It was late in the afternoon and soon dad arrived. This time, he looked around the hospital lobby instead of heading straight to the elevators. He didn't seem surprised to find me there again and he sat down beside me for a minute. My face gave all away.
"Matt, you're doing all you can do. You're just going to have to be patient and wait. I know it's hard for you, but time can change things." I agreed with some of his words: It was time to change things.
Over dinner that night, I gave mom and dad the story of my conversation with Melanie. I left out the part about Jay, but told them most everything else. I didn't tell them what happened with Chris. They knew I loved him; I had made that abundantly clear. Still, I didn't feel comfortable speaking with them on details that were that intimate between Chris and me. I did tell them I thought I was crowding him and had decided not to go back to the hospital unless I was asked. It was a thin cover at best but they played along and gave me my own space to deal with it.
I spent most of the weekend trying to figure out a way to approach Jay Henson. There were limitations to my abilities as I had no car or drivers license. The conversation I wanted wasn't one you started casually at school. A phone call was totally out of the question; this had to be face-to-face. It was in doubt if he was either willing or able to help me with what I needed to know, but I had to find out. Trying to create a plan provided some distraction from the emotional stress that was accumulating inside of me. A couple of calls to Tommy also helped, but by Sunday night, that stress fad filled me up completely and I did not look forward to the impending return to school.
Monday morning quickly revealed that little had been forgotten. The long stares and muffled comments continued throughout the day. Chris wasn't there but his dad was. I made sure to stay clear of him. Lunch with Tommy was a nervous experience for both of us and the pressure seemed to mount on all sides. I saw Jay twice during the day, both times from a distance, but never got close enough to even approach him. Before, when I didn't want to see him, it seemed like he was always bumping into me. Now, it seemed like he was avoiding me. Maybe he was.
I had decided to keep my commitment to basketball, mostly to protect my position on the team in case Chris came back. My body was present for practice that afternoon but my mind was nowhere near. There were plenty of weird vibes on the team but it was hard to separate them out from the distracting absence of Chris. Nobody knew when or if he would be back.
Monday night was long. I hadn't seen Chris in three days and hadn't had good conversation with him in almost six days. The dull thud had returned to the back of my head and time seemed to be standing still.
Tuesday was much the same and the pressure continued to mount. Finally, as school ended, I went straight to Jay's truck and waited for him there. I couldn't go another night without at least making first contact with him. I saw him approaching and his eyes narrowed as he realized I was waiting for him. He looked suspicious.
"Jay, I need to talk to you." Since our encounter at the vet's office, we had been on improved terms, nodding to each other on several occasions. I had never attempted an actual conversation with him and his eyes were highly suspect of why I chose to do so now.
"About what?" Not very politely.
Here is where it got tough. "Could we just go talk somewhere, please?"
"About what?" Even less politely and bordering on defensive. He got in his truck and sat down.
I looked around the parking lot. There were too many ears. I approached the driver's side of the truck and spoke lowly but clearly.
"I need to speak with you about Chris." I pleaded with my eyes but it was no use.
"I've already said everything I'm gonna say about that. I can't help you." He started his truck and put it in gear.
"Please?" He was my only hope.
"Don't ask me again. I can't help you." With that, he was gone and most of the hope still left in me vanished along with him.
What did he mean "I've already said everything I'm gonna say about that"? He had only spoken to me twice. The first time was our unpleasant introduction when I didn't know for sure who he was. The second time was as he was leaving the vet's office that night. Standing in the dark in a pouring rain, he had looked me in the eye and said "Be careful." What the fuck was that supposed to mean? A loud involuntary growl left my throat and I got a few extra stares that I didn't need from those close enough to hear it.
Tuesday night felt like the longest night of my life. I worried about Chris constantly. Full-scale depression was starting to take a firm grip on me. Every word spoken to me seemed to beat on the side of my head and each word spoken by me seemed to consume more energy than I had left to give. I had turned into a very sad case and not even my mother's touch seemed to improve me. There was serious concern in her face and it only deepened my feelings of despair to see it. Dad got home well after eight and came straight up to my room.
"Hey." He eased in and sat down on the bed beside me.
"I stopped at the hospital on my way out tonight. One of the nurses told me that Peggy was doing much better and should be going home Friday." He saw the question in my face and answered it. "I didn't see Chris."
"Thanks." It was all I could muster out. Dad took his hand and brushed my hair back.
"Son, maybe Chris will come around once his mom gets back home. Being stuck up there at the hospital isn't helping him any."
Chris had already played the scenario out in his mind. His mom was going to come back home and everything would get back to normal. Unfortunately, 'normal' for him was the problem. Normal was his mom being drunk. Normal was his dad alternating between being a wife-beater and a child-beater. Normal was the daily struggles he had fought alone in that house for the past nine years since Melanie had escaped. Chris wasn't stuck at the hospital, he was taking refuge there. My stomach was in knots and I couldn't bear the thought of it anymore.
Wednesday brought new embarrassment. I snapped to attention as Ms. Nelson barked my name, evidently after having barked less loudly several times before. As I looked up, I could feel every eye in the classroom fixed on me. Giggles broke out and provided the unintended relief of sending Ms. Nelson into a different tirade as she regained control of her class. Somewhere in the back of the room, I heard an unidentifiable "maybe he misses his boyfriend" followed by more giggles from the rear and more anger from Ms. Nelson.
We had a home game that night and I occupied my normal seat on the bench. I think we lost big. This was our last game before Christmas break. Coach reminded us that our first game in the holiday tournament was December 27th. School wouldn't be back in session until January 3rd.
On Thursday, I gathered enough strength to make another attempt at Jay Henson. I saw him between buildings just before lunch and called for him to wait up. He recognized my voice and never slowed down. I broke into a full sprint and ran around in front of him and stood in his path. He stopped and made very rude eye contact with me.
"I need your help, please. I just want to talk to you and I swear to God no one will know about it. Please. I'm begging you, please?" I saw a flash of sympathy in his eyes. He looked around taking note of who was watching us. For a moment, I thought he was going to help me, then he side-stepped me and kept on walking, never saying a word.
The short moment of hope turned into a long moment of fresh devastation. Tommy was nearby and walked out to stand by me. Tommy seemed to be nearby very often this week and I think he was keeping a close watch on me. We lingered there for a while until I could gather myself enough to walk with him to the cafeteria. The rest of the day crawled by. On the bright side, most people had grown tired of staring and giggling.
My depression was migrating into a fevered angst. The never-ending pressure of the past week was leading me to a growing sense of desperation. At least with the depression, I could get some sleep. This new feeling kept me awake most of the night. Sometime in the pitch of darkness, I realized that if Chris wasn't at school tomorrow, then I wasn't likely to see him until after Christmas break was over. I was wide awake the rest of the night.
Friday morning led me to a hurried walk along the school grounds prior to homeroom as I looked for any sign of Chris. There was no reason why he would have magically shown up today, but I had to make sure. I did run across Katie and we startled each other into a confused stare with neither of us able to look away. This time, I blinked first and I dropped my head and kept walking.
The morning classes were almost unbearable. I guessed my way through every question on a history pop-quiz and I knew I was falling miserably behind. Teachers were giving me impatient glares and it was only a short matter of time before someone would get my parents more involved. It was another two months before quarterly grades were out again, but I couldn't tumble like this without someone taking notice.
Lunch brought no relief and Tommy had something on his mind. I could see it in his eyes.
"Matt, what can I do to help you?" He was frustrated, concerned and sad all together at once. The sincerity of his question helped pull me back just a little closer to reality.
"Tommy, I'm really sorry. Everybody is getting concerned about me. I'm concerned about me too because I've never felt so lost before. I've always been emotional and I've spent plenty of time being sad, but this is different. When I used to feel alone or sad, it was just a vague feeling, sort of the way I feel about never having had a grandpa. This feeling is much more powerful. It's much more specific. It's like my soul is trying to get back to the place where it belongs, but it can't find its way. And if it doesn't find it soon, it might be lost forever. I know that doesn't make any sense, but it's how I feel inside."
"I wish there was something I could do. It's like you're not even here." There wasn't anything he could do. For all the goodness I took from my friendship with Tommy, this was something beyond the reach of friendship.
"I've just got to work through this Tommy. I don't know how, but I've got to find a way. I can't keep this up forever, it hurts too bad."
"The weather is supposed to be nice Sunday. Why don't you come over and we'll saddle up Sky and Stryker and go for a long ride. It might help you take your mind off things for a little while." Sometimes, all you can do for a friend is offer a pleasant distraction from the larger ills of life. Tommy had been by my side all week and I couldn't refuse his help.
"I'll be there. It'll be nice to have that to look forward to. You think maybe you could tolerate me for the whole night?"
"I think we can put up with you for that long." He shared his smile with me and it lifted me just enough to return the favor.
Mom brought home pizza for Friday night. I ate half a piece and stretched out on the couch to watch TV. I assumed that Chris's mom had come home as planned. I wished I could have felt better about it but I couldn't. Through all of my grief and depression, Chris was in my mind constantly. He had to be missing me too and that just made me sadder still.
Saturday morning finally rolled around and I came downstairs with a feeling that reminded me of the lone hangover of my life after my camping trip with Tommy. I heard mom and dad talking about something and they seemed undecided on whatever it was.
"What are y'all talking about?" 'Y'all' had worked its way into my vocabulary. I figured if Webster could recognize it, then I would take the shortcut and use it too.
"The company Christmas party is tonight and we were trying to figure out whether or not we wanted to go." I hoped my dad did a better job lying to his boss.
"I already know the plan was for the two of you to go Christmas shopping in Charlotte and then go to the party afterwards. You're not staying here to baby-sit me. I'm not…." I started to say 'suicidal', but that word wouldn't have advanced my case. "….I'm not going to hold you back. I want you to go. I'll be fine, and I'm going to go over to Tommy's tomorrow afternoon and spend the night with him too." I deserved an Oscar for this performance. I still felt like shit and tomorrow seemed like a week away to me at the moment. Still, I didn't want to hold them back and the Christmas party was a big deal for my dad. He was very into this type of social event. It was a chance for him to hob-knob with the other executives and show off his lovely wife.
Dad seemed convinced but mom eyed me suspiciously. I motioned her aside and whispered to her "please go, mom. I'll feel even worse if dad misses the party."
By one o'clock, they were headed out the door. I would have liked to have seen them leave happier, but at least they were willing to go. I told them not to worry and that I was glad no one would be here to fight with me over the leftover pizza. I summonsed all of my energy and beamed the biggest smile they had seen in two weeks. That final touch seemed to do the trick and they smiled back at me as they pulled out the drive in my dad's car.
I closed the front door and leaned hard against it with my back before sliding down to the floor into a low crouch. The house was dead-quiet. The images of three faces rotated through my head: Jay, Coach Briggs and Chris. How could I get Jay to talk to me? What would I learn, even if he did? How would Chris respond if I was right?
It didn't matter because Jay wasn't going to talk to me and Chris might never remember all of the pieces from that day. Maybe I could bypass Jay altogether and go straight to Coach Briggs with a bluff. No. I had to be sure I was right because if I was wrong, then there was no chance I'd see Chris again until he was out from under Coach Brigg's roof. I stood up and walked to the kitchen. Mom's car keys were lying on the counter in their normal spot. A plot formed in my head, but it seemed too ridiculous even for me. I headed for the shower; the morning crust I was wearing had worn out its welcome.
Once done, I came back downstairs and got a juice out of the fridge. My walk slowed as I passed the counter before I came to a complete stop to study the set of keys. Why was it so ridiculous? I had seen boys younger than me driving tractors and farm-trucks out on the road. It wasn't like I was going that far away. Jay's house was less than a mile from Chris's house and that was only ten minutes from here. I had driven the car around the driveway a few times, but never on the open road. No one would know….I shook off the idea again, deciding that it was just outside of my comfort zone.
I tried to distract myself with TV but it was no use. I thought again of Chris and wondered what he was doing right now. It would be the first morning back to 'normal' in the Briggs house. I closed my eyes and tried to picture him there. All I could see were flashes from my own memories. I saw us on the old stump together and I remembered how much it had meant to me. It was the first time I felt hope that someone other than my parents might love me. That moment had bonded us together as friends. I remembered the first embrace in the old shack and the first accidental kiss. I now understood why Chris hesitated to follow me in there on that rainy day and I now knew the source of the silent tears he left on the old wood floor. Our relationship had elevated beyond friendship that day; to some level that failed definition, but definitely a higher plain of emotion. I remembered the first and only night he had spent at my house. It was the first time I had touched him in any physically intimate way and I remembered his hesitation to accept my advances. I also remembered how lost I felt then, and the feeling was very similar to what I felt now. But Chris had pulled me back from that emotional inferno; he had rescued me that night and I fell to sleep holding his battered body in my arms. Finally, I remembered the day that had changed things between us; the day that started with fear and isolation for both of us at school; continued with our first sexual experience together; and concluded with an endless night in the hospital as we watched his family unravel around him in plain view.
I kept my eyes closed and tried to reach him. I didn't really believe any such powers existed but I was willing to try anything at this point. Instead of reaching him, one more stray memory flashed into my head. I saw the image of Chris curled in some corner with his dad standing over him……….
I never finished the thought and a swipe across the counter brought my mom's car keys firmly into my grasp. Jay Henson was about to get an unwelcome visit, assuming he was even home.
I wasn't exactly the daredevil type and every hair on my body stood at attention as I pulled out of the drive and onto the street. My heart was pounding and I nervously alternated between the rear-view mirror and the road ahead. Two younger boys on bicycles gave me curious looks as I pulled out of the neighborhood and onto the main road. I waved to them as casually as my shaking hand would allow. Living in a rural area had its advantages in a time like this and it was rare to meet a police car on the open roads. My mom and dad had cut me lots of slack during the past few weeks but this was definitely way over the line. There would be hell to pay for this one, if I got caught.
Fortunately, it was a short drive and I slowed as I approached Jay's house. At first, I didn't see his black truck and I feared this adventure was all for not. As I got closer to his driveway, I could see his truck parked around the back corner of the small house just on the other side of another car that I assumed was his mom's. Now my heart was really pounding. Jay was a steady source of disturbing thoughts for me and I hadn't failed to notice the gun-rack so prominently displayed in the back window of his truck. I had never seen a gun on it before, but then no one was allowed to carry firearms onto school property. I didn't imagine he would shoot me for trespassing, but he struck me as someone who wouldn't hesitate to throw a punch. The feeling from a good ass-kicking would be an improvement over the feeling of failure to at least try again to find out what he knew.
The car had barely come to a stop when Jay came out of the house. He wouldn't have recognized our car but he did soon recognize the face of the boy who stepped out of it. He was very unpleasantly surprised to see me and probably somewhat confused that I was driving.
"You're out of your fucking mind!" He summed it up pretty well.
"Maybe so. I couldn't argue that with you right now." I must have looked truly desperate to him.
"I already told you that I'm not talking to you. You need to get that through your thick head. LEAVE ME ALONE!" He turned and walked back toward the house.
"Listen, I don't want to make a scene, but I will if I have to." He knew what I meant and he didn't like it. If Jay really knew anything that could help me, it meant he had kept it quiet for a reason. I didn't know how it all fit together, but I thought the 'reason' probably was inside, home on her day off from work.
He shot me a look that was more than vaguely familiar and he walked out away from the house and toward a small clump of trees on the back corner of the lot. I followed him and we continued to walk until we were a safe distance from the house.
He wheeled around and angrily threatened "Maybe if I beat the shit out of you, you'd finally be quiet and leave me alone."
I was too emotionally fatigued to be diplomatic. "Yeah, that plan seems to work pretty well around here."
"You've got no fucking idea what you're talking about." I thought for a moment he might actually hit me. He was the one that had no fucking idea what I was talking about. "You're trying to figure out your boyfriend and why he would do something so bad to poor old Jay Henson. How many times do I have to tell you that I can't help you?"
Jay shared a family trait with Chris and Coach Briggs; he wore every reaction right on his face for all to see. He would have been a terrible poker player. I didn't need him to be a witness; I just needed to know if I was right. It was time to find out what cards he was holding.
"I know that Chris didn't hurt you and I know who did."
His voice was speechless, but his face wasn't. He wasn't prepared for my bluff and he folded right in front of me. I gave him a minute to regroup.
"I'm sorry, Jay. I don't want to hurt you or cause you any embarrassment, or your mom."
He couldn't look at me anymore. Hearing someone acknowledge the truth out loud had crushed him. It was something he never expected and probably never wanted at this late date.
"Why did you come here?" His question was pointed down at the ground in front of him.
"Because I had to know if I was right."
His head turned quickly and his eyes flashed resentment. "I didn't tell you a damn thing!"
"I know, you didn't say a word and don't worry, I'll never mention your name. I wasn't trying to drag you back into this….." I searched for the words to try and bring him some peace. He was as big a victim in this tragedy as anyone. It wasn't lost on me that I could have just as easily have been him. I wondered if we were even more alike than either of us knew for sure.
"Jay, I don't know why you stayed silent all this time. I'm sure you had your reasons. Coach Briggs is a hateful son of a bitch; I know that much for sure. I don't know if it helps you but Chris thinks he is the one who hurt you. He can't remember all of the pieces of what happened. What he does remember just confuses the hell out of him. He had doctors telling him he had snapped and gone crazy and that he was just in denial about the truth. He has no idea what the truth is anymore. I don't know everything that happened and I guess I never will, but I know that both of you got fucked over and I know who was responsible for it."
There was no more resentment in his eyes. At least he and I had come to a peace together. It was the only peace in my heart at the moment and the full conviction of my knowledge was rising up within me. I had another stop to make before going home and I turned to walk away.
"What are you going to do?"
"Don't worry. I told you I won't mention your name." This time, it was me that kept walking.
"Wait!" He grabbed me by the arm. "You really are out of your mind. Don't do this!"
"If I don't, then who will? When is it going to stop? Maybe after he finally slips up and beats Chris to death instead of just dishing out his normal back-bruiser?"
His face went blank and he released my arm. When I reached the car and got in, he still hadn't moved and I backed out into the road to complete the last mile of what had been a much longer journey.
My palms were so sweaty they were slipping on the steering-wheel. My heart was pumping blood so fast I could feel the veins throb in my neck. Fear was far too small a word to describe what I was feeling. When the Briggs house came into view from a distance, what I saw next shifted the fear into horror: Chris was fleeing out of the back of the house and I saw him stumble onto the ground before regaining his balance and running into the woods. It evidently hadn't taken very long for things to get back to 'normal'.
My body went cold and I turned into the driveway, stopping halfway down the drive and leaving the car door open so as not to make any extra noise. Maybe I could just reach Chris and get him to escape with me. It wasn't going to be that easy.
"Where do you think you're going?" Coach Briggs was walking out of the garage area and had placed himself directly in my path, only a dozen feet or so separating us.
I stopped in my tracks. Old words of "don't show him any fear" came back to me but it was too late. Fear was draped all over me and he could see it plainly. A smug controlling look came over his face as I pressed my shaking hands against my hips trying to steady them. I tried to speak but my voice shattered under the stress.
"I'm……I came….to see…..Chris…." I came to save Chris but thoughts of self-preservation were taking me over instead. I felt like a coward. I also felt fresh sympathy for Chris.
Coach Briggs took a menacing step toward me. He really was enjoying this. His pleasure was far more perverted than anything achieved by his hated "pansies" and "degenerates."
"You're going to stay away from Chris. Do you understand me? I don't want your faggoty little ass anywhere near my sight. You go on back to your fancy neighborhood and your big house and you stay there before I call the police and tell them there's an under-aged driver out on the roads."
I must have looked terribly weak to him. I was certainly no match for him in physical strength. Even for his age, he was a physical specimen and was well capable of causing me great harm. He was an adult and he was a teacher and he was exercising all of his advantages to quash the little bug of a boy in front of him; and he was most definitely enjoying it.
It was hopeless. This boy was no match for that man. I stumbled backwards a step or two before turning and limping back towards the car. I heard him laugh, I thought of Chris, and I stopped walking. Maybe I shouldn't have stopped. I don't know for sure why or how I did. Every instinct within me told me to run; every instinct but one. The warrior had met his opponent and refused to walk away from the battle. Was it courage, anger or desperation? It was all of those combined, but anger took the lead.
"NO!" I screamed it as I turned to face him. He stopped laughing and reinforcements of anger came to his own face. I was outmanned and outnumbered and surprise was my only weapon.
"Chris is going home with me and he's not coming back!" My pent-up frustrations were fueling the anger. The sudden change in momentum knocked old Coach Briggs off balance. I had to fire off as many punches as I could before he responded with something that might crush my courage. I knew I couldn't win a drawn-out battle with him.
"Just let him go! You don't want him here anyway." Then I spoke the words that allowed me no retreat. Once they were out there, there was no going back.
"And I don't want to have to tell everybody that I know it was you that hurt Chris and Jay. I don't want to drag them through all of that. I just want Chris to be out of this house, for good."
His face was blood-red and I thought he might literally explode. The silence was allowing me to contemplate exactly what I had just done and the full realization scared the absolute hell out of me. Jay was right: I must be out of my mind. 'Desperate times call for desperate measures', or so they say. I was completely desperate and completely afraid.
When he moved, I jumped a bit, but he didn't move toward me. He glared at me until his turning body pulled his head in the other direction and he walked away from me back toward the house. I wasn't sure if he was surrendering Chris to me or regrouping for round two. I sprinted off into the woods hoping I could find Chris and get him out before his dad had other ideas.
I had a hunch where he might be and I made my way in the general direction of the old shack. Basketball had improved my conditioning and I continued in full sprint until the old frame was in sight. I stopped for a moment and reached over with my hands on my knees as I gasped for breath. The ground under the heavy timber was still covered with a thin soggy layer of last week's snow. I could see footprints in spots and there was a trail leading right up to the shack.
Chris's mouth dropped open with surprise as I stood at the door and looked in to see him sitting against the wall. I was the last person he expected to see and I could quickly tell he had been crying.
"Matt, what are you doing here?" He was very confused. He looked at me as if he suspected I was only a hallucination. We didn't have all day to discuss the full story.
"Chris, I need for you to come with me right now. We've got to leave and go someplace where we can talk for a while. Let's go!" He shook his head at me.
"Matt….I told you…" I cut him off. That bullshit was getting old and we didn't have time for it.
"You've got to listen and you've got to trust me! You didn't hurt Jay…..It was your dad Chris, I know this is hard for you to hear, but IT WAS YOUR DAD!"
I saw a glimmer of belief in his eyes. He knew better than anybody that his dad was capable of it. Still, it was too shocking to believe so quickly. He had to believe me and we had to go now.
"Please, Chris. Let's go. Your dad knows that I know! We just had it out and I told him you were coming home with me and that you wouldn't be coming back. I'm not leaving here without you!" Tears were now streaming down my face. "I know you still love me. Please, Chris. We've got to go now!"
I stood in the doorway and the same hand he had knocked away before was reaching out for him again. This time, he would have to come to me; he had to take that step. He gave me the look I was waiting to see and I knew he was mine again. He rose up and reached for my hand but our hands never met.
Something cold and blunt struck me on the side of the head and my vision went black and my body fell sideways landing hard on the ground below. I was dazed somewhere between a conscious and unconscious state. I could hear muffled yelling but couldn't sense a direction it was coming from. My body rolled to one side and I caught a flash of light as my eyes tried to refocus. I could make out the forms of two bodies swaying wildly against the side of the shack. One form fell to the ground and I could vaguely make out the outline of the other form getting closer to me. Just as Coach Briggs's face emerged through the foggy blur, I felt a hard kick to the side of my ribs, lifting me from the shear force of the blow, and I could hear my own muffled gasp of pain. I struggled for breath and each gasp produced a new sharp pain on my right side. My vision was clearing and I could see Coach Briggs standing over me. The terror hit new heights when I realized what had hit me on the side of the head was the heavy black pistol in his hand. I saw Chris rise up from behind him and make a running lunge that carried them both over the top of me and tumbling intertwined on the other side. I tried to get up, but I folded back into the soggy snow that had now mixed into mud. My breaths were getting shorter in order to lessen the stabbing pain in my ribs. I saw a drop of dark red blood trickle off my brow and onto a tiny patch of undisturbed snow below.
History seemed to be repeating itself. I was filled with terror and I could hear the rustling between father and son as one struggled to overcome the other. Please God, don't let that pistol go off. I heard a steady pounding of punches and managed to raise my head enough for my fear to be confirmed. His dad had gotten the upper hand in their battle and now Chris was the one crumpled over trying to struggle to his feet but falling off to one side.
Coach Briggs stood again and staggered toward me. I could see battered marks on his face. He gave me another glancing kick as he went by. The fight had taken a lot out of him. Maybe he had worked it out of his system and was willing to move on. I twisted my head underneath my body to see that he had stopped and was reaching for something lodged in the mud below. I pushed hard against the ground and tried one last time to rise but couldn't. The pistol he had dropped when Chris plowed into him now rested in his palm and I could see his boots turn back in my direction. I knew my time was short.
They say your life flashes before your eyes; it doesn't. I twisted my head toward Chris. I could feel the cold mud and snow squishing underneath my chin. I could hear Coach Briggs getting closer behind me. Chris had crawled to his knees and a look of panicked horror spread across his face as he saw what was happening. He made one last lunge to his feet but he was too far away. He screamed a frantic "NO" but it fell on deaf ears. I heard the clicking sound of the cold metal as it snapped into place. Chris's eyes found mine but the look on his face was too horrific for me to bear. I closed my eyes and found a better image of him smiling there.
It was a single shot.
My body was already rife with pain and I shook uncontrollably when the piercing sound rang out. My eyes opened again and they found the image of Chris falling to his knees, his face was colorless and had lost all expression. The reality that I hadn't been shot terrified me even more than the possibility I was dead. I looked Chris over trying to find some sign of injury from the gunfire. What was happening? I could still move and as I made another twist to look behind me, I heard a heavy thud hit the ground and a set of lifeless eyes crashed harshly against the snow just feet from my head. The image shocked me into a contortion that put me flat on my back and wreathing in new pain. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him.
An unexpected warrior had joined the fight. Jay Henson stood there with his own gun in hand, still smoking from the shot he had fired. His arm was still outstretched as if he didn't believe it was over, but it was over. It shouldn't have come to this, but it did. It had ended where it began and it was finally over.
Chris dragged himself over next to me, keeping a cautious eye on the lifeless figure of his father. He was shaking and there were tears making twisted paths down his face as they worked around the cuts and bruises. His hand reached out and finally found mine. He looked down at me but he couldn't speak, then his eyes cut across the way and locked in with Jay. Chris began sobbing much harder and he didn't look away from Jay for several minutes. The last revelation that awaited him would be awkward, but I had to agree with Melanie, it would help him to know. The conflicts of their parents didn't have to be their own. An ending brought with it a chance for a new beginning for all who were left.
My parents never made it to the Christmas party. Instead, they got a very disturbing phone call and a weekend at the hospital while I spent two nights there under observation for a concussion and treatment of three broken ribs. After sitting with me during an interview with a sheriff's deputy, they had full appreciation for how close they had come to losing me. I didn't get in trouble for taking the car out after all.
Tommy and the rest of the hearty Johnson clan came to see me. I promised Tommy a full accounting of the whole story when we could spend some time alone.
On the morning of the third day, I came home from the hospital and Robert Briggs was buried that afternoon. I insisted on going and the church was full. Few were there for him; most were there as a show of support for Chris. Jay wasn't there. The sheriff's department had filed charges against him but everyone involved said the D.A. would never take the case once he had all of the statements. Bail was waived and he was free until all of the legal wrangling was settled.
A church funeral for a man like Robert Briggs didn't seem fitting but it was the custom and there we were. My mom and dad sat with me and we were positioned just off the main aisle where the family would come in. I was still very sore and was told I would be for some time.
The rituals of funerals were new to me and this probably wasn't the best circumstance to appreciate them. I had to constantly remind myself that this was about closure for the family and not a tribute to Coach Briggs. When the family arrived, everyone in the church stood in respect. Coach Briggs had two older brothers and a sister that I didn't know about. They didn't look any happier to be there than I was. When I saw Melanie come in with Peggy holding her arm for guidance, I wondered if this was more than Chris could stomach. Maybe neither of Robert Briggs's sons would be in attendance.
Then I saw him. My first thought was that Chris looked amazingly good in a suit. He trailed right behind his mother and sister, walking slowly and sadly alone. Between the needs of his mother and the visits from the police, we hadn't seen each other since the ambulance took me off to the hospital. He had talked to my mom several times and had kept close tabs on me. Still, we hadn't spoken; there was just more to say than circumstances had allowed. He must have felt my eyes on him and he spotted me right away standing at the end of a row. His face showed the signs of the battle and I still didn't know what condition his spirit was in.
I feared that he might resent me for the truth I had brought to bare. Even in death, his father might find a way to be an obstacle between us. So many old injuries left the need for much healing. At least Chris was finally free from the physical abuse that had plagued him his whole life, though there were many challenges left ahead. Watching him approach as he walked down the aisle, I held out hope that we might be together again one day, but it seemed far from certain to me. I had kept my vow to him and I would continue to wait for as long as it took.
As they walked past, he slowed and then stopped right beside me. His watery eyes met mine and he reached in and gently tugged at the sleeve of my suit until I moved out of the pew and stood beside him. He then put his hand on my shoulder and we walked side-by-side to the front pew where we stood with his mother and sister. Once we were seated, he slipped his hand around mine. He leaned closer to me, squeezed my hand, and softly whispered "Never again, Matt. Never again." The words were soft but the meaning was firm with resolve. Our faces filled with tears.
We didn't cry for Robert Briggs. We didn't even cry for the past or the bruises that our bodies and souls had suffered. We cried for the future; tears of hope for a future where we would never be separated again.