I gratefully thank the many authors online who have inspired me by posting their work. In trying to emulate their stories I started "Homecoming," which helped me through the hardest period of my life.
"Homecoming" is dedicated to my husband David; I began writing it before I even knew him but with his love and support he greatly influenced its direction.
Michael couldn't have asked for a more perfect end to their visit to Rueger's.
He and Jeremy giggled all the way down the front steps, then through the slush on the sidewalk, all the way across to the parking lot. Once he'd unlocked the Wrangler and they climbed inside, Michael really cut loose.
"Oh, my-" He could barely breathe for laughing so hard. "God! I couldn't look.
"But I swear it was so worth it. I never liked either of them, or them me. I could picture exactly what he was thinking and saying to her. 'Look at him! Just look what he's doing now!' The old turd."
After three fumbles with the key he finally got the car started and the heater on. Then down the icy ramp and into the street, still laughing. "God, though, I do hope I didn't offend Kelly."
Jeremy spoke up. "I bet she understood why you did it, man."
"I swear, if it wasn't against every law in the universe I'd have-" He looked over at the boy, who didn't seem to find it quite as funny. In fact it didn't really look like he'd been laughing at all. Belatedly it came to Michael that it probably it hadn't been the both of them having such a good time all along, so much as it had been just him by himself.
"You'd have done what. You'd have deep-throated Brad the way you did me," Jeremy said. He shook his head. "Dude..." He was trying to get his bag onto his lap and buckle his seatbelt at the same time.
Michael guffawed. "Given Don a heart attack! Ha!" He looked though the streaked windshield. "Okay, whew. No, you're right, that's terrible. I'm sorry, I'm just so glad that's over I don't know what I'm saying. Or where I am. We am. I mean, where are we?"
They slowed at the corner of Sixth and Woodlawn and turned east, headed toward the parkway again. At the intersection light Michael stopped the car and looked around. The gazebo on the corner was losing its shingles and needed painting. Nope, some things in the south end never did change.
And he noticed that what little traffic there had been seemed to have disappeared. The sky was dark enough, maybe everyone else knew something they didn't. Great.
"I hope it doesn't storm any more. I've about had enough snow to last me til next year."
Jeremy Hmmed from his side of the Jeep.
With only the rumble of the idling engine to distract him, Michael took a second to mentally lay out the rest of that short afternoon. He wanted to drive past his old house, see the neighborhood again. He thought he could handle that now. And he had to admit that it would be best for everyone if he at least called his parents. Not visit, no. Especially now. He realized that he hadn't really expected to see them at the service. But he hadn't sorted out how their absence made him feel.
They've kept their distance, I've kept mine. We found the perfect balance and it's always worked. We're all old dogs.
But look. Mom took the first step, and here you are better than ever. Respect that and try to repay it. Maybe it's time to try a new plan; if she hadn't called... Who knows. Call them.
Michael heard Jeremy's words from last night and chuckled to himself. The last twenty years hadn't been so bad. He had friends who were on perfect terms with their parents but still never bothered to call or visit. There were no guarantees.
His own mother and father... He couldn't cut them off again, without at least giving them the benefit of the two decades they all had under their belts. Somebody had to have learned something. There must be a pony under there somewhere.
He should call them. If he left tonight without doing that, and Don and Mary Jo were even still speaking to his parents after the way he had behaved just then... The only version of the story they'd hear would be the Shepherds'. Then it might be too late to know the effort he'd made to get to town.
On the other hand, so he'd come back. Big deal. What was he hoping to do? Impress them with that information?
No. Show them something of myself. Anything. Show them I can commit.
Jesus, get real. You think it was the commitment part they had a problem with? You want to show them something, show them-
Of course. It came to him just like that.
That nothing had changed. That no "choice" lasts twenty years and he was still who he'd always been. Their son.
That would be the test for them. Whether they were still holding on to ancient history - like Don and Mary Jo - or had moved on and were ready to keep moving, with him. Everything would depend on that.
Michael started to say Of course out loud, and explain to Jeremy what he'd realized. He glanced to his side and was startled to see the boy's blue eyes intently on him.
Jeremy blinked but held Michael's gaze. He was slumped into the passenger seat, arms over his bag, the look on his face unreadable.
"Light's green," he said, flicking his finger at the windshield.
"I know," Michael answered, although he hadn't actually noticed. He didn't press the gas. After a long moment he looked back and asked "What do you want to do now? You want to call your parents?"
Jeremy looked like he didn't know how to respond to either question. He shrugged and said "Yes. No. I don't know." He looked down at the Jeep's floorboard, or his new shoes, Michael couldn't tell.
"I guess I should call them first. I don't want it to be a complete surprise when I ring the doorbell. Only I don't want them having your cell number or license plate and getting the cops." In a low voice he finished, "I don't know, what should I do?"
With more bravery than he owned Michael said "Don't worry about me being in trouble. You just need to be, you know. Where you belong."
He turned in his seat and put his hand on the boy's knee. "Are you, um..." Michael did his best to phrase it as noncommittally as he could. "Are you ready to go back?"
With a tiny pang of something - hope, guilt - in his chest that he couldn't leave be, he added "I mean, is it too soon? If it is we can stop a second."
Prolonging the inevitable, he thought. If the funeral had been the end of it all, that would have been perfect, the cherry on the cake. But it wasn't. This was going to be the end of it.
This right here.
Let go! Don't give him want he wants, give him what he needs.
Jeremy said "Can we? That would be great." Michael heard the relief in the boy's voice and for a moment deep in his heart he hated himself. "I need to just coast for a second before I go back."
Michael sighed. Fuck. Twenty more minutes, tops. And for what?
"Okay. I want to call my mother, so long as we're here, and let her know I came even if she didn't. I think I can cover whatever we didn't say on Thursday night in about fifteen minutes."
"I'm sorry about them," Jeremy said, and Michael gave him a twisted smile. "That they didn't show, that sucks. Are you mad?"
"No, not really. That's what I was just thinking. They are who they are. Everybody is.
"But, okay... We can go over to Third and park somewhere for a while. Find you a pay phone. They're scarce as hen's teeth these days, but I've got the rest of the day to get back. I'm in no hurry. How about that?"
"Great, thanks." Michael looked up at the light. They'd sat though three or four cycles, and it was red again. He turned to Jeremy and saw he'd taken off his glasses to polish them on a Kleenex from his pocket. Leaving him looking like that, like a lost little boy without a friend in the world, again.
He made something up. "Trivia question. Do you remember what the Scarecrow says at the end of The Wizard of Oz? When he gets his diploma?"
The boy smiled a little. "Yeah, like 'The sum of the square roots, two sides of an isosceles triangle, something something the remaining side.' It's some famous formula." He sat the glasses back on his nose. "Where'd that come from?"
Michael lied. "The Pythagorean Theorem. It's been bothering me for like a month, trying to remember the quote exactly. I thought you might know."
In his head, though, he was truthful: I wanted to hear you say something adult.
The light finally changed and they drove through it. "He gets it totally wrong, you know. The formula."
"Really? I thought he was so smart all of a sudden."
Michael shook his head. "Nope. In fact he's so far off I think it was intentional. I think they were saying the same thing about brains that they were about leaders, and home. And journeys. They're what you make of them."
"Seems like a very long way around of saying something, to me. 'Specially if no one understands that's what you're doing."
In another couple of blocks the glowing red and blue sign for a gas station floated out of the gloom. Perfect, Michael thought. With everything else on his mind, he hadn't even considered getting gas since he'd been back.
"Let's stop here. I need to fill the tank before I leave town." He turned the wheel and slid the car in beside one of the pumps. When they'd stopped he killed the engine and reached into his top coat pocket for his wallet. Instead his fingers touched the envelope Kelly and Brad had given him at the funeral home.
Oh. God, I'd almost forgotten that.
To Jeremy he said "Do me a favor?"
Michael found his wallet further in and dug two twenties and a single out if it. "Tell them inside I want this much. And there's a phone." He gestured to the right of the sliding front doors on the little building. "Get change for the one, and call your folks."
"Okay. Can I get a snack too, please? I'm kinda starving."
Michael peeled off another five and added it to the pile. "Sure. And if you finish with your call..." He reached in and pulled out the envelope. For some reason the thing felt lighter than before. Jeremy saw it and obviously understood.
"Stay inside a few more minutes. Please. I think I might need a moment alone."
"Okay. I'll take my time." He got out and Michael watched him cross the parking lot, his hands deep in the letterman's jacket. He passed a woman coming out of the station carrying a bundled-up baby, and disappeared inside.
Michael took a very deep breath and pulled his keys out of the ignition, to get to the little Swiss Army knife he kept on them as a fob. With his thumbnail he unlocked the knife blade and carefully slid it along the top edge of the envelope.
It was very quiet in the car suddently. Michael snapped the blade back in, pushed the key into the ignition and turned it one click. Heat slowly filled the Jeep again. In the back of his mind he heard the speaker on the pump say something about filling up.
All right... He drew three sheets of typing paper, folded together into thirds, from the envelope. Something hidden inside them dropped into his lap, a smaller piece of paper or cardboard. He closed his fist around that and then spread the letter open onto the steering wheel where he could read it.
Handwriting he immediately recognized appeared in front of him and he smiled ruefully. Square letters, in straight neat rows almost like they'd been drawn across a ruler's edge. Michael had written enough reports with Billy, looked over his shoulder often enough, to know they hadn't been.
First was the date, September 17, 2006. Only two months ago.
The first word on the page had been crossed through.
- Mikey. Sorry, I've been looking people up online all week, and your name in the White Pages, like any other adult's, is Michael. To me you'll always be Mikey tho.
Mike. I saved your letter for last, and it's about midnight, so I hope I'm still making some sense. Writing these things has been exhausting, but I'm old enough and lost enough friends and family to know that you always wish you could go back in time and have that one last talk with someone who's not there anymore. Think of this that way.
You're the oldest friend I have on Earth, Mike. There aren't enough words in my head or heart to say how much you mean to me. I loved you once, and still do deep inside. That we broke up seems beside the point now. It was so long ago, and there was so much that was good between us before that, I feel like not counting that part. So there. I don't. We didn't break up.
Yeah, yeah. Forget I said that. I knew the medication would start to talk for me.
Okay, we broke up. But really so what? It's not that, so much, as it is that I haven't been able to even see you since 1984. And believe me, there were entire months I spent wishing I could look into your beautiful eyes again or hold your hand. Nothing in my life has ever hurt me as much as losing you. It was all I could do to stop myself from going back up to your room and telling you I'd go with you. I stood down there forever. I hated you so much for leaving me.
And I never could hate you. So no, I don't count the break-up. Sue me. Just try.
Here's some history: After you left, what I'd always feared happening was what I actually made happen. I went and enrolled myself at Dad's school, over his strenuous objections, which is funny since he'd been threatening me with it for a week. But he always bragged it was school that made him so smart and so tough, and sure enough it worked on me too. The tough part, mainly.
I put together what I learned in my business classes, what I already knew about computers, all Dad's business contacts, and a shitload of his money, and I started my own company reconditioning and repairing and selling computers. It did really well, by the way, since I already knew so much about Macs and PCs. Hard to believe those things were both so new back then.
I planned it all as a way of telling Dad to go screw himself once I made the big time. But he ended up so proud of me, and me of myself, that in the end we actually got a little closer. A little. I think he even managed to convince himself I never went through that whole unfortunate gay "phase".
I did my best to keep tabs on you over the years, which wasn't easy before Google, let me tell you. When my parents and yours finally started talking again - when your mom and mine met in the bathroom at Bacon's, and isn't that a conversation you'd like to have overheard - then I got to hear how you were doing, professionally anyway, and I always thought about taking a day trip and looking you up, but I never found the nerve. I'll always be sorry I didn't. Altho by then I'd moved on, anyway.
Which is my incredibly subtle way of saying that I got married, by the way. To a woman. Surprise! If you weren't keeping tabs on me, that's how that turned out, and no one was more shocked than I was. More ecstatic, yes. My father gave us our house in Crescent Hill as a wedding present, and Mom was practically the only babysitter Brad ever knew.
Oh right, we had a son, too. Bradley. You hear about lives spinning around 180 degrees, but this was ridiculous. It always happens to other people, but never to you... It was like waking up one morning and finding out I was left-handed instead or suddenly had red hair. One day girls turned me on instead of guys and I had to say, Hey, I'm straight now, how weird. Simple as that.
All kidding aside, Kelly is and has been the greatest. She's an angel, I don't deserve her, and everybody knows it. She's heard all about you and one day she may show up at your door with some things to discuss. Good things, I swear! She might thank you, for instance, for helping to put me on the straight and narrow. Pun intended.
Kelly and Brad are my rocks; she keeps me stable and he is like a little slice of me grown in a Petri dish, poor guy. Although I hope he's got enough of Kelly's hard head in him to counteract whatever genetic material he inherited from me.
Everything they say about marriage is true, by the way, which I really hope isn't big news to you. There are still a few things you can't find out even with Google. I'd be so happy to hear you were with someone who's as great as you are.
That brings you and me mostly up to date, Mikey. I don't want to talk about the last six months, because, well I just don't want to. Life happens to you. I'm concentrating on the here and now, and here and now we're just two old friends talking. As many of these as I've written by now, I'm enjoying this one the most, imagining you sitting there reading it one day soon.
I have one more thing to share with you, buddy, and it's something I've never told anyone, even Kel. But I could always tell you anything, and this seems like the time, so here goes.
You remember how we met. I don't know why you wouldn't, we talked about it enough over the years. What I remember most about that day was how miserable it was, raining cats and dogs. I saw you sitting in that bus shelter on the other side of Bardstown Road and said to myself, Self, there's Mike Shelton. I bet he just saw "Star Wars" too, and you know for all those people in the theater who were there in groups, or with their parents, or with boyfriends and girlfriends, looks like he saw it alone.
And that made me kind of sad. I mean, not too sad, since you AP assholes all hated me and made class a living hell every single day of the week. But still pretty sad. I knew what it was like to really love something and see what made it special, that maybe no one else saw. My guess was that's how you felt about the movie, but you were sitting there all by yourself in the rain with no one to share it with. So I crossed ten lanes of traffic because I felt sorry for you.
Bet you never knew that, huh? The biggest nerd in the county wanting to help you out. Like Andrew Ridgely giving George Michael lessons in, well, you name it. Anything. And of course you did your best to cut me off at the knees, before you came to your senses and ran after me. And returned the favor by changing the course of my life. I'm not joking. If there was ever anything that rescued yours truly from becoming Don Shepherd Jr., it was just being my friend. I love you even more for doing that.
I know how you think, Mikey. Don't feel sorry for me, and don't be too hard on yourself for what happened. It was was half my fault too, and how many times did you save my soul before then? A certain trip to King's Island comes to mind.* You did what you had to. We all did, and everything came out right in the end. It's not like feeling bad will make any difference now.
I love you, Michael. Like the brother I never had. But wanted to. Again and again, in every room of the house and twice in the kitchen. Boy am I going to be in trouble if Kelly ever reads that.
Be good. Hang tough. Take care of yourself, and everyone around you. You always did.
See you again one day (maybe).
Bill / Billy Shepherd
There was another paragraph at the bottom of the second sheet, and Michael had to squint through watery eyes to make out the words. They weren't as neat as the others and were bunched together, like they'd been put down in more of a hurry.
*So long as we're being honest, Scotty Kessinger as near as possible raped my ass that weekend. Is it just me or was it always raining when we were younger? Anyway, I was sure you knew, but it always bothered me afterwards that you might think I didn't trust you with that information. You know, the same way I didn't trust our parents or anyone else in the world. I trust you. Bye.
Michael was a mess for a good long time, bawling into the sleeve of his coat so hard he drowned out the knocking sound he finally heard coming from the passenger side of the Jeep. He turned his head to see Jeremy standing outside in the cold and shivering. He reached over to push the door open. He'd covered his coat sleeve in snot and tears.
"Come on, get in," he managed to choke out. When the boy was safe inside, Michael popped the glove compartment and found the wrapped square of kleenex he kept there. He pulled them out one by one and mopped himself up.
Jeremy watched all this silently. Michael, still sniffling, refolded the letter with care and put it back in the envelope. He realized he'd been holding his fist closed all this time and remembered that something had fallen out when he first opened Billy's message. He kept his hand tight, not sure he wanted to see the thing quite yet. He was sure he knew what it was anyway.
The boy cleared his throat. "I'm sorry I interrupted, man, but the manager in there was looking at me funny the longer I stood inside without buying anything more. I know he thought I was gonna steal something."
Michael laughed a little through his tears. "You didn't, I was finished." He wiped his eyes with the last of the kleenex and stuffed everything in his coat pocket. "Sorry I left you out in the cold."
"Wasn't long. It is a little cooler with less hair covering me, though." Jeremy gestured at the letter as he laid it on the driver's side of the dashboard. "Your friend had a lot to say?"
"Yeah, he did. I guess he wrote to all his friends and family, knowing... Knowing." Michael sat up straight and looked outside. If he wasn't mistaken, that was more snow, tiny flakes of it appearing like magic on the Jeep's windshield.
What must it be like in Indy right now. What it will be like the rest of this winter? I dread to think. Does it just get colder the longer you live? What a thing to look forward to.
Driving back tonight will be even better than coming down here the first time, if all that mess has thawed and refrozen. 65 will be like a freaking skating rink. All that effort, all that way...
"Did you call your parents?"
Jeremy nodded. "Yeah. They're expecting me, whenever. They were..." He didn't finish his sentence.
Michael laid his hand on the dashboard and let himself enjoy the heat coming out of it onto his fingers, which touched the letter laying there. He had a thought. Then another, which told him he only wanted to prolong things again, then a third.
"Would you like to read Billy's letter?"
In a quiet voice Jeremy asked "Really? Do you want me to?"
Michael weighed his words before he answered. "Yes. I haven't been a hundred percent sure, this whole trip, why I was even coming to Louisville. I'm still not. I mean, I loved Billy." He took the letter down and offered it to the boy.
"I guess I want to share why. Why this weekend happened. Everything's been so crazy, I want someone else to see it too, to tell me all this was worth it, when it's over and there's nothing left of it.
"And, you said you weren't sure why you wanted to come. Maybe this will help."
Jeremy nodded and took the envelope from him. He unfolded the sheets once again and held them into the grey light coming through his window. As he read he hmmed once or twice, and laughed softly toward the end of it.
He finished, lingering over the last words, and handed it over to let Michael reassemble it. After the letter was safe inside again he dropped the ticket stub in after it. With the envelope back on the dashboard the boy turned to face him.
"I-" they both started to say at the same time, and laughed. Michael pointed at Jeremy. "You first."
The kid slowly shook his head. "I don't know what I was gonna say. Probably something like 'I'm sorry' again, I don't know. About Billy. That was pretty heavy." He folded his hands in his lap and concentrated on flipping the tab on his jacket's zipper, up and down. "Now you."
Michael reached over and took the boy's hand in his. In the most serious voice he could manage, he said "I hate when people do that. The noise drives me nuts."
Jeremy, who'd looked up into his eyes at the touch, barely cracked his single laugh and pushed the older man's hand away. But in a second his lip started to tremble and his breath caught.
"I don't, want you to hate me." He frowned and looked away.
Startled, Michael begged "Oh, don't, please. I shouldn't joke so damn much." He put his finger to the boy's cheek, to divert the first tear. "I'm so through with crying I feel like never saying the word again."
Jeremy cleared his throat and shrugged Michael's hand away. "I'm not crying, okay?" Which seemed to be true, although the effort showed. "What do I even have to cry about?"
"I'm sorry-" Another word he was getting sick of. He sighed. "I don't know. Was it the stuff Billy said? What did you think?"
"I'm processing it. Sheila would be proud of me." Jeremy paused and ran his fingers though his shorter hair and then covered his eyes for a second. When he'd collected himself he meaningfully asked "What did you think?"
Michael had been wondering the same thing, but he'd been too busy falling apart to put it into words so far. "I'm happy. For him, that his life went so well and he found someone to love."
He grudgingly admitted "Jealous that he made himself a family. And guilty, for not bothering to look him up like he did me. Amazed. He went straight. I thought only Lesbians did that." Michael rubbed his hands together and upped the Jeep's heat one notch.
"And... impressed, that even when he knew he was dying it seems he was at peace. That was not the guy I used to know. So, mostly happy."
Jeremy turned his head and looked out toward the gas station doors. Michael wondered, if they'd really been suspicious of the kid earlier, what they must think of him and a grown man, just sitting out here in an idling car and not filling up. He'd do it in another minute.
Michael followed the boy's gaze and saw the snow was coming down harder. There were tiny piles of it atop the windshield wipers and catching in the angles of the Jeep's hood.
From some distance away Jeremy said, "Did you mean what you said a minute ago, about whether all this was worth it, and that there'd be nothing left of it? That was a little harsh, man."
Michael sighed. "Come on, you know what I meant." Jesus, not an argument, not now. It seemed as good a time as any to get out of the car and take care of business.
He buttoned his coat and said "I'll be back in a minute."
He did his best to think of something to say in the two cold steps to the gas tank. But while his back was turned, the boy scooted to the driver's side and rolled the window down.
His voice came through the frigid air. "Waiting."
Michael unscrewed the cap and stuck the pump's nozzle into the car. When the gas was flowing he answered without looking up. "Fine, I did and didn't mean that. It was worth it. It was.
"Hey." In the rearview mirror the boy glanced back and their eyes finally met. "It was worth it. Sincerely. As for it being over and done with, well."
He made himself sound as light as he could. "I'm going to get in touch with my parents and all, make it back to Louisville again before 2025. But yeah, truthfully what's going to be left?"
For a second all he heard was the tick of the pump and the tires of cars going by out on Third. "You are so dense," Jeremy said in a very small voice. "You and me."
The damn wind had picked up again. Had he heard- "What did you say? 'You and me'? Is that was this is about?"
"Yeah, and? Is that so hard?" The boy turned around in the driver's seat to watch him. God, teenagers and their moods.
Michael said "Come on, Jeremy. As of right now, 'you and me' means, call the next time you want to talk. Call collect! Hell, if you can, come up. Kevin'll give you a ride-"
"That's not what I meant, God."
Michael frowned and watched his breath leave him in a white stream. The cold was making his head hurt. That or something else. "I don't understand. I said it was worth it. I am truly grateful we spent the weekend together. I'd have gone crazy up there alone with nothing but my thoughts for company.
"But now we're going home. What more is there? In fact you're here already. You can be home in ten minutes, lucky you. I'm sure your parents will be thrilled to see you."
"You don't know my parents."
"Only what you've told me, but I know how I'd feel if someone I l-" Michael bit down on his tongue. "I know how I'd feel if you disappeared from my life and, and just showed up again five days later."
"I'm not disappearing from your life."
There was something about the emphasis the boy put on "your" that hit him. "I am pretty sure it's mutual disappearing we're talking about here. Regardless, I'm as sorry as you are the weekend's over, Jeremy."
"No, you aren't, Michael." He all but spat out his name.
"What? I am too."
"You are not. Know how I know? You're the one leaving. I'm not."
Michael's breath caught in his throat. He wasn't sure how he must have looked just then, but he sure knew how he felt. Like he was having a stroke or a heart attack, hearing those words thrown at him so carelessly. Again.
The boy's eyes, on him in the mirror, got wider when he saw his reaction.
Michael couldn't help himself, he leaned back against the fabric of the Jeep's soft top. He needed to remove the gas pump nozzle from the car, it was full, but suddenly he didn't have the strength to lift it out. Shit. Shit!
In a daze he heard the driver's door unlock and looked up to see it swing open. Jeremy stepped down and hooked his bag over his shoulder. If he'd even felt like trying, Michael couldn't have read his expression.
The boy slammed the door shut and took a step toward Michael. His face was a stormcloud. "What, did Billy say that to you, back in the day?"
Michael started to answer, but Jeremy quickly added "Don't worry, I'm sure in twenty years I'll forgive you too."
Michael waited for the moment to pass, for his vision to stop swimming.
I don't believe it. I feel like disappearing and never talking to anyone on this goddamn planet, ever again. I think I'm finally making some kind of connection, and this is what happens - I completely fuck it to hell. Maybe it's a blessing I only hook up with guys who can't express themselves, if this is the alternative.
What did I do? What have I done to deserve all of this? What?!
"You know, I'm sorry for that sounding so mean." Jeremy shoved the hair away from his eyes. "I was mad."
Michael laughed weakly. "And you aren't now? Well great."
"Sheila taught me to count ten when I'm angry, and then only say sentences that begin 'I,' not 'You.' There's a lot of rules to follow for when you're too mad to know what you're doing."
Jeremy pulled his jacket up to around his ears and shoved one hand into his pocket. "Twenty years is a long frigging time. If I-" he pointed at himself to stress he was following Sheila's rule "-was you though, I think I'd-" he pointed at the older man "-ask why guys kept saying that to me."
Jeremy backed away, still facing him, until he was past the front of the car. He looked across the distance separating them and said "Goodbye, Michael."
And then took off across the blacktop. In a second he was gone, on the sidewalk and headed up Third.
Michael, his heart attack or whatever slowly easing, watched Jeremy take longer and longer strides away from him. The boy's legs worked and he got further away with every angry step. In a second he'd disappear from sight completely into the snow and early evening.
The person he'd spent the better part of three days alone with, incredibly intimate with. Listening to, talking to. Sharing time and secrets with, being inside of, having inside him...
Leaving Michael standing alone, in a city that once again felt like it was rejecting him.
Things couldn't end this way.
Fifty feet up the street, Michael found his voice and shouted "Jeremy!" Ahead of him he saw the blue letterman's jacket stop and turn to face him. Something in the boy's shoulders told the man he'd been expecting to be followed.
Michael jogged up until a stitch under his ribs wouldn't let him go any further. He stopped and bent over, all but clutching the hot spot in his side. Age was indeed a bitch.
The street beside them was full of slow-moving cars, running lights and headlights a continuous flow as it got darker. The two of them, fifteen feet apart, had the long wet sidewalk to themselves. Michael the creature of habit said the first thing that came to his mind, once he could breathe.
"We've got to stop... meeting like this."
Jeremy looked back at him and smirked a little, shook his head. Nothing more.
The wind whipped the hair off his forehead and Michael saw the ghost of a mark there, the last reminder of their meeting on Friday.
He knew there was nothing keeping the kid there long, despite all they'd been through. Because of it, possibly. After all that who in their right mind wouldn't run home as fast as they could?
He straightened and then continued their conversation as if there'd been no break in it. "How can you blame me for what I said," he began, "when you told me yourself yesterday that you wanted to go back home? Did I misunderstand you? Yes, I'm the one leaving." He waved his arm vaguely north. "Am I supposed to stay? For what?"
Jeremy squinted against the snow coming down in handfulls from the sky. He shrugged the bag off his shoulder and caught its strap in his hand, then set it on the ground. "I asked what the letter meant to you."
"And you completely ignored what Billy said in it."
Michael shook his head. "What? I don't think so."
"I think you did, you just can't see." Jeremy pointed a finger at him. "You felt like you owed your friend something, a debt of some kind." Michael nodded. "But he says right there, in so many words, you didn't owe him anything-"
"He had no way of knowing how I felt-"
Jeremy shook his head, hard. "Doesn't matter, man. It was his to let go of. If there's a debt, he said it's his to you, for straightening him out."
"He didn't owe me shit, Jeremy. We were together for seven great years, some of the best times I've ever had."
"Huh, then you two were even all that time. What's not to understand?"
"You don't know our history, how complicated it was."
"Oh my God, I've been listening to it all weekend! And I've heard both sides now, so I know I'm right. You were both crazy for each other, and you broke up, and that can be really hateful and sad. But you know what I never heard?"
Michael snorted. "What, doctor?"
"Blame. You'd forgiven each other already, so what was there for anybody to forgive?"
Michael must not have looked completely convinced. Out of the blue Jeremy said "I have another three movies for you."
"Huh? That isn't too damn weird right now. And it's not your turn anyway."
"It's relevant, since we love movies so much," Jeremy assured him. "I thought of it in the car before, but then I thought you wouldn't like it. Now I don't want it to go to waste."
Michael raised his eyebrows and waited. Jeremy let his bag's strap drop to the ground so he could blow into both hands, then he counted the titles off on his fingers. "V for Vendetta, Places in the Heart, and Longtime Companion. Think about it."
Michael's brain refused to cooperate in the cold. "I don't know."
"You're not trying. Think. You have to-"
"Okay, okay," Michael interrupted. Good lord, it was pretty obvious. Their endings.
Those who were gone, back again as if they'd never left. Everyone together, at peace, and the worst all forgiven.
"I've got it. I do. Very clever, doctor."
"You know, if you can call yourself a hair stylist, then you better believe I'm a doctor. A fully-licensed therapist, after dealing with your butt. Maybe none of those movies meant anything to you."
"Sure they did. So what?"
The cold wind skirted them both, carrying snowflakes along and abruptly sprinkling them around, stirring the trees lining the street, cementing them to the sidewalk. No one moved.
They stared each other down until Michael finally said "What does any of this have to do with the price of tea and tulips? What is your point exactly? Tell me, if I wasn't paying attention-"
Jeremy brushed his hair behind his ear. "It isn't that. Look, you're the one who's been talking all mystical about this weekend. If you didn't owe Billy anything, or he owe you, if everything was already forgiven... Then there must've been another reason for you being here, right?"
"You, for example?" The boy nodded, his eyes on Michael. "You're not a substitute for him, I said that already. And if I ever thought I could help you somehow, I convinced myself I was wrong."
"I didn't need any help. No more than you saving my ass at the mall, and then giving me a lift. That was more than enough. Once upon a time you cut yourself loose and made it, why couldn't I?"
"You're so young..."
"Are you kidding? You were the same age!"
Michael put up his hand. His fingertips were turning blue. "Fine. Then looking at you now I see how young I must have been, then."
"You still made it. And so will I. God, I'm not Ashley Judd, and I don't need you to be Morgan Freeman for me. All I want-" He glanced over toward the traffic, at the cars going by and throwing their lights onto the two of them, standing there.
"Tell me! Tell me what you need. I'm going to freeze to death out here, and never know why. Just say it!"
Jeremy looked steadily back at Michael. "I thought for one second I'd take a chance again, with you. Everything seemed so right, like it was meant to be. We connected. And you made all that noise about the stuff you were hoping for, karma..."
"News bulletin: I talk a lot of bullshit."
"Fine, it was bullshit. But either way, I feel like what you're doing now is forgetting that things mean things and you're throwing me away!" Michael flinched. "Like you do every other guy."
Michael clenched his fists inside his coat pockets. Whatever else he'd expected to hear the boy say, that hadn't been it, although the accusation found its mark in his chest well enough.
Helplessly, he cried out "Oh, fuck me, Jeremy! So things didn't work out. Life goes on. Why is every goddamn thing so permanent to children?"
"Hey! I'm not a child! Why is everything so temporary to you?"
"Experience. I'm not the brightest or sharpest, insert whatever clichÃ©. I admit it, I'm stupid, and I mean about a lot of things. My track record speaks for itself."
He pointed a finger at the kid's chest. "And you, get this good, are twenty-two years younger than me! Whether it's right or wrong doesn't matter. I don't drive past Indiana University every day and think to myself, 'Boy, I've gotta get me one of those!' We had a good time - no, a goddamn great time, and that's all it had to be. If it meant..."
"I don't know what you want, any more than I do anybody else. You can't expect me to know everybody else's business, when I hardly even know what I'm doing myself."
Was that clear enough? Maybe not.
"Tell me. Please, Jeremy."
Michael pulled his coat as close around him as he could and waited to see what would happen next. He felt exhausted, like the walk back to the station would be too much to take, and on top of everything else it came to him that he'd left the car sitting at the pump. What he hell would they do when they noticed?
What was he going to do?
Well, just shut up.
Jeremy hunched his shoulders up to his ears and shut his eyes. He licked his lips and said, "This isn't fair. I'm not you. I've never done any of this stuff before, and the one time I tried, I completely screwed it up."
He reached down and picked his bag off the sidewalk. It looked like he was getting ready to leave. "I just kept hoping you would talk me out of staying, say the magic words I wanted to hear and take me away from Louisville. I kept thinking it would mean more that way. I gave you every chance, but your mind was always totally elsewhere."
He shrugged. "What have I got to lose, right? What's left?" Almost to himself he added, "Just this."
The boy walked up five paces until Michael had no choice but to look directly into those beautiful sky-blue eyes. They stood out all the more, he could only think, because of the color the sky actually was that day.
Jeremy made himself as tall as he could and put his jaw into the wind, every inspirational film's image of the man who steps up to the plate, the quarterback just before the big play. Jimmy Stewart on the floor of the Senate. His black hair ruffled and collected more snowflakes.
They were close enough to touch. Close enough for Michael to hear, and remember, every word. For the rest of his life.
"What I need is you, Michael. If you were in a class of mine I think I'd take a chance, wait until everyone else had left and ask you out. If I saw you at McDonald's I'd love to think I'd have the balls to ask if I could sit at your table. I'd make a joke at the theater, or say something deep at a museum, or flirt with you at work. There's a thousand ways it could've happened, but this was what we got." He hefted the bag's strap over his shoulder and put his hands into his jacket pockets.
"This. Was. It." He smiled. "And you were right, it was totally worth it. But if your trip meant something to you, all I want is the same thing. Tell me what my trip meant.
"Tell me-" Jeremy turned his head and burst into tears, so fast Michael couldn't have seen it coming. The older man reached out and pulled the boy to his chest, felt the racking force of those sobs cross into him. On the street someone yelled something obviously aimed at them but the wind carried it away.
Though Jeremy's cries Michael heard "Tell me it was you."
Michael whispered into his ear.
Fifteen minutes later the Jeep was headed north on the interstate, flying like there was nothing holding it down. It crossed the busiest of the bridges into Indiana and just kept going, headlong into the snowstorm stalled over the southern half of the state. It made three stops on its trip that early evening: one for food, one for a bathroom break, and a final one at the mall in Edinburgh. There it parked at the music store, and remained for about forty-five minutes. Considering the conditions, there must have been a good reason. A promise, maybe.
Afterwards it rejoined the interstate and continued on.
Anyone familiar with I-65 knows that it is one long stretch of concrete connecting Louisville, Kentucky, and Indianapolis, Indiana. Between the two cities lie several popular attractions - outlets, factories, arts venues, smaller towns - but none of them are nearly as important. Michael Shelton, who had nothing but good dreams about his friend Billy Shepherd from that day on, was once born and later lived at opposite ends of the interstate. He had driven up and down the miles of road hundreds of times, and in the future he'd travel 65 hundreds more.
Now, when he did, he would see so much more of it...
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