“All right, Dr. Carpenter,” said Dr. Singh as he walked into my hospital room with a smile on his face. “I’ve signed the release papers and you are free to go.”
“Finally,” I sighed. “It’s not like you haven’t been wonderful here, but like Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz, ‘There’s no place like home.’” Everyone laughed when I lifted my feet off the bed and started clicking my heels.
I looked around the room at all the people who had gathered to be with me. After a week in the hospital, I was finally going home. Nicky was standing by my bed, smiling down at me. Gene was beside him, and Star and Ticker were behind them. My mother was sitting in a chair, and beside her was Dr. Garvin. I was surprised when Mrs. Price and Eddie showed up. It appeared they had been invited by Nicky. There were also a number of nurses and orderlies present who had been taking care of me. Some of them I didn’t know since they were the staff from the Intensive Care Unit.
A policeman named Officer Davis walked up to the bed. “Are you ready, Sir?” I smiled and nodded my head.
“We are taking you out a side exit,” he informed us. “The media has found out that you are being dismissed this morning, and they want to get a picture of you.”
“No,” I insisted. “Take me out the front.”
“We can’t do that,” gasped Star.
“If I don’t give them what they want,” I responded, “then they will keep harassing me. We’ll never get any privacy.”
I looked at Dr. Singh. “Will you be with me to answer any medical questions they may have?”
“I’ll have to clear it with the Hospital Administrator,” he replied. He then pulled out his cell phone and left the room.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” My mother rose from her chair and walked over to me.
“If it gets them off our back,” I replied, “then I’m willing to do it. I read the newspaper this morning, and this story doesn’t seem to be going away. Maybe if I talk to them, then they will just leave us alone.”
My mother shook her head. “I’m just worried that you’re still too weak to do this.”
“I’ll be fine,” I responded. Just then Dr. Singh returned to the room and said that the hospital had approved him to talk to the media.
I looked over at Gene. “Take Nicky home,” I insisted. “I don’t want him involved in this. Mrs. Albright, Star and Ticker, you go too.”
Star walked over and took my hand. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to stay with you.”
It surprised me when Gene approached the bed and said, “Me, too.”
After Nicky, Mrs. Albright and Ticker left, I was placed in a wheelchair and taken down to the lobby. Gene pushed me while Star walked beside me. As soon as we exited the elevator, I was immediately blinded by the flashing of cameras. I was also surprised when I heard loud applause. When I looked around, there must have been over a hundred people clapping and shouting.
“Dr. Carpenter!” The reporters started bombarding me with a barrage of questions. The spokesperson for the hospital called for order, and Dr. Singh and I spent the next fifteen minutes taking questions. The question that was constantly repeated was, “How does it feel to be a hero?”
“I’m not a hero,” I replied. “I reacted as any of you in this room would have reacted when the lives of three young people were threatened. Not one of you would have done anything differently than what I did.”
“But Dr. Carpenter,” shouted a student from my school. “You did do it. And because of you, Doug, Travis and Jason are all alive today.” The room burst into a loud thunder of applause. “You are a hero!” he shouted. I could feel Gene squeezing my shoulder.
After several more questions concerning my health, Dr. Singh announced that the press conference was over.
“Before we go,” I said, “I want to ask the press for your cooperation. I agreed to do this today so that my family and I could get some privacy. I ask that you respect my wishes.” I noticed several reporters nod in agreement.
We were taken to a side door, and Gene helped me into the back seat of Star’s van. He sat in the back with me while we drove home. As we approached my house, I was surprised to see several news trucks pulling away. I guess they were respecting my wishes.
However, the street was still lined with vehicles. Many of my neighbors had come outside and were waving to me as we approached. I let down the rear window and waved to them. A couple of children rode their bicycles behind the car. When Star’s van entered the driveway, we were immediately surrounded by neighbors and friends.
Gene steadied me by wrapping his arm around my waist as I made the way up the sidewalk. I had to stop frequently to shake a hand or let someone hug me. Gene would always warn them to be careful before they leaned in to me.
When Star opened the door, I was meet with loud applause and cheering. I looked around at all the smiling faces before me. The room was filled with staff and students from my school. Again, Gene led me around the room to greet the people in the room.
“You look wonderful,” remarked Ms. Meadows as she stepped up and kissed me on my cheek.
“You been holding down the fort?”
“Yes, Kimosabe,” she laughed. Once again she kissed me. “You’d better hurry back to work, though. I think I’ve aged five years the past week.”
“Well, it certainly doesn’t show,” I replied. I reached down and grasped her hand and squeezed it. “Thanks for everything. I knew I could depend on you.”
“Just hurry back,” she replied.
“Doc!” I turned as Travis and Jason walked up to me. They started to hug me, but Gene warned them to be careful. They gave him a puzzled look.
“Your brother-in-law is now your bodyguard?” Travis joked.
“He’s just being a little protective,” I responded.
“Maybe just a little too much,” remarked Jason as he looked at Gene and raised an eyebrow. He winced when Travis elbowed him in his side.
I was exhausted by the time Gene led me around the room. “Take me to my bedroom,” I pleaded. “I don’t think I can go on much more.” Gene led me down the hall and into my room. He placed me on the bed, and then he kneeled down and removed my shoes. He carefully placed me on the bed and pulled a cover over me.
“Let me go get you a pain pill,” he said. He then disappeared from the room. When he entered, Nicky was with him. Nicky came over and sat on the side of the bed while I took the pill and lay my head back on the pillow.
“You all right, Dad?” he asked worriedly.
“I’m tired,” I replied. “I just need some rest.”
“Come on, Nicky,” said Gene as he extended his hand and pulled Nicky to his feet. “Let’s let him get some rest.” He turned off the light as they left. It didn’t take long for sleep to find me.
“Mmmmm.” I looked across the table and watched as Nicky hungrily ate the blueberry pancakes Gene had prepared for breakfast. Nicky had always been a rather picky eater, but he seemed to eat anything Gene prepared. I thought a new kid was living in our house when he ate squash that Gene had baked with pork chops a week ago.
Gene was cooking me a Western omelet. He had asked me a few days earlier what my favorite breakfast dish was. Since then, he had been making me one in the morning. Occasionally, he’d stop and talk to Nicky. I was amazed at the quick friendship they had developed. Each night they’d go into the den and Gene would help Nicky with his homework. Yesterday afternoon he came running into the house waving a paper in his hands. He had made an ‘A’ on an algebra test he’d taken earlier in the day.
“That deserves a reward,” beamed Gene. “Let’s go out to Tom and Jerry’s for some ice cream.” Nicky ran up and hugged him, and then he turned to me.
“Can we, Dad?” he asked.
“Do I have a choice?”
“No!” They shouted in unison.
Nicky looked over at me and stared. I knew that stare. He had something he wanted to ask, but he was skeptical. “What?” He looked down and started blushing.
“Um,” he replied. “Can I have someone spend the weekend with me?”
“Who?” I asked. “Xavier?” I smiled as his face reddened.
“Um,” he hesitated. “No.”
“For God’s sake, Nicky” interrupted Gene. He walked over and sat down at the table as he wiped his hands on the dish cloth. “Just ask him. I told you he won’t object.”
Nicky took a deep breath and then said, “Eddie.” He looked at Gene and gave a sigh of relief.
“Why would I mind if Eddie…” I suddenly stopped and looked at Nicky’s red face. I then looked at Gene who was smiling broadly.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “What’s going on here?”
“He just wants a friend to spend the weekend with him,” Gene replied. “I don’t see any harm in that.”
“Then why are you both acting so funny about it?” Again, Nicky’s face reddened deeper.
“Oh my God,” I laughed as I pushed myself away from the table. I winced from the pain that surged through my body. Even though I was healing, I still felt immense pain from time to time.
“Is Eddie more than just a friend?” Nicky looked up and his eyes widened.
“Dad!” Nicky shouted. “It’s not like that. He’s just a friend.” He got up from the table and headed for the door. He turned and asked Gene, “Can you take me to school?”
Gene shrugged his shoulders and looked at me. “We’ll talk when I get back.” He grabbed his car keys and left.
I went into the den and turned on the television. After a week at home, I quickly found out there was not much quality programming in the morning. Nicky had been after me for a year to get cable television. If I was going to be home for several more weeks, it was something I’d have to consider.
Gene returned about a half hour later and joined me in the den. He walked over and sat down beside me, toeing off his shoes and putting his feet on the coffee table.
“Comfy?” I smiled.
“Very,” he replied. He laid his head back on the sofa and briefly closed his eyes. He then turned his head and looked at me.
“Do you know that Nicky may be gay?” He stared at me for my reaction.
I sighed and responded, “Yes. We talked about it several weeks ago. He told me he thought he might like boys. I told him he was too young to really know, and that some day he’d know.
“I think that day is now,” Gene replied. Again, he waited for my reaction.
I sat up and looked at Gene’s concerned face. “What are you saying?”
“He’s been talking to Eddie on the phone for the past week,” Gene informed me. “I haven’t been eavesdropping, but I have picked up on some of their conversation. I can tell they like each other.”
“He’s only thirteen,” I said as I placed my head in my hands. “He’s too young to know what he wants right now.”
“Come on, Joey,” Gene responded. “Didn’t you know what direction you were going at thirteen?” I could feel my face begin to redden.
“Well, yeah,” I said. “But I didn’t have much of a choice. It was kind of thrust upon me.”
“But you still knew you were gay, right?” he asked.
“Well, yeah.” I thought back to Uncle Billy. He had molested me when I was young, but I knew that I was going to be gay even if he hadn’t.
“Did you know?” I asked. A surprised expression appeared on his face. I could tell he wasn’t prepared for the question.
“Um, well..” He stammered.
“Come on,” I laughed. “Confess up. If Nicky and I know we are gay at thirteen, then you knew you surely knew.” His face began to redden. I laughed as I watched him squirm beside me.
“Confess,” I laughed. “Who did you have a crush on at thirteen? I know, Cheryl Talbott. She followed you everywhere you went.”
“You can remember back that far?” he asked surprisingly. “I’d forgotten all about her.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “I can remember everything back then. It seems like only yesterday.”
Gene turned and stared into my eyes. A sad expression appeared on his face. “Then you should know who I had a crush on.” He rose from the sofa and left the room.
“I can’t do this anymore, Star.” I had called her and asked her to meet me for coffee after I’d dropped Nicky off at school.
“Go on like this,” I replied. I looked at her, expecting her to know what I was talking about.
“What do you mean, Gene?”
“I’ve been living with Joey and Nicky for two weeks.” Again I paused, but she only looked blankly at me.
“It’s killing me,” I sighed. “I’m in love with Joey and he doesn’t even know I’m around. Every time I see him, I just want to hold him. I can’t take it any more.”
Star frowned at me. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Of course you don’t,” I replied sadly. “What is there to say? Joey’s going to get better, and I’ll have to leave. I don’t know what to do.”
She sat and looked at me. “And then there’s Nicky,” I continued. “He’s like a son to me.” I was trying desperately to hold back the tears.
“Maybe he’ll want you to stay,” she offered.
“Why would he?” I replied. “He and Nicky were doing fine until I got here. Once he’s better, he’ll no longer need me around.” I could tell by the look on Star’s face that she knew that what I was saying was probably true.
I had been on an emotional roller coaster for three weeks. First, Joey had been shot and I had to face the fact that he might die. Then he recovered, and I had moved into his house to take care of him while he got better.
Taking care of Joey and Nicky had become a wonderful experience. I loved cooking meals and watching them sit back afterwards and praise me. I enjoyed pretending to watch television, all the while peering out of the corner of my eye to watch Joey laugh at some silly sitcom.
Then there was Nicky. We had bonded closely. I loved watching his face light up when he successfully worked an algebra problem. I felt special when he came to me and told me he liked Eddie. He said he knew I’d understand.
For the first time in my life, I was in love. And I knew it would be devastating to some day have to walk away from it. I wasn’t sure I really could. My life had changed so much, and I didn’t want to lose it.
Star reached out and touched my hand. “Have you considered talking to him about how you feel?”
“I can’t do that,” I insisted. “He’d never have any feelings for me. Don’t forget, I am Allen’s brother.”
“But Allen died five years ago,” she said. “It’s time for him to move on.”
“I don’t think he can fall in love again,” I replied sadly. “Do you know that every Sunday he still visits Allen’s grave. I’ve driven him there. He’ll sit for an hour talking to Allen. It’s really strange.”
“They were deeply in love,” she said.
“I know,” I replied. “That’s why I don’t have a chance.”
“So, what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” I responded. “I’m leaving tomorrow for California. I’m meeting with my attorney. Tina is still going forward with the divorce. I may just stay there. It hurts too much to be here.”
Star shook her head sadly and took a drink of her coffee. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I knew that staying here would only hurt more each day.
Nicky sat sullenly across from me at the kitchen table. He had his head down and was stirring his cereal with his spoon.
“What’s the matter, Nicky?” He didn’t look up as he continued to play with the contents of his bowl.
“Nothing,” he muttered. He remained quiet for a few minutes before looking over at me. “Don’t you miss him?”
“Godzilla,” he said sarcastically. “Come on, Dad. Don’t you miss Gene? He’s been gone a week.”
To be honest, I did miss him. The house didn’t seem the same since he had left for California. Nicky and I moved around the house, saying very little to each other. He stayed in his room most of the time.
I had grown used to Gene keeping me company during the day. We often spent the afternoon sitting together on the sofa watching television. Many times I had fallen asleep with my head on his shoulder.
Something was beginning to happen to me, and it scared the hell out of me. I was becoming ‘comfortable’ with him being around. It reminded me of the times I had spent with Allen.
Gene would often just sit and look at me out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t know I was watching, but I had a feeling he wanted to say something to me. Just before he left, he was beginning to touch me. It was nothing sexual; just a hand on my shoulder, or a touch on my waist as he moved around the kitchen.
He would come into my room before retiring for the evening, and he’d sit on the side of my bed and give me my medication. He never failed to ask me how I felt, and then he’d gently pat my hand before getting up.
I missed that. I was becoming accustomed to the gentle displays of affection. I had at first objected to the idea of him moving in with us. Now, I felt that he would never return. Looking at Nicky’s sad face, I knew he felt the same way.
“When’s he coming back home?” Nicky asked.
Home. It sounded strange when Nicky used it in that context. I guess in some weird way, Gene had become a part of our family.
“I don’t know,” I replied. I hated to tell him that Star had confided in me that Gene might remain in California. She didn’t go into detail, but she merely stated that he didn’t feel there was any reason to stay here anymore.
“Don’t you miss him?” Nicky looked over at me. Tears were beginning to form. He looked down and idly stirred his cereal with his spoon.
“Of course,” I said.
“Then call him and ask him to come back home.” He was trying hard to blink away the tears in his eyes.
“This isn’t his home,” I replied. “He has no reason to return.”
“Yes he does, Dad,” Nicky insisted. “He told me he loves it here.” He pushed himself away from the table when he heard Star honk her horn outside. She’d been taking him to school since Gene had left.
“Bye, Son!” I shouted out as he headed out the door. He turned and looked sadly at me as he walked out.
I had been sleeping about an hour when I heard a key in the back door. At first, I thought it was Gene returning from taking Nicky to school, but then it hit me that he was no longer around.
Star walked into the den and sat down, placing my feet in her lap. She sat quietly rubbing my feet for several minutes before saying anything.
“Nicky says he misses Gene.” She looked at me and awaited a reply.
When I didn’t say anything, she looked at me and shouted, “Dammit, Joey! You’re so blind.”
I looked over and saw the anger in her face. “What are you talking about?”
“Look at you,” she continued. “All you and Nicky have done for the past week is mope around the house. When you went with me and Ticker to the movie on Saturday night, I could hardly get either of you to say a word. And just a few minutes ago, Nicky broke down and cried all the way to school.”
“He’s missing Gene,” I said.
“And so are you!” she shouted. “Admit it.” She stared at me for a minute and then shook her head.
For some reason, I felt a tightening in my chest. A lump grew in my throat and tears formed in the corner of my eyes. Reality hit me, and I felt an overwhelming feeling that had been missing from my life for five years.
I rested my head back on the pillow and sighed. Then the word, “Yes,” slipped from my mouth.