I looked down at my son. He was sprawled on the living room floor, looking boneless like only a 12-year-old can. I sighed. He wasn’t moving, simply lying there, showing no life, no vitality. He used to be such a vibrant child.
He’d had so many disruptions in his life lately. It wasn’t surprising that it seemed someone had flipped the switch on the back of his head to the off position. The most frustrating thing was, I hadn’t been able to locate it to turn it back on.
We’d been so close for so long. This emotional shut-down hurt like hell. It was painful for me, and probably for him as well. I simply didn’t know why he was so sad or how to fix it.
Fixing things was part of what I did. I didn’t have a traditional job. I wrote a little, edited some, ghosted for a couple of people whose names people knew and respected. I did a little of this and that. I could fix objects, too: computers and lawnmowers and grandfather clocks. Stuff like that. Making a lot of money was never important to me. Mostly what I did, what I cared about, was raising my son Caden.
He was hurting and I was at a loss.
The TV set was on, but it didn’t seem he was paying any attention to it.
“Caden?” I spoke softly. He didn’t respond. He’d been doing that a lot lately.
A few months ago, we’d moved from Oswego, New York, to Washington, D.C. Worst thing we could have done, but that was water under the bridge. Had I known what would come . . .
˜ ˜ ˜
My wife received a big promotion, but accepting it meant moving. I didn’t think it would result in what it did. My fault for lacking prescience. Too, my naïvety when it came to how far she’d go and what drove her was astounding.
My wife and I had much different personalities, goals, and outlooks. She was a high-achiever. Moving onward and upward was what she was all about. Getting to the top. I always felt that was proving to herself that she could climb was more important than the higher job itself. Anything less than continually moving up was a failure.
I, on the other hand, was very laid back, easygoing, unchallenging and unchallenged. Don’t make waves; let things be. That’s me, who I am. Okay, I had an education and knew ‘that’s me’ should be ‘that’s I’, but I lose the rhyme that way, and who cares, anyway? As I said, easygoing. And anyway, arguing this is beside the point of what I’m saying here—or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it shows what I’m saying: that I’m a ‘what-will-be-will-be’ kind of guy.
I catered to Maddy’s wishes as hers were important to her, and mine weren’t difficult or rigid and could easily be set aside. The promotion made her just below the vice-president level in her corporation. She wouldn’t be satisfied till she reached the acme, CEO, maybe even chairman of the board, but this move, this promotion, was a step that made that possible. Who was I to deny her that opportunity?
When we’d settled, it was into a very nice house in Chevy Chase, Maryland, only a few minutes from her company’s headquarters. The house cost an arm and a leg, but she was making a fortune with her new title, and she had her own money from her family. She also thought it important that we live in a house like the one we purchased; it showed executive-style class and had an impressive address. I liked it because the neighborhood was beautiful and the schools were close by and highly rated.
We moved in the summer. Caden would be going into seventh grade: middle school. He wouldn’t know anyone, which bothered him some, but he and I were still talking then, and I reassured him as much as I could. I reminded him how easily he made friends. I reminded him what an excellent student he was. I told him he was an all-star. I bucked him up.
I’d have liked it if someone had been around to buck me up. Once we moved, Maddy went into overdrive. She began working 11-, 12-hour days. She could see her goal just sitting there in front of her, within her reach. She was in her late thirties, like me. The vice president of her division was nearing retirement, and she was positioning herself for that job.
I was seeing very little of her, and Caden wasn’t seeing her at all. This wasn’t all that unusual for him or me. I had gotten the idea a few years ago that Caden and I were resumé enhancements for her. Now it had become even more apparent. She had no time for either of us, and wasn’t even apologetic.
Even though her job was located about 15 minutes from the house, 20 if there was heavy traffic, there were quite a few nights she didn’t come home at all, and when she did, she barely spoke to me. Sex wasn’t available, either, and I was a young man with a healthy appetite.
I was what I was, easygoing and laid back; what I wasn’t was stupid. I went online and looked up private detectives. Never in a million years had I ever thought I’d be looking to hire a gumshoe, a private eye.
Many of these outfits used fancy titles, and there were a lot of listings. Way down on the list was a company called Pedersen & Associates. I don’t know why I clicked on that one, but I did; it was simply one of five websites I opened. Maybe I didn’t like pretension. And maybe ‘Have Camera, Will Travel’ or one with a slogan like ‘Drawn blinds no problem’ with an icon of a winking emoji sounded too dainty or looked too precious to me.
I liked the low-key approach the Pedersen site had. No hard sell. What I found surprising was the picture of the two agency principals. They both looked young; one didn’t even look 21. Could you get a snooping license if you were that young?
Maybe the picture was ten years old.
Anyway, their motto—‘No job too big, satisfaction guaranteed’—appealed to me. I gave them a call.
The man who answered didn’t sound like he was sub-21. “Pedersen and Associates. Jackson Broke, associate, speaking. How can we be of assistance?”
There was no point in squirreling around. “I think my wife might be stepping out on me. Do you do that sort of work?”
“That’s about half our business,” Mr. Broke said with a repressed chuckle in his voice. Then, “I’m sorry. I’m sure this isn’t a frivolous matter to you. But yes, we do this all the time.”
“And what’s your fee?”
He told me the hourly fee, said the total bill would depend on how long it took, but usually this sort of job took less than a week. It also would depend on if I wanted proof of dalliance—that was the phrase he used—in the form of pictures or videos. That would cost more depending on how graphic I wanted the proof to be: the greater the number of cameras and bribes, the higher the price of the job climbed.
“But all told, even with in-flagrante-delicto photos, the cost will probably end up under a thousand bucks. That’s how this sort of thing usually goes. We work fast and confidentially.”
“I guess I’m curious enough to spend a grand on this. When can you get started?”
“As soon as we have a signed contract. I can come to you or you can come to me, whichever is better for you.”
I gave him my address and he said he’d be by within the hour.
I was impressed when he came. He had a business suit on. Tall and thin and rather handsome. Sober tie. He moved with an athlete’s grace but didn’t come on strong. He was polite, well-spoken and self-assured. I felt very comfortable with him. I guessed he was under 30 years of age, yet self-confidence oozed from his pores. He was congenial but business-like.
He had a contract with him. It had lots of blanks where I specifically detailed what I wanted. I wanted to know if Maddy was having sex with someone who wasn’t me. If she was, I knew I couldn’t continue to live with her, mutual trust being important to me. So, I did need proof—for a divorce hearing, for getting full custody of Caden, and for a monetary settlement.
That sounds like I was after the almighty buck, but it wasn’t that. I’d sacrificed, passed up personal opportunities so I could be available for Caden and she could spend time at her job. It seemed right that I be compensated. In any event, I’d need the money to keep Caden enjoying the lifestyle he was used to. Besides, she could afford it, and if she felt the pinch, I guessed I’d have enough injured ego to be pleased by that.
And, of course, it was certainly possible she was at her desk all the times I thought she might be somewhere more conducive to personal gratification.
Before he left, I asked Jackson—he told me to call him that—if the picture on their website showed his partner as he’d looked a few years ago.
Jackson smiled. “We’ve only been in business for a year. He’s not really my partner; he’s my boss. And my best friend. Jan Pedersen. Even more than my best friend. He saved my life a couple of times. He won’t be 21 for a few years yet. But he’s a remarkable young man. I’m sure you’ll meet him.”
“He has a license as a detective? You have to be licensed to do this work, don’t you?”
“We both have licenses. I’m ex-FBI. Quit because it was mostly deskwork and because Jan needed someone with him while getting his agency going. He is young—not 18 yet, the age you need to be to secure a license here—but he’s as capable as anyone you’ve ever met, and he has powerful friends. They managed to get the age reg waived for him.”
Somehow, Jackson’s self-assurance kept me from worrying that these guys might be too young and inexperienced for the job. He said he’d keep me informed of how it was going. I gave him all the information he asked for about Maddy, including where she worked and that her name was Maddy Simpson rather than Maddy Reynolds; she’d kept her maiden name, so we were a family of Nick Reynolds, Caden Reynolds and Maddy Simpson. Jackson thanked me, accepted a check for a retainer and left.
It was five days later when I got a phone call. It was Jackson, and he said he was sorry, but I’d been correct in thinking my wife wasn’t being faithful to her vows, and they had proof. He asked when we could get together so he could give me the proof and we could settle up.
I thought it would be better not to do this at home. I had to think about what I wanted to do with the proof of her fooling around, and if Jackson was here and Maddy happened to come in—which I admit was doubtful—I didn’t want to have to explain to her who Jackson was or why he was in our house.
I went to his office. That turned out to be the apartment where he was living with Jan, his friend and sorta boss. I met Jan there; he indeed did look young, much younger than 17. He didn’t sound that young when he spoke, however. There was something in his voice and manner that made him seem older than his actual age.
They showed me a video they’d taken of Maddy with a man in what looked like a hotel room. It was very obvious what they were doing. Neither had a stitch of clothing on, and they spent the entire video on the bed, using every inch of it as their physical engagement was astoundingly active. It showed me a Maddy who was performing as I hadn’t seen her since early in our marriage. It was very disappointing, but for some reason, while it could have been humiliating or demoralizing and could have felt emasculating, I didn’t feel any of that. One, I assumed she saw sleeping her way to the top, if that was what she was doing, as morally acceptable. Two, I never thought and never would that I was the reason our marriage hadn’t worked out. I had long felt the marriage had been a sham; I’d felt that way almost from the beginning. She needed a profile for career advancement, and a husband and child provided that. I’d, no, we’d just been a stepping stone on the path she’d been treading all the time we’d been together.
She’d needed a marriage and a child to support her spurious character as she moved forward in her career. It was harsh and unfeeling of her to use us that way, but that was who she was. She got that from her father.
I took the video and a copy of it, paid my account, shook hands with both of the professional snoops and left.
˜ ˜ ˜
I had to work through what I wanted from this point on. My major consideration was Caden. He was already changing; there was stress in the house simply because his mother, while not home all that much before the move, was basically missing in action now, and Caden, as sensitive as he was and now worrying about being the new kid in school, had this other change to wrap his emotions around. Whatever actions I took concerning Maddy, Caden was in the forefront of my thoughts.
Caden’s welfare and my own were the two things I wanted to get out of this. Some feeling of stability for him. Some feeling that everything would be okay moving forward.
I knew I had to divorce her. No question there. It did occur to me that I could ask for a divorce and then move back to Oswego. But there wasn’t much security in that. The house we’d had there had sold; I wasn’t sure I could find somewhere else in the same school district we’d been in before if we did go back, so I didn’t know if Caden could return to what he’d left there; he could end up going to a new school even if we did get into that district. I didn’t see any advantage in moving from one new place to what would in effect be another new place.
I decided what I wanted to happen, then phoned Maddy at work. She had her cellphone turned off. I was paranoid enough to think she did that so I couldn’t get to her without using a landline, which would mean going through a secretary.
I actually had to go through two secretaries to get her on the line, but I was persistent and finally was speaking to her. She sounded distant and hurried. I thought that was just her being her; I doubted she had any sense of what this might be about.
“You and I need to sit down and talk, Maddy,” I began. “And it needs to be tonight.”
“No, I have late meetings today and a presentation tomorrow that I’m still preparing. Just tell me on the phone what you want.” She was displaying her managerial pose, being in charge, dictating terms. Nothing new.
I did have to bite my tongue. I wanted to ask her why her first words weren’t questions about how Caden was and whether this meeting with me later on concerned him. That’s what I’d ask first if our positions were reversed. But criticizing her wouldn’t help me get done what I wanted to do. I let it go.
“Maddy, we have to talk in person. There are things we need to talk about, and doing so in person is the civilized way to behave. I’m sorry, but it needs to be tonight. I’m sure your schedule is busy tonight, and tomorrow, and into the future. You will just have to make time for this.”
I’d been speaking gently, not really apologetically but not preemptively, either. Now I hardened my voice to an assertive one. “There’s a small, quiet bar on the corner of Livingston and 39th. It’s named Chez. Meet me there at 8:30. If you don’t come, you’ll hear from my lawyer. It would be better if we had a private discussion in person, but if you want, I can make other arrangements to meet with you. But I doubt you want to be served with a subpoena at work and have to explain that to anyone. I’ll see you at 8:30. And it’ll be tonight.”
I hung up to preclude any further argument.
Chevy Chase is a beautiful, upper-end D.C. suburb in Maryland. Chez, the bar, was quiet and dark and at 8:30, almost empty. The before-dinner crowd had come and gone, and the after-dinner customers would filter in later.
I chose an upholstered banquette separate from the few other people drinking there. I arrived a little early. Maddy would come, I was sure—the mention of subpoenas made sure of that—and I also was sure she’d be late. She’d never been on time for a non-work meeting in her life.
She came in at 8:40, walking briskly, looking angry, spotted me and came over, sank on to the cushioned bench across from me, and said, “This had better be good.”
I nodded. A waiter came, and I ordered a draft ale. Maddy simply waved him away.
I waited a moment before speaking, indicating I had all the time in the world. I knew that would infuriate her. No matter what, she was going to be mad. Might as well start off that way. Preemptively. That was her way.
“Maddy, I’m here to talk about where you and I go from here. Our marriage is over. There are options how we handle that, but not many. We can divorce, or we can legally separate. What we aren’t going to do is continue with the status quo. My feeling is a divorce would be best. But I wanted to let you have a say.”
“What are you talking about? A divorce? Why? Just because I’m working long hours? That’s to support you. And Caden. If you think that’s grounds for divorce, two-thirds of the marriages in this country would be on the skids.”
“Maddy, come on. It’s not about that. It’s about infidelity, kicking your marital vows under the bus. Adultery, if you want a stronger word. It’s grounds for divorce in Maryland. And since you’re the one doing it, and because I won’t abide having a wife who’d do that, or my son finding out, I’m perfectly happy if we make the divorce a very quiet one. No one has to know but us. We can keep it under the rug, but there are terms to be worked out, and if you want to play hardball, then lawyers will be involved and it won’t be nearly so quiet, but that’s your choice and why we needed to meet to talk.”
“You’re crazy! I haven’t done anything like that. But you’re sure giving me grounds to seek a divorce myself.”
I took the memory stick I had in my pocket and handed it to her. “You can claim anything you want, but again, the more fuss, the less private this will all be. I have no reluctance for that video to be shown in court. You probably would be fired, so I doubt you want its existence to become public knowledge.”
“What’s this?” she asked, not even touching the memory stick.
I moved it on the table so it lay closer to her hand, waited till the waiter had left after serving my ale, then said, “It’s a video with you and some guy who’s not especially well-hung but is handsome and very enthusiastic. He’s a little older, a little gray—at least the hair on his head is—but sleeping with someone lower on the totem pole than you wouldn’t get you anything, so no doubt he’s above you in more ways than one. What you two are doing, well, you know: it’s the oldest dance there is. You appear to be enjoying yourself.”
She looked at the memory stick, then me, then back at the stick. Her face seemed to go pale in the dim light.
“I’ll tell you what I want so you can think it over,” I said, sounding as non-confrontational and low-key as I could. “I want an uncontested divorce; we don’t need to go to court, just sign some papers with the registrar. I want a few things, reasonable things. They include one-third of your salary every year with a minimum of 100 grand and an agreement that it can be audited. That’s less than a judge would probably award. I want full custody of Caden with any visitation being okayed by me in advance. I want the house, free and clear. That’s it. For that, I’m perfectly willing not to tell anyone we’re divorced or about your indiscretions. However, I’m not going to lie. If someone asks me if we’re divorced, my answer will depend on who it is that’s asking and what authority he has.
“I’m not looking to throw you under the bus, Maddy. I think you can trust me on that.”
She was sitting there, looking uncertain and entirely silent, a position she’d rarely assumed during our marriage. I gave her plenty of opportunity to speak, and when she didn’t, I did. “Maryland isn’t a community- property state. The courts decide the division of property. But if we sign an agreement and abide by it, the courts won’t get involved. This is a good deal for you. I’d advise you to accept it. I’ll give you three days. If you haven’t agreed by then, I’ll take you to court. Well, my lawyer will. My investigator will make an excellent witness in court. Lots of details. Sordid business. Juries love that. And then there’s the video.”
I stood up and dropped a ten-dollar bill on the table. “Three days,” I said, and walked out.
˜ ˜ ˜
All that had been a couple of months ago. Maddy had agreed, and we were now divorced. Caden, though—Caden had shut down.
I didn’t know why. He was hurting, that was clear, but then, so was I, now that he was barely talking to me. We’d been so close! Now, I wasn’t sure what was up. I did know that he’d been hit hard; his world had been shaken. He’d gone from a place he knew, a passel of friends, a solid feeling about his home and parents, to a new location, a new school, no mom now in the picture. It seemed to me his confidence had been shattered.
I didn’t know what to do about it. I tried. Damn, but I tried. I’d sit with him and talk. He’d sit there with his eyes on the floor, not meeting mine at all. I’d tell him how much I loved him, that I valued our relationship more than anything in the world. That it was killing me that he wouldn’t talk to me. When I was done, he’d get up and walk away.
Talking about how I was hurting wasn’t having an effect on him. But this wasn’t about me, and his silence underlined that for me. I realized this was something with him. Totally about him. Telling him I was hurting didn’t mean tiddly-boo to him, and not knowing what to do about it was killing me. I wasn’t helping him at all.
I knew I had to do more for him when, after the first couple of weeks of school, he told me he didn’t want to go back. He hated it there. I told him he had to. I saw him begin to cry, and he hurried back to his room. I felt impotent. I wanted to cry, too.
What parents do these days is send their kid to a psychologist. But Caden had always spoken to me. If he wouldn’t now, when he knew I was on his side, why would he talk to a stranger?
I began to wonder. He’d not liked the fact of the divorce, but he was still talking to me when I told him about it. It shook him some, but we still had each other. Then school started, and that’s when he’d pretty much totally withdrawn. It made good logical sense that the source of the problem could be at the school.
This was middle school. Completely different from elementary where he had one teacher all day. He’d loved his teachers in elementary school, every one of them, in the years he was there. Now, he had several teachers. Not just a single one all day he could grow close to. I had to wonder if this was part of the problem.
I tried to get Caden to open up to me, but he wouldn’t. Did he feel any problems he had at school were his fault, and he was embarrassed about it? Did he feel he should be able to handle his own issues but not know how, and he didn’t know how to ask for help?
I called the school and made an appointment with the principal. I needed to get to the bottom of this.
˜ ˜ ˜
Mrs. Barkley was a middle-aged, broad-bodied, severe lady. I saw no warmth in her at our first meeting—or any subsequent ones. I wondered why she’d chosen a profession where she had to work with kids, especially young ones just starting to feel the pressures of adolescence.
I spoke at length to her about Caden, what he’d gone through, how he’d changed from a voluble, loving, happy boy into a withdrawn, closed-down, unhappy one. Her response?
“Mr. Reynolds, we’re here to educate our students. We’re not nursemaids or mollycoddlers or even friends of our charges. We’re here to fill their heads with knowledge so they can move on to high school with the basics to equip them with what they need to succeed there.
“You’re telling me about his personal problems. That’s for you as a parent to fix. We’ll fix any educational ones. Now, is there anything else I can help you with? Anything within my area of tutelage?”
I’m a very peace-loving, mellow-fellow person, but when it comes to Caden’s welfare, I can be a little over the top. At that moment, I felt more than anything like standing up and decking her with a punch to the jaw. I had to restrain myself.
To the best I could, holding myself in check, I asked, “How is he doing academically?” What I really wanted to know is how he was doing socially, but she wasn’t the one to answer that. I had to find out who that was. A guidance counselor, perhaps?
“I have no idea, Mr. Reynolds. We’ll know better when half-term reports come in. Now, is that all? I have papers to go through.”
“Does he have a guidance counselor?” It seemed to me she should have been suggesting that. Evidently she had little interest in individual students.
I waited but that was all.
“And could I meet with him?” It was difficult keeping sarcasm out of my voice.
“I’d suggest you make an appointment. He’s very busy.”
I got up and left. Didn’t even say goodbye. She didn’t deserve the politeness. I asked one of the women working in the front office how I could get to see Mr. Bennett. She smiled at me, the first smile I’d seen all day, and told me to wait a sec, picked up a phone and made a call.
After hanging up, she said, “He’s available right now. Turn left out of this office, third door down on the right.”
I thanked her, followed her directions and found Mr. Bennett’s office door was open. It was a small room and there was a man in it sitting behind a desk. I knocked on the door frame, he looked up, then stood and said, “Come on in.”
Mr. Bennett was nothing like the principal. But he wasn’t much help. He was the single guidance counselor for the entire student population.
I told him about the problems Caden was having, and he had regret in his voice when he said, “I only get to know students well in their final year here unless a problem is brought to my attention. I’ve not met Caden or really any of the other first-year kids. I’ll try to do so, find out who he is, and talk to him if he wants to. I’m afraid Mrs. Barkley isn’t the soft and fuzzy sort. She knows we need more counselors but wants to spend the budget on schoolbooks and library books, which is fine and good but doesn’t really work in the real world filled with angst-ridden kids. I wish I could help. I’ll try to find out what I can, and I’ll call you when I have any information. That’s about the best I can do.”
I wasn’t going to give up. Caden was too special, too important. Seeing what I’d seen at the school, I had to believe that’s where the problem lay. It may have been enhanced by his circumstances, but its focal point was the school. Caden had always attended schools that had warm and caring staff. This school, if it took its direction and ethos from Mrs. Barkley, was anything but that.
I needed to find out what was happening, and trying to go through the school administration meant going through Mrs. Barkley, and that was a nonstarter.
I tried talking to Caden again, but if anything, he was deeper into himself now. I had to find another way.
I did have an idea. Silly, really, but it was something I thought to try. Why not? At least it was something. Sitting on my hands fretting wasn’t an option.
˜ ˜ ˜
“Hi again, Nick. I see who you are from caller ID. Can we be of service again?”
It wasn’t Jackson on the phone this time but Jan, the Pedersen of Pedersen & Associates. This was good because Jan was the one I wanted to hire.
“I think you can. I’d like to discuss something with you. I can come to your office.”
He laughed. “You mean our apartment. Sure thing. Right away? Clients are usually in a hurry.”
“If you’ll be there awhile, then sure. I’ll be there as soon as traffic allows.”
“I’ll be here.”
Traffic was light as it was midmorning. Jan was alone. The few times I’d met him had been a kick. He was an older teen, yet looked as young as Caden, but when talking to him, you realized the maturity he had. He was no 12-year-old!
I explained the problem I was having. I got a little emotional; talking about Caden and how he was hurting always affected me, and I had to tell Jan how ineffective I felt in not being able to do anything. I’d always been a capable man. Not now, though, and now was when it really mattered.
I told Jan what I wanted. I thought he’d hem and haw and point out the problems with and impossibility of my plan. Instead, he said it sounded just like the kind of case he loved taking on. He said he’d like to meet Caden, and if that went well, he’d begin immediately.
We arranged for a meeting, and then he called to cancel it. “It might be better if I’m entirely incognito.”
And that was how we left it.
Repeat business! That’s what any commercial enterprise liked. It meant we’d done well, well enough that we’d made an impression. There were many agencies like mine in town, so the competition was fierce. Evidently, there was plenty of sleeping around happening here and plenty of people who wanted to figure out who and when so they’d have some leverage. Getting what you want, being able to get what you want, seemed more important here in Washington, D.C., than any other place I’d ever lived. People here had fangs, even if you couldn’t see them; they’d learned how to smile without revealing them.
I didn’t want to think of the moral aspects of the jobs I did. A job was a job. When anyone hired my agency for a job, though, we always checked just enough to know we weren’t supplying anyone blackmail material, that they had a legitimate, ethical interest in the information we were securing for them.
I’d rather have had more jobs that didn’t include peeping in people’s bedroom windows, but I had to deal with what was available, and that’s where the money seemed to be. This new job Nick Reynolds was hiring us for was different, even unique, and I was eager to give it a go.
The previous job we’d worked for Nick was just run-of-the-mill intimate snooping. We’d become good at that. Nick had supplied us with his wife’s driver’s license number. We used that to get her license picture and checked the hotels in town. From Nick’s description, there was little chance she’d end up in a seedy motel. She was top-of-the-line in everything she did; I got the idea her ego demanded that. We checked with the concierges at the major hotels in town. Note to future private investigators: it’s wise for a PI to establish a working relationship with concierges.
We checked the 5-star hotels. We hit pay dirt at the Hay-Adams on 16th Street, near the White House. The concierge there recognized her. He checked her history for us and found she always asked for the same room; the man she was with varied, although recently it had been the same guy on several occasions. According to him, her need for a room seemed quite regular and often. The hotel saw her either two or three times a week, almost like clockwork.
It took a larger inducement than usual for him to allow us ten minutes in the room alone and to persuade him to notify us when she had booked in again. We used the time to install motion-activated video cameras that were virtually invisible.
Working with people established in the infrastructure of life in Washington was a big part of being successful in this business. Tradesmen of all sorts saw and heard things very helpful for a PI. On this job for Nick, we had to provide kickbacks to a concierge and a DMV employee. That would be part of the expense tally for Nick to cover, although it would be marked ‘expense outlay’ on the bill with no names provided.
The job Nick was hiring me for this time was something I was looking forward to doing. I had to act a part this time. That was always a challenge, and if successful, a real joy. Of course, while my part of the job could be a success for me, perhaps what I’d learn wouldn’t be happy news for Nick. I’d simply have to let it all play out as it would.
Sometimes, it had to be done successfully or there’d be no joy in Mudville ever again, but hopefully that wouldn’t be the case here. I’d have to make sure of that. I liked Nick, and would do what I could for him.
I had to establish some background. Luckily, Nick had some paperwork from the school Caden had attended in Oswego, NY. I used that as a template for building my own records. I made up a transcript, disciplinary, attendance and activity records for a fictitious school in St. Louis. I was an A and B student with perfect attendance, played on the soccer team and sang in the choir; I had never been disciplined for anything and was well-liked by the teachers there.
Would the records be checked? That seemed very doubtful. Jackson, my partner at the agency and for this caper the person playing the part of my older brother, would take me into the school with the sealed documents and get me enrolled. It was early in the school year, only two and a half weeks in. Everyone was busy. Should be a piece of cake, an expression I’d heard Americans use.
There was no problem and I was enrolled as a middle school student.
Jackson had received a copy of Caden’s class schedule from Nick, and he arranged with the lady at the desk for me to be in those classes. He managed to get me into most of them. It was important to me to be with Caden during the day and especially in gym and his lunch period. He was in early lunch, and Jackson made a point of telling them I had blood-sugar problems. They were under control but eating lunch early would help keep them that way.
Caden’s gym class was during the period right before lunch. Jackson flirted somewhat unabashedly with the woman at the front desk, said gym in the afternoon wouldn’t be good for me and somehow, with a mixture of sexiness and persuasion, he got me into that gym period, too.
Because my schedule now had the middle covered, it seemed sort of automatic that the rest of my classes ended up being the same as Caden’s, too.
The fun part of this job began the next day.
I was in an English class first period. I was asked to speak in front of the class, telling them about myself. So, I did. In rapid Swedish, I told them all about myself. Well, as much as I could in two sentences before the teacher stopped me.
“Do you speak English?” she asked.
“Bara lite,” I answered, then looked sheepish and said in English with a strong accent, “Just a few.”
“What was that you were speaking?” she asked, looking a little worried.
“Swedish.” Then in Swedish I said, “Jag är mer flytande i svenska än engelska,” and smiled at her.
The teacher turned to the class. “Does anyone here speak Swedish?”
Oops, I thought. What if someone did? There were so many kids in Washington with diplomatic parents, there easily could be someone who spoke Swedish.
And there was. A girl sitting in the middle of the class raised her hand. She was blonde and cute, but of course too young for me. Still . . . I didn’t have a whole lot of opportunity to rub shoulders, or anything else, with pretty young girls.
The teacher turned to me. “That girl is Astrid. You can sit next to her, and she can translate anything you don’t understand.” Then she asked the boy sitting next to Astrid, “Fred, can you move so this boy can have your seat?” Back to me again, she asked, “Did you tell us your name when you spoke at first?”
“Yes,” I said, appearing confused. Then, suddenly understanding, or at least giving her that impression, I said, “Nils.” That was the name we’d put on my faked school documents. As a kid, I’d loved that name and always wished my parents had given it to me.
“Well, Nils, please sit next to Astrid.” She said that loudly, as though loud would make it more understandable for me.
I took the seat. Everyone was staring at me. Good thing I wasn’t self-conscious.
Turned out Astrid was in the same classes as both Caden and I. I’d spotted Caden as soon as I’d entered the classroom. He was sitting in the back. Sort of slumped in his seat. Not smiling. Not talking to anyone, though the class hadn’t started yet.
Astrid, new in Washington and here in middle school like everyone else and still feeling her way, suddenly found a purpose in school. She was my escort! And she was going to take care of me. I had to keep the laughter inside. One, it was nice of her, and two, I didn’t want to do anything to drive her away as she provided a perfect foil for me. She was pretty enough that anyone seeing me would also see her, and I’d be overlooked.
She sat beside me in all my classes and spoke to me in Swedish in the halls. She explained to me how the school worked, who the nice kids were, the ones to avoid—she seemed to know this even though she’d only been here a couple of weeks herself. She sat with me in the cafeteria at one of the tables that was only large enough for two people. We ended up having lunch together every day.
This was great as I could listen to her speaking to me—she was a great talker and loved to use her Swedish—and I could watch Caden.
Caden ate lunch with three other boys. The same three every day. He didn’t seem happy. He rarely spoke. I managed to ask Astrid about who those boys were without giving any special reason; I asked about other kids, too, so Caden was just one of many. She was so busy explaining everything that I guessed she simply took this as another opportunity to show how much she knew.
Speaking in Swedish, as she always did with me, she said, “Those boys are what we call ‘jocks’ in English. Sporty boys. Well, three of them are. I don’t know if the fourth boy is or not. He seems different, somehow.”
“Do you know the other three at all? Are they nice?”
“No . . . well, I know their names because they’re in our classes. But I don’t know them other than that. The older one is Kyle, the other two are Billy and Mark. Those three are sporty boys, and boys like that often are a bit full of themselves, and sometimes they can be bullies. I don’t know about these boys. They don’t seem to have a lot of friends. The three of them, now four since they’ve adopted Caden—that’s the fourth boy’s name—hang together. That’s the word Americans use: hang.”
At last, I seemed to be asking questions and learning something that I was being paid for. I had to find out more. It wasn’t fair to Nick if I took forever with this. I’d been watching the four of them every day in the cafeteria. But I wasn’t learning much, other than that Caden ‘hung’ with them.
Jackson had told people that I had an insight that was stronger than most. I guess it was that insight that was telling me there was something off about those boys. Something felt wrong.
The week was ending. I’d had gym class with Caden every day. He spent it with his three ‘friends.’ Running, exercising, any group activities—those four were a quartet. It was clear that the three sporty ones were a trio; I wasn’t sure how Caden fit in with them. Caden rarely spoke and never smiled when with them. I had to learn more about what was what with them.
I did have one advantage if I could find a way to use it. I’d kept up the ploy of not being good with English. The kids at school had left me alone because I’d always acted shy and pretended I couldn’t understand what they were saying to me. Perhaps I could find a way to use that when dealing with those three boys and Caden. Perhaps I could set it up so they’d simply ignore the strange kid who didn’t speak their language.
I’d noticed that they seemed to arrive in the cafeteria fifteen minutes or so after the rest of us. I didn’t know why that was or what they were doing, but I didn’t think the way to find out was to stay in the locker room late myself. I was sure whatever I saw would be very innocent if I were there witnessing it.
I waited outside the locker room one day after gym and saw them come out late and go directly to the cafeteria. Well, now I was certain the locker room was where they were during those few minutes after gym. I just didn’t know what was happening there.
I came up with a plan. Weak? Very. But I had to try. I was enjoying my time in middle school and especially my time with Astrid but felt a little guilty about leading her on as I’d been doing. I kinda wished she was older.
˜ ˜ ˜
Caden had been acting more nervous than usual in the first classes of the day when I’d been at the school for just over a week. I could sense his anxiety. It was Friday, and I had to act; this was taking too long. In gym, we were running, and just before it was time to go back to the locker room, I managed to twist my ankle. Well, to act like I’d twisted my ankle. I limped to my locker which was in view of Caden’s if I moved a little and stretched my neck.
I got undressed, which I’d been doing every day. Most of the boys were wearing a jockstrap, and they undressed to take that off, but on went their underwear quickly. Then they’d go to the sinks to wash off any sweat. A few boys did that naked; no one showered. I got naked but just used a towel at my locker to dry off while the other boys were at the sinks. A 17-year-old doesn’t look much like a 12- or 13-year-old down there. And I wanted everyone to think I was their age. My problem was, though I looked about 13, I had the normal pubic hair and genitalia boys my age did. I supposed I could have shaved or trimmed, but the hair was only half the problem. Keeping a towel strategically placed was how I solved that problem.
Everyone got dressed and left when the bell rang. That day, I was still there, pretending to tape up my sore ankle, still naked with my towel draped over my lap. I didn’t think they were aware I was still there.
I heard voices and stuck out my head carefully. I didn’t want them—Caden and friends—to see me.
I watched and listened and eventually decided I had to do something. Nick had made it clear when he hired me that he needed to know if anything at school was causing the funk Caden was in, and if so, to tell him so he could decide what to do about it. That had been what I was trying to do. Now, after listening, I had at least an idea of a possible reason Caden had become distant. Was what I was hearing the entirety of his problem? I didn’t know, but I didn’t think I could just sit on the knowledge I now had and tell Nick about it later. I had to act, even if that wasn’t my job.
I stood up. My entire attitude had changed. I had no reason now to be anything but myself.
I strode up to confront the four boys. I was still naked, and so were three of them. The only one of us still dressed was Caden.
How I played this had to be a little delicate. I agreed with Nick: it wasn’t my job to fix things between him and Caden. But I was still who I was, a person who wasn’t going to sit back and watch when a situation called for something to be done.
“Hi,” I said. All four looked at me, each with his own peculiar expression. I knew them from watching them all week. One, the Kyle kid, was the leader. He was taller than the rest, built a little better and looked a little more mature than his friends. He carried a leader-of-the-pack attitude. Dark hair, dark eyes, very good looking. He was the one I spoke to. In perfect English. Well, perhaps with an English accent.
“Glad you guys are here. My ankle’s sore and I need to go to the nurse. I can’t tape it tight enough myself. Sorry to interrupt anything. You guys go on about your business. I winked at Kyle. “All of you except Caden. Caden, can you help me find the nurse? I need a shoulder to lean on for support. You’re just the right size to act as a crutch.”
I grinned at him.
Caden was looking at my nakedness. Well, truthfully, they all were except for Kyle, the one I was challenging.
It didn’t appear to me that any of the others realized that I was challenging Kyle. Kyle knew. That was apparent to me; it showed in his eyes. He was aware of what was happening—very aware.
The only question was, how was he going to respond? I’d spoken to Caden, but I was looking at Kyle. He was meeting my eyes and looking back.
I had a good idea what he was thinking. There were three of them, and I looked like I was 13; they could bring me down easily, beat me to a pulp. But then, there was this dick I had that they’d all looked at. It wasn’t a 13-year-old’s dick. So, what was the deal with that? What was going on there? Was I really as young as I looked, and why was I now speaking fluent English when all anyone had heard me speak was Swedish?
That was certainly something to consider, and, too, if they did beat me up, what then? I could, probably would, tell who did it, and they’d be kicked out of school. If my injuries were serious enough, they might even be arrested and sent to some youth detention center. Also, there was Caden to think about. How would he react if they started a brawl? He’d be a witness. If he was questioned, what would he say?
All that had to be coursing through Kyle’s mind. I waited. That’s always a good tactic. Let someone else make the tough decision. The silence became tense, and then Kyle said, “Yeah, why don’t you help him, Cay?”
Then, to me, in a baffled tone of voice: “Aren’t you the one who can’t speak English?”
Without a bit of a smile, I said, “Kyle, no doubt there are a great many things you got wrong. Things you should think hard about.” Then, turning to Caden, “Can you give me a hand to my locker? Help me to get to it, I’ll throw some clothes on, and then we can find the nurse.”
No one else said a word. Caden had the weirdest expression on his face, and it kept changing. I didn’t bother to try to decipher any of them. I simply waited for him to decide what to do, and he did. He walked the short distance to his locker, changed from gym clothes to school clothes and then allowed me to put a hand on his shoulder as we walked to mine. The other three guys hadn’t moved or spoken; they just watched us.
I got dressed, and Caden walked out of the locker room with me. When we were in the hall, me limping to get there, I stopped and said, “I don’t really need the nurse. Nothing’s wrong with my ankle. I am hungry, though, and would like to get lunch. I know, that’ll be a little awkward when those boys come in. You have some stuff to think about. Maybe some questions you’d like answered. But if you’d like, we can eat, and you can sit with me and a girl who’s in our classes, Astrid. Would that be okay?”
He stared wide-eyed at me, and I had to keep from smiling. Confused much? That was what I wanted to say, but I didn’t. I certainly could guess all the thoughts that were bounding around in his head. What he finally said surprised the shit out of me. Nick had told me he was smart. Caden’s question showed me Nick was right.
“How did you know?”
Could I tell him? No, I had to leave this to Nick. So I prevaricated. “No one speaks to me, so it gives me a lot of time to watch people. I’ve especially watched you. Not because you’re cute, which you are, but because of the weird vibe Kyle and those other two give off, especially when they’re with you. I thought maybe you were in trouble. I hate bullies. Always have.”
“You speak English fine.” He said it almost like an accusation, and I grinned.
“Got me. Guilty as charged. I have a weird sense of humor. Now, lunch? Astrid will be waiting. You’ll like her. She’s great. And not my girlfriend, just so you know.”
He got a funny look on his face.
Damn, that kid was cute! And he was going to be fine; I could just tell. There was some moxie in him. And I was pretty sure he’d be talking with Nick again soon. Either on his own or with Nick’s help.
I haven’t been good for some time. Everything was great when we lived in New York. Then the whole world turned upside down. I’d been looking forward to middle school with my friends. Then it was like someone stuck me in a box and then closed the lid and started shaking it, rattling it around, and I’m wondering when it’s going to stop and I’ll be let out again. I’m tired of being so off-balance.
Things have been bad.
First, we moved to Washington, D.C. I lost all my friends when we did that and everything I knew; then Dad decided to divorce Mom; then I had a new school to go to; and that wasn’t even all of it. Together, it was all too much. Way too much for me to handle. I shut down.
Dad hated that, but he was part of the problem. He was on top of me all the time! A boy my age is feeling things he hasn’t felt before and has to have time to think, time to learn to deal with them, to get used to them. A boy still growing likes to have both a mom and dad to talk to, even if he can’t talk about some things.
Sure, Mom was never around, but I always felt her presence, even if I was only fooling myself. Just knowing I had a mom and a dad made me feel safe and supported. Normal, even—like most kids. It’s good for a kid to feel normal. And then suddenly, with no warning, just like moving away from the only home I’d ever known, Mom was gone.
I was scared, going to a new school where I didn’t know a single person. I knew all the kids in my old school, and I’d be going to a new one in Oswego, but I’d have all those kids accompanying me. That reduced any fear of the unknown I had; all of us would be there together feeling the same jitters. Here, now, I didn’t have anything to absorb any of that fear.
It was at school, where I was trying hard not to be noticed, that the problems got worse. Well, that problem had begun earlier, but it hadn’t been a problem back then. At the new school, it was very much a problem and would only become worse as the days passed.
I’d had sex ed at my old school. Boys and girls in the class together, which was really weird and very uncomfortable. It was taught by an older woman, Mrs. Connor, who was very straightforward. She told us that boys our age would start getting boners. She called them erections but she was talking about boners. She said boys of all ages got, uh, erections, but now they were being influenced by the hormones that were now affecting us.
We all knew what she wasn’t saying: that these weren’t your everyday variety boners. These were sex boners.
I still had a problem with her talking about penises. There were girls there, for crying out loud! Girls didn’t know anything about penises. Well, they had no business knowing about them! But she didn’t just talk about them, either. She showed pictures of naked boys our age! And of boners. Well, erections.
But she said at our age penises became stiff and longer, and when they got like that, they were called erections, and we’d have them at our age. She said we shouldn’t be embarrassed. She said boys having erections and girls having their periods were just a signs we were beginning to grow up, it was natural, and so there was nothing to be embarrassed about.
Hah! Let her try walking the halls of the school with a tent in her pants. Then she’d see about this nothing she was referring to!
What she was saying was a load of crap anyway! Pure crap! Girls getting periods was sort of like sneezing—it was just their bodies doing something that happened. But getting erections, it might just happen, but it was related to sex. And sex at our age was very embarrassing. Getting your period had nothing at all to do with sex. Getting a boner was very much about sex!
We’d never thought about sex before, or at least we’d never felt sexual feelings before. Now we did, and an erection showed we were thinking about it right then!
Mrs. Connor said having an erection for boys our age wasn’t about sex. Then she spoke about hormones and how they affected a boy’s body. Testosterone. Yeah, but we could all see what a load of crap that was! Testosterone was a sex hormone. It was nice of her to try to keep us from feeling embarrassed, but she wasn’t the one sporting the erections we weren’t supposed to be embarrassed about and, according to her, had nothing to do with sex! A blind idiot could see she was blowing smoke at us.
We all were embarrassed. We all tried to hide them. We knew she was just making stuff up.
I was certainly getting boners I didn’t want at all sorts of odd times, but also I got one when I saw someone who gave me those feelings I’d never had before. Mrs. Connor said that was something we’d experience now, too. Attraction to other kids and sexual feelings about them. She said that’s what crushes at our age were all about.
She also said we’d get crushes on kids of both sexes. That was normal, she said, and fine, and we’d probably have those for a few years before our attraction to only one sex would become predominant. She said crushes at our age on people of our sex was normal, it was almost universal, and it didn’t mean we were gay.
She also spoke about kids who were gay. She said there was nothing wrong with being gay, that some of us would be and most of us wouldn’t be, and just as we needed to accept that we were now feeling sexual attractions to each other, if you were indeed gay, that wasn’t anything to be embarrassed about, either, and we should accept that just like we were accepting our sexual feelings.
She said trying to hide who we were was a terrible way to live. Be proud of who you are, she said.
As I already said, she was full of crap. And saying those things about penises and erections in front of all those girls! I didn’t want to think about that.
Actually, I didn’t think much about girls at all. Which was the problem I’ve been avoiding here all along. And it was a bigger problem now than ever. I knew I was gay. But no one else did, and if it was a problem before, now that I didn’t have a mom living with us, a mom who I knew didn’t have much interest in me, I was stuck with only a dad, and while he was everything to me, what if he didn’t want a gay son? A lot of dads didn’t! I’d read the stories. I knew boys like me got thrown out on the street. Would that happen if he found out I was gay? Maybe. Maybe it would.
That was on my mind as well as my other problems when I started my new school. I knew no one at that school, but there were plenty of good-looking boys that caught my attention. I discovered that a certain kind of boy did it for me. The athletic-looking ones, the muscular ones—if you could call any of the boys my age muscular—the confident and mature ones who had a dominating personality. There was one special boy in my classes that I really couldn’t stop staring at. He looked older, and when I learned who he was, I found he’d been held back, so he actually was a year older than the rest of us. And, being held back in itself helped create an extra attraction for him. Maybe he was a bad boy!
The problem was, he caught me staring. Sitting at my school desk and staring at him. Sitting at my desk and having the reaction I often had when looking at a cute boy I had a hard time not looking at. He saw me, and it scared the crap out of me because no one could ever know I was having the feelings that I did about boys. I’d die if anyone knew.
Screw Mrs. Connor! She could say I should be proud of myself and accept myself and show no embarrassment over it, but this was a huge deal! No one could ever know, and now I’d been caught! I could be living on the streets or in a home on the bottom of the totem pole there.
This was even worse than just bad: the boy smiled at me. Damn! Then he reached down and rubbed himself!
His name was Kyle, and he came over and talked to me. He didn’t rub himself enough to get a boner, or at least I didn’t see one when he walked over. He grinned, looked down at my lap and said he got boners looking at boys, too, especially cute ones like me. He said I should eat lunch with him.
I didn’t have any friends, and he wanted to be one! He turned me on something fierce, and he just thought it was funny; he kept looking at my lap and grinning. He had to see I was scared, and he didn’t mind at all!
He was in gym with me, too. We couldn’t do much talking in gym; the teacher there saw to that. But Kyle walked from gym with me to the cafeteria, and we did eat together.
That was when the problem really came into focus, I guess. It soon changed me from being myself to someone who was reserved and a little too careful and not very happy.
We sat at lunch, and it was great, really great until two other boys sat down, too. Just that quickly, I went from feeling I had a special friend now, which made me feel special, too, to just another kid and not special at all. I guess I’d always been a little shy with new people. These guys were aggressive and obviously friends of Kyle, and I felt sort of exposed and weak and alone in front of them.
These two and Kyle were close, that was obvious. Kyle introduced me to them—Billy and Mark. I didn’t get a good vibe from them. The way their eyes looked when they were turned on me made me feel like, I don’t know, some sort of captive creature they were licking their chops over.
Kyle told them I was one of them, I liked boys, and I could join their group if I showed I was worthy of them. I started feeling like I didn’t belong there at all. He gave away my secret so easily, something I’d been hiding for about a year, like it didn’t matter at all.
Kyle was bigger than I was; he’d been the only one at school paying any attention to me at all, but that had lasted for only a couple of hours, and now all three of them were together, sticking close to me in gym.
They wanted me to stay in the locker room after gym. Kyle had me sit next to him on a bench and told Billy and Mark to show me what they all did. Mark pulled Billy’s gym shorts down and started feeling him up. Billy got hard really fast.
I got hard, too. So did Kyle, and he grinned at me. “You’ll get to do this, too. Isn’t this great? Just watch!”
I was still in my gym shorts, as was Kyle in his. Both tenting like crazy. Mark started jerking Billy off, and it didn’t take long. Billy used his gym shorts to clean up with, and then we all changed and walked to lunch.
That’s how it went all week. I got quieter and quieter, and Kyle seemed to like that. He seemed to know I was disturbed, but I always did what he told me to: little things like carrying his books, or what seat to take at their table. I’m not sure why I always was so submissive. But I was. I wasn’t happy about it a bit. I was growing more and more silent.
At home, I felt bad. I was hiding this secret from Dad. I’d never done that before, and it made him unhappy that I wouldn’t tell him what was up with me. But how could I? I was gay, and he’d hate that. He was a man’s man, successful, outgoing, capable of whatever he tried, and here he had a gay son. A gay son who wasn’t standing up for himself, who couldn’t walk away from these guys who scared him. I just couldn’t tell him. I didn’t see how that would help anything, and it could be awful, him knowing who I really was.
My whole personality changed. I’d never been like this before. Kyle and his buds more and more spoke to me like I was some sort of spineless pushover they could do what they wanted with. They hadn’t been cruel; they’d just acted as though they were in charge of me. I made the mistake of telling Kyle no one could know I was gay. Anytime I didn’t act the way they wanted me to, I’d get reminded of that. “Hey, anyone think that guy over there knows you’re gay? What about Mr. Bennett? Maybe we should tell him.”
That was awful. If they told Mr. Bennett, he’d tell Dad!
After gym each day, in the few minutes they had, they’d do naked things together. I had to watch. It always got me hard. By now I was naked, too, just like them, but I only watched. They said I had to be initiated before I could join. Before I could join the fun! I didn’t want to join! I didn’t want anything to do with them. But they’d tell people about how I was if I balked. And Dad would find out. So, I watched and got hard, and they enjoyed having me as an audience.
Dad was at his wits’ end about me. And all I could do was look down, let him say what he had to say, and then go to my room and cry.
Finally, the day came when they told me my initiation would come the next day, that I’d go through my initiation and could join in the fun.
I barely slept that night. I was like a zombie the next day. In gym, I was just going through the motions, and in the locker room they were all grinning at me. I didn’t know what to do.
When everyone else had left and the three of them were naked—I was zombie-like then, too, and hadn’t done anything but stand there while the others were stripping—Kyle told me what the initiation would be.
“You’ve seen us sucking each other and jerking each other off. Today’s your turn to join in. You get naked, Bill and Mark will jerk you off, and while they’re doing that, you get to suck me off. You’ll love it! Now get your clothes off.”
I’m still not sure where the nerve came from, but I stood up a little straighter. “No,” I said.
Kyle looked at me, and his expression changed. “You’re going to have my dick in your mouth. The fun way or the hard way, but you’re going to do it. If it’s the hard way, then after that, we’ll tell everyone you begged to suck my cock, and then you did it even when I said no. So, what’ll it be, Caden?”
What happened next—it still shakes me up, thinking about it. I’d never believed in angels before. This changed my mind.
A boy who was in my classes, one who only spoke Swedish, came around the corner of the lockers. He was naked, and I couldn’t help but look, even though my heart was beating fast from facing up to Kyle. This kid didn’t look like I expected any 12- or 13-year-old to look! But while I was focused on that, he was speaking, and although it seemed like he was speaking to me, his eyes were on Kyle.
He asked if someone could help him go see the nurse; he said his ankle was hurt, and he needed someone to lean on. I was the one he asked help him! I didn’t think he even knew my name, but he did. I had no idea why he’d ask me to help. There was a moment of silence then, a tense moment, though I wasn’t sure why it felt that way, and then Kyle, in a much softer voice than he’d used only moments earlier, no longer sounding as dominant as he had, told me I should help this guy.
Whew! I was being released, and I’d never had Kyle’s dick in my mouth or had to fight three guys! One minute earlier, it had seemed impossible that I’d be able to say that. My heart didn’t need to be racing any longer, though it took a few minutes for it to understand that.
When we left the locker room, the boy, whose name was Nils, stopped limping, told me he was faking the ankle injury, and started talking to me. He managed to persuade me to have lunch with him and a girl named Astrid, who also was in my classes.
I was mostly silent during that lunch. I had a lot to think about: how brave I’d been, but how everyone would now learn I got hard looking at cute boys. Everyone would say I was gay. But I’d stood up for myself, and I’d done it against three boys! I had that to be proud of.
My dad? I needed to talk to him. Maybe, if I had the courage to stand up to Kyle, I could at least talk to my dad. I loved him, and he loved me. That had to mean something. Would he throw me out? We’d have to see.
I was going to tell him. I decided that. Tell him everything, why I’d stopped talking to him and that I might be gay. I was going to.
I think Nils must have been a mind reader. He seemed to know what I was thinking, why I wasn’t talking much.
“Caden,” he said, and his voice was as sweet and soft as syrup, just like his eyes were, “I think I know what’s going through your head. You think those boys, Kyle and the other two, are going to tell everyone about you. They won’t. They’d be telling about themselves. They’d be the ones in trouble, not you. They won’t say a word and will be terrified that you will. You hold the upper hand here. Don’t worry about them!”
“But what about my dad?” I blurted out. I hadn’t meant to say that, but he was being so kind that I got caught up in the moment.
Nils nodded. “That’s been worrying you, too. I see. Okay, tell me, are you two close?”
“We are. I’ve been so worried he’d find out I like looking at boys, he might hate me.”
He kept looking at me with those soft eyes. When he spoke, there was determination in his voice that seemed to affect me as well. I could feel it. “There’s only one way to find out. If you were close, and then you stopped talking to him, I’ll bet you anything he feels bad about that, and more than anything, he wants the old, talkative Caden back. You’re a brave kid, you just showed yourself that, doing what you did in the locker room. Be brave when you go home. Talk to your dad, Caden.”
“Okay,” I said. I’d already decided to do that, but having Nil’s advice and support just made my resolve stronger.
It was funny what happened next. We finished eating, and then Nils told me he was proud of me, but that he probably wouldn’t see me again because this would be his last day at school. He also told Astrid and me that we both needed a friend, we made a very cute pairing, and we should continue to eat lunch together.
Astrid blushed, and maybe I did, too. We’ve been eating lunch together ever since.
When Caden came home from school, something was different. His shoulders weren’t slumped as defensively as they had been recently, but the big change was in his eyes. They showed life again. It had been awhile since I’d seen that.
He set his backpack on the kitchen table, looked at me and said, “We need to talk.”
“Not first,” I said. “First, this,” and I hugged him. I was surprised at how hard he hugged me back.
“I have a lot to tell you,” he began.
This time, finally, I was wise. I didn’t say a word, simply sat down at the table and smiled at him supportively.
“I was afraid to talk to you, afraid of what you’d think when you found out I might be attracted to boys; afraid I might be thrown out with nowhere to go.”
He stopped and shook his head, frowning. “No, I’m saying it wrong; still a little frightened, I guess. But, saying ‘might be’ is wrong. I am attracted to boys. I like looking at them and get aroused sometimes when I do. I didn’t think I was into girls at all, but I’m eating lunch with one now, and I can’t say I have no attraction to them at all any longer. Her name is Astrid, and she’s really nice. But I don’t have the same urges with her I do with boys.”
He stopped and looked at the table, and I kept my mouth shut. I could see it would be no help at all if I injected my feelings into this. Too late smart, I thought.
Caden raised his eyes to mine. “That was impossible for me to say, before, but I can now. I now see I was being silly shutting you out, but it was all so new to me, and I didn’t know how to handle it. What happened was, I saw a cute boy, and he saw me, and he got me to eat lunch with him, and that’s where my problems started. I thought he might be attracted to me like I was to him, but he wasn’t. Instead of us being two guys together, he had two other friends join him, and they were obviously buddies with him. They talked openly about doing sex things together. They wanted me to join in.
“That wasn’t what I wanted at all, but they made it clear, if I told anyone what they were doing, they’d say it was all my idea, I was doing it with them, I was a part of it, and I was gay.
“I couldn’t let that happen because then you’d find out, and you might hate me, and that scared me more than anything.”
He stopped and dropped his eyes, and I was up in a flash, over to him and hugging him again. “I’m so sorry all that happened to you. So sorry.” What I didn’t do was try to minimize what he’d been through. Didn’t tell him it was okay. Didn’t scold him for not trusting me and talking about it. It had happened to him, and he’d felt helpless, and I wasn’t going to tell him he hadn’t handled it properly. Again, I thought, the smart way to handle this was just to support him, love him, listen to him and not try to carry the conversation further than he wanted it to go.
“So,” I asked, “what changed? How were you able to get past this?”
“It was the strangest thing. Today was when I was being forced to join their club. To actually have sex with them after gym. And somehow, I found the courage to say no. Then, they told me that wasn’t an option, that the three of them would force me. I don’t know what would have happened after that, but a boy was in the locker room with us, one who we thought didn’t speak English. He came over and asked me to help him; he said he’d hurt his ankle and needed me to help him get to the nurse.
“It was strange because he asked me for help but was looking at Kyle while asking. Kyle was the alpha dog of the three of them. This boy, Nils, seemed to be having a staring match with Kyle, and even though Nils was the smallest of the five of us, somehow his personality seemed the biggest, and Kyle backed down. So I went out of the locker room with Nils, then went to lunch with him. That’s where I met Astrid.
“He told me those boys would be more scared of me than I needed to be of them. That they wouldn’t give me any problems. Also, that this was his last day at school, and he suggested I eat lunch with Astrid every day. I’m going to do that! She’s awfully nice.”
He stopped and smiled at me, and somehow he made it apparent that it was my turn to talk.
I did. “I need to apologize to you, Caden. I responded to how you were acting all this time you’ve been hurting by trying so hard to get you to talk, and what I needed to do was let you have the space you needed to work on your problem by yourself. I needed to let you know I was there, but not push you so hard.”
He smiled but shook his head. “I was so into myself; I don’t think anything you’d have done would have made any difference.”
“Maybe, but I didn’t think. I reacted emotionally instead of thoughtfully. I know, I do know, that one thing kids your age hate with every fiber of their being is embarrassment. I never gave it a thought that what was bothering you might be something you were embarrassed to talk to me about. I can see it so clearly now, but I was in the middle of feeling sorry for myself for not being able to help you.”
“I was embarrassed. And worried how you’d react to my being gay.”
“I love you, Caden, more than anything. If you’re gay, I’ll love that, too, if it’s part of who you are. I’ll welcome any boyfriend you bring home. But you say being with Astrid has given you second thoughts.”
“Yeah, I finally realized the truth of what the sex-ed teachers have always stressed: when you’re my age, you’ll get a lot of crushes, and I should just enjoy the feeling and not worry about what sex they’re caused by; not to label myself because it’s too early to do that. But that’s what I did. I stuck a label on myself, and then worried about that. That was all my mistake.”
“We can both share the blame,” I insisted. “But that’s past us now. You don’t have to be embarrassed about anything regarding sex or the changes you’re feeling. You know I went through that, too. All boys do. We change; we feel new things; it’s all part of life. You can talk to me about any of it without an ounce of embarrassment.”
“Thanks, Dad. I’ll try. And if I’m gay, I’ll tell you that. If I’m not, I’ll tell you that, too.”
“So . . . Astrid?”
He blushed. Then, risking raising his eyes to meet mine, he said, “I like her a lot. But she doesn’t give me the same feelings Kyle did when I first saw him. I can talk to Astrid, tell her what I’m feeling and everything, but—”
He stopped, then blushed again. “There’s a boy in my English class. He’s really cute! I saw him looking at me a couple of times, then turning away fast when I looked back.”
I smiled at him. “You’re really cute, too, Caden. Are you going to talk to him?”
Caden gave me a tentative, shy smile. “Maybe.”