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Indiscretion Runs in the Family

by Nico Grey

The strains of holiday hymns radiating from the church organ followed us out into the chill night air and for most of the half-mile walk home. The soft golden light that seemed to suffuse the interior of St. Peter's church each year for this particular Mass was complemented by the joyful, golden music. A sense of peace still echoed in our hearts.

Midnight Mass at St. Peter's had become a Christmas Eve tradition in our family. So was the walk home through the chilly December night air. Our path was gently illuminated by rows of bag candles that were set out by the Covenant Congregational Church each year, lining both sides of the streets that made up the heart of our town.

My father and mother led the way, my youngest brother Mark in my father's arms, while Ronan and I kept pace behind them. The festive Christmas Eve Mass, and the sense of love and belonging that it brought us, bound our family together in a shared sense of peace and tranquility as we passed the homes of friends and neighbors.

That beautiful Christmas service, and the picture postcard images of the walk home through our small town of Covenant, Vermont, hearkened back in my memory to a simpler time; to a time when I was younger and our family was still the center of my world. I immersed myself in the memory of those feelings, content to enjoy that childlike sense of security in the arms of my family for the duration of the holiday season.

I noticed my father shifting Mark in his arms, looking for a comfortable position to carry the five-year-old. A few hundred feet farther down the street he turned to me.

" Can you carry Marky the rest of the way home, Gil? One of us is getting a little too old to keep doing this for much longer." He grimaced apologetically.

Mark stirred in Dad's arms as he was transferred to me. "Gil's going to carry you the rest of the way, Malarkey. He'll make sure you get home safe and snug in your warm bed."

Mark nodded sleepily and offered a weary smile at the familiar nickname as he reached toward me. Perhaps it was just the afterglow from the Mass, but it felt good to be responsible for my youngest brother.

I fell back into step beside Ronan. He cast an inscrutable glance in our direction as we resumed our journey. Light snow continued to fall in the soft golden illumination from the bag candles, presenting a scene that deserved to be captured in a snow globe.

We strolled up Main Street until we reached a white, two-story, Federalist-style home, one of the oldest surviving buildings in Covenant. There was a sign out front that read "Francis X. Kane, Esq. Attorney at Law". We were home.

That sign on the front lawn was a fairly new addition. Less than a year ago, my father decided to leave his job working for a Brattleboro law firm to hang out his own shingle. He and Mom had faith in the reputation he had earned over the past nine years, both in the courtroom and in our community. Mark would soon be starting kindergarten, and to them it felt like the right time to invest their savings in themselves and in their dreams.

Mom and Dad were confident that there was enough money already in my college fund to ensure my education when I graduated high school in three years. They had also made a good start on Ronan's college savings. Mark's high school graduation would be another eight years after Ronan's. Dad's reputation as a skilled lawyer and a person that people could rely on would provide for Mark when that time came.

So Dad had given his notice to the partners at his law firm. He and Mom had consulted with building contractors. The ground floor of our house was divided, half for a family living room, kitchen and dining room, the other half for Dad's office and a waiting room for clients. Mom became his legal secretary. Covenant had its first lawyer practicing in town in almost two decades.

The renovations downstairs meant that the familiar Christmas layout through the living room and recreation room would be shoehorned into a single room this year. The family would be dining in the kitchen, with the old dining room now Dad's personal office. We were adjusting to the new arrangement.

There had also been some changes upstairs. Ronan and I hadn't shared a bedroom for a couple of years, some minor indiscretions on my part at that time having made clear to Dad that I needed my own space. Now Dad needed the fourth room on the second-floor for a library and storage for his law practice. Mark and Ronan would have to share a room until I left for college. Mark wasn't unhappy with the arrangement. Ronan was tolerating it, perhaps not so well.

Arriving home, we took a few moments to enjoy the view of Covenant's main street and our own cheerful holiday decorations inside the house. Then we bustled upstairs to prepare for dreams of sugarplums and... whatever else it is you dream about on Christmas Eve.

Somehow or other I managed to get Mark up the stairs and into his bed. Ronan continued to eye us with an opaque expression on his face.

The sun hadn't even risen Christmas morning before Mark was bouncing on my bed, insisting that it was time I get everyone up to open our presents. I'm not sure why he thought that was my responsibility.

While I tried to calm him down, I also thought to temper his expectations a bit. I knew that Mom and Dad would do their best to make it a wonderful Christmas, especially for Mark. But I also understood the pressures that opening Dad's own law practice has put on our family finances.

Mom and Dad were fairly open about money matters. I had told both of them privately that I didn't need much for Christmas, if they wanted to spend more on Ronan and Mark. It made me feel good to act so responsibly. And I figured that was the sort of self-sacrifice that Mom and Dad would reward me for in the long run. I was growing up. But I wasn't entirely beyond looking out for myself a little.

I kept Mark entertained for almost an hour before there was just no containing his excitement. When I heard Ronan moving around in their room across the hallway, I figured it was time to bring my brothers downstairs.

Mark was burning with enthusiasm to tear into the presents, so I distracted him with breakfast. Mom and Dad aren't big on sugary cereals, but I thought they might forgive me for filling Mark's bowl full of Corn Pops a couple of times if it allowed them to sleep longer. Besides, they bought the cereal. It only made sense to use it.

I poured orange juice, toasted some bread, and put out peanut butter, strawberry jam and some fruit when Ronan finally slipped into the kitchen. He ate quietly, without much evidence of interest in what was waiting for us under the tree in the living room.

When Mark was finished with his cereal, and there was still no sign of Mom and Dad, I switched to Plan C. We each had a Christmas stocking full of candy, fruit and small presents to keep us entertained while the adults slept longer. It was a Kane Christmas tradition.

Another Kane tradition was family holiday stories. I started with the familiar story of the child born far away in a manger, then moved on to the legend of the little bologna that Mom and Dad brought home from the hospital five years ago ... at least that's what Mom's older brother, our Uncle Moishe, had called it. Dad had pointed out that the Irish prefer the term 'malarkey' to 'baloney' and that was the origin of Dad's favorite nickname for the little guy. Of course, once Mark started talking, he demonstrated a talent for telling some pretty wild stories to get Mom and Dad's attention, so he probably would have earned the nickname anyway.

Ronan didn't seem too eager to hear another telling of his beginning, so I kept the story brief. A mother home alone in an inexpensive students' apartment, a second child due any day. A father taking the final exam for his undergraduate Constitutional Law class when word reached the anxious man that his wife was on her way to the hospital. Dad receiving the result for his exam several days later, with the professor's suggestion that a legal career might not be the best match for his abilities. But a beautiful baby boy- it was awfully hard to read Ronan's reaction to that description- already waiting for him at home, spurred the father to work even harder thereafter to make sure that he would be able to provide well for his wife and his two sons.

I wasn't entirely certain which version of my immaculate conception would be appropriate. But Mom and Dad still hadn't made their appearance. So I used my own discretion, relating the story of Francis "Freeway Frank" Kane and his secret high school sweetheart, Ruthie Cohen, speeding up and down state highways in western Massachusetts until he could find the perfect secluded location to show her how much he loved her.

The outcome, nine months later, wasn't the social catastrophe it might have been thirty years earlier. But both Frank and Ruthie left for the University of Massachusetts under a cloud, the product of their indiscretion back in Pittsfield being cared for by Ruthie's parents until the young couple could become well enough established at the University to care for their own child.

Perhaps that version of the story was a bit passive-aggressive ... but it was already nine o'clock, with Mom and Dad were still nowhere in sight! Besides, it was an honest version of the story and I was already old enough to believe that truth confronted directly was a better foundation for coping with life than sweet fictions.

Together, those stories made us; our own beginnings, the beginning and growth of our family, and the origin story of the faith in which our lives were grounded.

Three hours later, we were recovering from the Christmas carnage. Mark was overjoyed but completely exhausted. Ronan was quietly contemplating a collection of Christmas gifts from Mom, Dad, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. Mom and Dad had gifts from us and from each other. Mom's gift to Dad was a paper shredder for his new law office. After sixteen years together the romance still hadn't died!

I had my own gifts from the relatives and a few smaller items from Mom and Dad. The most confusing gift I got that day was Mom and Dad's thanks for taking care of my brothers and helping to make their Christmas a special day. They told me they were proud of the man I was becoming. To my dismay, that felt like an even better gift than any material presents they might have bestowed. Perhaps they were right. But I still enjoyed being a kid!

I had a warm feeling in my heart as I glanced around the living room and took in the various forms of contentment on display. A lot of it was the result of my choices and of my efforts. Knowing that felt good. But realizing that I had probably left behind the kind of childish enjoyment that Mark and Ronan could still feel, created a tiny bit of sorrow inside me, too.

The clock struck one at the same instant the doorbell rang. I was suddenly reminded that I was still dressed in pajamas, old bathrobe and ratty slippers, so I was looking for a place to hide.

Mom and Dad glanced toward me expectantly. New, mature me understood that responsibility trumped the image that I might prefer to present to the outside world... that was rudely interrupting out family Christmas barely an hour after midday!

I opened the door and was greeted by Ronan's best friend, Liam Grant, and his sister Ashley. Liam was a fixture in our home, although less so in recent months. Ashley was absolutely the most beautiful girl in my high school class. I couldn't recall any time she had ever visited before. Doing the responsible thing suddenly felt like an extremely poor decision!

Ashley grinned at my appearance, but it was a friendly enough kind of grin. She looked me up and down briefly as I gathered my dignity and stood aside so she and Liam could enter. I led them into the living room. For an instant I saw Ronan's eyes brighten before an anxious expression crossed his face. Ashley seemed to notice, too.

Mom and Dad were delighted to see Ashley and Liam. Mark was, too. Ronan also seemed happy, but still conflicted. I couldn't figure out why.

After an exchange of pleasantries, Liam presented Ronan with a carefully wrapped gift. The two of them gravitated toward chairs in a corner of the room, presumably to exchange confidences. Mom offered warm drinks and a snack, and left to prepare it. I started looking for an exit.

"Can we talk for a minute, Gil?" Ashley asked.

I think that request was a first, at least in recent years. I really wanted to change into something less comfortable, that would make me feel more comfortable. Ashley offered to come with me.

I'm sure she noticed my panic. Dad, too. Uncharitably, he was openly laughing at me.

"I'll wait in the hallway, Gil," she promised. "I'd just like a few words in private."

I was sure it would only end in further humiliation, but what could I say?

True to her word, Ashley waited in the hall while I threw on something more presentable. She accepted my invitation to come into the room, looking around for a few moments like she was pleasantly surprised. I guess my room is probably a bit neater than the average fifteen-year-old guy's room.

Ashley was direct. She cut straight to the chase.

"I'm sorry to intrude on your family Christmas, Gil. My squirrely little brother wanted to see Ronan, but he didn't want to come alone."

That seemed strange. Liam had come over to visit us many times without backup.

"There's something going on between Liam and Ronan, and it's really bothering Liam," she said. "I was wondering if you had any idea what it is."

Of course I didn't and I said so. Liam and Ronan had been friends for years. They did everything together. They almost never fought. I couldn't imagine why Liam would be afraid to see Ronan; or, for that matter, why seeing Liam appeared to make Ronan both happy and uncomfortable at the same time.

" He can be an annoying little pest at times, but I love my brother, Gil. And I've seen you and Ronan together often enough to know that you care about him, too. Maybe we can figure out what's going on and do something to help them."

We agreed to become confederates, to work together to find out why our brothers weren't happy and then do what we could to help. I was feeling more mature by the minute. I just hoped that she couldn't sense the porn I had hidden in my closet.

Ashley and Liam left after visiting with us for almost an hour. It seemed that Ronan was missing Liam and was relieved that he was gone, both at the same time.

We spent the rest of the Christmas holiday enjoying our time together as a family. Relatives visited from Massachusetts. We travelled to Pittsfield to return the visit. A few friends stopped by to see us.

We played with our new toys. As unexciting a gift as it had seemed at the time, I think Dad had more fun with his paper shredder than all the rest of us did with our gifts. He had it set up in his office before we even ate Christmas dinner, and spent hours destroying old documents over the next few days. He was like Fawn Hall on crack as he went through confidential but outdated files and reduced them to tiny chips of paper.

As we ushered in the New Year, I resolved to play a bigger and more responsible role in our family. I resolved to pay closer attention to Ronan, to see if he was struggling with anything and if I could help. And I resolved to do absolutely anything Ashley Grant wanted me to do. Those seemed like three good goals to start off the year.

We were less than a week into the new year when I thought my entire world had suddenly collapsed. Perhaps forever.

It was early afternoon on a Saturday, and the entire family was home. I was relaxing in my room, reading a novel. Mark was downstairs playing and harassing Mom. Mom was working in the kitchen. From the sounds she was making, she was probably preparing dinner. Ronan was skulking quietly in the room that he and Mark shared. Dad had just come home after a shopping trip to Brattleboro.

I heard him greet Mom and Mark, then enter his office. I waited for the familiar sound of the shredder to start up. Before it did, the house was suddenly enveloped in an eerie silence. like every molecule of air had been sucked out of the building. The silence lasted for about three seconds, then was broken by the sound of my father's shriek.

" Why is there a penis in my shredder?!!!"

By the end of the sentence, his voice had shot up into octaves he hadn't reached since he was younger than Ronan.

That question sent a chill up my spine and made me wonder how well I actually knew my own parents! With surprise, I realized that it really is possible for your hair to stand on end. Before I could recover from my shock and start to plan an escape from the madhouse, my father bellowed again.

" Gilead Aaron Kane!!!" Never a good sign. Not good at all! "Get your butt down here right now!"

I briefly considered making a run for it, before my father could add my penis to his collection. But I was too stunned to think rationally. I didn't even have the beginning of an escape plan. So I went to my fate, hoping that it wouldn't be as bad as I feared.

As I started down the hallway toward the stairs, I thought I sensed a presence behind the door of my brothers' bedroom. Whatever it was, it kept its identity a mystery and the door remained closed.

My father was waiting for me in his office, the collection basket for the shredder gripped firmly in both hands.

"What is this doing in here?" He thrust the basket in my direction.

I couldn't see anything. The basket was filled with chips of shredded paper. There was nothing else.

He beckoned me closer with the basket and tipped it toward me. I feared a trap and leaned forward warily. The basket was filled with familiar chips of paper, black print on white background ... and a dusting of colored chips across the top of the pile.

I looked closer. The color appeared to be mostly shades of pale peach and light tan, with some occasional bits of darker brown. And there... in the very center of the pile.... a small chip of paper framing what appeared to be a rather tiny, but erect... penis.

Yup. It was definitely a penis. I was quite familiar with the species.

My stunned eyes rose to meet my father's. I shook my head uncertainly. He appeared to sense the confusion in my eyes. That confused him.

"What do you know about this?" He demanded.

"It's a penis?" I speculated.

"But how did it get there?" My father is usually a fairly calm person, but he wasn't handling his frustration well.

I shook my head again. "I have no idea."

" You weren't getting rid of some evidence? Something related to a little conversation you and I had, about two years ago?"

I wanted to object, 'You're leading the witness, counsel!' But I just shook my head again. "I haven't used your shredder, Dad... For anything."

I felt the need to add something for emphasis. "I swear to God that isn't my penis!"

Conversations like this never happen in normal houses, do they?

I headed back upstairs, Dad half convinced that I was telling him the truth. But I was starting to wonder if maybe I wasn't. There was something awfully familiar about that penis in his shredder.

Passing my brothers' room, I noticed that the door was now ajar. Again, I had the feeling that someone was lurking behind it. As I stepped into my room, I looked back and saw the door closing.

I shut the door to my room and locked it. What I needed was buried in the back of my closet. And it was still there. But something about the way the contents of the box were stored didn't look quite right to me. I pulled it out for closer inspection.

The photos inside were familiar. Very familiar. I had become intimate with every detail of them over the course of many months about two years ago, when I was going through 'my phase'.

It didn't appear that any of the images were missing. But the order in which they were stacked didn't seem right. It had been more than a year since I had last looked in the box, but my knowledge of the contents was etched sharply into memory. I had my favorites. They had been grouped together carefully. And they weren't in the same order I had last left them in. I was certain of that.

The thought sent a new chill down my spine. But I couldn't imagine that Mom or Dad had moved them. They understood my interest. They knew that it had been temporary. We had hashed that out in endless conversations when I was thirteen. They understood that my collection was mostly driven by curiosity and that I wasn't acting out inappropriately on any impulses.

At the time, they had agreed to respect my privacy. I was fairly certain they wouldn't have broken that promise. And if they had, Dad wouldn't be asking now what a penis was doing in his shredder. All the penises would be in there and he would know how they got there!

The only other person I could think of that might have discovered the box was Ronan. He and I had shared the room for the three years after Mark was born and before Mom and Dad decided I should have my own space. He might have found my hiding place and snooped around a bit, perhaps returning to investigate some more as he grew older and his interest in these sorts of things increased.

But while I was sure that someone had been messing with my box, I was just as certain that nothing was missing. And there had definitely been a penis in Dad's shredder. Things didn't quite add up.

One of the nice things about keeping a neat room is that there's often a lot of junk stashed in closets and other out-of-the-way places. I took advantage of that to find a new hiding place for my box. Then I lay down to think some more about the situation.

I saw Ashley at school on Monday. It was the first time we had spoken at length since Christmas. I wasn't much closer to understanding what was going on with Ronan and Liam. But I had an informed guess.

"Puberty," I whispered to her.

She looked a bit surprised, then understanding dawned. "Puberty," she whispered back. "It's a start. But what exactly is it about puberty that's making those two so unhappy?"

It was a good question. There had been uncomfortable moments, but most of the things that I recall about puberty made me happy. Some of them made me very happy.

I knew better than to put pressure on Ronan. I was close enough to my own experience with puberty to understand that if I got all up in his business with questions and advice, it would make him too uncomfortable and I wouldn't be able to get anywhere with him.

I wanted to start a dialogue. If I spent more time with him, in the right moment he might just ask a question or two that would give me some hints about what was actually going on with him. Then I might be able to start to steer the conversation, as long as I was patient and let him control the pace.

I made it a point to spent more time around Ronan, at least whenever he wasn't closeted in his bedroom. I asked casual questions: about school, about sports, about his thoughts about joining me up at the high school next fall. I asked a question and let him answer. If he didn't seem very interested in talking, I just smiled and left to do something else.

I knew that it would probably take a while to really get him talking, but I was determined to figure out what was bothering him. Ashley was depending on me. Besides, Ronan was my brother.

Ashley and I touched base at school at least once or twice each week. Surprisingly, we each had similar reports to share.

Both Liam and Ronan spent more time alone in their rooms than they ever had before. Both resisted any effort to talk to them about what was bothering them. Both seemed rather unhappy about something. They both appeared uninterested in almost everything going on around them.

Ashley was far more clever than I was. She had her suspicions. She conducted a few experiments. She started casually bringing up Ronan or our family in conversations whenever Liam was nearby. She noticed his body language. He was much more alert and showed more interest in what was happening around him when Ronan and the Kanes were the topic of conversation.

"Crush," she whispered to me.

"Crush," I whispered back. I wondered if that was Ronan's problem, too. And if it was, was he frustrated because he was crushing on Liam? Or was he frustrated because he knew that Liam was crushing on him?

It was still a mystery. I needed more information.

" How would you feel if somebody had a crush on you?" I asked Ashley.

" It depends on who he is," she whispered back coyly. She cast me a flirtatious glance before she moved off to join her friends.

Snow in January is a common occurrence in southeastern Vermont. Eighteen inches of snow falling in a day is a bit less common, but it happens. It happened to us late in the third week of the month. The worst part is that it all fell on a Saturday, so we didn't miss any school.

Mark woke all of us up early on Sunday morning. Dad and I were still recovering from a night spent shoveling. Mom was checking the streets, wondering if we should venture out to Mass with conditions as they were. Ronan was in his room, buried deep under his comforter and keeping his own counsel.

Mark's enthusiasm for the day won out. A glance down the street toward the community green revealed several families gathering, toboggans or sleds in hand, trudging through snow halfway up their thighs that was still covering the sidewalks. Most were heading toward the modest sliding hill on the west edge of the village. Less than twenty minutes later Mom, Dad and I, with Mark urging us on, were off for a morning of tobogganing. Ronan stayed home, pleading illness.

After the previous day's snowstorm, it was a bright, sunny Sunday. Roads and sidewalks were still a bit hazardous, but a festival atmosphere prevailed in the village. More than a dozen families had gathered at the sliding hill, kids racing their sleds and toboggans up the hill to slide back down again, parents cheerfully sharing news and the brilliant day with each other. The Green Mountain Post House, Covenant's premier dining establishment, had opened its doors early and was doing a brisk business in hot cocoa, coffee and pastries.

Every now and again, an avalanche of snow would release from one of the big fir trees that stood sentinel along the border of the sliding area. Nearby kids would direct their sleds and toboggans through the falling snow with whoops of delight. I noticed Liam Grant sledding with a group of middle schoolers. His mother had already joined my mom and dad with coffee and a muffin, while they watched the excitement coming down the hill. I was hauling our toboggan up the hill under Mark's direction, then holding onto him protectively while he fearlessly captained our craft down the slope.

As we continued to trudge up the hill, then fly down it, I noticed Liam casting frequent glances in our direction. I assumed he was looking for Ronan—in perhaps the same way I kept looking around to see if Ashley had joined the fun. We were both disappointed.

I checked in with Mom and Dad at one point, after Dad had waved me over to ask how Mark was doing. I noticed that Liam was talking to Mark while I was away, but he was back with his sledding crew before I rejoined my brother. I figured that Liam had been asking about Ronan, and Mark confirmed my speculation. He was more concerned that he was wet and getting a bit cold as he stood around waiting for me.

It seemed like a good time for a break. Mark didn't want to stop sliding, so Dad decided that we would return to the house to find him some dry gear and to let Ronan know that Liam was looking for him.

Mom and Mrs. Grant were still engaged in their conversation, so the three of us started back toward the house. Mark insisted that Dad or I carry him. We compromised and both of us pulled Mark back home on the toboggan.

Dad reminded Mark that we needed to be very quiet as we climbed the stairs, just in case Ronan had decided to go back to sleep.

He hadn't.

Ronan was sitting on the end of his bed in the lotus position, engrossed in a video playing on his computer screen. He wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing. He looked like a demented maestro conducting "The Flight of the Bumblebee" as he stroked away furiously with his baton.

I don't know which of us was more surprised: Ronan, his eyes blared wide in terror as he noticed us standing in the doorway at the very moment the music reached its climax; Dad, a sense of déjà vu in the weary expression etched on his face; me, feeling a similar sense of déjà vu, although from a somewhat more empathetic perspective; or Mark, who was clearly confused by the whole scene.

"What's wrong with Ronan?" Mark asked as Dad hustled us back down the hallway toward the stairs.

"Don't worry about it, Marky." Dad said. "He's just got a skeeter on his peter."

"A skeeter on his peter!" That really did alarm Mark. "Tell him to kill it!"

"If he keeps that up, I'm pretty sure he will," Dad muttered dryly.

I was too conflicted to be amused. I was worried that, in addition to the maestro, Dad might have noticed the action on the computer screen. My internal conflict worsened when Dad turned and pointed at me.

" I'm going to take Marky down to the laundry room. We should be able to find him some clean clothes there. Then he and I are going back to the sliding hill. You," and he pointed again, ominously, back down the hallway, "are responsible for that!"

" I've been through this once recently and I'm not ready to go through it again. Besides," an evil grin- grimace?- spread slowly from the center of his mouth, "you owe me! Get Ronan settled down. Give him the help he needs to get through this and I might just manage to completely forget about a certain incident that took place in your mother's kitchen two years ago."

Dad patted Mark on the backside and pointed him in the direction of the cellar. He turned back to me.

" You take care of Ronan, Gil. You know what he needs a lot better than I do. But, Gil," he captured my eyes and wouldn't let them go, "I know you're both young men. I went through some of the same things myself when I was your age, so I understand that there are boundaries you guys have to push. But Ronan needs to understand that there are some things I can't have in my house."

Yeah. Dad didn't miss a thing.

" I'm an officer of the court. And while I didn't look too closely, I'm pretty sure that what Ronan had on that computer screen was illegal ... In any jurisdiction in the country. It doesn't matter whether he was on the internet, or had ... that ... on a disk. That can't happen again!"

Dad drove the point home sharply. "You and I went through this two years ago, Gil. You've grown a lot since then. More important, you understand Ronan a lot better than I do right now. You'll take care of this. I trust you, Gil!"

If Dad hadn't become a lawyer, he certainly would have made a good salesman. But he really didn't have to sell me too hard. I didn't fully understand my thoughts and emotions, but I really wanted to help Ronan figure out what he was feeling and to help him understand what he could do about it.

I knew that Ronan would need a little time to process what had just happened. I just didn't want to leave him alone in the house. I didn't think he would do anything too drastic, but the shame and guilt of the past few minutes would probably place a pretty heavy burden on him.

I puttered around in the kitchen, certain that Ronan would hear and understand that there were people nearby. I was also hoping that the odors of food baking might distract and even entice him.

Mom is a good cook. But the pressure of keeping a home for four boys and acting as my father's legal secretary meant she had learned to take shortcuts.

I found several rolls of prepared cookie dough in the freezer—sugar cookies and chocolate chip cookies seemed like a good idea—preheated the oven, put a dozen pieces of each on a baking sheet and set it to bake. Then I started to warm some milk for hot chocolate on the cook top.

I hoped the familiar odors rising from the kitchen would calm Ronan down and help him to relax. I took advantage of the time while everything was cooking to think about how I would approach him.

No one answered when I knocked on the door to Ronan's room. I pushed the door open carefully with a shoulder and a knee, and edged the tray of cookies and cocoa into the opening. My head followed.

Ronan was still sitting on the end of his bed, where I had last seen him. He was fully dressed now, with a few additional layers thrown on for good measure.

" Hey, bud," I greeted him. He had to have been aware that his door had opened.

He didn't turn, but his head hung lower after I spoke.

" Can I put the tray down on your desk?" I didn't wait for a reply. I just nudged an open school book, pens, and paper out of the way to make a flat surface for the tray. I hadn't noticed it earlier, but Ronan had propped up a school picture of Liam next to his computer monitor.

I took a quick glance in his direction. Thirty minutes had passed since we interrupted him. Tears were still streaming down his cheeks.

I tried to strike a balance. He needed to understand that his family hadn't rejected him. But too much closeness, too soon, might be upsetting. I settled for placing a napkin on the bed next to him, with a 'help yourself' gesture toward the cookies and cocoa, before sitting down near the head of his bed.

Even that seemed like it could feel a bit threatening to him. I wanted him to know that I was there with him, close, and that I had his back. But I realized that he might not be comfortable if I was less than five feet away and staring at him. I turned so I was sitting on the side of the bed, facing away from it. I hoped that he might notice that I wasn't looking directly at him.

Then I waited.

There's nothing like silence to get an uncomfortable conversation started. I learned that from Dad.

Ronan fidgeted a bit. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him glance toward the cookies. Eventually his head turned slightly in my direction. He was making sure he was safe. Once he was sufficiently at ease, the conversation could begin.

I noticed a change in his breathing. It became faster and shallower. I was pretty sure he was steeling himself to say something. But he was worried about how I might respond.

Finally, I heard a deep sigh.

"Where's Dad?" he whispered.

"He took Mark back sliding. The little monster wasn't done yet." Keep it simple, I told myself. Reasonable. The same sort of conversation we might be having if I had walked in and caught him watching a football game.

" He couldn't even bring himself to talk to his pervert son!" Ronan accused bitterly.

" No! No way, Little Seal!" It was Dad's pet nickname for Ronan. "Dad thought it would be easier if Marky wasn't around for this conversation. And," I took a deep breath. I knew this had to happen, but it didn't mean it was going to be any less uncomfortable. "He thought now I could relate to you better than he could. You see, I have some... experience... with this sort of situation."

I didn't even have to look at him to know that I had his attention.

We danced around the story a bit. Partly because it was really awkward for me to share it. But partly because I wanted to use the time to feel him out, to use my story to distract him from his embarrassment, to share what I needed him to hear at a pace that worked for him, and to strengthen the trust that I hoped would grow between us so I could continue to help him deal with what I suspected were going to be some very difficult months for him.

I was just about Ronan's age, maybe a few months younger, when I also found myself home alone. It was a Saturday—so at least I wasn't desecrating the Sabbath, I smugly congratulated myself. Dad was in Brattleboro, working at the office to get caught up after a few hectic weeks. Mom had taken Ronan and Mark to visit our family in Pittsfield. I had stayed home, probably pleading illness, just like Ronan had.

I had a secret and I wanted to have a little time alone to explore that secret some more. I was still a little fuzzy on proper etiquette, but I was pretty sure it wasn't the sort of secret you could just whip out and share while watching television with the family.

I also had a private collection. Even before I discovered my big secret, I had started to notice that some of the guys I went to school with were a lot more interesting than everybody else in my class. I didn't really understand why, but they were cooler, more entertaining, and they just looked better to me than everyone else.

As a child of the internet, I was also doing some exploring online. There were some pretty interesting-looking guys all around the web, too. There were even a few places where you could see a lot more of them than you would see at most internet sites.

I found myself fascinated by those special sites. I would visit them whenever Ronan was off spending time friends and when my parents were busy downstairs or away from the house. I even started a collection, printing out some of my favorite guys and carefully hiding those images at the bottom of an ordinary looking shoebox that was stashed deep in my closet. Very deep in my closet. So I suppose I had two secrets. Maybe more.

With the entire family away for hours that day, I thought it might be fun to explore both of my interests while I had the full freedom of the house. To make a long story shorter, within a few hours I found myself downstairs in the family room, the doors to the house locked and all the curtains drawn, looking at my picture collection and wearing nothing but a pair of crew socks. It was pretty daring! It was also a lot of fun.

Looking at those special photos was exciting! Looking at those photos while I explored my big secret was even more exciting!

Eventually, the inevitable happened. I had felt the sensations building up inside me the longer I explored my secret. I understood what those feelings meant. This wasn't entirely virgin territory for me. I had just been enjoying those feelings too much to prepare for what was certain to follow.

When I finally twigged to my dilemma, I looked frantically around the family room for Kleenex, paper towels, even my clothing. I knew it wouldn't end well for me if Mom came home and found some of my secret sauce splattered all over her furniture!

In desperation I dashed toward the kitchen. I knew we had a roll of paper towels in there! I hit the linoleum of the kitchen floor running pretty fast and I started to slide! My arms were windmilling about as I struggled to keep my balance. Then I heard the lock on the back door click open... followed by the door opening... and Daddy arrived home early from work. We were all overjoyed!

Dad noticed me sliding across the floor, Mr. Happy doing his happy dance, bobbing wildly back and forth in front of me. His eyes probably bugged out a bit, but he kept his cool. He raised his hands slowly. "Please don't shoot," he murmured. So of course, I did.

" Man! I was horrified, terrified, petrified... just about every '-fied' you can think of! But Dad surprised me and was pretty cool about it in the moment. First he just had to ask me if I cared to introduce him to his first grandchildren."

Ronan actually chuckled sympathetically at that.

"Then he handed me a paper towel, told me to clean up, and said he was going to lie down for a bit because he had just been through a pretty exciting day."

Ronan eyes were bright. He was looking directly at me ... avidly. "You were still standing there completely naked?!" he asked.

"No!" I defended myself. "I was wearing socks!"

We both snickered at that.

"Man, Gil, I wish I had seen that!" It felt like a switch had been turned inside his head. I just needed to find a way to make sure it stayed 'on'.

" At the time, I was damn glad you hadn't seen it." I told him. "But now, I kinda wish that you had." I met his eyes directly, trying to make him understand that what I was telling him was completely sincere. "It might have made it easier for you today if you already knew that what you were doing, what we do, wasn't so bad. It's embarrassing to get caught, but we all do it.

" We're guys, Little Seal. We're learning about ourselves. We're learning about life. And while we're learning, we all do stupid stuff. Stupid ... embarrassing ... humiliating stuff! It's just part of being young guys and growing up. But the people that love us understand.

" They know we're learning. They know we will do stupid stuff. And they still love us! Dad understands that. And he loves us. He always will."

A cloud passed across Ronan's face. "Dad saw what was on my computer." Just as quickly as the switch turned 'on', I saw it click 'off'.

" Little Seal! Dad gets it. I mean, I haven't taken a survey yet, but I'm pretty sure that most boys are perverts when they're thirteen years old. They always have been. I certainly was.

" Dad knows! He understands! Ask Uncle Pat about 'Freeway Frank' and you'll find out about some pretty sketchy stuff Dad did when he was our age.

" You know those pictures I had when Dad caught me? I still have them." I didn't mention to him that I was pretty sure he had been snooping around in my hiding place. "Dad saw those pictures! He saw them in the family room, while I was naked with my, uh, jizz cooling all over the kitchen floor! He knows that I got off on that stuff and he treats me the same as he ever has."

Ronan understood. His expression brightened again. "So does that mean that you like guys, too?"

That was tricky. I wish I could have told him that I still felt exactly the same way as he did. But it wasn't quite the same.

"I still like guys, bud. But I like girls, too." It felt like an apology. "I mean, I get being turned on by a guy, but I've kind of realized that I like it both ways."

Ronan nodded sagely, like he understood and maybe that wasn't so bad. He grinned at me cheekily. "Does that mean I can have your pictures, then?"

" Welllll," I drew it out. "I still like them. I might want to use them occasionally." Just saying it made me feel like such a pervert! "But I guess we can share."

An idea hit me. I thought it might be a way to help Ronan feel alright about his interests, and something that would make it easier for me to help him through the next couple of years. I thought that I would like it, too. And with Mark to consider, I was sure that Mom and Dad would approve.

" Do you remember when you moved into the spare room? When Dad and Mom let me have our room to myself?"

He nodded.

" That was right after I did my amazing kitchen floor show for Dad. I think he and Mom decided that it might be better if I had my own space once I started to get interested in more, like, adult stuff."

Ronan's eyes said that he understood, even if it had hurt a bit at the time.

" So what would you think about moving back in with me, Ronan? It would be cool to have you back, now that we have some of the same, um, interests."

His eyes lit up. But he had questions. "You mean, like, do stuff together?"

I hadn't seen that coming.

"No, Little Seal. That's private stuff. Something you only share with someone really special. Like a girlfriend... or a boyfriend."

His reaction was hard to read. Maybe disappointment. Maybe relief.

"I get it. Who would want to do that stuff with a shrimp like me?"

I understood immediately. And I could relate. I wasn't any bigger than Ronan when I was thirteen. It did a number on my self-esteem ... that and being the kitchen exhibitionist.

" No way, bud! When we walked in on you ..." I paused for a moment to gauge his reaction. This could be dangerous territory to revisit so soon. But he just nodded.

" Well," I feigned embarrassment. "When we walked in, one of my first thoughts was to wonder when our little seal had turned into such a little stud!"

Ronan looked a bit skeptical. I dialed the sincerity up to eleven.

" You look good, Little Seal. You look very good for thirteen. If you were my boyfriend, I'd want us to do stuff together." I was sensing a bit of discomfort from the little guy in the back of my head that keeps an eye out for my stupider moments. I was giving off a bit of a pervy vibe.

But Ronan seemed reassured. That was the important thing.

It felt like a good time to secure the win. I wanted to ask about that picture of Liam next to his computer monitor, but I was pretty sure that I already knew the answer. There was no sense going for too much all at once and losing the game in the final seconds.

" How about some cookies and cocoa before that cocoa gets too cold?"

Ronan grinned enthusiastically. I felt good.

I felt more mature; almost grown up. Dad had handled my little coming out well. But I thought I had helped Ronan overcome any self-loathing and set him on a positive path, all in less than an hour. And I thought that with regular attention, especially if we were sharing a room again, I could keep him on that path. I thought that, for all my father's accomplishments, this was something that he hadn't been able to do as well for me and he probably couldn't have done it as well for Ronan.

I lay back, across the head of Ronan's bed.

"What do you think, Little Stud?" He rolled his eyes at me, but he was grinning from ear to ear. "Would it be cool with you if we shared a room again?"

Ronan stuffed a cookie in his mouth as he nodded. "Yeah, Gil. I'd like that." I'm pretty sure that's what he mumbled.

"But what do we do about stuff, you know, the stuff I did today? "

I sensed a boundary issue.

"We keep that private, Little Stud." Another eye roll. And a big grin. "I'll be doing it. I know you'll be doing it. But we give each other space so it stays private."

I thought for a minute. "We could talk about it, maybe schedule times when we can be sure the other will be away. But that sort of thing can be, uh, spontaneous." Ronan was nothing if not a bright kid. I knew I wouldn't need to explain the word to him. "Like if you're in the room alone and just have to get it off, shut and lock the door but leave a used condom on the outside doorknob so I know not to come in."

The look on his face was great! It left no doubt that he was repulsed by the idea. Fortunately, I didn't have to explain to him that I had never used a condom before, or even seen a used condom.

Just the suggestion helped cement in his mind that I was an even bigger pervert than he was! That would help him to accept himself, to open up with me, and it would make it easier for him to ask difficult questions that might come up in the future. It would help him feel better about himself any time he was experiencing self-doubts and feeling down about the things he was thinking and doing.

Ronan finished another cookie and set his cocoa down on his desk. Then he stretched back out on his bed, settling his head and shoulders on my stomach. I slipped my arm protectively across his chest and held him there. It felt good.

That's where Dad and Mark found us an hour later.

At school on Monday I met up with Ashley. "Mutual crush," I whispered.

"Mutual crush," she whispered back.

"So what do we do?" I wondered.

I should have known. She was already five steps ahead of me. By Friday, it was all arranged.

I strolled into our bedroom after school Friday afternoon. Ronan was lying on his bed reading.

"Hey, Little Stud," I greeted him.

The eye roll was perfunctory by then. The answering grin was still there just as quickly, maybe not as broad as it had been originally. But I knew from his reactions that he was starting to believe it.

"I need your help with something, bud," I told him. "I've got a date for Valentine's Day."

Ronan looked confused. At least I hope that was uncertainty. It better not have been surprise!

"Mom and Dad approve, but they say that we need chaperones since it's our first date." That was a bit of a fiction, but not too far removed from the truth.

" We're going to be eating at The Post House, so the food will be great. I was hoping you'd be my wingman, but we'll call you a chaperone for Mom and Dad and for the girl's family."

Ronan was curious about the girl, but I kept it a secret. He was comfortable enough with me to make a few sniggering suggestions about potential deformities if she was willing to date me. I played along. The important thing was that he agreed to do it. It was a brother bonding thing. It probably also helped him feel more grown up.

Mom and Dad were fully in on the plan, of course. They mostly approved. Dad even slipped me an extra two hundred dollars to help cover expenses. He said that he was a bit busier than expected in the new year and that the extra would help make up for my Christmas. Whatever his motives, I was appreciative. Dinner for four at The Post House was likely to set my car fund back several months!

Ronan and I walked the half mile to the restaurant together. It was barely after dark. I told him that my date and her chaperone would meet us there. We were both well turned out, best suit and tie for each of us, with a good overcoat against the cold. Mom had done some magic to turn up those coats on short notice.

I checked to make sure that Ronan had the orchid corsage for my date. He didn't understand why he also had a carnation for the other chaperone, but I explained that it would just be polite. Fortunately, he didn't know that a red carnation might be a bit more than just polite.

Ronan and I arrived at The Post House's front desk. I announced that we were the Kane party of four for dinner. I also slipped the maitre d' an extra twenty dollars. Apparently Dad had to pull a few strings to get us seated on Valentine's Day and he suggested that I show our appreciation.

The maitre d' was very polite and professional, calling someone to take our overcoats and advising that the rest of our party had already arrived and was waiting in the lounge. Ronan's eyes were wide as he took in his surroundings.

"Come on, Little Stud," I tugged gently at his sleeve. His grin was huge. "Let's go meet our dates."

That didn't register at first.

We entered the lounge and found Ashley and Liam waiting. Liam seemed confused but delighted. I imagine Ronan's expression was similar.

I reached out to Ronan for Ashley's corsage, then gestured toward Liam. He got it. He didn't panic. He handled it like a boss as he confidently pinned the red carnation to Liam's lapel.

They couldn't take their eyes off each other. The connection between them was electric.

I took Ashley's hand as the maitre d' directed us toward our table.

Glancing back over my shoulder, I saw Ronan reach for Liam's hand.

-The End-

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