“Okay.” I took one last look at Nicky and brushed back his long hair. “Are you ready?” He looked up and nodded at me. Star straightened out his collar and patted him gently on the back.
“Now remember,” she warned him. “Your dad had surgery and he’s still in a lot of pain. So when you hug him, be careful.” He looked over at her and smiled as he attempted to hold back the tears that were ready to escape.
I reached for the door handle to Joey’s hospital room and slowly opened the door. Joey was sitting up in bed, eagerly awaiting Nicky’s arrival. He had been preparing for their reunion for a day.
As soon as Nicky saw Joey, he ran into the room. Joey opened his arms, and Nicky collapsed into him. I closed the door and looked over at Star.
“We’ll let them have their privacy for a few minutes,” I suggested. She nodded. “How about a cup of coffee?”
We made our way down to the cafeteria. By now it was a place where we were very familiar. It seemed like I’d spent half my life there. We purchased a coffee and a doughnut, and then we took a seat at our usual table in the back.
We sat quietly for several minutes before Star spoke. “Have you and Tina spoken? Gene’s mother told me she left to go back home.”
“She left me a note before returning to California,” I said. “She’s filing for divorce when she gets back.”
“What!” Star shouted a little too loudly. Several people sitting nearby looked over at us. She lowered her voice and asked, “Filing for divorce? Why?”
“I told her the truth,” I replied. “Well, I didn’t exactly tell her. She guessed it.”
“That you’re gay?”
“That too,” I responded. Again, Star gave me a puzzled look as she sat back and looked worriedly over at me.
“Have you ever thought that once Joey gets better, he may not care for you like you care for him?” Her words hurt. I’d thought about it a lot over the past couple of days. I was beginning to really fall in love with him, and I knew that he would probably never feel the same for me.
“Gene,” Star reached across the table and held my hand. “You would have thrown your whole life away for nothing.”
I sat back and laughed loudly. Again, people around us looked our way. I leaned forward and spoke softly. “That is one thing I have not done, Star. I have not thrown my life away. To me, it’s like a new beginning. I’ve been living a lie with Tina for years, and now I feel like I’m free. She’s also free. Now maybe she can find a man who loves her.”
Star looked at me and shook her head. “This whole thing is like a soap opera. You’ve been in love with Joey almost your entire life, and he falls in love with your brother. You marry a woman you’ve never loved and spend a lifetime thinking about what might have been.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “For both of you, I hope this works out.”
“What’s to work out?” I asked sadly. “Joey doesn’t even know I exist. He spent fifteen years with Allen, and now he has Nicky in his life. I’m only a guy he went to high school with a long time ago.” A wave of sadness rushed over me. Star sensed my mood and squeezed my hand.
“No matter what happens,” she said, “you’ll always be friends.”
I looked at her and laughed. “Just what I wanted. I’ve spent twenty years in love with Joey, only to return to be his friend.” I shook my head and then rose from the table.
“I guess we better get back,” I said. “They’ve had enough time to be alone.” I headed off toward the elevator with Star following behind. I felt like leaving the hospital, but since I had driven, I was obligated to remain.
When the door opened, there he stood. For two days, while floating in and out of reality due to the drugs I was taking, Nicky was constantly on my mind. The thing that troubled me the most was if I had died, what would have happened to him?
Nicky’s a strong person, but at the same time he’s extremely vulnerable. Living with a drug addict had scarred him. From things he had said, she was abusive; not physically, but mentally. She was constantly yelling at him. Because of her own inadequacies, she turned to his to bolster her own self image. As a result, Nicky came to me broken and with low self-esteem. It had only been the past few months that I saw him beginning to come out of his shell. Now he had to deal with another tragedy in his life.
“Dad!” He cried as he ran across the room, leaned into me and caressed me gently. I wrapped my arms around him and cradled him, even though I was in a great deal of pain. However, I knew he needed to be reassured that I was all right.
After several minutes, he pulled away, stood up and wiped the tears from his eyes. “Uncle Gene says I have to stay strong,” he announced with determination. I couldn’t help but smile. He was trying so hard to be mature. The little boy I had left home a week earlier had somehow grown a little older.
“What else did Uncle Gene say?” I asked amusedly. He looked down and tears welled up once again in his eyes. He fought hard to hold them back.
“He promised me you would be all right,” he said as he again held me, this time a little more tightly. After a minute, he whispered in my ear, “He kept his promise.”
When he stepped back, I looked up into his face. “You and Gene seem to be hitting it off.”
“Yeah, Dad,” he beamed. “He’s pretty cool.”
“I thought you said he was weird?”
“I didn’t say that,” he replied defensively. When I raised my eyebrow, he announced, “Well, if I did, I didn’t mean it.”
“I understand he’s staying at the house with you?” Star had mentioned it to me when we talked earlier. She had tried to get Nicky to go to her house, but Gene volunteered to stay with him in our home. She said that Tina had left Gene, and he didn’t really want to stay alone with his mother.
I had asked her about Tina’s leaving, but she seemed rather evasive. She said they had been having problems for years, and she finally decided she’d had enough. When I tried to pressure her for more information, she changed the subject.
“We’re having fun,” Nicky said excitedly. “He’s letting me stay up late at night.”
“What about school?” Again, Star had told me about him not going to school while I was in the hospital. Actually, the school principal had requested it. She said that reporters had camped outside the building waiting for him to come to school so they could get pictures of him. Nicky was unaware of all this.
“Uncle Gene said I didn’t have to go to school,” he responded enthusiastically. “I told you he was cool.” I tried to hold back a smile.
“I think I should have a talk with Uncle Gene,” I replied sternly. “You know how important getting an education is.”
“Dad!” he whined. “It’s okay, really. Uncle Gene’s been going to school every day and getting my assignments. He’s tutoring me at home. He’s really smart. He’s helping me understand algebra.”
I was happy to hear that. As intelligent as Nicky is, he struggles to keep a good grade in math. Algebra has presented many stressful nights in our house while he worked on his homework. I had even hired a neighbor who was in college to help out, but it was beginning to seem fruitless. At least Gene was able to do what several others had not been able to accomplish.
“Wow,” I frowned. “You guys have really been hitting it off. I guess you won’t need me anymore.” I meant it as a joke. However, when I said it, I may have come across too convincingly. Tears welled up in Nicky’s eyes as he leaned in and hugged me.
“No one can ever take your place, Dad,” he cried. “I love you so much. I’ve been so scared the past few days, I didn’t think I could take it.” He started sobbing into my shoulder. I suddenly realized just how much he’d been through the past few days.
“I’m all right,” I reassured him. “One small bullet isn’t going to stop me.”
He pulled himself away and looked at me. “You ain’t lying to me are you? You aren’t going to die, are you?”
“Seriously, Nicky.” I said reassuringly. “The doctor says I should be good as new in a month.”
“A month?” he asked excitedly. “You’ll be in bed for a month?”
“Well, I won’t be in bed,” I laughed. “But it will take some time to heal.”
He gave me a worried look. “Who’s going to cook?” I laid my head back on the pillow and roared with laughter until I felt sharp pains shooting through my chest.
“Are you all right, Dad?” Nicky asked worriedly.
“I’ll be okay,” I said. “I’m just going to be sore for a while.”
Nicky became very quiet and stared down at me. “What?” I could tell when he wanted to ask me something but was afraid to approach the subject.
“I was just thinking,” he responded shyly. “What if Uncle Gene stayed with us for a while? He’s a good cook. He made me pancakes this morning for breakfast.”
“We can’t ask him to do that,” I insisted. “He’s got a job in California he has to return to.”
“No, he don’t,” he remarked.
“No, he doesn’t,” I said, correcting his grammar.
“I just said that,” he answered. “He told me he quit his job and he’s looking for one here.”
“Well, we still can’t ask him to stay with us just so he can cook you pancakes in the morning.”
“He’d cook them for you too,” he smiled. “He likes you.”
“Nicky!” I shouted.
“It’s true, Dad,” he replied. “I can tell by the way he looks at you. He’s been by your side since you got shot. He even sneaked me in to see you.”
“He did?” I thought it had been a dream when I imagined Nicky had been in the room earlier.
Just then Star and Gene entered the room. I watched as Nicky moved instinctively beside Gene. Gene placed his arm around Nicky’s back and held him tightly. When he noticed me watching, he removed his arm from around him.
“How are you today?” Star asked as she walked over to me and brushed back my hair. She’d been doing that quite a bit the past few days. I was beginning to understand Nicky’s obsession with someone touching his hair.
“Much better.” I looked at Nicky and smiled. “I’m doing much better.”
Nicky leaned into Gene and whispered something in his ear. Gene stood back and looked shockingly at Nicky. “No, you didn’t!” he shouted. A hurt look appeared on Nicky’s face.
“What?” Star asked. Everyone in the room suddenly got quiet as they stared at Nicky.
“I only asked Dad if Uncle Gene could live with us for a while,” he replied sadly. Star walked over and put her arm around Nicky. She looked at Gene, and then at me.
“I think that’s a wonderful idea.” Nicky looked at her and smiled.
“You do?” he asked.
“Of course,” she replied. “Joey’s not going to be able to get around for a while, so he’ll need someone around to help out.”
“Star.” Gene cast her an angry look. “Don’t.”
“I’m not doing anything,” she responded. “You told me you’re not going back to California, and that you’re looking for a job here. You can stay with Nicky and Joey until you get on your feet. In the meantime, you can help them out until Joey is healed.”
Nicky looked around the room with a hopeful expression on his face. “Dad?” I must have looked like a deer in a car’s headlights. I’d been put on the spot.
It did make sense, though. I would need someone around for a while to help me. The doctor told me I’d probably be out of work for about a month while I healed. I had contemplated hiring a temporary housekeeper.
“Uncle Gene?” Nicky looked at Gene. He too had a surprised expression on his face.
“It’s settled.” Star began clapping. She looked at us and smiled.
“Hurry up, Nicky!” I yelled up the stairs. “You’re going to be late to school.”
He hollered back, “Coming, Uncle Gene!”
“You two seem to be getting along very well,” remarked Star. I looked at her and rolled my eyes.
“I still can’t believe you set us up like this,” I responded.
“Nicky had more to do with it than I did,” she replied. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say he’s trying to play matchmaker.”
“He just likes my pancakes.” I insisted as I pushed a plate of blueberry pancakes over to her. Just then Nicky came springing into the room and sat down.
“Oh, boy!” he said excitedly. “Pancakes. Hey! What’s these blue things in them?”
“Gross!” He said as he pushed a forkful into his mouth. “Mmmmm. These are good.”
I made a plate for myself and sat down. “We need to give this homecoming thing some thought. Joey’s coming home in two days.”
“It should be small,” she suggested. I started laughing.
“Half the residents of town have asked to be here when he arrives,” I said. “Someone even suggested having a parade from the hospital to here.”
“Hey!” Nicky mumbled with a mouthful of pancakes. “A parade would be so cool.”
“No!” Star and I shouted in unison. “We won’t be having a parade,” Star insisted. “Your dad is too weak for that.”
“Can we at least have a caravan?” he asked. “You know, like when the football team wins a big game.”
“He’ll be coming home in our van,” replied Star. “That’s as close as we’ll get to a caravan.” Nicky frowned and then continued eating.
“These are really good, Uncle Gene.” He held up a fork with a piece of pancake dangling from it. “Can we have these again tomorrow?”
“You’ll have to go to the neighbor’s yard and pick the blueberries off a tree like I did,” I said as I tried to hold back a laugh. Star turned away and started giggling.
“Really?” he asked excitedly. “Our neighbor has a blueberry tree?”
Star and I laughed loudly as Nicky began to blush. “Blueberries don’t grow on trees, do they?” We laughed even louder.
“Seriously,” Star said a few minutes later. “How do you want to handle this? It’s going to be hard to get him home without some trouble. People Magazine and a couple of news organizations have asked for permission to interview him when he comes home.”
“Cool!” Nicky responded. “Can I be on television?”
“No!” We shouted in unison.
“We’ve spent a week trying to maintain our privacy,” Star said. “And if I can help it, we’ll continue to stay out of the limelight.”
“You know,” I replied. “That’s going to be hard to do. We had to disconnect the phones in the house because people were always calling. A reporter from London called and wanted to interview Joey.”
“Why?” Nicky asked innocently. “Why would they care about someone who got shot?”
“What your dad did was very special, Nicky.” He looked at me with a puzzled face. “He was trying to form a gay and straight alliance group at his school, and Coach Arnold didn’t like it. He went into your dad’s office with a gun and started shooting. Your dad tried to stop him. He even stepped in front of one of the boys to save his life. This has all the elements of what is called a human interest story.”
“You mean because Dad is gay?” He had a puzzled look on his face.
“Not just because he’s gay, but that it involved gay students and a homophobic coach. It dealt with what is called a hate crime.”
“I know what that is,” he said. “We learned about that in my history class.” He paused a few seconds before asking.
“Is Dad a hero? Everyone keeps calling him that.”
“Many people think he is,” Star answered. “Travis would probably be dead today if Joey hadn’t stepped in front of Coach Arnold’s gun.”
“Wow,” he said astonishingly. “Dad is a hero.” He waited before adding, “Maybe we should have a parade.”
“No!” We shouted.
I had my head back and was trying to get a little rest. My hospital room was like Grand Central Station. I was only supposed to have two visitors at a time, but sometimes there would be as many as ten people in the room.
Gene told me that the police were stationed on the floor, and everyone visiting my room had to show them some form of identification. They were trying to protect me from the media. I was overwhelmed when he told me that my shooting had been covered nationwide. He even brought in a Time magazine and showed me the article they wrote about me. It wasn’t a big article, but I was still amazed they had covered the incident.
I was also beginning to pick up bits and pieces of what had happened. I think most people had been told not to talk about the shooting in front of me. It was a police officer who informed me about Coach Arnold’s shooting. As much as I detested his homophobic behavior and the shooting in my office, I still felt sorry for him and his family. I had met his wife at many of the football games. In fact, we often sat together and rooted on our team. When I got out of the hospital, I was going to try and contact her and give her my condolences, as weird as that may sound.
I had almost fallen asleep when I heard a light tapping on the door. Seconds later, a woman opened the door and peered in. “Mr. Carpenter?” She whispered. “Are you asleep?” She seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place her.
I sat up in bed. “Come in, I’m not asleep.” She timidly walked into the room and stood before me.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but my son has been worried sick about you.” She turned and looked back. “Excuse me a minute.” She then exited the door, and I could hear hushed talking outside.
I reached for a glass of water on the stand and took a drink. A minute later she reemerged holding a young boy’s hand. I looked closely at him. He was about fifteen years old and small in stature. I started smiling when I realized who it was.
“Eddie?” He looked at me and his lip began to quiver. His mother reached behind him and pushed him forward.
“Mr. Carpenter?” I held out my arms and he rushed into them. I patted his back while he wept on my shoulder.
“I don’t think he’s slept in days,” his mother said. “He was so afraid you were going to die. I had to bring him here to show him you were all right.”
“As you can see,” I said as I ran my hand through his hair, “I’m very much alive.” He pulled away and wiped the tears from his eyes.
“You were my favorite teacher,” he announced proudly.
“I still have the card you made me in my office.” His eyes lit up when I told him. “In fact, I framed it, and it’s hanging on the wall beside me. I look at it every day.”
“You do?” He was amazed that I still had it.
“Yes,” I smiled. “It’s one of the nicest birthday gifts anyone has every given me.” He walked over and gave me another hug.
His mother sat down and we spent the next fifteen minutes catching up on what had happened since he was in my class. He was still small, so I assumed that he was probably still being bullied by larger kids in school.
Even though he was small, he was beginning to show signs of puberty. He had a small, thin mustache over his lip. He also had several pimples covering his forehead. His voice cracked several times as we talked. He had grown into an attractive young man. His hair was rather long and curly, and he still had those large, brown eyes that twinkled brightly. I used to love to watch him smile because they’d shine when he’d become excited about something.
“What school are you in?” I asked. I was surprised he wasn’t attending my high school.
He looked over at his mother. She nodded. “I’m being home schooled.”
“Why?” I asked.
A sad look appeared on his face. He looked back over at his mother. “He was having trouble adjusting to middle school. There were several boys who used to pick on him. He’d come home almost daily crying. When they pulled his pants off him and made him walk several blocks home in his underwear, I took him out of that school. I’ve been home schooling him ever since.”
I looked over at Eddie. He had his head down and was staring at the floor. He looked up at me with wet eyes, and then dropped his head again. “Some things never change, Mr. Carpenter,” he muttered sadly.
“When I’m feeling better,” I said, “we’ll sit down and have a long chat. Perhaps we can talk your mother into visiting Southwestern. You know I’m now the principal there?”
His brown eyes widened and he looked over at his mother. She looked worriedly at me. “I don’t know Mr. Carpenter,” she said. “It’s something I’ll really have to consider. I don’t want to get his hopes up.” Eddie looked at me and frowned. He then dropped his head and stared once again at the floor.
Just then the door opened and Gene entered with Nicky trailing behind him. They stopped and looked at the visitors.
“I didn’t know you had company,” said Gene.
I started laughing. “When don’t I have company?”
“Oh, Dear,” exclaimed Eddie’s mother. “We shouldn’t have disturbed you. You need your rest.”
“No, it’s quite alright Mrs. Price. I’m glad you and Eddie came to visit me.” I then held out my hand to Nicky.
“This is my son, Nicky.” Eddie’s eyes widened. I know he was confused because when he was in my class, I didn’t have a family.
“Nicky, this is Eddie and Mrs. Price.” Nicky walked over and shook their hands. “Eddie drew the birthday card I have hanging in my office.”
“You did?” Nicky asked. “That was pretty cool.” Eddie looked up and his face reddened.
“Thanks,” he said timidly.
Nicky stepped beside the wall and stood beside Gene as Eddie. Mrs. Price and I continued to talk. Several times I noticed Eddie look up at Nicky and smile. Nicky would blush, and then he’d look away.
“Nicky,” I asked. “Would you do me a favor?”
“Sure, Dad,” he responded. “What do you want?”
“I’ve got a taste for some ice cream,” I said. “If Uncle Gene will give you some money, would you go down to the cafeteria and get us all an ice cream bar? I think they sell them there.”
Gene reached into his wallet and handed Nicky a ten dollar bill. “I’ll be right back.” He turned and started out the door.
“Wait a minute!” I shouted. “You’d better take Eddie with you to help you carry them back.”
He looked down at Eddie and his face reddened. “You want to go with me?” His voice cracked.
Eddie looked up at him and smiled. “Okay. If you want me too.” He rose from his chair and followed Nicky out the door as I smiled to myself.