Ian said sharply. “You're being an asshole. What does Mike say about it?”
I tried to keep eye contact but found I couldn't.
“He said the same thing.”
“Okay then. Both of your brothers have told you you're not to blame. Are you going to believe us?”
Ian's tone showed he was asking in earnest. He wanted me to believe what he was saying, and he thought that by invoking Mike he might have a better chance.
He was right.
My downcast eyes seemed to concern Ian. He got up and knelt beside me.
“Ben, I'm sorry. That wasn't very nice of me. I'm just really worried, you know? I lost one of my two best friends, and I'm afraid my other best friend will go away.”
I looked into his eyes and searched them for… something. In them I found sincerity and a warmth that I hadn't noticed before tucked away behind the fear. Mentally pulling back, I examined Ian's face. He really was a beautiful boy.
There's no reason to hold back, Ben.
“What is it, Ben?” Asked Ian.
“Nothing,” I said dismissively. “You'll think I'm stupid.”
“Ben, nothing about you is stupid, and you know I mean that.”
After a moment's pause, I replied, “It was something that Mike… said just now, I guess. If that's what you want to call it.”
“What did he say?” my friend inquired.
“That I should stop focusing on him and move on,” I remarked candidly.
“What do you think about what he said?” Ian asked. I searched for traces of mockery in his words and found none.
“It hurts so much, Ian. I don't know if I'm ready to do that.”
My blood brother nodded. “I can understand that, Benji. I'm here for you, okay?”
Tell him I love him.
“What did he say?”
I looked at Ian, confused. “How did you know….”
“You got this strange expression so I thought he might be talking to you.”
“He was. He… he told me to tell you he loves you.”
Ian's reaction was unanticipated, but I should have expected it. He leaned over the arm of the chair and hugged me awkwardly as he began to weep. I shifted in my seat to make things easier. As his sobs grew, I whispered in his ear.
“Ian? I love you too.”
That night we lay in Ian's bed, having spent the day around his house. Liz had taken me back home where I packed a couple of Mike's bags with everything of his I could find. I'd become panicked at the thought my parents would clean out Mike's room without giving me a chance to go through everything and take what I wanted. Liz and Ian helped me pack. I took a lot of his clothes and some of his personal effects to safeguard them.
I found out later that mom and Dad were not home while we were there because they were talking to a counselor.
“Um, Ian? Would it be weird if I wore some of Mike's clothes?” I asked him. For some reason I felt like I would be closer to Mike if I could wear what he had worn.
“No, not at all, Ben. I kinda think it would be cool, you know?”
“It wouldn't bother you?”
It wouldn't bother me either, Benji.
“Mike just said it wouldn't bother him either,” I reported to Ian.
“Ben,” he said a bit later as he turned to look at me, “Do you think it's really him you're talking to?”
I thought about it. Ian gave me some time, not pushing me for an answer.
“I don't know, Ian. I'd like to think so, that he's still with me…”
I am with you, Benji.
“…but I really don't know. He says he's with me though.” A few quiet moments later and I asked, “Ian, am I going crazy?”
I swung my head to look at him. He peered at me intently, his eyes searing mine.
“No, I don't think so. Maybe this is part of moving on with your life. Who knows.”
He rolled back over and turned off the light. Darkness filled the room, disturbed only by the glow of the streetlight leaking in through the blinds which swayed with the evening breeze wafting through the open window. When Ian lay back down again, I moved so I could rest my head on his shoulder and put my arm around him. He hugged me to him, and we fell asleep in no time.
I sat up with a lurch, my breathing ragged and tears running down my face. My hand reached out and grasped the leg of the person next to me. It took a moment to get my bearings and figure out where I was. Tears continued to flow as I realized the person sleeping next to me was not my twin. Still, Ian's presence did offer me some comfort.
I lay down again, snuggling close to my friend, laying my head on his shoulder and wrapping my arm around his body. I lay like that for hours until the light of dawn showed through the gap in the blinds, and then I fell asleep.
Ian rolled toward me some time later, forcing me from my stomach to my side. He threw an arm over me and pressed himself against me. I could feel his morning erection against mine. His unconscious movements became rhythmic in nature. A low moan escaped him as the urgency of his motions grew. In spite of myself, I felt my own orgasm building as he ground into me. I gave in to the instinctive urges that were aroused and began matching his motions with my own. It took no time at all for me to climax and little more for Ian to reach his own orgasm. I could feel my shorts become saturated with his semen. In a very strange manner I felt closer to him at that moment than ever before. We had never done anything like that before in all our sex play, and it surprised me to learn that I wanted to do it again. I hadn't even given a thought to Mike's absence.
Opening my eyes, I saw Ian resting, watching me. He smiled sheepishly, and I returned his smile with one of my own.
“That was… awesome,” Ian said breathlessly.
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“Did you come?”
I hummed an affirmative. Ian pulled me to him more tightly and I returned the embrace.
“Um, Ben? I… I'm sorry.” I pulled back enough to see his face. He seemed disturbed. “I know you didn't want to do anything. It was just, well… I got started and I couldn't stop.”
“Ian, I could have stopped you. I liked it.”
He held me silently as the afterglow waned. A knock on the door startled us and we separated quickly. Dadtwo's voice carried through the door.
“Can I come in, boys?”
“Sure, dad,” Ian replied as he covered his wet drawers.
Ed poked his head into the room wearing a slight grin. “How would you boys like to go to a ball game today?”
Ian sat up, blurting, “You bet! How about you, Ben? We can take our gloves and go early for batting practice!”
Forcing a smile, I answered with an unenthused, “Sure. Sounds good.”
The Kettengers looked at me, both wearing cautious expressions. My response was not what they expected to say the least.
“What is it, lad?” Mr. Kettenger asked.
“Nothing,” I lied. “I'm okay.”
“Benjamin, I'm not daft,” Ed stated firmly. “Tell me what is the matter.”
I dropped my eyes to my lap. Ian tried to get me to meet his gaze but I refused. How could I explain to them that anything having to do with the game of baseball was contaminated with Mike's memory?
It's not going to kill you to go to a baseball game with Ian, Rayray and Dadtwo.
“I'm just not ready, yet.” I murmured.
“Ready for what, son?” Ed queried compassionately.
“It's still too painful. Baseball… it reminds me of Mike.”
What doesn't remind you of me, Ben?
“Everything does!” I savagely bit off the words, the tenor of my voice surprising everyone including myself.
You can't stop living your life because I'm not there!
“Ben, I'm going to say something and you're probably not going to like it,” Dadtwo said sternly. “Mike is gone! I know you miss him terribly and that you're sad, but you can't put your life on hold! Is that what Michael would want you to do?”
No fucking way! So get off your ass and go to the game, Benji!
“Leave me alone!” As harsh as my voice had been earlier, this was a plaintive cry. “I love Mike. Can't you understand that? He's all I have! God I miss him so fucking much. I miss you, Mikey! Why did you have to leave me?”
Laying down, I clutched Mike's pillow to me and wailed into it. Ian shifted to lay behind me and wrapped his arm around my body. He hugged me tight as my misery drained out of me. Ed sat on the bed near me and put his hand on my back in a gesture of comfort. I don't know how long we were there; how long the tears fell that time, but when I wound down I found that I was not alone in my grief. Ed, Ian, and Murray were with me and all had shed their own tears.
Not only was I depressed, but I was embarrassed as well. I managed to squeak out an apology but the male Kettengers wouldn't let me.
“Ben, son, it's perfectly normal for you to be angry, sad and even afraid,” Ed informed me. “This is part of the grieving process. Don't feel bad about crying and carrying on, because that's all part of it. Mike was an important…”
“Is!” I interjected loudly.
“Mike is an important part of your life,” Ed continued, undeterred by my interruption, “but he's passed on and that is something you must come to grips with eventually, and it will take time. You shouldn't feel badly that you miss your brother, Ben. Not at all.”
Ben, please go. You need to do this. Do it for me. Please.
I remained silent for a long while after Ed's comments, and considered Mike's request. How could I turn him down? I owed him so much.
“Okay. I'll go. I'll do it for Mike.”
I love you, Benji.
I answered Mike's voice with more tears.
We made it to the Oakland Coliseum with plenty of time to spare. Batting practice was awesome and we even managed to catch a ball that bounced off the seats above us, but that was most exciting thing that happened. The Rangers shut out the A's two to nothing in a lackluster performance at the plate. In spite of the lack of offense, we still had an awesome time. And I still missed my twin.
The next day was Sunday. I was asked if I would go to church with the Kettengers. Mike and I had gone with them before when we'd stayed over. They went to the Highland Congregational Church, a progressive Protestant church. It made me uncomfortable to be in a church given what I had heard about how the “Christian” community treated people like me and my brother.
The service was cool. The pastor was talking about Job and what he went through. I don't know if Momtwo or Dadtwo knew what the subject was going to be or not, but it hit me hard. No matter what happened to the man he kept his faith and kept on going. I'd have to give it some serious thought. Maybe there was a lesson there for me.
I stayed with Ian and his family for two more weeks before my parents supposedly had it together enough for me to come home. When Ed and Ian brought me home, I was wearing Mike's favorite shirt and pants. Mom did a double take when she first saw me and quickly went back to her room. Dad stared at me for the longest time. I met his gaze impassively, uncertain what the problem was at first, but when he mouthed Mike's name it became clear. Without a word I carried my bags to my brother's room, planning to make it my own, and I didn't give a rat's ass what my parents thought about it.
Life at home was very tense and very lonely. I continued to wear my brother's clothing much to my parents' dismay and disturbance. Mikey continued to “talk” to me all the time as well, but I told no one that he did. Even Ed and Liz began to give signs that they thought something was terribly wrong with me. The only people who treated me normally were Ian and Murray. Ian asked me occasionally if I had heard my twin recently, but I lied and said no. I didn't want him to treat me like a freak.
Mom and Dad went back to work the Monday after I came home. Ian called me later in the morning to see if I wanted to do anything with him and his brother but I declined. I wanted to spend time in Mike's room making sure that everything I didn't want out was put away. Ian asked if he could help me and I told him I needed some time alone. He seemed to understand and took it in stride.
When mom returned home from work, I had finished moving everything around. I was firmly entrenched in Mike's bedroom, reading his journal while laying on the bed. She looked in on me as she passed the open door.
She continued back to her room. I put Mike's journal down and picked up the picture of him and me at the beach. He looked so happy. We'd been playing in the water that whole day, and we both looked rather pink. I looked closer and saw a pale spot in the middle of his chest.
“Are you hungry, Mike?”
Mom was standing in my door, having changed clothes. All I could do was stare at her with my eyes wide. I never thought she would call me by my twin's name again after he had died.
“What is it, Mike?”
She was oblivious to what she had said. I sat up slowly and spoke softly.
“Mom, I'm Ben.”
She looked puzzled for an instant and then blanched before disappearing from the portal. I heard her bedroom door slam shut and a grief-stricken wail no child should ever hear uttered by his mother. I did not see her again until after my father arrived, nor did I leave what I was beginning to think of as “our” room.
A while later, Dad came in and shut the door behind him before taking a seat on the bed. It was seven-thirty that evening. He'd been in with my mom since he'd come home.
“Ben, I don't think it's a good idea for you to stay in this room, and I don't want you to wear Mike's clothes any more,” he ordered sternly. “It's hard enough for your mother to deal with Mike being gone as it is, and you aren't helping.”
“Like it's easy for me?” I barked. “You think I'm not having a hard time? You think it was easy for me to have you kick me out?”
“Now, Ben, we had to do that so your mom could come to accept what happened,” my father explained. His glistening eyes were tight with the strain of holding himself together.
“Oh, so it's okay for her to be sad, but not for me?”
“Of course it's okay, son, but that's not the point,” dad said with a quaver in his voice. “The point is that what you are doing reminds her that Mike… that….”
“That Mikey is dead.” I finished his sentence in a cold, harsh tone.
My father nodded and turned away from me.
“I have to be with your mother right now,” He declared softly as he stood, his voice shaking. I watched him retreat from our room and close the door behind him.
“What am I going to do, Mikey?” I asked the empty room. “I don't want to let you go.”
You aren't letting me go, Ben. I'll always be with you in your heart.
“That's not good enough!”
It has to be! It's all you've got!
My door swung open revealing my father, his eyes red and cheeks stained with tears. I stared at him, my face rigidly expressionless. His gaze scanned the room and came to rest on me.
“M- Ben, who are you yelling at?” He swallowed hard. I knew that he'd almost called me Mike.
“You were talking to someone…”
“I was talking to myself,” I insisted harshly
“Ben….” My father's voice carried a note of warning. I'd pushed him as far as I dared.
I lay down on my bed and rolled away from him, hugging myself. He closed the door once more and all fell silent. No one fixed dinner that night, but that was okay. I wasn't hungry anyway.
I refused to be moved from Mike's room. Dad tried everything from bribery to brute force to evict me, but it was no use. I also continued to wear Mike's things as a form of rebellion. My dad glared at me every time my mother had to leave the room because she thought I was her dead son come back to life. I returned his gaze impassively or ignored him all together depending on the situation.
Mom wasn't the only one who occasionally called me by my twin's name. Dad did it fairly regularly, and even Ian slipped on occasion. I idly toyed with the idea of taking Mike's name, but Mike convinced me not to.
Saturday, July 26, 1997 is another day I'll never forget. The day before, I'd gotten my hair cut. It was on those days that Mike and I had looked the most alike because his cowlicks didn't disrupt the style of his hair as much since it was shorter. I got up that Saturday morning early and sat at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of cereal while watching a cartoon on the television. I was planning on going over to Ian's that morning because a bunch of kids were going to shoot some hoops at the park before it got too hot. Accordingly, I was wearing some board shorts and a tee Mikey had loved.
Mom came in the kitchen and rubbed her hand through my short, bristly hair. She spoke as she was making the coffee.
“What are your plans today, sweetie?” She inquired as she filled up the coffee pot.
“I'm going to the park with Ian,” I replied. “We're going to shoot some pick-up games and then we'll eat at his house. I'll be back for dinner.”
“That sounds like fun,” she commented lightly. “What is your brother going to do?”
I stopped, spoon halfway to my mouth. I didn't move. I didn't even breathe.
“Mike, what is Ben going to do?” Mom asked again.
She turned off the faucet and an exasperated sigh escaped her and I heard her turn to face me.
“Michael, I know you heard me.”
I put my spoon back in my bowl and slowly turned so I could see her. Her cross expression didn't change.
“Mom,” I said, my voice suddenly hoarse, “I'm not Mike.”
Confusion was replaced by anger, and that anger was replaced by a crazed rage. Mom threw the coffee urn at me with all her might. It shattered on the back of the chair I was sitting in, spraying me with water and pieces of glass. She was screaming and yelling at me in some unintelligible language as she threw whatever she could get her hands on in my direction. Ignoring the pain from the impact of various objects, I ran from the kitchen, through the family room and out the front door. I didn't slow down until I was standing on Ian's doorstep.
The front door opened shortly after I knocked.
“Well, good morning, Ben.” Ian's dad greeted me cheerily. His tone changed immediately. “What on earth happened, Ben?”
“Hi… holy shit!” Ian exclaimed. “What happened to you?”
It was a measure of the concern that Ed felt that he didn't correct his son's language. Ian's father stepped out of the door, followed closely by my blood brother.
The man said softly, “Okay, lad, let's get you out of those clothes. Ian, go get Ben something to wear, and have your mum bring out the aid kit.”
“Ben, close your eyes and keep them closed until I tell you it's all right.”
I did as I was told. Ed helped me remove the t-shirt I was wearing and brushed off my face. When I opened my eyes I saw there were small red stains here and there on the garment. Mikey would have been so pissed off.
“Okay, lad, now the shoes and socks.”
I kicked them off and Ed set them aside.
“And the shorts. Keep your boxers, though. There's a good lad.”
“Here's the first aid kit, Ed,” Mrs. Kettenger said as she handed him a white box with a red cross on it. “Are you hurt, Ben?” She asked sincerely.
I shook my head in the negative.
“I need a flashlight, too, Liz.”
She left immediately and returned just as Ian did with some of the clothing I had left there.
Ed looked me over using the flashlight. He'd pulled tweezers out of the kit and occasionally plucked a shard of glass from my body. He finished in short order and allowed me inside.
“Now you go right in and get in the shower, Ben. I'll be along presently to wash out your hair.”
I made it to the bathroom but I hesitated at getting in the shower. Ian figured out what I was feeling without me saying a word and returned with a pair of swim trunks to wear while Ed scrubbed me down. I smiled wanly at Ian in thanks.
Afterward, Liz ordered me to the table for breakfast. It was only eight-thirty when I sat down to a full meal of eggs, bacon, toast and hash-browned potatoes. The adults allowed Ian and me to eat before launching into the interrogation I knew would be coming. I told them exactly what happened.
“I made my mom go crazy.”
My mother didn't come home with my father, and he didn't come home for a week. Ian, Rayray and I spent all our time together during the day, and Ian and I spent all our time together during the night just being near each other. I had an aversion to sharing his bed in any sexual manner for the same reason as I first did: I felt I was being disloyal to Mike. For his part, Mike was silent on the issue.
Dad picked me up on Sunday evening. He made the appropriate greetings and pleasantries to the Kettengers, and he even seemed happy to see me, but the air of geniality evaporated as soon as we got in the car. My father was completely silent on the drive but for a series of curses aimed at a driver who jumped his turn at a four-way stop.
Our arrival at home was as silent as the ride. Dad turned off the car and sat in his seat for a moment. I stared straight ahead. I was afraid that I would crack if I looked at my father. It simply didn't feel as though I was coming home with my dad. There was no warmth between us, no sense of love or even familiarity.
“Ben, when we get inside, you are to go to your room and change into your clothes. When you're done, we are going to get your things out of Mike's room, and then we are going to box everything in that room up and put away what we are going to keep. The rest is going to Goodwill.”
“No!” My protest was loud in the confines of the car.
“Don't argue with me!” My father barked. “This… this playing at being Mike, dressing in his clothes and sleeping in his room is going to stop, right now! Mike has been dead for almost two months. This has gone on long enough!
“Do you have any idea how what you have done has affected your mother?”
My anger boiled over. “No, because you won't tell me!”
Dad's face turned bright red. I could see his jaw tighten and then move as he sub-vocalized a slow count of ten.
“Benjamin, do as I told you to.”
I didn't move.
“Now, god dammit!” My father commanded.
“No!” My refusal matched his order in volume.
My dad hastily got out of the car and came around the front toward my side. I knew exactly what was going to happen so I jumped the center console and crawled out the driver's side door. My dad charged back around the car as I ran across the front yard to escape him.
“Ben get your ass in the house right now!” He demanded, his rage growing by the second.
“No!” I yelled defiantly. “You're just going to hit me!”
My words brought my father up short. Again I saw him pause and count to ten.
“Ben, I won't hit you,” he said, his voice a bit calmer than it had been. “But you have to understand that it's time to let go.”
“I'll never let go of Mike!”
He stared at me for a moment, jaw hanging slightly open, and then he visibly shrank in on himself. His shoulders sagged and his head drooped. Defeated, he trudged into the house and left the door open behind him.
Benji, it's okay if you pack my things. I know you won't forget me.
“I don't want to.”
Mike fell silent again as I walked into the house and to our room. My father was in his bedroom with the door closed and the television volume turned up. I closed my own door and lay down on the bed and curled up with Mike's pillow. Sleep was a long time in coming.
In the following days, my dad said maybe a dozen words to me while he looked at me even less. I was left to fend for myself while he went to work, and when he was home he was in his room with the TV on. I figured out how to do the laundry when I ran out of underwear and socks. I remembered what my mom had said about colors and temperatures, so I managed to not dye the whites with some other color.
Ian and Murray had gone to Yosemite with their uncle and his family for the annual two-week trip that they had taken since Ian could remember, but it left me alone. I hadn't wanted to see any of my other friends since Mike had died because it would just remind me of him. I still could have went over to Ian's house if I had wanted to, but I wasn't comfortable being the only kid there.
Two weeks after dad had picked me up, I told him that there was nothing in the house to eat when he got home. I received a grunt as a reply before he retreated to his room and shut the door again. It was the last I saw of him for a while. By that Friday I literally didn't have a choice: there was no food in the house at all and I hadn't eaten since Tuesday evening. I had no money, and hadn't had any since mom lost it, so I couldn't even go out and buy something at a fast food place. There was only one thing I could do.
When I knocked on the door at the Kettenger place, Liz answered. She smiled at me as she said hello, but her smile slipped when I didn't respond. I could only look at her and think of my mom being in the nuthouse and how it was my fault she was there and how my dad didn't love me anymore. I fought them off as best I could, but tears began to fall from my eyes despite my efforts. I dropped my backpack as a sob escaped me, shattering the façade of strength I had been desperately struggling to maintain.
Liz gathered me into her arms and hugged me tightly. I couldn't contain myself any longer and collapsed into her. She held me while I cried, and I thought I heard Mike's voice encouraging me to get it all out, but I wasn't certain. After I'd cried myself out, she pushed me out to arm's length.
“Ben, are you sick? You don't look well.”
I don't know what she saw to give her the impression I was ill. Maybe it was because I hadn't eaten or slept in a few days, or maybe it was because I was confused and scared. Liz led me into the house and sat on the couch with me in the family room.
“Ben, what's going on?” Momtwo demanded in a loving, caring tone.
“I miss Mike.”
It was a simple statement, and it didn't answer her question. I didn't know what else to tell her. I couldn't tell her that my dad was ignoring me, and that we didn't have food or anything. It was embarrassing enough as it was. How could I tell her that my daddy didn't love me?
She stroked my hair. “We all do, honey, and you most of all.”
“Nothing is the same anymore,” I complained loudly. Mom is gone, dad might as well be,” and I continued in a whisper, “Mike isn't here….”
“You feel all alone.” Momtwo completed my thought for me. “I know it's hard, Ben, but you aren't alone. You have us. We love you. Your mom and dad love you…”
I snorted with derision.
“They do too,” she said sharply. “You aren't the only person who was hurt when Mike died. Your mom is getting the help she needs and your dad is struggling with his own feelings, Ben.”
Her tone made me angry and I let that anger come out through my voice. “He loves me? That's why he ignores me? That's why he doesn't talk to me? Why he stays in his room all the time? That's why I haven't had anything to eat in three days because he loves me?” My voice cracked with the stress I felt.
“What?” Liz gasped, her hand covering her mouth in shock. “What do you mean you haven't eaten?”
“The last thing I had to eat was some rice on Tuesday night. There's nothing else left.”
She stared at me, seemingly stunned into inaction. She stood with a start and smoothed her clothes a couple of times, still uncertain she had heard what I had told her.
“Yes, well… let me get you something to eat, Ben. What would you like?”
“What am I going to do, mom?” I asked plaintively.
My cry for help seemed to bring her back to her senses. She held out her hand and I took it. I was led into the kitchen and told to sit at the table while watching her move around, industriously fixing us a meal.
“Ian and Murray should be home soon, Ben. You're staying over tonight, and I don't want to hear another word about it.”
Our conversation was stilted and at times the awkward silences made me anxious but we finished our soup and sandwiches in reasonable comfort. She didn't ask me anything else about my situation at home and I didn't volunteer any information. It was eight o'clock by the time I finished what she had fixed for me. My stomach didn't feel well, so I decided to lay down in Ian's room. I pulled out Mike's journal and read until I fell asleep.
I awoke to find Ian was sleeping next to me, snoring slightly. It was early in the morning judging from the lack of light coming around the blinds. I lay there in bed in an attempt to go back to sleep, but it was useless.
After fixing myself some toast and a bowl of cereal, I went outside on the patio to eat. The morning was warm and promised a sweltering day. The only thing I was certain of at that point was that I wasn't going to go home.
“What am I supposed to do, Mike?” I asked the morning breeze somberly.
Take care of yourself. That's what you do.
“Why does he hate me?”
He doesn't. Like Liz said, he's trying to deal with his own stuff.
“I'm just trying to deal with you being gone, too.”
He knows that, Benji.
“I didn't do anything wrong.”
I sat there until the sun came up. My mind was overwhelmed by everything that had happened and was happening. I knew in the back of my mind that wearing Mike's things had probably pushed my mother over the edge. I also knew that none of this would have happened if I hadn't led Mikey over that stupid canal, too. And I was supposed to let go? How can one forget that they caused their twin's death?
The sliding door opened behind me.
“Good morning, Ben.” Dadtwo.
A pause. “Can I join you?”
He sat next to me, pulling his chair closer.
“I know this is very hard on you, lad. I know that you loved your brother very much. I understand that; we all do. It's been over two months now, Ben, and school will be starting very soon. You'll need to focus on your studies.
“Maybe it's time we get you some new clothes of your own and move back into your own place.”
“Ben, it's time to put Mike's things away.
“Michael is gone, Ben,” Ed said gently. “It's time to move on.”
“Ben, it doesn't mean you have to forget about Mike. What it does mean is you need to live your own life and not what you think his life would have been.”
Ed turned his chair to face me.
“Ben, listen to me. Now, your mum and dad are having a very difficult time coming to terms with Mike's passing. You remind them of him when you wear his things and come out of his room.”
Anger filled my voice. “I remind them of him just by being alive! Look at me! I look just like him!”
“Calm down a bit, lad.”
“While I'm at it, why don't I get plastic surgery too so they don't have to see him when they see me? Or maybe I should just leave so they don't have to see me at all!”
Ed growled, “Benjamin Michael Foster, stop that this instant!”
I closed my mouth with an audible click and glared at the back yard fence.
“Now listen,” he said earnestly. “You will do no such thing, do you understand? It would absolutely kill your parents if they lost you, too.”
“How do you know?” I asked harshly
“Because I've talked to them.”
Stunned, I could but stare at him.
“I talked to them last night. They were both very clear that they want you at home with them, but things need to change, both for their health and for yours. They need to move on, too, Ben. Your family needs to get your lives back on track.”
“You saw my mom?” I asked, unable to think about anything else.
“She didn't want to see me?”
“Of course she did, Ben, but,” Ed took a deep breath, “her doctors think it would be best for her to wait.”
“So it is my fault,” I whispered. “I put her in the hospital.”
“Ben, will you stop? Nothing that has happened is your fault. It just happened. What happened to Mike was an accident. What happened with your mom was a result of that accident, and your dad is doing the best he can!”
“If I hadn't jumped that canal, Mike wouldn't have tried!” I snapped.
“And we've told you before that you don't know that for sure! You can't! Identical twin or not, you couldn't read his mind!”
Tears filled my eyes. Ian's father has cut to the heart of the matter. There was no way I could be certain that Mike wouldn't have jumped the canal regardless of what I did. For the first time since he died, I understood, if in just a small way, that Mike dying was a tragedy that I didn't cause. The realization shattered what little control I had over my roiling emotions.
“I didn't want him to die,” I whispered.
“I didn't want him to die!” My voice was loud, dissonant.
“I know, Ben!”
“I didn't want him to die!” My voice broke as I screamed. “I didn't want him to die! I didn't want him to die!”
Ed slid out of his chair and pulled me to him. I fought back, pounding on his chest and trying to kick him away from me, but he held me fast.
“Let me go!” My cries were shrill, harsh in my own ears. “Let me go!”
The man I thought of as my second father crushed me against him, forcing my arms over his shoulders. I couldn't hear a word he said as the roar of my own wailing drowned him out. With a last heave I threw myself backwards to no avail: I was constrained by Ed's loving embrace, and I began pounding his back in a last attempt to win my freedom. It became clear to me that there was no escape and I hugged him tightly about the neck as my voice grew hoarse. I collapsed into unspeakable grief and unstoppable tears. My father held me tightly, and we wept together.
When the rest of the family awoke, I had recovered my control for the most part. My eyes were still red and puffy and my nose congested, but my emotions were contained. Ian asked the silent question with his eyes. I shook my head, forestalling any queries he might make. I couldn't miss the hurt expression and downcast eyes. I made a promise to myself to talk to him later.
The morning passed quietly. Murray sensed that I was in a dour mood and went over to his friend's house to escape. Ian moped around, following me like a kicked puppy, but rather than anger me, it made me feel grateful. When lunchtime came, I told Ian what had happened that morning while we ate. Liz and Ed were there as well. Momtwo didn't seem surprised in the slightest at what I said, so I figured Ed had told her. Then again, her bathroom window was right above the deck table, so how could she miss me yelling and screaming like a baby?
Ian perked up when I suggested going to La Grande City Park. There was a lot to do there. It was about one mile square and had water slides, tons of sports fields, tennis and basketball courts, trees, trails, picnic and playgrounds, a skate park, pools… just about anything you could want.
Ian deflated just a bit when I asked his dad to drive us over. The park was about three miles away, and there was no way I was going to ride there. I hadn't ridden my bike since the accident, and I wasn't sure if I ever wanted to again. Ed said he would take us when we were ready.
Since the weather was hot, we wore our swim shorts and planned on spending the day at the water park. We called Murray to see if he and his buddy wanted to tag along. They did, so Murray and his friend Jeff met us at the house so Ray could get his shorts and things before we left. At the last minute, Liz and Ed decided it was a good day for a family outing and chose to go with us as well.
A moment of bitterness struck me when the adults announced their intention to go with us. My parents had never done anything spontaneous like that with me or Mike. Everything had to be planned out in advance in my family, and even then things happened to derail those plans. I realized that I hadn't trusted my parents to be there for me long before Mike's accident. It made me sad.
We all ate something before we left since it was near noon anyway, and eating at the park was not only expensive, but it would force us to waste time while the food settled and that would be a drag.
The drive over was filled with animated conversation that I didn't join in on. Momtwo and Dadtwo both recognized that I was silent and were concerned based on the many glances they cast in my direction.
Benji, promise me you'll try to have fun, okay?
I didn't respond to Mike and his presence in my mind faded. The fact that Mike talked to me was disconcerting in and of itself. I had a difficult time determining if it was really him talking or if it was my imagination running wild in an attempt to somehow spare me the pain of losing my twin altogether.
When we arrived at the park it was close to noon. The place was already packed, mostly with kids, but there were a fair number of families there too. Ed and Liz went to the wave pool area and somehow found a table with an umbrella vacant, so they claimed it as ours.
“Boys, before you go, make sure you put sunscreen on,” Momtwo directed. “I don't want anyone getting burned.”
“I'll do you if you do me, Ben,” Ian said.
I looked at him, surprised at his choice of words. His back was to his parents, so they couldn't see the suggestive leer on his face. It was all I could do to keep a deadpan expression as I replied.
Ian picked up the lotion and handed it to me before turning his back to me. I dumped a healthy dab of sunscreen in my hand and slapped it on his back. He shied away for a moment, complaining about how cold it was, but relaxed as I started rubbing it in, giving a shudder as I tickled his ribs accidentally. I took some extra time to make sure the back of his neck and arms were covered as well. When I was done, he turned to face me. His expression was strange and he was breathing kind of hard. I glanced down and saw his shorts tenting out, and then returned my eyes to his cherry-red face. I handed him the lotion which he put on in a rather hurried manner before literally tossing the tube at his mom.
“C'mon, Ben! Hurry!” Ian said as he raced for the water, ignoring various calls for him to slow down.
I followed him at a more sedate pace, laughing as he dove through a wave and belly flopped on the other side. When I reached him he pushed me and I went down in the water. As I was trying to regain my feet, Ian squeezed my crotch hard enough that it hurt a little bit. Breaching the surface, I clutched myself protectively.
“What did you do that for?” I asked Ian, who was grinning widely.
He stepped up to me and said softly, “You made me come, you bastard!”
My jaw dropped open.
“I what?” I couldn't believe what he'd just said.
“You made me come! All that rubbing… man you got me good.”
“But I didn't even touch you there!” I stated incredulously.
“I know, but I didn't have a wet spot because I peed my shorts, Ben.”
I couldn't help but laugh at Ian. His face screwed up into an amused chagrin just before he pushed me back into the water.
Ian landed on me, his elbow hitting me in the chest. The air in my lungs left in a rush, and I felt water enter my mouth. Visions of Mike drowning in the canal filled my head. Somewhere in my mind I wanted to drown so I could know what Mike felt as he died.
Get up, Ben!
The imaginary voice spurred me into action, forcing me to fight for the surface. With a great effort I threw Ian off of me using my whole body. My legs thrust upward and my arms out, pushing Ian over my head. The exertion allowed some water to flow into my lungs. My fears of actually drowning came to the fore. Panic overtook me and I scrambled to my feet. A surge from the wave pool struck me in the back knocking me off balance and down into the water again. Somehow I managed to recover and staggered out of the pool in confusion, coughing hard in an effort to clear my lungs.
“Ben!” A boy's voice called, “Are you okay?”
A fit of coughing struck as the panic continued to grow. Breathing became difficult as I fell to my knees on the rough cement. An arm came to rest on my shoulder as a body settled itself in front of me. Still gasping for air, I looked up at the boy's face. Ian wore an anxious, frightened expression.
“Ben? It's okay,” he said with a calm assurance I needed to hear at that moment.
I stared at him, eyes unseeing, concentrating on his voice and the words he spoke. My world started to collapse inward as a crowd grew around us, my panic held at bay only by Ian's voice and his hand on my shoulder.
“It's okay, Ben,” Ian repeated again and again until another set of arms -- large adult arms -- wrapped around me from behind.
“I have him now, son,” said the voice owning the embrace I was ensconced in. I struggled against the man, but only in an effort to turn into him. He released me long enough for that action and then lifted me bodily as I began to sob.
A short time later I was set onto a chair near the table we had staked out earlier. It had been less than a minute yet I had already mastered my emotions, controlling my sobs and pushing my panic down into the depths of my gut. Without waiting I began to tell them in a dispassionate manner what had happened and what I had thought at the time.
Ed and Liz listened to me, nodding or frowning occasionally. When I was done Liz cleared her throat as she knelt in front of me.
“Ben, I'm going to ask you a question, and I want you to answer me honestly, okay? This is very important. Can you do that?”
I nodded and dropped my eyes. I just knew the question was about Mike, and I was miserable enough as it was without her evoking more emotional pain.
“Ben, do you want to die?”
My head snapped up, my wild gaze meeting her steady, confident if worried eyes. We stared at each other for a moment before I couldn't keep it up any longer.
My voice no more than a whisper, I said, “Sometimes.”
“Do you want to kill yourself?” Momtwo asked with poorly concealed alarm.
I thought about her question before I answered. The wait was making her nervous.
“No. I can't.”
She then asked, “No you can't, or no you won't?”
“Both,” I answered with a sigh. “Mike wants me to live…”
Fuckinay right I do!
“… and I don't want to disappoint him.”
When I looked up again to meet her eyes I was unprepared for the tears in Momtwo's eyes, and they disturbed me greatly.
“Why are you crying, mom?”
She pulled me toward her into a hug.
When she released me she quietly said, “I love you, Benjamin. Don't forget that.”
“Liz, I'm going to pack things up and find Ray and Jeff,” Ed said.
“No!” I barked the word. “No. We don't have to go. I don't want to ruin everyone's time because of… well, just because.”
“Ben, honey…” Began Liz.
“No, mom. I'll be okay. Just give me some time.”
She studied me through narrowed but loving eyes. “If you're sure, Ben.” I nodded once, decisively. “Okay. We'll stay.”
As I slumped into the chair by the table, I noticed Ian for the first time standing behind me. He had heard everything I had said. His face was tight, his jaw set and his eyes troubled. He was unsure whether to speak to me or go back to the pool.
“What is it, Ian?” I prompted.
“You were kidding about wanting to die, weren't you?” He questioned fearfully.
“Ian… sometimes I miss Mike so much that all I want is for the pain to stop.”
“But you said you wouldn't kill yourself.”
“And I won't,” I said in reaffirmation. “Mike wants me to be here.”
“How do you know that?” Ian asked, and then realized his gaff. “I didn't mean that to sound like it did, Ben. Of course he wants you to live. You promise you won't do anything stupid?”
“I promise I won't try to commit suicide, Ian.”
“Ever.” I confirmed my promise to him, and in some way I knew that I had promised Mike the same thing. It did not make me uncomfortable.
Ian asked, “Are you going to come back in the water?”
“I don't know, Ian, but don't let that stop you.”
He looked at me for a moment before pulling up a chair and sitting next to me.
“I need to work on my tan anyway,” he explained.
It was a patently false statement, but I was grateful that my friend wanted to stay with me.
As we prepared for bed, Ian seemed agitated. I knew that my comments about suicide had unsettled him, my promise not withstanding. He had watched me closely the whole evening, staring at me without concern of being noticed. I met his gaze a few times and looked away when it was apparent he wasn't going to. Surprisingly, his scrutiny did not cause any anxiety but rather it filled me with a sense of belonging. I found I could tolerate Ian's piercing stares for the most part. Once in bed, Ian rolled onto his side facing me. I knew that unless we discussed what had happened, he would be awake all night and keep me up with him.
“What do you want to know, Ian?” I asked with a sigh, staring at the ceiling.
My words startled him. After an hour of silence, my voice sounded loud.
His voice was tight with tension. “You said that you won't kill yourself, right?”
“I won't commit suicide, Ian,” I pledged sincerely. “I made a promise that I wouldn't.”
“To Mikey?” My blood-brother inquired with narrowed eyes.
“Yeah, to Mikey,” I replied.
I saw Ian glowering at me out of the corner of my eye. He let the silence drag for a moment before speaking again.
“Ben, look at me.”
I did as he asked. His expression held a gravity that no twelve-year-old's face should be capable of. His demeanor matched his expression.
“I want you to promise me, too, Ben. Say the words.”
“I already did at the park, Ian,” I reminded him.
“I don't care,” he rejoined dismissively. “Say it again. Promise me that you won't hurt yourself.”
“I won't kill myself,” I said acerbically. “I promise. Okay?”
“No. Promise me you won't hurt yourself,” he demanded.
“I just did!” I protested.
“No you didn't. You said you wouldn't kill yourself. I want you to promise you won't hurt yourself,” Ian clarified.
“Okay, okay. I promise.”
“Say the words!”
“All right, Ian,” I said, giving in to his request. “I promise I won't hurt myself or kill myself. Are you happy now?”
“No, Ben, I'm not happy. It makes me sick that I had to ask for you to promise me in the first place.” Ian lay on his back and gazed at the ceiling. “I'm scared, Ben. I don't want to lose you.”
His words brought unexpected tears to my eyes.
“Why would I leave you?” I asked incredulously. “You're my only friend in the world.”
Ian turned his head to look at me. He stared into my eyes.
“Sometimes…” I continued, “…sometimes your family feels like the only family I have left. Mikey's gone and mom and dad… dad doesn't care what I do. Mom is crazy. Who knows what she thinks.
“My family is broken, Ian,” I whispered. “I don't know if it can be fixed.”
Ian rolled over and put his arm around my chest, snuggling up close. We lay there together in oppressive silence as I pondered what the future would bring for me and what was left of my family.
During the time when my mom was away, I spent my weekends with the Kettengers while my dad was with her, and my weekdays at home with my father. He had finally pulled his head out of his ass after Dadtwo and he had a little talk. I never found out what was said or what happened, but my dad apologized to me and promised to do better. He even took me shopping for clothes and supplies I would need the following week when school started.
August 25, 1997 was my first day in junior high as a seventh-grader. There were a lot of people I knew from my elementary school that had transferred with me to 8th Street Junior High School, and because I knew them, they knew Mike as well. It was one of the hardest days of my life, trying to tell everyone who asked that he had died over the summer without breaking down and crying. Ian hovered over me protectively when he was near, warning people off by telling them the news himself.
What made that first week nearly unbearable, as if the constant stream of questions weren't enough, was the fact that Mike wasn't there. My entire life he had been by my side in everything we had ever done, and for the first time I was alone when it mattered. Well, not alone; I had Ian with me.
Ian and I shared four of our seven classes together: Math in first period, PE in third, Social Studies Fourth, then lunch, and Biology in seventh. My other classes were English in second, Computers after lunch and Art in sixth.
As the weeks passed, I grew accustomed to the hole Mike's absence left in me, at school and elsewhere. Starting school had brought a lot of the pain back to me, but I had worked through it quickly. I had to. There were too many other problems that demanded my attention.
“Ben, your parents are home!” Called Ed's baritone voice from the front room.
Ian, Murray and I exchanged glances. Their faces displayed a supportive compassion. I wasn't sure how this would turn out, but it helped knowing that I had them and their parents in my corner. The Kettengers had agreed to wait with me while my father picked up my mom from the hospital to bring her home. She had been there nearly three months, trying to work through the impact the death of my twin had on her. In the time she had been at the Sequoia Mental Health Institute, I had been allowed to see her only once, and only a week before she was due to come home, and only for a few minutes. The visit left me feeling cold and unwanted.
My mom was home. It's hard to describe what I was feeling at the prospect of seeing my mother again. The last time I'd spent any time with her, she threw an urn full of water at me and managed to bury some of the glass in my body. Now that she was outside, my stomach was turning flips and I felt nauseous.
“We're coming, dad!” Ian called back. “Are you ready for this, Benji?”
I swallowed hard. I had never told Ian that the use of Mike's favorite nickname for me hurt every time I heard it. In a way I suppose I was torturing myself by allowing it to continue out of a sense of guilt.
“No,” I admitted, “but I'm as ready as I'm going to get. Come with me?”
“Of course we will,” Ian said gently as Rayray nodded.
Together we made our way from my room into the family room to await my mother's entrance. The front door opened a few seconds later. My mom came into the house without a pause. She glanced around, looking to see if anything had changed, and then her eyes fell on me.
I'm not sure what I expected from her: anger, or perhaps hatred. When I'd seen her while she was in therapy she had been very nice, but I wasn't sure if it was genuine or not since there was a doctor with us the whole time. Maybe she had put on a show for his benefit.
Mom knelt, placing both knees on the floor, bringing her eyes more or less even with mine. She opened her arms, entreating me to come to her. Warily I approached, studying her for the signs of the betrayal I expected. I stopped one step from her, staring in her eyes.
“I'm so sorry, sweetheart,” she said with tears in her eyes.
I didn't move and continued staring into her eyes. If she was for real, it was time to find out.
“Mike's dead,” I grated brutally. “I killed him.”
“Benjamin Michael Foster, you did not kill him!” My mother was livid. “It was an accident that could have happened to anyone. It was not your fault.”
She reached out and pulled me to her. I let her wrap her arms around me but did not return the gesture. After a moment, she looked up at me, fear and confusion in her eyes.
“Ben,” she started quietly, “I'm sorry for what I did to you. I'm sorry I hurt you. I don't want you to think that I don't love you, because that isn't true. I love you more than anything in the world.”
“What about Mike?” I questioned harshly.
“I love him and I always will, but that doesn't mean I don't love you. You're my son, and I love you.”
“Even though I killed him?”
“Oh, honey, please stop that! You didn't!” Mom insisted.
She pulled me to her again, and this time I hugged her back. She began to cry softly, and I felt my own tears starting to form.
“I missed you so much, Ben,” she informed me. “I'm sorry I left you. It won't happen again.”
I suddenly felt like I was five again; a small, vulnerable child frightened of the world and terrified to be without his parents. I pulled back and stared into her eyes.
“I promise, baby. I promise.”
A moment later I hugged her again and we both broke down and cried. I didn't notice Ian and his family leave as I wept.
The three of us, mom, dad and me, ate dinner together. Mom told us about what she had gone through while she was away. I began to feel guilty when she said that I had pushed her far enough to briefly lose touch with reality. Even though she said it was actually good that it happened because it helped her move on from the place she was in, I pulled into myself and lost my appetite. When I asked to be excused -- again for the second time in my life -- mom and dad stared at me for a moment before acquiescing to my request.
I'd been in my room for fifteen minutes, sitting on the bed and staring into my closet when they knocked on my door. I had expected them to come with a sense of inevitability and dread. What could I tell them? I had just begun to allow myself to believe that I was not responsible for Mike's death, and now I found myself responsible for my mother going away. One was a direct result of the other. If I was responsible for her breaking down, how could I not be responsible for his death?
“Ben, can we come in?” She called through the slightly opened door.
The door opened revealing my parents standing there, my father with his arm wrapped protectively around her shoulders. Dad pulled out my desk chair and sat while mom took a seat next to me. I couldn't bring myself to face her.
“Ben, look at me.”
I turned my head and stared at her chin. There was no way I could meet her eyes.
“Ben, honey, what's wrong?” She asked worriedly. “Don't you understand what I explained earlier? My going away was a good thing for us, sweetheart. It helped me become whole again.”
“If it hadn't been for me, you wouldn't have had to,” I said, my tone low and forlorn. “You wouldn't have gotten like that.”
“Benjamin Michael Foster! You did not kill your brother! You did not force him to do what he did. You did not cause the accident.” She put her arm around me and continued in a softer voice. “You don't have any blame at all, Ben. Mike may not have known what was going to happen, but it was his choice. He knew that you weren't supposed to play around the canal.”
I snapped, “I did too! And I still did it!”
“Did you ever think,” she asked calmly and quietly, “while you were making that jump, that you were risking your life, or that Mike would be risking his? Be honest.”
I stared at my knees. I didn't want to answer her. To do so would be to admit that my twin and I had done as we did in deadly ignorance, and that was a concept I simply could not accept: that I was blameless.
“Neither of you did, and I know it, son,” Dad gently remarked. “When you're twelve years old, you don't think about dying. The only thing you thought about was whether or not you could do it, not what would happen if you couldn't. Am I right?”
I nodded grimly. A sudden realization struck me: I wanted to be responsible for Mike's death. I needed to be responsible. If I wasn't, if no one was to blame, then his death was somehow made less significant. That was intolerable for me. The guilt was what kept Mike alive within me.
Tears started to fall again, and my self-loathing grew. Mom and Dad both hugged me as I wept, but I know that they saw my tears as coming from somewhere completely different than their true origin. What was equally frustrating for me was that I couldn't gain any sense of emotional stability. One day I was fine and at peace with the terrible events that had taken my twin from me, and the next I was completely consumed with guilt. If I couldn't come to a resolution soon I was afraid I would end up as crazy as my mom had been, and that I wouldn't find a way back.
As mom and dad left my room, I silently queried for Mike's presence. I needed to talk to him, but he did not answer me. I was alone.
My mother's return restored some semblance of normalcy to our lives. There was a huge void where Mike should have been, and I felt it most keenly. Dad didn't speak of Mikey at all after the night of mom's return. He pretended that he hadn't been born, or so it seemed to me. Mom and I talked about him all the time. We would sit in the living room looking at pictures and remembering the fun stuff he'd done or the good times we'd had with him. We'd tell each other how much we missed him. We'd cry when the pain became too great. Dad was indifferent to us, and oft times left the room while mom and I shared our memories.
The first sign I had that all was not well between mom and dad was the fight they had about a week after mom was home. I couldn't hear the specifics but I heard my name a few times and the tone told me it was not a pleasant conversation. Mom would plead with my father to lower his voice, to which he would respond by growing louder and more vociferous in his arguments.
This became their pattern. It would happen once a week, or once every few weeks, but it was always loud and long. I took to climbing out my window and finding someplace else to sleep where I didn't have to hear mom and dad argue. Sometimes I would sleep in the garage in the back seat of mom's car, or if I was really feeling bad I would walk over to Ian's and sleep on his deck in the back yard. I didn't want to bother them, especially on school nights. Ian and Murray needed their sleep. There was no sense on all of us losing out by my disturbing them.
One Friday night, the first Friday in November, I was sitting in my room reading Mikey's journal when I found taped to a page a picture I hadn't noticed before. It was of our eleventh birthday party. Mike and I stood at a table with our arms around each other. Our hair was all messed up with frosting and cake. I grinned to myself as I remembered Mike smashing his cake into my face, and before he could escape, he received a face-full of my cake in return. We were looking at one another. At that moment, captured in that picture, I saw the love that Mike had in his heart for me.
I heard mom and dad begin to argue as I examined the picture. They were in it, too, standing behind us with their arm around each other, leaning their heads in, their expressions displaying the love they felt for Mike and me as well as each other. It was an image of a happier time that will never return.
I remained in my bedroom until their yelling moved from the family room, past my room and into their own. Without wasting another moment, I gathered my jacket and ran out the front door, purposely slamming it closed as I left. Not knowing where to go and not wanting to bother the Kettengers, I walked east toward Elyssum Elementary School on Elyssum Street, and when I got there I turned south. If I went down to Eleventh Street I could go over to the cemetery and visit with Mike. That seemed like a good plan, so that's what I did.
It was quite a way to walk on a cold November night. Rain threatened to fall from the blackened sky and a cold wind blew out of the west. As best I could tell it took me an hour to reach the intersection of Elyssum and Eleventh. The long walk kept me warm in spite of the wind. When I reached the gate to the cemetery I paused to look inside. Everything was still but for the trees stirring in the freshening breeze.
With another glance around to ensure I was unobserved, I climbed the gate and dropped over to the other side. A quick run took me out of the range of the streetlamps and allowed me to slow to a walk. Another five minutes took me to the back corner where Mike lay. His headstone was a simple flat marble plaque. It was the first time I had seen it, but it was too dark to make out the inscription. Kneeling down, I ran my hands along the stone and traced the letters I found there.
Michael Benjamin Foster
April 22, 1985 - June 14, 1997
Beloved Son and Brother
Gone But Never Forgotten
Tears stung my eyes as my throat tightened. A sob escaped me and I leaned forward to lay my forehead against the cold stone that was the only evidence of a once vibrant life besides the memories I carried inside of me.
I awoke as the clouds changed from black to gray with the coming of morning. The air was damp and chill, and my body stiff with the cold. Pain shot through me as I stood, subsiding with the tightness of my limbs as I stretched. Looking around, it came to me that I had stayed the whole night in a graveyard, yet it didn't frighten me. I knew Mike had been there to protect me.
The next step on my agenda was to determine where to go. It was certain that my parents would be in hysterics over my disappearance. Then again, perhaps they hadn't even heard my departure over their yelling. Weighing my options, I found that hunger won out over everything else. I had about ten dollars in my wallet remaining from my lunch money, so I decided to hit up a fast food place that was just down the block from the cemetery.
The gate was still locked when I made it out to the street. Seeing no choice, I climbed the gate and landed lightly on the sidewalk, setting a brisk pace toward my destination. I hadn't gone more than a hundred yards when a police car pulled up alongside me and turned on their lights.
“Hold it, son,” commanded a burly officer. “We need to talk to you.”
I stopped walking. “Sure.”
“What are you doing out this early?” Asked the first cop's partner.
“Going to get breakfast,” I informed them unworriedly.
“Uh huh. Do you want to tell me what you were doing inside Legion Cemetery?” The big cop asked. “We got three calls telling us you jumped the gate to get out.”
“Oh. My brother is buried there,” I replied. “I was just saying hi to him. I haven't visited him in a long time. I needed to talk to him.”
“I see. What's your name?”
“Ben Foster. I live on Valhalla Drive.”
“Well, Ben Foster,” the big man said, “you were trespassing. Put your hands on the hood of the car, please.”
Shaken, I did as he asked without question or hesitation. The cop quickly frisked me down, removing my keys and wallet from my pockets. When he was satisfied I wasn't carrying anything dangerous, he returned them to me.
“We're going to take you home and talk to your parents, so get in the car.”
Again I did so without arguing. The patrolmen returned to the car as well.
“Where on Valhalla do you live?” Asked the driver.
An occasional blast from the radio punctuated the following silence. When we were less than a mile from home, the big cop turned in his seat to look at me.
“Why did you decide to visit your brother? You could have waited until this morning when they opened the gates.”
“I… uh… I really needed to talk to him,” I answered quietly. “I have a lot of stuff I'm dealing with right now, and he could always help me. Honest, that was the only reason I was there.”
“Why didn't you talk to your parents?” The officer asked, his tone suspicious.
“They don't understand. They're too busy with their own problems to deal with mine, anyway.” My tone sounded dejected, like any teenager's would, I suppose, but I wasn't a teenager yet.
“They aren't hitting you or anything, are they?” The driver asked in a serious tone.
“No, they never do.”
“Do they yell at you a lot?” he queried in the same tone.
“They only yell at me when I get them mad. Look. I'm not being abused, okay?”
“Would you tell us if you were?”
I left that question unanswered as we pulled into the driveway. Both cops got out of the car, but only the driver went to the door. The other cop leaned into the car and spoke urgently.
“I have kids your age, Ben. As a matter of fact, you remind me of my son. I know how secretive you guys are just by your age. If you're being hurt, you need to tell us. You don't deserve that, no matter what you've done.”
“It's okay. Really. But thanks for being concerned.”
“Here's my card. Keep it in your wallet. If you ever need anything, call me day or night, all right?”
I took the card from his hand. Randall “Randy” Keith was his name.
“Thank you,” I said “I'll keep the card, but I don't expect I'll need it.”
“You seem like a good kid, Ben,” the hulking police officer said. “If something happens and you don't have anywhere to go, call me. I can help you.” I nodded “Ready to go see your parents? Officer Kinney is explaining to them what happened.”
“Are you sure everything is okay?” He asked, real worry tingeing his voice
“Yeah. I'm just not looking forward to the lectures.”
“It's a parent's prerogative. Just listen to what they say, all right? I'm sure they were worried about you.”
I saw Mom and Dad standing on the porch watching me talk to the cop. Randy's partner walked around the car to speak with him.
“They didn't even know he was gone,” the man said.
The rest of their conversation was too quiet for me to hear. A moment later, Randy leaned back into the car.
“Okay, Ben. Time to come clean,” he ordered sternly. “When did you leave your house?”
“I don't know exactly. Ten last night maybe.”
“Why did you leave?”
“I got tired of hearing mom and dad yell at each other, so I left.” I said it plainly and without emotion.
Randy took a second or two to digest this information, then asked, “Where did you go?”
“Straight to Mike.”
“I woke up, jumped the gate and was going to get some breakfast when you picked me up.”
“You slept in the cemetery?” His partner asked incredulously.
“Yeah. It wasn't a big deal. I knew my brother was there to protect me.”
The two officers backed away from the car and spoke in hushed tones for a moment. They seemed to be in disagreement with one another regarding the subject being discussed. The driver then spoke emphatically in hushed tones, using his hands to gesture to me, and then ticking off fingers.
When his partner was done, Randy nodded and said, “You're right. It just breaks my heart.”
That was the last thing I expected to hear the man say, and the fact he said it while discussing me and my family bothered me.
“Okay, Ben. You can get out now,” the large man said.
I hesitated slightly before stepping out of the car. I stood my ground until Randy's partner took my arm around the biceps and led me to my parents. Randy stayed at the car.
“Here he is. He jumped the fence at Legion Cemetery last night, slept there and jumped back out this morning, which is when we stopped him. The custodian at the cemetery confirmed your son is interred there and that no damage was done. They aren't pressing charges for trespass this time, but if it happens again they might change their mind.”
“Thank you for bringing him home, officer,” my father said. “We'll make sure it doesn't happen again.” Dad's voice was stern. I knew I was in for it.
“If I may make a suggestion?” Randy's partner interjected. “Before you go off on him, you might want to ask him why he left in the first place.”
“We'll handle it from here,” my father said as if he hadn't heard the man.
“Good bye, Ben. Remember what Officer Keith told you. I don't want to ever see you again under these circumstances. Okay?”
“I won't forget any of it.”
“Good. Glad to hear it, son. Have a good day Mr. Foster, Mrs. Foster.”
The cop walked away. I realized I had never gotten his name.
My father's hand fell heavily on my shoulder as the cruiser pulled out of the driveway.
“In the house, Benjamin. Go to your room while we discuss what we will do about this.”
My voice sounded bitter in its sarcasm. “Oh, you mean you guys have stopped yelling at each other long enough to yell at me? What a welcome change.”
I hurried to my room before they could respond. Mike's journal was right where I'd left it, carelessly thrown on the bed. I laid down and again examined the picture of my eleventh birthday. That happier time would never come again.
For more than one reason.
“Benjamin, wake up.”
I opened my eyes. I had dozed off while reading Mike's journal. Mom and Dad stood at the door to my bedroom, neither of them looking very happy. Rolling over, I put Mike's journal on the side table and then sat up, leaning against the headboard and pulling my knees to my chest. They stood there watching me as I moved, and when I'd settled in they continued to observe me. I mutely returned their gaze.
Nothing I had done the night before was wrong in my estimation. I escaped their arguing and visited my brother's grave. The fact it had been in the middle of the night was irrelevant.
The silent standoff continued. My father was growing agitated while my mother maintained a calm demeanor. At last, when he couldn't take it any more, my dad spoke.
“Well?” He demanded. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“Answer me, Ben,” he commanded, his irritation growing. “Now.”
“I have nothing to say,” I replied evenly. “You know when I left and why, and where I went. There's nothing more to tell you.”
“That's not good enough, Benjamin!”
“What do you want from me, huh?” I asked, a little heat entering my voice. “Do you want me to tell you that I hate it when you guys fight? That I can hear every word you say? That I know you're arguing about me? That… that… that you'd rather it was me that was dead instead of Mike? Huh?”
“That's not true, Ben,” mom said urgently. “We never thought that. Not even once!”
I simply stared at them.
“You're changing the subject, Michael,” my father said in an accusatorial voice.
“See? That's exactly what I'm talking about.” In spite of myself, I felt a tear form in my eyes.
When he realized what he'd done, my father's face drained of color. He turned around and walked across the hall to his room. My mother looked after him, sad concern etched on her features. When the door closed she walked in and sat on the bed next to me.
“Ben, your dad doesn't mean what you said,” mom shared quietly. She placed a hand on my knee and continued. “He doesn't wish you were gone instead of Mike. You two looked so much alike… I have to remind myself every time I see you that you are my Benji and that Mikey is not with us.”
“I'm sorry that me being alive is such a burden. Maybe I should…”
My cheek stung from her slap. I held my hand to my face as she continued.
“Benjamin Michael Foster you stop that talk this instant!” She barked, her voice hot. “No, you shouldn't. What would that do? It would destroy me and your father completely. It would devastate the Kettengers, especially Ian. What would Mike say to you about such a thought?”
I didn't answer her. I turned away and curled up on my bed.
“Ben, honey, that wouldn't solve anything. All it would do is hurt the people you love and who love you. You taking your own life wouldn't show anybody anything, it wouldn't prove anything, and the only thing it would make people feel is sad.”
“I'm not going to off myself. I promised Mike I wouldn't.”
“I'm glad to hear that, honey. Very glad. I couldn't handle it if I lost you too, Ben.”
I turned back to look at her. Her eyes were full and tears streaked her face. I sat up again to face her.
“Mom, why did Mike have to die?” It was a question I had been wanting to ask for months.
“I don't know, sweetheart. Maybe his task was complete and God called him home.”
“Why would God take him away from us?” Another question that I had wanted to ask.
She thought for a moment before replying, “We'll never know that, Ben. Not until we've lived our lives and pass on. Maybe not even then. But you know, Mike is watching over us and protecting us all the time.”
“I know. He was with me last night at the cemetery. He kept me safe and warm.”
She smiled and put her hand on my face to caress my cheek. “You see? He loved us in life, and he loves us even now that he's gone. We'll never be without him. He loved you so much, Ben. He talked about you all the time when he and I were alone. He was always so excited to be with you.” She chuckled. “It got to be annoying at times.”
“I know,” I agreed. “He was so hyper sometimes. We were supposed to be identical, but there were a lot of differences too.”
“Remember those, Ben,” she said. “That is what keeps Mike alive in your heart.”
“Mom, I love you. I mean, I really love you. I know I don't say it often, but with what happened… you never know when it's the last time you'll see someone. So I want to tell you, so you know.”
She engulfed me in a hug. It was the first embrace from her that felt real in what seemed like years. It was full of comfort, warmth, and love.
December came, and with it the first of the snow for the season. We didn't get a lot in La Grande; maybe thirty inches a year. School continued on. I did enough work to get through with reasonable grades but no more.
I hadn't realized how much Mikey had written. His journal actually consisted of several dozen notebooks. He wrote just about a page a day, sometimes even more. As I read, Mike began to take on new dimensions in my mind. My brother, the boy I thought I knew, was a much different person than I thought. He had seemed very present-oriented without a care for the future, but in his journals I learned differently.
I also learned that he was terribly insecure just like I was. He frequently asked me if I loved him, if I liked him, if I was happy spending time with him. I always answered in the affirmative, and now I knew why he asked. He was terrified I would reject him.
My parents were still fighting off and on. Their arguments were getting louder each time, and that made me want to run. I didn't know where I would run to, however. I could always go to Ian's, but that would be the first place my parents would look. If I wanted to get away from them, I had to go somewhere they would never think of.
Friday evening, December 5, 1997 was the first time I ran away from home for more than a day. I left home about five while my parents were arguing and spent the evening at the Grand Avenue Marketplace inside the mall to keep warm. The small amount of cash I had on hand was enough to feed me but that left me with nothing. When the mall closed, I walked to City Park where I spent the night sitting under a low tree, well hidden behind the branches. It was surprisingly warm there in the cold weather, but I knew by morning that I wouldn't be able to spend another night out in the open.
I returned to the mall the next day, torturing myself by hanging out around the food court when I had no money to get anything. I saw a couple people I knew as I wandered around. One said hello to me, but just in passing. I was wishing I'd brought a book with me when I escaped, but I couldn't go back.
The mall closed down at nine that evening. I had to find somewhere to go. I didn't want to go to the cemetery again even though Mike was there. My mind kept bringing me back to Ian's house, about a mile-and-a-half away. Reluctantly, I followed Seventh Street east until I hit Fir Avenue. A right turn took me south to Olympus Drive. Ian's house was another half-mile down.
I didn't want to let them know I was there because they would call mom and dad for sure, so I walked around through the side gate to the back of the house. The family room and kitchen were dark. Sighing with relief, I crept up onto the deck and curled up next to the house. Sleep was a long time in coming.
I sat straight up in panic, painfully banged my head into the hose bib hanging on the wall and collapsed back to the deck. My head swam as I tried to regain my bearings. Rolling away from the wall, I yelped as I barked my shin against a chair leg, causing it to slide across the deck and then fall over. With a curse, I sat up right under the table and struck my head again.
A light in the house turned on. I scrambled to gain clear overhead so I could run, but by the time I was unsteadily attempting to regain my feet, the deck light had been turned on and the sliding door opened. Ed stood there staring at me, a baton in his hand at the ready.
“Benjamin? Is that you, lad? What on thunder are you doing out here? It's the middle of the bloody night!” Ed was definitely annoyed.
I finally found my balance and stood, facing away from him. The reality of the situation struck me. I had run away from home and couldn't go back. I had no money and I had no place to go. My parents hated each other and there was nothing I could do to change it. My shoulders slumped and my chin fell to my chest. I took a shuddering breath and turned to face him.
“Lad, are you all right?”
A sob escaped as I tried to hold my emotions in check.
“Ben, what's the matter? Talk to me, son. What happened?” Dadtwo's annoyance was now concern.
“Well, come on in, Ben. You can stay with Ian and we'll talk about this in the morning.”
I hesitated, and it was not lost on Ian's father. He gently led me into the house and examined my face, which I struggled to hold in a neutral expression. He raised his hand and fingered a mark over my eyebrow where I hit the table, and then pulled me into an embrace. I almost broke down, and I would have if he hadn't released me when he did.
“Off you go, lad. Sleep well.”
I plodded down the hall, past Murray's room to Ian's closed door. I stared at the knob for a long moment. Ed, who had followed me after turning off the lights, watched me worriedly. I forced myself to raise my arm and open the door, then I forced myself to move inside and close the door behind me.
Ian lay on his bed, bundled up in the covers against the chill night air entering from the barely open window. The small amount of light admitted by the shades barely provided enough illumination for me to see the bed.
I stared at Ian's dark form for a long while before going through the motions of disrobing, and climbed into the bed next to Ian, trying not to disturb him. I failed.
“Who… Ben? What are you doing here?” Ian asked quietly with a pleased tone.
“Hi Ian. I… I'll tell you in the morning.”
“Okay,” he said through a yawn.
He rolled toward me and threw his arm over me. After a moment, I spooned back into him. He sighed contentedly and pulled me tightly against him. The comfort his presence provided combined with the whole body contact gave me a feeling of safety that I hadn't felt in a long time.
I slept well.
Mom and Dad didn't have much to say when Ed took me home the following morning. They knew why I had left. It was the same reason I always left. I began thinking that it was only a matter of time before Mom and Dad split up. The thought filled me with dread. Dad and I didn't get along very well, but what would life be like without him?
Christmas came and went, followed by New Year's. When school resumed after the holiday period, I settled into a routine of following Ian home after classes let out, doing our homework together, and then either staying for dinner or going home for supper with my folks.
Ian's birthday fell on February 10. He was thirteen. The following Friday his mom and dad held a family party for him, which would be followed by a small party for some of his friends the next day.
I followed him home as usual on that Friday. We didn't talk much. Ian seemed very nervous as we rode the bus. Every attempt to engage him in conversation was rebuffed or answered with single syllables. When we reached our stop, I confronted him as soon as we were out of earshot.
“Ian, what's bothering you?” I asked cautiously. “You haven't said ten words to me since school let out. Did I do something?”
He sighed. “I'm not ready to talk about it yet, okay? I'm sorry.”
“As long as we're okay.”
“Yeah. As long as we're okay….”
I found it strange that he repeated my words instead of confirming that our friendship had a firm footing. It worried me that there might be something he wasn't telling me that could have a serious impact on our friendship. Was it finally happening? Was he finally growing weary of me? Did he want to move on without me holding him back?
My paranoia ran wild as I examined everything that had happened since Mike had died. Every incident that had occurred had tested Ian's patience until he could no longer stomach being around me.
When we arrived at his house, he headed straight back to his room. I deposited myself in the family room. Murray came in a few moments later. He smiled and said hello as he retreated to his own room.
Staring out the sliding glass door into their back yard, I was coming to realize that Ian might be right. It was time to move on. My presence had done nothing but hold him back, and my absence from my own home was perpetuating the rift that had grown between my parents. If I were there more often, then they wouldn't have the time to fight. I'd have to keep them engaged, either through asking for their help or developing new interests that they could join me in. I knew I had to do something to save our family.
Rayray came in and sat next to me on the couch.
“Hey Ben. How's it going?” He asked easily.
“Eh. You know. Same ol' same ol.”
“Heh. That's the same thing Ian said. Ben? Is there something up with him? He was sitting on his bed staring at the wall. He wouldn't even look at me.”
Murray was obviously worried. He was right: this was not the typical behavior of his brother. In fact, it was completely abnormal.
I said, “He isn't ready to talk about it. At least, that's what he said on the way home.”
“Well,” Murray commented, “he better get over it soon. Mom and dad are having my aunt's family over for Ian's birthday. They have a girl my age. She's stuck up though. Thinks she's hot or something.” He rolled his eyes to indicate what he thought of her opinion of herself.
“I guess I should go home then, if you guys have company coming.”
“No, Ian wants you here.” Murray informed me. “He asked mom and dad last night. They said okay. Besides, you might help distract Brittany.”
“Oh, no you don't, Rayray,” I refused. “You run your own interference. I'm not going to let her get near me.”
“Thanks, Ben,” Ray carped. “Some big brother you are, not even willing to help out his little brother.”
“Help, yes. Sacrifice myself, no.” He grinned in response to my smile.
“It was worth a shot.”
“Maybe you should tell her what you think of her,” I suggested. “It might take her down a few pegs.”
“Mom and dad would kill me. Even so… it might be worth it just to see the look on her face. I'll think about it.”
Ed and Liz arrived home and ordered us to get cleaned up for dinner. When Ian's aunt and her family arrived, we got in the car and went to Outback Steakhouse, one of Ian's favorite places to eat. I watched him through the entire meal. He hardly ate at all, listlessly pushing food around on his plate and keeping his eyes lowered. When he caught me watching him he averted his gaze instantly. Something was wrong, and it made me anxious.
The rest of the night passed much the same as dinner. Ian went through the motions required by courtesy, but once everyone left, he retreated to his room again. Ed and Liz seemed as concerned as I was, but neither went out of their way to speak to him, perhaps believing that Ian would work through whatever the problem might be.
Ray and I pulled out some cards and played cribbage for a while, and then Ed and Liz joined us. While we were playing, I had to ask.
“Do you know what's going on with Ian? He's been like this all day.”
“No, son.” Ed replied. “We've discussed it and we don't know. Do you have any ideas?”
I shook my head. “Why aren't you talking to him or something?”
“We're giving him a chance to work through this on his own,” Ed said. “You're all growing up, and it's time that you learned to take care of your own problems. That doesn't mean we won't help you, but we'd rather you tried to work things out for yourselves first.”
I stared at Dadtwo for a moment. “I don't believe you. There's more to it than that.”
Ed put his cards down. “Ben, what I told you is the truth, and yes, there is more to it. He asked us not to interfere, and that he would deal with it.”
Murray asked, “When did he do that?”
“On Tuesday,” Liz replied. “He said he was struggling with something and needed some time to figure it out on his own. He didn't say what it was.”
I mulled over her words. “He didn't ask me not to interfere.” I dropped my cards and stood.
“Ben, this may not be a good idea.” Liz warned.
“He's my brother. I'm not going to sit here playing cards when I know he's hurting.” I walked toward the hall, saying, “I can't do that. I owe him that much.”
I knocked on Ian's door. Through it, I heard the radio playing. Receiving no response, I knocked again, with more force.
“Go away! I want to be alone!”
“It's Ben. I'm coming in.”
I opened the door, slipped in and closed it again. The state of his room shocked me. The usually tidy bedroom looked as if it had been struck by a typhoon. Clothes and papers littered the floor. Bedding lay half off the bed and Ian himself was only partially dressed, wearing a shirt and boxers.
“What do you want, Ben,” he asked in a hoarse, strained voice.
“I want you to tell me what's happening in your brain. You have everyone worried.”
“I'm not ready yet,” he rasped.
“So when will you be ready? Are you going to hole up in here until you graduate high school because you aren't ready to talk about it?”
“Don't `Ben' me, Ian.” I sat on the bed and shuffled over to sit by him. “You've been here for me every single minute of every day since Mike died. I want to pay that back somehow.”
“You don't have to…”
“Yes, I do. It's part of being a brother, that we're here for each other no matter what.”
Ian turned to stare into my eyes. I held my gaze steady. With a sigh, he looked away.
“I've been doing a lot of thinking lately,” Ian started, his voice barely audible against the radio. I turned it off so I could hear him clearly. “I got to thinking about life. About how much time we really have here with the people we love.
“I never said goodbye to Mike, Ben. The last thing I said to him was something about school. Homework maybe. How stupid is that? The last time I saw him I gave him our homework assignment. When he died…
“When he died, it killed me. I couldn't let you know because you needed me to be strong for you, to help you deal with him being gone, but as more time passes, I feel worse and worse. I start wondering: what would I do if it was my last day here on Earth? Would it just be life as usual, doing what I enjoyed doing? Would I spend it talking to everyone and saying goodbye?
“I don't want people to wonder about how I felt or what I thought. I want everyone to know so there aren't doubts. I need to tell everyone how important they are to me; how much they mean to me. I need to make sure that everything is taken care of just in case something does happen to me.”
“Ian, I'm sorry.”
His eyes met mine once more. “You're sorry?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “I didn't realize how selfish I was, and I'm sorry.”
“You're being stupid, Ben. You weren't selfish, you were hurting. We both were.”
Silence fell between us for a few moments. Ian studied his hands in his lap while we sat in thought. When he spoke again, it startled me enough to cause me to jump.
“Ben, when I said I need to make sure everything is taken care of, there's a lot that goes into that. It's not as simple as it sounds. There is so much to deal with.”
I pleaded, “Let me help you, Ian. Please?”
“I don't know, Ben. We need to wait and see what happens.”
“What do you mean?”
He again stared at his hands.
“Ben, I have some things I need to tell you, and some things we need to talk about,” Ian said with a glare, his voice hard. “It will change everything.”
A chill ran down my spine as my imagination brought my paranoia to life.
“Ian, I don't understand.” He held up his hand forestalling anything further from me.
“Listen to what I have to say first, then you can do what you need to.”
The boy's resolve was plain, as was the stress in his eyes and the strain in his voice. I peered at him, wondering what was going on in his mind. I'd never seen Ian this serious, not even during the aftermath of Mike's accident.
“I've been thinking about some things. Since Mike died, you and I haven't been the same as we used to be. Our friendship was closer. We did more things together like riding our bikes and going swimming and playing ball. I know that doing those things reminds you of Mike. It reminds me of him too, and seeing you… It's like seeing a ghost sometimes, not only because I can see Mike when I look at you, but because everything we used to do together, what we had, is as dead as he is.”
I stared at him, not believing what I was hearing. His eyes were dry, but his tortured expression told of a conflict raging within.
“We have to go on with our lives, Ben. Mike wouldn't want me to stop doing things I enjoyed doing with him just because he isn't here. The same thing goes for you. I know it hurts, but the only way to get past the hurt is to go through it, to do the things that cause us the pain, like bike riding and swimming and playing ball, and other things.
“I love you, Ben, but our friendship is dying. I need to move on. I need to enjoy what I do without having Mike's memory dragging me down all the time. You need to be able to do the same, or… I'm sorry, Ben, but I won't… we won't be able to hang out. That's the last thing I want to happen to us, Ben, but I can't live like this. Not without something more.”
Tears filled my eyes. Ian was leaving me. I never even told him how I felt.
Then do it now! This may be your last chance!
Mike's phantom voice rocketed through my head. It was the first time he'd spoken to me in months. I lifted my eyes to meet Ian's gaze and cleared my throat to find my voice.
“Ian, I can't lose you. You're the only person keeping me sane. If you and I… If I lose you… I don't even want to think about it!”
“I'm not done, Ben,” the boy grated. “There's more. It's too hard for me to be around you anymore. It hurts when I look at you. It kills me when we sleep together in my room at night. It's so hard not to reach over and… do the things we used to do. I can't do it anymore, not like this.
“Ben, I want to be with you. I want to do all the things we used to.” His voice dropped to a near-whisper. “Everything. I'm in love with you, Ben. I don't know what you feel about me. I don't know if you're straight or gay or in between. All I know is that I love you. I loved both of you, but I couldn't choose between you and I was happy playing around with both of you, but now, with Mike gone, I can't stand not being able to touch you or hold you. If you can't handle that, or if you hate me because I'm gay, then you need to walk away right now. Save us both from more pain.”
My mind was a barrage of thoughts slamming into each other. Nothing coherent was coming to the forefront. My dream, and Mike's, was coming true- but to fulfill it I had to let go of my fears and move beyond my grief. Could I do that? More than that, could I return Ian's love in the same measure his was given to me?
Ben, please! Love Ian for both of us! Let me love him through you!
Oh, Mikey, I thought back. If only it was that easy.
It is, my brother's specter replied. Just do it, Ben. For me?
A glance at Ian showed his expression to be resolute. The future of our friendship was being determined as I sat thinking, and the longer I took, the more dour his expression became.
Please! I'm begging you! Do it for both of us!
I met the young man's gaze solidly. It took a conscious effort to relax my face and let the tension drain away. His eyes were hard, waiting for me to reject him. There was no way I would do that. There was no way I could do that. I sat down next to him. He continued to observe me silently. I looked into his eyes once more and leaned forward. I kissed him gently. He jerked away.
“Don't fucking play with me, Ben!” He growled. “I'm not kidding. This isn't about stupid games anymore. I'm gay and I love you!”
I continued to stare at him and closed the distance between us.
“Mike told me a long time ago that he was gay, Ian. He told me the same day I told him I was gay, too. We both love you, Ian, and as long as we both couldn't have you, we were happy playing just like you were. But now, Mike's not here. He wouldn't want us to waste time playing games.
“I love you too, Ian. I've been too scared to say or do anything about it, and with Mike… I thought I was honoring his memory. But now… we both know the truth. If you can't or don't want to deal with it, then I'll leave. You'll never see me again.”
His glare intensified. “Don't you even think about going anywhere, Benjamin Michael Foster.” He moved closer to me again, placing his nose an inch from my own. “Do you mean what you said, about loving me and being gay?”
We sat there staring at each other, eyes delving deep into the soul. Ian edged slightly closer to me and I met him, our lips meeting once again in a gentle, tentative kiss. I felt his hand rest on my thigh, and I took it in my own. Ian pulled me to him, and I wrapped my other arm around his waist. The passion in the kiss between us grew slowly as we maneuvered to get as close to one another as possible. Abandoning the effort, I broke the kiss and lay down, looking up at Ian. He lowered himself to me and our lips met again. It amazed me how his lips could be so soft and warm.
When his body was fully against mine, Ian pulled back and gazed into my eyes once more, caressing my face with his hand. I ran my fingers through his hair and down his back, stroking him as we studied each other.
“I've dreamed of this for so long, Ben,” Ian said softly as tears formed in his eyes, “but, God it hurts so much that Mike had to… to die for my dream to come true.”
Tears flooded my own eyes. “I know, Ian. Me too.” I stroked his cheek and rested my hand there. “But this is what Mike would want.” I hesitated. “He told me so.”
Ian's body shook once as he fought back a sob, and then a sad smile crossed his lips. “He would want us to be together, Ben. I hate it that… that... but he would want us to be together.”
Ian leaned down and kissed me again, letting his weight rest on me. The sensation was indescribable, and it touched me deeply. Wrapping my arms around him, I crushed him against me, trying to meld my body to his as our lips pressed tightly together. Every possible inch of our bodies were in contact. Warmth surrounded me and penetrated me through every pore in my skin. The chasm resulting from Mike's untimely demise was slowly being filled by the love exuding from Ian's hands, lips and body.
Ian abruptly pulled away from me and got off the bed. His arousal was readily apparent as he trotted to the door. He surprised me by opening it.
“Mom, Dad? We're going to bed,” Ian called. He smiled as he waited for a reply.
“Everything is settled?” Ed asked. He was standing near the door.
Ian nodded. “It's fine, dad. We have some things to talk about, but we can do that tonight and tomorrow. As long as it takes.”
Ed pressed the door open causing Ian to turn away from his dad and face me. I suppressed a grin when I saw the tent in Ian's pants that he was trying to hide from his father.
“Benjamin, are you feeling well?” Dadtwo asked.
“Fine, dad,” I confirmed. “Like Ian said, we have a lot to talk about, but I think we're going to be okay.”
“That's a relief. All right, boys. Don't stay up all night talking.”
“Okay, dad,” Ian said as he closed the door behind his father.
Ian propped the desk chair against the door under the knob, wedging it closed. Once certain that the door was secured, Ian turned back to me, his face a mixture of happiness and lust. Ian took off his t-shirt as he returned to stand in front of me. I stood to meet him, running my hands from his shoulders, over his boyish pecs and abs, to rest at his waist. As I pulled him to me, I could feel his hardness against my stomach. Ian lowered his hands and lifted my shirt over my head, leaving me bare-chested. We had never undressed each other before, always having taken off our own clothes for one of our play sessions, but the added intimacy touched us both. His arms snaked around my body to pull me in to a tight embrace. The feel of his bare skin against mine caused my head to swim. It had been so long since anyone had held me this way, and I had missed it terribly.
Hands roamed freely of their own accord. Resting my head on his shoulder, I absorbed the warmth of his skin and the heat of his body into my very being, pouring it into the void in my heart, relishing its sweetness as that void began to retreat, healing my soul.
Ian's hands ran down my back lightly, causing me to shiver. When he ran them around my waist and released the button holding my pants closed, I sighed deeply and kissed his shoulder, allowing my jeans to slide off my hips to the floor. Ian, his motions now tentative, reached for the waistband of my underwear. I could feel him shaking through his touch and my embrace. Without waiting, I unbuttoned his shorts and let them fall to the floor as well. He gasped when I first touched him, softly rubbing him through his boxers. I removed Ian's final piece of clothing, supporting him as he stepped out of the shorts and boxers around his ankles. He did the same for me, and then pulled us onto the bed.
I lay on top of him, bringing our hard dicks into alignment between our bellies. I moved against him, gently thrusting upward toward his navel. A combined groan escaped us as new sensations coursed through our bodies. His hands ran down my back to cup my ass, pulling our bodies together tightly, trapping our cocks together even tighter. I reached up and kissed him, my tongue searching for his as I opened my mouth. His lips parted and our tongues battled between us, exploring and learning the feel of the other. My hands were not idle, kneading his chest and pinching his nipples gently as our motions became more urgent.
Ian thrust up into me, matching me perfectly. I knew that I wouldn't be able to last much longer, and hugged him to me tightly. His breath caught and he stopped moving just as he moaned and thrust into me hard, pulling me against him with all his might. I felt his dick jerk between us and his sperm coat my penis, providing lubrication for my still-rock-hard cock to slide more easily between us.
Seeing, hearing, and feeling him come was too much for me. I sped up my grind until I felt like I was going to explode, and then I did. An indescribable spasm of pleasure erupted throughout my twelve-year-old body. I collapsed against him, my weight causing his fluid to spread out between us, our still-rigid dicks coated completely. Breathing hard, we both rested for a moment, and then Ian wrapped his arms around my back and his legs tightly around my waist, causing me to gasp again.
“I love you, Ben. I've wanted to tell you that forever. I love you.”
“I love you too, Ian.”
We lay there for a moment before rising and cleaning ourselves up as best we could. Later, we lay in the bed together, my head on his shoulder and my arm over his chest, talking about how we were going to deal with our new-found love, but we decided we would put that off until morning when the urge overtook us again.
I woke up well before Ian did. Crawling out of bed without disturbing my new boyfriend was easy since he was spooned up behind me. It was a simple matter to slip out from under his arm and slide onto the floor. Finding my clothes in the dark was another matter, but I managed to do it without making too much noise.
Once out of his room, I went to the kitchen and made some coffee. I'd just recently acquired the taste from Rayray. As if the kid weren't hyper enough as it was, his friend had to feed him coffee on an overnight and he'd drank it every morning since. He got me hooked by putting in one part sugar for one part coffee. It tasted like candy.
I sat on the couch in the family room and watched the light snowfall outside cover the deck like a gray blanket in the early morning gloom. The warmth the coffee lent my body kept me comfortable in the chilly room.
Stunned. It could not be described in any other way. Ian's revelation had stunned my mind. The entire night while we lay together, I tried to comprehend the major shift my reality had just taken. Ian, who had been a friend for a long time, was now my boyfriend. Nothing could be as it was, yet it must remain so for our safety.
My brain was running at full speed, contemplating the ramifications of the love we had confessed and affirmed to one another. No one else knew, not even Ed and Liz, or even Murray. How could we keep our feelings hidden from them? How could we possibly refrain from expressing our love when in their presence? What would they think about a twelve and a thirteen being in love in the first place?
“You're up early, Ben,” Ed said, startling me slightly.
“Hi, Dad. Couldn't sleep any more. Had some thinking to do.” I took a sip of my coffee and frowned. It was cold.
“Everything is really okay then?” His voice betrayed his concern.
“Between us it is,” I replied as calmly as my somersaulting stomach would allow. “If there's anything else, he didn't mention it last night.” I rose and followed Dadtwo into the kitchen to warm up my coffee. I glanced at the microwave and saw it was only a quarter after six.
“What time will people start showing up?” I asked.
“About eleven or so. We're grilling some sausages and burgers. Ian mentioned he might want to go to the park and play football, but if the snow keeps coming down, I'm not sure that will be a good idea.”
“C'mon, dad, it'll be fun!”
Ed peered at me as he took his first sip of java. His expression was puzzled. I couldn't figure out what he was thinking.
“You're awful chipper this morning. It's been far too long since I've seen you that excited, lad.”
“I just feel good for a change.” It wasn't a lie, but there was no way in hell I was going to tell him why.
“Well, it's good to see,” Ed commented. “Are your mum and dad coming over?”
“I don't know. They didn't mention it. I'll call and ask them later.”
“That will be fine.”
I finished off the coffee in the pot and made another while Dadtwo went out front to get the morning paper. We sat in a companionable silence reading the day's news. I spent some time reading the comics as well. Occasionally I found myself fighting the urge to go back into the bedroom and be there when Ian woke up. I thought it would be suspicious because I had never done anything like that before even when I had woken early as I had that morning.
Momtwo was the next person awake. She kissed my forehead as she passed and kissed her husband's cheek. I watched them, suddenly envious of the obvious affection they felt free to display in my presence. Would Ian and I be able to do the same when we finally came out to them? Would we ever come out to them? I shook my head to dismiss the concern. It was too early to struggle with that question, both temporally and figuratively. Ian and I had admitted our love just nine hours prior to that moment. We needed to define our relationship before we announced it to the world, or at least our little part of it.
“Is something the matter, Ben?” Ed asked, apparently having seen me shake my head.
“No. Just thinking.”
I rose to get myself a bowl of cereal and ate it as I continued to ponder my situation, or rather, our situation. I was so deep in thought that I didn't even hear Ian come up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder, startling me as he did. I was beginning to grow weary of people sneaking up on me and scaring me.
“Good morning,” he chirped happily, squeezing my shoulder tightly. I smiled shyly, a gesture he returned.
“Good morning, son. Did you sleep well?” I peered at Ed to see if he suspected something. I decided he did not as he continued reading the paper, and I sighed in relief.
“Well, Ben and I talked for quite a while last night, so I'm kind of tired, but other than that, I'm fine,” Ian said in response. He squeezed my shoulder again and then obtained a cup of coffee for himself.
“Everything is straightened out then?” His dad asked in a mild tone.
Ian paused and swallowed. “Well, not everything, but Ben and I talked out what is going on between us.”
“And that was?” Momtwo asked, her tone matching that of her husband.
Ian looked at me and I shrugged slightly. He would tell them or he wouldn't.
“It was about Mike,” Ian said slowly. “We both miss him, and it gets in the way. We both agreed to try and not let him hold us back anymore.”
“And how do you feel about this, Ben?” She asked.
“He was right. Mikey will always be with me whether I sit in my room or play ball, so I might as well start having some fun again.” After a pause I added, “I think Mike would be disappointed if we don't.”
“You may well be right about that, lad.” Ed glanced up at me as he spoke and then went back to his paper. “Mike was never one to mope around.”
“No, he never did. He wouldn't let me, either.” I changed the subject. “Who is coming, Ian?”
“Ron, Matt and Mark, Dave and Brad,” he answered.
All five boys were, if not my friends, then at least friendly to me. We occasionally played different games together. Mike and I had a closer friendship with Matt and Mark than the others. They were twins, too, but they were fraternal twins and looked nothing alike. This would be the first time I had any close contact with them outside of school since Mike had passed away, and it made me slightly uncomfortable.
“They'll want to play football,” Ian said with a grin.
“Ian Gilbert Kettenger, I will make that decision when they get here, and not a moment sooner. Do I make myself clear?” Ed asked sternly.
Ian, his grin still in place, said, “Sure, dad.”
I stood with a yawn. “I'm going to take a shower.”
The water felt wonderful as it cascaded over me, its warmth waking my body for the day ahead. As I scrubbed myself, the bathroom door opened to admit someone, which was not an unusual occurrence at the Kettenger home with two boys in residence. The shower's sliding door rolled open and Ian's smiling face peeked in. He studied my body without shame as I moved. His mere presence and the knowledge he was looking at me produced an erection in no time. I turned to him.
“Look what you did!”
He laughed, his eyes still on me, centered on my pubescent penis.
“I wish I could do something about that,” Ian said huskily, “but mom saw me come in. If I stay too long…”
“That's okay,” I replied with a grin. “I'll be out soon and meet you in your room.”
“Okay!” He exclaimed. Ian's head disappeared behind the now-closed door. I chuckled to myself as he left.
He was waiting for me, sitting in his bed reading. I closed the door behind me and dropped my towel. Ian watched me closely as I crawled over the bed toward him and then slid into the bed beside him. My hand found his erection quickly.
“We can't really do anything, Ben,” Ian said gently, his hand resting on my arm, stopping my motion. “Not with Mom and Dad awake.”
“Why not? We've jerked off before with them awake. They always knock,” I reminded him.
“Yeah, they do, but Rayray doesn't.”
As if Ian's statement was a prophesy, Murray walked into the bedroom excitedly.
“Ian, can I play football with you guys later? Please?” He was begging and Ian hadn't even told him to buzz off yet.
“Sure, Ray. I said you could yesterday.”
“Woo hoo!” The kid did a little dance and left the room, leaving the door slightly ajar.
“Ray!” Ian called. “Close the door please?”
“Sure, bro. Sorry!” Murray did as he was asked.
“See what I mean,” Ian griped.
“He's gone now.”
“I know. Can you wait until tonight?”
Pouting in an exaggerated fashion, I said, “I guess.”
“You could always go back into the bathroom and do it yourself,” Ian reminded me.
“No, I'll wait. I want to save it up for you.”
The look he gave me made my heart melt.
It had been ten months since Mike had died, but the pain was still fresh. I thought of him several times a day, every day. He hadn't spoken to me, if that was what it had been, since Ian and I confessed the truth of our feelings for one another.
Ian and his family threw a party for me on the day after my birthday. I felt Mike's ghost the whole time. My parents were there too, but Mom seemed preoccupied and Dad wouldn't even look at me. By the end of the party, after the few friends that had been invited left, everyone was emotionally drained. All of us were aware that Mike would have been thirteen, too.
Dad wasted no time in leaving for home as soon as the last guest vacated. Mom, clearly distressed at my father's refusal to acknowledge me, refused to go with him. He didn't argue with her; he just left. I found myself indifferent to his actions. I had been pulling back from him for quite some time, and his departure simply reinforced that separation.
Mom came to me immediately after he left and swept me into a tight hug, murmuring in my ear that she loved me, she always would, and nothing I had done or could do would change that. I returned her embrace. In the months since her return from the hospital, my mother had been unwaveringly supportive and loving despite the fighting she and my father engaged in. I knew from what I overheard during their arguments that she was my advocate when their heated words turned to me and my existence. Momtwo gave my mother a ride home a short time later.
Ian and I took off on our bikes for the park to meet up with Matt and Mark Voit. We had made plans to play basketball. I would be the shortest player there at five-foot-two, six inches shorter than the other boys. It didn't really make that much of a difference, though, because I was faster than they were. We found the twins were waiting for us when we got there, watching some older boys play.
“Hey guys,” the dark-haired Matt called. “We'll get half the court in a few minutes.”
“Hi, Matt. Sounds good,” Ian replied.
“Ben, are you okay?” Mark asked. He had lighter hair than his brother.
“My dad,” I sighed by way of explanation. Both Matt and Mark were aware of my father's apparent antipathy toward me.
“I'm sorry, Ben,” commiserated Mark.
I shrugged. “Nothing you can do about it.”
Ian put his arm around my shoulders. I smiled slightly when I met his troubled gaze. He squeezed me tightly before releasing me.
“It's not right,” Matt complained. “He's your dad. He's supposed to love you.”
“He used to,” I carped bitterly. “Before I killed Mike.”
All three of my companions turned serious eyes on me and spoke at the same time.
“You didn't kill Mikey!” shouted Ian.
“That's bullshit!” yelled Matt.
“Fuck that shit!” blurted Mark.
The three of them traded amused glances before returning their attention to me.
Ian spoke first. “Ben…”
“Look, guys,” I interrupted him, “I know I didn't kill him, but my dad acts like I did. Can we just drop it? I don't care anymore, anyway.”
Matt and Mark nodded and sighed. We had remained close once I got my head back on straight following Mike's death. Ian's birthday party was the turning point for my “recovery,” if you will. We'd played football in the snow and froze our balls off, but when we got back to Ian's for hot chocolate, they asked me how I was doing. I told them the truth. I told them about my mom flipping out and my dad becoming an ass. They listened to me for hours on end at times and they never became angry or impatient with me. When I couldn't or didn't want to talk to Ian, Matt and Mark were my lifeline. The only thing they didn't know was that Ian and I were together.
“All yours, guys,” called one of the older players as they left the court.
Basketball tended to be a brutal affair when the four of us played, not because we were malicious, but because we were so uncoordinated. Their elbows landed on my head or hit me in the nose, and I ended up tagging them accidentally in the groin. It was an unspoken rule that we played until someone couldn't go on any longer or we got tired. That day's game ended with no serious damage to any of us. We said our goodbyes and split up to go our separate ways.
As the one-year anniversary of the accident drew nearer, I became more and more withdrawn. Even Ian sometimes complained that he couldn't reach me. It took a concerted effort to pull myself back and spend time with him without becoming overwhelmed by the emotions welling up inside.
School ended. My grades were decent but nothing spectacular, and they were noticeably lower than they had been the year before. My father became enraged and verbally brutalized me for over an hour because of it. He stopped only because mom came home.
On the first anniversary of Mike's death, dad came home from work and went straight to the liquor cabinet. Knowing that this could lead to nothing good, I packed a bag in case I had to leave quickly. I hid out in my room until mom got home. The arguing started instantly. Dad made no secret of his feelings.
“Ben! Get your ass out here!” he barked.
“Steven, leave him alone!” Mom demanded. “He didn't do anything.”
“Shut up. It's his fault Mike is dead and you know it!”
“No, Steven, it is most certainly not his fault. You're drunk. Now is not the time to discuss this!” Mom was trying to defuse dad's mounting anger and having little luck.
Heavy footsteps coming down the hall told me my welcome had worn out. As soon as the door opened I darted from my room and out of the house. The garage was still open and provided access to my bike. As the front door of the house opened, I was pedaling as fast as I could to get away. I had no idea where to go, but I knew I couldn't stay at home. Ian would make me welcome, but I didn't want to endanger them should my father go searching for me.
I rode out of our neighborhood to Elyssum Avenue and turned south. It was close to six-o'clock, so I rode fast down to Eleventh Street and turned west until I came to the cemetery. The sign at the gate told me the place closed at sundown so I had about an hour before they'd kick me out.
When I arrived at Mike's grave, I sat in front of his headstone and studied it. It was just as I remembered it last time I visited. How long ago was that? Six months?
“I'm sorry, Mike,” I whispered as tears filled my eyes. “I'm not a very good brother to you.”
I half-hoped his spirit would return to me and speak, but I heard nothing.
“What am I going to do, Mikey? Dad blames me for what happened. He hates me. I can't go home. I could go to Ian's but Dad would find me there.
“Am I to blame?” I wondered aloud. “Everyone tells me that I'm not. Even you told me that, and dad… he said it to, but I guess he changed his mind.”
I paused, hoping to hear Mike's voice. All I heard was the rustling of trees and their new leaves in the evening breeze.
“Mike, I still miss you. I wish you were here so much. Everything would be better. Mom and dad would still love each other. Dad would still love me…”
I trailed off as my throat caught. Tears came to my eyes, but I held them back. Crying didn't do any good. I sat quietly, letting my mind range free. Memories of my twin often entered my consciousness, as did memories of Ian. I missed my boyfriend too, but I knew I couldn't go there. My father would be sure to find me, and with the alcohol, he was capable of anything.
“The park is closing, son,” a man said from behind me. “You'll have to leave now.”
I was amazed that the time had passed so quickly. I didn't turn to face him, instead turning my head part way and nodding in acknowledgement.
“A few more minutes and then I'll head out.”
“Okay. Thanks, son.”
I spoke to my twin's headstone as the man walked on.
“I don't know what to say, Bro. You know how I feel. You know what's happening. I hope you're happier where you are then I am here. I miss you. I love you. Bye.”
I rode my bike down the street to a fast food place and got some dinner. While I ate my hamburger, I tried to figure out where to go for the night and decided to call Matt and Mark. Maybe I could stay at their place. Their father answered the phone.
“Um, hello, Mr. Voit? This is Ben Foster. Can I speak to Matt or Mark, please?”
“Sure, Ben,” He said pleasantly. After calling to one of the boys he asked, “How are you? I haven't seen you in a while.”
“I'm okay. It's still hard. Today is… It's been a year.”
“Oh, Ben, I'm sorry.” The sympathy in his voice was real.
“Here is Mark. It's good to hear from you, Ben.”
“Thanks. It's nice talking to you, too.”
I heard the phone change hands and Mark answering his father.
“Hey Ben!” Mark said in a disgustingly cheerful voice. “Whassup?”
“I won't beat around the bush, Mark. I need a place to stay for tonight.”
“Why? What happened?” My friend's tone was sure to alert his father that something was wrong.
“Shhh! Ask your dad if I can stay over and I'll tell you then.”
“Okay. Hold on.” He lowered the phone. “Dad! Can Ben stay over tonight? Yeah, but it's not like we have anything planned. He wouldn't have asked. Okay.” He put the phone to his ear again. “Dad says okay, but I'm pretty sure he knows something is going on. You haven't asked to stay over since Mike, uh, died.”
“Is it bad?” Mark asked quietly.
“I'll tell you when I get there.”
“Bad enough, Mark.”
“Okay,” he sighed. “How long `til you get here?”
“I'm down on Eleventh Street right now…”
“What are you doing way down there?” Mark asked loudly.
“Jesus, Mark, shush already! I'll tell you when I get there. It'll be about fifteen minutes.”
“Okay. See you then.”
Twenty minutes later I stood at the front door of the Voit home. Matt opened the door just as I got there, having seen me ride up.
“Dad wants to talk to you, Ben,” Matt informed me. “He heard Mark.”
“Fuck. Maybe I should leave.”
“I don't think that would be a good idea,” Mr. Voit said from behind the door. “Come in and sit down, Ben. You'll be here for a while.”
Mark caught my eyes guiltily, but I shrugged, indicating I didn't blame him. I took a seat on the couch. The brothers sat on the loveseat as Mr. Voit stood in front of me.
“Ben, what's going on?” The man asked in a soft voice.
“I'm n-not sure it's s-safe,” I stammered, suddenly anxious.
The admission was painful. It told the Voits that all was not well in our family.
“Why isn't it safe, Ben?” He queried.
“My dad and I don't get along very well,” I murmured as I dropped my eyes to the floor.
“Do your parents know you're here?” The man quietly demanded.
“I'm going to call them and tell them. I have to let them know you're safe, Ben.”
“No!” I barked, staring at the man, wide-eyed. “I can't go home! Not tonight.”
“I need a reason, Ben,” Mr. Voit said sternly. “I'm not going to help you run away from home if you're in trouble.”
“No. It's not that….”
“Then what is it, Ben?”
I dropped my eyes again. “I told you today was the one year anniversary of Mike's death, right?"
“Dad blames me for it. He's drinking.”
“Ah. Boys, get Ben set up in the spare room. Ben, stay here for a second.” He waited for his sons to leave the room. “Ben, has he hit you?”
“No. I left before it got that far.”
He nodded to himself.
“Is there anyone I can call?” He asked.
“Can I make a call? I have to let someone know that I'm okay.”
“Sure. Have you eaten?”
Mr. Voit went back toward the bedrooms while I made the call.
“Are my parents there?” I asked.
“Your mom is,” Ian replied.
“Okay. Don't let her know I'm on the phone.”
“I'm okay. I won't tell you where I am so you won't have to lie, but I'm okay for now.”
“That's good to hear. Thanks for calling. Will you call tomorrow?”
“If I can.”
I glanced behind me and saw the Voits were still in the back of the house.
“I love you, Ian.”
“Same here. Someone's waiting on the phone so I have to go.”
I gently placed the phone back in the receiver, and silently wondered what else could go wrong.
After hanging up the receiver, I thanked Mr. Voit and walked back toward the bedrooms. Matt met me.
“You can put your things in here, Ben.”
I went in the door and stopped, standing still as I looked around the room. It felt cold, almost sterile. Mike and I had slept here tens of times before he had died and I'd never felt that way before. My eyes drifted about, focusing on nothing and everything all at once.
God, I miss you, Mikey, I thought to myself.
I stumbled to the bed and sat heavily, as though the weight of the world sat on my shoulders. In truth, the weight of my world did sit on my shoulders. I had lost my brother in a stupid, stupid stunt, and because of that I was also losing my father. My family was being torn apart because of something I had been a party to, and I was powerless to stop the resulting disintegration.
Matt's soft voice penetrated my thoughts. I looked at him and saw concern in his expression.
“I don't know what to do, Matt,” I said despondently. “My dad hates me. I can't go back there. He'll kill me.”
“I hope you don't mean that literally,” the boy replied.
Matt came in and sat next to me.
“I don't know, Matt. He, um... He wanted to hurt me tonight.” Unexpected tears formed in my eyes. “I've never seen him like that.”
Turning my head, I saw Matt was watching me. I met his gaze as the tears continued to build. A moment later Matt looked away, apparently uncomfortable. I wiped my eyes on my sleeve. Matt and Mark were not capable of helping me. The realization helped me regain my composure.
I hastily stood and walked to the bathroom, where I relieved myself and washed my face. The visage staring back in the mirror startled me. I thought I saw Mike staring back at me, but of course he wasn't.
“I miss you, Mike. I wish you were here. I need you,” I whispered to myself, praying that Mike would answer me, but I knew he wouldn't. He could not answer me from the grave.
On impulse I started the water in the tub. As it was warming, I stripped out of my clothes and climbed in, redirecting the water to the shower head as I did. The first blast of water was like ice when it hit me. That was followed by a stream of water whose temperature steadily increased. I adjusted the temperature until it was just below being too hot and let the water spray over me. I leaned against the stall wall and found myself crying. By the time the water ran cold, I had taken control of my roiling emotions. I turned the water off and opened the curtain to find a towel and some sweats had been deposited on the toilet. My clothing was not to be seen.
I dried myself thoroughly before putting on the sweats. Shorts had not been provided, so I went without. After making a half-hearted effort to do something with my hair, I went back into the room I was to stay in and lay down on the bed to rest my eyes. I did not awaken until the next morning.
The sun came through the window and struck off a mirror that hung on the wall, reflecting directly into my face. I grumpily suspected the arrangement was for just that purpose. A glance at the alarm clock on the side table informed me it was half-past-six. Knowing I would not get back to sleep, I got up and changed into the extra set of clothes I had brought with me and then walked down the hall to the kitchen. I was surprised to find a half-full carafe of coffee waiting on the table. After pouring myself a cup, I found Mr. Voit sitting on the deck and reading the paper. I debated on going out to join him, but I could see no reason not to. If he was going to send me home, then an hour or two of sharing the paper would not make a difference.
“Good morning, Ben,” the twins' father said as I opened the door. “You're up awful early.”
I shrugged and said as I sat, “This is when I usually get up, sir.”
“Well, the boys won't be up for another hour.”
“That's okay. Can I borrow some of the paper?”
The man took a sip of his coffee as he watched me rummage through the sections and choose the comics. I picked up my cup and was just about to take a sip when Mr. Voit spoke.
“Ben, I spoke to your mother last night.”
I set my cup down and focused on my hands in my lap.
He continued, “She said she would pick you up this morning at eight and take you home.”
“She didn't sound like she was angry, Ben. She sounded relieved,” Mr. Voit added.
I nodded my head as he finished speaking, but my mind was elsewhere. I was already planning my escape. There was no way I was going home as long as my dad was drinking. He'd scared me pretty badly the night before, and I didn't like being that vulnerable to him.
I let the silence grow between us, fighting against my instinct to bolt. I managed to sit there and drink my coffee while staring at the paper, remembering to turn the page occasionally. When my cup was empty, I stood, went back into the house, gathered my things and walked out the front door before anyone could stop me.
I was half-way down the street before I realized I had no clue where I was going. I paused at the corner and looked back at the Voit house. I saw my mom's car pulling in the driveway. I watched long enough to see her get out of the car and I then took off again. I didn't stop riding until I was out of our neighborhood and at Dogwood Avenue. Without thought I turned south and followed the canal down past Tenth Street. I slammed on my brakes, bringing my bike to a skidding stop. Water flowed sedately through the canal beside me. A bridge crossed it not more than ten yards in front of me. To the right of the bridge was a high pile of overgrown dirt. A shudder passed through me as I realized that I was looking at the place my twin had died.
It took a monumental effort to start moving again, and once in motion I could not direct where I was going. Something had taken control of me and steered my course toward the base of that mound of soil, where I stopped again. I stepped off my bicycle and let it fall noisily to the ground. My feet carried me to the top of the hill overlooking the canal, and it was there that I sat down.
Time had no meaning as I watched the water lazily flow by. The sun reached its zenith and began its slow retreat to the western horizon before I became aware of the stinging in my skin and the burning thirst in my throat. I stood, adjusting my balance to counter the stiffness in my limbs, and slowly stretched my body to loosen the protesting muscles in my legs and back.
A glance at my watch told me I had six hours of daylight left in which to find a haven for the night. I knew there would be no rain in the middle of June, so I didn't necessarily have to have a roof over my head; sleeping under the stars was a reasonable option. Looking around, I noticed that there was enough space under the bridge anchorage for me to sit comfortably. A quick inspection showed no animals using the area as a den, and I decided that I had my hidey-hole for the night.
My next priority was getting food and drink for the night. I mounted my bike and pedaled my way up to Ninth Street and over to California Avenue. It took me no time to purchase what I needed at the grocery store. I even managed to save some of the money I had for later on the next day. I returned to the lot and began cleaning out my chosen shelter and collecting wood for a small fire, not that I was going to need one to keep warm, but having flames nearby would provide some sense of security. Once everything was arranged as I wanted, I resumed my vigil over the water.
The whole morning, while sitting over the canal, I had been thinking about how different things would have been if Mike hadn't died: mom and dad wouldn't be fighting; dad wouldn't hate me. Mike and I would be as close as we had been, or even closer as we grew up. We'd still spend time with Ian, but he would be a friend. I wouldn't have had Ian as my boyfriend if Mikey was still alive.
As the remainder of the day passed, I mentally called out to my twin's shade, begging him tospeak to me, but as had been the case for some time, there was no answer. My brother, even if he was an invention of my grieving mind, had seemingly abandoned me.
The afternoon slipped into evening, and evening into night. The sunset cast the western horizon behind me in crimson before fading to deepest violet. The sliver of the moon shed no light. Crickets filled the air with their calls. An occasional car rolled by on the other side of the canal, illuminating the road as it passed. Bats swooped all around me, dining on the insects attracted by the flickering flames of my tiny fire under the bridge. None of this, however, encroached upon my consciousness.
I sat stationary on that mound of dirt well into the middle of the night. What time I finally took to my nest near the fire, I don't know. Once I placed my head on my pack, I lay there unsleeping through the remainder of the darkness, waiting for the sun to once again brighten the eastern sky, signaling the beginning of a new, perhaps brighter, day. When the sun cast its first beams from behind the mountains, I renewed my vigil, this time sitting at the edge of the canal, in some vain hope of feeling nearer to my dead sibling.
My thoughts again turned to my father. He'd made it clear that he thought, after convincing me otherwise, that I had caused my brother's death. He'd made it equally clear I was no longer welcome in his home.
I leaned forward, resting my elbows on my knees and cradling my chin in my steepled fingers. Again I entertained the thought that things would have been better for everyone involved if I had died and not Mikey. A resolve grew deep inside.
What are you thinking, Benji?
“Oh sure. Now you show up,” I said bitterly.
Don't change the subject. What are you thinking?
“Like you can't tell?” I asked sarcastically. “You're in my head. You should know.”
Ben, I can't read your mind. Why are you so sad?
“Dad hates me. He wants to kick me out.”
He doesn't hate you, Ben.
“That's fucking bullshit, Mike! He thinks I killed you!”
It's not bullshit, Ben! My leaving hurt him.
“Oh, like it didn't hurt me?”
It's different for him. He was my dad.
“And I was your brother!” I shouted to the presence in my head. “But I guess that doesn't count!”
God, I hate it when you get worked up. You always were impossible to talk to.
A silence fell in my brain.
“Are you really there?”
I'm talking to you, aren't I?
“That's not what I mean. Or maybe it is. Are you real, or am I making you up?”
Does it matter?
“Yeah, kinda. Not really. I don't know.”
Ben, I'm always going to be with you. Sometimes you don't need me though. You have Ian now, and you should be talking to him, not me.
“I miss you so much, Mike. Nothing is the same.”
And it shouldn't be. I'm not there, Ben, but I'm still with you.
I struggled to my feet and stood staring at the water. A strange feeling of peace washed thorough me, penetrating to my core. I took a step closer to the canal and smiled as I watched a duck and her ducklings paddle by.
“I love you, Mike. I'll always love you,” I said quietly, tears in my eyes.
I know, Benji. I love you too. Remember, I'm here- always.
A loud voice startled me. I spun to see who it was, but the loose gravel gave way under my feet and I slipped, falling backwards into the canal with a splash.
After a moment of panic, I came to the surface coughing and spluttering.
“Ben! Ben! Grab the tire!” A voice yelled with a desperate overtone.
I looked over toward the bank where I'd fallen from and saw my bike being extended into the water, the front tire no more than a dozen yards away. I swam toward it and found that the current in the canal was stronger than I expected, but not strong enough to prevent me from reaching the wheel.
“Hold on, Ben. We'll get you out of there.”
The bike wheel moved closer to me but remained out of my grasp.
“Keep coming, Ben! You've almost got it!”
The encouragement spurred me on until the tire was in my hands. I was pulled to the edge of the canal but could not gain purchase enough on the slippery side walls to pull myself out. I looked up at my would-be rescuer.
“What are you doing here, Ian?”
“Looking for you!” My boyfriend announced.
“I can't climb out. The sides are too slick,” I informed him.
“I can't pull you out without your help, so I'm going to drag you to the rungs. They're about fifty yards that way,” he said pointing up stream.
“Or I can drift downstream and catch the next set,” I suggested.
“Nuh uh,” he said in instant negation. “I've got you, and I'm not letting you go.”
He began to move toward the ladder in a half-crawl. The gravel on the edge of the canal four feet above me bit into his knees as he pulled me along.
“Don't you fall in too, Ian.”
“Don't do anything to pull me in and I won't,” my boyfriend countered flippantly.
It took several minutes, but Ian got me to the escape ladder. I climbed out of the canal and Ian pulled me over the lip and onto terra firma. He collapsed backward as I fell forward next to him. The water in my clothing quickly turned the dust and dirt into a clinging mud that coated me front and back as I rolled over to stare up at the sky. The silence between us grew to an uncomfortable length before Ian spoke.
“What were you doing?”
“Thinking.” I quickly added, “About Mike.”
“You weren't thinking about….” His voice trailed off.
“Jumping? About killing yourself?”
I looked at him, my brows furrowed in anger. Then I sat up and turned my back on him.
“No, I wasn't thinking about killing myself! I promised both you and Mike that I wouldn't!”
“Easy, Ben. I was just asking.”
“Well, fuck you for asking.”
After another long silence, Ian asked, “What happened, Ben? Your mom showed up and said you ran out of the house, but she wouldn't say why.”
I didn't respond, instead wrapping my arms around my knees and staring off into the distance.
“Ben, please. I'm on your side here.” Ian shuffled over and knelt near me. “Let me help you.” I felt his arm wrap around my filthy shoulders and I allowed him to pull me to him. “Please? Please tell me what happened.”
“Dad,” I said softly.
“Your dad did something?” Ian queried.
I nodded. “He blames me, Ian. He said so.”
My voice was flat and emotionless. Ian wrapped me in his arms and hugged me tightly as I sat there, cold and unfeeling, like my emotions had been turned off. I could feel Ian's tears fall into my hair.
How strange, I thought, Ian is hurt more by what happened than I am.
“Ben, let me take you home- to my place. You need to tell dad what happened.”
“I can't go there, Ian,” I reminded him. “My dad will find me.”
“Well, if he's there, then we'll find someplace to hide you until he leaves,” Ian reasoned. “If he's not, then it's okay, and we can tell my dad. This is important, Ben. If he's going to hit you… I love you. I don't want you to get hurt. Besides, your mom is having a fit. She doesn't know if you're even alive, Ben.”
I sighed. “Okay. I need to let her know. Let's go.”
We stood and gathered my things and then rode our bikes back toward his house. To my intense relief, neither of my parents' vehicles were parked in front. Nevertheless, Ian stashed my bike on the side of the house before leading me around the back. I waited, out of sight, until Momtwo came out of the sliding door followed closely by her elder son.
I was unprepared for what the mere sight and sound of my boyfriend's mother would do to me. The icy calmness that had enveloped me from the time Ian had pulled me out of the very canal that had claimed my brother's life shattered. Tears flooded my eyes and my stomach cramped. It was all I could do to stand, locking my knees to keep myself upright. When she touched me I collapsed into her, my strength suddenly gone. Uncontrollable sobs burrowed from their burial plot deep in my soul to the surface, leaving me bereft of conscious thought. My gut contracted in a powerful heave, emptying my stomach on the lawn while the woman held me tightly. I grew hoarse as my cries joined the convulsions that wracked my body. A second body pressed in from behind, encasing me in a protective cocoon of warmth and love.
As I wound down, I heard a voice in the back of my mind say, I love you, Benji.
“I love you, too.” I whispered.
“And we love you, Ben,” Momtwo whispered in reply.
Ian hugged me tightly from behind, his arms folded against my sides. I became aware that his breathing was as erratic as mine. I turned and wrapped him up in my arms, conveying the love I felt for my boyfriend through the motion. He returned my embrace unselfconsciously, squeezing me so tightly that I couldn't breathe.
“You scared me, Benji,” he whispered in my ear. “I don't want to lose you.”
“You won't. I promise.”
“Come on inside, boys,” Liz said gently. “I think we all need a change of clothes.”
It was then I realized that I had thoroughly coateb both Kettengers with mud. Now embarrassed, I followed them into the house and went straight to Ian's room. Out of my pack I pulled a rumpled pair of shorts and a t-shirt. Ian brought a towel in with him. No sooner had the door shut than we were in each other's arms again, sharing a kiss I needed desperately. Ian had become more of a support for me over the months than I had understood.
When the kiss broke, I rested my head on Ian's shoulder for a moment. When I looked up at him, his eyes were as red and puffy as I felt mine were.
“I'm sorry, Ben,” he whispered.
“For not being there for you.”
“But you were,” I insisted. “I couldn't come here because my dad would know right where to look. Speaking of which, where is your dad?”
“He and Ray are still out looking for you,” Ian explained. “Mom probably called them, so they should be home any minute. We better get changed.”
I let the silence drag on as I skinned out of my damp clothing. It was only a matter of time until one or both of my parents arrived to take me home. I briefly thought about running away again but dismissed it. I was only thirteen. I had no place to go and no one to turn to other than the Kettengers, and they would have to return me to my parents' custody in any case.
“Why did you run away?”
“I thought my dad was gonna hit me or something,” I answered stoically. “He said he blames me for Mike dying. I told you that.”
“He didn't mean it, Ben,” Ian replied.
“Yes he did, Ian,” I said with finality. “Yes, he really did.”
“Benjamin Michael Foster, where on earth have you been?” Came her voice from the entryway.
I shrugged in the face of my mother's fearful anger. I knew she was scared that I had left in the first place, and then when I didn't come home she must have really lost it. I met her gaze for a moment. Her eyes blazed with her distress, mirroring the chaos hidden in my own heart.
The man behind her shifted uncomfortably. I allowed my eyes to meet his. He, too, was obviously worried about me, but I simply stared at him, my face betraying nothing of what I felt inside. Ian stood by me, his arm around my shoulder in support as we confronted my parents from a distance.
“Where did you go, Ben?” My mother asked.
“Lots of places,” I said evasively.
“We looked all over for you,” she said. “We looked at school, we looked at the park, we looked here…. We had no idea where you were until Richard called us, and when we went to pick you up, you were gone again.”
“Where did you go, son?” My dad asked.
“What do you care?” I demanded.
Everyone was taken aback by my vitriolic reply. A moment of heavy silence passed.
“Where did you go, Benjamin,” Dadtwo asked with an edge.
“I went to talk to Mike,” I said, a hint of the betrayal I felt creeping into my voice. “Then I called Mark and Matt. They asked their dad if I could stay, and he said yes. He called you sometime after I went to bed.”
“Why did you leave then?” My mom asked.
“I didn't want him to find me,” I stated unrepentantly, indicating my father. He winced at the rancor in my voice.
“Why not?” Mom continued her questioning.
“Ben…” Dad began as he took a step toward me.
I matched his movement with a step backward, closer to the glass door leading to the back yard. He halted where he stood.
“Son, you have to understand…,” my father started in a conciliatory tone.
“I understand just fine,” I grated.
Another step forward was matched with another step back. Ian now stood between us. He turned to face me.
My boyfriend whispered, “Give him a chance to explain, Benji.”
Ian's father spoke over his son. “Why don't we sit down and talk. There are some things that need to be said here, I think.”
I glanced at Dadtwo. His face demanded I do as he requested. Without comment or change in expression, I walked into the kitchen and brought a chair back to the family room, deliberately placing it backwards by the glass door, between me and Dad. Ed frowned but made no comment as I sat. The significance of my action was not lost on either of my parents. My mother glanced at my father, her expression troubled. They sat on the couch, placing my dad in an uncomfortably close proximity to me. I didn't trust him. As far as I knew, he blamed me for Mike's death and wanted to make me pay for it.
Rayray, Liz, and Ed each brought a chair into the room and sat. A tense silence fell over us. Ian's dad looked from me to my father and back again. Seeing neither of us was going to say anything, he cleared his throat and started the dialogue.
“Ben, why did you run away?”
“I told you,” I said flatly.
“Tell me again.” Ed's words were sharp. “Everyone here needs to know where everyone else stands and what was perceived. You may have heard something that wasn't said or meant as you think it was. Now, why did you run out of the house?”
“Ask him,” I insisted shortly, glaring at my father. “He knows. If he can remember.”
“I asked you, Benjamin,” was Ed's reply, his voice low and tight.
“He blames me for Mike's death!” I barked.
“I do not!” My father denied the accusation immediately.
“You do to! `It's his fault Mike is dead and you know it!'” I spat, mimicking my father's voice. “`The little punk's gonna get what he deserves.' Remember that, Dad?”
“I didn't mean it, Ben,” he said quietly, his eyes meeting mine.
“Couldn't prove it by me,” I rejoined derisively. “And then you chased me outside yelling at me!”
“Steve?” Ed asked after a short silence.
My father's head drooped. “Yes. I said those things. I wish I hadn't. I was drinking… it doesn't excuse anything. I wish I hadn't, and I'm sorry.” He raised his eyes to meet mine. “I'm sorry, Ben.”
I stared at my dad, my eyes hard and my jaw set. Whether he meant what he said about being sorry wasn't really relevant any more. I didn't feel safe around him.
Dad continued, “Your mom and I have talked a lot since you ran away, Ben.”
He looked at her and she took his hand in tacit support.
“When you left, I was so afraid I'd lost you, too. I can't lose you, Ben. I love you, and I'm sorry.”
Tears filled his eyes as he spoke. Unmoved, I simply stared at him.
“We're going to get counseling. We know we have problems, son. We're going to work things out so we can be a family again. It's not going to be easy sometimes, but we both want to make this work.”
“And you want me, too?” I asked bitterly. “The person who killed your son?”
“Ben, you didn't kill Mike. I know that.”
“That's not what you said!” I accused.
“I know, Ben. That was the liquor talking, not me. I'm not going to drink anymore, Ben. I promise.”
Tears rolled down his cheeks and fell into his lap. He leaned forward and spoke earnestly. I shrank back reflexively. His face contorted with the pain my reaction brought him.
“We need you, son. We love you and we need you. You have no idea how sorry I am for what happened, and I hope that you can forgive me and give me another chance. Please, Ben. Please, son, come home.”
Mom placed her arm around his shoulders and he sat back, leaning into her. I watched him, weighing the sincerity of his words. I wanted to trust what he said. I wanted the love of my father. I needed that love.
He loves you, Benji. He's our dad. Don't leave him alone.
Mike's words broke through the lingering doubts. I felt tears form in my eyes.
“Okay,” I whispered, answering both my father and brother with the same breath.
My dad rose from the couch hesitantly and nearly stumbled before kneeling before me. The tears still flowed freely down his face. My own tears began to flow as I realized how much my dad meant to me. A sob threatened to overwhelm me.
“Please come home.” he whispered gruffly, a catch in his throat. “I need you so much, Ben. We both need you.”
“I need you too, Dad, but I'm afraid!” The sob hit me hard. “I don't want you to hate me!”
Dad swept me up into his arms and hugged me tightly.
“I don't hate you, Ben. I love you so much. I'm sorry, son… so sorry.”
Dad began to cry with me while the rest of my family looked on. I felt Mom wrap her arms around us a moment later and felt her tears join ours. Ian's hand was on my back, letting me know he was there for me too.
There wasn't a dry eye in the room. After recovering sufficiently, Rayray had hugged me and whispered his unwavering support. Ian's embrace was long and tight, conveying his love in the only means available to him at that moment. Momtwo and Dadtwo added their love as I moved to sit between my parents on the couch. I stopped before them, my gaze going from one to the other.
“What is it, Ben?” My mother asked.
“You're really going to get help?”
“We're all going to go to counseling, baby,” mom answered. “We all need it to help us deal with Mike's passing.”
I pressed on, “You're going to stop arguing?”
“We're going to try, son,” dad replied. “We may still argue from time to time, but we'll work on it.”
“And,” Ed inserted, “If it gets to be too much for you, Ben, you can always come here no matter what. We'll show you where we keep the key so you can get in if we're not here.”
I looked at my parents and saw that they were nodding in agreement.
“You'll always have a place in my room, Benji,” Ian said with a hint of mischief in his eyes.
“Or mine,” Murray interjected.
“I hope that you won't need to take them up on it, though, son,” my father said quietly. “We're going to really try and make this work.”
My mother added, “For all of us.”
I could only hope it would be so.
“Aren't you being a bit hard on them, Ben?” My third visit with my counselor was not going well. “They're human too, and they make mistakes. Parents aren't infallible.”
“Look. They said they'd get help, that we'd all go to counseling,” I explained for the third time, my patience wearing thin. “So far, I've seen you twice and they haven't seen anyone.”
“It takes time to find a counselor, Ben,” the woman replied.
“They found you quick enough,” I said petulantly.
“I had a cancellation,” she supplied in a clipped fashion. “That's why you got in so fast. We talked about this during your last visit, too.”
I stared at her. Dr. Brittain was older than my parents by at least ten years. She had obviously colored hair worn short, and the wrinkles on her face told of a life lived in the sun. I didn't think that she liked me much.
“Let's talk about your brother,” she said in an attempt to change the subject.
“No.” My voice was hard and flat.
Dr. Brittain leaned forward and commented, “Ben, I'm worried that what happened to Mike is controlling your life and how you live it.”
“I'm worried about whether or not my mom and dad get a divorce! That's what's important.”
“It's also out of your control,” she rebutted calmly, “which is something else you will have to come to terms with.”
“Yeah, it's out of my control,” I retorted hotly, “but I'm the reason it all started in the first place.”
“You didn't kill your brother, Ben,” Dr. Brittain said through a sigh.
I yelled, “Why do you think they're fighting?”
“You tell me.”
“My dad thinks I did,” I said in a hot voice. “He even said so not more than ten days ago.”
“And then he apologized,” the shrink said in an unruffled tone.
“And then he said it again two days later when he and my mom were fighting again. The walls aren't very thick.” Sarcasm laced my words. “So if I'm a little hard on my dad, you have to excuse me.”
“Is your dad still drinking?” She asked in an unflappable manner.
“You don't sound very hopeful.” Dr. Brittain commented.
I slouched back in my seat. “I'm not. If he meant it, he'd be getting help.”
“How do you know he's not? Have you asked him?”
I looked away from the woman across from me, staring out the window.
“Why haven't you asked, Ben?”
“I don't have to. If he was he wouldn't say he blames me!”
The shrink let a silence draw out for a moment, and then changed the subject.
“Do you have a girlfriend, Ben?”
I shook my head as though trying to keep track of the thread of our conversation.
“What? Where did that come from?”
“It's just a question,” she said dispassionately.
“The answer is no.” I stated with harsh finality.
“Why so hostile, Ben?”
“Because even if I did, it's none of your business.”
She watched me with cold, unfeeling eyes as the silence grew deafening. I returned my gaze to the window and the trees outside. When I could stand it no longer, I stood and walked around the small room, feeling Dr. Brittain's eyes on me the whole time. On a shelf I saw a series of pictures exhibiting the doctor and different people, some of them obviously her family.
Near the center was a smaller picture of Dr. Brittain and a group of friends at a softball game standing in the infield. They were good friends judging by their arms around each others' shoulders and the broad smiles they all wore. Another picture was of her and another woman I recognized from the softball picture. It was a professional portrait. The other woman stood behind the doctor and rested her hands on the doc's shoulder. A large picture of her parents and a woman who must be her sister stood in one corner of the shelf. A picture of the sister and her family: a husband and two boys in their early years, stood opposite of the family portrait. They looked so happy in that picture. It looked like they had what I wanted my family to be. They even had their second boy.
As I observed the photographs, I said, “I don't trust you. I don't know what you'll tell my mom and dad, so I can't tell you anything even if I wanted to.”
“What I will tell your parents is your general state of mental health, your feelings in general, and if there is any chance you will hurt yourself. I may talk about specifics that pertain directly to how you feel about your mom and dad, but anything else that is said stays between us.”
I continued to gaze at the photograph with the two young boys. One was maybe six and the other might have been four.
“Is there something you wanted to tell me, Ben?” Dr. Brittain asked.
I had to grin as I noticed the younger of the two boys had poked the older in the side, which would account for the slight grimace of pain in the larger child's expression. I was reminded of Ian and Rayray, but a stray thought of my twin erased my smile in an instant.
“No. Not right now. I'm not ready,” I softly replied.
“That's okay, Ben. There may come a time when you will trust me enough to let me in. I can wait.”
I cast her a curious glance and was surprised to see a slight smile on her face.
“Maybe,” I agreed.
Time would tell.
I sat in the lobby of the doctor's office while the shrink debriefed my parents. When they came out, they both looked troubled.
“Come on, son,” my father said quietly. “Let's head home.”
As he drove us through town toward our neighborhood, thoughts of Mikey kept intruding. The heartache grew for several miles until I couldn't stand it anymore.
“Can we go see Mike?” I pleaded with them. “Please?”
The fact that I was begging was not lost on my parents. They glanced at one another and I saw my dad shrug. He took the next right and headed south on Fir Avenue until we reached Eleventh Street, where we turned right. A half-mile later, dad turned into Legion Cemetery.
Mike had been laid to rest in the rear of the cemetery and to the right of the entrance. The car stopped about twenty yards from Mike's resting place on the pavement that criss-crossed the cemetery, providing access to the various areas. I got out of the car and walked unerringly to my brother's grave. I was fairly certain I had been here more often than my parents had combined.
I knelt before the headstone and traced Mike's name engraved in the cold marble. A single tear fell from my eye and struck the polished surface of the stone.
“Hi, Mikey,” I said in a whisper.
You're sad. Why?
“I miss you.”
I miss you, too.
“Everything is all screwed up, and I don't know what to do.”
Do the best you can, Ben, just like you always do.
“I've tried my best to help, but my best isn't good enough.”
Your best is all you can do.
“I can't fix it.”
You aren't supposed to fix anything, Benji. You're supposed to be a kid. Take care of yourself, and let mom and dad worry about the rest.
“I don't think they can fix it either.”
You don't know that for sure. Neither do they. You have to give them the chance to see.
“I know they're trying, but it doesn't seem like it's getting any better.
Everything takes time, Ben.
“I'm scared, Mike. I'm scared that mom and dad are going to split up.”
You can't control what will happen, Ben. They both love you, regardless of what happens.
“I know they love me, but if they get a divorce, what will happen to me?”
My mother's voice startled me enough to cause me to jump. She knelt down next to me as she started to speak.
“Ben, your dad and I are working to make things better,” she said, placing her arm around my shoulder.
It was all I could do not to break down at her touch.
“We see a counselor on Friday night, son,” dad said, kneeling on my other side. “I'm also going to meetings to help me stop drinking. I go every day during lunch. We're really, really trying, Ben.”
“Then what about the yelling?” I asked, my voice barely above a whisper. “I still hear you. I know you still blame me.”
Dad sighed, “I know in my heart and in my head that you aren't responsible, Ben, but you were there. It feels like…”
“I should be dead and Mike should be here?” I asked in an emotionless voice.
“No!” My father barked, and then continued in a softer voice. “Never that. Ben, if you had died instead of Mike, I would feel the exact same way. I love you, Benjamin, and I always will.
“I don't know if I can explain it so you can understand, Ben. No parent ever wants to bury a child. It's… Ben, you and Mike looked so much alike we had trouble telling you apart. It's hard to keep being reminded that he's not here. It's very hard because I still see you and think you're Mike sometimes. Are you understanding any of this?”
I held my emotions under rigid control. My father's words frightened me. What was he saying? That he didn't want me to be around because I looked like my brother and kept reminding him of what he lost? That I wasn't good enough for him?
You're being stupid again, Benji.
I replied, “No, I'm not.”
Yes you are! You're trying to convince yourself that he doesn't love you when you know he does!
“Ben,” My mom said softly, “Your father isn't saying that he wishes you and Mike would have traded places. Part of what caused my problem was you wearing your brother's clothing. I thought you were Mike every time I saw you. That is what your father is trying to tell you. He loves, you, Ben.”
“How do I know that?” I fired back.
Because he's trying to make things better.
“Because he's trying to make things better.”
I felt like I had been hit by both barrels of an over-and-under shotgun. Mike and my mother had ganged up on me. I blinked rapidly, trying to clear my eyes of the tears that had suddenly appeared.
I looked at my father for the first time since I'd stepped out of the car. His eyes mirrored mine down to the last drop.
“Ben, I love you. I don't know what else I can do to prove it to you, son. I promise you that no matter what happens between me and your mother, I will still love you.” A catch formed in his voice. “Please, Ben. Please believe me. I don't want to lose you too. I can't lose you too.”
Tears fell from his eyes, running down his cheeks. For the second time in less than a week, my father was crying, begging me to love him. How could I turn my back on him when we needed each other so much?
I fell into his arms, and we wept together.
Not more than two weeks after they promised to try and work things out, my parents were fighting again. Most of the time I tried to stick it out in my room, playing music with the volume turned up and reading Mike's journal. My brother's shade visited me occasionally, usually when I was at my lowest point emotionally during one of mom and dad's more raucous fights.
I don't know how he managed it, but Mike had squirreled away a number of pictures I didn't recall ever seeing. There was a series of six photos that were taken a few years prior when we were up at Big Bear Lake during the first part of summer. I remembered the day very well.
Mike and I had been playing in the shallows, working up to going deeper in the cold water. We habitually wore different color trunks if for no other purpose than to help people tell us apart at a distance. I wore blue and my brother wore red.
For whatever reason, I decided to splash Mike in a big way. The first picture in the series displayed myself with an evil grin, hands in the water ready to splash my twin a second time. Mike stood half bent over in knee deep water, his shoulders thrust forward, wearing a completely shocked expression.
The next picture, mounted just below the first in the journal, showed Mike burying his shoulder into my gut, driving me backward. The mischievous smile on Mike's face matched the grin I had worn in the picture above. With an involuntary shudder I remembered how frigid the water had been when we first got in that day.
As I looked at the next picture, I had to laugh out loud. I had managed to get out of my brother's grasp after a brief struggle, and in my hand was a bright red pair of swimming trunks I had removed from my twin. I could almost hear him screaming after me as he half stood in the water, hiding his groin but showing enough skin that he was obviously naked in the photo.
I frowned as I noticed a bruise visible on my side in the picture, and then remembered that not more then three days before that picture was taken, my dear brother had intentionally clipped my back tire while we were riding to the park. It caused me to wobble and eventually take a spill, landing on the crossbar of the handlebars. I smiled a bit wider as I recalled that I had splashed Mike as payback.
On the next page, the fourth picture showed a rear shot of Mike chasing after me with his bare butt exposed, and me only a step ahead of him. He managed to tackle me in the next picture, and had wrapped his arms around my waist. His red shorts floated unnoticed in the water nearby as my brother concentrated on removing my trunks. The last picture showed Mike and I standing arm in arm, both of us smiling widely. As always, Mike had not held a grudge against me for pantsing him.
I sat back, basking in the pleasant memories evoked by the pictures. Mike had always brought out the worst and the best in me. My brother and I got into all kinds of trouble, but it was always together. The worst punishment our parents had ever devised for us was to put us in separate rooms. We hated being separated, even for the smallest amount of time.
“And now I'm alone,” I said softly to myself, my good mood evaporating.
You're never alone, Benji, came the invisible voice that may or may not be my brother. You have Ian and RayRay and Momtwo and Dadtwo.
“What about Mom and Dad?” I asked timidly. “Shouldn't they be here for me too?”
Yeah, but they're dealing with their issues right now. You know that.
“When is it my turn?” I asked plaintively, my voice raising with my distress.
Mom and dad are pretty self-involved right now. You may have to fight for that, Bro.
“I hate fighting!” I yelled to the shade in my mind.
My bedroom door opened and my father stuck his head in.
“Who are you yelling at, Ben?”
“No one.” I said, dropping my eyes to the journal sitting in my lap.
Dad's eyes followed mine. He came in, shut the door, and sat beside me. I tried to close the scrapbook, but dad stopped me with a gentle gesture. He shifted the journal over a bit and looked at the six pictures there. A smile crossed his lips as he absorbed the images.
“You and Mike were always into something,” he commented quietly. “And you never fought, or if you did, it wasn't for very long. Did you know your mom and I went to see a psychologist because we were worried that you and your brother wouldn't be able to make friends?”
I shook my head.
“The counselor said you two would adjust when you started school,” he continued. “We were still worried until the two of you met Ian. He opened you guys up to other people.”
“You and he seem to be spending a lot of time together. That's good. It's not good for you to sit in here and brood, Ben.”
I said nothing. The silence grew between us.
“Ben, your mom and I are trying. We really are.”
“But you still fight all the time!” I exclaimed, scrambling off the bed and standing up. “I hate hearing it! Don't you understand? I hate it!”
“I know you do, son,” Dad replied earnestly. “We hate it, too, and we're working with our counselor to work things out. It's not a switch we can flip, son. It's not going to change over night.”
“What are you fighting about?”
The question seemed to pull my dad up short. He stared at me intently before answering.
“It's private between me and your mother. You aren't involved.”
My voice cracking, I shouted, “I am too! I hear you two all the time, I hear my name all the time, I hear Mike's name all the time! How can you say I'm not involved?”
“It's about the relationship your mom and I share, and nothing else,” he said adamantly.
“I don't believe that, Dad! You guys are fighting about me all the time!”
“Ben…” Dad started as he stood.
“No! I hate your fighting, and I know the truth: it's my fault! You and mom don't love each other anymore and it's my fault! I was there when Mike died, and it's my fault!”
Ben, that's stupid!
“That's ridiculous!” My father spat.
“No it's not! It's not stupid! It's the truth!"
Dad came around to stand in front of me and placed his hand on my shoulder. I flinched.
“God damn it, Ben, you aren't responsible for any of that!” He knelt and looked up at me, his eyes piercing mine. “Ben… son… You have to believe that. It's nobody's fault. Sometimes these awful accidents just happen.”
“No! It has to be me!”
“No, son, it doesn't.”
Tears came to my eyes as I met the man's gaze. “Why can't it be my fault, dad? Blame me and make it go away! Please? I just want it to go away!”
My father wrapped me in his arms as the tears ran down our faces.
“God how I wish I could bring Mike back, son, but I can't, and it wasn't your fault.”
“It has to be somebody's fault!” I cried.
Then it's my fault, Benjamin, said my twin's shade.
“If it's anybody's fault, then it's Mike's fault, Ben,” my father said, his tone hard.
“No! I can't believe that!”
He pushed me back far enough to look into my eyes.
“Son, whether you accept it or not, Mike made the choice to follow you,” Dad said flatly. “You did something unbelievably stupid and got away with it. Mike didn't. It's that simple.”
“Yes, Benjamin. That is what happened. That is the reality, and we're just going to have to deal with it,” he stated with a terrible finality.
I stared at him, on the verge of crying once more, but another thought sobered me.
“I still don't believe you.”
“What?” My dad said with confusion.
“You still blame me. That's why you're always arguing with mom about me.”
Dad sighed. “Ben, I explained that.”
“No, you lied about that.”
“No, I didn't,” he sternly asserted.
“Then what are you fighting with mom about?”
He stared at me, gaze meeting gaze.
“I'm sorry son, I can't tell you, but I will say, again, that you aren't involved.”
I pulled away from him and sat back on the bed, staring at the wall. It wasn't long before dad left, closing the door quietly behind him.
The door opened again shortly after my father left. I knew it was only a matter of time before Mom came in based on the way the conversation with my father had ended. I didn't look at her, but continued staring off into space, seeing nothing. She observed me for a moment and then sat down in the place my father had just vacated. A few more moments passed before she spoke.
“Ben, your dad told you the truth.”
“Prove it!” I snapped, whipping my head around to glare at her. “All I get is it isn't about me. What is it about then? Huh?”
“Benjamin Michael Foster, you will not take that tone with me. Do you hear me?”
I petulantly replied, “I'm not deaf.”
“How would you like to spend the rest of today and tomorrow cleaning the garage and your room?” She asked pointedly.
I narrowed my eyes and turned away from her.
“This isn't about you or what happened with Mike. This is about my relationship with your father.”
“Dad said that, and then told me it wasn't any of my business,” I informed her in a low, cold voice. “If that's the case, then why does my name come up all the time?”
My mother stared at me, her expression uncertain.
“Ben, please understand that our discussions…”
I snorted derisively, to my mother's annoyance.
“… our discussions center around how your father and I live together and everything that is involved in that. You are a part of our lives- the best part- so you are a part of the discussion, but that is it. No one is blaming you for anything.”
“It feels like it,” I informed her glumly.
“We certainly don't mean for you to feel that way, honey,” she responded, her tone conciliatory.
“So how am I supposed to feel?” I asked after a brief silence.
“One thing you must understand, son, is that we love you very much.”
“Do you love each other?” I asked suddenly, catching my mother by surprise.
She spluttered for a moment before taking a deep breath. She didn't speak for a short time afterward, and when she did, her tone was even and measured.
“Sometimes, when two people have been married a long time, they forget what it is that brought them together. There are things that adults have to do and deal with that you're too young to understand.”
“Mom, come on: I'm thirteen!” I protested. “I'm not a little kid anymore, and I'm not stupid!”
“Benjamin, watch your tone! I am well aware of how old you are and that you are growing up, but you are still a child, and it's our job as parents to protect you from things you are not ready to understand.”
“How do you know I'm not ready?” I demanded. “Are you waiting for me to find out about sex? I knew about that three years ago!”
I closed my mouth before I could embarrass myself any more. Mom gazed at me, her expression displaying some amusement.
“I know, honey. I knew when you, Mike and Ian started asking Ed all those questions. Your father and I spoke to Ed and Liz about it before he began answering. It's not the physical act that is the issue anyway. There is a lot more that goes into an intimate relationship. The emotional connections are more important than anything else, and that is what your father and I are working on.” Her eyes sharpened a bit. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Jesus, mom! No!” I exclaimed, aghast at the suggestion.
“Oh. I thought you might,” she replied in an off-hand manner. “There's plenty of time for that later on, though. Right now, you enjoy doing what interests you, playing with your friends, and being a boy. Don't worry about your father and me. Everything will work out one way or another.”
It was my turn to give her the eye.
“Even if that means a divorce?”
Mom raised her eyes to meet mine. “It's too early to know what will happen, but yes, a divorce is a possibility. Another is your father and I staying together. Time will tell.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” I rasped through a suddenly tight throat, the last word no more than a squeak.
“I'm being honest with you, Ben. I won't lie to you and tell you that everything is going to be perfect, because I don't know that it will.”
Seeing my bleak expression, her face softened.
“Come here, honey,” she requested, opening her arms.
After a moment of hesitation, I did as she asked. She wrapped me in a hug that lasted an uncomfortably long length of time. When she released me she had tears in her eyes. I looked away, embarrassed that I had made my mother cry.
A week later, Ian, Murray and I went camping in our back yard. After a meal of barbequed chicken and baked beans, mom set us up with junk food and soda before kicking us out. I'd run an extension cord from the garage for a work light we used after it got too dark to see. Rayray had said he wanted to play Monopoly with us, so that's what we did.
We had been playing for about three hours when we were all startled by someone shaking our tent. Ian and Ray jumped hard enough to knock my hotels off of St. James Place and New York Avenue. I heard a chuckle come from outside.
The zippered door flap opened.
“How's it going, boys?” my father asked with a smile.
“It was going fine until you made us dump the board!” I groused with a huff.
“You scared me, Mr. Foster!” Rayray added.
“Good!” Dad retorted cheerfully. “We're going to go to bed now, boys.”
I replied, “Okay, dad. G'night.”
“Good night, son. Don't let the coyotes or the cougar get you.”
With a suppressed laugh, my father zipped the tent door again. I waited until I heard the back door shut before I spoke.
“I hate it when he does that!”
“Aw, Ben, he's just having fun,” Ian remarked as he replaced all the houses and hotels that had been displaced. “It's good to see him joking around with you. He said he was going to try, right?”
“Yeah, I guess,” I said uncertainly. “I just wish he wouldn't sneak up on me.”
“Well, no damage,” Ian responded.
“Not this time, but what if we were….”
I broke off abruptly.
“Were what?” Murray asked innocently.
“Doing something we weren't supposed to,” Ian said, rescuing me. He shrugged. “If we want to do anything like that, we'll have to find a place where he can't sneak up on us.”
“To do what?” Rayray demanded. “Why won't you guys tell me?”
“We don't want to get you in trouble, bro. Besides, I don't think you'd be interested,” Ian commented offhandedly as he handed his brother the dice. “It's your turn, Ray.”
Murray sat there and pouted. “You never tell me anything. It's not like I'm a little kid, and I know as much about sex as you two do. That's it, isn't it? You guys have some porn somewhere, don't you?” Ray accused eagerly.
“Ray, there are some things that are private, y'know?” Ian tried to explain. “This is one of those things,” he added with an edge.
Rayray looked confused for a moment, and then graced us both with a huge smile. “Oh! I gotcha, bro.”
Murray rolled the dice, which came up a six, placing him squarely on North Carolina Avenue.
“That'll be twelve-fifty, Rayray,” Ian crowed with an evil grin, washing his hands in front of him.
“Damn. Here you go.”
“`And we thank you for your support,'” Ian said, quoting an advertizement that was made before we were born. “Let's see. That's enough money for me to put hotels on the on the reds.”
While my boyfriend was digging out his new hotels, he stopped mid-motion and looked at me. I could do nothing more than stare back as we heard the unmistakable sound of my parents yelling at each other in their bedroom.
Ian and Ray looked at me with sympathy. We could clearly hear my parents arguing loudly with each other. My mouth went dry as my anger began to grow.
“We could go back to my house,” Ian suggested quietly.
I shook my head once, and then crawled to the tent door flap.
“I'll be back in a minute,” I informed them sharply.
“Ben,” Ian began.
As I unzipped the tent door, I abruptly cut him off. “I'm getting some water. I'll be back in a minute.”
I was out of the tent before he could reply, but through the nylon I heard Murray say, “But we have water right here.”
“I know,” Ian replied sadly. The rest of their conversation was to quiet for me to hear before I went inside.
Once in the back door, the volume of my parents' argument increased measurably. I was so furious with my parents that I didn't even pay attention to what they were saying. Their bedroom door was open, and as I got closer, my anger changed into rage. I walked into their bedroom door and faced them.
“Shut up!” I barked at the top of my lungs.
“Ben?” My mother gasped.
“Shut up!” I yelled again. “God, can't you stop arguing long enough for me to have some friends over? Why do you have to embarrass me in front of them? We can hear you through the window!”
“Ben, this isn't…,” dad spluttered.
“I know. It's not about me. It's never about me. Well, you're wrong. It is about me, and how you're ruining my life! I can't have any friends over here because I never know if you guys are going to start in! I don't even want to be here anymore!”
“Wait just a minute, Benjamin,” my mother started, her tone angry.
“No!” I shouted back. “I'm tired of waiting! I'm tired of trying to ignore it when I hear you in the middle of the night! I'm tired of pretending that everything is okay. It's not! Nothing is okay anymore! Nothing! I wish I had died! I wish it was me instead of Mike!”
My mother gasped again as I turned my back on them and slammed the door on my way out. Across the hall, I began gathering some things in a gym bag. My parents' bedroom door opened, but I didn't hear anything else. A glance behind me showed my parents standing at the threshold observing me. I continued packing.
“Where are you going, son?” Dad asked, his voice odd.
“Save it, dad,” I retorted savagely as I stuffed part of Mikey's journal in with my clothes. “I'm not interested in anything you have to say. Either of you.” I zipped the bag and walked to the door “Now just get out of my way and leave me alone!”
After a hesitation, my parents moved enough for me to get out of my room. I ran to the bathroom, took what I needed, and stalked right past my parents, who hadn't moved. Without a backward glance or another word, I walked out the back door. It took all the willpower I had to keep from slamming it hard enough to break the glass.
Ian and Ray already had the Monopoly game put away and were unloading our things from the tent. I jumped in and helped them. We had the tent down and put in its bag in less than five minutes. I looked back toward the house, expecting my mom or dad to be there, but neither appeared. I took that as a measure of how much I meant to them.
I threw my sleeping bag and the tent toward the back door as Rayray deposited the game.
“Come on,” I rasped gruffly.
Ian and Murray fell in next to me as we walked out of the back yard of what used to be my home. I didn't realize I was crying until a tear fell on my hand.
When we got to their house, Ian told me to go to bed, and that he would be in a few moments later. Murray sat with me while I waited. I could tell that he was uncertain of what to do or say as I sat there sniffling. Finally, he stood up, gave me a good, tight hug.
“I wish there was something I could do, Ben,” he said softly in my ear. “I really, really do.”
I hugged him back, barely keeping my emotions in check.
“Me too, Ray. Me, too.”
He pulled back and watched me for a moment.
“Here's a stupid question, but are you going to be okay?” He asked.
“I don't know. Probably not.”
Ian returned with his father in tow. Mr. Kettenger wore a concerned expression that spoke volumes. The man walked in and sat next to me.
“Boys, give me a moment, please.” Ian, obviously wanting to stay, hesitated. “I have to ask him a few questions before you go to sleep.”
“Okay, dad,” Ian replied, and reluctantly closed the door.
“Your dad called me, Ben.”
“Sorry,” I apologized.
“Don't be, lad. He mentioned you said some things, and I want to know what you meant by them. You said you wished you were dead?”
I nodded, eyes downcast.
“Do you really mean that?”
“Ben, be honest with me.” Ed gently asked, “Are you going to hurt or kill yourself?” I shook my head. “Your not?”
“No. I made promises,” I reported dejectedly.
Ed commented, “You don't sound happy about having made those promises.”
“If you hadn't made them, would you hurt or kill yourself right now?”
I shrugged again. Ed got off the bed and knelt before me, grasping my upper arms in his large hands.
“Listen to me, Benjamin,” he said at his most serious. “There is nothing in this world worth hurting or killing yourself for. It is very important you understand that. There are people you can talk to, like me and Liz. You can call on us any time of the day or night. You know our phone numbers, and you have a key. Use them. And for God's sake, if you ever do think about hurting yourself, call me immediately, or call the Suicide Prevention Hotline. Call someone. Promise me.”
“I promise,” I said meekly.
He looked at me for a moment, and then pulled me into an embrace. He held me for a few moments, and as he did, I began to cry softly. Ed pulled me tighter against him and began to rock me slightly.
He whispered, “You are never alone, Ben. Never. I'll always be here for you. Understand me, boy? Always.”
I managed to regain control of my emotions, and Ed released me. His smile did nothing to hide the worry he felt.
“I want you to get some sleep, Ben. Don't worry about getting up in the morning. Sleep as much as you want.”
I nodded and sat on the bed again. Ed opened the door, and I saw Ian standing right there, close enough that he might have been listening. He stepped out of his father's way, but his eyes never left mine.
“Right to sleep, boys.”
“Okay, Dad,” Ian replied.
He shut the door behind him and began to undress for bed. I did likewise a few moments later. After I was down to my briefs, I turned out the light and climbed into bed. I lay on my back staring at the ceiling. Once again, tears rolled out of my eyes and fell on my pillow. Sniffling started soon after.
“Ben?” Ian queried quietly.
My sniffling increased, and a sob shook my body.
Ian wrapped his arm around me and pulled himself closer. I rolled into him, burying my face in his shoulder as I began crying outright. He held me tightly and rested his head on mine as he shushed me. His fingers stroked my back and through my hair, and his body was molded to mine, providing the human touch I needed so much at that dark moment in my life.
That night, when I really needed it, I was not alone.
A silent epidemic is ravaging the nation and killing our kids. In the last 30 years, the suicide rate among teenagers has tripled. A recent survey indicated that 60% of high school students have thought of killing themselves. And every two hours, a young person succeeds in taking his or her own life.
There is nothing in this world worth taking your own life for. Please, if you ever consider taking your own life for any reason, call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at:
The call is toll free and they are open around the clock, every day of the year. Make the call.
I awoke several times throughout the night, sometimes simply opening my eyes, and other times nearly jumping out of my skin from the night-terrors that plagued me. Every time I did, Ian was there to bring me back into the real world with quiet words and a gentle hug. He held me close while my breathing calmed and my racing pulse slowed to normal. By sunrise I was exhausted, and I knew that there was no way I was going to get back to sleep, so I carefully crept out of bed without waking the boy who was my rock.
Dadtwo was awake and reading the paper when I entered the kitchen. The coffee pot was half full. I took what was remaining in a huge mug and put another pot on to brew. Ed silently watched me as I moved through the kitchen. It was obvious he was gauging me, trying to discern my state of mind. I glanced at him briefly and gave him a half-hearted smile before opening the sliding door in the family room and going outside.
The morning air was cool for the moment, the previous day's heat having evaporated through the night. I sat on the steps leading from the deck to the back lawn and listened to the birds sing. The smell of orange blossoms floated on the morning breeze, reminding me of happier times spent with my family; spent with my twin. A stray thought brought him to life in my mind.
“Hi, Mike,” I whispered.
How are you doing?
I shrugged as though he could see me. “I'll survive.”
Yeah, you will. No matter what, you'll make it through. There was conviction in the tone of the ghostly mental voice.
“Will Mom and Dad make it?” I asked.
I don't know, Ben.
“I don't know, Ben,” said Ed from behind me.
I jumped at the first sound of his voice, spilling half of my coffee in my lap. Ed had opened the door and stepped out while I was talking to Mike without my noticing. I wondered again if my brother's shade was real or if he was some delusional fantasy come to haunt me.
“Don't sneak up on me!” I gasped, standing as a reflex from the hot liquid in my crotch.
“I'm sorry, lad. I thought you were talking to me.”
I stared at him, uncertain what to say.
“Ben,” he said carefully, “are you feeling all right?”
“What?” I responded like an idiot, still in a daze.
“I asked you if you're feeling all right,” he repeated, a slight frown betraying his concern.
The question made me angry. He knew exactly what had happened and he asked me if I was feeling okay. It was a stupid, asinine question that didn't deserve an answer, but my emotions, already churning from the events at home and a lack of rest, boiled over.
“What do you think?” I snapped. “My parents hate each other. They fight constantly, even in front of my friends. They both say it doesn't concern me, but use my name in their arguments, and I don't want to be in my own house anymore! Do I feel all right? What do you think?”
I knew I had gone too far. Ed was not the object of my anger, but he was a convenient target who had pushed me beyond the limits of my endurance.
I glared at him for a moment longer, and then looked away. When the expected rebuke did not come, I looked back toward him. He took the two steps that separated us, placed his hand on the back of my head and pulled me to him. When he spoke, it was in a soft voice filled with compassion.
“Of course you're not, son. It was a daft question for me to ask. I'm sorry.”
I struggled to maintain my composure. I didn't want to cry anymore. I had shed enough tears over the whole situation. What I needed was something, indeed anything, to distract me. I asked for the first thing that came to mind. I looked up at him, hoping he would agree.
“Dad, can you take me to see Mike today?”
“Of course, Ben.” He embraced me firmly for a moment, and then let me go. “Did you burn yourself?”
“No,” I answered. “It wasn't that hot.”
“Good. Go change your clothes so we can wash those,” Ed directed.
As I walked into the house, I stopped and turned to face him once again.
“Dad? I'm sorry I yelled at you.”
He smiled and said, “I know you are, Ben, and I understand.”
On impulse, I wrapped my arms around him and hugged him tightly. He returned the embrace warmly, and then once again told me to change my shorts. I walked away, still not feeling all right, but feeling a little better.
The Kettenger men and I arrived at the cemetery just past noon. Ian and I sat in the back seat on the way there. He took a risk and held my hand for a bit. It made me uncomfortable even though I knew Dadtwo would have to turn around to see us. However, I did not pull away. I needed the contact.
Ed had not mentioned my parents, nor had he given me an indication of when I was to go home. It was the last thing I wanted to do, and I knew it was inevitable.
The purpose for visiting Mikey's grave was murky at best, even in my own mind. It might have been as simple as missing him, or it might have been an attempt to get away from my parents in some way.
When we got there, Ian, Ray, and their father let me go on to Mike's grave alone for a few minutes of private thought. As I knelt down, I listened for any echoes of Mike's specter in my head, and heard nothing.
“Hi Mikey,” I said softly as I looked down on his headstone. “Guess you know what's happening. I don't know what I'm supposed to do. I know I've said it before, but I'm really lost right now. Mom and Dad… they don't care anymore. I don't want them to fight. I don't want them to hate each other. I don't want to feel like this, like I don't have a home.”
But you do, Benji. You have a place with Mom and Dad. You have a place with Ian and Rayray and Momtwo and Dadtwo.
“Home isn't my home anymore. Not with Mom and Dad yelling and screaming. Not without you. None of this would have happened if I hadn't… if you hadn't died.”
You know I'm with you, Ben, just in a different way.
“Are you happy where you are?” I asked, looking up into the blue cloudless sky.
Not when I see you like this, Benji.
“Mike, I can't take much more of this.”
You'll get through it okay.
“It's too much,” I said on the verge of tears. “I'm going to go crazy. God, I feel so alone…”
I heard the shuffling of feet behind me.
“You're not alone, Ben,” Ian said softly. “You've got me.”
I looked at the boy kneeling next to me, and was alarmed by the stress displayed in his young face. Ian, once again, was there when I needed him. I reached out and pulled him to me, embracing him. His arms surrounded me and returned the hug. I felt other arms go around me from behind, and another set from the side.
You're never alone, Ben.
“You're never alone, Ben.” Ed said quietly, and he was echoed by his sons.
We stayed there for a short while, sharing stories of Mike's life. For me it was a bitter-sweet time. When it came time to leave, I told Mikey I would see him later. I'm sure he would have been smiling.
That night, after dinner, Ian and I went to bed early. We undressed and got in bed, I lay facing him and resting my head on Ian's shoulder while he ran his hand lazily up and down my side. My other arm was draped over his stomach.
“Ben,” Ian whispered after a period of silence, “I love you.”
I looked up into his eyes and replied, “I love you too, Ian.”
He smiled and I pushed myself up to kiss him. Ian met me half-way, pressing his lips to mine. Our teen-aged lust overwhelmed us, and we spent the night playing in each other's arms. The entire time I had the feeling that someone was watching us. It was Mike I imagined smiling down on us. Once he had asked me to love Ian for both of us, and that is what I did.
A light knock woke me sometime early the next morning. Startled awake, I jumped out of bed and fumbled around for my briefs. In my groggy state, I managed to trip over my shoes and fell to the floor with a crash, which woke Ian from his slumber and alerted whomever was outside the door that we were awake.
The door opened. I grabbed whatever I could to cover myself. Ed poked his head into the room.
“Are you okay, Ben?” Ian and his father chorused.
Trapped, I sat there and nodded with eyes wide.
Ed smiled with amusement and said, “Liz and I would like to talk to both of you. Please get dressed and come to the kitchen.”
The door closed softly. Ian poked his head over the side of the bed and saw me, leaning back against the nightstand with nothing on, covering my privates with a sock I had hastily taken from the floor. He started chuckling as he rolled out of bed.
“Have a nice trip, Ben?” he asked with mirth.
“Ha- ha. Very funny,” I rejoined caustically, beaning him with the sock as I scrambled to my feet.
“Hey, don't be like that, Ben. It was funny,” Ian said, and he kissed my nose, draining me of my aggravation.
“What do you think they want?” I queried.
“I don't know,” Ian replied, putting on his clothes. “Could be anything. Probably about the situation with your parents.”
“Oh,” I responded unenthusiastically.
“Come on,” he cajoled as he moved toward the door, “get your shorts on. Mom and dad are waiting for us.”
He looked back at me. “Yeah?”
He met my gaze, and his face displayed concern.
“What are you scared of, Ben?” He asked quietly, moving to stand in front of me.
“Everything. My mom and dad splitting up; losing you like I did Mike…” My voice trailed off into nothingness and I dropped my eyes.
“You're not going to lose me, Ben. Hey, look at me.” Ian squeezed my shoulder tightly until we locked eyes again. “You aren't going to lose me. I'm not going anywhere. Okay?”
I nodded slightly as a sad smile crept its way into my expression.
“That's better,” he said, squeezing my shoulder again. “You ready?”
“Yeah, I guess,” I answered glumly. He started for the door, but I stopped him again by grabbing his arm.
“What, Ben?” He asked patiently.
“Nothing... I just…”
I reached out and pulled him to me. He wrapped his arms around me and hugged me tightly as I fought off the tears welling up in my eyes.
“Come on, Benji. Let's go talk to mom and dad.”
I nodded and let him go so he could lead the way. In the kitchen, Ed and Liz were sitting next to each other, speaking in quiet voices. When they saw us, they stopped talking and smiled at us. Warning bells sounded in my head.
“Get your coffee and sit down, boys,” Liz said, “then we'll talk.”
We did as she suggested and then took chairs opposite the adults. My gut was still telling me that something was not right.
“We've noticed that the two of you seem to be very close,” Ed began. “It wasn't until last night that we knew just how close you really are.”
Ian and I exchanged glances. He graced me with a small smile and then we turned back to his parents.
“Last night, I wanted to talk to you some more, Ben, about the situation with your parents. I, er, accidentally walked in on you and Ian.”
I felt my hands grow cold and the blood drain from my face. A deep sense of panic made its way from the pit of my stomach and lodged in my throat. Breathing became difficult.
“Ben, honey, we're not angry,” Liz said gently. “We do have a few questions, however.”
She asked, “Ian, are you attracted to other boys, girls or both?”
Ian replied without hesitation, “I like boys, mostly.”
I stared at the person sitting next to me. He'd just admitted to his parents that he was gay! Without a doubt, I knew they would be asking me the same question, and the thought of telling them the truth frightened me. I knew they would be accepting based on their response to Ian, but still I didn't want to tell anyone at all, much less these people who played such a powerful role in my life.
“What about you, Ben?” Liz asked with a smile.
I stared at her, and then shifted my eyes to Ed, who wore a kindly expression which did nothing to calm my emotions in the slightest.
“Honey, it's okay,” she cooed. “What you say here stays here. It's just us and you and Ian. Murray doesn't need to know, and won't unless you tell him.”
Ian reached over and took my hand in his. My initial impulse was to pull my hand away, but Ian had a firm grip.
“Lad, I know why you're scared,” Ed said, “and you don't have to be. We love you now, and we'll love you whether you like boys, girls, or both. That isn't what's important. What is important is that you know you and Ian are safe here.
“Ben, do you love my son?”
I nodded slowly.
“It's truly all right, Ben,” Ed added softly. “We are very happy for both of you. What I saw last night- we accept it- and will allow it- as long as neither of you forces the other to do something that you aren't ready and willing to do, and as long as you are discreet. If you need anything, ask, and I will help you as best I can. What you tell Murray is up to you.”
“He already knows,” Ian said, and then he turned to me and continued, “He figured it out on his own. He asked me about it last night, and I told him.”
I sighed, partially in relief and partially in resignation.
“Ben, please tell me you're okay with this,” Ian requested, his tone serious and worried.
“Please, Ben!” He begged. “I'm sorry if I hurt you!”
“You didn't hurt me. I'm just… trying to absorb it all. I never thought I would be telling anyone other than you that I'm… I'm….”
“Gay?” Ed supplied.
“Gay,” I agreed, still completely stunned. “I'm gay.”
I stared at the table with those two words ricocheting through my brain. When Mike and I were kids, when we'd started growing into men, we'd thought we might be gay or bisexual, but now I knew it for a certainty. Using the word “gay” in reference to myself was shocking.
“What am I gonna tell mom and dad?” I asked no one in particular.
“You don't have to tell them anything, Ben,” Liz said. “It's up to the two of you what to tell them, and when.”
“I don't know how they'll take it,” I informed them. “It's never even come up, not even talking about anybody or anything else. Mom and dad don't- didn't- talk about sex at all.”
“One thing I want you to keep in mind, boys, is that you're young yet, and your feelings may change.” Ian cast me a stricken, panicked glance as his father continued, “Maybe feelings is a poor choice of words. Let's say attractions instead. You may both be gay, or either of you could be bisexual, or even straight. Your feelings, the love you have for each other, won't change unless something happens to destroy your friendship.”
Ed stopped talking for a moment, frowned, and then said, “That's neither here nor there. My point is that being gay, bi, or straight doesn't define who you are as a person. It's a part of you, yes, but your sexuality is not the sum of who you are. Am I making any sense?”
“Um, not really,” Ian answered sheepishly.
“I see. Let's put it another way. If Ben was straight, would you love him any less? Or Ben, if Ian was straight would you love him less?”
“No,” we said at the same time.
I added, “He's still my friend. So what if he liked girls.”
“That's my point, lad,” Dadtwo said. “It's just a small part of who you are.” Ed sighed as he sat back, running his fingers through his hair. “However, there are people who don't see it that way, so you must be careful.”
“We know, dad,” Ian said. “We act normal most of the time. It's just when we're alone.”
“First, you act straight most of the time, and you act normal here. There is nothing abnormal about you.
"I know you're careful, otherwise we would have had this conversation a long time ago,” Ed said with a smile.
Momtwo said, “We really are happy for both of you. We want you to know that it is okay for you to show your affection here, if you feel comfortable.”
“Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad.”
Ian's smile was blinding. His hand tightened on mine, and when I looked at him, he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. I saw Ed and Liz smile at us out of the corner of my eye. A voice from behind caused me to jump.
“Well, it's about time,” Rayray commented smugly, a grin plastered across his face.
It was incredible what Ed and Liz acknowledging Ian's and my relationship did. Not only did my boyfriend and I feel comfortable enough to be ourselves, but we felt comfortable enough to openly display our affection for one another. Murray chuckled when he saw us share a kiss the first couple of times, and then he would turn his head and try to hide his grin. We didn't take offense: we knew he was happy for us, so we didn't make an issue of it.
Momtwo and Dadtwo looked on with fond amusement when Ian and I would become demonstrative, and clear their throat when they thought we were going beyond the realm of polite company. More often than not, Ian and I would blush and cool it off a bit, but sometimes we retreated to Ian's room. The remarkable part of the whole situation was that no one in the whole Kettenger family ever made us feel ashamed of the love Ian and I shared.
Mom and Dad, for their part, had no clue what was really happening. Because Ian, Mike and I had spent a lot of time together before Mike died, it was only natural that I would spend a lot of time with Ian after Mike died. Even so, Ian and I were very careful when we were at my house to contain ourselves and give my parents no reason to suspect there was more between us than a platonic friendship. We had a couple of close calls when Mom or Dad would knock and open the door at the same time, but fortunately all we were doing at the time was kissing. I complained to both of my parents that I was getting older and I needed more privacy than I had in the past. They listened to what I said and promised they would do better.
My parents' relationship was remained unsettled. Through July and into the end of August, they were still fighting regularly. It was a matter of course that I would leave for Ian's the moment they started up, which was pretty much every night. I spent more time at Ian's than I did in my own home. I was a permanent fixture at their house. It would have been more appropriate to call Ian's place my home and my own house a place I visited on occasion to say hello.
My therapist addressed this issue regularly. Dr. Brittain also kept asking me about my sexuality, which made me incredibly uncomfortable. One day toward the end of August, she was especially persistent in pursuing that topic. I had finally taken enough of her baiting and snapped at her.
Dr. Brittain had been badgering me for over half and hour, she outright asked me, “Ben, are you gay?”
I angrily retorted. “Are you?”
“Yes, I am,” she replied calmly.
I looked at her for a moment and then shook my head. “I thought you might be. Your pictures…”
“I was wondering when you were going to ask me, Ben,” she said. “Why didn't you?”
“Because it's none of my business. And I didn't know how to ask.” I admitted.
“Will you answer my question now?”
“Why do you need to know?” I queried, wary of her motivations.
“Because it makes a difference in your psychology. If I started asking you questions about boys and you aren't gay, then that would be wrong. If you are gay and I ask about girls, that would be just as wrong.”
“I don't get it,” I informed her. “What does being gay or straight have to do with my parents?”
“Look at it this way,” she explained. “If you are gay, there are a whole range of other issues that come into play, such as whether or not you accept your sexual identity, what you believe your parents will do if they find out, whether or not you have a boyfriend, whether or not his parents know, whether he accepts his identity, whether his parents accept you….”
I acknowledged her point, saying, “Okay, okay. I get the idea.”
“So it does make a difference. And it is perfectly okay if you don't know if you are straight, gay, or in between. Some boys don't figure that out until well into their twenties.”
“You already know the answer, don't you?” I charged. “You wouldn't keep asking if you didn't.”
“I have a suspicion, but I won't know for sure until you tell me.”
“What about my parents?” I inquired.
“What about them?” Dr. Brittain returned calmly.
“Will you tell them?”
She smiled. “I told you before that I will tell them in general terms how I believe you are coping with the situation, or if I consider you to be a threat to yourself or others. Your sexual identity does not qualify for either of those. It is a private thing and it would be unethical of me to tell them.”
“Is that a `no'?”
She nodded. “That is a `no'. However, if you, for example, become suicidal as a direct result of your perceived identity, I will be forced to tell them.”
“I don't know how they'll react. Mom and Dad, I mean.”
“React to you being gay?” she asked, and I nodded. “It's a common fear that children have. I can't answer that question right now, Ben. I can try to find out for you while I talk with them, but I won't know for sure.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
I felt a smile lift my face. “Yeah. His name is Ian. When Mike was still alive, he was our best friend. Now I guess he's my best friend and boyfriend all in one.”
“Ah. So that's how he fits in. How does he treat you?” she asked in an off-handed manner.
She clarified, “Is he mean to you?”
“Do you like his family?”
“Uh huh,” I replied. “They're like my second family. Ed and Liz -- we used to call them Dadtwo and Momtwo - they're who I go to when my mom and dad are fighting. They're great. Ian has a younger brother, too. His name is Murray, but we call him Ray or RayRay most of the time. They're all great.”
“It sound like you really care for them,” Dr. Brittain observed with a smile.
“I do,” I confirmed with a smile of my own. “If something happened to Mom and Dad, I'd want to live there.”
“Do Ian's parents know about Ian and you?”
“Yeah, and that's what's so great,” I said excitedly. “They let us be ourselves, you know? They let us hug and kiss and hold each other's hands.”
She then asked, “What about sex?”
“Um, what about it?”
“Do you and Ian have sex?” Dr. Brittain asked in her unflappable manner.
“Uh, yeah, I guess,” I replied, embarrassed. “We do things.”
She smiled again. “You don't have to tell me the specifics, Ben. Do Ed and Liz know you have sex?”
“Yeah. Ed kind of caught us. But they're okay as long as we're alone.”
“It sounds like you have a very good relationship with Ian's family.”
“I think so, too,” I agreed, and then said with a sour tone, “Better than I do with Mom and Dad.”
“Your mother and father love you, Ben,” the counselor said with certainty. “They are struggling to see if they can still live with each other. Unfortunately, you get caught in the crossfire. Have you ever heard your parents use you as a weapon?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, genuinely confused.
“Do either of them threaten to take you away from the other and not let them see you?” Dr. Brittain's expression was intense.
“I've never heard that, no. Do you think that's what's going on?” I inquired, alarmed at the implication.
“I don't know, Ben, and I don't mean to worry you,” she said in a reassuring tone. “It is something that can occur when adults are contemplating a divorce. That does not mean that is happening between your parents, nor should you assume that it is.”
“It's too early to draw any conclusions as to what the specifics are that your mother and father are fighting about. They haven't told me, and they haven't told you anything other than what you've mentioned so far…” and she waited for a confirming head shake, “…so we're in the dark. All we can do is help you to be prepared no matter what happens.”
“You already know the answer to that,” she said gently. “Either they reconcile and stay together, or they separate. I want to make sure you are prepared for either eventuality, Ben.”
“How am I supposed to prepare for my parents getting a divorce?” I asked bluntly.
“You are already doing that,” Dr. Brittain commented. “These sessions are part of it, but preparing for your parents' possible separation isn't the only reason you are here.”
“Okay, now I'm confused. I thought I was here to help me deal with my brother's death.”
“You are. You are also here to talk about other things that bother you, whether you have a problem with being gay, coming out, or are getting bullied at school, your parents, Ian -- anything. I am here to help you, Ben, in whatever way I can.
“Is there something else you'd like to talk about?” she asked me, and when I didn't answer, she requested, “Why don't you tell me about Mike.”
I stared at her for a moment, contemplating my response.
Well, go on. Tell her about me, you putz -- but only tell her the good things.
In my minds eye I could see my brother with his sardonic grin, daring me.
“Okay,” I answered Dr. Brittain, the smile on my face a direct response to my brother's spirit. “But only the bad things.”