The days that followed were not happy ones. The extra sentiment provided by the Christmas season only seemed to deepen the sadness and frustration. And the busy work of preparing for the move kept Chris and Matt apart most of their last few days - a fact that drove Matt delirious with aggravation and did little for Chris’s emotional well-being either. Peggy Briggs had taken new interest in making sure Chris had plenty to keep him distracted from Matt and away from the Jordan house.
Matt had spoken with Chris several times by phone but there was little to say. Neither boy could avoid the obvious and all the normal subjects of small-talk lost relevance in the bigger picture of things.
Tommy’s calls to Matt had provided some momentary distraction from the despair. Tommy, as always, was the faithful friend and he was shocked and worried with the revelation of Chris’s move away; worried for Matt, worried for Chris, and worried for the impending return to school after the Christmas break.
On Christmas Eve morning, Chris made the journey back through the woods and over to Jay’s house. Jay’s black truck was sharing space with his mother’s car. Chris hadn’t thought about her being home but he didn’t have enough time left to be choosey about his appointments. His knock brought the appearance of a woman much younger than he had imagined. Susan Henson had only been in her early twenties when the much elder Robert Briggs had consummated their affair, resulting in the unwelcome conception of Jay.
Susan didn’t open the door and the expression on her face was ghostly. Chris shared many of his father’s better physical features and it was simply more than she could bear. She quickly disappeared and Jay soon came outside to meet his brother.
Jay wasn’t unhappy to see Chris, but he was a little disturbed to see his mother shaken.
Chris opened, “I’m sorry. I was going to call you first, but there’s no number listed.”
“It’s OK. She’s always kind of nervous,” Jay replied.
“I was running out of time and I wanted to come by and talk with you again before we left.” Chris was getting a little ahead of himself and Jay responded with a confused look.
“Mom’s selling the house. We’re moving up to Virginia to live with Melanie. We’re leaving in three days.” Chris held eye contact with Jay long enough to see a wince on his face.
“When did all this happen?” Jay asked.
“It’s something that mom and Mel decided last week. Mom’s still pretty sick…Shit, she’s a fucking drunk, all right? I mean that’s the truth! She’s doing a little better now that...” He paused and looked up at Jay. It was still hard for Chris to say “dad” in his presence. “…now that it’s just us, but Mel doesn’t think mom can take care of herself. I don’t think she can either. And we’re poor-ass broke because of hospital bills and shit I don’t even understand.”
“Well, I’m sorry about your mom.” Jay was sorry for more than this. Chris was more than just his brother; he was his most immediate prospect for a real friend. Jay had told himself he didn’t need friends, but he was honest enough with himself to know that was really just what people who didn’t have any friends told themselves to feel better. Chris had been a friend, briefly, before the shack incident. Now it seemed he was destined to become just distant family.
“I’m not happy about leaving. I can tell you that.”
“I imagine there’s someone else not real happy about it either.” Jay’s thought of Matt brought a confirming nod from Chris.
“This is so fucked up. I hate it, Jay.” Chris looked down as he spoke, his head shaking convincingly from side to side and his right foot pawing a significant dent into the gravel driveway.
“It is fucked up,” Jay replied. There wasn’t much else to say.
“I heard that the D.A. finally decided to not file charges. That’s a big relief.” Chris felt the relief too. A trial would have affected everyone involved.
“Yeah, he took his sweet time about it. My poor mom was worried sick by the time we finally found out.”
“Maybe people will let it go now. I don’t know though.” Chris added.
“Not that I really give a shit, but people are looking at me really funny. Like they think I’m going to snap and shoot them or something. I had a couple weeks worth of work lined up during the Christmas break, and they called me and said they didn’t need me after all. They should have just been honest and said they didn’t ‘want’ me after all.”
“Fuck ‘em. There’s so many hypocrites around here. I won’t miss that part.” But there was plenty Chris would miss and it was obvious in his body language and on his face.
“I was wondering if I could ask you for a couple of favors.” Chris finally got around to asking.
Jay gave him a curious, but reassuring look.
Chris continued. “Well, my uncles took all of the beagles, except for Maggy. She was always more mine than dad’s anyway…I was wondering if you would be willing to take her for me?”
“She’d probably like to go with you to Virginia.” Jay replied.
“Mel has an apartment in the city. I don’t think Maggy would fit in there any better than I will. If you don’t want her, I understand. She’s getting sort of old and she was still, technically, dad’s dog. You might not want her just because of that. I wouldn’t blame you for it.” Chris looked away, then back at Jay again waiting for his answer.
Jay’s eyes grabbed Chris and held his attention. “Chris, we shouldn’t hold that against her, you know? We wouldn’t want anybody holding that against us.” Chris nodded and smiled wryly. “I’ll take good care of her. But if you ever come back, she’s still yours. OK?”
“Thanks, Jay.” Chris’s eyes were watering up a bit and he looked down again. He was losing his home, his woods, the boy he loved, the brother he never really got to know, and now his dog to boot. “If I can ask for one more thing?” His eyes met Jay’s and got a look in return that told him it was OK. “I’m worried about Matt, worried that somebody might try to hurt him. I mean, he can probably take care of himself, but there were a lot of people giving us the evil-eye before Christmas break.” This was the hardest thing of all for Chris. The idea of someone taking advantage of Matt was more than his mind could tolerate.
“I’ll keep an eye out and my ears open. But Chris, I’m not going to be his bodyguard and he’s going to have to take care of himself. I think he probably can, too, based on what I’ve seen. But if things get out of hand, I’ll do what I can to help him.”
“That’s all I’m asking. I just don’t want to see him get hurt. But I know there’s only so much you can do. Hell, you don’t have to do anything at all. You’ve already saved both our asses, so I shouldn’t ask for anything more.”
“It’s OK. That’s what big brothers are for, right?” This time it was Jay flashing the wry smile. Chris nodded again in reply and his face was showing more strain.
“I was really looking forward to us getting to know each other again. First, it was dad keeping us apart. Now, it’s mom’s turn. I think we could have been good brothers for each other.” Chris’s eyes filled with regret.
“I was looking forward to that too. But I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. Not now, at least.” Jay had his father’s eyes; the one obvious feature he shared with Chris as well. Like his younger brother (if only by a few months), his eyes also filled with regret.
“Not exactly a Merry Christmas.”
“I wouldn’t know the difference,” Jay replied.
Chris looked up and saw his own frustration and resentment mirrored in Jay’s face. Quietly, they stood together for a few minutes letting their misery enjoy each other’s company.
Their relationship had started as an accidental friendship; two boys wandering the same woods they’d grown up sharing - always nearby, but never together. Robert Briggs had worked hard to keep them apart, spreading lies in Chris’s mind about Jay being a druggie. Jay was always so quiet and distant; Chris didn’t really know what to think of him until they bumped into each other during that summer two years ago. Jay’s dog Shep had introduced them, after first introducing his own wet nose to Chris’s crotch – as dogs are prone to do when sniffing out a stranger. The light moment had produced a small crack in the emotional armor that Jay had worn so faithfully in his life. Chris and Jay had bonded before they even knew why.
Before long, the boys were joining each other on a regular basis, re-exploring the familiar terrain together and simply enjoying the rare opportunity of friendly company. Their idle curiosities eventually led to other explorations; they were never in love, but were curious as many boys were at that stage of development. Their explorations had only just begun when Robert Briggs came across them on that day in the old shack. Being distracted by the rush of the moment, they hadn’t heard his approach. Robert Briggs would have been furious enough just simply finding them talking to each other. Peering in through the broken glass and finding them masturbating each other produced the reaction of violent rage that had changed everything.
The sight of his own offspring engaged in something he considered to be degenerate hit a little too close to home for Robert Briggs. It would take two years, but the circle of violence would eventually complete itself, surrounding Robert Briggs and bringing him to his ultimate end. Matt had witnessed only to the last act, but Chris and Jay had been witness to the entire drama.
All of this was in their history with each other. There were no picnics or other pleasant family gatherings together. Instead, tragedy had followed each of the two times Chris and Jay had shared the same presence as their father.
Chris broke the silence. “I guess I should be getting back to the house. We’ve gone through all of our old stuff, except for one closet. It’s got a bunch of dad’s junk in it. If I find some hidden fortune in there, I’ll be sure you get your share.”
Jay cracked a grin. Chris continued, “Hey, tell your mom I’m sorry I spooked her like that. I really am.”
“I’ll tell her. And hold on a second.” Jay went inside for a moment and came back out with a small piece of paper he then handed to Chris. “We do have a phone; mom just doesn’t want the number listed.”
Chris reached out his hand and Jay took it with a strong grip. They shook hands for several seconds and the finality of it started to settle in for both. Chris dropped Jay’s hand and pulled him into an embrace. Jay came together with him willingly; this was new for him. His mom was a hugger, but Jay couldn’t recall ever having hugged anyone else. Even his limited sexual explorations with Chris hadn’t had this level of emotional content. This was a warm hello and a sad goodbye all wrapped into one.
Chris choked out a “Merry Christmas anyway.”
Jay replied with a “Yeah, you too.”
Once his back was turned, Chris’s eyes immediately started to flow with emotion. He made his path across the fields and woods, dripping with regret all the way. Three days -just three days left. Emotion was clinging to everything he saw around him: An odd shaped tree with a split near the base, excellent for climbing; the big boulder whose origin no one had ever adequately explained, excellent for sitting on while pondering; the old stump near the house…The fresh sight of it made him pause, and it made him think of Matt. He plopped down and took a seat on the cold rings of timber. There was no one to lean back against for support this time.
“Come on in, Chris. We need to finish going through the rest of this stuff!” Peggy Briggs’ voice invaded what little space Chris had left for himself. She had, in fact, sobered up for a while and in between her frequent doses of pain pills she had even become coherent for short spells.
Peggy had no reason left to stay here. She was broke. She had no job. She had no husband. And she felt shame everywhere she went in their little community. Between her accident and the death of her husband at the hands of his bastard son, she had lost her will to stick it out here. If anyone had ever been ready for another fresh start, it was she.
She was a tough nut to crack. She had grown up in a house where physical abuse was a daily occurrence. Once she was married, the patterns didn’t seem to change for long and she had never made any attempts to leave or report her violent husband. As Melanie had once put it: “In some screwed-up way, I think it was even comforting to her; it was what she was most familiar with.”
Peggy’s quiet acceptance of the abuse was only one carryover from her childhood; the alcoholism was another and there were others lurking under the surface. Addiction, intolerance and outright hate frequently came together in the same power-bundle of afflictions. The alcohol and violence were only symptoms. Whether Peggy was a tolerant woman by nature would never be known for sure, for whatever better nature she might have been born with had been long ago replaced by the lesser nature she was taught by her parents.
“Chris!” She wasn’t happy with being ignored.
“I’ll be there in a minute!” Chris wasn’t adjusting well to her new assertiveness. His mom was easier to deal with as a sympathetic - even pathetic - character. The slamming of the backdoor was a not-so-gentle reminder for him to hurry it up.
Upon entering the house, he cut her a nasty look from the corner of his eye. He might as well have thrown a match on a pit of gasoline.
“Where the hell were you this morning? We can’t finish all this up by ourselves!” Some people were mean drunks, Peggy was meaner when sober and in control of her faculties.
“You made the decision to move by yourselves, so you can do the work by yourselves, too!” This time, Chris cut a look toward Melanie. Mel looked out the window and grabbed her forehead, trying to rub out the stress.
Peggy was an argument waiting to happen. “Don’t start that shit again with me, Christopher!”
Chris was just about ready to burst. “Why are you so mad at me?! For the last week, all you’ve done is yell and push me around! What exactly did I do?”
Peggy looked like she was about to answer his question, but she took a few deep, excited breaths instead. “I just need for you to listen to what I tell you to do and stop being so difficult! You’re trying to start trouble with me and I don’t want to get into it!”
Chris didn’t start anything at all. He didn’t say a word in reply. He simply walked out the backdoor and into the refuge of his woods, Peggy screaming at him with every step he took.
He was angry, angrier than he could ever remember in his young life. This anger burned deep from a reservoir of leftover rage unresolved with his father. Heaped on top for extra heat was the resentment he felt for his mother; both the old resentment of disappointment and the new one of disbelief. In his mind, he had picked a target for this anger and he made a beeline to its location, ready to unleash his wrath and destruction.
As he passed the last tree blocking his view, his eyes brought the first wave of shock. He stopped in his tracks and his mouth fell open. Time had beaten him to the punch and denied him the emotional outlet he needed. The old shack lay in ruin, now reduced to a messy, twisted pile of old boards with the rusty tin roof resting on top still mostly intact.
He walked along the perimeter of the rubble, softly kicking a stray board back into the pile. In his mind, he knew he could have never brought this conclusion; it just wasn’t in him to bring this old structure to the ground. This place held haunted memories for sure, but it also held better memories. Again, he thought of Matt and of a first kiss.
He took a seat on top of the flattened tin roof and pondered what was next. Everything else had collapsed around him and he had nowhere left to go except wherever life decided to take him next. Even through all of his stress and physical abuse, he had never completely relinquished hope. He had been close to that point once. But then, just when all seemed to be lost, a boy had believed in him; believing in him even more than he had believed in himself. With Matt, the unbearable became bearable and despair gave way to a fresh supply of hope.
The whistling of the limbs overhead grew silent and a grey winter sky blanketed the landscape. What had been gained now seemed lost and Chris had never felt more alone.
Christmas Day brought early bad news. Melanie knocked on Chris’s bedroom door and found him sitting up in bed, having never gained adequate sleep the night before.
“Chris, I’m going to have to be back at the hospital for work earlier than I had planned. There’s a lot of flu going around and two of the nurses on my floor are out sick.” Melanie drew back a bit as she watched Chris’s eyes narrow and his lips purse tightly together. “We’ll have to leave this afternoon. I’m sorry. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but I don’t have any choice.”
He couldn’t speak at first. Half of his time left had just been stolen; the news delivered to him as some type of perverted Christmas Morning greeting. He saw the look on Melanie’s face. He knew she wasn’t directly at fault but, right now, he was not at all happy with the messenger. The mixture of anger and guilt overwhelmed him and his words were choked out, barely understandable with the heavy weight of emotion they were carrying.
“Wh….why?.....I don’t….want to leave.”
Melanie carried her own burdens in this, even more than Chris knew. She was trapped too. There was no way she could leave Chris here with her mom. They were, in fact, poor-ass broke. Peggy couldn’t be trusted to take care of herself, much less Chris. And Chris was still only 15, soon to be 16, too young to be expected to take care of the human reclamation project that was his mother. Melanie had a job, she had signed a contract, and there was no way for her to completely uproot her own life and just stay here. It had to be this way, at least for her and Peggy. The burden Mel was having a harder time with related to the burden of knowledge; her knowledge that Chris didn’t have to be part of this move. There had been an offer extended; one that Peggy Briggs had reacted to in a way that shocked even her daughter. Rather than standing up to her mom, Melanie had melted into submission. She didn’t deal well with confrontations of this type; they triggered too many memories of a childhood she had run away from and left behind long ago. If running away again had been an option, then Melanie would have gladly taken that path of escape instead, but it wasn’t that simple this time. She had been able to run away once before, leaving a much younger Chris behind. But this time she would have to accept the compromises inflicted by her mother and do what she could. Her mother was still her mother and some things just never changed.
“I’m sorry, Chris.” Brother and sister shared a tearful and regretful Christmas morning.
“I need to go see Matt. Now!” Chris was telling, not asking.
“Get up and let me know when you’re ready. But Chris, don’t tell mom where you’re going.” Melanie couldn’t hide the guilt from her face.
“Why not?” Chris didn’t mind the idea of leaving his mother out of it, but there was something in the way Melanie said it that made him uneasy.
“She’s just been so ornery about everything, just leave her out of it. OK?” Melanie pleaded with her eyes.
“All right.” Chris wasted no time in getting up and getting ready to leave. He didn’t want to waste a second of what little time was left.
A quick phone call was in order. “Hello, Mrs. Jordan…ok, Joanna.” Chris found a smile, courtesy of Joanna Jordan’s voice. “Hey Matt, can I come over now?” No arm-twisting was required and Chris was ready to bolt out the door. There was only one obstacle left to hurdle.
“Who were you on the phone with?” Peggy was much more alert when almost sober.
Chris looked at her and rolled his eyes before returning to his bedroom to grab his bag. As he walked back past his mother, she latched onto his arm with her hand and they stood there nose to nose.
“You’re going to stop ignoring me, Christopher!”
“We’ve all gotten used to ignoring you! It’s EASIER that way!” He barked his reply and only his quick reflexes let him dodge the open right hand that went sailing by his cheek. Peggy made a move to regroup and try again but Chris dropped his bag and grabbed her around both wrists. The look on his face silently told her “Don’t Do That Again!” in no uncertain terms.
Struggling and flailing against his grip, she finally muttered “Let go of me!” And he did. Peggy snorted her way down the hall and slammed her bedroom door shut behind. Chris didn’t move a step, watching her until she disappeared behind the door.
He exchanged bewildered looks with Melanie. “Chris, I’m going to get her into a program when we get settled in after the move. She’s…she just doesn’t know how difficult she’s being right now.” Melanie extended a hand to the top of her head and the growing strain was wearing on her face.
“But she’s not drunk right now and she’s crawling on my ass about every little thing! It’s like she hates me all of a sudden! She’s not that way with you!” Tears came to the corners of Chris’s eyes.
“She doesn’t hate you, Chris. She’s really screwed up right now…I don’t know…Maybe she’ll get straightened out. Come on. Just calm down and let’s go.” Melanie tried to put her mom’s latest outburst from her mind and she grabbed her keys and headed for the door with Chris right behind her.
As they drove, Chris considered asking Melanie to stop by Katie’s house to say goodbye. He had planned to see her before he left but now, with so little time, it just wasn’t an option anymore. Whatever they had ended as, they had started as friends. The quiet hurt he had seen in her face the last time they’d talked at school had told him that things hadn’t turned out the way she had hoped. Ty Wilson, the junior class king, wasn’t one for sentiment when it came to old flings and, as part of a pre-emptive strike, he had spread word around school that Katie had made an aggressive move on him; a move he claimed that he refused. Ty was shrewd like that and he knew his lies would shield him from anything Katie might say in reply. If she claimed an affair, he would scoff it off as bitter resentment from a girl scorned. After finding herself quickly expelled from the preferred social circles, Katie was left to the company of her own lonely reflection. Seeing her vulnerable again had rekindled the feelings of close friendship Chris had once felt for her, but nothing more than that. There were many good memories to cling to, but still it was hard for him to feel sorry for her.
There was one last detour in required before arriving at the Jordan house. “Mel, do you remember where Tommy Johnson’s house is?” Melanie nodded that she did. The Johnsons had a nice tract of land, making it easier to remember. “I need to stop there for just a couple minutes. OK?”
“Sure.” Melanie’s guilt only deepened as Chris continued his goodbye tour across the county.
Tommy was outside throwing around a tennis ball for his lab Tucker to retrieve when he saw the car coming down the long driveway. He didn’t recognize it but he soon made out Chris’s familiar face. Chris got out of the car and was quickly met by the curious nose of Tucker, who proceeded to sniff his way up his pants leg bringing an amused smile from Chris but no change in the worried look from Tommy.
“Is everything OK?” Tommy asked, without any formal greeting.
The smile faded fast from Chris’s face. Nothing was OK. “I just came to same bye, Tommy. We’re leaving this afternoon instead of Monday.”
“Oh,” was all Tommy could rally in reply.
“Mel has to get back to work earlier than she’d planned.” Chris fought for words. “You know, I wish we’d gotten to know each other before. You’ve been a good friend to me this year. I’d have flunked Algebra without you for sure.” A faint smile passed across Chris’s face, but it didn’t stay long.
“You didn’t need that much help, and you still had to pass the test – not me.” Tommy’s thoughts were already drifting. “It’s sort of funny we’ve lived just across the woods all this time and it took somebody from California to get us to be friends.”
Chris hardly needed the reminder; Matt hadn’t left his mind all day. “You guys watch each other’s backs, Tommy. I mean, I know you will anyway. But just be careful and…” A fresh rush of emotion came to his face and what few words Chris had left, suddenly escaped him. “I better get going. Matt doesn’t know yet, about our leaving early, but I’m on my way to see him now.” Chris gave Tommy the same warm clasp of the hands that he normally reserved only for Matt. As their hands separated, both boys extended a silent wave of goodbye to each other and Chris walked back to the car. He took a strong snort of air before he reentered the car, unwilling to allow Mel to see or hear the full emotion he was carrying.
For her part, Melanie had stolen glances at what was happening but she hadn’t gawked; partly, because it only deepened her own guilt to see her brother pulled out of his natural environment. Mel had been 18 when she left this life behind. She had done so willingly, relieved to escape the influences of her parents and make her own life. Her one lingering regret had now taken his place in the front seat. The brother she had left behind nine years ago had become the sole focus of the parents she left behind; the sole ‘target’ might have been a better way to look at it. She had told herself, over and over, that there was nothing she could have done for him. She had even convinced herself that it probably wasn’t as bad as she imagined but the full back-story on her father’s death and how it came about had washed away any such illusions. Seeing her mother’s miserable behavior only confirmed her worst fears. She wondered if she was failing him again.
Chris said nothing as they finished the short drive. The Jordans lived in a neighborhood that had been built after Melanie had left the area and her first look was an eye opening one. “Matt’s parents must do pretty well for themselves,” she commented as they pulled in the main entrance.
Chris wasn’t interested in such small-talk at the moment. He was too busy dreading the job of telling Matt the most recent news. He let out a soft sniffle against his own will. Mel glanced over and saw the dread and anguish mixing on his face.
“I’ll pick you back up in two hours. OK?”
She got no response. Chris wasn’t willing to pretend that just two hours were “OK.” He might have to accept reality, but he didn’t have to like it. He got out of the car and Melanie called out to him. “Did you need this?” She held up his bag and he frowned at having left if behind. He took the bag and continued toward a front door that was now open in front of him. Joanna looked out toward the car and cast only a grudging, barely detectable smile in Melanie’s direction.
“Merry Christmas, Chris.” Joanna greeted him with a big hug and it was almost enough to bring him to a complete collapse right in her arms. He couldn’t tell them, not yet.
John Jordan repeated the greeting and gave Chris a warm handshake and pat on the shoulder. Matt looked on before jumping in with a long clasp of hands and much restraint; he wanted to wrap his arms around Chris and hold him but he knew he wouldn’t be able to let go and there were still reservations expressing themselves that way in front of his parents.
Matt pointed toward the well appointed Christmas tree and two beautifully wrapped boxes and one small envelope underneath. He winked at Chris and even managed a Christmas smile. “Ready to open yours?” Chris just looked over at the tree and then glanced down sheepishly at the small bag he was carrying.
“I didn’t really get a chance to buy any gifts,” he confessed. Between a sick mother, a dead father, and a hurried move out of state, there had been no time – or money – for such expressions.
Joanna jumped in. “You being here with us for Christmas is gift enough. Have you eaten?” Ever the mother was Joanna Jordan.
Chris had to think for a second. “No, actually, I haven’t eaten anything today.” It was now almost eleven in the morning and food had been the farthest thing from his mind.
“Well then, this just works out perfect.” Joanna was delighted, for the Jordans were about to eat their traditional Christmas brunch. Presents were always opened first thing, followed by a large late breakfast.
The smell of the food in the air completed the sensory overload Chris was experiencing at the moment. With the smiles, warm touches, and the beautiful Christmas tree, he had stepped into another world. “I can’t tell them,” he thought to himself, but he knew he would have to sooner or later. He chose later.
The mega breakfast was wonderful and everyone put on their happy face for a little while. The Jordans didn’t know how little time was left, but they did know this might be Chris’s last visit for a long while. They didn’t want to believe it could be his last visit ever, but the unwelcome awareness of that possibility was there too, lurking about. Reality was hard to accept for everyone, but all felt the need to make the best of what was left.
The Christmas cheer spread back into the living room and the gathering around the tree was something Chris had experienced only very early in his boyhood, and not recently enough to still be in his memory. Sure, plenty of Christmas trees and Christmas presents had drifted into the Briggs’ house, but very little Christmas spirit had ventured there. No, this was definitely different. This was a real Christmas.
Matt reached Chris a wide box. “This one’s from me, but mom helped.”
Playfully, Chris shook it a bit trying to decipher the sound inside. “It’s definitely not underwear and socks.” Chris could tell by the heavy, solid feel in his hands.
Chris started opening the box much too carefully for the impatient Matt. “Oh, just rip it open already!” Matt laughed with an exaggerated gesture. Unfazed, Chris continued his delicate removal of the paper. This wasn’t an experience he wanted to rush. Finally, the box was opened and the back of a wide picture frame was evident through the last defense of the insulating paper. Chris looked around the room curiously, searching for clues in the smiling faces. John had the camcorder in hand, his trigger finger itchy to get into the action.
When Chris flipped over the frame, he saw two photos arranged side-by-side. One was of him as he deposited the winning lay-up in the basket during their earlier stunning upset of the cross-county rivals led by the reviled Billy Jacobs. The scoreboard was clearly visible in the upper right corner of the photo, with only one second left on the clock as Chris completed the victory. It was a beautiful print, originally displayed on the local sports page along with the companion photo in the frame beside it of Matt being lifted off the ground by a swarm of jubilant teammates. Chris was in the foreground of this frame, helping lift Matt up; Billy Jacobs was in the background, head held low in disbelief. This had been Matt and Chris’s special moment together in sport, as Matt had created Chris’s heroics through his dive and wild fling of the ball back into play, landing Matt on his backside in the bleachers. The comeback had been sweeter than most had known, after the pre-game run-in with Billy.
“Wow! This is great. I could never have forgotten that play, but I’ve never seen a picture of it.”
John and Joanna shared a brief involuntary wince. Little did they know that Chris and his dad had never so much as talked about the great game, much less shared a proud father-and-son moment staring at the front page of the sports section the following day.
Matt was beaming. “Aren’t those great pictures? Mom got some originals from the newspaper and had these made up from them.” Matt had no idea how much trouble his mom had gone through to get this done for him. Chris flashed Joanna an appreciative smile which she returned in kind.
Matt added, too enthusiastically, “I’m going to find out Billy Jacob’s address and send him a copy too!”
This brought a flashing frown from Joanna and a quick reply from Chris. “No need. We’ve already settled that score. The proof is right here.” He looked down fondly at the moment, captured, framed and seemingly immortalized.
“But it would be sort of funny.” Matt said.
“No need to stir things up though.” Chris gave him a look and Matt understood, finally.
“Here, this one is from mom.” Matt was in full elf mode as he handed over the small envelope. Chris was still admiring the first gift.
As he gently put the picture frame down, he said a warm “Thank You” to Matt and then extended the look of thanks to Joanna and John as well.
“You’re welcome, Chris.” Joanna couldn’t let the moment go by incomplete.
Chris opened the envelope and pulled out a $250 gift certificate for Belk’s Department stores (a popular chain in the South).
His eyes widened and he looked at Joanna wondering if this was too much. She gave him reassurances, “You’re a growing boy, Chris. You’re going to need some things from time to time. Get yourself something nice when you do.” Chris was starting to appreciate the value of money, having realized what the consequences were of having none at all. Joanna knew there was already enough sentiment under the tree; her gift had been meant to serve the more practical needs in Chris’s life.
“Thanks,” Chris said again softly. Joanna nodded her welcome.
Matt looked at the last lonely box under the tree. “This one’s from dad.”
John spoke up. “Actually, Matt, that one is from me and your mother. Go ahead and open it up, Chris.”
Matt and Chris were not little boys. They were soon-to-be 15 and 16 year old teenagers. But for a moment, if only one fleeting moment, they were little boys again. They exchanged curious looks with each other and Chris opened the box, again to the playful agitation of the impatient Matt. “I hope it’s not something to eat. It might spoil before you get it open.” Matt poked Chris in the ribs and laughed as he spoke.
At first, Chris thought it was a heavy navy colored sweater. Though he didn’t show it, he felt a twinge of disappointment. When he finally peeled back the last wrapper, he saw a familiar logo and his mouth dropped open. When he saw a familiar number – 10 – on the jacket breast, his heart stopped for a moment. Chris knew the Atlanta Braves team jacket he was holding wasn’t one bought at the local sports shop; THOSE jackets didn’t come with player numbers on them. Chris looked up at a proud John Jordan.
John confirmed Chris’s assumption. “That one came courtesy of Chipper Jones himself. The bank is a major sponsor for the home ballpark in Atlanta. One of my marketing VPs down there did all the legwork for me. It’s probably got a scuff or two on it somewhere, Chris. It’s been worn a few times.”
“Worn?...Not by Chipper Jones?” Chris was shaking his head ‘no’ but John was shaking his head ‘yes.’
“That’s what I was told, son. And I believe it.” John confirmed verbally just to be clear.
Matt looked on in giddy Christmas delight. His first conversations with Chris had been about baseball. In fact, baseball had indirectly brought them together. Matt’s San Francisco Giants’ carry bag had motivated Chris’s first words to him on an earlier day. During the last summer months, he and Chris had teased each other mercilessly about the rivalry between Matt’s Giants and Chris’s beloved Braves. Eventually, both teams were ousted in the National League playoffs by the eventual World Series champ Florida Marlins, bonding Matt and Chris even tighter in their mutual hate of the Marlins.
Matt drew his reaction from the look on Chris’s face. He thought to himself, “They weren’t able to ruin Christmas for us after all.” But he didn’t know all that had taken place.
Chris pulled on the jacket and took further joy when he reached in the right pocket and found an autographed baseball. He twirled it around, reading the names of Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz and Jones. Chris reached the ball to Matt, who took it reverently and read aloud the names of the same great players, and several names of not-so-great players too.
“Man…” Chris stretched out his arms and the ends of the sleeves extended several inches past his fingertips.
“John, it doesn’t fit!” Joanna was disappointed.
Chris smiled broadly. “Oh, that’s OK. Chipper’s a few inches taller than me, so I didn’t expect it to fit. But this jacket isn’t for wearing around anyway. It’s much too valuable for that. I couldn’t stand the thought of leaving it somewhere and losing it. This will go up on my wall, so I can see it everyday…Thank you so much.”
“Hey guys, smile at the camera.” John had recorded plenty of action with the camcorder but now he was ready to snap off a few photos. Matt threw his arm around Chris, freshly adorned in his Braves’ jacket. Matt and Chris held the baseball up together and John captured the moment for the family album.
Time had flown by quickly and the inevitable forced itself back into the occasion. Chris heard the familiar sound of Melanie’s Honda wagon pull into the driveway and all of the joy fell from his face at once. He still hadn’t told them.
“Chris, what’s wrong?” Joanna had watched his spirit plummet.
Chris felt a heavy wave of guilt wash over him. Sitting in the Jordan’s living room and enjoying their kindness and generosity, all he could give in return was unwelcome news.
“Give me just a minute. I need to tell Mel to wait.” He also needed to stand up and gather as much composure as he could. He slipped off the new gift, and made eye contact with Matt as he stood; the worried look he got in return didn’t reinforce his spirits.
Melanie told him to take his time; that was the least she could do, and he came back in and stood in the living room.
“You all have been so great to me.” He was straining hard to keep it together and he looked back and forth between John and Joanna. Looking at Matt would be too much and he might lose it. “This has been the best Christmas Day I can ever remember…But it’s also the worst.” His eyes finally drifted to Matt and he could feel himself breaking but he choked it back. His voice cracked and his face shook but he kept as much of himself as he could. Joanna stood and made her way to his side. Matt was frozen on the living room floor. John stood as Chris spoke. “I wish I could stay…but we’re leaving this afternoon. Melanie has to be back sooner than she’d planned.” There it was out.
Joanna, ever the mother, took Chris’s hand. It was just a simple show of support. His eyes filled quickly with emotion and he focused through the glaze onto Matt. “I need to talk to you.”
Matt rose up, his face stricken from the shock of what he’d just heard. They were supposed to have one more day. And the entire last week had been wasted away with Peggy Briggs tossing new obstacles between them as she had kept Chris busy and away from the Jordans. They were supposed to have one more day; Matt kept repeating the thought in his mind. He had been willing to deny the truth up until the very last second, but now even that had been taken away.
The boys made their way upstairs to Matt’s room. Barely inside the door, Chris threw his arms around Matt and they held each other in a staggered hug, neither uttering a word. Their lips wandered the sides of each other’s face before landing together in warm embrace. Just like their first kiss, this was an endearment between their injured spirits and more of an attempt to repair the most recent damages they had suffered. Chris’s hands roamed across Matt’s back and shoulders, gathering and storing for the days when they would be apart.
Their stormy faces pulled away and they held each other in close eye contact for a minute. “I love you so much, Matt Jordan. This won’t keep us apart forever. I promise you again. It won’t.” His words inspired a fresh response from Matt’s lips and they probed Chris’s again.
“You said ya’ll are coming back to get some more of the stuff out of the house soon, right?”
“Yeah, Mel said it would be a few weeks. I don’t know when that means. We never got around to any of dad’s stuff. Not that we need it or anything. But we’ll be back sometime to get everything else. Mel said it depends on how quick the house sells.”
“I’m glad we had our night together, you know?” Matt’s eyes were filled with love.
“It won’t be our last. It won’t be. Don’t think it will. But I’m glad too. It was…well, I can’t describe it.” His words brought a loving smile from Matt.
“Chris, I’m going to miss you so much. I just…” Matt drew several sharp breaths and his eyes welled up again.
“I know. Believe me, I know. I haven’t given you my gift yet.” They sat down on the bed and Chris reached into his carry bag. “It didn’t cost anything but I think it’s got a lot of sentimental value.” He pulled out a smallish square block of wood that looked like it had been cut from a plank and handed it to Matt. “I found an old wood etching kit when I was cleaning out the garage and it came in pretty handy. I’m not real good with it but I think you can make out what it says.”
Indeed, Matt could make out the date and the words underneath. The date he knew exactly and there were many significant things that day: the first trip out to the old shack together, then the first embrace and then the first kiss. It was even more special to Matt than Chris knew, for on that day, Matt had also made the silent vow to himself that he would win back the life of the boy he loved. It had been a turning point in young Matt Jordan’s life. The words etched into the wood, he said aloud and they were just a slight variation on an old theme: “Show No Fear.”
“It’s not much, Matt. It’s made from one of the planks at the old shack. I just cut off the end and etched in the date and words.” Chris didn’t tell him that the shack had fallen. There was no need to add more bad news.
“It’s wonderful, it really is. It means more to me than I can tell you. And don’t worry, I won’t show them any fear. I know you’re worried about me, but I’ll stay strong. I’ll look at this every night and it will remind me what I need to do. I can do it, Chris. I can do it for you.” Matt gave him a determined look and it filled Chris with more hope than he’d had all day.
“You just be careful. Don’t be picking any trouble with Billy Jacobs when you guys play them again this year. And don’t be picking trouble with anyone else either. OK? I need for you to promise me that.”
“I promise, Chris. Don’t worry. I know I can be a real smart-ass sometimes, but I’ll be extra careful. I’ve had enough trouble already.” Matt didn’t let it on, but he didn’t think he’d have to go looking for any trouble. More than likely, it would find him. His eyes just melted into Chris. “I love you and I don’t want you worrying about me.”
“Listen, we’re not going to say goodbyes. That word doesn’t exist between us, OK?” Chris insisted.
“OK.” Matt agreed. “And you be careful too. You’ll be living in the city. Dad said it’s only half the size of Charlotte, but that’s still pretty big compared to living out here in the country.”
“Yeah, I’m not looking forward to being all cramped up like that.” The fresh reminder brought a stiffening in Chris’s body language.
“God, I hate this! I want to just stay up here forever, but I can’t. Mel is still waiting for me.”
Matt stood up from the bed and reached out for him. Chris stood and rejoined him in their earlier embrace. They were strongest in each other’s arms. A last long kiss came to an end and they broke the embrace. This was the moment Matt had been denying but he could no longer ignore it, for it was real and it was now. “Show No Fear.” But he felt plenty of it.
Downstairs, a similar scene unfolded. Chris exchanged hugs with John and Joanna, the latter lasting much longer and involving a soft sob or two from both parties. As Chris was preparing to exit the door, he turned to the Jordan parents again. His last words were uneven and hardly steady, but he stayed with it and said his last piece.
“I can’t tell you how much this has meant to me, not just today, but just the way you’ve welcomed me since the first day I ever met you. I don’t know the words to say, but it’s meant the world to me. It really has. More than I can ever tell you.”
“Be careful, son. Here, I almost forgot. We’ve got toll-free service on the home phone number, you call us anytime you feel like it. We want to hear from you often.” John gave Chris a card with the special number and access code.
Chris’s eyes made one last visit to John and then to Joanna. He turned his eyes to Matt. “I’ll see you later.”
Matt replied, “Later.”