Within ten minutes, Matt pulled up to the gas station to pick up Jake. The station had closed for the day hours ago, so the lot was dark. Even in the dark, Matt could see how bruised his left eye was. Jake was going to have quite a shiner.
Jake limped as he headed for Matt's car. Hurriedly, Matt jumped out, rounded the front of the automobile and helped Jake into the passenger seat. Close up, Matt could see his tear-streaked face and snotty nose.
"We'll get you into the shower, and let you borrow some of Brian's clothes," Matt said to him as they rode back to Ash Street.
"Does Brian know?"
"Does he know what, hon?"
"Does he know what happened?"
"No, he's still sleeping. Or at least he was when I left. Tim knows, though. He's awake."
Jake bit his lip nervously. "Matt," he asked hesitantly, "is Tim your .is he your .boyfriend?"
"Yes," Matt answered without emotion. "Does that bother you?"
"No," he responded, almost too quickly. "I don't think so."
Matt was glad Jake had brought the topic up. Matt could explain honestly to Brian that Jake had asked about it, not the other way around. In any event, Matt knew Brian would not be happy that Jake knew about Matt and Tim. But right now, it was the least of their worries.
Matt wanted to carry the limping boy into the house, but didnt want to bruise his ego by making the offer. Tim greeted them at the door.
Matt took Jake downstairs, gave him a towel, and clean set of Brian's clothes; a pair of underwear, navy blue sweats and a white T-shirt. While Jake showered, Matt made up the bottom bunk bed.
Tim appeared carrying a mug of hot chocolate.
"That's so sweet, Tim." Matt kissed him.
He kissed Matt. "I paged Bill, and marked it urgent. He should be calling back soon."
"Good idea, Tim. You are so smart. Here, put that mug down and kiss me again."
"Some way to spend your birthday," Tim commented. They took each other in an embrace and kissed passionately. Matt said a silent prayer of gratitude for Tim. He had come through once again. From paging Bill to making hot chocolate for Jake. Matt had come to depend on his strength. In times like these, Tim was more than just a housemate. Tim had learned Matt's moods, the times when he needed comfort and rest, and took over parenting duties.
Their lips parted long enough for Matt to comment, "It's after midnight, so it's not really my birthday anymore."
Jake opened the bathroom door and stood staring at the two men, who, in turn stared at him. Jake was wearing only a pair of underwear. He had planned to finish dressing outside the steamy bathroom. Both Matt and Tim caught glimpses of his smooth chest, washboard abdomen and wide shoulders. As he returned to the bathroom, both Matt and Tim viewed the bruises and lacerations across his thighs and lower back.
"My God," Tim mumbled after he shut the bathroom door behind him. "That bitch really beat the shit out of him."
Bill did call back a bit later and gave specific advice. Tim went upstairs to take the call and wrote down the instructions Bill gave while Matt ministered to Jake. Bill said he would have St. Luke's attorney petition Family Court to give Matt temporary emergency custody. Matt was to take Jake to his doctor the next day. Matt was to tell the doctor to document all the injuries and request he take pictures. Matt or Tim were to call the Illinois Child Abuse hotline and report the incident. Jake was to write down everything he could remember. And Matt had to find Jake's father, Al. He had not seen nor talked to Al since Marty's party in September. Marty might know where he was.
"I'll light the fireplace for you, Jake. It'll make it a little warmer down here."
Jake sat on the end of the bed. Prints sauntered up to him and sniffed his toes. He petted the cat's back. Prints always seem to know when the humans around him were suffering or in pain. Maybe it was the result of spending his kittenhood as a pet for emotionally needy boys. Who said cats are aloof?
After Matt lit the fireplace, he sat on the bed next to Jake.
"I-I-I didn't mean to be nosy, Matt. I just wondered about you and Tim."
"It's OK, hon." Matt regarded him in the dim light. Was he apologizing because he knew Matt was taking care of him or because he really meant it? Matt had long suspected that Jake was a sensitive soul. Underneath the carefree, macho, all-boy, supercool exterior, Matt privately thought he had a deeper, more sensitive, perhaps sentimental side that he carefully hid from his peers. His mind flashed back to the time Jake had asked for a hug on Halloween.
"How long will I stay here?"
"I honestly don't know." Matt thought I hope it's a very short stay. "It all depends on your father. Do you know where he is?"
"He's out being a faggot," Jake spat out without thinking. His eyes flew open and he stared at Matt, awaiting his reaction. He had just said it without thinking.
Anger was Matt's first reaction, but he inhaled deeply through his nostrils. Jake didn't mean it. He's tired and hurt. It just slipped out.
"It's OK, Jake. I guess your dad is kind of going through a phase right now. I think a lot of us go through it." Al was going through a second adolescence, in a sense. Matt had gone through a similar phase when he first went to ISU. Away from the scrutiny of parents for the first time, he was free to explore his sexuality. AIDS was not a concern, yet. Matt had often joked that he gave a whole new meaning to the word 'bedspread' during his college years.
"I want to stay here a long time, Matt. I don't care if you're gay."
Matt framed his reply carefully before replying. "You have parents. Your dad loves you."
"He hates me," Jake starting crying. "I asked him a million times if I could come to live with him. I knew this was going to happen. Oh, Matt," he started to sob and fell into Matt's arms.
Matt let the boy cry out his pain, fear, uncertainty, and rejection in a torrent of tears. He rocked Jake gently and stroked his still-damp hair.
When his tears subsided, Matt spoke gently to him. "Your dad really is a good guy. We were pretty close when we were in junior high, and our freshman year, but after that we kind of drifted apart. He's just going through some changes now. Maybe he's scared. Did you ever think of that?"
"Scared of what?"
"Al became a father very young. He was only seventeen when your brother was born. He never knew what it was like to live on his own and be a bachelor, make his own decisions." Matt suddenly saw a parallel between Al and his own mom. She had said exactly the same thing when she came back to Chicago.
"But why doesn't he want me to live with him?"
"I don't know, Jake."
"He doesn't love me. It's me. I'm a bad kid."
"Don't say that!" Matt said with so much emphasis, it took Jake aback. "You're a great kid. You're intelligent, and athletic and funny. You're a good friend to Brian and I know how much he appreciates you. Any parent would be proud to have you as a son."
Jake's face contorted into a mask of anguish. "Not mine. My dad won't let me live with him. And my mom beats me ."
"It's OK, Jake. She'll never do it again, I promise."
"Dont make me go back, Matt, please," he cried.
"You won't. Ever. I promise. This is your home for a while." Matt cursed his mother, but wisely kept his opinions to himself. That fucking cunt, Megan. I always hated her. She is never going to lay a hand on this boy again. If I have anything to say about it, she'll never even see him again. When they got divorced, she made it known she really didn't want custody of her two sons. Well, she's going to get her wish now, with a vengeance.
"Um, Jake. You don't have to tell me, but I'm probably going to find out sooner or later. It may help. Why did your mom hit you?"
Jake cast his eyes down and mumbled, "She caught Pam and me on the couch."
Although he certainly wasn't psychic, he knew what was coming from a mile away. It all became clear now. Megan put herself in Pam's place and envisioned her son becoming a father in eighth grade. She didn't want her son to make the same mistake, but she lost control of the situation.
"And?" Matt prompted.
"We were just kissing, honest to God, Matt." His eyes were pleading for understanding. He lowered his voice and his gaze again. "Well, OK. She had my shirt off. And her shirt was off, too. But her bra was still on," he added hastily as if that made it acceptable.
Matt didn't know whether to laugh or shake his head or scold Jake. For just a microsecond Matt thought that Pam was indeed a lucky girl to be able to explore his hairless, rippling, virile, young chest. Matt didn't want to make light of the situation thereby excusing his behavior. Yet, Jake had just engaged in normal adolescent groping.
Matt chose to change the subject, something at which he was an expert. "OK, buddy, it's time you get some sleep." He helped Jake underneath the covers. Jake grabbed him around the neck and hugged him so tightly, it almost hurt.
"I wish you were my dad, Matt."
Matt released Jake and the boy snuggled under the covers. Prints leapt onto the bed and turned around three times before settling into a furry ball at the foot of the bed. Matt was halfway to the stairs when Jake called his name.
"Are you going to tell Brian?"
"Do you want me to? Or do you want to tell him?
"Of course," Matt turned once more and his foot was on the first step when Jake called again.
"Can I ask you a question about you and Brian?"
Oh, my God. Matt thought. Here it comes. He's going to ask if we have sex.
"Do you ever kiss Brian?" Before Matt could answer, he amended himself. "Not on the lips, I mean ."
"I think I know what you mean. Sure I do, sometimes. But never in public. Brian makes sure of that. And he would be pretty upset if he knew I told you."
In a timid little voice that seemed to come from a boy half his age, Jake asked, "Would you?"
Matt's grin wasn't visible in the dim light of the fireplace. He could see Jake sitting up in bed holding his arms out. Matt embraced Jake again, stroking his hair, wishing that his hands had the power to heal his physical and emotional wounds. He took the boy's face in his hands and kissed his forehead.
"Good night, Matt."
"Sleep well, son."
The next morning, he awoke at nine, prepared coffee, showered and shaved. He was working the middle shift that Saturday from eleven to seven. The middle shift was unique to the holiday season; it was unnecessary the rest of the year. Matt knew he was not going to be much use to the store with the small amount of sleep he had gotten the previous night, so he left work at three. He left a voicemail for his district manager explaining he had a family emergency. A voice at the back of his head needled him, but he ignored it. His family needed him, and they were much more important than his job.
He called Marty, but his answering machine picked up. Matt left a request to help find Al Wagner, and asked Marty to call him at the store if he found him. Matt also left a note reminding Tim to take Jake to the doctor. He still had time to savor his coffee at the dining room table with the Saturday Tribune. Everyone else was still asleep when he left the house.
The bookstore was busy enough to help Matt forget how exhausted he was. He also forgot about Marty's return call.
When he arrived home, the three boys and Tim were attempting to do housework while they breathlessly chased each other around the house. Matt was witness to a strange ritual. On of the boys would pinch Tim's butt and yell "Snork!" Matt had no idea what was going on, but on some level it bothered him.
"Hi, hon, how was your day?"
"I feel worn out. I need some sleep."
Tommy entered the room, obviously intending to pinch Tim's ass. Tim backed himself against a wall and laughed boisterously.
"What is this snork crap?" he asked irritably.
"Oh, something they saw on TV." Tommy was still trying to pinch Tim, but he had backed himself into a corner. Tommy turned his attention to Matt.
"Snork!" He pinched Matt's rump.
"That hurt! Knock it off, Tommy!"
"I'm just playing," Tommy, obviously hurt.
"Matt's just tired," Tim scooted Tommy along. "He didn't get to sleep until ten-thirty like you did. Did you make your bed?"
"Yeah," Tommy said, exasperated.
"Good. I believe your next job is sweeping the kitchen."
Tommy stomped off, irritated that his game had been interrupted and feeling like unpaid slave labor.
"How's Jake?" Matt asked once he was out of earshot.
"Seems OK. The doctor said he's basically a healthy boy and he should recover quickly. That is, his physical wounds will heal quickly."
"And his mental wounds?"
"He seemed fine this morning. They all slept until about ten-thirty this morning, and then I took him to the doc-in- a-box. The doc prescribed some pain medication if he needs it. He seems a little down, but otherwise he's his old self. He did wander up to Brian's room in the middle of the night and slept on the floor."
"He wouldn't say. In my opinion, I think he was scared by himself in the basement."
"Did Marty call?"
"Oh, yeah, he did. I forgot to tell you."
"Did he have any news?"
"No. Or at least none that he told me. He said to try to call him after seven. He said he needed a little more time."
"I would guess he didn't find anything. Well, I need some sleep." He kissed Tim and wearily trudged upstairs.
He had two revelations as he removed his work clothes and slipped into sweatpants and a sweatshirt. First, he realized he was jealous of Tim and the boys. They were playing a game and he wasn't part of it. That stung Matt to the core. He had had his fill of being chosen last for teams all his school days. But in this situation it wasn't humiliation he felt. He did feel left out, but in a different sense. Tim and the boys had something in common he wasn't privy to. Maybe that's part of parenting. Tim is an individual just like I am. What things have I donewith the boys that Tim isn't privy to? Tim might feel left out over some things that I have done with them that he hasn't.
It's my job, my stupid job, Matt thought. If I didn't work such lousy hours and every weekend, maybe I would be around more for the kids. I certainly would enjoy that. Maybe I should have taken the downtown store, after all. Then, I'd be adding commuting time onto my work day. So, I guess it all balances out.
Without even bothering to turn down the comforter or sheets, Matt lay on top of the bed and pulled a crocheted afghan around him. He stared into the Christmas lights around the windows. Americans work too hard. We should be more like the French. They almost shut the whole fucking country down in August because everyone is on vacation.
Learning to balance work and family, he reflected just before he fell asleep, is one of the things parents have to learn.
Matt awoke hours later facing the wall. He was first aware of the darkness that had overtaken the day. He was next aware of another person under the afghan with him. He assumed it was Tim. Finally, he was aware of a full bladder.
He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, and shuffled to the bathroom. When he returned to the bedroom, the figure had pulled the covered over his head.
"Tim?" he called softly.
"I'm not Tim," an adolescent voice answered.
Matt pulled the afghan down. "What are you doing here, Jake?" He sat down on the edge of the bed next to Jake.
"I took a pain pill and it made me dopey." He looked at Matt with puppy eyes. I hope you don't mind that I crashed here."
"No, not really."
"They were being rowdy downstairs."
Matt smiled and nodded, "It's OK, Jake." He rubbed Jake's back, carefully avoiding where he imagined the hurt areas were.
"That feels good."
"I've never known anyone to turn down a backrub. How are you doing?"
"I'm OK. Did you have a chance to talk to Brian?"
"No, hon, I'm sorry."
"I want him to know," Jake said firmly. "It's only fair."
"Why is it fair?"
"I know something about him."
Matt knew immediately and instinctively what Jake was talking about. "How did you find out? Did he tell you?"
"No. I figured it out on my own, when I saw Brian and Mike together on Halloween."
That statement confirmed for Matt what he had long suspected. Jake was straight. He liked to watch football, he wasn't as fastidious about his appearance as Brian, Matt had even heard him commenting about cooking as being 'women's work.' But he had a sensitive side to him. Jake buried it deep underneath a happy-go-lucky, swaggering, macho exterior. He was a kid. In fact, even though he had two parents, Jake was perhaps as emotionally needy as Tommy or Brian.
"How do you feel about it?"
"It's cool. He's still my best friend. Just as long as he doesn't -- you know -- try anything."
Matt grinned devilishly. "And what if he did?"
"Ewww. Disgusting. Especially if he tried to kiss me."
"I kissed you last night," Matt reminded him quietly. "You asked me to."
"That was different," he said, pulling the afghan around him as if it would protect him.
"OK," Matt agreed with him. He was going to let Jake keep his illusions. It may be all he has left. Matt started to stand up.
"I need a hug," Jake pulled on his arm.
Matt gathered him in his arms. "You're a pretty neat kid, you know that?"
"Come on, smartass. Dinner should be ready."
Tim had made a homemade pizza. Actually, he assembled it. The crust had been purchased as had all the toppings. It was a big, thick, rectangular, crust that made it easy to accommodate different topping requirements. Tommy liked plain cheese pizza while Matt and Tim liked every topping they could pile on. Matt insisted that the TV be left off, and then had the audacity to suggest that they should have one meal a week together with the television off. The boys protested at first. They ate and laughed and teased each other.
It was Tommy's turn to clear the table, and as he did, Tim brought out the Monopoly board. The phone rang.
"Matt, it's Uncle Marty," Brian said as he handed Matt the phone.
Matt slapped his forehead. "I forgot all about calling him back."
"So now I'm Uncle Marty?" he said when Matt took the receiver. "And how could you forget to call me back?"
"So what did you find out?"
"That's all the greeting I get? What did you find out? Like, hi there, bend over so I can fuck you."
"Martin! You know me better than that."
"He's gone. I can't find him."
"What do you mean? He's got to be somewhere!"
"Of course, he's somewhere. But I can't find out where."
"Wasn't he in Blue Island?"
"Yeah. I called first, but his phone was disconnected. He was staying in that dumpy building on Vincennes near 127th Street. You know the one -- it used to be a no-tell motel? Well, I peered in the room where he used to live and it was vacant."
"Where could he have gone?"
"My sources say that he's still in the Chicago area. But he's hiding for some reason. No one's seen him at the 129 Club since October."
Matt pulled the cord around the corner. "Jake is going to be crushed."
"Why should he be? He's staying with the Foster Father of the Year."
Matt couldn't explain that when you want your own dad, a foster father is a poor substitute.