Winter comes early to upstate New York, and it stays long. Snow falls, and falls, and falls. Lake Effect snow, blowing in from Lake Erie and Lake Ontario and fetched by a wind that comes straight from the Arctic Circle.
The inhabitants of Sanitaria Springs, no less than the residents of Buffalo and Binghamton, are resigned to dealing with snowfall after snowfall, often occurring as early as mid-October. School buses routinely start out on their routes, beginning right after Labor Day, with studded tires already mounted and bags of sand stowed behind the rear seats. Residents of this New York to Pennsylvania snow belt are more familiar with their snow shovels than with their garden hoes and rakes.
If you are a kid in Sanitaria Springs it means that one of the first skills you learn is the art of shoveling snow, and one of the first income-producing activities you might engage in is shoveling out some neighbor’s driveway, but only after completing the job on your own driveway to your dad’s satisfaction. It also means that men and boys alike pitch in to dig out the widows and the infirm, or someone with a new baby and without a man present in the household.
Thus, being lent out to contribute your shoveling skills to the community was not unusual, provided you weren’t smart enough to disappear from your father’s view once you’d finished your own driveway as well as Mrs. Ottie Filio’s, the widow who lived next door and who always baked cookies as a reward for shoveling. If you hadn’t been so interested in stuffing your mouth a second time with those delicious chocolate chip cookies maybe you might have escaped your dad’s notice, but greed will always win out over caution, as your grandfather was wont to say.
Such was the situation Ray Colburn found himself experiencing the afternoon after Sanitaria Springs’ first big October snowfall, two weeks before Halloween. Mouth stuffed with Ottie’s cookies, Ray tried to pretend he hadn’t heard his father calling his name, until Mrs. Filio gently pointed out to him that someone was shouting “Ray! Ray! Where are you, boy? Get your ass over here!” loudly enough so even she could hear it despite leaving her hearing aids on the kitchen counter like she always did. Ray took one last wistful look at the platter of still-to-be eaten cookies and turned for home. He had been shoveling since breakfast and it was getting on to lunchtime, but as he trudged down Mrs. Filio’s now-cleared driveway he knew his dad wasn’t calling him in to eat. Oh, no. That voice and tone signaled another charity dig, he was sure, with little prospect for either money or sustenance as the outcome.
Ray sighed. He wished his mom and dad would realize that anyone like himself, fourteen years old and just settling into his teen years, needed constant refueling to feed the voracious engine of his ever-changing body, plus it was now the afternoon of this heaven-granted day off from school and he had yet to capitalize on its opportunities for actual, boy-based entertainment.
Which for Ray meant going home, shutting himself in his room, and reading. It was difficult to grow up in this wintery wonderland without developing some outside interests, but Ray Colburn had managed to do so. He had no use for sledding, skiing, or skating. The architecture of snow forts and igloos was of no consequence to him, and he couldn’t remember if he had ever made so much as a snowball or constructed a snowman. His last snow angel had been fashioned at least nine years in the past.
No, Ray’s horizon was firmly planted inside, not out-of-doors; once he’d shut the outside door behind him his world was limited to one thing alone: books. Ray was a bookworm, to put it bluntly, a dedicated reader who would forgo all other activities for the pleasure of reading a good book. Don’t bother to ask Ray what was on television; he hardly ever watched it. Don’t wave a game controller at him; he had no idea what to do with it and no interest in learning what those buttons were for. Electronic gamesmanship was terra incognita, as his grandfather had liked to say, and Ray had no interest in exploring video landscapes.
Ray had been a sober child, and was an even more sober teenager. He had his grandfather to thank for that. Until three months ago he had been home-schooled by a man exquisitely bored by retirement, who had once been the dignified and scholarly headmaster of one of New England’s most prestigious academies. Unexpectedly crippled in his mid-fifties, he had come to live with Ray’s parents and had convinced them that home-schooling Ray would be his way to pay them back for sheltering him. Thus, ever since he was ten years old, Ray’s education had been the sole focus of Dr. Thaddeus Willet, A.B., A.M., D. Phil., graduate of both Harvard and Oxford Universities and a paragon of the highest academic standards, standards which he expected his grandson to embrace.
Nevertheless, Ray’s grandfather had been a kind and gentle man and Ray had loved him deeply, as had his parents. When, three months previously, Dr. Willet succumbed suddenly to a massive cerebral hemorrhage Ray and his parents were devastated. Equally suddenly, Dr. Willet’s plan to turn Ray into a classics scholar came skidding to a halt and Ray, for the first time in his life, came to grips with the real world of public high school. That wasn’t going so well, and Ray was ready for some time off.
At school, placed due to his test scores in the tenth grade among students a year or two older, Ray was painfully shy and socially inept. As a result he kept to himself. He ate alone in the school library from bag lunches. Teachers liked him because he could be counted on to give the correct answer when called upon, but Ray never volunteered to participate—in anything. Thus far, a month into the school year, it was clear that Ray was going to maintain an ‘A’ average without apparent effort. Other students ignored him, and he became invisible. Ray had no reason to think public school would continue to be any other way.
* * *
“There you are!” his mother exclaimed as Ray pushed through the connecting door from the garage into the back hallway. “Mrs. Murchison called—” she began as he dumped his boots.
“Ma, I gotta go bad,” he half-whined and danced from toe to toe to prove his point. Then he disappeared into the downstairs bathroom, his strewn ski jacket marking his trail.
“That boy!” his mother exclaimed, shaking her head.
Ray’s father looked over the two-day-old newspaper he had finally resorted to rereading. “He’s been working hard, Martha, give him a break,” he grunted. “But don’t tell him I said so. It’s difficult enough to get him out of his room.”
“Did you wash your hands?” Ray’s mother asked automatically when he emerged, despite the towel he was busily using to dry them.
Ray rolled his eyes. “Mrs. Who called? What’s to eat?”
“Mrs. Murchison called and asked for you to come and dig them out.”
Ray was astounded. “Me?” he squeaked.
“She also said she would give you lunch.”
“But Mom, I don’t even know them. They want me to eat with them?”
“Of course you do, Ray. You see Mr. Murchison in the pulpit every Sunday, and Mrs. Murchison is always sitting in the front pew.”
“But that’s not knowing them. I don’t think Mrs. Murchison has ever spoken a single word to me.”
“Well, she knows you, Ray, and she’s asked for you to come over and lend them a hand. You do know where they live, next to the church, don’t you?
“I guess so. Couldn’t she get someone closer?”
“No more complaining, Ray,” his dad interjected. “You’d better get to it. Seems to me you’re gonna starve unless you get over there. We’ve already had lunch.”
“Of course,” Ray muttered to himself. Sighing, he put his coat back on and zipped it up, then toed back into his boots. Grabbing his wet gloves he left the warm house.
* * *
Ray approached the episcopal parsonage, his shovel methodically clearing a pathway through the snow from the street to the front steps. As he pushed snow away from the steps he noticed the curtains twitch aside from the window just beside it and he glimpsed, looking out, an astonishingly beautiful face. He stopped shoveling just as the door was flung open.
A clear treble voice chirped out, “A knight in shining armor is come to rescue us!”
“Huh?” said Ray. Standing there was the cutest girl he had ever seen. Golden curls cascaded around her sweet, clear complexion dominated by huge blue eyes. Those eyes were enhanced by thick dark eyelashes, a tiny nose, and bright cherry-red lips. Her petite frame was clad in a shiny blue satin jumpsuit, and her feet were shod in spotless white tennis shoes.
Before Ray could move the slim figure had flung her arms around him and soft lips kissed his cheek. “Thank you, Sir Knight, for releasing us from this dreadful captivity!”
Ray blushed and, dropping his shovel, reflexively returned the hug. “Captivity? There’s less than a foot of snow.”
“But I’ve never seen anything like it. I declare, who knows what dangers may lurk beneath its pure white surface?”
Ray finally noticed the languid accent, as broadly Southern as any he’d ever heard. He also realized he was still hugging the lithe figure. Hastily dropping his arms and blushing furiously, he stepped back and stared. This not-so-little girl was almost as tall as he was, and although she appeared petite the hug had betrayed a muscular tautness.
As the girl smiled and gazed into his eyes, Ray felt another presence arrive in the doorway. It was Mrs. Murchison.
“Hello, Ray. Thank you for coming. I see you’ve met my nephew Maurice already. Won’t you please come in? I think we need to shut the door now.”
Dumbfounded, Ray shuffled forward into the house, never once breaking his eyelock with Maurice, who took his hand and led him in.
* * *
“Come have lunch, Ray,” Mrs. Murchison called out as she strode toward the kitchen. “We’ll eat in here. My husband is busy with a wedding planner over at the church.” She disappeared through a doorway.
“Er,” Ray’s voice began to return. “I’m Ray Colburn,” he stammered, still staring at Maurice.
Maurice pressed a finger to Ray’s lips. “We’ll talk later, Ray. Right now Aunt Margaret wants us at the table. We’ve been waitin’ for you.”
Ray struggled out of his coat, boots, and shoes. He glanced down at the holes in the toes of his wet tube socks and blushed yet again
Maurice followed his glance and smiled. “You can wash your hands in heah, Ray.” He motioned toward a doorway. His accent was adorable; Ray shivered.
* * *
Mrs. Murchison turned out to be a chatterbox, Ray soon discovered. He enthusiastically accepted a second helping of chicken pot-pie as she continued talking about her family.
“…so Joan and Maurice flew in just before the snow closed the Binghamton airport yesterday. Her audition was scheduled with the Tri-Cities Opera for this morning so she stayed on in Binghamton, but since Maurice was at loose ends we picked him up and got back to Sanitaria Springs just in the nick of time before we were snowed in. Isn’t that wonderful? All the later flights were turned back, and the airport has been shut down ever since. I declare, it was divine providence that got my sister and her son safely here, don’t you think?”
Ray nodded and made agreeable sounds. The more Mrs. Murchison talked, the more her own faint Southern accent crept out. He hadn’t had to say a word so far, which was a good thing because he had discovered the perfect comfort food for a starving fourteen year-old and he spent the time shoveling in the delicious pot-pie and nodding his head.
Maurice looked on with great amusement. He ate very sparingly and chewed small bites with deliberation. His eyes hardly ever left Ray’s face, and every time Ray glanced up to look at Maurice he was looking back at him. Mrs. Murchison could have been in another room, considering the amount of attention either one of the boys was paying her.
She didn’t appear to notice and continued to unfold an account of her sister Joan’s adventure with gusto. Apparently her sister’s career as an opera singer was at a very important juncture, and if she were to win the role she was auditioning for then she and Maurice would be staying on since the rehearsals were beginning soon. This would open up an opportunity for her to become a Resident Artist for an opera season that lasted through next April.
Ray stopped chewing and sat up and took notice, for it meant that Maurice might be more than a casual visitor. He looked from Mrs. Murchison back to Maurice in time to see his vivid smile once again, accompanied by a wink. Ray blushed. He really had to get that blush under control somehow.
* * *
When it was clear that Ray had consumed all he was going to be able to hold, the boys helped clear the table. As they carried dishes and implements to the sink, Ray asked Mrs. Murchison what else she would like him to shovel besides the front walk. Did she want the driveway cleared?
“Oh, no. We never use it. The township clears the church lot next door and Mr. Murchison parks over there.”
Ray was puzzled. “Then what did you want help with?”
“Heavens, I never did explain, did I? I called you because I thought Maurice would like some company, and I knew that you were the same age and all. So I showed him your picture in the church bulletin and he wanted to meet you right away. You don’t mind giving up your afternoon, do you? I so want Maurice to be able to meet other young people.”
Ray quickly made pushing gestures with his hands while he stammered, “Oh, no. No trouble at all. I wasn’t doing a thing this afternoon, and I really like getting a chance to meet Maurice and all…” He looked at Maurice, who was nearly bent double, laughing.
“Er, maybe Maurice could come over to my house and we could hang out—” Ray stopped, deeply embarrassed. “I mean, would you like to come home with me for a while, Maurice?” Ray was blushing furiously.
“It’s a date,” Maurice trilled. “I’ll just bundle up.”
* * *
“You saw my picture?”
“Um hmm. In that church picnic photo. You were by far the cutest boy, and that was the clincher. I immediately agreed with Aunt Margaret that I needed an escort while I was here in Sanitaria Springs, and that, lovely boy, had to be you.” Maurice grinned and swung their joined hands.
They were walking in the plowed street toward Ray’s house. Maurice had grabbed Ray’s hand the moment they had stepped off the minister’s front porch—“In case I slip and fall in this nasty snow”—and after a momentary flash of embarrassment Ray thought holding Maurice’s hand felt pretty good.
Maurice was bundled up to his eyebrows, cocooned within his own jacket showing the insignia of the school he attended in Atlanta, layered under one of the Reverend Murchison’s coats, a puffy ski jacket with a hood, now snugged tightly around those big blue eyes. He had on fuzzy pink mittens—“Aren’t they cute? I bought them in the airport”—and he stomped carefully along in the Reverend’s big black four-buckle rubber boots. “Don’t I just look like the Abominable Snowman, I declare!” Ray figured anybody who saw them would think he was walking some kid home from day care.
* * *
Ray reluctantly disengaged his hand from Maurice’s in order to hang his shovel up on its hook in the garage. They entered the house through the door into the back hallway and immediately started peeling off layers of outdoor clothing and toeing out of their boots. Maurice shook out his curls and straightened his clothes.
“Ray, is that you?” his mother called. “Is someone with you?”
“Yes, Mom. We’ll be right in.” He turned to Maurice. “Quick, tell me your last name so I can introduce you,” he hissed.
“It’s Hollins. Mama’s first husband was a Hollins.”
Ray hesitated. “First?”
“Another story for later.” Maurice patted his cheek.
“You owe me a lot of later stories,” Ray whispered. He motioned Maurice toward the living room.
“Mom, Dad, this is Maurice Hollins. He is Mrs. Murchison’s nephew and is staying with them.”
“Oh, my,” said Ray’s mother, staring.
Maurice bowed. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr. and Mrs. Colburn. My, what a lovely home you have, ma’am.”
Ray’s father put the latest issue of Ice Fisherman down and peered over his reading glasses. “I’ve never seen you before,” he stated.
“Maurice is from Atlanta. His mother, Mrs. Murchison’s sister, is an opera singer and is auditioning with the Tri-Cities Opera in Binghamton.”
“Figures,” said Roy’s father. He returned to his magazine.
“Oh, my,” said Roy’s mother. “Will this be a short visit, dear?”
“My mother may get a role in one of the operas,” Maurice said. “If she does rehearsals will start right away and we will be staying on through the spring season.”
Ray’s father looked up and cut to the chase. “You don’t look like you do much with sports.”
Maurice smiled at him brightly. “I’m on my school’s swim team, and this past spring I won the Greater Atlanta All-Schools singles tennis competition.”
“Tennis,” said Ray’s father.
Maurice nodded. “It’s good for improving eye-hand coordination,” he said enthusiastically. “But my main workout is with my aikido dojo, to improve my flexibility and stamina.”
“Hmm,” said Ray’s father. “You oughta teach Ray some of that. He could use it.”
“Ray and I are already working on a plan for his development,” Maurice said, and smiled his thousand-watt smile.
Ray hid his surprise at that announcement and tugged at Maurice’ arm. “C’mon, I’ll show you my room.” He pushed Maurice, now shaking with silent laughter, ahead of him up the stairs.
Mr. and Mrs. Colburn exchanged long glances.
“Oh, my,” said Mrs. Colburn.
* * *
Maurice took a quick look around Ray’s room. His face lit up. “You’ve got books!”
“Er, yes.” The wall across from the door was lined with bookcases, and rows and rows of bindings filled the shelves. The bed was positioned along one end wall and Ray’s desk sat beside the window at the other end of the room.
“Let’s see. Ohmygod, you’ve got the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Plato, and Thucydides…the Aeneid, and Cicero’s essays…just on one shelf! Have you read any of these?”
“Sorry, sorry. Where did you get these ancient books? Aristotle! My god! Aristophanes! And look over here! Moliere, Rousseau, Locke, Hobbes, Descarte!”
“They were my grandfather’s. He wanted me to have all his schoolbooks, and insisted they be shelved here in my room ‘to strike a balance’ as he liked to say.” Ray stopped. He looked away for a moment and swallowed. He missed his grandfather, and it was just a few months ago they had sat together in this room talking about these same books.
He felt Maurice’s arm go across his back and grip his shoulder. “He sounds like a wise man. You’ll have to tell me about him. Which books of his have you read?”
“He arranged them chronologically for me, and told me to start at the beginning. He said Western civilization was built on a Great Conversation among thinkers and writers, and we could learn who we were if we read the books that reported it. So I started with the Iliad and the Odyssey. Those were wonderful. Right now I’m trying to work through Plato’s Republic. It’s tough going. Of course I don’t read these all the time. Only when I run out of new science fiction.”
“Gotcha. But please hold up on The Republic. Do Plato’s Symposium first. You’ll love it. It was written for boys like us.”
Both were still standing, and Maurice turned to Ray and grabbed his shoulders. He began to dance around the room. Stumbling, Ray resisted for a moment, then put his hands on Maurice’ shoulders and returned the loose embrace. He tried to match the other boy’s steps and they slowly whirled and turned.
Maurice smiled, a huge smile that lit his entire face. “Finally, a partner in the dance!” he exclaimed.
Ray’s heart gave a lurch. He wasn’t sure yet how he’d gotten from shoveling snow to this place, but brightness and hope filled him.
“You’re beautiful,” he blurted.
“Right,” Maurice replied. He stopped dancing and dropped his arms. “It’s the burden I bear.”
“Think about it. There’s no hiding my looks. People either want me or hate me. Thank God I’m gay. I can ignore the girls who fawn and coo and the women who shoot daggers with their eyes, when they aren’t trying to grab my crotch. No, what I worry about are the boys who either pant all over me or try to break my bones and ruin my face when they catch me alone in the john, and the men who want to drill my ass and think a fifty or hundred dollar bill will make all the difference.”
This wasn’t what Ray had expected to hear. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m not the first to notice your looks.”
Maurice again smiled his thousand-watt smile. “No, but you’re one of the cutest in an otherwise bleak landscape. Are you gay?”
Ray gulped. This conversation was moving too fast. “I didn’t think so. Until now, that is. Maybe. I never gave guys around here much thought. My sex life is all make-believe based on the heroes and heroines I read about, and it seems to work for me either way. I figured my body was changing so much that it would sooner or later catch up with my fingers and tell my mind what it really wanted.
“But the minute I saw you, and you kissed my cheek, I’ve been in lust. I think it’s because I’ve been shoveling snow all day and I never had a chance to jack off this morning and I’m fourteen years old.”
Maurice burst into delighted laughter. “At last, an honest boy. Most people I meet, you know, just try to suck up to me to find out if they are gonna get some. They never seem to take into account the circumstances, or what I might want.”
Maurice grimaced. Ray immediately missed the smile. They had dropped to the floor and were sitting face to face beside the bed.
Ray thought hard and finally nodded. “You seem to have things under control much more than I do. I never thought I’d be having a conversation like this.” Ray realized he was blushing again, and he rolled his eyes.
Maurice smiled. “Ray, I love your ability to look at yourself. I wish I’d been able to know your grandfather, to thank him for giving you that.”
“He always said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’.” Ray swallowed hard, thinking again of his granddad.
Maurice looked at Ray for a long moment, then said, “You deserve to find out who you are. Here, this is the best Truth Detector humans have ever discovered.”
He slowly leaned forward, and Ray’s breath caught in his throat. Maurice’ face came ever closer, and Ray felt hands move onto his shoulders, then around his neck. The last thing he felt before he closed his eyes were lips, pressing gently against his own.
* * *
When Ray awoke the next morning it was only 6 a.m. He lay in bed a few minutes, then realized he was too keyed up for more sleep. He took great care with his shower and his hair and inspected his face closely to see if anything needed shaving off—not this year, apparently—and selected, then discarded, various articles of clothing over the course of the next hour and a half.
He had been invited to have breakfast with Maurice, “But not before ten o’clock, dear soul. I do need to recharge my batteries.”
A recharge was clearly necessary for both boys by the end of their evening together. They barely had taken a time out for the family dinner, where Maurice had regaled Ray’s parents with a sophisticated monologue ranging from praise for the Yankee pot roast the boys devoured with gusto, to a discussion of famous chefs and their variations on the dish, to a wide-ranging overview of the many types of cattle and the cuts of beef suitable for various recipes and preparations. Both Mr. and Mrs. Colburn sat, somewhat flabbergasted, nodding and ‘umming’ while they ate.
The boys had declined dessert, much to Ray’s mother’s surprise, and rushed back upstairs where Ray had made sure his door was locked securely. Their evening then began in earnest. They not only reviewed the wonders of kissing, but one thing led to another and Ray observed and then practiced various manual arts. In the main event of the evening, Ray first enjoyed and then demonstrated his understanding of several oral practices he had never even imagined. If there had been any doubt of his sexual orientation going in, it was a done deal upon emerging.
Physical stress and exhaustion finally called a halt to the tutorial, along about the time his father had shouted up the stairs to demand, “Stop practicing that damn Ackadoo and send Maurice home.”
The evening ended with Ray walking Maurice back “To make sure he doesn’t get lost.” Once again their hands were joined, mitten to glove.
Ray had been told not to linger long once they reached the Murchison doorstep. However, Maurice had another idea and told Ray to wait just a moment, then he slipped inside and consulted with his aunt who apparently had sat up waiting for his safe return. Maurice reappeared to issue the invitation for breakfast—“Remember now, I said ten o’clock. I’ll make you some Southern-style grits and griddle cakes and fried apples. You’ll love it.”—The two boys sealed the deal with one last lengthy kiss, then sprang apart when the porch light suddenly flicked on.
Ray beat a hasty retreat home, reported in to his parents, announced his breakfast invitation from Mrs. Murchison and, hearing no objection, headed straight up to bed where he collapsed. He was exhausted.
* * *
The Murchison household seemed strangely silent when Ray rang the doorbell at precisely ten o’clock. After a few minutes the door cracked open and Mrs. Murchison peered out. She had dark circles under her eyes and her hair was in complete disarray. She was wearing a bathrobe. Ray stepped back, suddenly uncertain that he had understood the invitation correctly.
“Oh, Ray. Come in, come in.” She pulled him into the house. “Can’t let the heat out, can we?” She quickly shut the door behind him.
Ray stood on the mat, shifting from foot to foot. “Is Maurice ready for breakfast?” he finally asked.
“Oh, Ray, they’ve gone.”
Ray stared at her. “Gone?” His voice cracked.
“Oh dear, yes. My sister Joan came in soon after you dropped Maurice off last evening. She’d rented a car and driven straight from Binghamton. Her audition hadn’t gone well at all. What with the strain of the trip and the airplanes with their canned air and then the storm when they arrived, she’d caught a bad cold. Her vocal cords shut down and she couldn’t sing and she lost the part.”
Mrs. Murchison paused to take a breath. Ray stood, frozen.
“She wasn’t at all happy. She said she’d just as soon develop her career in someplace with a more sensible climate. Joan had already bought their return tickets, and the plane was departing from Binghamton at five this morning, so she sent Maurice right upstairs to pack his things. Can you imagine? There’s no stopping Joan when she’s on a tear like that, but there sure was some shouting and carrying on by Maurice. Seems he had taken quite a shine to you, Ray, and didn’t want to leave. He said he was going to stay here and live with us, but his mother would have none of that. They turned the air blue, let me tell you. Poor Mr. Murchison finally had to get in between them and start praying.”
Ray was stunned. He clenched his hands and looked wildly around the foyer.
“By then it was the middle of the night and we wouldn’t let Maurice phone you, Ray, and now looking back I think it was cruel to forbid him. I’m so sorry. He left this for you.” Mrs. Murchison handed Ray a taped-over brown paper bag and an envelope with his name on it.
Ray stared at both objects, then put each one in a separate pocket of his jacket. “I have to go now, Mrs. Murchison,” he said, and opened the door and stepped outside and walked uncertainly down the path he had shoveled. By now it showed many footprints and fresh tire tracks at the end, on the shoulder of the roadside.
Ray almost walked into the front of a car passing by. Tears streamed down his cheeks. His eyelashes, wet and heavy, made the world around him blurry and out of focus. Reality appeared to be out of his reach.
* * *
Later, in his room, he opened the envelope.
Dear Ray. Our one day seemed a lifetime, then it was gone.
I’m so, so sorry. I hate being fourteen and out of control of my own destiny. You are such a dear sweet boy, and I think our two souls could have matched up, but now we won’t have the chance to find out.
Now Mama wants to go to Australia to find her destiny, plus she heard it was warm there now. I think husband number three will be more than willing to make that happen, since it will give him more time with his current girlfriend and it will get me out of his sight, which has always been a goal of his.
I feel like screaming but I am grounded by having met someone so solid and decent and levelheaded that I believe I can anchor my emotions in the confidence that you will find the strength to get through this betrayal of all our hopes. I am so, so sorry.
My sensei always says that our balance point lies within us, and our effort must be focused on responding to any outside attacks by complementary actions. I think a simpler way of saying it is that we must roll with the punches. Life has just dealt us both a bitter blow. I know, from all the past blows I’ve experienced, that I will eventually cope. I sincerely hope you realize how much inner strength you have, thanks to what you have learned from a grandfather I so deeply envy you for. Keep those brilliant eyes of yours fixed firmly on your own horizon; I’m sure something wonderful for you lies just beyond it.
* * *
It took Ray, shut in his room, the rest of that day and the next, thinking hard, to decide that Maurice would best be remembered as a fantasy. A wonderful fantasy, but one nonetheless.
Maurice belonged on the shelf in his room alongside The Lord of the Rings; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Peter Pan and Treasure Island, for these were stories that had contributed greatly to his own understanding and his own development, but they were stories about events and places and people out of reach to ordinary everyday mortals except as object lessons and guides to self-discovery.
He thought that category fit Maurice to a ‘T’, and it also helped account for Ray’s own relationship to the events of the past few days. If he was going to spend his time mooning and brooding over Maurice it would be just like mooning and brooding about not being able to get to Neverland or through the back of the Wardrobe.
No, Ray decided, it was better for him to live in the here-and-now, and build on what he had learned. To go forward, as Maurice expected and he, Ray, owed to himself and to the memory of Maurice.
Besides, it was time to get out and touch up his own and Mrs. Filio’s driveways. A couple of inches of new snow had fallen while he had shut himself up in his room, just enough to keep the school shut down, and tomorrow school would resume. That was the world he lived in, only now he thought he had a much better understanding of how Ray Colburn could function within that world.
He would look around for some ways to improve himself outside of the world of books, for starters. It was still the beginning of a new school year, he was a tenth grader, and in the high school he had some options he had been ignoring. Maybe he could still sign up for weight training as his physical education option. Maybe there was a sport he could participate in that wasn’t focused on mayhem—like swimming, for instance. In fact, maybe if he looked around he could find a dojo within driving distance. He was sure his dad would get behind that idea.
But the books remained, his legacy from his grandfather, and he would keep on learning from the Great Conversation. He would start reading The Symposium, and maybe look for that author—was it Mary Renault, like the car?—that Maurice had mentioned.
But first things first. Peace and tranquility on the home front was essential. He went downstairs to don his coat and get the snow shovel out. As he zipped up he felt something in his left pocket, and it crackled when he brushed against it.
It was the brown paper bag Mrs. Murchison had given him along with the letter from Maurice. It was taped tightly shut, and was soft and squishy. Ray hoped it wasn’t one of the breakfast treats Maurice had planned. It wouldn’t be very much of a treat by now.
Ray carefully pulled at various strands of the cello tape, then impatiently tore the top of the bag open. He looked inside and smiled. It was the pair of bright pink mittens.
He threw his tattered winter gloves into the trash can by the back door, and pulled the mittens over his hands. They were soft and fuzzy, and very bright. Ray grinned and swung out the door, grabbing his shovel on the way. He’d have to be extra careful not to get them wet or dirty today, because he planned on wearing them to school tomorrow.