Robert Briggs wouldn't have been very happy with this. It's quite possible the sight of Chris and Matt holding hands would have been enough to kill him, saving Jay Henson the trouble. To Matt, this didn't feel like a funeral and he was having a hard time feeling sad; remorse was completely out of the question. After all, it could have been him. If not for Jay, it WOulD have been him - and then maybe Chris too. Still the question lingered in his mind: "Was this my fault?" No matter how he tried to justify it, a man was dead because of his actions. What if things had ended differently and it was Chris? Matt couldn't bring himself to even consider it. Feeling somewhat responsible for the death of Robert Briggs was something he could live with; to have Chris's blood on his hands, well, wouldn't have been survivable.
Chris's face revealed fresh tears wiggling down his cheek. He was trying to will them to stay inside, but finally some of those tears were for his dad. Robert Briggs had been his father just as Peggy Briggs was still his mother. Matt wondered if Robert Briggs wouldn't still find a way between them yet. But for now, they squeezed each other's hands tightly, with less frequent glances at the large steel casket just a few feet in front of them. Dead, yes - but forgotten, NEVER!
There were just the four of them in the front pew: Melanie, Peggy, Chris and Matt. Peggy's eyes had drifted and Matt detected a confused stare coming from her direction. She had spotted Matt's hand entwined with Chris's, and she must have been wondering exactly what she had sobered up to. Chris couldn't have told his parents before about his love for Matt. But could he now tell just his mom? Could he tell Melanie, assuming she even needed to be told?
Then there was school. If the rumors weren't bad enough before, what would everyone say now? The story of how and why Robert Briggs met his not-untimely death would add much new fuel to the fires. Without realizing it, Matt squeezed Chris's hand extra hard and Chris rotated his head and looked Matt square in the eyes. The stress of the past few weeks was clearly visible on Chris's face, but only on the surface. Behind that clenched jaw and those injured eyes lay a much deeper strength.
"It's gonna be OK, Matt." Chris gave Matt's hand a firm squeeze in return. They were back in sync and finally felt ready to face whatever the world decided to throw at them.
The service was moving outside, and their hands fell away from each other as they stood and walked back down the same aisle together. Peggy wrapped an arm around Chris and Matt fell back a bit to give them some space. He tried to make eye contact with Melanie but she stayed focused on the ground, stepping over a stray tree root as they made their way out to the cemetery. Matt felt a familiar hand take his own as his mother escorted him the rest of the way to a fresh hill of red dirt neatly mounded in a far corner of the lot. Matt and his parents stood directly across from the tent-covered patch of seats reserved for the family. Chris's eyes found Matt's and they stayed locked in an expressionless stare for the remainder of the service.
ROBERT SAMUEL BRIGGS
Born October 15, 1941
Died December 13, 1997
"A Loving Father And Devoted Husband"
They could etch it into stone, but it was still a lie. Matt thought that some of Robert Briggs' own words should have been written there instead: "What a waste, what a waste."
The ceremony was coming to a close. A sunny day had turned grey and a shifting wind from the North easily cut through the suits and funeral dresses. The pastor ended his speech with these words, "Robert Briggs is now in a better place." Matt was in complete agreement there; he was in a "better place," better for everyone.
Just a few miles away from the service, a boy leaned against an old tree deep within the woods behind his house. His mind reflected back over a life lived alone, outside the realm of proper society; no society at all for that matter, just him and his mom. Jay Henson couldn't very well attend the funeral. It wasn't considered proper etiquette to show up for the burial of the man you'd killed. Buried along with the body of Robert Briggs were the last, futile hopes Jay had for understanding the man he couldn't call father.
Jay Henson wasn't at the funeral service, but he closed his eyes and tossed an old family keepsake into the grave from afar; fear had finally found a suitable resting place of its own.
Jay had received the unwelcome knowledge of his genealogy via his mother's frightened words, while he lay in a hospital bed nearly two years ago. "He'll do it," she said. "He's that crazy, Jay…… I'm so scared……" her words became muttered and Jay could feel the vibration of her shaking hand as it squeezed a death grip on the bedside railing. The pounding knock Susan Henson answered on her door earlier that day had revealed a figure she had not seen in more than fourteen years. On that day many years ago, Robert Briggs had a warning too. Susan had heeded his warning and kept her "mouth shut" ever since. The newer warning had been very similar to the first one, but this time required Jay's cooperation; he had no such choice the first time around. His mom hadn't planned on coming so clean with him that day in the hospital, but the terror she had lived with all these years had finally found an outlet.
Jay had lived a quiet life up until that fateful day in the old shack. His mother had become a virtual recluse, working her factory job at the spinning mill during the day and coming straight home each afternoon, only venturing outside her routine for quick runs to gather groceries or other basic provisions. The small aging home she rented had become a fortress for her -- and a prison for Jay. There was always a quiet fear in his mother's eyes and it had a stunting effect on Jay emotionally, though he wouldn't come to learn the source of that fear until some time later. During his fourteenth summer, he developed a budding friendship with Chris Briggs, unbeknownst to the rest of the Briggs' family or Chris's circle of friends. The friendship began quite accidentally as Jay's English collie Shep had made a rather impromptu re-introduction of the two. Chris had met Jay before, gone to school with him all these many years, but like everyone else in these parts, he didn't know him. Neither boy had been sure why one felt a bond to the other, but they made easy friends with each other and came to spend many long days that summer exploring the hills and streams in the vast wooded areas they called home.
Chris had never had a boy as a close friend. Katie Barnes was barely past her tomboy days at the time, but still she hardly had ever qualified as a real boy. Though Chris had been popular at school with many casual friends, everyone kept their safe distance from the Briggs' house. Katie had been the only one brave enough to show up there regularly, but then young Katie Barnes held little fear of anything in those earlier days. Chris and Katie had been friends for as long as either could remember and they might as well have been siblings, having grown up together much as brother and sister might have.
This particular summer had followed a spring of drastic change in Katie. Her body was finally starting to show small signs of womanhood and her mother became determined to produce those same changes in Katie's mind and spirit. No more pony-tails, or t-shirts, or cut-off shorts; long flowing shiny hair and pretty dresses were now the requirement. Chris had started to take notice of the changes in Katie's form, motivated by the development of his own body. His rituals of self pleasure were starting to feel inadequate. Katie didn't much care for his advances as she had never looked at Chris that way. She had no appetite for sexual exploration with anyone, and she knew why.
Just a mile or so across the woods, separated by Deadman's Creek, another boy had spent a lonely thirteenth summer. His dogs and horses had kept him company, as usual, but Tommy Johnson was starting to feel a real despair; something that the fine company of Mollie and Tucker and Stryker and Sky simply couldn't relieve. Tommy had been the good son, providing many fond memories for his mother and father. Still he wondered: "When will life be for me?" Paralyzed by shyness, he drifted largely unnoticed amongst the many "friends" he had known all his life. Really, they weren't friends at all; instead, they were merely acquaintances by act of random location. In his mind, Tommy was beginning to wonder if he would ever know real friendship. He hadn't even learned yet how to yearn for anything more than that; in fact, he wasn't sure what else he wished to yearn for. For now, friendship seemed unattainable enough; life's other unattainables would have to wait their turn.
A few miles to the west, closer to 3000 miles to be more exact, yet another boy was feeling much the same as Tommy. Young Matthew Jordan knew he was different, though he couldn't articulate why or how. He didn't have the company of dogs and horses to distract his loneliness. He didn't have a tomboy girlfriend who lived across the woods; he didn't even have woods at all. He had only his own strong spirit to keep him company; a spirit that was starting to fade. Actually, he did have something more: The love of a watchful mother. Joanna Jordan kept close watch, for sure. And she didn't like what she was seeing. Sometimes, we really do need a change in scenery. Sometimes, we just need better friends. Always, we need someone to watch out for us.
Finally, a fifth boy was spending his thirteenth summer doing what he had done for many summers before: Adjusting to a new community as his father's line of work had taken them to five states in the past seven years. Maybe this time would be different, he thought, but he didn't really believe it would be. His home-schooling eased at least part of his adjustment, but also served to isolate him from other kids his age. This boy had experienced many curious thoughts, but those thoughts were starting to take on new power and meaning as they teamed with a body just beginning to mature. One thing was certain: His father would never understand.
Much had happened in the two years since that summer. Chris and Jay had gotten too close, and had paid the price exacted by Robert Briggs. Katie sought the love of someone her mother would be proud of in the form of Ty Wilson, but fell prey to manipulation and abandonment, again. Tommy was mostly minding his own business, having largely learned to cope with his loneliness, when one day a new boy arrived at school. Matt had been rescued thanks to the watchful eye of his mother, who convinced his father to take that new job 3000 miles, more or less, to the east.
So much had happened up to this present day. Love had been found. Friendships had been born. Other souls were still adrift. Lives had been saved, and a life had been lost.
Jay Henson wasn't at the funeral service, but he closed his eyes and tossed an old family keepsake into the grave from afar; fear had finally found a suitable resting place of its own.
Back at the service, the formalities were finally concluding. Those paying their last respects watched as the family moved from the graveside to the cement blocked structure that served as the church fellowship hall where the family would receive visitors one last time. Southern funerals are major community events and much socializing is conducted around the ceremonies. Starting with the first reception at the funeral "home" (funeral store would be a more apt description, as burial was no small expense), and finally concluding rather tackily, but mercifully for the family, with cookies and sodas as the neat mound of red dirt was made level again outside of their view. There would be one last walk back to the graveside afterward to view the final product, and then they would be done.
Chris had had enough. Instead of going into the fellowship hall with the rest of the family, he dodged around the rear of the building and looked back to make sure Matt was picking up on his cue. They walked to the farthest side of the main church structure and found a private corner at the bottom of the large brick walls, beyond the view of people and traffic, and outside the reach of the chilling wind. Collapsed by his emotions, Chris crumbled to the grass and leaned against the base of the wall. His face was inconsolable and Matt sat beside him and took him into his arms. Chris had been keeping up his front very well. He had been determined not to show any outward grief for his father's passing. Showing such grief could have been misinterpreted for love and he couldn't allow himself to feel misplaced love for the man who had abused him so and who also would have taken the life of the boy he loved. But no matter how he tried to suppress it, there was still a feeling of loss.
Here, Jay and Chris shared a brotherly bond once again; there would be no reconciliation, no understanding, no long awaited atonement or reparation. Chris's last memory of his father alive would be of his father's lowest moment in life. The man who once was a boy himself, then a young star athlete, and then a reluctant servant for his country and later disgraced ex-servant, then husband, father, teacher and coach, would forever be no more than what he ended as: A bitter and violent excuse for a father. Now, for no one but himself, Chris had to come to his own terms with this. It wouldn't be easy and it wouldn't happen today, but it had to happen. In the only way left available to him, he had to make peace with his father.
Matt didn't ask what was wrong. He just held Chris close and tried to keep his own sobbing to a minimum. It would do Chris no good for Matt to lose it too. On some very basic level, it felt comforting for Matt to have Chris in his arms again. He wondered just how damaged Chris was, but he also knew if love could heal him, then love would be administered in no small supply. That much, at least, was within his control.
"I almost got you killed," Chris mumbled. "I knew better, Matt. I knew better……...If I'd been more brave, or just honest………" The words weren't flowing very freely, interrupted constantly by new bursts of emotion.
Matt wasn't at all sure what Chris had meant by "just honest." Chris needed to let this out and Matt felt like he needed to hear it, though he feared what "just honest" might mean.
"Chris, you are the bravest person I know. And you didn't almost get me killed. Don't put that on your shoulders too." Matt kissed Chris on the top of the head, pulling him tighter still into his side.
"I lied to you Matt." These words brought a shudder of fear to Matt's spine. Why would Chris have lied to him? Why wouldn't Chris trust him with any truth? But then Matt had truths he hadn't shared with Chris either. Did that make him a liar too?
"Chris, you can trust me with anything. I don't want us to have secrets from each other. I know I love you and nothing you say is going to change that. Nothing." Matt was reassuring Chris and himself at the same time.
"I didn't want you to hate me or to think I was a coward. But I am a coward..……"
"You are NOT a coward! And I could never hate you, Chris. I don't know where this is going, but I know you. You don't have to be perfect for me. You can't be perfect for anyone. Whatever this is, tell me now and let's get it over with. I'm still going to love you just as much, no matter what."
"I didn't hurt Jay Henson, but I might as well have. He was hurt because of me and I did nothing about it, Matt…….I did nothing." Chris's head hung straight down in shame, his words pointed to the ground, unable to make eye contact with Matt. Matt understood what he said, but these words hadn't revealed the lie. A very anxious curiosity was starting to take Matt over.
"What did you lie about, Chris?" The question seemed to drain Chris's eyes. Matt saw his lip quiver and it took several attempts for him to finally speak his reply.
"I saw it all happen, Matt. And I did nothing about it." Chris was now completely broken. This lie was his last thin wall of defense and its collapse had left him fully exposed. He had never understood what Matt saw in him. Even with his considerable physical attributes and charismatic personality, his self confidence had been eroded away; or maybe chipped away one blow and bruise at a time. He had needed a close friend, a best friend, but never found it - until Matt. And he had been confused by Katie's cool reception to him at times, though that was the fault of another and not his own. Matt was the only person he could trust with the truth, and he was the person Chris was most afraid to share it with for fear it would drive him away.
Matt was already busy trying to piece this together with what he already knew. But then most of what he knew had come from Chris, leaving him unsure what real truth he knew at all. Chris had finally opened up to him with the first "truth" just a couple of weeks earlier, just before their own first sexual exploration with each other. Chris had told him how he could only remember "bits and pieces" of what had happened at the old shack with Jay and how it was all coming back to him slowly. In the earlier version, he had been unconscious, with a battered and bleeding head, before opening his eyes to see a blurry flash of Jay lying face down on the ground outside the shack. Memories faded in and out as both boys were taken to the hospital. Chris had recollected the vision of a sheriff's deputy talking with his father as Chris was loaded in the ambulance along with Jay.
Even while Matt silently pondered on this, he continued to rub Chris's back and shoulder in the comforting way you try to console someone in a time of loss. Having had a moment to regain himself, Chris now continued with his confession.
"You see, I am a coward after all..….. He had surprised us and he punched me several times, actually hitting me in the face and head, which he never did before. It's true that he almost knocked me out when he kicked me in the head once, after I fell down…….." Chris paused and Matt watched his face intently. The truth had taken him over almost in the form of a trance.
"Then he went after Jay. I think I was in some state of shock because I couldn't believe he caught us like that. I felt ashamed, Matt…….Jay fought back. I never did that and it just seemed to make my dad madder. I closed my eyes and just blocked it all out, just like I always did. But I should have helped Jay. My dad had never hurt me like that, not that bad, the way he hurt Jay. He was always smarter than that with me."
"You were only 13 years old then, Chris. You probably couldn't have stopped him anyway. You might have even made it worse. And you're not a coward." Matt felt fresh sympathy for him. The lie was more of a concealment of the truth, but probably a lie all the same.
"I didn't do anything, Matt. I just lay there. I should have at least tried! That's the only thing I lied to you about, but I should have told you the truth the first time." Chris wasn't a coward, but he felt like one. One never knows how they'll react in a given situation. For him, the abuse and violence had become routine. And he had felt genuinely ashamed; your father catching you with your own cock in your hand would be embarrassing enough. To have him catch you with someone else's wasn't something many would be prepared to deal with.
"At the hospital, the shrinks said I was in denial. They were right about that, but they just didn't understand what I was in denial about. It was easier to take the blame and just stay quiet and let people think it was me who went crazy. I wondered if Jay would tell them what really happened. Maybe he was waiting on me. Or maybe we were both ashamed and just as happy to let people think what they did. It seemed easier to deal with than the truth."
Matt took in the full confession. The injuries from that day ran even deeper than he had realized. At least now it was out in the open. Two boys had been severely damaged with injuries left untreated for far too long.
"But you didn't just lay there and watch him hurt me, did you?" Matt's question brought Chris's eyes to meet his for the first time since they'd sat down. Chris's eyes said it even before his voice could speak the words.
"I couldn't let that happen. I would have rather died first."
"Or second," Matt added. Chris blinked hard at the words. He hadn't fully considered what his fate might have been if Jay hadn't shown up when he did.
"Jay saved you and maybe both of us, but I couldn't save him. I don't know why he went to the trouble, considering I haven't spoken to him since the day dad caught us." His eyes trailed off again.
"Chris, YOU saved me. If you hadn't slowed your dad down, then………" They both knew the rest. "Jay knew something bad was likely to happen and I think you are both very brave."
"How would he have known something bad would happen?" Chris didn't know the full story and it was time for Matt to fill him in. Then it would be time for Matt to shed his own secret.
"Really, this was all my fault. I'm the one that almost got me, or us, killed. And Chris…….." Matt needed to say this. "I feel responsible for your dad being dead, I'm sorry. I really am sorry." Chris was now the one filled with anxious curiosity. What exactly had happened?
"I knew it was your dad who had hurt both of you at the shack that day. It took me a while to do it, but I eventually figured it out. I had to know for sure and I thought Jay was the only one who could tell me. I had been trying to get him to talk to me but he wouldn't. I really wasn't even sure if he knew what had happened to him because I knew he was hurt really bad, since he lost the hearing in one ear and all." Chris was hinging on every word. He had thought about Jay almost every day since the last time they'd spoken, but having someone else talk about him brought everything back to full life somehow.
Matt continued, "While you were up at the hospital with your mom, I got very depressed. After what happened at the cafeteria, I didn't know if you would ever let me get close to you again. I'd never felt so completely miserable, Chris. I missed you so bad." Chris was now playing the role of comforter, his arm wrapped around Matt's back. "I couldn't just let it go, Chris. I had to know what happened and I had to reach you again somehow. It made me do dumb things, like steal my mom's car and drive it to Jay's house to make him talk to me." Chris raised his eyebrows.
"Chris, Jay has suffered a lot too. I think he was afraid for his mother." The startled look on Chris's face gave him away. Matt had figured out even more than Chris had imagined. And Chris knew more than Matt had yet figured out, until that look spread across his face.
"You know, don't you?" They could read each other well enough by now and Matt's question was really more of a statement.
"I definitely didn't know then!" The 'then' was when Jay and Chris were fooling around. Chris looked into Matt's eyes to make sure he believed him. Matt's eyes confirmed that he did. "My mom and dad had a pretty bad argument right in my hospital room. I was on some heavy medications, and they thought I was more out of it than I was. They tried to whisper, but it got above whisper level real quick like. I heard Jay's name mentioned and I heard my mom say 'your hateful little bastard child.' I opened my eyes just as they both looked over at me. My mom just started crying and walked out of the room. My dad stood there and looked at me, like he could hide it if he kept his cool. I just stared back at him. We never talked about it, but that's when I knew." Chris hadn't planned to reveal this secret, but it wasn't because he didn't trust Matt. Having Jay for a brother was something that brought many emotional complications; complications that Chris hadn't yet figured out how to handle.
"Matt, I couldn't even look at him afterwards. I felt like I had betrayed him somehow. I think he probably feels like I betrayed him too. We've never tried to talk or anything and we just avoid each other at school."
Both boys were startled by the sudden appearance of Melanie coming around the corner, each with an arm around the other, huddled together with red, moist eyes. Their arms moved quickly back to their sides, but Melanie clearly saw their original positions. She didn't seem surprised; in fact, she didn't even blink.
"Chris, are you OK?" Melanie loved her brother, it was obvious. True, she had abandoned him earlier in life but she had no choice at the time. She had made the choice to save herself from the Briggs' house and Matt couldn't blame her for that.
"Yeah, I'm OK. I'm not coming back in there though."
"I understand. I told mom I would check on you and make sure you were all right. But I see you're in good hands." She gave Matt an appreciative smile, or as much of one as the circumstances would allow. Matt gave her a ragged half-smile in return; it was all he could muster. Melanie turned and went back inside and both boys gave each other quick glances.
Matt considered telling Chris about his hospital conversation with Melanie, but decided that would be too much for right now. There was already plenty to deal with.
"Jay tried to convince me not to go to your house that day. That's why I think he knew there would be trouble. He could probably see it coming more clearly than I could at the time. I didn't plan on having it out with your dad. But when I saw you running from the house, something just snapped inside me. But I'm sorry it turned out the way it did." Matt needed no forgiveness in Chris's eyes. What had happened had happened, and it was done.
"Chris, you should talk to Jay. I don't really know him, but I know he doesn't deserve what has happened to him. You two are brothers and you might be able to help each other, in time. I'm sure you could help him. Maybe we both could." Matt reclaimed Chris's hand with his own and their stares moved from understanding to wanting. It wasn't the time, and certainly not the place, but their bodies seemed to communicate in unison with one simple unspoken word: "Soon."
Matt needed to shed a secret of his own. He wasn't sure the timing was right, but he didn't want to hold it back any longer. "There's something I want you to know. Something I've always felt bad about, even though I think I did the right thing." Maybe this wasn't the right time, but now it was too late to go back. Chris extended his fingers, taking Matt's hand into a tighter grip.
"It's about Katie." Matt paused again. Chris winced a little at the mention of her name, completely without a clue as to where this was going. "This is hard to explain, but I sort of caught her with someone else…....before you broke up." Matt was struggling, mostly with the wording. He felt like he was tip-toeing through a minefield.
Chris jumped in, trying to help. "And you didn't tell me about it, you kept it a secret?"
"Well, I didn't tell you about it. But I did do something about it." Chris's eyes narrowed at Matt's words. "I sort of confronted her. I don't know what I expected, but she got pretty mad at me. I got mad at her too. It's my fault she broke up with you. I made her do it, Chris. I was really scared what would happen if you found about what she was doing." Matt regretted those last four words as soon as they came out of his mouth.
"What WAS she doing?" Chris didn't seem that angry. Of course, the surrounding events and emotions had muted much of what he might otherwise feel right now.
"Chris, it won't make you feel any better to know the details. I promise you." Matt thought back to an old conversation with Tommy, and how Matt had refused to take a small answer to a large question.
"I'm over that, Matt. I got the better end of that deal, don't you think? I mean, I got you!" Matt had to smile at him. Even though the situation was very awkward, it was still a nice thing to hear. Still, Chris wanted to know. "So tell me already."
Matt's smile receded as his lips drew into his mouth, trying to hide from their duty of speaking the answer.
"You've got to promise me you're gonna let this go. I don't want you going after anybody for revenge. We've got enough trouble already." That was to be Matt's deal, take it or leave it and he would trust Chris on his word if he agreed.
"I promise not to freak out and go after anybody. I just want to know the truth. It's over and done with and I'm not going to start any trouble." He said it like he meant it, and that was enough for Matt.
"I caught her with Ty Wilson." Matt hoped this would be enough, but he knew better.
"Caught her? What does that mean?" The look in Chris's eyes told Matt it was finally time to give him the whole truth. Get it out and over with. No more secrets.
"You had been having your problems with her. You had told me how you didn't think she was even attracted to you and you were pretty upset about how things were going with her in general. I was going to talk to her -- as your friend. I was trying to catch up with her so we could talk someplace alone, because I figured she would get pissed at me and I didn't want her to embarrass me in front of everyone. I followed her into the auditorium and accidentally saw something I didn't want to see. She was…...well…...fuck it, she was blowing him in the back of the auditorium. There, now you know!" Matt was irritated, not at Chris, but just at the burden of revealing such information.
"Wow, I didn't know she even knew how to do that." Chris gave Matt an evil grin and actually giggled. Matt finally took some relief, partly from the fact Chris was taking this so well and partly from the hope that Chris really didn't know she "knew how to do that."
Chris stopped giggling long enough to mutter, "That fucking asshole Ty Wilson. He's always looking at me like he knows something I don't. I guess he did."
Ty Wilson's arrogance had mostly been developed by his own efforts, but his sense of position in the community came naturally. His father was a very successful insurance salesman, having sold many of the life and auto policies in the area for more than twenty years. His mother was a hot-shot real estate agent. Matt wondered if the Jordans and Wilsons had done business together.
Chris continued, "Matt, you know I still talk to Katie sometimes. I mean, we're still friends. We've got a lot of history together and I didn't want things to end badly between us. She's been pretty down lately. I've never seen her like that before -- it's just not her style."
Matt didn't resent Katie as Chris's friend. He had learned to feel some sympathy for her and wondered if there was hope for her yet. The recent odd stares on her face made Matt wonder if she wasn't questioning who she was and he hoped she found the right answers.
Chris held Matt's eyes, staring into them with appreciation. "What?" Matt asked with a smile.
"I don't know why you do it, Matt. I just don't know why you work so hard to take care of me the way you do. You were actually going to talk to Katie, to try and get her to be a better girlfriend to me? You realize what that makes you?"
"Stupid?" Matt replied, with a sheepish grin.
Chris laughed out loud, and then refocused those x-ray eyes on Matt with full attention and seriousness. "No, not at all. It makes you unselfish and so in love with me. It really makes me realize even more how much you must love me, even if I can't understand why you do. I can't imagine how that made you feel, talking to her like that, knowing the way you love me. You've done so much for me. You saved my ass in Geometry. Well, Tommy saved my ass but you put him up to it. You were there for me at the hospital, even when I tried to push you away, you just wouldn't give up on me. Then you reached out to Jay just to try and help me. And then my dad, you stood up for me Matt and I don't want you to feel guilty about him. It wasn't your fault. What's done is done."
Matt soaked up every word. He had no doubt that Chris appreciated him, but it was still good to be reminded. We all need to hear those reminders -- especially from those we're closest too.
"Chris!" This time Melanie announced her presence before rounding the corner. "Come on, mom wants us to walk back out to the grave together and see how it looks." Finally, the last few steps required for the ceremony were about to be taken.
"I'll be there in a couple minutes, Mel." With that, Melanie left them again. Chris stood and reached out his hand to pull Matt up from his position. Matt looked up at him first, noting to himself again just how amazing Chris looked in a suit. He smiled and took Chris's hand, rising to face him. Chris leaned into him and gently covered his lips with a slow, soft kiss -- not a rousing kiss of passion -- more of an expression of warmth and gratitude. Easing off his lips just as slowly, Chris spoke the three words that Matt's heart couldn't hear enough, "I love you."
Their bodies re-sent the earlier communication, still unspoken, but still loud and clear: "Soon."
Andy and Betty Johnson decided against attending the service. They had a bad history with Robert Briggs and didn't think it appropriate to show their faces. Tommy would have liked to have been there as a show of support for Chris and Matt, but he had shown plenty of support already.
Tommy's life was more complicated these days, or at least filled with more drama than in the past. When the school year started, he was barely a blip on anyone's radar. Now, he was in, or at least near, the center of a storm. Along the way he had made a new friend -- his best friend. He had also made another friend in the unlikely company of Chris. Two new friends made for two more than last year. Nobody disliked Tommy; it was just that no one bothered to actually like him. His presence was an indifference to people. Tommy was a very shy boy. He felt most at home in the outdoors and never took to athletics, though he had more than ample coordination and general athleticism. Hunting, fishing, horseback riding, and just simply roaming the countryside were the things that interested him most. He had never had a girlfriend, but he found some girls attractive.
Tommy was a Southerner, born and bred. His parents were reasonably tolerant people. His father was an educator and clearly on the record in favor of equal opportunity for all races. Sexual orientation was a touchy subject, though. In the South, like many places, you could be equal opportunity for all --- except gays; that was different, after all. Blacks had "no choice" but to be black, so how could a decent society hold "that" against them? In the Johnson house, sexuality was never openly discussed. Andy Johnson made his fair share of mild gay jokes, but he wasn't mean spirited about it. Tommy had heard the (then humorous) term "pickle smoocher" thrown around a time or ten. Gays were easy to make casual fun of because nobody knew one, so who was there to be offended?
Tommy Johnson had always recognized that some guys were better looking than others; the ability to spot beauty and attraction is a common gift to all of us. Yet he had never felt actual attraction to another boy, at least not until Matthew Jordan came to town. The emotions and feelings were hard for Tommy to separate. Matt was his best friend and really the only person, other than his parents, to have ever shown real interest in him. It was a very attractive experience for him, but did that mean he was attracted to Matt? Matt was an attractive boy, but then so was Chris. But Tommy didn't feel that same attraction to Chris. One thing Tommy knew for certain: Matt was his best friend in the world and he would do anything for him. In Tommy's mind, an old question was starting to resurface again: "When will life be for me?"
What was left of the Briggs' family made their way out to the finished grave. Matt stood well back and watched from a distance; his mom and dad had rejoined him and stood by his side. It was impressive work and Robert Briggs final resting place looked well groomed and well secured. While the past wouldn't be so easily buried, at least a path to the future was now cleared. It shouldn't have happened this way, but it was over.
Now it was time to begin again.