…….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!"
When Matt finally pulled the door open, two heads looked up at him from below his waist. He observed the anticipation in Tommy's familiar eyes, but it was the unfamiliar tongue and tail, wagging in unison, that caused him to drop his mouth open in astonishment.
"I know it's a little early, but we wanted you to have some time to get used to him while you're on Christmas break…….My folks cleared it all with your folks. He's yours."
Matthew Jordan was speechless and his eyes fogged up as he watched Tommy's lips speak the words. Tommy picked up the shiny black Labrador retriever puppy and reached him forward into Matt's waiting arms. Matt's eyes moved back and forth between the eyes of the puppy and the eyes of his best friend. He fought back the tears and was still in the grips of a speechless stupor.
Tommy read the deep appreciation in his face and knew he had "done good."
"You're a Southerner now, Matt; you've just got to have your own dog."
"Oh, Tommy." Matt's lip quivered a bit but he didn't want to make a scene. He reinforced himself with the glowing distraction of Betty Johnson looking on quietly, for a change, from the background. She flashed him a ridiculously huge grin and Matt finally broke down and laughed through his tears.
Matt held the puppy close to his face and looked him deep in the eyes, making sure the furry adolescent wasn't being kidnapped against his will. A slobbery flick or two landed on Matt's nose and he took it as an endorsement of the relocation.
"We might just have to call you Licker, little guy." Matt's idea drew a discreet, but disagreeing, shake of the head from Tommy. Matt laughed again and replied to Tommy, just below the earshot of the women, "Yeah, I guess you shouldn't really name a dog Licker, huh?" Both boys giggled, casting childish glances back at their clueless mothers.
Another excited yelp brought more giggles and a pledge from Matt, "Don't worry, little guy, we'll give you a dignified name, nothing too embarrassing, I promise."
Joanna made her way out to say hello to Tommy's mom, pausing along the way to rub both the puppy and Tommy on the head with equal affection.
Matt led Tommy inside and they sprawled out on the living room rug with the puppy bouncing around between them. Matt got a quick reminder of his injured ribs and he sat back up and leaned against the couch for support. Tommy noticed the grimace and he sat up too in a sympathetic gesture.
Soon, Joanna came back in and appeared relieved to see the living room still intact.
"Matt, you're going to have to watch him very closely. Puppies can do a lot of damage inside a house. HE doesn't know any better, so if something gets destroyed, I'm holding YOU responsible. And maybe YOU too, Tommy." She poked Tommy playfully on the shoulder as she said it.
Tommy needed to look up to make sure she was just kidding. Relieved that she was, he replied, "He doesn't come with a warranty, Mrs. Jordan."
"Does he at least come with insurance?" Joanna liked Tommy. Given Matt's recent adventures, she might at least consider a trade if Betty Johnson insisted.
Tommy pursed his lips together, lowered his brow, and shook his head decidedly "No."
Matt looked on in giddy wonderment. Tommy playing the ham with his mom was hilarious to him.
The four legged fellow on the carpet must have also found it quite hilarious, so much that he couldn't contain his excitement.
"Oh No! Get him, get him, get him!" Joanna's rug had a new pattern, at least for a while until the stain wore off. She cast a pair of narrow eyes at Tommy, and shook a finger in his direction.
Tommy feigned his best look of innocence and replied, "He's YOUR dog now, don't send me the cleaning bill."
Matt had fetched a roll of paper towels, feeling obliged to clean up what little hadn't already soaked into the carpet, and still shaking his head in amusement at Tommy's act.
Joanna delivered one more line before making a search for carpet cleaner, "Tommy Johnson, it's a good thing we don't have a doghouse yet because YOU'D be sleeping in it tonight with little leaker there."
Tommy and Matt looked at each other and squealed in chorus: "Leaker!!!"
Tommy and Matt enjoyed the idea of an inside joke and the prospect of many opportunities to laugh about it. Little Leaker didn't seem to mind either and joined in on the laughter.
Tommy didn't want to push his luck, or little Leaker's, and he suggested that they move into the fenced back yard for a while in case nature called again. It was a sunny day and temperatures had recovered nicely from the earlier cold spell. Leaker sniffed and snorted his way around the virgin grass, exploring each inch with special care. Tommy and Matt took seat on an old swing John Jordan had installed himself, much to his own amazement as he was not much of a handyman around the house.
"Tommy, I can't believe you brought me a puppy. I've never had a pet before, not even a pet rock." Matt couldn't take his eyes off young Leaker.
"When I saw your reaction to Molly and the pups that day, I just knew you wanted one for your own. Puppies are a lot of work, but they're great friends. I can't imagine growing up without them, and I felt sort of selfish having so many when you didn't have any at all." Tommy's words were embraced by a warm gaze of endearment from Matt.
Matt raised his arm and rested his right elbow on Tommy's shoulder. It was a measured act of affection and quite reserved compared to the urgings Matt felt in his heart at that moment.
"Thank you, Tommy. It really means a lot to me, that you would think of me like that. You're my best friend, you know?"
"Really? I mean, I just figured Chris was your best friend," Tommy replied.
"Chris is a great friend too, but it's different with him. I love him, Tommy. I love him in a way I've never loved anyone." Matt's declaration produced a twinge somewhere deep inside Tommy.
Matt continued, "But I love you in a way I've never loved anyone either. It's not less, Tommy. It's just different."
Tommy's twinge subsided and he held Matt's gaze for a while, neither boy smiling, both subdued by the sincerity of the moment. Tommy had heard "I love you" many times from his parents and a few times from other less immediate relatives, but he had never heard it spoken to him outside of family. Somehow, this loving endorsement meant more to him than all the rest. It was pure and not issued as a right of birth. He didn't know what to say, having had no experience replying in such matters. The slightly embarrassed smile that took him over said more than enough, then embarrassment gave way to the ensuing warm confidence that comes from knowing you are loved.
Tommy finally spoke. "I was really scared when I found out what happened at Chris's place. My mom heard about it from my cousin and all he knew was that someone was dead and one boy was hurt. I called your house and couldn't get an answer and I just knew it was you, Matt. I sort of freaked out a little……well, a lot. My mom called someone she knows at the sheriff's department and he told her that it was Coach Briggs who was dead, but he didn't know who was hurt or how bad. He did know it wasn't Chris. I just knew you were a goner."
Matt could feel a faint twitch under the elbow on Tommy's shoulder; Tommy was shaking.
"I thought I was a goner too, Tommy. Right before it all ended, when Jay showed up, everything just stopped and the only thing I could see was this terrified look on Chris's face. Everything froze……You know what they say about your life flashing before your eyes?.......Well, that's bullshit. The only thing that flashed before my eyes was that look on Chris's face. I just closed them and imagined him the first time I saw him in school, standing there with that cocky grin on his face. I didn't want my last picture of him to be the other way." Matt's eyes drifted down to the grass. He had recounted the story several times for the sheriff's deputies, but he had never repeated this part as it wasn't relevant to any police matters.
"So Chris saw what happened? He saw Jay shoot his dad?" Tommy wasn't consciously trying to drag Matt back through the whole affair. He was naturally curious of the details and Matt had promised him his own full accounting of the facts.
"Yeah, Chris saw him shoot their dad," as Matt finished the sentence, he looked up at a stunned Tommy.
"What do you mean 'their dad,' Matt?" He was sure Matt had misspoken.
"Coach Briggs was Jay's dad too." Matt felt bad releasing this information. It was true, but he still felt bad about it.
"But Jay didn't know." Tommy was at least sure of this much.
"Yeah, he did. He never came right out and said it to me, but he knew."
During the conversation, little Leaker had sniffed and dug his way into several small holes in the backyard, leaving behind an incriminating trail of fresh potholes in the earth. Matt watched him with amusement.
Tommy was in a complete state of confusion. "Man, I can't believe my mom didn't know any of this. She knows just about everything that goes on in this county."
Matt eyed him curiously, ready to deliver one more befuddling barb. "She knows too, Tommy. That's where I first picked up on it from."
"I'll Be Fucked!!" Loud enough, that Tommy looked around embarrassed that Matt's mom might have heard him.
"Maybe later, Tommy. Let's eat first, mom made hotdogs." Matt dropped the elbow that had been resting on Tommy's shoulder, poking Tommy in the side as he rose up, then surprising Tommy, and himself, by extending his arms and pulling him into a hug.
"Thanks Tommy, for worrying about me. I'm sorry you had to worry about me like that." It was a brief hug and Tommy returned it as best he could in the short time he had to think about it. "Thanks for him too," Matt looked out across the yard to the puppy.
Matt called out to the little four legged excavator, "Hey Leaker, you want to go back inside, little guy?" Little Leaker ignored his call, more than content to continue his earthwork in the backyard. Matt looked over to Tommy and shrugged. "Tommy, I'm not sure he likes that name. I wouldn't want him to be made fun of. I mean, what if my mom had named me Leaker? That would be some embarrassing shit, you know?"
Tommy replied, "Well, it is sort of funny and all, but I wouldn't want to be named Leaker either. My mom used to call me Pooper when I was real little, and I didn't like that very much." Matt broke into a wide grin.
Leaker paid them no attention at all, his small paws pounding away at the red dirt.
Tommy continued, "Look at him go. He sure is a little digger."
Matt looked at Tommy. Tommy looked at Matt. Then both smiled at the puppy, before turning to each other again and speaking as one: "Digger!"
Matt smiled, "It's much more dignified, don't you think? Or at least it is by comparison."
Mimicking the same look he had given Matt's mom earlier, Tommy pursed his lips, lowered his brow, and shook his head up and down in a definite "Yes."
"You crack me up, Tommy! I'm hungry, let's eat."
The boys made their way into the kitchen and the hot dogs were devoured in record time. Tommy downed three all by himself, much to the amazement of Joanna Jordan.
"Tommy has worms," Matt commented matter-of-factly, causing Tommy to pause mid-bite on number four before putting it back down on his plate and declaring himself full.
"Don't you let him shame you into stopping, Tommy Johnson. You go right ahead and eat," Joanna cast a scolding glance at Matt.
"Well, I probably shouldn't let it go to waste," Tommy replied.
"Yeah, especially now that you've slobbered all over it," added Matt with a grin.
"I'm trying to put on some weight, build myself up a bit," Tommy justified.
"Uh-huh. I can see that those hotdog curls are really building up your biceps," Matt reached over and grasped Tommy's arm just above the elbow, evaluating the progress.
Tommy's eyes narrowed but there was a twinkle contained there and Matt saw it clearly.
"I know, I know. You're just 'wiry'………I think you're just fine the way you are, Tommy." Matt flashed a genuine smile and gently jostled the faintly strawberry hair above Tommy's eyes, drawing a warm appreciative glow from Tommy's face.
The afternoon continued in similar fashion with Matt and Tommy rarely moving out from each other's shadow. They walked through the neighborhood down to the basketball and tennis courts. Tommy spotted the shared swimming pool, closed for the winter months, and mentioned his own swimming "pools," spread around the back country and without the benefit of a cement lining. Matt teasingly asked if Tommy had ever done any skinny-dipping in those old ponds, to which Tommy gave a red faced reply of "maybe a time or two."
Tommy marveled quite a bit at how closely together the houses were built, apologetically offering that he "needed more space than that." It didn't escape Matt's observation that the entire neighborhood could have been built on the huge piece of farmland owned by Andy and Betty Johnson (courtesy of Betty's side of the family). It also didn't escape his observation that he might need more space than this too.
Growing up in a small community like Sausalito, California, Matt had never experienced the freedom of wide open spaces until moving to the South. Now, with his growing resume including the new addition of his first puppy, Matt truly was starting to feel a kinship with the South. Slowly, but surely, he was becoming a Southerner at heart. Still, he wondered if the South would accept him as freely.
Having made the circle and now nearing Matt's house again, a sudden and persistent yelp was heard from the back of the property. Speeding up their pace and moving straight to the fenced backyard, they soon found the back half of little Digger, his tail-end pointed straight up in the air, and his head stuck uncomfortably between the rounded groove of two small wooden planks at the base of the fence. Tommy quickly freed him and little Digger retreated a few steps back, firing complaining yelps at the fence.
"Hey, little guy, were you trying to bust out of here already?" Matt was afraid this was an act of rejection and he knelt down and caressed his fur into a state of peace. Digger collapsed and rolled over, offering Matt full access to his pleading belly.
"Matt, he just felt left out. He was probably trying to follow us and it looks like he almost made it." Tommy kicked the impressive mound of dirt back into the fresh hole.
"Tommy, I don't want him to get out while we're not home. Some bigger dog could hurt him or……." Matt had a fresh vision of Jay Henson rushing into the vet's office that night, his dear old Collie friend Shep in tow having just suffered mortal wounds from a passing car. "There are too many cars around here." The full responsibility required by Tommy's gift was starting to settle in.
"Your dad was worried about that too, Matt. But he said he could take care of it."
Just then, Matt's mom came outside to check on the disturbance. "Oh my, what did you do now?" She looked down at an oblivious Digger. As a Vet's assistant, Joanna was no rookie to pets and the havoc they could cause, or the injuries they could cause to themselves.
"Mom, what are we going to do?"
"Don't worry, Matt. Your dad and I have already made plans for this." As she said it, a white van pulled up in the front drive, and a nice looking, fit young man -- maybe 25 years old -- came around to the back yard. He was wearing a navy colored jacket with white embroidery that read "Invisible Fence."
"Mrs. Jordan?" He asked with a good smile.
"Yes, and you've arrived just in time," she looked over at the bald spot at the base of the fence, where grass used to be. The young man freshened his smile and looked suspiciously at little Digger before returning his full attention back to Joanna.
"My name's Greg and I'll be doing your installation today. What's this little guy's name?"
Tommy and Matt couldn't have had better timing if they'd been practicing. Speaking as one: "Digger!"
Greg couldn't help but laugh. "Looks like we better get started right away!" He turned to go back to his van.
"Mom, what's this all about?" Matt hadn't a clue.
"He's going to place a wire at the base of the fence and also around the front yard too, in one big square. The wire acts like a big antenna and it communicates with a transmitter in the garage that will send a radio signal around the entire perimeter of the property. Little Digger will wear a special collar with a little computer chip that will buzz if he gets too close to the wire." Joanna was the underrated 'salesman' in the family; she could sell this stuff for a living
"Well, so far he doesn't seem to hear so good, so I don't see how that's going to stop him." Matt wasn't sold yet.
"Son, the buzzing sound is meant to warn him. If he doesn't stop, then the special collar gives him a little shock," her words shocked Matt instead, "not enough to hurt him, but enough to get his attention. Don't worry, it won't take him long to understand." The concern in his face eased as he realized the peace of mind such a system could bring. "Matt, after a while, he'll know exactly where he can and can't go and he won't even need the collar."
"But we'll leave it on, just in case." Matt was now fully sold and he wanted the full comfort and benefit of this new product.
Handsome Greg was very efficient with a trencher. Little Digger looked on with envy as the dirt was unearthed in such a tight line by the machine. In his little puppy mind, he must have been thinking "nice." Four hours later, Greg pronounced the job complete, just in time since the early evening of winter was starting to settle in.
"Ma'am, I can come back tomorrow and we'll fit the collar and I'll do some training with your sons and Digger."
Matt and Tommy looked at each other when he said "sons" but neither saw need to correct him. Neither did Joanna.
"See you tomorrow boys, and ma'am." He paused to observe a mischievous looking Digger. "If he's going to be outside tonight, I can go head and fit a collar for him now." Greg was a good young man, and Matt was starting to admire that smile.
"We're going to lock him in the dungeon tonight and put him under double guard too, just in case," Matt smiled back.
Greg and Joanna exchanged amused glances and then she added, "We have a basement."
Greg looked at Digger a last time and replied, "OK, well that might come in handy tonight with this little guy. If the weather cooperates, I'll be back out around eleven tomorrow morning. That sound OK?"
Joanna agreed and generous Greg disappeared into the night.
"Matt, I brought some dog food and the puppies normally eat around this time of the day." Tommy had come prepared. Digger appreciated the thought and made quick work of his dinner, as was customary with all who originated from the Johnson farm.
"I talked to your dad. He's coming home in a couple of hours, Matt. I'm going to make spaghetti." Joanna looked at Tommy, seeking his approval for tonight's menu.
Matt jumped in, "You'd better make lots of it."
She did, and it was a good thing too. John Jordan, finally home from a long day at the office, couldn't help but smile as Tommy plowed through two large plates full.
Like father, like son. John chimed in, "Tommy, your folks do feed you at home, don't they?"
"All right, enough from both of you." At least Joanna would come to his defense. "Tommy, I'm very honored that a fine young Southern boy with a healthy appetite would be so appreciative of my cooking. Thank you."
"Your welcome, Mrs. Jordan. Could you pass the bread, please?"
Tommy didn't talk much when he was eating. He didn't talk much anytime at all, but he felt comfortable in the Hotel Jordan.
He was, in fact, a "fine young Southern boy" and he loved his parents, but he was starting to feel a need to get out from under his mother's protective wing. The introduction of Matt into his life had accelerated his maturity. Though still very shy, he could now claim a best friend. He could also claim a body that, though admittedly "wiry," was also finally maturing. His sexual imagination had expanded the range of topics it surveyed during his most intimate times alone, doing what maturing, almost-15 year old, boys do so well and so often. Those intimate thoughts, and his attraction to Matt, had left him wondering who he really was. The loving, though sometimes suffocating, wing of his mother made him wonder what he would be allowed to be. Matt had shared with him his coming 'out' to John and Joanna. Tommy quietly spied on them from behind his mounds of spaghetti, observing the looks on their faces and envious of the acceptance Matt found there. Sitting in the dining room of the Jordans, Tommy still didn't know who he was for sure, but he felt like he had the freedom to be whomever he might choose. At least there, he felt such freedom.
"I really appreciate ya'll inviting me over and letting me stay the night." Tommy's appreciation ran deeper than he could explain.
Joanna led the response, "And you're always welcome here, anytime."
John added, "Absolutely, young man."
Matt had another one-liner loaded on the tip of his tongue, this one including "as long as you bring your own groceries," but he saw a deeper sincerity in Tommy's eyes and decided not to spoil the moment for him. Matt enjoyed picking with Tommy and it was purely an act of affection for him. Still, there was a fine line between just playing around and being a smartass. He didn't want to fall into the latter category. Instead, he reloaded his tongue with something more appropriate.
"Looks like I'm a Southerner now, and looks like you're a Jordan. We're Southern brothers, Tommy."
Smiles come in many meanings. There are smiles of affection, smiles of joy, smiles of laughter, and, among others, smiles of peace and contentment. The smile of love is distinct, though it includes some qualities of all the others. The smile of love radiated between Matt and Tommy. It wasn't a lesser love, just a different one.
After dinner, everyone spent some family time in the living room. John made occasional glances at the TV as college basketball had started for the season. Digger displayed a few tricks, namely chasing his tail in a circle, drawing much interest from all. Matt and Tommy smiled and giggled at practically everything little Digger did. Joanna watched contentedly, never feeling left out as the only girl in the room.
"We're going to go downstairs and watch Friends and Seinfeld." Matt didn't mind sharing Tommy with his parents but the party was getting a little stale. John offered to let them use the TV in the living room, but that really wasn't the point.
"It's OK, dad. We're just going to hang out."
"Come on, buddy. You're going downstairs with the guys." Digger didn't understand Matt's words but he had no intention of being left behind again. With tail proudly pointed to the ceiling, he joined the boys.
Halfway down the stairs, Matt stopped and told Tommy, "I'm going to run up to my room and put on some comfy clothes."
Tommy thought that sounded like a good idea and he continued downstairs and dug a pair of pajama pants and heavy t-shirt from his overnight bag. Matt went up to his room and changed quickly, but noticed that he became a little dizzy after rushing up the stairs. He sat down on his bed for a moment to let the dizziness pass. After just a short bit, he walked carefully back down the stairs to the ground floor. As he reached the door leading down to the basement, he heard loud giggling coming from below.
Pushing the door open slowly, he saw the shirtless figure of Tommy sitting in the middle of the basement floor, trying to wrestle his hijacked t-shirt out of Digger's mouth. Digger was straining and growling with all four feet spread out for maximum traction. It was wonderful sight and Matt sat quietly on the top step and enjoyed for a while.
Suddenly, Tommy didn't look so much like a little brother to Matt anymore. He was obviously maturing, physically and otherwise. Matt thought back to one of his early experiences when Tommy had provided the initial disturbing news about Chris's past. He thought about how blunt he had treated Tommy that day and he recalled the tears he had helped produce in Tommy's eyes. It all seemed like years ago, but it was only months instead.
Matt wasn't shy in recognizing attraction in other boys. It was plain to him that Tommy was attractive, seemingly more so all the time. Matt rested his chin on his folded arms and continued to watch Tommy and Digger wrestle for control of the shirt. A wide smile stretched across his face before drawing back some as he felt worry for Tommy. He had been aware of Tommy's feelings since the day they had talked out by the barn near the Johnson's house. Tommy had revealed, then, that he had never felt attraction to boys -- until he met Matt. This had placed a special burden on Matt to protect Tommy's feelings and make sure he didn't get hurt. It was a difficult balancing act for Matt also recognized in Tommy the same lonely feelings he had so much personal experience with himself. He wanted to hold Tommy in his arms and tell him how much he loved him, but to do so might hurt Tommy more than help him. Though he recognized and appreciated Tommy's attractive qualities, Matt wanted no one in a sexual way except Chris. Matt belonged to Chris and Chris alone, at least in that way. Matt needed to show Tommy affection, but he still had to be careful. A tough balancing act, for sure.
Tommy spotted Matt sitting on the stairs and he gave the t-shirt a good solid tug finally winning the battle with Digger. He put on the shirt quickly and smiled at Matt, a little embarrassed at having been spotted shirtless. Matt came downstairs and plopped down on the couch, first turning on the old TV. Tommy soon joined him there and they sat with quiet smiles for a few minutes watching the latest episode of Friends.
"Tommy, who is your favorite on this show?"
"I think I'd have to say Chandler, but I like Rachel pretty well too. You remind me of Chandler." Tommy looked at Matt with a grin.
"Oh shit, I'm a bigger smartass than I realized," Matt said, amused. Tommy laughed.
"No, Chandler's funny. He's not JUST a smartass." Tommy's verbal jab brought a physical jab from Matt's sock covered foot, poking Tommy playfully in the side.
"Hey, don't kick me," Tommy giggled in response. "I meant it as a compliment. I think Chandler is cool. If I had called you Ross, then you could kick me. He gets on my nerves."
"I would have kicked your ass if you called me Ross." Matt took the common ground with Tommy on this one.
"It's hard to believe the first week of Christmas break is almost over already. We'll be back in school before you know it." Tommy's words brought a sober look to Matt's face.
"Yeah," was all Matt could manage as a response. He'd put the thoughts of school as far from his mind as possible, but he wouldn't be able to avoid them forever. With the death of Coach Briggs, a teacher no less, the rumors would be flying like never before. And now they'd also involve Jay.
"I never want to go back, Tommy……I know I have to, but I don't want to." Matt's admission killed the mood in the room. Tommy thought for a minute and realized too just how tough things would be. There was just no denying it.
"We'll stick together, Matt. They'll get tired of talking about it all sooner or later." Tommy scooted over a little closer to Matt in yet another show of moral support.
Matt looked him in the eyes and felt new worry for him. "I feel bad for pulling you into this. Don't get mad at me again for saying this, but it's not fair to you because it isn't your fight. You were just minding your own business, being my friend - and Chris's."
"You still don't get it, do you?" Tommy asked.
"I'm not sure. I know you're my best friend and you've never let me down, not once," Matt replied.
"What I'm trying to say is different though. You see, they always ignored me and sort of pretended like I wasn't there. Nobody really picked on me or anything, they just didn't pay me any attention at all. I kind of understand why. I know I'm quiet and sort of plain looking. I've never been into sports. I just like doing quiet things and being outside mostly. But you were the first person in our school to ever stop and really talk to me. You were the first person to seem interested enough to be my friend. Even Chris didn't do that until you came, but he's a year older so I wouldn't have expected him to. It was just always like I was a ghost. I could see and hear them but they couldn't see me. But you saw me. And here's what you don't get, Matt: I would rather be fighting on your side -- no matter what they say or do to me -- than to just go back to being a ghost that no one sees or hears. I've only got one thing to lose and I'm not going to let them take that away from me, not without a fight." Tommy's quiet delivery had resounding resolve.
Matt was overwhelmed with emotion. It hurt him to hear Tommy describe himself as a "ghost," but it filled him with hope to hear the determination in his voice. This time the embrace wasn't so sudden. Matt's eyes and extended arms made a plea for Tommy to join him and Tommy never hesitated to answer the call. And this time the embrace wasn't so brief. Matt needed some time to release the emotions built up inside him. He had needed to feel Tommy in his arms and to communicate to him how much he was appreciated and, yes, how much he was loved.
Matt belonged to Chris, at least -- though not solely -- in a sexual sense. Matt belonged to Tommy, too; it was a different type of belonging, not a lesser one, just a different one. He wouldn't deny Tommy any benefit of their friendship, including affection, any more than he would deny Chris any sensual or other benefit of their relationship. Matt hoped to make many friends, but he only wanted one boyfriend and he only wanted one best friend; those were special and distinct designations in his mind.
Little Digger was feeling left out again and he did his best to climb onto the couch, failing, and then complaining miserably about it with a fresh round of yelps. Matt broke the embrace with Tommy and lifted Digger to rest snuggly between the two of them. Being a puppy had never felt so good.
They talked in much greater length about the details leading up to Coach Briggs' death. A couple hours later, Tommy finally had the complete accounting of events that Matt had promised him.
Tommy said, "I still can't believe Jay and Chris are brothers. I've never seen them speak to each other."
"They hadn't spoke in over two years, since their dad beat them up at the shack……I think they were both embarrassed too because of, well, what they were doing at the time. They didn't even know they were related then," Matt added.
"What exactly were they doing?" Tommy was nothing if not curious.
"I don't really know for sure, Tommy. I think they were just messing around, maybe whacking off or something. I try not to think too much about it." Definitely without thinking, he added, "That's all Chris and me have done…or all I've done to him."
Catching himself belatedly, Matt added, "I'm sorry Tommy. You don't want to hear about stuff like that. Sorry."
Tommy was caught off guard, and he could feel himself blushing. Gathering himself, he replied, "Don't apologize. It's not like it grosses me out or anything."
Matt looked him over, still regretting what he had said. Matt trusted Tommy and wanted to be able to talk with him openly, but he didn't want to make him uncomfortable. Two guys sitting around talking about their girlfriends could have this conversation. But this wasn't two guys sitting around talking about their girlfriends.
"It's OK, Matt. Don't feel bad on my account. We ARE best friends and you don't ever have to feel uncomfortable around me. I'm not that naïve, you know."
"I just don't want to see you get hurt." The concern was obvious on Matt's face.
"Matt, I've already got a mother." He smiled and gave Matt a little jab on the shoulder.
Tommy continued, "Really, don't worry about me. I'm happy for you. You're my best friend and I want you to be happy. I'm not jealous of you and Chris, not really. I mean, I wish I had someone like……...well, I wish I had someone but I'm not miserable about it. I've got you and that's enough for me."
Matt responded to the affectionate jab, and put his hand on Tommy's shoulder, sliding the hand across to the neck and giving a soft squeeze there. Matt felt a stronger urge of affection that he held back. His eyes fixed on Tommy's face and he so wanted to lean in and just kiss him gently on the lips; just a simple kiss of love and affection with no sensual meaning. He wanted to, but he didn't, for he feared there was no such thing as a simple kiss. Instead, he pulled Tommy to him one more time and they rested their heads on each other's shoulders, little Digger still happily in the middle.
A knock from the top of the basement staircase brought a jittery reaction from Tommy and he bumped heads with Matt.
"Ouch!" Matt held his noggin. The reverberations from the bump were bouncing around inside his skull. He still wasn't fully healed from his concussion.
"Oh, Matt. I'm sorry, man……..shit. Are you OK?"
"Yeah, I'm all right," Matt said, without convincing Tommy.
There was another knock at the top of the stairs, louder this time and followed by Joanna's voice, "Matt?"
"Yeah, mom!" His eyes wrinkled at the piercing sound of his own reply.
Joanna opened the door and took a few steps till she could see the boys. "Do you two need anything else?"
"No, mom. We've got everything we need."
"Matthew, do you have a headache?" Matt wasn't able to hide the discomfort on his face.
"Yeah, mom, I do but it's going away. I'm all right. We're about to turn in for the night anyway."
"Put on a jacket and take Digger outside for a few minutes before you go to bed. OK?"
"OK. Good night, mom."
"Good night boys."
"Good night Mrs. Jordan. Your spaghetti was really delicious." Tommy thought it rude not to point this out again.
"You're welcome, Tommy. I'll make you boys some breakfast whenever you get up. Just sleep in and get some rest." Joanna exited the basement and pulled the door shut behind her.
Tommy quickly turned his attention back to Matt. "Are you sure you're OK?" Tommy rubbed his hand over Matt's forehead. Matt closed his eyes and gladly received the comfort.
Matt softly replied, "Yeah, I'm OK. I still get dizzy a little and I'm not fully recovered from the concussion yet…….And I've been having bad nightmares." He dreaded the thought of another night of these cursed dreams.
Tommy doubled his concern and kept gently stroking Matt's forehead. "What type of nightmares?"
"Really bad ones. They always wake me up and you might hear me talking, or screaming, in my sleep tonight. I've had them every night since the encounter with Chris's dad. I hope they'll go away soon, but I don't know."
"I'll take Digger out for a few minutes and you lie here and relax. OK?"
"OK, thanks Tommy," Matt barely muttered the reply as Tommy's soothing hand had almost put him to sleep.
Tommy cradled Digger in his arms and carried him up the steps and through the rear kitchen door exiting into the backyard. He issued clear instructions to Digger, "If you've got anything to do, make sure you do it now!" Digger was hardly house trained, but not having been out since dinner, he trotted into the grass a few steps and officially christened his new backyard. Tommy was quite proud. "Now you're getting the idea, good job buddy!"
Tommy looked up into the night sky. He had always been fascinated by the movements of the moon and stars. His dad had bought him a telescope several years before and Tommy had become quite familiar with how to distinguish the stars from the planets. Here in the middle of a large cluster of houses, he found the night sky to be very disappointing with so many of his favorite stellar objects blocked out by the glaring beams of yard lights. Tommy Johnson most definitely needed more space than this. He missed the view from his own backyard.
Quietly re-entering the kitchen with Digger in hand, he remembered to lock the back door behind him and stopped at the bathroom to answer his own call from nature. Digger looked down from Tommy's arm, fascinated by the stream of water hitting the small golden pond below. Tommy whispered to him, "I guess I'm setting a bad example for you, but I didn't want anybody to catch me peeing in the backyard."
Now with all of nature's affairs in order, Tommy and Digger went back down to the basement. At first he didn't see Matt. At least, not until his ear picked up the faint rhythm of breathing coming from the bottom bunk bed. Tommy saw the quilt and pillows Matt had left on the couch and figured they were there for a reason. Having checked out the bunk beds earlier, he knew he was getting the better end of the deal and he felt bad that Matt had sacrificed the better sleeping spot. He tiptoed over to where Matt was sleeping and checked in on him before turning in for the night. It was obvious that Matt had practically collapsed onto the bed. One foot was sticking out exposed to the air and the blanket was haphazardly pulled around his torso. Tommy carefully resolved this untidiness and spread the blanket evenly across Matt's frame being sure to cover any bare spots.
Finally happy that Matt looked comfortable, Tommy turned his attention to Digger. There were no comfortable looking spots on the basement cement floor, so he took the flannel shirt he had worn earlier in the day and doubled it up into a warm mat for Digger to lie on. Little Digger knew a comfy spot when he saw one and he curled right up into a warm furry ball. With no one left awake to take care of, Tommy made his own nest on the couch after turning out the lights.
The night was peaceful for a while. The soft rhythmic sounds of boy and little beast filled the darkened basement. The reflective glare of the outside yard lights cast just enough brightness inside to allow discernment of shapes for eyes already adjusted to the night.
Tommy was a light sleeper by nature and his keen ear picked up the change in breathing coming from the bunk bed. Matt's rhythm had been replaced by short gasps and groans. Tommy's eyes were now wide open and he sat up on the couch and looked around the room, half expecting to find an intruder, but no visible one was there. Though he could barely detect it, there was definitely movement on the bunk bed and he rose up and walked slowly in Matt's direction.
"No….No," the repeated words were barely whimpered from Matt's lips. Tommy stood beside the bed and hoped the nightmare would pass quietly by, but it didn't. Several sudden jerks were followed by a much louder outburst of the same word, "NO!" Tommy sat down on the side of the bed and put a hand on Matt's shoulder, shaking him firmly, but not quite in time to keep the dream intruder from making his nightly round. When Matt sat up suddenly in the bed, he scared Tommy almost as bad as Tommy's dark silhouette scared him.
"Matt! It's just me, Tommy. It's OK, Matt." Tommy kept his head very well for the circumstances. Digger didn't do quite as well and he launched onto all fours and started yelping up a storm back in the direction of the bunk bed.
Unnoticed to the boys, the door to the basement opened quietly. An attentive pair of ears listened in to make sure all would be well.
Matt's breathing was now short and rapid as he regained his orientation, having awoken in the less familiar surroundings of the basement. He got more reassurances from Tommy, who was now soothing him with both hands. "It's all right. It was just a dream, Matt. Just a dream."
Matt's head started to shake from side to side and tears fell from his eyes. He exclaimed, "I'm so fucking sick and tired of this! I want this to stop happening!" This wasn't a time for logic or reason. He was running on pure emotion now. Tommy's instincts were good.
"Just lie back down Matt. He can't hurt you. It was just a dream. Lie back down….When I used to have bad dreams, my mom would sit up and just hold my hand. If she felt my hand squeeze hers, she'd squeeze me back a little harder and I'd know she was still there. I used to have some really bad ones but this always seemed to do the trick."
Matt followed Tommy's instructions and lay back down on the narrow bed, rolling over onto his side, facing away from Tommy. Tommy reached over him and took his hand. Matt gave him a little squeeze and Tommy signaled back with a slightly harder one. Tommy cuddled up behind him, on top of the blanket, and rested his head down on the side of the pillow. The room became quiet again and even Digger relaxed. After a while, Tommy heard the quiet rhythm of sleep return. He felt a light squeeze on his hand and he returned the signal.
The basement door closed as quietly as it had opened. The pretty face with attentive ears and teary eyes made her way back to bed making a silent pledge to fix Tommy Johnson her finest batch of pancakes in the morning. She thought it was the least he was owed and he would be welcome to eat till his heart was content.
The rest of the night passed peacefully.