Priorities by Gee Whillickers








ut that's stupid. Our school doesn't have any gay kids,” Richard said. He sat the next row over, and two

 seats up from me, so I could just make out his incredulous expression in profile.



Mr. Barnett peered over his glasses at Rich from the front of the classroom and adjusted the knot of his tie for the hundredth time in the past fifteen minutes. He was the only teacher in our school who still wore one. “Oh? I apologize, Richard. I wasn't aware you were the resident demographics expert this year.” He shook his head slightly, almost imperceptibly, then changed tacks slightly. “Richard, how many of your classmates, sitting here right now, were born in another country?”


Rich looked back at Mr. Barnett, a bit puzzled. He then glanced around the room frowning before looking back at Mr. Barnett. “I dunno, two that I know of for sure. Maybe four or five?”


Mr. Barnett addressed the class, “Hands up everyone who was born outside this country.”


Eleven kids out of thirty-seven raised their hands.


“Hmm, perhaps your demographics assessment needs a bit of tweaking, Richard.”


“Yeah, but so what? How was I supposed to know…” Rich tailed off weakly, realizing he was caught. He crossed his arms and just looked back at Mr. Barnett defiantly. “But that's different!”


Mr. Barnett just looked back at Richard. He didn't say a word.


That's why I liked Mr. Barnett so much, despite his weird tie and jacket. He was the only teacher I knew who could teach a concept more thoroughly by just looking at you for ten seconds and raising his eyebrows than other teachers could in a ten-minute lecture. One of these days I was going to figure out how he did that.


Obviously it worked on kids other than just me. Richard responded to the unspoken lecture, “No, it is different! Some things I'd just know.


Mr. Barnett looked a bit sad for some reason. The classroom was completely quiet, which was really weird for the last class of the day with five minutes left, and a sunny warm spring day outside. It seemed this conversation was interesting to the other kids too, though I didn't completely understand the reasons for their rapt attention.


Mr. Barnett opened his mouth, seemingly about to respond to Richard's apparently innate knowledge of his classmates’ sexuality. But then he must've caught the same thing I did. The set of Richard's chin. The slight glistening in his eyes. Mr. Barnett surprised me. He always surprised me. I didn't think he was ever aware of his students' feelings. Especially when they were barely visible and rather confusing.


Instead of answering Richard he looked away, and looked over the classroom as a whole, managing to meet everyone's eyes in just a second or two. He always did that. Even though he was addressing the whole class, you somehow knew, after that, that he was specifically talking to you. “It seems we've allowed ourselves to get a bit sidetracked. We don't have any time left today. So for homework….” The entire class let out the mandatory groan, and Mr. Barnett paused to let it happen. “…I want three pages on how our society deals with minorities. Specifically, I want to know how it's changed in the past fifty years, and what you think is better, or worse, than it was fifty years ago.”


“But Mr. Barnett,” said Alicia, “we don't have time for that! There's the dance tomorrow tonight and then the long weekend.” Alicia's expression told me that she knew she just put her foot in it.


“That gives you a whole five days before our next class. Sounds like plenty of time.” Just then the bell rang, cutting off Mr. Barnett's last word. Social Studies was mercifully over for the day.


Kids gathered up their belongings and began filing out, grumbling about the paper. Steve Sullivan walked by Richard and flicked his ear with a finger on his way by, “Nice going. Dick.”


Rich didn't seem to notice really, even though it must've hurt. “It's Rich. Not Dick,” he mumbled with about a quarter of the usual intensity when he said that.


Mr. Barnett must've noticed what happened. “Steven. Along with your three pages you will have another three, detailing the effects of random minor and subtle violence on a society's success and health.” When Steven looked like he was about to argue, Mr. Barnett continued, “Or would you rather I just sent you to see Ms. Glick? Again?”


Steve just nodded glumly and walked out without further argument. I wondered about that. Mr. Barnett's usual question to kids was more along the lines of, “Or would you rather I called your parents and explained what happened?” I remembered he’d said that to Steve earlier in the year. After Steve's strange, panicked and wild expression Mr. Barnett had never said that again. To Steve. He still said it to other kids. I would've thought he'd use it more, since it obviously had quite the effect on Steve. As far as I was concerned he deserved to feel a bit scared or whatever after how I've seen him make other kids feel. Besides, I'd much rather deal with my parents than Ms. Glick. It wasn't even close. Ms. Glick was scary.


I gathered up my things and began to walk out of the room. I didn't really give it much more thought. I had bigger things on my mind than a stupid three page paper that I probably wasn't going to bother even doing.


Grandpa was still in the hospital. Nobody would tell me what was going on. All I knew was the urgent whispering between Mom and Dad would stop when I entered the room. For Christ’s sake, I was fifteen, not five. You'd think they'd keep me in the loop. They knew how close me and Grandpa were.


Besides that, my leg was still sore, my schoolwork was still suffering, first because of the time I’d missed, and now because school just wasn't much of a priority these days, and I was now unemployed thanks to Mr. Samson retiring and closing up shop. I was never going to save up enough this way. And my sixteenth birthday was only a few months away.


Despite the turn of today's discussion in class, my thoughts on my possible gayness didn't even enter the picture. Besides, I'd need to somehow acquire one or two social skills before I ever had to worry about that, no matter what side of the coin I finally figured out was face up.


So I don't really know why I kept looking at Rich as I walked out. I knew even less about why he glanced back at me more than twice as he gathered up his own things.


“Samuel?” Mr. Barnett's voice stopped me just as I was walking through the door. I turned to look at him. He seemed to dissect me with his eyes for a second or two before continuing, “Are you planning on turning this assignment in? Or would it be easier on both of us to just mark it zero now?”


I was about to make an excuse when something in Mr. Barnett's eyes stopped me. I just couldn't lie to him. I breathed deeply, “No,” I sighed, “I'll do it.”


I knew somehow that I just committed myself. I wouldn't back out no matter what. It would get done. I wouldn't be able to deal with the look he'd give me if I didn't. Even though he probably wouldn't say a word.


If it was almost any other teacher I could've just brushed it off.


How did he do that?


I glanced back at Rich. He had seemingly been following this little conversation closely, though as soon as he saw me looking at him he tried to pretend disinterest. I shrugged and walked out of the class, out of the school, and towards home.


Social Studies was soon out of my mind. Like I said, I had other things to worry about than school.


Mom and Dad were worried about Grandpa. That much was obvious. I could read between the lines. I was just waiting for them to have enough guts to sit me down and fill me in.


No. That wasn't quite fair. It wasn't themselves they were trying to protect.


It was me.


They thought I was fragile. They wondered if I could handle the news. They figured I might do something stupid. I overheard them talking a few times. They still wondered if my accident wasn't quite an accident.


Sometimes, so did I.


Okay, not really. It was an accident. But I couldn't help wondering. A moment of sloppiness, of inattention, and everything went wrong. That wasn't like me when I was riding; usually I was hyper-focused. Especially on the top of the ridge. But not that day. One minute I'm thinking of stopping to eat my snack, the next I'm lying way far down at the bottom of the scree slope, thinking, “So that's what my leg bones look like.” Then the pain hit, and the shock, and the panic. My bike landed an arm's reach away, too close really, considering it was now leaking gas and oil. However in the end that's what probably saved my life. I dragged myself over, unzipped my pack, thankfully still bungeed to the seat, and called for an ambulance.


I need to back up a bit. Or none of this will make much sense. Not that it really does anyway. But here's how it all went down. Here's what Mr. Barnett likes to call, “the context of the fateful event.”


It was last summer. I had spent all summer up to that point busily involved in social activities, laughing and joking with my friends, going to all the parties….


Yeah. Sure.


The only true part of that is it was last summer. School had let out a few weeks before, and I hadn't seen anyone my age since.


I couldn't figure it out. I just couldn't. Whatever was so obvious to everyone else, was completely mysterious to me. Just a year before I had friends. Well, kind of. Maybe not the kind of friends that I could bare my soul to, but people I'd hang around with. Eat lunch with. Play ball with.


As the school year went on though, my calls and texts were returned with less and less frequency. My invitations met with excuses that became more pathetic by the day. It wasn't long before I really wasn't bothering anymore.


Somehow I had gone from being just another kid to a social outcast.


At first I tried to figure it out. I asked my friends, I mean my former friends, what the problem was. I asked what I did. I asked what had happened.


The few times they bothered to grace me with a response, they ranged from the vague, “Dude, c'mon. If you gotta ask….” to, “Look, nobody wants to hang around with a loser.”


My confidence, never particularly strong at the best of times, took a nosedive. I'm not sure what I did to start earning the “loser” label initially, but I'm sure I acted the part nicely by the time spring rolled around. I walked along with my head down, never looked anyone in the eye, barely grunted at the few people who tried to talk to me, and started letting myself go. I mean my clothes and stuff. I just didn't care how I looked, if my hair was combed, or washed, if the shirt I was wearing was less than squeaky clean.


Mom and dad didn't seem to notice. No surprise there. It's hard to notice things like that in the one or two seconds it takes to draw in a breath before arguing and yelling at your spouse some more.


I may have a few deficiencies, but I knew I was never stupid.


The writing was on the wall. Had been for months. I was just waiting for the day when one or both of them were going to sit me down for a talk. I dreaded the day I would hear it. That word.




Of course, that's not all that was on my mind. Not since I really hit puberty, anyway. But I thought I was doing a good job of ignoring that, it just didn't seem all that relevant right now anyway.


Somehow in the dim recesses of my muddled thinking I suspected my home life and what was happening to me at school were maybe connected somehow. But I couldn't put my finger on it. I figured I was playing the “regular kid from a happy home” role quite well.


Anyway, before my accident I had pretty much shut myself down from the world. I didn't talk to anyone, I didn't go anywhere, and I didn't do much of anything. I'd been like that for weeks. Maybe months, though I'm not sure, since it had come on kind of gradually.


Only two people on Earth seemed to even notice.


Grandpa, of course. And, wonder of wonders, a teacher.


Mr. Barnett.


Grandpa tried. He would ask me what I did on the weekend, how school was, the usual questions. And as my answers dwindled to shrugs and grunts and, “Nothing.” He became more frustrated.


He'd say, “Sammy, don't lie to me, boy. Something is gnarling up that brain of yours something awful. Spill it.”


But I never really did. It was hard to have real good conversations over video chat on the internet, and he was two thousand miles away now. I wouldn't see him for months. Why worry him?


Mr. Barnett had a different approach, prior to school ending for the year. I'd be in class, or walking down the hallway, and look up to find him looking at me. He never really had much of an expression that I could figure out, but his eyes seemed to be looking inside me, not at my face. As things got worse, and I started trying on the two-notches-down-from-a-street-bum look his scrutiny intensified.


I realized eventually that his more and more frequent questions, like, “How is everything, Samuel?” and, “Anything you need help with, Samuel?” weren't actually specific to Social Studies, but by then it was too late, and school ended for the year.


He must've said something to someone before that though. Maybe that's why I never really did end up answering him with more than a shrug, though I had thought about it a few times before then.


He must've said something because I had to talk to the school's resource officer and the guidance counselor.


Resource Officer was the fancy title they gave to the poor cop who was saddled with the worst job on the force who ended up having to spend her time dealing with our school and us kids. I wondered if she gave a speeding ticket to the wrong councilman or something.


Anyway, I was called down to the guidance office one day at lunch, was told to sit down in a comfy chair, and then was asked stupid, horrible, and embarrassing questions for twenty minutes.


By the time I escaped, without ever really saying more than fifteen words total, I resolved to never talk to anyone about myself ever again. And my shoulders were sore from shrugging, not to mention my eyes from rolling them so much.


So there I was. Last July. Sitting in my room as usual. Reading was boring me and TV was stupid. My video games just didn't seem interesting anymore. So I decided, on the spur of the moment, to do something I hadn't done much of lately.


I decided to go for a ride.


I think Mom had maybe noticed more than I gave her credit for about how I had been acting lately, as she did a double take when I told her, and actually looked at me and almost smiled.


Now, you need to understand something. Up until last year, before my big funk, if you needed to find me anytime during daylight hours when I wasn't in school, all you had to do was listen for the sweet sound of a 125cc two stroke engine balanced on two wheels in the hills behind our place. That's where I'd be.


From the time I was nine until I was fourteen I practically lived on that bike, and its predecessors.


I hadn't even started it in a month before the day of the accident. The day I decided to go for a ride up the ridge and to the lake beyond. The day everything started to change.


Okay, sorry for all this jumping around, but like I said. Context.


So there I was, lying there with a leg bone poking out of my riding pants, blood seeping everywhere, gas and oil seeping everywhere, and me thinking, “Yeah, with the way my life is going lately, it figures. I'm gonna die here, the same way I've been living for the past six months, alone and in pain.”


Anyway, the ambulance came. They told me later they used the GPS from my phone to figure out where I was. How cool is that? They shot me full of painkiller, bandaged me up, and carted me off to the hospital. They said I was being over-dramatic. I wasn't even close to dying. I never did figure out if that was true, or if they were trying to keep my spirits up.


So we arrived at the hospital. Where I lived for the next few months.


I won't go into that too much, because really it was ninety-nine percent excruciating boredom livened up by one percent excruciating pain after my operations and during physio.


They had to do two operations on my leg, and two more on my shoulder. I hadn't even realized initially that I had hurt my shoulder. That's all I'm going to say about my hospital stay.


But I will say this. Mom and Dad stopped fighting. At least in front of me, at the hospital. And they always came to visit me together. Later on, as the weeks went by, I saw them come in my room holding hands, like they used to do when I was little and we were walking somewhere.


I don't know if it was because of my accident, though it was pretty obvious that had something to do with it, or if it was more because of something Grandpa said to them, or the marriage group therapy thing they went to after Grandpa tore a strip off of them, but things were pretty obviously looking up for them.


I only knew about Grandpa's fight with them because of a couple of things he let slip when he was talking to them and he thought I was asleep.


Yeah, he flew down. The next day after my accident. Now you know why he's the best Grandpa I could ever have.


So October rolled around and I came home and went back to school. I went to physio twice a week and tried to catch up on my school work after missing a few weeks and tried to fit in again even though I really hadn't fit in at all last year and even though I missed a month's worth of, well, of everything. All the twists and turns and friendships and relationships and who's seeing who, and all that. At least that's how it was at my school. A whole month. Which is a lifetime in my school.


Okay, I guess I lied. About not telling anything more about my hospital stay. There were two more things that, thinking back, were probably important.


Okay, I lied again.


Three things that were maybe kind of important.


Definitely important.


In retrospect.


Mr. Barnett and his wife came to visit me. Which shocked me to no end, even though maybe it shouldn't have.


His wife was exactly like him. If you had introduced me to her randomly and then asked me who I thought it was most likely that she would be married to, I would've answered Mr. Barnett instantly.


I don't mean they looked the same, obviously. I mean the way they looked at you and seemed to really see deep into you. The way they listened hard. If that even makes sense. The way they could say so much in, like, ten words.


The way they asked a question and somehow you found yourself really thinking about the answer. I don't mean thinking about what they probably wanted to hear for an answer, like most of us kids tended to do with most adults.


I mean really thinking about the answer.


Later I figured out a bit of that. It wasn't the answer they really wanted in the first place. It was the thinking.


So they visited and then came to visit one more time a few days later, and Mr. Barnett seemed really pleased that I seemed to be in decent spirits and was doing okay.


The second important thing was when the nurse told me a shrink was coming to see me, and that it was standard procedure in accident and physical trauma cases like mine. That's what she said, anyway.


So there I was waiting for some psychologist or counselor or something one afternoon when Mrs. Barnett walks into my room. I said hello politely and then said, “Sorry, Mrs. Barnett, but I don't think you can visit right now. I'm waiting for some stupid shrink to come and see me in a few minutes.”


Mrs. Barnett smiled and said, “That's okay, Sam. I think the stupid shrink you're waiting for has arrived.” Then she handed me a card. The name on it was Dr. Sonja Barnett, followed by “Adolescent Psychology,” and some phone numbers.


I tried to quickly figure out a way to make the last few seconds of social interaction go back in time and not happen, but, as usual, that failed miserably. So, I did the next best thing.


I blushed hard and mumbled and stumbled through a stammered apology.


Instead of being angry though, she laughed and laughed. I somehow could tell she wasn't laughing at me, more at the whole situation, and so I found myself, after a few seconds, laughing along with her.


Anyway, that began my so-called “therapy.” Though really I don't know why she got paid for that. She just came a couple of times a week for a while and we chatted and joked and talked about my parents and my Grandpa and school and my accident and stuff, and that was about it. I found myself looking forward to her coming after a while, probably just because it relieved the hospital boredom, and was a bit disappointed when she said she didn't need to come anymore because I was, “…coping well right now, though there would be a few challenges ahead from the sounds of it.”


Whatever that meant.


The third thing that happened was another visitor. A kid from school.


Not one of my former friends though, a kid I really didn't know that well and had barely said hello to before. This kid's name was Rich.


To say I was surprised would be putting it mildly. I was pretty sure nobody from school even knew I was in the hospital. Never mind cared one way or the other.


So Rich knocked on the door, and asked if he could come in, and I stared at him with confusion for a few seconds before inviting him in.


Rich sat down in the chair beside the bed, but kind of on the front edge of it, like he wasn't really at all sure if he should even be there. His hands were holding the arms of the chair so tight his knuckles were white.


Okay, like I'm sure you figured out, I'm not exactly an expert at reading social situations, but this was so obvious even I could read it easily. I didn't know why he had come, but now that he was sitting there he had absolutely no idea what he should say.


I took pity on him. Or maybe the hospital boredom was really getting to me that day and I didn't want him to leave just yet, so I rescued him. Or, at least, in my usual tactful, smooth, and graceful way, I tried.


I said, “Ummm.”


And then three infinite seconds went by.


I could tell my scintillating wit and conversational mastery were keeping him rooted to the spot, but he didn't look like he was going to answer quite yet. Or maybe for the next hundred years or so.


So I tried again. I figured maybe more than one monosyllable might do the trick.


“Ummm. You're Rich. Right?”


Well, that torrent of verbiage got him going.


He answered with one nod. Up. Down. And then he just looked at me like a gopher looks at the car tire that's about to smush him into a pancake.


I figured he was going to bolt and my afternoon was going to be back to a decision between yet another nap or yet another episode of Oprah on TV, so I quickly tried once again.


I nodded and said, “I'm Sammy.”


And then, of course, I immediately realized what I just did and felt like a hundred fools all compressed into a tiny ball of shameful stupidity.


He knew that of course. He came to visit me for Christ’s sake! While I was contemplating whether my foolishness had bumped me up to level 42 or 43 of Shame in the video game of life, and while I was wondering how a blush could spread all the way down to my hands, I saw one corner of his mouth begin to twitch in the tiniest smile.


That little twitch, and my own embarrassment, got me smiling too, and a little giggle managed to escape.


He laughed out loud, finally, and said, in a kind of silly exaggerated formal voice, “It's very nice to meet you, Sammy.”


Which got both of us laughing even harder.


So we played cards and video games for an hour or two that afternoon and talked. Though not really about anything at all.


It was the first time in a very long time that I felt like a regular kid.


Eventually he had to go, and I waved goodbye and we smiled at each other as he left the room.


I looked forward to his next visit.


Which, for reasons I couldn't fathom, never happened.


Of course, I couldn't remember his last name and didn't get his cell number. And I really wasn't connected to anyone at school these days, so I was kind of stuck.


After a few days of waiting I began to go into a funk again, which kind of got deeper and deeper for a week or so.


I was feeling downright miserable.


I kept playing the visit back again over and over in my head, trying to figure out what I did or said that had fucked it up so royally that he, like all my earlier friends, decided to keep away.


Sonja Barnett spent a good bit of time on that with me, trying to let me know that maybe it had nothing to do with me at all, but maybe had to do with something else entirely.


But it was Grandpa who got me back on track this time.


He just said, out of the blue while I was lying there a few days later staring at my feet, “Well, fuck him if he wants to treat you like that!” Then he just looked at me with a self satisfied smile on his face.


You need to understand something.


Grandpa didn't swear.


Like, ever.


Never, ever.


Especially not that word. I didn't even know he knew that word.


So it got my attention.


Which, of course, was his intention all along. I looked at him in shock, then wonder, then kind of smiled and shook my head, pretending like I was appalled at his language.


He laughed, ruffled my hair, and that was the end of that.


Except for one thing. He looked at me with a look I just couldn't figure out, and said, “Sooner or later, he'll be back.”


Turned out, eventually, he was right. As usual.


That brings us up to today. After school, the day Rich and Mr. Barnett talked about gay kids in school.


Rich and I still hadn't talked since his hospital visit. I still didn't know why. But I was getting better at just shrugging and ignoring the whole thing. And him.


Now, I said, or at least hinted, that things were getting better in the hospital, and afterwards. They kind of did, for a while.


But then they started to get bad again.


Despite Sonja Barnett's efforts, I still was pretty much a loner at school.


Despite spending many a night awake thinking about it over and over again, I still hadn't figured out why I was more attracted to boys than girls, and how I could do anything about that. So I just worked harder and harder to pretend it just wasn't an issue for me yet.


Despite a few attempts to be friendly to Rich at the start of the year, and then one more after Christmas, he continued to ignore me.


Kind of. He often seemed to be looking at me.


So I still don't know what the hospital visit was about.


Despite my physio, my leg was still hurting.


Despite my scrimping and saving, I still didn't have enough money.


And then, finally, despite all that, Grandpa got sick.


So I wasn't feeling particularly enamored about life the past few weeks.


So, of course, once again, that's when everything changed.




ª ª ª


My parents sat me down that evening after supper. They explained to me what was going on with Grandpa. They tried their best to couch it in gentle, delicate, hopeful terms. They tried to use language that they thought wasn't going to upset me or shock me.


But the truth is the truth. There was no getting around it.


Grandpa was dying.


Cancer, of course. I had already figured out that much. But they only gave him a couple more weeks before he would be gone forever.


I went up to my room in a fog. Mom and Dad repeatedly asked me if I was all right.


What a stupid question. Of course I wasn't all right. What the fuck did they think I'd say? “Yup, just peachy, thanks! I'd love some dessert now. Anything worth watching on TV tonight?”


I don't think so.


I just shook my head at their questions and went upstairs, closing the door to my room softly before flopping down on my bed.


My phone buzzed in my pocket and I pulled it out. It was a text from Mom. I closed it without reading it and shoved my phone back in my pocket.


Mom has this thing. I think she thinks she's all 21st century and cool and stuff, so she texts me when she wants my attention. Usually it works, too. So I guess she's on to something. But not this time. I wasn't interested in what she had to say right now.


I pulled my phone out again and looked at it. I had this love-hate thing going on lately with my phone. It was the same phone that probably saved my life last year, and had a big scratch on the screen to prove it. But, except for calls and texts from my parents, it rarely made a sound these days. Mostly I used it for a clock and to check the weather and stuff like that. Not to talk to people.


I pressed the “contacts” button and scrolled through the list. Names flicked by of people I hadn't talked to in a very long time. I wondered why I hadn't deleted them.


Angrily, I selected “delete all” from the menu and clicked “yes” to the “are you sure” question. I stared at the empty list for a moment, then re-added my parents' numbers to the list before shoving it back in my pocket.


I didn't bother adding Grandpa's number. I figured, what's the point?


Getting up off my bed I went downstairs, through the kitchen, and into the garage. I ignored my parents' questioning looks on the way by.


Once in the garage I thumbed the button to open the main door and stood looking at my bike. I had barely ridden it since the accident. Dad had fixed it up while I was in the hospital.


I suddenly remembered I had never thanked him for that.


I think I had been on it twice in the past two months, both times just for a few minutes. Once to zip over to the edge of our property to check a fence, and once to show my cousin how the controls worked when they were visiting. After that I watched him putt around the property for a couple of days before they left, but I never took another turn.


I swung my leg over the bike and popped the gas cap off, checking the gas/oil level. It was full. I grabbed my helmet off the handlebars and shoved it on my head. I thumbed the ignition on and kicked the bike to life.


Aside from my helmet, I was wearing sneakers, shorts, and a t-shirt. No gloves. Not my usual riding attire by a long shot. I had always been safety conscious when riding and had a personal rule that I only rode fully geared up.


If I hadn't been geared up last year, I doubt I would have been able to phone for help.


I toed the bike into gear, revved it much too high, and released the clutch. Blasting out of the garage I just caught my parents' worried looks as they stood on the porch watching as I rounded the house and followed the path up the hill and into the scrub.


I rode furiously.


I was months out of practice, and not in nearly the physical shape as I used to be. I wasn't geared up properly, so brambles and branches laced my shins, knuckles, knees, and chest with streaks of scratches and blood.


I jumped the creek at my usual spot, missed the landing badly and almost dumped the bike. I saved it with a hard heel kick which shot a cascade of pain through the pins in my bad leg. I ignored it, somehow even reveled in it, and just twisted my wrist harder, and gunned the bike up to the top of Lookout Hill.


At the top I used a natural berm to slide around ninety degrees and blasted my way back down towards the creek where it bent around the mountain, riding right through it this time. The cold water stung my multiple scratches on my bare skin.


My anger and frustration poured forth. It flew from my hands and feet in a physical manifestation of hurt and pain and loneliness and confusion. Everything was crude and rough. I rode like a maniac. A madman. My hate for my life was being loudly broadcast to my bike, to the hills and scrub and water and forest of the land I used to love.


I slammed through the gears without any particular concern for the transmission. I twisted the throttle brutally, hard on, and hard off. There was nothing subtle, nothing controlled or gentle about anything I did that evening.


I screamed the engine up to the rev limiter before shifting hard and jumping over the top of Beargrass Hill, then slid sideways to a stop, panting hard.


It was a wonder I didn't die.


I stood there with the bike rumbling beneath me and looked around without really seeing anything. I killed the engine and heeled down the kickstand before swinging my leg over the bike and slumping to the ground.


I looked down at myself. My arms and legs looked like a road map, blood oozing from multiple scratches. I had managed to catch the toe of my sneaker on a rock and it had ripped off a chunk of the rubber; my socked foot was visible through the hole.


I looked up again at the trees around me and tears began to fall from my eyes.


I hadn't cried, really, before this. Despite everything that had been going on I don't think I had cried in a long time. Maybe since I was eleven or twelve.


But, today, I made up for that.


Everything I loved was around me, and nearby. The land. My bike. They all watched impassively as the tears flowed steadily, nothing reacting except a curious squirrel, who scampered off after being startled by a hiccup.


I didn't know who I was anymore.


And I didn't know how I was going to figure it all out.


As I sat there I heard an engine coming closer and Dad appeared from around the hill, riding the old quad.


He looked at me and stopped, just sitting there watching me for a long moment before getting off and sitting down beside me.


He didn't say a word. He just put his arm around me and pulled me into his shoulder like I was eight years old again.


It was several minutes before he spoke.


“When I was fifteen,” he said, “I lived with Grandpa and Grandma and Uncle Ryan just a little ways from here. You've seen the old place.” He looked at me for confirmation that I was listening, and that I knew where he meant. I nodded, and he continued, “There was only one thing in my life, back then, that I knew for an absolute certainly. And that was that I was a mess. That I was a complete screw-up.”


He paused, staring around himself at the land with an expression I don't think I had ever seen on his face. I frowned slightly but didn't say anything, waiting for him to get to the point. Obviously he was making this up for my benefit. There was no way my dad, the most confident, self-assured man I had ever known, except maybe for Grandpa, could have ever felt that way about himself. It wasn't possible.


But his eyes. No, despite the words I couldn't deny the look in his eyes. He was telling the truth.


“Sammy,” he continued, “I don't think I've been a very good Dad to you lately.” I saw shame flicker across his face and he took a breath before opening his mouth again. “I've….We've been too wrapped up in our own problems to notice that you're growing up. That you need more than a roof, clothing, and food. That's my fault. It took Dad….Grandpa…to straighten me out on that.


“For that, I owe you an apology.” Dad was looking at me directly now, and I saw tears in his own eyes. “Sammy, I'm sorry. I have no excuse. Growing up is hard enough to do. Even with proper support and encouragement. You haven't got much of that lately from us.”


He became silent and we sat there a few moments longer, both of us lost in thought.


Then, Dad stood up and brushed himself off and looked at me again. “Sam. You would make any parent proud. You're a good kid. You're thoughtful to a fault, you love learning, care about people, the animals, and the land, and, above all, you want to do what's right.”


I looked up while Dad spoke, not quite sure how to react. There was no script for this, no experience to fall back on. This just wasn't like Dad. Should I smile? Say thanks? Try and brush it off? Compliment him back?


I didn't get it. But that didn't stop him. “Mom and I love you, Samuel. Know that. We don't care what you decide to do for a living, where you decide to live when you're older, who you decide to marry…well…never mind that.” He looked a bit embarrassed, like he wasn't sure about himself for a few seconds. Not a look I was familiar with coming from him. “Fifteen sucks sometimes. I promise you though, you'll get through it. And you'll figure it out. And I'm here for you. So is your mom.”


With that he walked over to the quad, jumped on, and rode off, yelling over his shoulder to get home and get myself cleaned up.


Now that was the Dad I knew how to deal with. I rolled my eyes at him, but smiled and nodded and swung my leg over my bike and headed towards home. This time at a much more controlled and sane pace.


ª ª ª


Grandpa died three days later.


I did have a chance to spend some time with him before that. No, we didn't get involved in any deep conversations, but it was good to spend time with him. Words weren't really needed anyway. I could just look in his eyes and I knew what he was trying to tell me. His eyes said, “Be strong. Have faith in yourself. Do what you know is right and what your heart tells you.”


It was enough.


We had the funeral a couple of days after that, so I missed yet more school. Relatives I barely knew shook my hand and offered condolences and I tried to be polite and figure out how to react to this.


Grandpa knew a lot of people, so it was big funeral. Afterwards we had a get-together at our place and people mingled and talked. I felt a bit lost.


The doorbell rang and I got up to answer it and opened the door to see Rich and his parents standing on our porch. Rich was dressed in a suit much like mine.


I was momentarily confused until I remembered that Mr. Fluvalee had worked with Grandpa at the University before they had some kind of big falling out a few years ago.


Mr. Fluvalee proffered his hand and I reached out to shake it. He said, “Son, we offer our condolences to you and your family. Your grandfather and I didn't see eye to eye on a few issues, but he was a good man. I'm sorry for your loss.”


I pulled my hand back and said, “Uh, thanks Mr. and Mrs. Fluvalee. Come on in. My parents are around here somewhere.”


They walked into the house, Richard looking at me like I was a specimen from Area 51 or something.


Mr. Fluvalee responded with, “Thank you young man. Your graciousness in these trying times is truly a blessed offering. Jesus will support you through this difficult ordeal, should you accept him truly into your heart.”


Despite his words, his expression looked more like he should've said, “Burn in hell, sinner!”


Richard just looked embarrassed but followed his parents past me and into the house. He mouthed, “Sorry.” on his way past me.


I wasn't sure if he was saying sorry about Grandpa, or apologizing for his Dad's little sermon, but I suspect the latter from his reaction. So I just nodded and tried a weak smile.


A half hour later Mr. Fluvalee was leading a small group of relatives in overly loud prayer in our living room. Dad looked on with his arms crossed disapprovingly, but he didn't intervene. Yet.


I noticed the prayer group was small, considering the number of people in the house, and consisted entirely of people who rarely or never spent much direct time with Grandpa.


Grandpa was never particularly religious. Neither are my parents. Neither am I.


Don't get me wrong. I don't have anything against religion. It just all seems a bit silly and a waste of time to me. I know Grandpa had some strong thoughts on it. He didn't have anything in particular against religion or belief or faith either. I knew this, because we had talked about it a few times. What he did have something against was people who tried to push their own particular brand of subjective morality down other people's throats.


He never said it directly, he wasn't that kind of man, but I sensed that the crux of the argument between him and Rich's dad had something to do with this. It made sense, since Rich's dad was a Deacon at the biggest church in town.


Rich came up to me while I watched my dad glare at Mr. Fluvalee during his little prayer session. He grabbed my arm lightly and said, “Come on.” And he walked out back of the house through the kitchen and onto our back porch with me in tow.


“Sorry for my Dad,” he said. “He tends to think funerals are a great opportunity to increase the flock.” Richard wasn't looking at me when he said this, but was looking out over the hills back of the house, much like I did when standing here.


Mixed emotions were flowing through me. Ever since the funeral and the burial, and now here at this, well, whatever it was. Party doesn't sound right. But anyway, ever since we got home I’d been feeling kind of hollow. Empty and worn out.


Now here was Richard. The boy who hadn't said three words to me since that afternoon in the hospital so many months ago. And I still had no idea why. Why he had shown up in the first place and why he avoided me afterwards.


So I watched him watching the hills for a few seconds without answering him. Then I shook my head in frustration and simply said, “Why?”


He misunderstood of course. He looked at me and frowned, “Why does he want to increase the flock?”


I shook my head. “No. Why? Why did you visit me in the hospital? Why do you think I'm some kind of vile poison ever since that day? Why does everyone avoid me? Why? Why? What did I do? What's so wrong with me?”


I watched his face go through a range of expressions while I said this. Then he suddenly looked a bit frustrated. Or maybe angry.


So I didn't wait for an answer. I did what I had crafted into a fine art over the past few months. I ran away and tried to hide from the world.


For once it didn't work. He followed me, so I only got as far as the edge of the driveway before I stopped to look at him.


I figured he owed me an explanation and I was damned if I was going to say anything after my rather pitiful speech, so I crossed my arms and looked at him with what I hoped was a haughty look.


He looked…well…he looked like a cross between angry, uncomfortable, exasperated, and scared. An odd combination to say the least. He just looked back at me for a few seconds but then I think he realized that the ball was in his court.


He held up a hand and started ticking off my questions with his fingers as he answered them. “Why did I visit you? Because I wanted to. Because I thought you might want a visit. Because I knew no one else would. Because I like you.”


He held up a second finger. “Why do I think you're vile poison? I don't. I never did. I'm not allowed to visit you anymore. Or talk to you. 'Cause my dad says your family is '…in Satan's employ.' He says I can talk to you at church where God will protect us. But you don't come to church.”


A third finger. “Why does everyone avoid you? They don't. You avoid them.”


He gave up with the fingers, but continued, “What did you do? You started acting like a jerk, ignoring everyone, dressing like a retard, and looking like you wanted everyone to stay the fuck away from you. So they did.


“What's wrong with you? Nothing, as far as I know. Except that you seem to think life sucks and you're trying to deal with it by shutting out the world and pushing away everyone you know.”


He tailed off and looked a bit flustered by his little tirade.


I thought about this. He was wrong about most of it. Well, some of it for sure.


At least about avoiding people. They avoided me, not the other way around.


I think.


“So why then,” I asked, my voice too loud and more than a bit defensive and sarcastic and not nearly polite enough for the occasion, “are you lowering yourself so much to talk to me now?”


He looked at me sadly, and shook his head. “You're fucking impossible, you know that, Sammy? Fuck you. Really.” He turned and started to walk away.


It was my turn to run after him this time. I grabbed a shoulder and he stopped and turned. I had expected him to look angry. He didn't. He looked hurt.


I knew I owed him an apology. I'm not quite that thick. I dropped my hand and looked him in the eyes, “Sorry Rich. I didn't mean it. It's all a bit much. I'm not at all good at this. Not now.”


He looked puzzled. “Good at what?”


“This. Talking to people. Interacting. Social skills. You know.”


He looked like he wanted to argue with me, but then seemed to change his mind. He answered my earlier question instead. His eyes took on a harder look. Defiant. “You asked why I'm talking to you now. When I didn't earlier. The reason I'm talking to you now is because I finally got enough balls to realize my dad is a fucking asshole.”


I looked at him. He looked back defiantly. He looked like he was just learning how to try on that particular expression.


It kind of suited him.


I found myself reacting completely out of sorts for the situation.


I found myself suppressing, with difficulty, a smile.


He looked back at me and the defiant looked melted. “What?” he asked.


I couldn't help it. I let a little guffaw escape. “Well, congratulations. On your balls.” The last was more laughed out than spoken.


He looked like I lost my mind. “What are you talking about?”


“You said you finally have enough balls. Well congratulations. On your balls.”


He finally got it and was smiling too. “Well, thanks, I guess.” He started laughing. “I never got congratulated on my balls before.”


“Well of course not,” I laughed, “I haven't seen them yet.” Then I suddenly felt stupid. Oh shit. Not only was that going too far, I think I'd just told him way too much.


Fortunately he didn't seem to notice and just kept laughing, so I was off the hook.


We sat on the fence near the gate and talked. We could hear his father's loud praying all the way out here, but we ignored it.


Another car pulled in and stopped beside us. The passenger window rolled down and I saw Mr. and Mrs. Barnett looking me over, their eyes flicking between the two of us, their expressions inscrutable.


“Hello, Rich. We came to pay our respects, Sam,” said Mrs. Barnett. “The world is a much poorer place without your grandfather in it.” She looked back and forth between us again before continuing, “Looks like we're interrupting a conversation though. I'm sorry, we'll go to the house and pay our respects there. We'll talk to you later before we leave.” The window rolled up and the car drove up to the house. I watched them get out and make their way inside.


A few minutes later I could hear my dad's voice interrupt Mr. Fluvalli. “Thank you, Stanley, for your kind thoughts. I appreciate your sincerity. We would, however, appreciate it if you could refrain from sermonizing in our home.” My dad had had enough. His tone was not open for discussion, or argument. I couldn't hear what happened after that, but less than a minute later, Mr. and Mrs. Fluvalli came out of the house.


They strode towards their car. Mr. Fluvalli's gaze found Rich, sitting beside me. He frowned. “Richard. We must go. This property is rife with sin. Come.”


Rich looked resigned and slid off the fence and began walking towards his parents. He turned to look back at me. “I won't stop talking to you now. I don't care what he says. Remember, I have balls now.” He smiled again, though not as brightly as a few minutes ago. “And you're right. You haven't seen them. Yet.” he turned quickly at that before he could see my reaction and jogged towards his parents' car, leaving me sitting there stunned.


ª ª ª


I went back to school on Thursday.


It's funny how nothing can change but everything can seem different.


I looked around me while going to my locker, and between leaving my locker and getting to my first class. People weren't going out of their way to ignore me, I was just another kid in the hallway. Except for the odd kid who met my eyes for a second or two while I was looking around curiously. When that happened I usually saw a bit of a surprised look on their faces, and then a slight nod of acknowledgment, which I returned.


Was it true? Was it more me than everyone else? Did I manage to push everyone out of my life over the past year? Just because I was confused. Or lonely? Or angry at my parents for fighting? Or at Grandpa for moving so far away? Or whatever?


Rich was true to his word. He sat down in Social Studies and turned around and said hello as soon as he did so. He scooted a bit closer to me, and I to him, and we chatted while waiting for Mr. Barnett to call the class to order.


Mr. Barnett had put a big poster up at the front of the room since I had been here last. On it was listed various countries' ranking, according to some organization which tracks such things, of human rights in different categories. It was broken down into gender equality, treatment of ethnic minorities, religious freedoms, and, yes, treatment of gays and lesbians, among other things.


Rich saw me eyeing it. “Did you know that in some countries you don't even get to choose what religion you're in? Or even if you're in one at all? You have to belong to the state religion,” said Rich.


I nodded. I remembered Dad and Grandpa talking about this for some reason during the last election campaign. “Yeah, but how did you know that?” I asked.


Rich's expression soured a bit. “My dad talks a lot about that kind of thing. He thinks they're all sinners because they picked the wrong religion. He thinks their governments are evil as a result. But, somehow he thinks our government should use the Bible as its most basic guide. I don't see the difference. I made the mistake of saying that once.” He shook his head. “It didn't go over too well.”


I nodded. “And in a lot of those countries women aren't even allowed to do things like drive and stuff.”


To my surprise, the girl sitting behind Rich, who had obviously been listening to our conversation, suddenly joined in. Her name was Shelly. We used to play hopscotch together way back when we were in grade one or two. She said, “Not only that, they can't work, except for certain jobs, outside of the home. And if they go anywhere they have to be with their husbands or their fathers. It's like they're property, not citizens.”


I didn't really listen to Rich's reply. I was thinking too hard about something else. About how people weren't ignoring me. Or excluding me. About how easy it seemed for me and Rich to talk, and then for Shelly to join in.


It seemed I had some thinking to do.


Mr. Barnett walked up to the front, adjusted the knot of his tie, and began the day's lesson on human rights in the 21st century.


When I got home that afternoon I had a surprise waiting for me. I sat down on my computer to jot down my homework assignments and clicked on my email inbox.


I had two emails from Grandpa.


No, it turned out, he hadn't emailed me from the afterlife. No occult or paranormal explanation was needed. But it was almost as cool as that.


The first email explained that he had typed up this message, and a bunch of others, almost right after his cancer was diagnosed a few months ago. Before he told anyone. He then sent them to this internet service that holds on to them, and then sends them out later at a specific date chosen by the sender.


I didn't even know such a thing existed.


But, from the sounds of it, I could expect random emails from Grandpa for quite some yet. It was strangely comforting.


Grandpa knew me well. Better even than I thought I did. The two messages I received so far were full of the advice and wisdom that Grandpa always seemed to have in abundance, and what's more, they were eerily on topic. The first one mostly told me to get over myself, stop feeling so sorry for myself about him dying and other things that were wrong in my life, and get on with things. But it was written much more gently and with a lot more humor than that sentence implies.


The second message said, well, it said something surprising.


It said that I should stop trying to hide from myself. It said that I needed to accept myself for who I am. It said that I needed to go and have fun and socialize and take reasonable risks, and that I needed to invite people into my life. And ask them out and go on dates. It said that it didn't matter if they were with girls – or with boys.


That made me sit back and think. I mean, this was from Grandpa. He was old-fashioned. I didn't even think he knew about gay people.


But it was the last sentence that was the most surprising.


It said I should ask Rich.


Like, ask him out. On a date. It said he seemed nice. And that it was obvious he was interested.


Okay, now that was just weird. When the hell had Grandpa even met Rich?!


And why the hell did he think he'd be interested?


I wasn't even sure if he was gay, though he had dropped a couple of hints that had been making me wonder.


So, I decided to ask Rich about it.


Not ask him out. That was a bit much. Ask him how he knew Grandpa. So I pulled out my phone and texted him. I had added his number earlier today at school. My contact list wasn't completely empty anymore.


Our conversation went something like this:


Me: where u meet grandpa?? and when??


Rich: hospital


Me: when u visited?


Rich: yeah. kinda.


Me: kinda??


Rich: I was there before I came to see you that day but you were asleep after operation


Me: oh


Rich: umm – and after


Me: whaddya mean? spill it!


Rich: well when I told dad I went to see you he forbid me to go again - but I did anyway - but still finding balls so got scared and didn't go in – your grandpa was there – talked to him instead


Me: oh


Rich: your grandpa was cool


Me: I know


Rich: sorry


Me: I know


Rich: (after about two full minutes of nothing – so I thought the conversation was over) can u go out??


Me: where?


Rich: meet me at burger barn – 20 mins


Me: (Thinking for a minute and remembering Grandpa's email) ok – cya soon


I put my phone away and made a quick detour into the bathroom to comb my hair before running downstairs and through the kitchen.


“Bye, Mom, going to Burger Barn to meet Rich. Don't save supper, I'll eat there,” I said to my mom's surprised look.


She wasn't used to me going out much these days. Not even riding.


Our property is only a couple of miles from town, so it didn't take me long on my bicycle to get there. I leaned my bike up against a lamp post, next to another bike that was already there, and went inside, breathing slightly heavily from the ride.


I looked around at the tables, the place was about three quarters full, and found Rich sitting at one of the high round tables against the far wall.


He spied me and waved. I waved back and made my way over to him and boosted myself into one of the high stools across from him.


We grinned at each other and then both seemed a bit lost for words for a few seconds.


When we did start talking, as so often is the case in situations like this, we both started talking at exactly the same time.


I said, “Grandpa thinks…”


He said, “Your grandfather told me…”


And we both stopped and looked at each other, and kind of grinned again.


And, of course, then we both simultaneously said, “No, you go ahead.”


We both sat there smiling stupidly at each other for a few seconds when we were saved by James Sanders. He was a senior who worked as a server here after school. “You guys want something?” he asked.


We ordered and James jotted it down in his notebook impatiently and wandered off with a curt nod. Not even a smile or a thank you.


Rich grinned. “How much of a tip should we leave him?”


I laughed, “Oh, I dunno. How about eight pennies in the bottom of a glass of water?”


“Sounds about right,” Rich said, then his smiled dimmed a bit. “Umm, listen, sorry for all the stuff I said at your Grandpa's funeral. It probably sounded like I was trying to put you down or something. I shouldn't have done that. Especially not then.”


I looked back at Rich, and shook my head. “No. Don't apologize. I asked. You answered. I'm glad you had the guts to do it.”


Rich looked at me, and his grin came back, “Or the balls?”


I laughed, “Yeah, or that.”


“Your Grandpa was a cool guy, Sam.”


I looked at his expression, trying to figure out what he wasn't saying. There was a lot behind those eyes, but he seemed to be treading lightly. I said, “Yeah. He was.” I hesitated a moment, then added. “He liked you Rich. A lot. He thinks….thought…I should ask…uh, hang around you more.”


Rich studied my face. “That's what he said to me too. More or less,” he said.


We sat there in silence for a second or two. I thought about Grandpa's email. Then I thought about the last few months of my life, and my slow but steady withdrawal from the human race.


I really didn't want to do that anymore.


I swallowed and decided to take a risk. “Well, he said a bit more than that, actually,” I said carefully, watching his face closely.


Rich was looking back at me steadily. His expression didn't change but I saw the color rise slightly in his face. He nodded, as if to say, “Go on.”


I took a breath. “So. Do you want to go see a movie with me? On Friday? Tomorrow? We could get something to eat too.”


He looked back at me. His expression seemed to take on a bit of resolve of its own, the determination, the defiance I saw on him at my place the other day. Before his dad came outside and washed it away.


It still looked nice on him.


“Yes Sammy, I would love to,” he said, then hesitated before finishing his sentence, “it's a date.”


I could see fear on his face now too, but hidden behind the resolve, defiance, and determination. He didn't let his eyes waver from mine.


I let out the breath I had been holding and smiled before I even realized I was doing so. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, I guess it is.”


We were grinning at each other again, smiling in wonder and giddiness at our daring.


I hadn't felt this free in a year. Or more.


Still, there was a lot unsaid. A lot that probably needed to be said.


But, we were fifteen.


Rich had been raised in a very conservative home, and been given a lot of ideas about what was and was not appropriate. Or allowed.


And I, though raised in a much more open environment, had spent the past couple of years working very hard to deny what I knew. What was obvious. But what I simply hadn't been ready to accept.


So I knew I wasn't ready for any big coming out speech, or telling him openly that I was gay, and that I thought he was amazingly cute, and funny, and kind. I doubted he was ready for anything like that either. If I was even reading all of this right.


Yes, even then, I was still harboring doubts. Still thinking that maybe I was somehow reading all this wrong.


So Friday after school I was an absolute wreck. My stomach was in knots. I tore through my closet and dresser, rejecting everything I saw in there. How do I find the perfect balance between looking nice enough for a real date, but casual enough for an evening with a buddy? Just in case?


After twenty minutes my dad wandered into my room and leaned up against the door frame with his arms crossed, watching me.


I hadn't told him anything. All he and mom knew was that I was going to see a movie.


But my dad was never an idiot.


“You must really like him, huh?” he said.


I stopped what I was doing and sat down on my bed heavily and looked at him. Was I that obvious? I looked carefully at his face, trying hard to see if there was any rejection, any anger or disgust. But all I saw was sympathy. And more than a bit of humor.


So I answered honesty. “Yeah. I do,” I said. Somehow I had trouble looking him in the eyes now.


But I saw him nod out of the corner of my eyes. “Good. Then stop worrying.” He looked around my room at the mess I had created. “Wear your nice newer khakis and that shirt Mom got you last time she went to the city. They'll be fine.” He looked at me, nodded once, and turned and walked out of my room.


I stared at the empty doorway in shock and amazement. Then all the tension I had been feeling left me and I started laughing.


If my dad, my dad, could try and offer fashion advice for his teenage son about to go out on his first gay date, well, then I guess maybe everything would be ok after all.


The movie was a series of explosions, car chases, stunts, and special effects weakly threaded together by some attempt at a plot. But that didn't matter.


I was on a date!


Yes, it was a real date.


You don't hold hands with 'just a friend.'


After the movie Rich and I were walking out of the theater, laughing about the stupid one-liners and wondering why the hero didn't get so much as a public littering fine at the end, considering the mess he left behind him.


We were still holding hands as we walked. I didn't even realize it until he quickly pulled his hand away from mine when we both heard someone shouting our names from behind us.


“Rich! Sammy!” a girl's voice said.


We turned and looked through the people exiting the theater behind us. Shelly was waving at us and trying to get our attention. She was doing some hand holding of her own I noticed. She was with Lee Martin, a kid I used to take swimming lessons with when we were both seven years old. He used to smile and laugh more than any kid I had ever met, and it looked like that hadn't changed. Holding Shelly's hand he was looking at her and smiling like he had just won the lottery or something.


We got out of the way of the stream of people and stopped and waited for them to catch up.


They must have seen us holding hands. They weren't that many people in the way.


They must have.


But they didn't say anything about it. At all. Either of them.


Instead, they just acted normal.


“So what did ya think,” asked Lee with a smile, “of the movie?”


Shelly laughed and added, “Is that what that was?”


I think Rich must have been worrying about the hand holding as much as I was, because it took both of us a second to find our voices.


I recovered first, “Oh god, it was awful! But the special effects were amazing. I couldn't believe it when the whole ship just exploded! They even made the water look realistic when that happened.”


Rich seemed to find his voice. “You'd think they could funnel just a bit of that special effects money to the writers though. Some kind of balance would be good.”


Shelly and Lee laughed, then Shelly asked, “So are you guys going out for something to eat now? That's what we always do on our dates after a movie. Do you want to join us?”


Rich and I looked at each other. I couldn't help thinking about Shelly's particular choice of words. It wasn't an accident, obviously. I think it was her way of telling us that they knew, and that they were fine with it.


So we went out for something to eat.


I hadn't had so much fun for ages. I felt like a different person. We were giggling and smiling and joking and laughing.


Shelly and Lee were holding hands again, on the top of the table.


So were me and Rich.


It felt amazing. It was all just so normal. Just a bunch of teens having fun.


We were being awfully loud though. I think our jokes and laughing were starting to annoy people.


The frowns of an older couple at the next table just made us laugh even louder, though Shelly did go over and apologize for us, which they obviously appreciated. The lady just smiled. “I remember what it's like to be young,” she said looking over at our table, and at me and Rich still holding hands, “and learning how to love. You kids have fun, maybe just tone it down a little? Please? The people trying to listen to the rock band two doors down are starting to complain.”


We all laughed and Shelly sat down again at our table and took hold of Lee's hand again. The older couple looked over at us, smiled, and then I saw the man take hold of the lady's hand, and hold it just like we were. They smiled at each other.


Rich and I looked at each other and grinned. I saw Shelly watching us.


She leaned over quickly, and kissed Lee. Nothing huge, just a peck on his lips. Then she and Lee looked over at us. I saw Shelly's expectant look.


Rich blushed. I know I did too. Holding hands was one thing, but…


“Well?” Shelly said. “Your turn.”


Lee laughed, and said to us, “She's not exactly subtle, is she?” His smile told her, and us, that's exactly the way he liked it.


If that wasn't subtle, what came next was even less so. “Oh come on!” Shelly said. “If it wasn't for me you guys wouldn't dare to kiss for another two months! Get on with it!” Then she leaned back and just looked at us expectantly.


I looked at Rich's blushing face. He obviously wasn't sure what to do. So I looked over at Lee and Shelly, looked back at Rich, then quickly leaned forward and kissed Rich.


On the lips.


My heart was going a million miles an hour as I watched for his reaction.


I could see Shelly pumping her fist, and yelling, “Yes!” much too loud. I could see Lee laughing. I could see the older couple next to us, still holding hands, chuckle quietly to themselves as they pretended not to watch us.


But mostly, I could see Rich's wonderful smile. And the look in his eyes as he looked back at me.


ª ª ª


Saturday morning I slept in.


I woke up at around ten, and just lay there staring at the ceiling, feeling the smile on my face. I couldn't believe it. Everything just seemed to be coming together for me all of a sudden.


Except for one thing. I needed to find another job. Since Mr. Samson closed up and retired I haven't been earning any money. Not only that, I realized, but this going out with friends stuff costs a lot.


My plan for months had been to save up enough to buy myself a set of wheels when I turned sixteen and got my license. I didn't see any reason why that should change. Mom and Dad knew about this plan. Well, for the most part anyway.


What they didn't know, and what I still wasn't really planning on telling them, was that the set of wheels I was going to be buying consisted of a set of two wheels. Not four.


I wanted to buy a street motorcycle.


Figuring it would be easier to get forgiveness than permission, I had omitted this little detail from my discussion with my parents.


Before my accident, I don't think my parents would have had a problem with this idea. Now, I wasn't so sure.


Still, I wasn't planning on changing my mind. I had wanted this forever, ever since I could remember even thinking about anything. I wanted this in the worst way, and I planned to make it happen.


But then I had another thought. Another realization.


I had people in my life again. Other than my parents.


It wasn't only my parents that I would have to tell.


I hoped Rich liked motorbikes.


And Shelly, and Lee, who I realized after last night would quickly become friends. The proof was in my phone's contact list.


I grabbed my phone from my nightstand and texted Rich.


“Do you like motorbikes?” ‘


I waited for the reply which arrived after only a short delay.


“Sure. Why?” Rich texted back.


“’Cause I'm buying a street bike when I'm sixteen.”


The reply seemed to take a while to arrive. When it did, it simply read, “Oh”


My heart sunk. He disapproved. I felt awful for a second. Then a second reply came.


“They're cheaper than a car, right?” he texted.


“Yeah, usually by quite a bit,” I answered.


“Good. Then I won't have to save as much. I'll need to get one too. So we can ride together. I can get lessons somewhere, right?”


I was elated! He approved. Not only approved, but was willing to join in.


Right then and there I vowed to myself that I would return the favour as soon as he was interested in something that I hadn't really thought about one way or another before.


I realized suddenly that I was learning something. About relationships. But, I was fifteen, so I shook that thought away, then texted back, “Good. If we buy them at the same time we can probably get a better deal. And yeah, you can get lessons. Cheaper insurance that way.”


Just then Dad pounded on my bedroom door. “Samuel! It's almost 10:30! Get your butt down here and get your chores done. Then we have to sit down and talk.”


I texted Rich, “Gotta go. Parents are cracking the whip. I'll phone ya later.”


At the same time I yelled back through the door at Dad, “Be right down.”


All the way through my chores I couldn't help wondering why they wanted to sit down and talk to me. I hope it wasn't anything bad.


As it turned out, it wasn't.


I grabbed myself a cup of tea and sat down at the kitchen table, the place where we always sat if we had anything serious to discuss. My parents sat across from me, their own cups cradled in their hands.


“We have some decisions to make,” said Mom. “You're old enough to be part of them now, so we'd like your input. Though the final decision remains with Dad and me, of course.”


I nodded carefully, wondering what she was talking about.


Mom continued, “First of all, Grandpa's land. We can keep it, and lease it out for now. Or we can sell. Or we can move into his place, your father's old home growing up, since it's bigger than this place. But it needs more work than here. If we decide to move there, then the same decisions apply to our place here.


“Keep in mind, you're being included in this because we thought you may want some of this land when you're older.”


They both looked at me, waiting for my answer.


I was stunned.


This was definitely a first.


I had never, ever, been included in any of my parents' decisions like this.


Maybe they were trying. Maybe I was starting to grow up.


It was a weird feeling. A grown up feeling.


So we hashed it out, then Mom told me about Grandpa's old car.


It turned out he had left that to me. Kind of.


His will actually stipulated that the car be sold, and the money go to me, to be used for the purchase of the, “vehicle of my choice.”


Mom couldn't figure this out, and said it seemed a bit overly complicated. So she asked me if I just wanted Grandpa's old car instead.


I thought fast. How was I going to answer this without telling them what I really wanted.


Surprisingly, it was Dad who rescued me before I had to say anything.


“Honey, I suspect Grandpa may have known something here that we don't.” Dad was looking at me calculatingly. I couldn't help get the feeling that he knew something too.


Dad continued, “I think we'd better just do as the will says. It'll be easier that way, legally. And I doubt Sam wants Grandpa's old junker anyway. It's not exactly a cool vehicle for a sixteen year old.”


Mom looked at my expression, and at Dad's. Her eyes narrowed. I could tell she figured something out. But, she just nodded and said, “Okay, then. That's settled. Now, about University…”


It turned out that Grandpa had already paid for that. In advance. Including books. At either the university where he had worked or any of its affiliates. It was an incredible opportunity. All I needed to do was make sure my marks were high enough that I was eligible for admission.


I found myself feeling very good about all this. Then, suddenly, I felt guilty about that. It all came at the expense of having Grandpa with us.


I'd rather just have had Grandpa.


Dad must've noticed my mixed feeling and correctly guessed their source.


“Sammy, it's okay to feel appreciative about what your Grandfather is doing for you. That's what he wanted. That doesn't mean you, or anyone else, would rather it didn't happen this way.


“But it did. So this is his way of making up for not being around for you. Remember that. Appreciate it.”


I nodded, but couldn't muster up a smile. I did feel slightly better though.


I still needed a job, but it was nice knowing that despite all of that I could afford the bike I'd been eyeing.


I couldn't help feeling awfully good about my life all of a sudden. My date with Rich had been amazing. And while we still had a lot of getting to know each other to do, I was really looking forward to that.


Lee and Shelly were becoming friends. I had the feeling that more would follow. My hermit days seemed to be coming to an end.


Mom and Dad were getting along. And trying to include me more, and treating me more like an adult.


And now I had the solution to a couple of other problems that had been on my mind for my future.


It was all quite the revelation.


After our talk I went up to my room to call Rich.


I sat down at my computer first, and clicked my email inbox.


There was one of those delayed emails from Grandpa.


The subject line was, “Life gets better.”


The body of email simply said, “Told you so. Love, Grandpa.”


He really had known me better than I had ever guessed.


I had learned a lot over the past week.


It was, truly, just a matter of getting my priorities straightened out.