Brenda Michaels was at her desk in the cramped office she shared with her brother, Jack. After her divorce from Brian, she joined Jack selling insurance. They were one of only two insurance companies in Farmersville. They were well respected in the town, and they insured many of the residents.
Brenda looked at the clock. Her ten o’clock appointment was running late. Jack was out of the office to look at Mr. Donovan’s automobile. He had hit a deer on a rural road a few days earlier, and Jack was going to give him an estimate of the damages.
She looked up when the bell over the front door rang. She rose to go out into the outer office. “Mary,” she smiled as she extended her hand. “It’s good to see you.” Mary Peters was the mother of Neil’s friend, Ned. She had known the Peters family since they moved to Farmerville twelve years ago. Ned was a frequent visitor to their house. However, she hadn’t seen him in several weeks. When she asked Neil about it, he simply said that Ned was too busy.
She pointed to her office. “Let’s sit down and go over your policy,” she said as she put her hand on Mary’s back and led her to a chair. “I’ve been going over it this morning, and I think we can save you a few dollars.”
She pushed a paper in front of Mary, and then she explained some features of a new policy to her. When she was done, Mary agreed that the policy did save her money. “Times are tough,” she said. “Ever since Mac lost his job at the mill, we’ve been trying to make ends meet.”
Brenda patted her hand. “I know, Dear. Many are hurt by the closing. I’m sure you’re having trouble dealing with the situation.”
Mary smiled and replied, “Thank you, Brenda. I’m sure you’re having trouble dealing with your situation, too. I’ve been praying for God to give you strength.”
Brenda gave her a puzzled look and replied, “What are you talking about.”
“Your son, Neil,” she explained. “You, Poor Dear. It must be difficult trying to raise one of them.”
“One of them?” Brenda had no idea what Mary was talking about.
Mary patted Brenda’s hand. “Yes, you know. A homosexual.”
Brenda shook her head. “I have no idea what you are talking about.”
A startled look appeared on Mary’s face. “Oh, Dear Jesus,” she exclaimed. “You don’t know?”
Mary leaned forward and whispered, “Everyone in town knows what happened. All the boys are talking about it.”
“Talking about what?”
“You know,” she replied. “Neil being one of those homosexuals.”
Brenda quickly gathered the papers and placed them in a folder. She had no idea why Mary was suggesting that Neil was gay, and she didn’t want to know. The look on Mary’s face was almost as if she was delighted to be relating to her the latest gossip. She stood and said sharply, “I think we are done here. I’ll prepare the final estimates and send them to you in the mail. You can sign them and then send them back to me.”
“Oh, Dear,” remarked Mary with a smug look on her face. “I’ve upset you. I really didn’t mean to. I was merely trying to console you.”
Brenda placed her hand on Mary’s back and almost pushed her from the office. “I’ll be getting back to you soon.”
Mary turned, smiled and replied, “I’ll be praying for you, Dear.”
“Yes, whatever,” responded Brenda as she slammed the door closed. She then went back to her desk, sat down and cried, “Not again.”
* * * * * *
Ms. Shelton sat at her desk as students rose at their seat and introduced themselves to her. She started at the front, and she was working her way around the room. Nell Sidham had just introduced herself and sat down. Neil froze when Ms. Shelton said, “Neil. You are next.”
He looked pleadingly at her and asked, “Do I have to?”
“Yeah,” said Lucas from the back of the room. “Your turn, Neil. Tell us something about you we don’t know.” The guys around him laughed.
“That’s enough, Lucas,” admonished Ms. Shelton. She was reaching the breaking point with Lucas’s continuous disruptions. She knew if she didn’t react with authority the first day, then he would try to control the class for the rest of the year.
Lucas grinned and replied sarcastically, “Yes, Ms. Shelton. You’re the teach.”
Ms. Shelton looked back at a nervous Neil. He had his head down, and he was slumped in his chair. “Neil,” she reminded him, “It is your turn.”
Neil glanced at the door and considered leaving. Any other time it wouldn’t have bothered him to do what she was asking. He knew everyone in the room, so he wasn’t afraid to stand in front of them. He had done it many times over the years. However, today was different. He knew that whatever he said, Lucas and the others would be ready to ridicule him. Besides, he was still upset over what had happened in the restroom earlier.
Neil looked up at Ms. Shelton as she sat at her desk waiting patiently for him to stand. He slowly rose and cleared his throat. “I’m Neil Michaels,” he said softly.
Lucas hollered from the back, “We can’t hear you back here.” Neil bristled when he heard Lucas’s voice. He repeated himself, only a little louder.
He nervously cleared his throat. “I don’t have anything else to say.”
The guys in the back laughed when Robbie hollered out, “Tell the class something we don’t already know about you.”
Ms. Shelton rose from her seat and hollered, “That will be enough.”
It surprised Neil when Sammy turned and snarled, “Why don’t you little boys grow up!”
“Oh,” replied Lucas as he stood. “Why don’t you come back here and make us!”
Sammy balled her fists and stood. Neil jumped in front to block her as she stormed down the aisle. “Don’t, Sammy,” he pleaded. “Don’t get in trouble because of me.”
Just then, Ms. Shelton approached and told Sammy to have a seat. She gave Lucas an angry look before reluctantly returning to her seat.
Ms. Shelton stood in the aisle and admonished the class. She directed most of her comments to Lucas and the other boys. “You are obviously too immature to handle a simple assignment.” Lucas stared defiantly at her. “I am very disappointed.”
She returned to her desk and sat down. She wondered what had happened. The other classes seemed to enjoy introducing themselves. Two things were obvious. She was going to have to prevent Lucas from controlling her class. She also realized that there was a serious personal problem involving Neil.
Finally, she stood and began distributing textbooks. After she finished, she gave the class a silent reading assignment that they were to complete at home. When the bell rang, she stood by the door and watched as the students filed out of the classroom. She wanted to make sure that Neil didn’t encounter any problems with Lucas. She was relieved when she saw Neil and Sammy walk off in a different direction than Lucas and the other boys.
* * * * * * *
Neil was frightened to get on the bus. Even though Sammy had accompanied him to his locker and walked beside him to the bus, he still had no idea what to expect. Lucas, Owen, Ned and Robbie all rode the same bus home. He considered walking, but he lived three miles from the school. He had walked it in the past with the other guys when they had missed the bus, and it would take him over an hour to get home.
When he and Sammy entered the bus, he immediately saw Lucas and Ned sitting in the third row. Lucas was sitting in the aisle seat, and he grinned when Neil looked down. Neil looked away when he mouthed, “Fag.” When he walked past, Lucas stuck out his foot and tripped him. Neil stumbled and fell. When he went down, he hit his cheek on the metal guard on the back of the seat.
Sammy tried to stop his fall, but she was unsuccessful. As Neil tried to stand, he heard Sammy screaming at Lucas. “You did that on purpose, You Fucking Moron!” She slapped Lucas on the face. Lucas stood to hit her back, but Ned grabbed his arm and pulled it away.
The bus driver stood and shouted, “What’s going on back there? Is there a problem?”
Lucas hollered out innocently, “No, Sir. Nothing is going on.” He looked angrily at Sammy and then sat down. Sammy held Neil’s arm and led him to a seat in the back. He noticed Lucas turn and glare angrily at them.
After sitting down, she looked at the knot that had formed on Neil’s forehead. Neil winced when she cautiously touched it. “Are you alright?”
Neil shook his head and moaned, “I can’t deal with this anymore.” He looked at the back of Lucas’s head. He and Ned were involved in an animated conversation.
Sammy asked worriedly, “What are you going to do?”
Tears welled up in Neil’s eyes. “I tell you what I’m not going to do,” he replied sadly. “I’m not going back tomorrow and let them torment me like they did today.”
“You’re only sixteen,” Sammy reminded him. “You can’t drop out of school. Besides, your mother would never let you.”
He turned and rested his head on the window. “I’ll think of something,” he muttered as he closed his eyes. He didn’t speak again until the bus came to a stop in front of his house.
* * * * * * *
“Mommy!” shouted Neil’s brother, Brett, as he ran into the kitchen. “Neil’s sitting in the closet again.”
He bounced up into a kitchen chair, and Brenda handed him a chocolate chip cookie and a glass of milk. She ruffled Brett’s hair and said, “Just leave him alone. Okay?”
“Sure, Mommy,” replied Brett. “But why does he sit in the closet where it’s dark?”
“It’s his sanctuary,” she replied.
Brett asked, “What’s a sanctuary?”
“It’s where he goes to get away from everything,” she replied has she ran her hands over his blond hair.
Brett shrugged his shoulders, took another bite of his cookie and asked, “Why don’t he just go down to the basement?” Brenda smiled and returned to the stove to finish preparing the evening meal.
Neil was sitting in his closet, wrapped up into a tight ball with his bathrobe pulled tightly around him. It is where he always went when he felt stressed. Years earlier, he had reserved a corner just so he could sit and think. He had taken the cushions from an old chair his mother was going to throw out, and he made a comfortable area for him to sit. An old tattered blanket hanging strategically on a hanger provided him a curtain so that anyone looking inside wouldn’t easily see him.
He discovered the sanctuary of the closet right after his father left home. Brett had just been born, and he had a crib in his mother’s room. He found that if he sat on his bed and cried, his mother would come in and try to comfort him. Then, he just wanted to be left alone. No amount of hugs would bring his father home.
So one day, he retreated to the corner of the closet to cry. When his mother came into the room to see if he was all right, she called out his name. She then searched the room until she saw him curled up into a ball. She tried to get him to come out, but he refused. He told her he wanted to be alone. After several minutes, she gave up and left. She would return occasionally to check on him, but she left him alone.
He always came out when he finished grieving about whatever was on his mind. For a year, he cried because he felt his father left because of him. It was his uncle, Jack, who finally convinced him that there were other reasons Brian had left. Jack would never try to get him to come out of the closet. Instead, he would scoot over shoes and dirty socks and sit in the dark beside him. He wouldn’t say anything. He would just sit quietly beside him. The sound of their breathing would fill the dark space. Finally, Neil would start talking. Jack would listen patiently and then offer advice. Afterwards, Neil would leave the closet feeling better.
“But this isn’t anything Jack can make better,” muttered Neil as he wrapped his arms around his legs and rocked against the cushion. Tears filled his eyes, and he tried to think of ways to deal with the situation. However, there was no solution. He had two options: he could continue going to school and try to endure the harassment and torment he would surely face for the next three years.
Or, as he grabbed a tie from off the floor and looked up at the metal bar that hung his clothes. He twisted and knotted the blue tie around the palms of his hands. He couldn’t face option one, and he didn’t have the nerve to carry out option two. As the tears became a torrent, he was lost as to what to do. There was no one who could make the situation better, not even Uncle Jack.
* * * * * * *
The old woman stood at the bottom of the steps and shouted up the stairs, “Lucas! Get your fat ass down here!”
Lucas hollered from his room, “What’s wrong, Granny?”
“Did I ask you to answer me with a question?” she hollered back. “Now get your ass down here. Now!”
Lucas rose from his bed. He was tired from the first day of school, and he had come home and sprawled out on the bed to take a nap. As he got off the bed, he mumbled to himself, “What’s that old biddy want now?”
Lucas lived alone with his grandmother. She had taken him in when he was three years old. She had to because no one else wanted him. Her only daughter, Molly, went out one night with her boyfriend and helped him hold up a liquor store. She didn’t know that Chad had a gun until the owner of the store pulled out a baseball bat when she thrust the bag at him and told him to give her all his money. She ducked just in time to avoid being hit on the top of her head. The next thing she heard was a gunshot. The owner gave her a blank look before clutching his chest and falling to the ground dead.
That was almost fourteen years ago, and she hadn’t seen her daughter since. She left behind Lucas. She was going to let Children’s Services place him in a foster home. However, one night in a moment of weakness, she agreed to take him in instead of placing him in a foster home. It was a decision she had regretted ever since.
She was a frail woman who lived on a meager social security check. Lucas was a big boy who ate constantly. She could barely make ends meet trying to keep him fed. He was also a constant source of trouble. The police had brought him home several times for delinquent behavior. Nothing was serious enough to have him incarcerated. Most were petty acts of vandalism. He had spray painted the garage doors of two homes a few blocks from where she lived. Another time, when he was eight, he had tied a can to a cat’s tail. The owner wanted him arrested, but he was too young.
She simply couldn’t control him. She was also afraid of him. He towered over her, and he outweighed her by a hundred pounds. However, she masked her fears from him. Until now, it had worked. However, she was afraid that there would be a day when he would call her bluff.
When he came bounding down the stairs, she was waiting for him. As soon as he landed on the first step, she hauled off and slapped him upside his head. He stepped back, held his head and asked, “What the hell was that for?”
He ducked when she tried to pop him upside his head again. “That’s for causing trouble in school again. Christ,” she scolded as she shook her head, “It is only the first day of school and I get called.”
“Mrs. Yarber was being a bitch,” he said. “I didn’t do nothing. Honest.”
The old woman reached out and smacked him on the back of his head again. Lucas stepped back and held his head. “It wasn’t Mrs. Yarber,” she informed him. “It was some young teacher named Ms. Shelton.”
“Ms. Shelton?” He insisted, “I didn’t do nothing in her class. Honest.”
“She said you was causing trouble.”
Lucas replied, “She’s a lying bitch.” He ducked when his grandmother tried to hit him again.
“You say that about all your teachers,” she hollered as she tried to hit him again. She clutched her chest and ambled over to the sofa. “You’re going to be the death of me.”
“Aw, Granny,” innocently replied Lucas as he sat down beside her. “I ain’t done nothing wrong at school.”
She was too tired to argue with him. It usually led nowhere. They would yell, scream and make threats, and then Lucas would storm back up to his room. She shook her head and said sorrowfully, “I’ve done all I can for you. You’re going to end up someday just like your momma.”
Lucas had never met his mother. He was too young when she went to prison. The only mother he had was the old woman sitting beside him on the sofa. It was just the two of them. He constantly worried what would happen to him if she died.
He tried to assure her, “I’ll do better in school this year. I promise.”
She looked over and rolled her eyes. “You’ve been making that promise since the first grade. Yet every year you manage to get yourself into a heap of trouble.” She pointed a narrow finger at him. “One day something is going to happen, and I won’t be able to get you out of it. You hear me?”
“Sorry, Granny,” responded Lucas as he rose from the sofa and headed toward the kitchen. “I’m hungry. We got anything to eat?” The old woman watched the large boy who was turning into a larger man walk away.
* * * * * * *
Brenda sent Brett downstairs to the family room when Jack entered through the kitchen door. “Go watch some television, Sweetheart,” she said softly as she handed him several chocolate chip cookies and patted him on his behind.
Brett giggled and replied, “You must going to be telling secrets again.” She waited until she was sure he was at the bottom of the steps before walking over to the table and sitting down.
Jack poured himself a cup of coffee, and then he sat down opposite her. He looked at his younger sister. Her eyes were red and puffy from where she had been crying. “Are you sure you understood Mary right?” He chuckled and added, “She is the town gossip.”
Brenda shook her head sadly. “She said everyone at school is saying that Neil is gay.” She took a sip of coffee. “I suspected something was wrong this morning when I practically had to drag him out of the house to get on the bus.”
Jack asked, “Did she say why they think Neil is gay?”
Brenda shook her head. “I was so upset that I had to restrain myself from throwing her out of the office. I think she was getting a kick out of telling me.”
Jack replied angrily, “She probably was.” He chuckled again and said, “She’ll be the target of all the gossip someday when people start talking about how her husband, Samuel, is sleeping with every bimbo in town.”
Brenda raised an eyebrow and asked, “Really?”
Jack laughed and told her, “Everyone down at the Lucky Eagle knows about it. He comes in bragging about his weekend sexcapades every Monday.”
Brenda laughed and asked, “Sexcapades?” Is that what you call them now?”
Jacked informed her, “That’s what Samuel calls them. He’s going to take home a disease someday to Mary. Then she’ll know what he’s been up to.”
“Serves her right,” snarled Brenda. “I’d love to see her get her comeuppance.”
Jack reached across the table and patted his sister’s hand. “You think I should go talk to him?”
Brenda shook her head. “I don’t know if it will do any good. You can’t just go into his closet and ask him if he’s gay.” She dropped her head to the table and started weeping loudly. Jack rose from his chair and stepped behind her. He rubbed her shoulders as he tried to comfort her. “I can’t believe this is happening again,” she cried.
Jack said soothingly, “We dealt with it once. We can handle it again.”
Brenda sobbed and explained, “Yeah, but it almost destroyed me.”
“This time is different,” responded Jack. “Back then it was all so new. You wasn't prepared. This time, however, we’ve talked about the possibility that Neil could be gay.”
Brenda reached for a napkin and daubed at her wet eyes. “I just don’t want Neil going through the pain his father went through.”
Jack squeezed her shoulders and assured her, “We’ll get him through this. He needs us to be strong.” Brenda daubed her eyes once again, and then she sat upright in her chair.
Brenda took a sip of her coffee and muttered, “I don’t know how much strength I have left.”
* * * * * * * *
Brenda had just rocked Brett to sleep and put him in his crib. After checking on Emily and Neil, she took a shower, put on a black negligee and climbed into bed. She took a book off the nightstand and opened it to where she had last placed the bookmark. She looked at the clock. It was a little past ten. Brian should be coming to bed soon.
She dozed off until she felt the weight of the bed as Brian climbed into bed. She waited until he had nestled into bed before rolling over and throwing her arm around him. She purred seductively as she rubbed the coarse hair on his chest.
He suddenly grumbled, and then he turned away from her. “I’m kind of sleepy,” he mumbled as he pulled the covers tightly around him.
She sat up in bed and said sarcastically, “You’re always tired.” She looked angrily down at him as he pulled the cover tighter to his body. Suddenly, she started weeping. “Is there another woman?” she sobbed loudly.
Brian sighed, and then he sat up and rested his body against the headboard. He looked over at his tearful wife and replied, “No, there isn’t another woman.”
“Then what is it?” Brenda wept as she stared into Brian’s eyes. “You haven’t wanted to touch me in several months.” She took her hand and pulled her black negligee aside as she exposed one of her breasts.
She attempted to pull his head down toward her bosom. “Suck it like you used to do. I love it when you suck on my breasts.” She raised it in the palm of her hand toward his face.
Brian fought to get away from his wife’s clutches. He sat upright and tears welled up in his eyes. “I can’t,” he muttered as he choked back tears. Then without saying anything more, he climbed out of bed, dressed and left. Brenda sobbed as she heard him descending the stairs. Seconds later, she heard the front door slam shut. She went to the window and watched as her husband backed out of the driveway and raced down the street.
She heard nothing from him for a week. She called his office several times a day, but his secretary would tell her that he wasn’t available. One day, she put the kids in the car and circled his office. His car was parked in his usually spot. She called again, and the secretary told her that he was out of the office.
She took the kids to a babysitter, and then she returned to Brian’s office. She stormed into the lobby, and when his secretary tried to stop her, she pushed her out of the way. Brian came to the door to see what was happening. Brenda screamed that she wanted to see him. He stepped aside and let her enter the office.
After closing the door, Brenda went into a tirade. She wanted to know what was happening, and why he was avoiding her. She clutched her chest and fell back into a chair when he announced the words that would forever change her life.