…… 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.
The Briggs' family finally found some measure of peace on the ride back home from the service. Chris sat in the back seat and stared out into the countryside. As his sister neared their home, his eyes fixed on a dim light inside the last house before their final destination. There was no Christmas tree in the window, no other decorations adorning the small frame; Chris couldn't remember ever having seen Christmas lights on the Henson house. His heart filled with fresh regret and his mind filled with the fresh memory of a bastard brother he had only recently made eye contact with for the first time in two years. Caught between their stares had been the collapsed body of the boy Chris loved and the lifeless body of a bastard father. At that moment, with their eyes locked together, Chris had been unable to hide the regret or disappointment in himself. Jay had come to his rescue, and to Matt's, and the irony wasn't lost on him.
Inside the Henson house sat a young man and his mother. She tried to find the words to express her own regrets, but no suitable words could be found within her limited vocabulary. Instead, she offered apologetic glances, alternating between Jay's face and the worn carpet on the floor.
The one night spent in jail was still fresh on Jay's mind. He had been released the following day once the sheriff's department had gathered all of the statements, pending a final decision by the County District Attorney's office on prosecution. Though he had been assured by all of the local authorities that a case would not be brought by the D.A., it was still one last very dark cloud left hanging over his head courtesy of Robert Samuel Briggs.
Jay soon grew uncomfortable with the nervous glances from his mother. He needed to make his escape. First, he moved over to his mother's side and took her hand. He repeated the same words he had spoken a thousand times before, but this time the words held new promise -- and new doubts. "It's gonna be OK, mom. Don't worry, it's gonna be OK." His mom patted the top of his hand and gave him a grim smile before releasing him. She recognized this routine well. He then retreated to the confines of his small room, pausing to pluck out a paperback from a tall well-organized stack in the corner beside his bed. Stretched out with his back on the squeaky mattress, each word of the open book carried him another step away until, finally, life's concerns faded out of sight. His escape was now complete.
Chris would find no such escape of his own this night. First, there were the beagle pups to feed; they represented the only lasting evidence of his father's ability to love. When he came back inside, Melanie was already absorbed in a stack of papers and bills, her expression gave away the worried disbelief rumbling through her mind. Melanie wasn't one to dwell on grief. Peggy sat idly in the dark living room, sober, but hardly well.
Chris stripped free of his funeral clothes and collapsed onto his bed, wincing from the last physical bruise his father would inflict. His soul restlessly pleaded with the darkness, begging for a pardon of sleep, but none would be granted on this long night. The images rolled through his mind as if on an endless horrific loop: Matt's battered face looking up at him with desperation in his eyes, his father just behind Matt with a pistol at the end of his outstretched hand. Then the gunshot, followed by an endless moment of terror and confusion, then the image of Jay, caught in the corner of his mind's eye. Then finally, Jay's tormented eyes boring into Chris's soul. Over and over and over again, the images rolled through his mind.
Daybreak brought relief as the images seemed to fade with the growing morning light. Chris sat upright in his bed and took inventory of his thoughts and emotions. He found regret in plentiful supply, along with worry and self-doubt. Thankfully, his heart provided reminder for the love of a boy named Matt who had shown him love first. Chris looked hard and long but couldn't find the fear he had carried with him his whole life. Most importantly, he found hope; hope inspired by the love. With hope, he found resolve. He now knew what had to be done: The burdensome debt of regret had to be settled.
His first step outside revealed a frozen terrain as the hardened ground crackled under the weight of his boots. The wind had settled and his hot breath produced a foggy cloud that hung in the air before his face. He was going to invite Sally, mother to the beagle pups, along on his walk. But the huddled mass of puppies and mother, warmly tucked into a corner of their shelter, was more than he could bring himself to disturb. This was a walk he would have to make alone.
The solitude of the woods had always brought him comfort; this had been his escape. The morning was unusually cold and quiet and the local wildlife had sought shelter where it could be found. From a distant hill, he could hear the familiar steps of a deer, the sound somehow cutting through the endless barrage of trees and brush. The effect brought him a peace he was unable to find in his own bed. He continued to walk on a path untaken for much too long, but one he had never forgotten.
A cleared field, dormant from a fall wheat crop long since gathered, now stood between him and the end of his journey. Chris could see the dim outline of a house inside the lining of adjoining trees. He paused to regroup and gather his courage. The peaceful solace of the trees had given way to new discomfort and dread. He closed his eyes and the images returned to remind him why he was there in the first place. Quickly refocusing, he made his way along the edge of the open field, determined not to pause again. The sight of another form moving near the house foiled his determination, but only for a moment.
Jay had fallen asleep the night before with his unfinished book in hand. Per the normal schedule, his mother was already off to work this morning; mill jobs required an early start, after all. He preferred the crisp morning air to the confinement of their house. Walking around the backyard, he noticed the small frozen pond inside the water bowl he had been unable to bring himself to put away. He knew Shep, his much missed English Collie, wasn't coming back but it just didn't feel right moving the bowl from the place it had occupied for thirteen years.
Through the outline of trees, his eye picked up movement approaching from the edge of the open field. His attention fixed on the figure he couldn't yet recognize and he moved cautiously in the direction of the visitor. On earlier days, such a sight would have been cause for great alarm, but those days were now past. Suddenly, the advancing face snapped into clear focus. Jay's forward motions stopped and his weight settled back on his heels just a bit.
Chris's own steps became harder to make, but he kept one foot in front of the other and kept walking. His eyes locked again with Jay's, except for a final look down for navigation over a fallen tree limb.
Now within close proximity of his brother, Chris stopped and they adjusted to each other's company. Chris broke first and his eyes released a tide of remorse. He couldn't bear to be seen like this in front of Jay and he looked down trying to shield his shame. Jay wasn't so easily broken; tears served no useful purpose to him. His eyes did express understanding, for he had remorse of his own.
Chris summonsed new strength and he lifted his eyes to meet Jay again, relieved to find no judgment there. "I don't know where to start," Chris said. "You saved Matt's life and you saved mine too…….." Chris shook his head from side to side, still unable to comprehend why Jay would even bother.
Jay was uneasy with Chris's struggle for words. He took no pleasure in watching his younger brother -- if only by a few months -- in such agony.
"I just lay there and watched him beat the shit out of you, Jay……I swear to God I didn't know he was hurting you that bad. But I should have stopped him. I should have at least tried. But I didn't. I was a coward that day and maybe I still am……." Chris looked down again.
"A coward wouldn't have come here," Jay replied. Chris lifted his head again and looked into Jay's eyes with more relief at the grace being shown him.
"Jay, I didn't know then…..that we were brothers. I didn't find that out until I was in the hospital."
"I didn't know either. But your dad…..our dad, made it real clear that no one else was to know either. He threatened my mom. He's been threatening her my whole life. And I'm not sorry he's dead," Jay said.
"Yeah, he's been threatening my mom too, and worse. I wish I understood how he got so fucked up, Jay. And I hope," finding fear again in his heart, "that I'm not that fucked up too. Somewhere deep inside, you know?"
"That makes two of us. But I don't think we are……that fucked up. Not yet, at least."
"I always felt like I betrayed you, Jay. I just kept my mouth shut about everything. People actually thought I was the one who beat you up."
Sibling competitiveness intervened. Jay replied with a reserved smile, "That was always hard to take, cause we both know you couldn't kick my ass."
"Nah, I don't think I could kick my big brother's ass," Chris replied with a warm smile that spoke deference.
"You didn't betray me, Chris. No more than I betrayed you, I figure. We just both got a pretty raw deal out of the whole thing. Maybe if we'd stood up for each other things would have been different."
"How did you betray me? I don't get that one at all." Chris wondered if Jay was going out of his way to let him off easy.
"I don't know, I think I should have known. If he was willing to threaten my mom like that, then I should have known things were bad for you and your mom too. I mean, you had to live with him. I didn't. Until Matt mentioned it, I just didn't stop to think what he might be doing to you." Remorse was now on Jay's face.
Chris said, "There was nothing you could do about that……..Matt told you, huh?"
"He's a persistent little shit, I've got to give him credit for that," Jay smiled again, teasingly.
"Yeah. Yeah, he really is, isn't he?" Chris accepted the tease in good nature. And he knew Jay was right about Matt. "But it kind of grows on you."
Jay just smiled in return, nodding his head once.
"How is your mom taking all of this?" Chris asked.
The question took Jay back a bit. He wasn't used to talking about his mom. No one ever asked.
"She's still worried I'm going to jail. She's always been a real worrier, but I can't blame her."
"No, I guess not. I can't blame her either. I told them everything, Jay. I told them what happened the first time and I told them exactly what happened again this time. I told them he beat the shit out of me and my mom, too. I even showed them the old bruises to prove it."
Jay frowned, and then said, "My mom told them how he had threatened her. She didn't really think they believed her, but she's sort of like that. She just doesn't have any confidence that anyone believes her." He paused for a moment, and then continued. "I was pretty scared that night I spent in jail. You just don't know what's going to happen and all. I told them I shot him. They asked me if I planned it all out. I told hem how Matt came over and told me he was going to your house next. It was just one of those things I had a real bad feeling about. They asked me all sorts of questions. I know they were just doing their jobs, but I was nervous about it all. It's not like we've got enough money to hire O.J.'s lawyers."
"Jay, they asked me why dad beat you up so bad, why he beat both of us up that day. I told them what we were doing when he caught us. I had to. They wouldn't have believed he just wandered up on us and starting flailing away for no reason."
"It's OK, Chris. I told them too. The sheriff's deputy got a little nervous about that part. He looked like somebody had stuck a spike up his ass."
"Maybe somebody should. I'm not ashamed about it anymore, Jay."
"I am still, a little. I don't know why. It's not like anybody's going to look down on me even more than they already do," Jay replied.
"Are you still scared about maybe having a trial?" Chris asked.
"They said it wouldn't come to that point. The D.A.'s office let me go without bail until they announced their final decision. I guess they figured I don't have enough money to run very far anyway. I don't think they want this to get put on trial for everybody to see. It's not the type of thing that will make anybody look good. I think they feel like they got duped the first time around and no one wants too many questions asked about that. If it comes to a trial, that would be really hard. You know we'd have to get up and say that stuff in public?" Jay and Chris swallowed hard in unison.
Chris replied, "Let's just hope it doesn't come to that. But if it does, it does. I'm not going to hold anything back, Jay. Maybe everybody needs to know. Maybe it will help somebody else. People looked at him and thought, 'He's a teacher. How could that happen?' Well, it damn well happened all right!"
Jay nodded his head again in agreement, but talk of a public trial brought obvious discomfort to his face.
"It probably won't happen, but if it does, this time I'll be there for you," Chris said, seeing the flash of doubt in Jay's eyes and seeking to reassure him.
"OK?" Chris asked, reaching out his hand.
Jay looked over his 'little' brother, taking him in. "A coward definitely wouldn't have come over here," repeating and reinforcing his earlier words. He accepted Chris's offer and they shook hands for the first time as brothers.
"I better get back before mom and Melanie start worrying about me," the handshake lingered until Chris finished the words.
"Anytime, little brother," Jay replied.
The natural order of things worked well in their case. Jay had matured with a different set of experiences from Chris, having always been the "man" of the house. Quiet and greatly misunderstood, he didn't really care what others thought of him, yet he wasn't completely immune from their judgments. He did care what his mother thought and now he would add a brother to the short list as well.
Chris gave him one last respectful smile as he turned and retraced his path back home. An unloving father had been traded for the opportunity of love from a long lost brother. Jay was right when he said, "We just both got a pretty raw deal out of the whole thing." Maybe, in time, the "deal" could still work out. With love and hope, such things are possible.
As he pressed through the last stand of brush, Chris saw Melanie pacing nervously near the corner of the house, a freshly lit cigarette flicking between her fingers. He gave her a frown.
"When did you start smoking?"
"I started smoking in high school. I've been quitting ever since." She wasn't really trying to be funny. It was mostly a sad admission on her part.
"It's not a very good example, you being a nurse and all." His words drew a response that didn't warm the freezing weather. Melanie dropped the cigarette and pressed it into the frozen turf.
"If you must know, I haven't had one in six months. I only smoke now when I get very nervous," Melanie said.
"I'm sorry, Mel. I was just being a smartass. It's what little brothers do, you know?" Chris gave her an apologetic face and looked her in the eyes. Melanie's face accepted the apology, deciding to cut him some slack.
"So where did you sneak off to this morning? We got out of bed and you were nowhere to be found."
Chris didn't answer right away. He wondered just how much Melanie knew about Jay and his mom. After all, Jay was her brother too. Melanie sensed the confliction in his face.
"You don't have to say. I was just being nosey. It's what big sisters do, you know?" She finished her words with a nervous smile.
"No, it's OK. I went to see Jay Henson. We had a nice long talk." Chris searched her face closely, looking for a sign that she knew. Melanie suddenly wished she hadn't dropped that cigarette so fast.
"Is that right? Well, good. I suppose. Yes, that's good," she said. There were already too many other nervous thoughts in her head and she had no space for this one.
"Mel, maybe you and I can have a nice long talk soon too. We've got a lot of catching up to do. But for now, I really need some breakfast. I haven't had anything to eat since before the funeral yesterday."
"We do have a lot of catching up to do. You're right. But come on, let's feed you for now." Melanie was grateful for the opportunity to postpone any conversation about Jay. She wondered if Matt had already told Chris, or if Chris simply knew on his own.
They came inside together and scavenged through the leftover food brought in by local church groups, a customary practice in the South during a death in a family. "Women's Clubs" as they were called within their respective churches, but they were more like cooking clubs, serving up comfort in the form of fried chicken, potato salad, and various pies and cakes. Their efforts were much appreciated and warmed-up leftover chicken and biscuits would comfort Chris's appetite just fine.
"Is mom still in bed?" Chris looked around the house.
"Well, she's back in bed. She decided to lie back down for a little while." Nervous concern returned to Melanie's face.
"But she didn't drink anything, right?" Chris needed to ask to be sure.
"Chris, I've thrown out everything I could find. I've been through all of the cabinets and drawers. If she had anything else to drink, she snuck it by me." Melanie instinctively reached for her purse, ready to dig out another cigarette, before stopping herself and catching the irony of her reaction.
Chris walked back to the bedroom opening the door slightly and seeing his mother face down on the bed. She was sleeping. He moved quietly by her side and leaned down placing his nose in close proximity to her breath. He couldn't detect any scent of alcohol and he retreated to the kitchen, softly closing the door behind him.
"I think she's clean. She's probably just worn out from everything and the medications make her drowsy too," he reported to Melanie.
"Chris, did you know she got fired about a month ago?" Melanie knew he didn't know. She had to force the admission from her mom after realizing there had been no paychecks deposited for that length of time.
"Shit! Where the hell has she been going every day?" Chris asked.
"She said she was out looking for another job. But I don't know. She let her health insurance expire." Melanie replied, clenching her jaw and shaking her head. "All she had to do was send in the paperwork and she would still have coverage, but she couldn't even do that. See this stack of bills?" Melanie grabbed a large handful of opened envelopes and held them in the air. "These are all hospital bills!"
Melanie's worry and frustration were now spreading onto Chris.
She continued, "And dad's life insurance barely paid for his funeral." Biting her lip, she made another nervous fidget into her purse, finally pulling out that next cigarette and exiting out the back door.
Chris never ate the leftover chicken and biscuits. His appetite had been spoiled, again.
Melanie spent the rest of the day trying to make numbers add up, but they just wouldn't work in her favor. The chaos that had overtaken Robert and Peggy Briggs' lives had spread into their finances as well. The large tally of hospital bills tipped the balance decidedly into the category of desperate. The emergency pack of cigarettes was now expired and Melanie had no outlet left for her nervousness.
Having benefited from the brotherly grace shown by Jay, Chris's conscience had eased a little and he had drifted into a late afternoon sleep. He still felt much weight on his shoulders, most of it heaped there by the sordid legacy of his father, and the debt owed to past transgressions still had an unpaid balance yet.
Peggy was out again. Only the nervous tapping of a calculator could be heard as Melanie continued to search for an answer that wouldn't come.
Jay had some work lined up during the school break, helping clean out an old building in town that was being renovated. Rumor and suspicion had cancelled the opportunity for him. Still he waited for final word from the D.A.'s office but yet another day went by without any. His day ended the same way it had begun, with a book in hand, stretched out on a squeaky mattress.
The ride home for Matt, John and Joanna Jordan was a quiet one. There really isn't much to say after attending the funeral of the man who tried to kill your son. Matt, in the back seat, rested his head against the cool glass, his eyes wandering across the open country terrain. The sun had just set and Christmas was now only nine days away. Billows of smoke from passing chimneys dispersed quickly into the wind, providing a ghostly trail as they disappeared into thin air. Somehow, the effect seemed appropriate to the events of the day, but the bold red, green, yellow, and blue Christmas lights seemed less appropriate to Matt. He found the large decorative bulbs, often strung rather carelessly and without real pattern, to be more tacky than decorative -- yet another Southern custom he had yet to gain appreciation for.
In a roadside pasture, Matt could see the silhouette of horses against the fading evening light and his thoughts turned to Tommy. During the most trying times of his relationship with Chris, Matt had found much needed comfort in Tommy's presence. Tommy had sensed Matt's need, as he always seemed to, and had stayed by Matt's side during the critical first night while Peggy Briggs fought for her life and Chris Briggs fought for his emotional sanity. Matt had felt helpless on that night, only able to offer the quiet support of companionship to Chris. Tommy had felt helpless too, and had propped Matt up with his own quiet companionship. Granted, Tommy was there for Chris too -- as they had become trusted friends -- but he was mostly, and always, there for Matt.
"I'd like to go see Tommy soon, or maybe he could come over to our house again." Matt's words shattered the silence and failed to bring an immediate response from the front seat. John and Joanna hadn't enjoyed the peace and comfort of having Matt home for the night in several days, having spent the last three nights in the hospital with his injuries. They weren't quite so eager to give him back up again just yet.
As was normal, his mother took the lead. "Matthew, you need to get some rest. You've still got two broken ribs, remember? Let's wait till the weekend before you start any new adventures, OK?"
Matt quickly did the math and realized his mom wanted him to wait a full three nights, as today was only Tuesday. His eyes and lips narrowed in unison.
"But school is out. What am I going to do? Just lay around the house all week and get bored to death?" Matt was more frequently regretting his choice of words. "Death" wasn't a good word to use right now, if ever. His parents might forgive, but wouldn't soon forget, the dangerous, near deadly, actions he had taken over the past weekend. Putting regret aside, he chose to offer a more palatable arrangement.
"Maybe Tommy should come over and spend the night. That way you won't have to worry about me because I'll still be right under your nose…….I really miss Tommy." The first part was a negotiation strategy, mostly sales pitch. John Jordan cut his wife a wry smile which she returned with a "like father, like son" shake of her head. The last part was an involuntary expression: Matt truly did miss Tommy badly.
Joanna had learned a thing or two about negotiating herself. "You get a good day's rest tomorrow and a good night's sleep in your own bed tomorrow night, and then Tommy can come over Thursday if Andy and Betty agree."
The negotiations were over and Matt knew it. His mom had split the difference with him and, in the end, it was a fair deal. He closed his eyes and again leaned his head against the glass. More thoughts of his best friend filled his tired mind and a contented smile came over his face.
Out of Matt's view, John reached over and took his wife's hand. They exchanged another quick look. Their expressions spoke of love, gratitude, and relief. It had been a long few days and they were glad to be taking their son home.
It had been a long day and sleep came quickly for all in the Jordan house this night. The next morning, John Jordan went back to work, having missed the last two with Matt's hospital stay. Joanna had told the vet's office not to expect her back this week. She took her job and the patients she helped treat seriously, but her son's health and emotional welfare came first.
It was almost eleven in the morning, and Matt was still making soft sleeping noises as his mother looked in on him yet again. Matt was sleeping in, enjoying his first uninterrupted night of rest in several days; a hospital bed was a miserable alternative to the comforts of home. Joanna had stayed by his side all three nights in the hospital. He was there mostly for observation from the concussion, but she still couldn't bear the thought of him there alone, without her. She had watched Matt's nervous twitches during his near-sleep and heard "No! No!" repeated many times during those three nights. Having heard the story recounted to the sheriff's deputy in all the violent details, she considered herself lucky to still have a son to watch over.
With an abrupt snort of breath, Matt sat straight up in the bed and looked wildly around the room. His sudden movements made his mother flinch with surprise, but she was back on her game in an instant.
Softly, she spoke, "Hey, hey, hey. It's OK, Matt. It's OK." She placed a soothing hand on his forehead and poured more comfort into his eyes with the look only a mother can deliver.
Matt took several quick breaths and his eyes narrowed in anger at having been assaulted once again, if only in his sleep. There were no crisp images haunting him, only dark dull movements always swirling around just outside of his view, followed by the feeling of falling suddenly, as if pushed from behind into a deep hole. The plunge downwards always woke him up -- four nights in a row and counting.
"It's all right now. It was a bad concussion, Matt. It will take a few days for your brain to heal itself. The nightmares will go away." Joanna followed with still more motherly rubbing on the forehead as if rubbing him there might heal the bruised membranes more quickly.
Matt wasn't so convinced about the nightmares, but his mother's touch had its usual result and he soon felt at ease. "I'm OK, mom. I'm just going to lie here for a few minutes."
"Do you feel like eating something?" As she asked, Joanna moved her hand down to Matt's forearm.
"Is it too late for pancakes?" Matt was more interested in comfort than nutrition. His mother smiled.
"It's never too late for pancakes, Matthew."
As Joanna dutifully made her way downstairs, Matt moved his hand across his own forehead, trying to replicate the comforting touch of his mother, but it was no use. He thought of Chris. His own brief, but brutal, encounter with Chris's dad had given him deeper appreciation for the hell Chris had suffered at Robert Briggs' hands. He also thought of Chris's mom, wondering how Chris had survived without the loving touch of a mother like Joanna Jordan. His own bruises and nightmares had only increased his desire to hold Chris in his arms again and to provide soothing compensation to Chris's injured soul.
Eventually, Matt eased his way out of bed and made a quick pit stop in the bathroom before heading straight downstairs to the kitchen, t-shirt hanging down over the top of the same loose boxer shorts he woke up in. Normally, he would bolt down the staircase with his feet barely hitting the ground. Today, he made each step carefully, his head still wobbly and feeling each dull thud along the way.
Joanna Jordan was an accomplished pancake chef as evidenced by Matt's enthusiasm for the hot stack on his plate.
"Hospital food sucks, mom." Matt hadn't spent a night in the hospital since the day he was born. What was common knowledge to many was still a new discovery to him.
"Well, let's don't make a habit out of eating it then, all right?" She wasn't kidding.
Matt's fork twirled continuously in a pool of syrup, deep thought interrupting his attack on the remaining corner of the stack.
"I'm really sorry, mom." Matt's eyes conveyed the sorrow. He knew his mother worried about him and he knew he had caused her deep concern and pain. Even more, he was sorry for almost causing her the ultimate pain, but the thought of his mother crying inconsolably over his grave was a thought he couldn't hold very long.
"Oh, Matt. I know you did what you thought was right. And I know you were trying to help Chris."
"Mom, I didn't know his father was going to try to kill me!"
"I know, Matt. He was a horrible man, I can't even call him a father," Joanna said, shaking her head still unable to comprehend the full violent intimacy of the events.
"I just wanted Chris to leave. Even if he had to run away from home, just anything but stay there with him……I told Chris I was sorry though. Because I do feel responsible for what happened. It wouldn't have happened if I hadn't gone by there."
"Maybe, it just wouldn't have happened that day, Matt. But who knows what might have happened the next day. I'm just glad you're going to be all right and I hope Chris will be too." Joanna Jordan hadn't forgotten about her other son -- the one she might as well have adopted on first meeting.
"I know you don't want to turn this into the Hotel Jordan, but I really need to have Chris over soon too. I wanted to give him a few days with his mom and Melanie. It just didn't feel right asking him so soon afterwards and all."
"Matt, the Hotel Jordan will always have room for Chris and Tommy," she smiled, filled with warmth, knowing that Matt now had such good friends to keep his company. Even with the recent events, Joanna didn't regret their move to North Carolina. Her intuition about Matt had been right all along and she would take the trials and tribulations along with the new joy she could see in his spirit.
Matt decided to call Tommy and issue his invitation for tomorrow's visit.
"Hello, Mrs. Johnson……OK, then Hello 'Betty,'……… yes I'm feeling better and my mom is home taking care of me……I am very lucky, ma'am, you are right about that…….Yes, ma'am…….Yes, ma'am…….Yes, ma'am..……Yes, I would like to speak with him, but it was good talking to you again too."
Tommy had to practically wrestle the phone away from his mother. "Hey Matt, how are you doing?"
"I'm all right, Tommy. I've been better, but I'm going to be OK."
"I'm sorry I wasn't at the funeral. My mom and dad just couldn't bring themselves to be there." Tommy's apology wasn't needed.
"I don't blame them at all, Tommy. And don't be sorry. I'm glad you didn't have to suffer through it too. I'm just glad it's over……I was wondering if you might be able to come over tomorrow and maybe spend the night. Think your mom will let you?"
"Well, she'd probably rather have you come over here. My mom really likes you, Matt. I think she wants your mom to trade you for me." Tommy cast a suspicious glance at his mom, drawing a giggle from her since she was naturally listening to every word.
Matt laughed so hard it literally hurt and he coughed a few times, catching his breath.
"Mattie, are you OK?" Tommy didn't like the sound of that cough and he regressed a bit in genuine concern.
"Yeah, Tommy. I'm OK," Matt said, controlling his laughter and coughing. "My ribs are still really sore and I guess it just makes me short of breath when I laugh too much. I hadn't laughed enough to find that one out, but I should have known you'd crack one on me…….My mom doesn't want me out of the house for a few days. She wanted to know if you could come over here. Or maybe your mom paid her off just to get rid of you for a night." This was followed by new coughs.
"I wouldn't put it past her." Tommy cast another suspicious glance at Betty Johnson, this time drawing an equally suspicious, if good natured, response since she had no idea what he meant by that. "Hold on a second and let me ask her."
Matt could hear Tommy asking his mother and then he heard her ask what he "wouldn't put past her." Followed by "Oh, just tell me I can go already please!" Finally followed by "Yes, Tommy you can go. No need to get your little shorts in a wad about it!"
Now Matt was laughing again, blurting out "your…….little……shorts….." in between coughs.
"Oh, you heard that, huh?" Tommy shook his head at his mother in mock disgust.
"I'm sorry, Tommy. That was pretty funny though. Tell your mom I said thanks and we can come and pick you up if she'd like."
"No, no, no…..I mean, she'll bring me over. Don't worry about it. What time?" Tommy's nervous response piqued Matt's curiosity, but he decided it was just Tommy being Tommy.
"Make it around noon. That way we can both sleep late. You can eat lunch with us," Matt was pleased with his plan.
"I'll be up early anyway, but you get some rest, Matt. That cough doesn't sound so good."
"I'm really OK. It just hurts when I laugh too hard. I'll be good and healed up tomorrow so we can laugh all we want," Matt was sure that Tommy's presence would in fact be a healing experience for him.
"Bye, Tommy. See you tomorrow…..I've missed you, well…...bye." It was hard for Matt to hang up the phone and tomorrow couldn't get there soon enough to suit him.
The rest of the day passed very slowly. Matt thought death by boredom was a very real possibility after all before he finally drifted off to sleep in front of the TV during the afternoon soap operas.
Night fell on the countryside and Christmas edged one day closer.
The new day brought an old nightmare and Matt flung his pillow across the room in fresh anger at this latest violation of his slumber. The strain of the motion brought a sharp pain to his side and he doubled up on the bed in tears, mostly of frustration. After a short while, he steadied himself and wiped the tears from his eyes. Looking forward to the day ahead, he found encouragement in remembering Tommy's impending visit.
Final preparations were made and Matt checked the temperature in the basement. His mom had thought ahead and set the thermostat to a comfortable level the night before. Looking over the impressive space, Matt realized his own good fortune that his parents had chosen a house with a full-sized basement. With the kitchen and bathrooms just at the top of the stairs, it really did make for a functional apartment.
"What are we having for lunch, mom?" Matt thought he might as well double-check the menu.
"Well, son. We are having green pea soup and burnt toast." Joanna fought hard to hide the smile.
Matt had no chance to hide the sudden rise in his upper lip as it nearly overlapped his nose in disgust. Joanna's smile overtook her face and she kindly added, "and hot dogs and french fries."
"Ohhhh! Good one, mom. You had me going there for a minute. Green pea soup my………rear-end," looking embarrassed as he almost made an "ass" of himself.
"Careful with your choice of vocabulary, young man," Joanna shook a pointed finger right at him but she didn't rub it in. The Jordans weren't exactly prudes with their choice of language, but she expected Matt to show the proper respect in her presence.
"Sorry, sorry. My bad," Matt shuffled his way over to her and hugged his way out of any additional tongue -- or finger -- lashing.
"Did you sleep better last night?" This was Joanna's way of asking if he had another nightmare.
Matt didn't want to dampen the moment and he replied, "Yeah, sure. I just needed to get back in my own bed." His lips could speak the words but his eyes couldn't back it up.
Joanna read right though him; she too now wondered if the nightmares would simply go away on their own, or if Matt's psyche might need professional assistance.
The clock was edging toward noon and Matt heard a car pull in the drive. Joanna watched his face light up and she shared the comfort of Tommy's approach.
Just as Matt was about to open the front door, he heard a curious yelp from the other side followed by Tommy's muffled words, "Shut up or you're gonna spoil the surprise!"