Peter lay in bed trembling. He couldn’t get his aunt’s words out of his head. Disgusting. Abnormal. Sinful. Dirty.
He didn’t even understand how any of them fit him, but he knew she meant them. To her, he was a worthless human, not worth the cost of the air he was breathing.
He hadn’t known she could do what she did. She’d checked his computer history. She was an old woman, closing in on 50 at least! How could she know how to use a computer so well? But she had, because she’d seen the picture he hadn’t closed out when he was called away from his computer and after that, she’d checked his history and saw the sites he visited. She saw all the cute boys he looked at. Naked boys. Sometimes, aroused naked boys.
She told him she was going to check with her lawyer. She couldn’t have chucked him out onto the street if she were his mother. Then she’d have a legal obligation for him. But she’d taken him in out of the kindness of her heart, not even at the request of social services, and look how he’d turned out. A sissy! A degenerate. A stain on her reputation and the house she owned. He was wicked and evil, and there was no place for his kind in her life.
She said he could sleep here tonight, but tomorrow, if she legally could, she’d kick him out.
So, he trembled as he thought about his fate. He was 13. He had no money, his parents had been killed in a car accident seven months earlier, and he had nothing of his own. How could he survive on the streets? He was small and weak and scared most of the time. He didn’t think he’d survive for even two days.
He needed to go to sleep. How could he, though, with his worries and fears tumbling around in his head and screeching at him?
Normally, when he wanted to calm himself, he would picture Sam in his head. Sam was in a couple of classes with him. Sam was everything he wasn’t. He was athletic and smart and dressed well and was outgoing and friendly and, man-oh-man, was he cute. Peter guessed half the boys in class had a crush on him. He sure did.
But he’d never had the nerve to talk to him. What would he say? He had nothing to say to him. Nothing. He could stare at him all day, though, and he often did.
The best times were in History and Gym. He had the perfect seat in History for looking at Sam: two seats behind and one row over. It wasn’t obvious to anyone that he was looking at Sam, yet he could see him clearly. Peter wasn’t learning much history, but he knew every gesture, every mannerism, every eccentricity and trait in Sam’s arsenal.
Gym was even better. He got to see how Sam was head and heels over most boys in every activity the class was called to do. Wrestling, running, basketball, tumbling, climbing a rope, weightlifting, calisthenics. Everything. Sam did them with ease and style.
The only thing Peter could do well at all was run. Even though he was better than average at running, what embarrassed him was that he’d learned how to run by running away from fights. To save himself, he’d had to be faster than his pursuers. Fear had been a great motivator, and practice had made him fast.
It was funny, but his infatuation with Sam had taken a turn recently. He was way too shy to try to talk to him, but he had a deep desire for Sam to notice him at the very least. And he’d realized he might have a safe way to do that. The gym teacher—Coach, as he’d told them to call him—had them run every day. Outside, they ran around the track that circled the football field. Inside, there was a track at the front of the second tier of seats above the basketball court. Every day, they ran. Coach had told them at the beginning of the year that they’d begin with short distances and build slowly during the year, but his goal, and so theirs as well, was to have every boy in the class running at least a six-and-a-half-minute mile by the school year’s end. He said this would be a difficult trial for many of them, but they had the whole year to practice, and he expected them all to succeed.
Their running was still being done outside now, but the weather was cooling, and they’d be moving inside soon. They were all running a quarter mile now—one lap around the track. And lately, Peter had been trying to keep up with Sam.
That was impossible, of course. Sam was Sam, and he was Peter. But it turned out that Peter was actually faster than every boy in the class who wasn’t named Sam.
Peter had begun the year staying in the middle of the pack, unnoticed, unnoticeable. But his longing for recognition from Sam had grown to the point where he’d recently begun exerting himself. For the past few days, he’d been the second boy to finish every day. Sam was still finishing fifteen, twenty yards ahead of everyone else. But Peter was now wondering what would happen if he really, really tried.
So, yesterday, he’d gone all out. Pushed himself. He hadn’t let Sam get far ahead this time. He’d stayed pretty much with him but still behind. Only about ten yards behind, but he managed to stay there. And at the end, he’d had enough left to kick for the finish, and he’d closed quickly on Sam.
Sam had heard him coming, had sped up and still won, but only by a few yards. Peter had finished right behind, then became so nervous he could hardly stand up. What would happen now? Would Sam speak to him. Be mad Peter had challenged him? Congratulate him? If Sam said anything at all, Peter would have to respond, and he didn’t think he’d be able to. He was too shy to talk to Sam, though he dearly wished that wasn’t so.
While he’d been fretting, he’d noticed Sam leaning over, his hands on his knees, breathing heavily. It had dawned on Peter that Sam was more spent than he himself was. Was he actually in better shape than Sam? Impossible.
But this had been perfect: Sam bent over. Peter could walk away, and no conversation would take place!
And he had.
They all had to shower. Peter always made sure he wasn’t anywhere near Sam. He always liked watching Sam in the shower, but to do that inconspicuously, he had to find a showerhead well away from the one Sam chose. He’d done that yesterday but hadn’t spent much time looking at him, fearful that Sam, now aware of Peter’s existence, would see him and come over to talk.
He rationalized not looking at Sam that day by telling himself that he didn’t really need to see him. He had Sam’s body, his perfect body, memorized. Perfect skin, even more appealing when wet and shiny, his only-now developing musculature, his first wisps of pubic hairs. And what was below that. Even thinking about that had caused Peter problems. He’d finished and left the shower room quickly.
Then, after school, he’d come home to find his aunt as he’d never seen her before. Irate was way too mellow a word. She wouldn’t eat dinner with him, but did give him a plate. She told him to eat elsewhere; she couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him. Soon it wouldn’t be the same house with him. He’d be on his own.
In bed, trying to focus on Sam, it just wasn’t working. A horrible thought intruded. If he were kicked out, if CPS found him before some sex-starved man did, they’d very likely put him in a home of some sort. If it had a number of boys, he’d be at the bottom of the totem pole there. At the bottom of more than that, too. They’d take turns with him.
He’d almost certainly never see Sam again.
He did sleep intermittently that night between bouts of tears and trembling, accompanied by his horrible thoughts.
Coach gathered them before their run the next day, the day when Peter would learn about his future. “Tomorrow and for the immediate future thereafter, we’ll be inside. Also, today’s the day we go from your quarter-mile run to a half-mile. Twice around the track. Good luck. Don’t push too hard. Just finish.”
Peter’s day had been weird. He couldn’t concentrate on anything. Luckily, he hadn’t been called on in any class. Had he been, he’d have had no idea what had just been said or what he was being asked. He couldn’t get the thought out of his head that he was about to be thrown away like yesterday’s rubbish.
Now they were in Gym class and ready to run, and he had no interest at all in doing so. But when they all started, he was in the pack, and he discovered that running was taking his mind off the horrible news he knew he’d face when he got home. He had to watch the kids around him so as not to trip. That put him in the moment instead of in his head.
He quickly found most kids were jogging, knowing they were going twice as far that day. One wasn’t. Sam was already well out in front, running.
Peter took off, mostly to get away from the swinging elbows around him and fear of either stepping on a heel in front of him or having that happen from someone behind him. He broke out in front of the pack. Sam was ahead. And suddenly, Peter had a goal. This might well be the last time he saw Sam. Why not see if he could beat him? Sam was apparently more tired yesterday after the run than Peter was. Maybe Peter could stay with him today, and then run a better second quarter mile than Sam. Sure, this was probably dreaming, but why not? If he could actually beat him, he’d have that in his memory, and come what may, no one could take that accomplishment away from him.
He sped up, getting to a position a few yards behind Sam, not wanting to catch up to him too soon. He had plenty of speed and stamina, and by the time they were halfway around the track the first time, Peter had come up even closer to Sam. He did what he’d planned then and moved to only a yard behind.
Sam looked back, saw Peter there, and grinned. He called back to Peter, “Great! I love competition. This is fun. Glad you’re running with me, Peter.”
That almost caused Peter to stumble. He was shocked that Sam knew his name. He guessed he shouldn’t be: all of them knew each other’s name. But Peter was such a nobody and Sam was the most popular kid at school. Wow! Peter was happy for a moment, then resumed his habitual worrying. If he did beat Sam, would he be forgiven?
Then he realized again this was almost certainly the last thing he’d ever do involving Sam and decided he was going to beat him if he could and the hell with worrying.
They finished the first lap and kept going. The rest of the class was only about three-quarters done with their first lap. The two boys were alone, Sam ahead, Peter drifting a couple of yards behind him.
Peter could feel his legs now—and his lungs. They weren’t complaining yet, but he could feel they would be. Would he be able to fight through that and keep going? He didn’t know, but he planned to do so if he could.
He was watching Sam and noticed he was slowing down slightly, and Peter could hear the breaths he was taking. They’d reached the halfway point of the second lap. Peter had a lot of stamina left and wondered if he should overtake Sam now or wait. He didn’t know what would be better. He’d never had to plan how he’d run before.
They kept going, and Sam kept easing off the pace. Finally, Peter decided to go for it. He sped up just enough to pass Sam and kept going, not looking at him, just staring ahead and running.
“Hey!” Sam yelled. Peter couldn’t tell from the voice whether Sam was pissed or simply surprised. He decided not to respond, just to keep his mind on running.
Could he speed up a little? The finish line was a quarter lap ahead. Yeah, he had enough left to do this. He quickened his pace slightly. And he heard Sam, about five yards behind him now, do the same, trying to keep up.
Peter knew Sam liked being the best athlete at school. He could tell from the joy the boy expressed when he won. It wasn’t smug or egotistical—just plain joy. Knowing that, Peter thought Sam would try very hard to pass him at the end. He sped up his pace even more. He felt it now. He was getting tired, feeling it all over his body. The finish line was only 20 yards ahead. He took a quick glance over his shoulder and there was Sam. Straining. Pushing with everything he had. And gaining on Peter.
Peter had to speed up, and he didn’t have much left. But he somehow managed, pushing harder than he knew he could, running with all the courage he could find within himself. Everything he had, he used.
He needed to win. His life as he knew it was over. He needed this win just for himself, to know he’d done it. Know he’d been able to beat Sam.
Sam was coming hard, but so was the finish line.
Peter crossed it first.
And then, everything came down on him at once. He’d be homeless in about an hour. On the streets. No money, no clothes but the ones on his back. No way to save himself. And he’d just beaten Sam. The boy he loved. The boy who was unbeatable.
Peter didn’t know if he was happy or sad. He didn’t know what to feel. There was no way he could control his emotions, which were all over the map. It was all he could do to simply breathe.
He sank to his knees, and suddenly he was sobbing. It was all too much. More than he could bear. He gulped for more air while his eyes coursed with water. He felt faint.
Peter felt an arm around his shoulders and another under his elbow helping lift him up onto his feet. He still felt shaky and probably would have gone down without the support, but he was being helped up and forced to walk.
He was being led across the track to the bleachers which surrounded it. These were for people attending the school’s football and soccer games. Peter was aware enough to realize Sam was the one helping him.
“Sorry for jumping in, but you didn’t want the rest of the guys seeing you like that. You okay now?” There was concern in Sam’s voice. “You didn’t hurt yourself pushing too hard, did you?”
Peter thought it might be good that he was a bit groggy. He didn’t find it so impossible to talk to Sam when he was feeling like he was now. It was easy to speak truthfully, too. He was too exhausted and upset to even attempt to tell a useful lie.
“No. The running was . . . fine.” He panted as he spoke, and the words being interrupted by his sucking in oxygen. “It was . . . it was just everything else catching up to me . . . all at once.”
“Can you tell me about it? I’d like to help if I can. No one’s ever beaten me before. You deserve all the help I can give you. I want you to be okay so we can train together.”
Peter shook his head and wondered how it was that he’d managed to enter the Twilight Zone. This was what that must have felt like. “I wanted to beat you. But there’s more. It’s all too embarrassing.”
“Tell me anyway.” Sam’s voice was soft and tender. “We’re going to be friends, you and me, and friends don’t need to be embarrassed with each other.” He paused to take several deep breaths. Peter could see the run had affected Sam more than himself.
After catching his breath, Sam continued his thought. “We can tell each what’s bothering us, Peter. Friends do that. It helps to share problems. You won’t feel so alone.”
The rest of the runners, even the stragglers, were past them by now. The two boys had got some strange looks, but no one had stopped or spoken to them. There was just time for them to shower, dress and get to their next classes.
Peter didn’t care about any of that. This would be his last day here. Being late to a class was nothing.
Sam would still be going to school here, though. He’d be in trouble if he were late. “You need to go,” he told Sam.
“This is more important,” Sam said. “Tell me the rest that’s too embarrassing. That’s what friends do.”
“But we’re not friends.”
“No, we weren’t friends. Now we are. So talk.” He grinned his Sam grin, the one that melted Peter’s heart, and he couldn’t help himself. He grinned, too. A sad grin, but a grin.
“See? Told you so! Now tell me.”
Peter took as deep a breath as he could. “My aunt discovered I’d watched porn on my computer. She’s kicking me out of the house when I get home. I’ll probably never be at this school again. I’ll be alone out on the streets. The best thing, the very best in the world for me, would be for us to be friends, but it won’t be possible. I—” He stopped and wondered what would it hurt to tell Sam. He’d never see him again. “I’ve . . . I . . . I like you. Being friends would just be a dream coming true. But I doubt I’ll ever see you again after today.”
Peter felt the emotions of that keenly, and his tears came again. Sam simply put his arm back around Peter and pulled him into him.
Peter sobbed for a few minutes before he was able to stop. When he did, Sam loosened his arm before speaking.
“What’s the matter with her? All boys our age look at porn. Doesn’t she know that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it was because I was looking at boys.” Peter looked down. He realized what he’d said, but at this point, he really didn’t care.
“I do, too. We all want to know everything we can about sex, and most of us are as interested in boys as girls at this point. I might even be more interested in boys, like you are.”
“Really?” Peter sat up straighter. “Just like me?. I think I might be gay.”
“Me, too. But until I have some experience with girls and boys, I won’t really know. I haven’t done sex with anyone. I guess you haven’t, either.”
Peter shook his head. “I’m way too shy. And anyway, none of this matters. I won’t even have a home now.”
“She’s kicking you out tonight?”
“Most likely. Almost certainly.”
Sam could hear Peter’s voice was ready to break again. “You have a cellphone?”
“No. She took it away.”
“Where do you live?”
Peter told him.
“Okay. I know where that is. When will this happen?”
“Probably as soon as she gets home. She gets out of work at 4:30 and is home fifteen minutes after that.”
“Okay. I’ll be at your front door a little before 5. If she tosses you, just wait for me there. If I don’t see you, I’ll ring the bell. And Peter? Stop worrying! We’ll fix this.”
Peter shook his head.
Peter didn’t want to go home after school. He didn’t want to see what was waiting for him there. But he had no choice; it was his home, where he lived, ate, slept. So, after spending as much time as he could in the school library, he left and walked home. When he got almost there, he stopped, afraid to look at the front door. Thinking this was getting him nowhere, at last he peeked out from behind a tall bush that separated his yard from the neighbor’s. What he saw was a single suitcase sitting on the front porch by the door. He walked up onto the porch and tried the door. It was locked and his key didn’t work. She’d had the locks changed.
He sank down on the front steps and couldn’t keep the tears from his eyes. It wasn’t just that he was now homeless. It was that the woman he’d lived with for the last several months since his parents had died, a woman who’d been nice to him and he’d been counting on, the woman he’d grown to love, now hated him. All sense of self-esteem deserted him.
That was how Sam found him.
Sam sat down next to Peter and put his arm around him. He held him like that and allowed him to cry himself out. Then he said, “Come on. We’re going to my house. We’ll talk about this and make a plan. We’re not helpless; you’re not helpless. We have what’s right on our side. She has nothing at all on her side. Let’s go. I’ll carry that.”
He picked up the suitcase and pulled Peter to his feet. They walked the fifteen minutes it took to reach Sam’s house in silence.
During the walk, Peter had been pulling himself together as much as he could. Having Sam next to him—supporting him, being so positive—helped a lot.
Sam lived in the best area of town in an impressive house on a large property. Peter couldn’t help but notice. His aunt’s house was nice, but nothing like Sam’s. This was more like a mansion.
Sam saw Peter’s response to the house and blushed. “It’s just a house, Peter. My parents are both important people. Dad’s the publisher of the newspaper, and Mom’s a lawyer, a partner in a law firm. But they’re still my parents and good people, and you’ll like them. They’ll like you, too. If we need any help to solve your problem, I’m sure they’ll give it to us, but let’s see if we can figure out how to change your aunt’s mind. I think we can.”
That said, Sam opened the door and took Peter inside. The inside was as impressive as the outside, but Peter hardly noticed. Sam took him up to his room. There was a queen-sized bed and all the other accoutrements one would expect in a young teen boy’s room. Sam had Peter sit in a chair at a worktable and Sam sat next to him. Peter’s eyes seemed vacant.
“Worried, huh?” Sam asked solicitously.
“Scared, I guess,” Peter said after a moment of silence. “What’s going to happen to me?”
“We’re going to change your aunt’s mind, that’s what. You’re going to go back living there, and things will be much better.”
Peter was silent, but Sam saw his face slowing changing, and some color coming back, his eyes regaining life. Sam was surprised, though, when Peter spoke. His voice was full of emotion.
“How can you say that? You don’t know! You didn’t hear her!” There was anger in Peter’s voice. Sam was so shocked at the change he didn’t know how to respond; he sat up straighter.
Peter stood up. He began pacing. “How can she do this? How can she be nice all the time, and suddenly become . . . become . . . I don’t even have a word for it!”
Sam stood, too. “Peter! This is exactly what you need to do. Get angry. We’re going to fight this. You weren’t ready a minute ago, but somehow your head got turned on instead of just your emotions. Now, we figure this out. I knew it. I knew you had this in you.”
Peter gave him an odd look. “How could you know? You don’t know me at all.”
“Sure I do. I saw you running; I saw you willing yourself to beat me. It would have been so easy for you to give up. You were hurting, pushing hard, and you had all these worries you were carrying with you, but you kept going. You did it. You resolved to do it, and that’s all it took. I saw that. That’s how I knew you had this in you. We’re going to do this. Now, let’s talk about how.”
They did. The more they talked, the more Peter let go of his defeatist attitude, encouraged as he was by Sam’s optimistic spirit, and replaced it with hope. Eventually, Sam’s parents came home, and Peter met them. They all had dinner together. Peter spent the night, sleeping with Sam. He realized, climbing into bed, that he wasn’t scared any longer. He was tired but not scared. The time he’d spent with Sam, the plans they’d made, talking to Sam’s parents—all seemed to have given him a new lease on life or, at least, a new feeling for his circumstances; he now had hope.
Both boys would have liked to do what they’d thought about in the days that preceded their being together, but Peter was emotionally exhausted and was asleep almost before his head touched the pillow. Sam watched him sleep and was touched by how innocent he looked. He realized what the feelings that were burgeoning in his soul for the boy meant.
Sam didn’t have any trouble falling asleep, either, spooning up against Peter’s back. They wake up the next morning in the same position.
The phone rang. Alice Hedges didn’t like to answer the phone early in the morning at home. It was usually one of her clients, and she kept all their paperwork in her office downtown. She had strict office hours and insisted on confining her interactions with clients to those hours. But the phone rang and rang, and finally out of frustration and annoyance, she answered it.
“Hello. Am I speaking to Alice Hedges, Peter Prentice’s aunt?”
A surge of adrenaline sharpened Alice’s senses. The already-anxious morning she was having was abruptly brought into focus. “Yes, I am.” She waited with held breath for what she’d hear next, fearing it would be bad news about Peter.
“Thank you for taking my call. I’m Kimberly Amis. You might recognize the name. I have a weekly column in the Star-Herald; it’s called Kim’s Korner. Human-interest stuff, basically. I write pieces about people and families in this city that readers enjoy learning about. Do you know my column, Ms. Hedges?”
Cautiously, Alice replied, “I’ve read it.”
“Good, I don’t have to explain, then, how it celebrates triumphs and castigates those who run afoul of good behavior by citing their own deeds. I have many scouts telling me about things they’ve heard; I get my column ideas from them.
“Yesterday, I was told that you’d thrown your nephew out on the streets, that he’s 13 years old and a small, soft, innocent, perhaps naive boy. That you did this because you found a website on his computer showing two teen boys in, well, I’ll call it in flagrante delicto. On seeing that and checking his viewing history, you decided your nephew was gay, and you threw him out of the house. And that you did so knowing he had no money, no food, no shelter. You tossed into the world to fend for himself with no way to do that. I’m calling you for your side of the story, which I’ll post with what I learn when I interview Peter. Would you like to comment?”
“I . . . I . . . No. I have no comment at all, but if you run what you told me in the paper, I’ll sue for defamation of character and libel.”
“You can certainly do that, Ms. Hedges, but I won’t be defaming or libeling you, simply reporting substantiated facts. My style is to quote the principals in my pieces, in this case, Peter and you. I won’t add anything of my own, not even my opinion. Well, let me retract that. I will write what is public record about you: that you’re a financial advisor in the employ of Merrit-Locke, one of the major brokerage houses in New York, that you have an office in this city, and undoubtedly your clients trust you to handle their assets. If Peter asks me if you have a legal obligation to care for him, I’ll tell him I don’t give legal advice but do often write about moral responsibilities, and I may suggest to him that you are very much lacking in that area.”
Alice was silent for long enough that Kimberly asked, “Are you still there?”
“Yes. When will this column appear?”
“I haven’t spoken to Peter yet. The column will appear after that happens if the facts are as they’ve been presented to me. I’m thinking of titling it The Meanest Woman in Our City.”
“Why are you doing this to me?” Kimberly could hear the emotion in her voice but couldn’t decide if she was ready to break down or if it was anger building.
“I’m merely reporting an ongoing situation here. I think the better question to ask is, why are you throwing a vulnerable boy to the wolves for doing what most every boy his age does? Did you know what the average age, the average age, of boys seeing sexual activity on the computer in this country is? It’s eleven! Do you know the percentage of teens who’ve watched porn? It’s 85%! I don’t know Peter at all, but it seems most likely he’s a normal 13-year-old who’s curious about sex, curious about the new feelings he’s having, and he found a way to satisfy his curiosity the way most of his peers do. There’s not even any reason to assume he’s gay. Boys his age tend not to differentiate gender when exploring their interests.”
She paused, and when Alice was silent, continued with, “I doubt Peter felt he was doing anything wrong. He was in learning mode. If he was embarrassed or thought what he was doing was dirty, he’d have made sure the picture you saw wasn’t open on his computer.
“This will make a great column, and if it causes you some hurt, I doubt it’ll be as bad as it was for Peter, being thrown out of the only home he has, with no resources to fall back on. I just hope he found some sort of succor last night. I’ve been trying to find him and haven’t been able to yet. I’m worried about him.”
Alice again said nothing.
“Anyway, I wanted you to know the column will appear soon, and I’ll give you a chance to mount a defense for your actions. I see you don’t have any. Good day to you, Ms. Hedges.”
Alice put down the phone.
On the other end, Kim also hung up, then smiled at Mr. Becquith, the newspaper’s publisher. He grinned back at her and said, “Perfect, Kim.”
“You sure she’ll be home?”
Peter smiled. Sam was the nervous one now. Peter wasn’t sure why; he was the one
who’d do the bulk of the talking. “You’ve asked me that three times now. And
this’ll be the third time you’re getting the same answer: I don’t know for
sure, but she should be; she’s usually home Saturday mornings. If she isn’t,
we’ll come back. So, settle down. What’re you so worried about?”
Sam just smiled at him. No way he could tell Peter that he wanted this to work more than anything he could remember wanting. What would become of Peter if this didn’t work? And how painful would it be for him to lose Peter? No, this had to work. It would! But he couldn’t stop his nerves from jangling.
He did feel that they had an excellent plan, helped out by the phone call his dad had arranged. But much of their success would depend on Peter’s aunt, how she’d react, and he didn’t know her at all.
Sam rang the doorbell. They waited, Peter standing behind Sam, and because he was the smaller of the two, they hoped he wouldn’t be seen immediately. They didn’t want the door slammed in their faces.
The door opened.
Alice was beside herself. That newspaper column would ruin her. She’d not only lose all her clients because of how it would tarnish her reputation in town, but she’d be fired as well. The reputation of Merrit-Locke was of utmost important to them, and reading about her moral turpitude would be her demise at that company.
But that thought, serious as it was, took second place to her worry about Peter. Only now when she was thinking clearheadedly did she realize how much she loved the boy. She hadn’t a clue to what might have befallen him since her rash, wrongheaded banishment, but many ugly scenarios ran through her head.
There was no justification for what she’d done. She knew that. She also was worried sick. What had happened to Peter? Was he still alive? Was he safe? She had no idea.
She heard the doorbell ring, and was scared to open it. Was it the police with terrible news? Or good news?
She didn’t rush to the door. She needed to brace herself for what might be tragedy. She walked, and, fearing the worst, opened the door.
The woman answering the doorbell appeared to Sam to be slightly older than his mother so was probably in her mid- to late-40’s, but where his mother had a perpetual smile on her face and warm eyes, this woman looked much more severe. She wore a long housedress, much longer than the current fashion, and her hair was up in a tight bun. There was no welcoming smile on her lips or in her eyes. In fact, if he could read her expression at all, he’d have said she looked worried. Maybe even scared.
“Yes?” she said, staring at Sam.
Peter stepped out from behind him. Alice’s mouth dropped open, her eyes widened, and then, to the boys’ dismay, she collapsed.
Alice was on the couch when she came to. Peter was sitting next to her and holding her hand, and the other boy was holding a glass of water.
“Aunt Alice, this is my friend Sam. We need to talk to you.” Sam handed her the glass, and she gave him a tentative smile, then drank the water. Sam didn’t see any worry in her eyes now. She’d been worried about Peter, though, he thought. That had to be good. Maybe this wouldn’t be as difficult as he’d expected.
She handed the empty glass back to Sam, then looked at her nephew. “Oh, my God, Peter. You’re here. How . . . how did I get on the couch? I think I fainted.”
“Sam and I carried you here. Are you all right now?”
“I think so. I‘ve been so worried. About you. I was about to call the police.” She opened her arms, looking for all the world like she wanted him to come to her, wanted to hug him.
Peter didn’t hesitate. He slid across the couch and into her arms.
She hugged him tight. “I’m so sorry, Peter. I need to talk to you, too. I need to explain.”
Peter let go of her and moved slightly to a shorter couch at right angles to the one Alice was on. Sam sat down next to him, and Alice noted how closely together they sat. She nodded, took a breath, and then spoke.
“Peter, I made a huge mistake. I hope you can forgive me. I need to tell you why I acted like I did.”
“You mean you don’t feel the way you did when you said those things to me, and said I couldn’t live here any more?” Peter’s eyes seemed wider than she’d ever seen them.
“No, I made a mistake. I want you here, and when I said those things, I was reacting and not really myself. I struggled with my feelings the last two nights. I’m finally thinking straight again. Let me explain.”
Alice had spent much of the previous night thinking about Peter, having wild, conflicting thoughts and reliving what were dreadful memories. She was reluctant to pass those on to her nephew, but how could she clear up what she’d done otherwise? She knew she had to do this.
“You don’t know what your mother and I dealt with growing up. Your grandparents died early so you never knew them. You were lucky. Your mother was several years younger than I was and didn’t really have to face what I did at home.
“Your grandparents were strict Southern Baptists. My father lived his beliefs. The Bible told him he was the head of the household, that everyone else in the house was to do what he told them to. His word was law. The head of the church they attended said the man was to provide moral and physical leadership to the family, and physical punishment was condoned in the Bible; the wife’s job was to support the man and do his bidding. She was to serve him and his wishes. She was to satisfy his sexual needs and bear his children.
“My father was an ogre. We learned very early to do everything he asked of us. His punishments were harsh and often for something trivial; we thought it was just because he wanted us to be afraid of him. I left home as soon as I could when your mother was still young enough not to be of much interest to him as I already was. I couldn’t stay any longer when I was 16. That was when I ran away.”
She stopped. The next part was very difficult, but if she didn’t finish now, she never would, and Peter deserved to know.
“Anything that man decided I’d done wrong, no matter what, I’d get a spanking. For that, I had to strip completely naked and lie across his lap. He’d spank me with his bare hand. You’d think he’d have stopped that by the time I reached puberty, but no, the spankings actually increased then. They increased until I was 16. I had pubic hair then and full breasts, but I still had to stand naked before him to be looked at and then lie on his lap. The last time he spanked me, he was stripped down to his boxers. When he spanked me, he had an accident—although I’ve never been sure it was accidental. I could feel what was happening as I lay in his lap. As he struck me, he began wiggling around. Eventually, he held me in place with his hand on my butt, pushing me down onto him as he moved under me. Then he stopped and breathed differently. I knew what had happened. I stood up, still naked, and in a sudden burst of bravery and anger, I told him then that if he ever touched me again, I’d tell my school counselor what he’d been doing, and I’d tell the police. Soon after that, I left. I was deeply afraid of him by then. I’d challenged him, and he couldn’t tolerate that. I thought he’d brood on it, then come at me, and I didn’t know how that would end but knew it would be bad. Luckily, I had a friend, and her family took me in.”
She forced herself to go on. “We didn’t have Sex-Ed back then. The only things I knew early on were from my mother. She told me sex with her husband was a woman’s obligation. That it was our burden as women, that no matter what, it was our duty to bear. That I’d have to learn to accept pleasing a man to have a marriage. I think she knew what sort of man her husband was, but she was raised in the same church he was and bowed to his commands.
“When I was starting to mature, the little I knew about sex, about relations between adult males and females, came from my schoolmates. They found sex exciting. They did it willingly with their boyfriends, and they told me about it and what it was like and what they did. That was why I knew what my father was doing when I was across his lap. And I knew it was wrong.”
She stopped and stood up. Her face was red. Both boys were silent. “I need another glass of water,” she said, and went into the kitchen.
It was several minutes before she returned. When she did, she sat again, and this time, when she spoke, her voice was softer and less rough.
“Peter, this is background to explain why I acted the way I did to you yesterday. I was raised being told sex was a thing that was only for making babies. It wasn’t for any other reason. It often was painful for a woman but she was a vessel and that was proper. Sex was sinful if its purpose wasn’t to produce children. The worst use of sex was for pleasure, and the very worst was when two people of the same sex indulged in it. That was the ultimate wickedness.
“I ran away from home to be away from my father and his influence, but his words have never really left my head. They were drummed into me day after day, year after year. Accordingly, I never had sex when young and have never had it still, not even since leaving that home. In my mind still, sex is wicked, painful and sinful. I think I’m afraid of it. When I saw what you had on your computer, Peter, all those thoughts that I’d forced down in my mind came rushing back. I had this notion when I saw that screen that I furthering the course of ultimate sin by allowing it my house. I had to push that away from me. Push all that sin away.
“I wasn’t thinking clearly. I’m sorry, Peter! All those dark memories were coming back, my head was full of them, and I let them control me. I said awful things to you, but that wasn’t me. Not really. That was your grandparents you heard. But their words came out of my mouth, and I’m so, so sorry.”
It took her a few moments to calm herself. The boys waited. Then, “I spent a bad night, thinking I would throw you out the next day, but having a vague sense that it was wrong to do so. But my upbringing was too strong. I woke up convinced I couldn’t accept you in my house, in my life—that you were the epitome of wickedness. So, I packed a bag for you and had the locks changed. I set the bag outside and that was that.”
She shook her head, and then her whole body had a short-lived tremor, remembering. “Then I had an even worse night last night. I did finally fall asleep, and when I woke, it was with a clear head and the realization that I’d made a huge mistake. Somehow, while asleep, I’d come to my senses, and what I’d done. I’d thrown you out based on what my father had pounded into me, things I now knew were wrong. I knew they were! And I thought about you. I knew you didn’t have any friends. I didn’t know how you’d spent the night, even if you’d survived, after what I’d done. My greatest fear cane from thinking about how some boys kill themselves out of despair, and you had every reason to feel that way because of my actions. I had no idea what had happened to you. I panicked. I didn’t know how to find you, and I was terrified.
“The more I thought, the more scared I became. I was going to check with the school today but then remembered it was Saturday and you wouldn’t be there. I didn’t know what to do, and then I got a phone call from the newspaper. They knew what I’d done, and listening to it being spelled out to me was even more devastating. It put things into perspective, and I saw how my terrible actions would appear to the public. I was already feeling low and scared, and then it was even worse. What I’d done was awful, the worst thing I’d ever done. It was after that when my doorbell rang. I was afraid it would be the police telling me they’d found your body. I’ve never been so glad to see anyone as I was you when you stepped out from behind your friend. I guess the relief on top of my fears were too much, and I fainted.
“Please, please don’t think I believe any of what I said. Please come back here to live. I’ve decided I need to see a therapist to get some resolution about things that were said and done to me when I was your age. I’m going to do that.
“Now, it’s your turn. You can say anything you want, ask me anything you want. I’ll be open and truthful. I know I have to earn your trust again.”
Peter looked at Sam. Sam smiled. That made Peter smile, too.
“Aunt Alice, I was really scared. I didn’t know what would happen to me. But I found Sam, and he found me, and, well, some good came out of what you did that might not have happened otherwise, so I don’t feel bad about it now. I’m so sorry you had to live like you did when you were my age. And, of course, I want to stay living with you. Part of why I was so scared was because you were all I had. Aunt Alice, I love you. It hurt so bad when I thought you didn’t love me, but now I know that isn’t true.
“We came here today to try to tell you about boys our age, about what we think about, how we behave, and to convince you we’re not wicked or evil. I had the speech all worked out, but I don’t need it now. You’re back to being the aunt I love.”
Sam, impetuous as was his nature, spoke up. “I don’t know what to call you. I don’t like to call adults by their first name. It sounds rude and disrespectful to me. What’s your last name?”
“I’m Alice Hedges. But Ms. Hedges sounds dreadful. Spinster Hedges even worse! The one is too formal, the other too disparaging. I have the feeling I’m going to be seeing a lot of you, Sam. Why don’t you call me Aunt Alice like Peter does? And I want to know about you, too.”
Sam grinned at her. “You’re about to. Peter just said we found each other. We did, and it was only yesterday, so we don’t know just what our relationship is yet. You may not want to hear about sex as it’s something you’ve never had to deal with since you were 16, but boys our age think about sex a lot. That’s why Peter had that on his computer. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, and in Sex-Ed we’re told it’s normal. But you want to know about me, so even though this feels like a huge risk, I’m going to tell you.
“Okay, that’s preamble. You need to know about us. And I’ll admit it: I’m scared doing this. But, well, here goes. We’re only 13, and we both know that. But I think I might be gay, and Peter thinks he might be, too. We haven’t done anything together, not even kissed. Part of that is our age; part is we’re just getting to know each other. But I do know I like Peter, and he likes me. I like him a whole lot! We’ll kiss when it feels right to do so, and we’ll probably do more than that. In time, we’ll learn if we’re gay or straight. Boys our age experiment and in doing so learn about themselves. What I’m wondering is, will you’ll be able to accept that?”
Alice looked at the two of them on the couch, sitting even closer together now. They looked so young, so innocent, so fragile, and they certainly didn’t look as evil as her father would have thought them. They weren’t the devil incarnate; they were two young boys. Good boys, certainly. She knew Peter was and didn’t think he’d join with anyone who didn’t share his values. Just looking at them, she could see how wrong her father had been. Still, how could she answer Sam’s question? She needed to be careful with her thoughts.
“Sam, I know teenagers have sex. Even way back when. I was taught it was sinful to do that, and it was offensive to God. My father told me that many times. But my friends said that was crazy talk. So, I got mixed messages, and it’s no wonder I’ve always been confused about sex. But I’m an adult now. I had no idea my father’s teachings still had the hold on me they did then. I am going to talk to a therapist; I have to get rid of his vile ideas. But I know now how wrong he was, and I can say with conviction that you two are welcome in my home—in Peter’s and my home—and I will not object if you want to learn about who you are while you’re here. This is the safest place to do that. You have my permission—and my blessings.”
Peter jumped up and ran to her and hugged her again. She hugged him back and murmured in his ear, “I love you too, Peter, so very much. I’m so glad you can forgive a silly old woman.”
“Tell me again why we have to get up at six in the morning? What an ungodly hour!”
Peter ignored him till he was finished tying his shoe. Then he said, “We’re in training. We’re freshmen, and Coach said our times are good enough to make the varsity track team. Well, I don’t want to just be on the team, I want to win, and to do that, we have to train. If I’m going to get up that early every day, you’re going to get up with me when we have sleepovers. I’ll be doing it every day, so it won’t be long before I’ll be finishing way ahead of you. Learn to accept it. Learn to do it gracefully. Anyway, stop bitching and get dressed.”
“You know,” Sam whined, “I liked you a lot better when you were just a wimpy little thing who never expressed an opinion on anything, not ever.”
Peter laughed. “Don’t blame me; you’re the one who’s pushed me into believing in myself. You’re the one who’s made me part of your group of friends. You’re the one who’s told me I’m the best kisser in the world, though how you’d know that makes me wonder just how many boys you’ve made out with.”
“That’s easy; only one: you. And for the world’s best, that’s just me imagining. If anyone is better, it would probably kill me, so I have to assume you’re way up there, certainly among the top ten at the very least, and more likely in the top five. Here, stop a sec and let me have a refresher so if I meet any other cute boys today the comparison will be recent.”
They were outside by then, and Peter started jogging away. He called back over his shoulder, “Only if you can catch me,” and took off in a sprint, laughing.
Thanks to the the few, the brave, who read and fix my stories before they go public, and for the embarrassment they save me from enduring.
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