“There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue. There's just stuff people do.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
As we pulled off, the reporter extended her hand and said, “I’m Stephanie Harding with the Daily Gazette.” I reluctantly shook her hand. She was pretty, in a plain sort of way. She looked young, like she might have graduated from college recently. She had long brown hair which was pulled back into a ponytail. She didn’t appear snobbish like most people I’ve met with college degrees. After spending years on the street, I developed a sense of who to approach. I tried to avoid young people dressed for success. They were the ones who usually complained that we should get a job.
We drove in silence for several minutes. I think Stephanie was trying to decide where we should go to talk. I certainly didn’t want to be interviewed in a newsroom with others around. Fifteen minutes later, she pulled onto a road leading to a nature park. My parents had brought me here when I was a small boy to roam the nature trails hunting for small animals. She parked the car on the south side away from the more popular trails.
I found it strange when she got out of the car without a notepad. I had assumed she was going to interview me and would be taking notes as we spoke. She started walking down a trail with me following a few feet behind.
She slowed until I was beside her. “I want to thank you, Matt, for agreeing to speak to me,” she said appreciatively. “I know that you are doing this under duress.”
“Yeah,” I replied. She didn’t say anything as we continued to walk. Finally, I was growing impatient. I didn’t like the game we were playing. I asked, “Why are we here?”
She reached out and wrapped her small arm around mine. “My editors assigned me to do this story on the death of Pastor Simpson, and I just don’t feel comfortable doing it,” she replied. “I’ve done some initial research, and it is quite a disturbing story.”
“So, why are we here then?”
She stopped and stared up into my face. “I’d rather do a story on you?” she replied.
“On me? Why do you want to do a story on me?” I asked skeptically. “I thought you wanted to expose what Pastor Simpson did.”
“I do,” she assured me, “but I would rather do it through your eyes. Pastor Simpson is dead, and I don’t think it would be fair to his family if I wrote a story that he couldn’t respond to. I know it would be interesting to the reader, but then it would be forgotten.”
I furrowed my eyebrows and responded, “I’m not following you.”
She gripped my arm tightly and said, “You’re alive, Matt. You can tell me your side of the story. I’ve done some research on you.” She smiled and added, “It wasn’t easy. All I have been able to pick up is bits and pieces from people who know you on the streets. Sergeant Lattimore wouldn’t provide me any information. He kept telling me I would have to ask you.” I smiled knowing I could trust Lattimore and Dexter.
I looked down at her expectant expression. “What do you want from me?”
“I want your side of the story,” she replied. “I want you to tell me what Pastor Simpson did to you, and how it affected you. It must have been something awful to force you into a life on the streets.”
“You could say that,” I replied sadly as I moved away and headed down the narrow path. I had a lot to think about. I thought Stephanie would ask me a few questions about Pastor Simpson. That I could explain in a few minutes. There wasn’t much to tell. My parents had sent me to him for conversion therapy. I met Charles and we were able to escape, and a few days later we were arrested. I had no plans to tell her about him taping me and Charles having sex, and I wasn’t going to tell her about the bar. I’m sure the incident in the church would come up, but I had nothing to do with him committing suicide. I only agreed to talk to her so she would quit stalking me. Now it appeared she wanted much more.
She trailed behind me silently for several minutes. Finally, I turned and asked her, “So, what do you want from me?”
“I want your life story,” she replied. “I want everything. I’ve done a lot of reading about gay conversion therapy and how it has affected so many young people.” Tears welled up in her eyes when she added, “Too many kids have committed suicide as a result.”
She gripped my arm tightly. “You’re the real story here, Matt. A story exposing Pastor Simpson won’t benefit anyone. Your story can save lives.” She looked hopefully into my eyes. “What do you say, Matt?”
I ran my hands through my hair. “I don’t know,” I replied. “I gotta think about this.” I was afraid talking about my life would open up a lot of old wounds. My sanity was hanging on by a thread. For the past few days, I felt that I was being given another chance at life. Meeting Trent and Hayden had given me a new lease on life. Mr. London’s offer of a job was a chance for me to stop living on the streets. I couldn’t see any positive benefits resulting in exposing myself to Stephanie.
“Please give it some thought, Matt,” she pleaded. “You can be the voice for so many young men who have gone through what you have had to endure. If you can save just one life, then it will be worth it.”
‘Or ruin mine,’ I thought silently. “I’ll think about it,” I replied, knowing that I couldn’t do what she was asking me to do.
“Good,” she replied with a smile. “That is all I’m asking you to do.” She wrapped her arm around mine as we head toward the car.
“Where would you like me to take you,” she asked as we pulled back onto the road. I hesitated a moment. I knew if I told her to take me to the center, she would know where to find me.
However, I was tired, and it was getting late. I had to help Mrs. Thatcher prepare dinner for the boys and girls at the center. I also didn’t want to upset Mr. London. He was generous enough to hire me. I wanted him to know he could depend on me. Finally, I told her. Fifteen minutes later, she was pulling up outside the building. Before I exited the car, she handed me a business card.
“Call me when you’ve made a decision,” she said. I nodded, and she pulled away.
The center was abuzz when I entered. A security guard approached and asked me to leave. Just then, Trent walked up and assured the guard that I was an employee.
“What’s going on?” I asked as I watched several more people rushing down a hallway. Another person was shouting out that all students were to remain in their room with their doors closed.
Trent gave me a worried look and responded, “It’s Evan. He’s managed to wedge his door closed, and we’re trying to break it down. We think he may kill himself.”
My heart literally stopped. Just a few hours earlier I had talked to him, and he suggested that he wanted to die. I had been there several times, and I was afraid he might try to do it. Trent grabbed my arm and pulled me down the hall. “Come on, Matt. Maybe you can talk to him. You got through to him earlier.”
When we approached his room, several large men were trying to use their shoulders to push open the door. Mr. London was standing off to the side with a worried look. He attempted to smile when Trent and I approached. Trent walked over to him, and they talked silently for a moment. Mr. London then approached me.
“Trent told me you were able to talk to Evan this afternoon at the detention center,” he said. “Do you have any idea how to handle him? I’m afraid if we break into the room, he may kill himself. One of the other boys says he has a large knife he stole out of the kitchen.”
I didn’t know what to say. I knew Evan might be a problem when Trent brought him to the center. He had lived a hard life recently, and he had accepted that his life would never change. He saw killing himself as a way out of his problems.
“Stop it!” Mr. London hollered at the two men who were trying to break into the room. They stepped back and waited for further orders. I looked down the hall and noticed two policemen running toward us. Mr. London walked over and informed them what was happening.
Trent approached and asked, “What do you think we should do, Matt?”
“I don’t know,” I replied worriedly. “I think if you break into the room, he may kill himself.” I then added, “If he hasn’t already.” Tears were forming in my eyes. I didn’t want to imagine someone so young wanting to kill themselves. However, I had been there myself five years before.
I walked over to Mr. London and asked, “Could you remove everyone from the hallway?”
He gave me a puzzled look. “Why?”
I looked at the hallway filled with people. “He’s scared right now. He’ll never open the door with so many people out here.”
Mr. London nodded and asked, “What do you suggest? We have to get inside that room.”
“Get everyone out of here and let me talk to him,” I pleaded. “Maybe he’ll talk to me.”
Mr. London stared at me. I could tell that he didn’t know what to do. Finally, he turned and told everyone to leave the area. People gave him a puzzled look, and then they began to quietly leave. Mr. London gripped my arm and said, “You have ten minutes, Matt. If he doesn’t come out, then I’m going to have the fire department bust down the door." I looked down the hall and saw several firemen talking to the police.
“Okay,” I replied. He patted my shoulder and left. Trent gave me a worried look and followed him down the hall.
I sat down and leaned against the door. I didn’t know what to say to make Evan open the door. That is, if he was still alive. I tapped lightly and said, “Evan, it’s Matt. I’m alone. Everyone has left. Will you please unlock the door and let me in?”
I waited a minute hoping that he would open the door. However, I needed to know if he was still alive. “Evan, can you hear me? If you can, knock once on the door.” Still silence.
“Evan, I want to help you,” I said as I knocked on the door once. “I know what you’re going through, I’ve been there myself a few times.” Still silence.
I pleaded, “Evan, if you can hear me, please knock once on the door. I’ve only got a few more minutes or they are going to bust the door down and force their way in.” I gave a sigh of relief when there was a faint rap.
“Are you scared?” Another rap.
“Can I come in?” Two raps. I figured that was his way of telling me no.
“Are you hurt?” Two raps.
“Will you talk to me?”
I heard a faint, “I ain’t got nothing to say to nobody.”
“Cause I’m worthless. Everyone will be happier when I’m dead.”
“I won’t be happy.”
“So?” he asked. “Who are you? You ain’t nobody to me.”
“I still care about you,” I replied. “I liked you the first minute we met.”
“You’re just saying that to make me open the door,” he replied.
“No, Evan, I’m saying that because we are the same person. I’ve been where you are now. I’ve been living on the streets for the past few years. I know what it’s like to feel unwanted.” Tears started to well up in my eyes, and my voice began to crack. “I know what it is like to feel that no one loves you.”
I could hear Evan sobbing on the other side. He seemed close, so I figured he may be sitting with his back to the door. I looked down the hall and saw Mr. London and Trent approaching. I held up my hand and gave them a pleading look. I needed a few more minutes. Trent seemed to understand. He nodded, grabbed Mr. London’s arm, and they walked away.
“Please let me in, Evan,” I begged. “I promise that no one else is out here. I’m alone. If you open the door, no one else will come in.”
“How do I know that?” he asked.
“Because I’m giving you my word,” I replied. “On the street, your word means everything. It’s a solemn oath. Please open the door.”
I sat and waited. I could hear Evan crying on the other side. Finally, after what seemed like a hundred hours, but was probably only a minute or two, I heard the door unlock. I rose and opened the door. Evan was lying on his bed with the blanket pulled over his head. I was relieved when I saw the knife lying by the door. I kicked it into the hall and then locked the door. I cautiously walked across the room and sat on the bed beside him.
“Thanks,” I muttered softly. He didn’t say anything and continued to cry. I scooted back and rested against the wall. I reached out and pulled him into my lap. He lay his head against my chest and cried. I was so overcome with emotion that I started crying too. It felt as if I we were both sharing a similar grief over our lives. I was once again that sixteen-year-old boy who no one loved. I was rejected by my family and tossed out onto the streets like a mangy dog to fend for myself. I knew exactly what Evan was experiencing.
My only problem was how was I going to convince him that his life would get better when I was never able to make mine better. Until recently, I had lived in a dirty basement and survived by begging for money on a street corner.
“What am I going to do?” He cried as he held the blanket to his face.
“The truth?” I asked. I could feel him nod his head. “I don’t know.”
“Big help you are,” he cried.
I reached out and pulled him into my arms. “I said I don’t know because I’m going through the same thing you are.” I pulled him into a tighter hug. “I’m starting to figure it out, and I’m going to help you figure it out too. Do you trust me?”
I smiled when he nodded his head into my shoulder. “Good. I’m not one of these counselors with fancy degrees.” I laughed slightly. “Hell, I didn’t even finish school. But you know what I got?” I felt his shrug his shoulders.
“I got more street smarts than all them counselors put together,” I said confidently. “I’ve lived a life they couldn’t survive in for one day.” I hugged him tightly. “You have too. We’re survivors, and survivors never give up. Do we?” He shrugged his shoulders, and then he shook his head slightly.
Just then, someone knocked softly on the door. I asked Evan, “Can I open the door to let them know we are okay?” He nodded his head. I carefully lay him on the bed as I scooted off and opened the door. Mr. London was outside trying to peek inside the room. I opened it a little wider to see if he was alone.
“Is everything okay, Matt?” he asked worriedly.
“Yeah,” I assured him. “Evan is okay.” I turned to Evan and said, “Evan, hold your hand up so Mr. London knows you’re okay.” Matt unfolded his arm from the blanket and held it up.
I said loud enough for Evan to hear. “Call everyone off. He’ll be alright. I’m going to stay with him tonight.”
Mr. London gave me a worried look and asked, “Are you sure, Matt?”
“We’ll be fine,” I assured him. “He just needs a little time to settle down.” As Mr. London began to close the door, I grabbed it and pulled it open. “Mr. London,” I asked, “Could you bring us something to eat? I’m starving?” He nodded his head, and I told him to leave it outside the door and I would get it.
I returned to Evan’s bed and sat down. He still had the blanket pulled over his head, but I could hear him snoring lightly. He was exhausted. He had been picked up on the streets earlier and taken to a juvenile facility. He then was brought to the New Morning Center. No wonder he had a breakdown. However, somehow, I had to convince him that he was safe here. Since I had only recently arrived, I wasn’t familiar with what they could do. My first impressions of Trent and Mr. London were good. Years on the street taught me how to read people, and they quickly passed the smell test. I knew I could trust them. Now, I had to convince Evan that he could too.
Several minutes later, there was a slight knock on the door. I walked over and opened it. Outside was a large tray containing food, snacks and sodas. There was also a cellphone. I looked down the hall and saw Trent standing about ten feet away. He gave me a questioning look, and I gave him a thumb’s up. He smiled and walked away. I picked up the tray and carried it into the room, placing it on the desk.
“Evan?” I spoke softly. “Are you hungry?”
He pulled the blanket from his face and looked over at me. It was the first time I had seen him since arriving. He looked tired. His eyes were half open as he pulled back the blanket and sat up. I tried to smile, but inside I wanted to cry. I wondered if I had the same look when I was locked inside the bedroom at Pastor Simpson’s home.
I asked again, “Are you hungry? I asked Mr. London if he could have some food brought to us.”
He rose and walked over to the desk. He was a few inches taller than me as he stood next to the desk and looked down. He picked up a ham and cheese sandwich, a bag of potato chips and a Coke. He then went back to his bed, sat down and greedily ate. Watching him, I wondered when the last time he had eaten.
I was afraid to take anything because he might want more. However, I hadn’t eaten anything all day. I took a sandwich, chips and a Mountain Dew, sat down and began to eat. I kept looking over at Evan, but he was too busy eating to notice. When he finished, I looked at what remained on the tray. There were still two sandwiches, snacks and a couple of sodas.
“More?” I asked as I pointed to the tray. He came over and grabbed another sandwich and headed back to his bed. Occasionally, he would look over at me and stare. I knew the look. He was trying to size me up and determine if he could trust me.
I jumped when the phone rang. I hesitated before picking it up. It was Trent calling. He wanted to know if we were okay, and if we needed anything else. I looked over at Evan and asked him. He shook his head, then he asked if they had any ice cream.
I smiled and asked, “Got any ice cream?” Trent laughed and said he would bring it to us in a few minutes.
I walked over to Evan and sat down. “You okay?” I asked.
He stared across the room. Finally, he replied, “I don’t know.”
“Feel like talking about it yet?”
“What’s to talk about?” He responded sadly. “I’m a fuck up. I’ve been a fuck up my whole life.”
I took a chance and asked, “Your old man?” I knew my father felt the same way about me when I was his age.
He nodded his head as tears filled his eyes. I then asked, “He beat on you?” Again, he nodded his head. I felt I was getting somewhere, but I didn’t want to press my luck. Guys like him and me don’t open up easily. We hold the shit inside us and let it consume us. I wanted him to know I shared his past, and I didn’t want to come off as some psychologist. If I did, he wouldn’t trust me anymore.
“My old man used to fuck with my mind,” I said. “He never beat me, but the bastard fucked me up so bad I wished at times I was dead.” Evan looked at me, and I instantly knew that he was aware I was coming from a similar past.
“Did you ever try to kill yourself?”
I smiled slightly and replied, “Slowly, Man. Slowly.”
“What do you mean?”
“I fucked around with drugs and alcohol. I did a lot of stuff,” I said. “I thought if I got high enough or drunk enough, it might kill me.” I laughed and said, “All it did was give me some of the worst fucking hangovers.”
“Yeah,” he muttered. “I know.”
“And when that didn’t work, I would turn to sex to try to escape.” He gave me a questioning look. “But it didn’t matter. No matter how many men I slept with, the problems were still there the next morning.”
His mouth dropped as he asked, “You’re gay?”
I nodded and replied, “Why do you think my old man hates me?”
“Yeah, I know,” he replied sadly as tears filled his eyes. “My old man, too.”
I pulled him into my chest, and he began to cry again. “You gotta do better,” I said softly as I rubbed his back. “I don’t want you to go through the stuff I went through. If only someone had tried to save me when I was your age, then maybe I could have avoided some of the shit I went through.” He nodded, and I continued to hold him tightly.
Evan was the second boy who had entered my life, and I knew it wasn’t by accident. My eyes were now open, and I knew I had a mission to accomplish. Maybe I was unable to change what happened to me, but I could save someone else. And perhaps in doing so, I could save myself.
There was a light knock on the door, and Trent opened it and looked inside. “May I come in?” he asked. I looked at Evan and he nodded his head.
Trent came in carrying three Styrofoam boxes. He walked over and handed me and Evan a box. I opened it, and inside was the biggest banana split I had ever seen. Trent sat on the other side of Evan as we hungrily shoveled ice cream, bananas, pineapple, chocolate and whipped cream into our mouths. It was the best banana split I had ever eaten.