Beyond the rain

September 8, 2017
By ghostgurl17, Brooklyn, New York
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ghostgurl17, Brooklyn, New York
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I read your words and I want to offer you a bit of what you asked for. You said: "I guess I'm hanging on by one word. Just one word. Hope."  Please always hope and dream, have patience and stay gold.   GH
~~~~~

Auntie Em: Why don't you find a place where there isn't any trouble?

Dorothy: A place where there isn't any trouble? Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto? There must be. It's not a place you can get to by a boat or a train.  It's far, far away, "behind the moon, beyond the rain."

~~~~~

Billy Carmedy

Sitting by myself, my feet stuck in the cool water of the little stream, I tried, for the ten millionth time, to reason out why I had to have these problems. I was just a normal everyday kid, no better, no worse than most. I didn't do drugs, I didn't smoke or drink. I worried about my grades and my lack of six pack abs and if I was ever gonna get any taller or grow any hair on my chest. No earthshaking stuff, but important to me.

When I was about eleven, I began to realize that I zoned out on the teacher because I was watching Teddy Gleason draw little cartoon figures on the back of his notebook. Now, that in itself is nothing because a teacher talking about energy pyramids and food chains can only hold your interest for so long. A kid's attention span is about as long as a gnat's tongue. But, what began to bother me was that it wasn't really the little figures Teddy was drawing that got to me. It was his hand. The way it closed in around his pencil and then the way he'd shove his hair out of his face with the other equally attractive hand. Why was I watching Teddy's hands? I would cruise my attention over to Marybeth Kelly and watch her twist her long red hair around her finger and wait to feel the same little tingle. Shouldn't her hands interest me more than Teddy's?

By thirteen, the hands thing changed to just about any part of the male body exposed to my eyes. I could go catatonic over a wrist, a slope of chest, the small of a back, the tiny half-smile a guy gets when he doesn't know anyone is looking. Sure, everything located between waist and knee was of great interest, but I loved looking at the not so obvious parts too. I spent an entire school year drilling a hole in the back of Ernie Blaine's head with my eyes, where his hair just whispered across that curve at the base of his skull. Ernie has curly brown hair and the long curls would move in and out of that curve.

I found myself scoping out the same cute guys on TV shows as my two older sisters. On the sly, of course. It started with Dawson's Creek when I was twelve and having to choose between Pacey and Dawson. I always wanted to think about someone like Pacey, all strong and confident, but, secretly, I wanted Dawson. He never quite caught up with the rest of the world. He reminded me of one of those little windup dolls that walks into a wall and just keeps trying to go ahead. His face always seemed to be saying "Huh??" Like me. I still watch reruns and I guess I may be the only person who was always glad Dawson never bought a clue. He muddled and muddled badly but, like me, he kept on muddling.

We watch The O.C. now. Ginny and Marsha go bonkers over Ryan. I do indeed like the way he looks and the 'bad boy' attitude he pulls, but I would rather know Seth. He just can't ever get it together. It always falls apart. Maybe this season.

What I'm trying to say is I've had a long time to think about this. It doesn't really get any better and I see no answer in sight, but I know that I have a thing for guys. Girls are funny and sweet and they smell good, but then so do my sisters. I kind of want someone funny and sweet who smells like me.

My friends, would they be my friends if they knew what I thought about all the time? Probably not. I don't have any illusions about people. I watch the news; I read the paper. I know how someone you've known all your life can turn on you when, all of a sudden, you "change". I don't know how to explain to anyone that I'm just me, Billy Carmedy, the same Billy that has always been around. It's sad really that they don't even take the time to think about how much this has been hurting. How long I've felt different and strange. How much I've wanted to tell someone, but knew I couldn't. No, to them, it would come as a big surprise. And, the worse part, I think they'd take it that I was trying to hurt them with it, threaten them somehow, as if me being gay would rub off on them and they'd start chasing guys.

I have these daydreams where I tell my parents that I'm gay and they just look at each other, smile, then open their arms and hug me, saying, "Oh, Billy, I'm so proud that you've told us, trusted us to love you and help you be best gay man you can be." I don't suppose that has ever happened, but it makes a nice dream.

I understand why boys do it; why they tell them; why they totally believe that their families will accept anything they say. We're raised that way. I've had my mom say, "I'd love you, Billy, even if you were a serial killer." I kind of believe that she might because I'd be very very insane and you have to feel sympathy for the insane. But . . I know my mom. If I said I was gay, she'd collapse from inside, trying to figure out what she had done wrong when she raised me. There would be no answers and so, with no answers, she would have to accept blame and, in accepting blame, no longer love me for making her the culprit. I know it sounds complicated, but she would do anything other than believe that God created me inside her and she let it happen. She'd never believe that I couldn't make it go away.

My dad, on the other hand, would just get angry. Anything he can't control or doesn't have the capability of understanding, just makes him angry. He's been told, by the church and the media, that if he wants to be a good God-loving conservative American, it would be impossible for him to have a queer son. End of story. For him to accept at all, would be to suggest that he might have a gene for homosexuality that he shared with me and that is totally impossible. After 46 years of referring to anything and everything he doesn't understand as 'gay' or 'fag', why would I expect him to change?

I think the hardest thing for me is to be so alone. I know the one out of ten rule, but looking at the 416 kids who go to Bitterroot High School with me, that would make approximately 42 of them gay. There's no way that's right. I try to find these elusive people, girls or boys, anyone who I could talk to, but I can't see them anywhere. They are hiding just like I am, behind books or footballs, under Goth makeup or cheerleader pompoms. Anything to keep from being teased or hurt; being left out; being exiled.

I understand the thing about kids 'experimenting', guys jerking off together 'just once' and then being terrified they're gay. I think that probably happens to most str8 guys because it's never happened to me. It could have, but then I'd have had to face the fact that I wasn't 'experimenting' and it wasn't gonna be 'just once' and people would have seen what I was and the name c***sucker just wasn't gonna come anywhere near me.

There was a boy. His name was Eric. When we were in elementary school, he only played jump rope with the girls and giggled when he talked. Eric was pretty with red lips and liquid brown eyes. I noticed, but I wasn't like that, so I avoided him. Boys would tease him saying stuff like, "You a fag, Molina? Gonna play with the girls?" Eric would cry and sit by himself on the playground. I want to say I went over and sat with him and told him not to care about what they said; not to take it to heart. . . . .but I didn't. I will be forever ashamed that I let Eric go through that alone. I was eight and just wanted to be part of the crowd. Today, I know that the same crowd that teased Eric, those same people I wanted to be part of, would turn on me and hurt me too. "You a fag, Carmedy? Gonna play with the girls? Wanna suck this?" They found Eric's body behind the football stadium, a baseball bat lying beside him. I'm so sorry, Eric. You didn't deserve that.

I thought about all this, lying back on the grass as the cool water ran over my toes, as the sun warmed me. My shirt off, I could feel the breeze play across my chest and wished only for someone to be lying beside me.

Str8 people think that gays are attracted to anything that moves, that they have sex with anything that breathes. I kinda think that would make me like my dog, Barnaby. He sniffs bottoms and humps just about anything that walks. He's a huge chocolate lab, but will try to do a schnauzer or even a weiner dog. Not too picky.

I guess it's too big a concept for str8s to get their brains around that we have the same hormones, the same attraction/non-attraction vibes that they do. I may see the hottest guy and jones like crazy, but then that smallish boy in my history class with the soft blond hair and crystal blue eyes would be who I'd want to touch, to talk to, to feel something for. I'm a walking hard-on just like any other seventeen year old, but I have my standards and I know what my taste is. I may be gay in a world where there are only two or three other gay guys, but that doesn't mean I would find out about one of them, run up to him and sigh, "I love you" just cause he's like me. I totally check-out any boy who crosses my vision, but I do think it would be so much simpler if gay boys gave off some kind of glow, an aura that only we could see.

My friends all date, girls of course, and don't hesitate to share every detail. I don't think they do half of what they say, but maybe they do. According to them, every girl in our school is totally f***able and gives it out like candy on Halloween. That's sad if it's true, plus out of the 42 gay kids hiding somewhere here in these noisy halls, some have got to be lesbians, so some are definitely not ummm, boy f***able.

It's getting tougher for me not to get into the talk. I date when I have to, but I apparently have found the only girls at Bitterroot who have brains and can keep their panties on. I really think they appreciate not having to put out to be popular. God, that's so sad.

I want to go to college and learn to be an architect. I want to live in a big city where no one knows my name and I can be me. I want to burn these jeans and flannel shirts and wear clothes that make me look good. I want to go to museums and plays and learn about music and painting. I want to eat different foods and drink wine. I want to make friends with people like me and look for someone who will love me. I won't look too hard at first and I won't panic at 25 if I haven't found him. These are my promises to myself. I may not get it all, but I'm going to try. I believe that I need something to offer someone for them to want me too and I won't have what I need until I'm older and gone from here.

Of course I would love to have a boyfriend right now, just like my friends all have girlfriends, holding their hands and feeling their way through first time sex. Feeling like someone cares just for me, hears me when I talk, listens to my dreams and my hopes. But, I've figured out that it's different for me. Life's much harder and what I should be doing right now, learning to grow up, learning how to handle my hormones, will have to wait.

Of course, if the right boy came along, all this would turn out to be total bullshit. If one of the 42 hidden gays here at my school suddenly appeared, I'm not sure what would happen. I talk a big talk because I have to make myself believe in my dreams. It's the way I get through.

I can't wait to go to college. I've had a few good teachers in high school, but most of them are just pulling a paycheck and don't give a crap whether we learn or not. The only class I really like this year is Psych. Mr. Cantor is pretty cool and lets us talk. He doesn't just sit at his desk and lecture for 45 minutes. That's so gross. He asks us to think.

Psych is the only time I see Aaron Sorensen. We used to be friends when we were little, but he went one way and I went another. He had money and I didn't. His family was way into church and my family wasn't. Nothing in common, so our paths never crossed. I always watched him in Psych class, flirting and laughing. Everyone loved Aaron; girls wanted him and guys wanted to be him. He would kill me if he could hear what I was thinking, but he is really pretty, all that long shiny brown hair and those laughing eyes. He's always been cute, but the older he gets, the better he gets. With his history though, he is definitely not one of the 42. Dang.

I just lay quietly in the sun, my horse Chaco nuzzling my face, snickering for a treat. I knew I had to get back to work, but the post hole digger was heavy and the sun felt so good.

***********************

The next day was Friday and we had a Psych test. I noticed that Aaron was absent. That was really weird cause his parents were real strict about him missing school. Always had been. I remember him coming to school once in third grade with a bad cold. He felt so bad and finally threw up. He was out one day and then he was back, still looking pukey. I remember feeling sad that his mom made him come back so fast.

I took my test, tossed the paper in the basket at the corner of Mr. Cantor's desk, frowned at the empty desk where Aaron usually sat and walked out into the hall to hook up with my friends. I forgot about Aaron as we scuffled and made our way to gym. He would be back on Monday and besides, he wasn't in my world anyway.

***********************

The weekend ran along as usual. I loved Saturday and Sunday. They were like my days to be myself. I could ride Chaco to work at the feed store and then ride him out into the desert on my long shortcut home.

Riding out there, the scent of honeysuckle strong in the air, the sage brush drifting in the breeze, I felt alive. There was always a small tight ache in my heart that I always took these rides alone, but I knew this was my private time. I'd never bring anyone out here unless he was like me.

When I was very small, I lured a chipmunk into a Hav-a-hart trap and brought him home proudly. I kept him penned in a fish aquarium tank for three days, feeding him nuts and stuff. What I had loved about him was the way he jumped and ran, all full of life and energy. In the tank, he stopped. He just tried, all day, to scrabble his way out through the glass. I sat there, watching him, and even at seven, I knew what he wanted. He wanted his freedom back.

I felt like that chipmunk now. I felt like I was in a giant glass tank, peering out [at] a world I wanted to run to, trying to scrabble my way out. The world around me was beautiful, clean and free, but I wasn't. I was in a cage not of my own making; a cage the world had created to hold me in. I had kept my feelings quiet for five years. I could do it for one more. One more and I could be me.

Oh, the chipmunk . . . . . . . I let him go. I took him back to the very place I had found him, thinking his family would be very worried. I hope he is a great granddaddy now, living clean and free.

I worked around the ranch for the rest of my Saturday and Sunday. It was hard work, but my dad counted on me to be there for him. It was hard being the foreman, loving the land and the livestock, but not owning any of it. He worked hard and expected no less from me.

I had my job at the feed store after school and on Saturday mornings. The money helped me fit in with clothes for school and gas for my truck. I saved any extra for college; for my dream.

Saturday night was party night. Living in a small town, there's not much to do, so we made up 'games'. Tailgate skiing was always on, where you stood on the tailgate of a truck, holding onto ropes tied to thetoolbox and they drove really fast in circles, trying to throw you off. If you stood really tight, your legs spread, your feet pushing into the steel, you made it. If you relaxed, you flew off. Flying off hurt and the next time, you didn't relax.

My friends were all getting some from their girlfriends in parked cars or in the woods. I would always dance with the girls who had come alone, so that everyone could see that I was having a good time. It was weird, but if one day, when I'm a world famous architect, and people ask me where I get my creativity, I'm gonna think back to all the years I spent planning and trying to avoid being found out. It takes a lot of imagination to wiggle your way in and out of what, for everyone else, is a normal party.

Monday morning, tired from my weekend, I fed Chaco, did my chores and got to school just as the first bell was ringing. The day went along as usual, boring with a few bits of humor and the explicit tales of who did what to who Saturday night.

I always find it confusing. Str8 guys will call someone they think weak or weird 'pussy' in the same tone they say 'fag'. I've always thought that they put girls kinda on the same level they do gays. Now, that's a really sad thought. I mean, "You pussy" and "You fag" can be applied to the same exact situation, like a kid who can't climb the rope. Totally interchangeable. I don't guess str8s have a lot of respect for anyone else. I suppose that 374 str8s does overpower 42 gays, but that doesn't make them better, just stronger and louder.

I walked into Psych, anxious about my test grade. I really needed an A or a B to keep my grade. Mr. Cantor was always fair and would give a few extra points for original thought. I hope I had had a few of those.

As he walked up and down the rows, handing the papers back, I saw Aaron's empty desk. I was too worried about my grade to think about why he wasn't there. Mr. Cantor handed me my test and I saw a big red A- at the top. Grinning, I looked up and saw him smile. He had written: 'Keep thinking, Billy!!'

I watched him finish the rows and hesitate beside Aaron's desk, an odd look on his face. It brought the empty desk back into my focus. Aaron must really be sick. If he'd been one of my tight friends, I would have driven by after school to check on him and take him homework, but he and I hadn't been close for years. I figured one of his friends would take care of it.

Then, Mr. Cantor brought my brain back to class. What he said surprised me, but I thought it was way cool. I kinda wish it was me doing something different. I envied Aaron for getting to do something fun.

"Aaron Sorensen will be gone for a few weeks. His uncle had a heart attack and he's helping at his uncle's ranch."

For the next few days, rumors drifted up and down the hallways about Aaron. He hadn't called anyone. He hadn't even told his girlfriend, Sissy. He had just left. It was weird. People said he was in drug rehab; he was in jail; he ran away to California. The stories whispered through the halls for a few days and then died away. Wherever Aaron Sorensen was, it had to be more fun than here. School was boring and life was slow.

Scarecrow: I haven't got a brain....only straw.

Dorothy: How can you talk if you haven't got a brain?

Scarecrow: I don't know...But some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don't they?

Dorothy: Yes, I guess you're right.

~~~~~

Aaron Sorensen

I tried the doorknob, gently at first, and then rattling it hard when I found that it was locked. No way! They had locked me in my own room. I leaned my forehead against the wood, my arms clutched around myself. The hugs I had wanted from my parents were now a distant dream shattered by their pinched faces and harsh words.

Why had I ever thought that telling would make it better? I choked on hysterical laughter tangled with wet sobs realizing that only yesterday I had truly believed my parents loved me........loved me without reservation; would love me no matter what I said.

Oh sure, they loved the boy I pretended to be; the good boy, the 'cause no trouble' boy, the normal boy. In my warm false cocoon of this love, I had believed they'd love the hidden boy, the boy who cried at night for just a touch, just a smile, just a recognition.

Yesterday was my birthday. I was born seventeen years ago. I've kept my secret for so long that it just seems part of me. I need to tell someone.

It wasn't that I had anyone I wanted to be with; it was just that the feelings inside me had grown and grown and I had to share them. I had to say the words out loud to someone who loved me. I had hoped, and so I had faced my fears and interrupted the dinner table last night with six simple words. Words I hoped would make them hear me.

"Mom, Dad, I need your help," I said, my voice wobbly, as I stared at the birthday cake with seventeen blue candles.

My mother had smiled. My father had looked at me with pride. They always helped me with my school projects, my ball practice, my scout badges. They always supported me. But, this was the last smile from my mother, the last look of pride in my father's eyes. I took a deep gulp of breath, gripped the edges of the table and let my heart open up for the very first time.

"I'm.........I think I'm......," my eyes darted from her face to his face and, before he even said the words, I knew. "I'm gay." I wanted to look away, anywhere but into her eyes, into his face, but I held onto the table and watched, feeling as if I was going to throw up.

My father's forehead wrinkled and his eyes narrowed. My mother's hand flew to her mouth as if she was holding back a cry. I heard a strangled sound but wasn't sure who made it. Maybe it was me.

"That isn't at all funny, Aaron," my father said sternly.

"Why are you saying that?" my mother whispered through her fingers.

I knew in that instant that I should have stayed silent. I wanted to take it back; make it go away. It just hung out there in the air over the table, like some cloud of impenetrable miasma. I saw in their eyes that the help I needed, the help I had believed I would find just wasn't there. It would have been there for school or for scouts or for anything else in my life, but not for this.

My father stood so suddenly that his chair crashed to the floor. "You mean that you need our help to fight this...this feeling you're having."

I thought hard. I could backtrack and say 'Yes'. I could let it all become a plea for them to help me get rid of these feelings. I wanted to just go back to five minutes ago when my life was safe....my world secure. But, had it ever really been?

"No," I said slowly, my eyes never leaving my father's. "I mean I need you to help me, understand me, help me be me.........love me."

I watched my father's nostrils flare. I heard my mother's soft sniffles.

"Help you be you? You are MY son. There is no place in your life for what you're asking. We have raised you to be clean and decent; pure of heart and soul. The church has taught you the ways of righteousness. Why are you saying this?"

All of my arguments dissolved. I didn't know why I was saying it. Not anymore.

"Have you had............relations?" my father choked out.

"What about Sissy Conklin? You have a girlfriend."

I squeezed my eyes shut, shaking my head. The only relations I'd had were the ones in my head.

I tried to explain. "Sissy is so no one would know."

"You are ashamed even now. You hide behind a girl's skirts. Why claim to be something dirty that makes you ashamed?" my father roared.

"It's his computer," I heard my mother cry, "The devil's playground."

I laid my forehead on the brightly colored tablecloth and knew I should have just kept my mouth shut. Maybe, when I opened my eyes, it would all be forgotten. I would just laugh a shaky little laugh as if it had been a big joke.

But, instead, the next four hours had been spent in the living room, me seated in a dining room hard-back chair facing a row of stern-faced church elders who didn't want to listen to me; didn't want to hear how I felt. They already knew the right path; there were no alternate ones. I could hear my mother in the kitchen, scrubbing the floor. She only did that when someone had died.

"You are seventeen years of age," Elder Johnston said. "You have obviously not studied deeply enough." He shot a glance over toward my father, who grimaced as the criticism caught him. "He is a young man. He flaunts the laws of the church. He must study in more depth and let the words flow through him. Let God cleanse him."

"You will renounce these thoughts," Elder Chapin stated. There was no question in his voice, no softness in his tone. I felt my life sliding away. I listened as these six men discuss me as if I wasn't in the room. These men, representing God, discussed what I should do to cleanse my soul.

They finally asked me if I had words I wished to say. I had none. I had wanted desperately to talk to my parents, but not to these men. I wanted to yell out obscenities, but that wouldn't help. I just sat, then spoke softly,

"I don't guess there are any words. You've closed your minds."

"Go to your room, Aaron," my father said curtly in a voice I'd never heard before. "We will deal with this in the morning." As I walked slowly toward the stairs, wanting to run to my mother, needing a hug from her arms, I saw her standing in the kitchen door framed by the light, her arms folded tightly across her chest. I had lost my family.

As I climbed the stairs, my father's voice called out, "Do not turn on that computer. You must stay on your knees tonight asking God's forgiveness."

I stood at my window, watching the lights in the other houses, imagining all the happy families, normal people doing normal every night things. I watched the lights of a faraway plane as it winged its way west, wondering if anyone on that plane was like me. If they had a place to go, a family that loved them...unconditionally.

I sank to my knees, my hands pressed together in prayer, but it wasn't God I spoke to. It was the boy out there who felt like I did, who wanted what I wanted, the boy who would love me and make everything better. I had to believe in this boy. If I didn't believe, there was nowhere else to turn.

"Please be out there," I whispered. "Please come for me."

I felt the first of many tears begin to trickle down my cheeks as I listened to the harsh, raised voices of my mother and my father as they decided what was right for me. Happy birthday to me.

***********************

Now, in the cold morning light, standing at my locked door, I felt my heart grow cold. I started to turn on my computer and try to find someone to talk to, but I knew it wouldn't help. Those people had their own lives, their own troubles. This was my real life and it was fading to gray.

The doorknob twisted and my father opened the door to find me standing in the middle of the floor, a look of lost confusion on my face. "Your mother and I have discussed this problem. If you will repent this evil matter; swear that you will work to overcome it; counsel with the Elders until it is corrected, we will continue on as before."

Part of me wanted to agree. Part of me wanted to agree to anything they said, anything, just so this nightmare would be over. But, I knew I couldn't. I knew if I said 'Yes' to this, I was saying 'No' to the boy I wanted to love. I could say 'Okay' and go back to the way it was before, but I would know, and my parents would know, and it would never be the same. As much as they all tried, if they tried at all, my 'difference' would just lay there blocking the road. My sure belief, my absolute trust in my mother and father was gone. I knew that I had failed them in being the perfect boy, the normal boy, the 'cause no trouble' boy. I HAD caused trouble. There was no going back.

"I wish I could be what you want, Mommie." The old familiar name slipped past my lips. I saw my mother flinch. "But I can't."

"You refuse?" my father asked.

"I think I have to."

"Then, we have no choice. We are taking you to a retreat. Pack your things and be ready in ten minutes. You leave us no choice."

My mom started to come into the room, her eyes swollen from a long night of tears, but my father stopped her with a hand on her arm. "No, he's chosen this path. Let him walk it alone."

I stood stunned as the door closed in my face and the lock clicked shut. A retreat? They were getting rid of me? Just turn me, the problem, over to people at a retreat? F***! My mind screamed even as I knew I had to go.

Slowly, I threw whatever into a duffle, not caring. I somehow knew that I couldn't take my MP3 or my laptop. I just stuffed some jeans and underwear, shirts and socks in and then sat on the edge of my bed waiting for the door to open.

***********************

The ride was interminable. The silence oppressive. Every once in a while, my mom would sniffle, but I just stared out the window at the passing landscape. We'd taken this two lane highway before when we went to visit my uncle and aunt. The scenery was beautiful, the blue spruce standing tall, casting shadows over the road, the sky was as clear a blue as it had always been. Only the atmosphere inside the car was different from all the other happy trips we had taken as a family. I wanted to ask where we were going, but the words just stuck in my throat.

Six long hours later, we turned off the main highway onto a dirt road. I felt my first small wave of fear as my father stopped the big SUV at a chain stretched across the road. A Jeep pulled out from the shadows of the tall spruce trees and a serious-faced man dressed in somber black pants and a long sleeved white shirt buttoned tightly to the neck, climbed out to open the padlock.

"Mr. Sorensen?"

My father nodded and the man's cold eyes shifted to the back seat where I sat huddled. There was no smile of welcome; no nod of the head; no nothing. Just a cold appraising stare. My eyes dropped to my lap.

"Drive through and stop at the front steps. Mr. Edgars is waiting."

My father nodded his head and, as my rapidly panicking eyes jumped from the chain to the lock to the wire fence and then to the back of my mother's head, I suddenly realized just how much trouble I had asked for.

I saw a long low one-story building painted a flat, beige with not a bit of shrubbery to lighten the aura of a prison.

"I don't want to be here," I said softly from the back seat.

"This was your choice, Aaron," my father said.

There was no offer of going home and working out the trouble. The time for that seemed to be over. The only sign of unhappiness in my parents was shown in the way my mom was wringing her hands.

"You will benefit greatly from this retreat and from Mr. Edgars," my father said. "He has helped many other young people to find their footing when they lost their way."

"What other kids?" I babbled out. Maybe there were other kids here.

"Other children who have lost sight of God's way."

A man appeared in the doorway and walked down the concrete block steps to stand beside the car. My father opened his door and stepped out.

"Mr. Sorensen," the man said, his voice low and powerful. He turned to smile at my mother and then my door opened.

"Welcome, young Aaron. Come out to see your new home."

New home? I didn't want to live here. I didn't want to be here. I wanted to be far far away. Anywhere but here. I climbed out of the car and stood sullenly away from the three adults.

"It's best that you leave young Aaron now in my care and go home to continue God's work. He will call you himself when he's ready to come home."

"But," my mother started.

"Now, now, Mrs. Sorensen. Young Aaron has to begin dealing with these misconceptions he has formed in his mind. We will work together to root out the problems and create a new path for his thoughts, won't we, young man?"

I looked up into the man's eyes and saw what appeared to be interest, but was blackened by a film of self-importance. Here was just another person to tell me I was wrong. To tell me I was sick and dirty and needed to pray until I changed into what they all wanted.

I had been raised to love God and to respect my family and myself. That was why I had wanted to ask for their help when I just couldn't keep my feelings about myself inside anymore. Out of respect, I had wanted to share my fears and my doubts. I was quickly learning that you can only share what others want to hear.Anything else needs to be kept in a locked place inside you, even if it festers and churns and finally makes you crazy.

I stood stiffly as my father patted my shoulder and my mother touched my cheek. I would not look at them and I didn't speak. Tears threatened, but I opened my eyes wide to hold them back. Leave me here if you need to, but I won't let you see me cry.

I heard the car drive away. I tried to call their names; Mommy, Daddy, but they were gone and all I heard was the silence of the forest. I still stood staring at the ground, terrified but stubborn as all hell. I had to keep myself together. I had to.

Mr. Edgars' voice took on a different tone. "You will do as you are told, young Aaron, and we'll get along fine. You have several rules to learn and some cleaning up to do before you can start your therapy."

Therapy? Like I'm broken? Like I need my brain fixed? He turned and walked up the steps into the building, leaving me to stand in the dust.

I stared down the road, wondering how far we were from a town, wishing I had brought money, wanting to run. I knew I couldn't go home. Where was there?

Yesterday, I had been in Trig class, gathering up my courage to look across the room at Todd Carlton's blond hair and planning what I wanted to say to my parents. Yesterday, it all seemed, not easy, but not impossible. Today, it was another world. I had fallen down the rabbit hole and there was nowhere to hide. I almost started laughing as the words to some old song my grandma liked ran through my head: "What a difference a day makes....."

But I didn't laugh. I didn't cry either. What could they do to me if I didn't want it? How could they fix me, change me, if I didn't want it?

I stared at the building, looked down the long dirt road one last time, picked up my duffle and walked inside.

***********************

By the third week, I wouldn't have recognized myself in a mirror even if there was one to look into. My shoulder length brown hair had been chopped off and my hands could only feel places where the razor had nicked my scalp. My clothes had been taken away and I was wearing stiff baggy jeans with no label and a white undershirt.

"You will be able to think clearly when you can throw off the trappings of the sick world."

"You must pray for your soul. You are in danger of losing it forever."

"You cannot talk to anyone here because they are fighting their own demons. They could not help you and you cannot help them."

"You will eat when it is time, sleep when it is time, pray constantly, speak only when spoken to and offer no thoughts."

"You will constantly think of how wrong homosexuality is; how perverted; how evil. You know that God closes his eyes to those who practice wickedness."

"You will take this pill. It will help you know your sins."

"God will not love you unless you redeem yourself in his eyes."

Day after day, I hazily passed other kids in the hall. We sat together in a huge empty room, together in a circle, no one speaking, no one looking up. There was no physical punishment. It wasn't needed. I learned quickly that a constant wave of self doubt is stronger than any belt. I wasn't sure I was worthy of God's love anymore. He had let them bring me here. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I needed this. Past the spider webs of that blue pill, I tried to remember what was so special about liking anyone.

I tried to speak to one boy who was sitting across from me in the cafeteria. He raised his eyes when I whispered 'Hey'. His head was shaved like mine; his eyes were frightened like mine. He didn't speak. He stared at me with vacant eyes and then back down at his food. I felt like I had looked in a mirror.

I would sit on the floor in the corner of my little room, all alone with my chin on my knees, thinking about my parents, my home, my life. How I had laughed and played until slowly, I changed. I changed into what I was now. They were all still laughing and playing, all those straight kids, while I sat here. Was I sick? Was I dirty? Were they right? Maybe I should change back. Back to what they wanted.

I couldn't find a way out, a lifeline. I had nowhere to turn. Being alone, truly alone is a frightening thing. No music, no television, no computer, no friends, no nothing. Just this little dusty corner of this little beige room with a cot and a table and a straight backed chair and a bible lying open to Leviticus.

***********************

"Father," I said, holding the phone loosely. "I'm ready to come home."

It had been eight weeks and they believed they had broken me. I just wanted to go home and be whatever they wanted so that this would stop. They just kept telling me that I may have something inside me that makes me attracted to other boys, but as long as I didn't do anything about it; as long as I married and had children and never acted on my unclean thoughts, I could be saved. Every time my mind argued, they would have another argument to knock mine down.

"God made me. He must love me."
"God created all in his image. God is not a homosexual, thus he did not create you."

"I don't want to be this way. I just am."
"You can change what you are to the betterment of all mankind."

"I'm not hurting anyone. I just want to be me."
"You are hurting your family. They are ashamed of you."

"What do I do with all these feelings inside me?"
"Crush them with prayer."

I grew to hate this god they talked about. He wasn't my God. I was still me. I wasn't sure what I would find at my parent's house, but I knew I had to leave here before they won.

"I want to go home."

"Are you ready to renounce your wickedness?"

I figured My God would forgive me because lying was the only way I could be free.

"Yes."

***********************

My old room looked odd, full of things from another time, trophies and scout badges, dog eared copies of The Amber Spyglass and Rascal. I didn't belong here anymore. This wasn't the same 'home' I'd grown up in. My parents were the same, but different. We were strangers.

Where did all my friends think I had been? Surely they didn't know the truth? I was grateful for once for my parent's shame....they wouldn't tell people how evil I was. It would have been a family secret.

I looked out my window, remembering the night, weeks ago, when I had stood right here. I was different now. Not different the way they wanted or expected or hoped. I just knew now that I could only trust myself, only myself. There was no one else.

I knew I walked a fine line now. One slip and they would wash their hands of me. Seventeen had seemed so grown up just nine weeks ago. Now, I knew I was stuck until I could leave. I had 302 days until I could look at myself in the mirror and smile. 302 days until I could be who I truly am. I had to believe that out there somewhere, my boy was waiting. Until then, I would be silent. My silence would hold all the tears, all the yearning. My closet would be the only place I fell to my knees and only then to pray my words to my boy. If My God loved me, he would understand why my whispered words sought other than his ears. He would love me no matter what I did.

It was as if I had never said, "Mom, Dad, I need your help." Life just began to flow on, me marking a calendar, them watching me out of the corners of their eyes.

I had to go back to school tomorrow. I had been gone so long. What would everyone say? What could I tell them? I had to just lie and say I had been at my uncle's ranch.

I looked at myself in the mirror. My head was shaved, my parents had taken away all my cool clothes, my computer, everything. How would I explain how I looked? I was so confused.

You know that saying: "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." Well, it should read: "What doesn't kill you hurts so much you wish you were dead." Either way, I was alone, but not broken. Just silent.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Wizard of Oz: As for you, my galvanized friend, you want a heart. You don't know how lucky you are not to have one. Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.

Tin Man: But I still want one.
~~~~~

Billy Carmedy

He was back.

I remembered the official story that his parents told the school; that he had gone to his uncle's ranch to help out after his uncle had a heart attack.

I had heard the rumors that drifted up and down the hallways: he was in drug rehab; he had run away to California to join a rock band; he had gotten some girl at another school pregnant and had to marry her. They were all so lame.

No one knew for sure why Aaron Sorensen had been gone all these weeks, but when he came back he wasn't the same person. Gone was the happy laughing boy I had watched from under my eyelashes. He dropped off the baseball team, out of scouts and the only extracurricular thing he did seemed to be church, church and more church. It was like he'd been abducted by aliens, mind probed, lobotomized, and sent back. There just wasn't much of Aaron left.

I'd always wanted to know Aaron again, but just never worked up the nerve to do much more than say 'Hey' in the halls. We'd worked on a few committees together, but our friends weren't friends, so we never bummed around together. He and I were nothing alike anyway. He was very religious, all caught up in "The Church".  My parents hadn't been raised in a strict church environment and, though they went on Christmas and Easter, they put no pressure on me or my little brother. I believe in God and I respect other people's right to their faith, but I've got better things to do with my time than worry about them. I need to worry about myself.

So, when I just kept seeing that lost look in Aaron's eyes when he thought no one was looking, I found myself worrying about him and wondered why. I wondered what had happened in those weeks to cause those brown eyes to dim and Aaron to close down around himself.

We had that one class together and I sat in the back, so I watched him. He had come back to school that Monday with all his hair chopped off and wearing plain jeans and shirts. He'd always had the latest wicked clothes and long curly brown hair. Before, he had always sat slouched in his desk like the rest of us, doodling and yawning.

Now, he sat up straight and glanced at the clock every few minutes as if willing the time to go by faster. I wondered what he was waiting for. Something was eating at him, and I sure hoped he could handle whatever it was.

I heard that he had dumped Sissy Conklin and she had been royally pissed. It was like nothing could get to him now. He was totally a different person.

"Mr. Carmedy, if I could have your attention..........

The teacher's voice jerked me back into Psych class and I looked up to the front of the room.

"Perhaps you could explain why a person would hold onto a value or a belief when everyone around him says it's false?"

"Ummm," I muttered, trying to buy time, "I think you have to be true to what you know in your heart is right."

"But," the teacher prodded, "What if your belief hurts you, makes you different, an outcast?"

"Are we talking religious or personal here?" I asked, feeling this question came a little too close to home for comfort.

"Personal."

For some reason, in my frantic casting around for an answer that would satisfy Mr. Cantor, I looked at Aaron. He was staring directly into my eyes as if waiting for my answer.

"I think, if you really know something is right, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. You have to be true to yourself. You may be alone in what you believe, but to do anything else is wrong."

Class went on and I slid down in my desk thinking about what I'd said. I didn't really know if I could do that, I mean, stand by my beliefs and be different. I hoped I could. One day soon, I'd have to test my words.

The bell rang and everyone shoved up out of their stupors to crowd into the hall. I gathered my junk and headed for my locker. I was dumping my books in and grabbing my trig book when I heard a soft voice behind me.

"Billy, did you really mean what you said?"

I swung my head around to find Aaron by my elbow. He had an almost frightened look on his face.

"You mean that stuff in Psych? I just winged that off the top of my head for Mr. Cantor."

"Oh," he sighed. "Okay, sorry I bothered you."

I watched him walk away and I let him get a few feet before I called, "Hey, wait up, Aaron." Slamming my locker shut, I caught up with him and we walked the hall, neither of us speaking. I got to my math class and touched his arm hesitantly, stopping him.

"Aaron, you wanna talk?"

He looked around to see who might be watching. No one seemed to be paying us any mind and his eyes came to rest on mine. "I just liked what you said, you know, about standing up for yourself and, even if you're all alone. It's wrong to hide."

The halls were full of kids milling to and from classes. They were pushing and shoving, holding hands, making rude remarks, laughing, bullying, crying. Life in the halls of a high school is like this tiny planet within a planet; a world within a world. Life and death decisions are made in the blink of an eye, the toss of a cruel word.

We stood in the middle of the hall, kids teeming around us on either side, all caught up in their own dramas and I could see into Aaron Sorensen's eyes. He needed help or he might drown along with so many of the other kids.

"I've got Trig and then I work after school," I told him.

"Oh," he said, turning away.

"No, I didn't mean it like that. Come on over to the feed store. You know where Strickland Ranch Supply is over on 9th Street?"

"You work there?"

"Yeah, but you can help me load bags of feed. We can talk."

Aaron hesitated, but I just let him take his time. Finally, he nodded his head and said,

"See ya, Billy."

I tipped my head and replied, "See ya, Aaron."

I sat all through Trig wondering what he needed to say so badly. It was obvious that he was gonna explode. I just hoped I had some answers. God knows, I didn't understand why people did what they did or what to say when there was trouble. But, I had a feeling that maybe Aaron just needed someone to talk to, someone to listen, a friend. I just didn't know why he couldn't go to all of his real friends. Why me?

***********************

I was out back, loading 50 pound bags of cattle feed onto the flatbed, before I delivered it out to the Blue Mesa Ranch. I heaved a heavy bag up onto the boards when I heard Aaron's voice.

"Whoa, you gotta load all these?"

"Yeah, this flatbed holds a lot, so I gotta load 120 bags up on here and then drive out to the Blue Mesa."

Aaron dropped his books on the steps and pulled off his jacket. He reached down and levered a big bag up onto his shoulders, dumping it onto the flatbed. "I can bring 'em this far and then you pile 'em, okay?"

I grinned, never one to say 'No' to a helping hand. We worked for half an hour, breaking sweat, not saying much. The afternoon sun was warm and, when the last bag flopped ungracefully onto the last pile, we sat on the edge of the steps, sucking in deep breaths.

"I have to deliver these out to the ranch now. You wanna ride out with me?"

Aaron laughed and the smile that had been missing for a few weeks popped onto his face. He looked younger and vulnerable when he smiled.

"You just need someone to help you unload all these," he snorted.

"My mama didn't raise no fool," I laughed. I checked into the office, told Mr. Strickland that I was leaving as he handed me the invoice for the foreman to sign.

"You got a helper today?"

"Yes sir. My friend Aaron."

"Well, drive careful and grab sodas on the way out."

We drove slowly through town, my eyes on the rearview, watching the feed for slippage. The bungee cords were holding them secure. I glanced over at Aaron and saw that he was staring out the window, watching the buildings fall away as we began the ten mile drive out to the ranch.

The quiet in the cab turned into silence that got too heavy. I cleared my throat and said, "How's school going since you got back?"

He jerked his head, giving me a startled look. It faded, but the feeling it gave me didn't. Wherever he'd been made him very nervous.

"Okay," he said, "It's going okay. I kinda got behind but," he mumbled, "It's okay."

I decided to prod just a little. "Your uncle....how's he doing?"

"Huh? My uncle?" Aaron frowned, obviously wondering what his uncle had to do with me. Then, he remembered. His face, clouded over and he said slowly, "He's okay."

"I bet you liked working on a ranch a lot more than school, didn't ya?" By now, I was pretty sure he hadn't been anywhere near his uncle's ranch for all those weeks, but I'd pushed at him and I'd just let him talk now......if he wanted to.

"Billy?" Aaron's voice was soft, almost a whisper.

"Yeah?" I reached up and turned off the radio so I could hear him clearly. I wanted to let him know I was listening.

Aaron's leg started bouncing, creating a nervous rhythm. He kept looking out the window and he was biting his bottom lip. Finally, he said hesitantly, "Billy, can I talk to you? If I don't talk to somebody, I'm gonna bust."

"Sure, Aaron," I replied, glancing over at his wide eyes. "I know that feeling. Sometimes, I think if I could just talk to someone, things wouldn't look so dark."

"You too?" he sighed.

"Yeah, we all have our bad days."

"Can I trust you to keep it quiet?"

There was no reason for him to trust me. We weren't friends. But maybe, right now, he needed someone who didn't know him well, someone who wouldn't judge him. He needed to talk and I would listen.

"Yeah, I've got things of my own that I wish I could tell too. I won't repeat what you say. I swear, Aaron."

He seemed to think it over, and then, with a deep sigh, he said, "I wasn't at my uncle's ranch."

I didn't ask where. I just waited after I said, "It's okay, Aaron. Say what you want to if it'll lighten that load you're carrying."

He cleared his throat and said, "You know what you said in class about being alone in what you believe is true?"

I didn't think he wanted an answer, so I waited.

"Billy, I did something stupid. I thought my parents would love me no matter what I told them as long as I hadn't hurt anyone."

"You told them something they didn't like?"

He shuddered, remembering the look on his father's face. "Yeah, I told them something, a secret, and they tried to make it go away."

"Did it?" I asked, knowing the answer. "Did it go away, Aaron?"

I heard a sniffle, but his face still faced the window. "No." He moved his arms so that he was hugging onto himself and the flood broke.

"I told them something and asked them to help me, but instead they stopped loving me. They tried to fix me. They.........I've..........I had to go to this place."

"This place?" I was hurting for him. No one should ever feel like this.

"A place where they fix kids who get mixed up."

He told me about the place; the silence, the rules, the absolute lack of love. How the people talked one way to the parents and another after they left. He left out one thing. Why was he there?

I pulled into the drive under the arch that said Blue Mesa Ranch. We could see that big white house at the end of the long road lined with tall cottonwoods. The barns and the feed lots were out to the right and the Herefords milled in the far pastures. I put my foot on the brake and shifted into park. Turning in the seat, I ran my arm lightly along the back of the seat and tapped Aaron on the shoulder. He turned his head, but not his face. I couldn't see his eyes.

"I won't tell anyone. I promise. You didn't deserve what happened, no matter what you told your family. Don't hold it in anymore until it hurts too much to bear."

He sighed. "Thank you, Billy, for listening and, I guess, for................,"

"Being a friend?"

"Yeah."

***********************

We unloaded the feed and got the invoice signed. Driving back was faster with the lighter load, and I hated to see it end. I had a new friend and, for the first time in my life, I felt like someone needed me. I wanted to know why he had gone to that place, but I'd wait until he was ready to tell me. It couldn't be anything really bad. Aaron just wasn't a bad person. I didn't think he did drugs or anything. What could he possibly have told them that started all this?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Tin Man: Help! Help!

Scarecrow: It's no use screaming at a time like this. Nobody will hear you. HELP!! HELP!!

~~~~~~~~~~

Aaron Sorensen

I hope I did the right thing. I couldn't keep it all inside me any longer. When Billy Carmedy said what he said in class, I felt something break inside me. My mom and dad have been acting like nothing ever happened. As far as they're concerned, I guess I'm fixed. I feel like a washing machine. I made an ugly screechy sound and they called the repairman. Now, they can just get on with their 'washing' and life will settle back to normal.

Lord only knows what is going on inside my parent's heads. When my mother looks at me, it's with this frightened glance, but she can't keep eye contact with me for 10 seconds. And my dad, he just doesn't look at me at all. I know that if I went to them and promised that I wasn't gay anymore, that I would be their son again, they would open their arms. It might take my dad longer than my mom, but they want it so much. They'd pretend like it had never happened.

I had always wanted brothers and sisters, and now more than ever. If there were more kids in my house, maybe the spotlight would go off me. Maybe I'd have a brother who did drugs or a sister who slutted around. Anything to let me hide. But, I'm an only child and so, my every move was under the microscope. I couldn't blame anything on anyone else. Everything was always my fault.

I have so much school work to make up, but I have lots of time since I had to drop off the baseball team and drop out of scouts. I had rules on top of rules. They had to know who I was with and where I was going every minute of the day. Not that I got to go anywhere. I went to school and came home.

My friends had all welcomed me back, but the way I looked now, my shaved head and my plain clothes and my silence, had made them back off. I wasn't the same boy I had been when I left. I just said that my time away had made me really tired and I wasn't gonna be going out for awhile. It was really lame, but, sadly, I found that no one really cared. I had been gone for a long time and my friends had kinda moved on without me. It was then that I realized that I didn't really have any close friends, friends I confided in. I didn't miss any of them, except for the fun times we used to have.

I hurt Sissy. She's a really sweet girl who had pushed and pushed to try to get close to me. All her friends had had sex and she wanted it too so she could be part of the talk. I'm ashamed that I had let her blow me and I felt her up just so no one would question me. All that was over now. I had broken up with her, claiming that I'd thought about her a lot when I'd been gone and realized she needed more than I could offer her. She tried to argue me out of it but I was firm. I didn't need a girlfriend.

My father was angry when he asked how Sissy was and I told him it was over. He wanted things back to normal. Normal was Aaron and a girl. Normal was his son trying to get in a girl's panties. He closed his eyes to his son wanting to get in another boy's pants. He would never be able to accept that thought. It was amazing to me that my father used God and religion as his reasoning for what he had done, but he could still want me to f*** a girl rather than be what I really am. His priorities were totally out of whack.

I thought about what I had done this afternoon, telling Billy Carmedy the little that I had. I felt better inside for just saying out loud that I hadn't been at my uncle's ranch. I hated all the lying and now someone knew a little bit of the truth.

Billy and I had never been friends and now I wondered why that was. He was so easy to talk to, so easy to be around. I realized something today. . . . after I had asked for his help; after I had helped him load the feed bags; after he had promised to keep my secrets and I told him about my uncle. . . . after all that, I looked at him, really looked at him and wanted to tell him all of it. I was so scared he'd laugh or back away or worse. What if he was repulsed and told everyone? I've been so confused after that night, all those weeks ago, when I had still trusted my parents. It had all seemed easier then. Now, I had to make my own decisions, deal with my own choices.

So, when Billy said that about differences in class, that even if he was an outcast, he'd stand by his beliefs, I'd looked at him differently. Maybe, there are people who might listen to me. Maybe, I could talk to someone. Maybe, even Billy.

I know he wondered why my parents had sent me to that place. I hadn't been able to tell him. I was ashamed. Ashamed of myself, ashamed of my parents. I had opened the door, but I didn't know if I was going to be able to walk through it. What good would it do to tell Billy Carmedy I'm gay? There was just too much that could go wrong.

My mom called me to dinner. She sat at one end of the table, my dad at the other. I sat in my usual spot on the side. Mom set the bowl of green beans on the table and reached her hand out to me for prayer. Before, we had always made a circle of our hands, thanking God for our food. I took my mother's hand and looked toward my father. He kept his hands folded above his plate. He hadn't touched me since the night before I told them. My father couldn't even touch me anymore.

He bowed his head and prayed thanks for the food on the table, the health of his family and friends and the continued strength of the weak and confused. This was the only indication that he even remembered what had happened. I ate my dinner and excused myself to work on my homework.

My room had been cleared of my computer, my music, posters of sports stars and books. It was no longer a refuge, but just another white space where I was alone. I sat at my desk, staring out the window wondering if my boy was out there thinking about me. I had to believe he was out there. My calendar hanging on the wall beside my desk already had nine red X's as I marked off the days until I was free.

I finished my homework and flopped down on my bed. Staring at the ceiling, I thought about Sissy and how that had been so wrong; about Mr. Edgars and the cold look in his eyes when he tore me down; and then my thoughts turned to Billy Carmedy. Even though I knew it was wrong; even though I had tried to turn my feelings off, I had noticed him today.

I finally let myself think about how he looked. I pictured his long legs as he walked back and forth from the truck to the barn .  . . the way his jeans clung to his butt. I thought about his laugh and his even white teeth with a small dimple flashing in the corner of his mouth. I didn't want to think these thoughts about Billy. This was how I got in trouble in the first place. I needed a friend right now, not a night dream. I wouldn't jerk off thinking anything about Billy. It wasn't right. It just wasn't . . . . . I closed my eyes and slipped my hand into my boxers. I wouldn't think about how his brown eyes had watched me with kindness and caring. I wouldn't remember how his chest had glistened with sweat as he lifted the sacks of feed. I wouldn't. It was wrong. I kept whispering how wrong it was as my hand moved up and down, as my body tightened.

***********************

I sat silently through my classes the next day. My old friends still spoke to me but since I didn't go out at night, they had pretty much chalked me up as a lost cause. Looking at the kids at school from the other side of the fence now, I realized that there were so many other kids who sat alone that no one even knew. They reminded me of the kids at the retreat. The ones I wasn't allowed to talk to as I passed them in the halls and sat next to as we ate. One of the things that drove me crazy there was the silence. There must have been 17 other kids there with me, but I never knew their names or talked to them at all. I wanted so badly to know why they were there. Were they like me or had they done some other horrible unmentionable sin?

As I sat in the cafeteria and looked at the other kids, I wondered what secrets they had and if they were as confused as I was.  I choked back a laugh thinking we should all get together and form a club. The Misfits. The ones no one wants. The Throwaways.

As it got closer to time for Psych class, I felt myself anticipating and dreading at the same time. What if he had thought about it and decided I was a freak? What if he wouldn't look at me, embarrassed to know me? I found that I wanted his friendship. I needed it. I couldn't tell him my secret. I didn't want him to turn away from me like all the others, all the people I have believed would never turn away.

I wanted to see Billy, see if he accepted me. I wanted to run away and hide for fear that he hadn't. I walked in the door of Mr. Cantor's classroom, my eyes down, to plop down in my desk by the door. I automatically looked at the clock. I sat for a couple of minutes and then couldn't stand it. Hell, all he could do was look away. I was getting used to people closing down around me. What was one more?

I turned my head and looked out the window, slowly shifting my eyes back to where I knew Billy sat. He was staring right at me and when my eyes met his, he grinned. I saw a flash of those white teeth and that little dimple. He made a head's up motion with his head and I smiled. Turning back to face Mr. Cantor, I felt myself ease off. I had a friend. I promised myself right that minute that I wouldn't do what I did last night again. I wouldn't use Billy for my night time fantasy. It wasn't fair to him. He was trying to be my friend and I wouldn't betray his trust. He was offering me his hand and that's all of him that I would concentrate on.

After class, I waited just outside the door. Billy came barreling out, bumping right into me. Laughing, I steadied him as he straightened his books.

"Wanna come help me at the store?" he asked.

"Man, you're getting free manual labor out of this deal," I laughed. "Don't you ever quit working?"

His eyes darkened for a second and I realized that I'd hit a sore spot.

"Not really. I work most all the time." He saw that I was uncomfortable and added, "But I'd sure like the company."

I wasn't sure how I was gonna explain to my parents where I was after school. Yesterday, Mom had been out when I got home from helping Billy, so it hadn't come up yet. I had to figure out a way to be able to see Billy. It wasn't fair that I couldn't even have a friend.

This time, I rode with Billy in his beat up old truck. The seat covers were patched with duct tape and the fabric that covered the ceiling was gone, but he was happy and that's was all that mattered.

I was helping set up a display of cow feeders, when Mr. Strickland walked over to check on us.

"You back again, Aaron?" he smiled.

"Yeah," I said shyly, hoping he wasn't gonna tell me to get lost. I didn't know when else I could talk to Billy.

"If you keep helping Billy, I'm gonna have to start paying you half of his salary," the man said.

Billy frowned. I could tell that didn't set well with him, even if it was a joke.

Mr. Strickland saw the frown and clapped his hand on Billy's shoulder, "I was just kidding, Billy. I wouldn't do that. You're the best worker I have. I guess I'll just have to offer Aaron here a part-time job after school too, so you two can keep my store in good order."

My eyes widened with shock. It had been a long time since someone had done a kind thing for me.

"Do you need another helper?" I asked.

"I wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it," Mr. Strickland said. "I know Billy could use the help. He stays late too many afternoons. If it's okay with your parents, it's fine by me."

My parents! Would they let me work here after school? Why not? It's not like cows are gay. It's not like I can practice my nasty perversions on sacks of feed.

"Wow! Thank you, Mr. Strickland," I grinned. I turned to make sure it was okay with Billy and found a huge grin on his face too. He was happy that I was gonna work here. I wanted to dance around and hug people. Oh wait, I can't hug people. I wasn't gonna let what I was ruin how happy this was making me. I would get to spend two or three hours every afternoon with my new friend. I'd make my parents say 'Yes'. They had to. They'd taken away everything else, I wouldn't let them take this.

Mr. Strickland walked off and Billy whacked me on the back. "Way to go. You've got yourself a job."

"It's okay with you?" I asked shyly.

"More than okay. We've got plenty of time to talk now."

We finished the display and unloaded twenty cartons of cat food for the shelves. The feed store wasn't air conditioned, and the work made me sweat. Billy had tied a blue bandana around his neck when we got there and now I knew why. He pulled it off, wiped his forehead and handed it to me. I did the same and offered it back.

"Nah, you keep it. I've got more."

I rolled it and tied it around my neck like Billy had done. That bandana meant more to me than all the money in the world.

We talked the whole time we were working. We had lots in common and, as long as I kept the topics general, like music and sports, it was easy. It was when we stopped for a soda break that it got sticky.

"You gonna tell your parents tonight?"

I had been trying to think about what to tell them. I was so scared my dad would say 'No'. It was like he thought that anything that made me happy made me gay. "I have to. I hope they let me."

Billy gave me a sad look. "They won't send you away again, will they?"

"Not as long as I mind them," I sighed.

Billy didn't say anything for a couple of minutes and then he said gently, "I don't know what you did to get in this fix, but nothing's this bad. Besides, a job is a good thing. How can they not like the idea?"

I didn't know what to say. How could I tell someone as kind and caring as Billy that my parents didn't think I had the right to be happy until I came around to their way of thinking?  Until I made myself into the son they wanted, not who I was.

"Want me to go with you to tell them what a good boss Mr. Strickland is and how. . . . . . . . .?" Billy started.

"NO!," I snapped. My God, I could just see my dad's face if Billy walked in the door with me. He's a really cute guy and I know the first thing my dad would think. Looking at Billy's face, I saw the confusion my 'No' had caused. "I mean, I think it would be better if I asked by myself, okay?"

"Sure," he said, his face set in a frown, not at me, but confused all the same.

I knew I couldn't keep this up with Billy. He was brave and honest and had said right there in class that, if he was different, he would still hold his head up. I couldn't keep my secret from a boy like Billy. I wish he was gay like me. Wait, no I don't. That would just be hard right now. For the first time in my life, I hoped that the boy I was starting to care about in all the ways Mr. Edgars and the retreat had taught me were wrong, was very very straight.

***********************

That night, Billy's bandana scrunched in my fist, I said casually, "Dad, I have an after school job. Mr. Strickland, down at the feed store wants me to work from 3:30 to 6:00. It's a good job. I'll work hard and make some money."

"You are behind in your studies."

"I'll work extra hard after dinner to keep catching up. I'm getting all my old assignments turned in. My grades are up to C's now. I promise they'll be better than that by report card time."

"I don't know. You'll come in contact with too many people there," he said, thinking God only knew what. . .that I'd flirt with the cowboys.

It was my mom that helped. "I think this will be a good thing. I know Mrs. Strickland. We are in the Women's Society together. Lovely people, the Stricklands. Let the boy try it for a week."

"I'll go down and speak to Jim Strickland tomorrow," my dad said. I cringed.

"You won't tell him. . . . . . . you know. . .," I mumbled.

"He already knows," he replied. "All the church deacons and elders are aware of your struggle."

Oh God! Mr. Strickland knew. Was there nowhere to hide from this? Why had he offered me the job? Was he gonna glare at me like my parents and the elders? I'd rather just come straight home. Then I remembered how nice he'd been and he hadn't said anything about my problem. He'd just said that if it was okay with my parents, it was fine with him. Maybe he didn't hate me.

But, if he knew about me, why would he let me work with Billy? I realized that I had to tell Billy because if Mr. Strickland knew, then he'd be watching me. I didn't want Billy to find out that way, someone else telling him that I was a queer. I knew I had to tell him in my own way, and maybe he'd still be my friend.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Dorothy: Weren't you frightened?

Wizard of Oz: Frightened? Child, you're talking to a man who's laughed in the face of danger, chuckled at catastrophe, and sneered at danger. . . . I was petrified!

~~~~~

Billy Carmedy

That was so great when Mr. Strickland offered Aaron the job. The look on his face was cool. It was like someone had given him a present. I don't know how Aaron went from one of the happiest boys in school to this quiet guy I am getting to know now, but whatever happened, it can't be that bad. I'm hoping he'll spill one day soon, so we can talk about it.

I'm thinking way too much about Aaron. Yesterday, when I was waiting for him to come to Psych class, I was praying he didn't turn back into that silent kid. We had made a little move toward friendship and I so hoped he wasn't regretting it. I know sometimes, you tell someone a secret and then you can't look at that person again. I hoped he wasn't gonna do that to me.

So, when he walked in, sat down and didn't look back to where I was sitting, my heart kinda fell. I just kept looking his way and finally, he turned his head and looked right at me. It was like sunshine blasted through the windows. His face lit up and I knew he'd been thinking the same way I had. I couldn't wait for class to be over, so we could talk.

And, when Mr. Strickland came over and offered him the after school job, I think I was almost as happy about it as he was. I wasn't sure where my mind was headed as far as Aaron Sorensen was concerned, but I knew he made me happy. Maybe I could just have him for a really good friend. Gay guys can have straight friends, can't they? I can keep my mind off him 'that way', can't I? I thought about his liquid brown eyes, the way he wrinkled his nose when he was thinking hard, the soft brown fuzz that was growing all over his head like bunny fur. I wanted so much to help him past whatever had happened and I sure couldn't do it by pouncing and scaring the bejesus out of him. He had enough problems.

I had told him I'd call him later last night to find out if his parents would let him have the job and his answer was real weird.

"I um......I'll tell you at school tomorrow, k?"

"I can't call you?"

Aaron had looked so embarrassed. "I'll explain later, okay?"

***********************

I woke up this morning, my first thought, 'What did his parents say?' I was surprised, but happy to see Aaron waiting by my locker when I got to school.

"They said 'Yes!' he grinned.

It was one of those awkward moments where I wanted to hug him right there in the hall. He was so happy that I could feel it pulsing off him. Whacking him on the arm instead, I congratulated him and grabbed my books out of the locker. We walked side by side down the hall, me headed for Art class and Aaron on his way to Trig.

"See ya later," I called as we split up.

"Yeah," he smiled, the old Aaron smile. "See ya later, Billy."

***********************

Mr. Cantor was in a rare mood when he started talking in Psych class. I wished I was sitting closer to Aaron, but it was probably better that I was way over here. I had made a promise to myself and sitting next to Aaron might have been more than I could have handled. My mind tends to drift during class and I didn't want it drifting toward Aaron's neck or Aaron's arms or anything Aaron. I watched Craig Larkin bend over to retie his sneaker, the line where his suntan stopped across his lower back popping into view. I raised one eyebrow, but found my attention slurring back across the room to see if Aaron was awake.

"Mr. Sorensen," I heard Mr. Cantor's voice through my daydreams. I came to attention as I realized he was gonna make Aaron talk.

"Yes sir?" Aaron's voice didn't sound too sure.

I didn't even know what the teacher had been talking about, so far away in la-la land had my thoughts been.

"We've been talking about the basis for bigotry. What makes a person become a bigot. What are your thoughts?"

I waited to see if Aaron was going to be able to answer. I was just gonna pop my hand up and spew out some kind of answer if he couldn't. I didn't want him crawling back into that dark cave again.

He sat for a minute and then said softly, "A bigot is a person who is intolerant of anyone who doesn't believe what he believes and doesn't like anyone who is different from him. I kinda think a person becomes a bigot from what he's taught as he grows up. I mean, a little baby loves everyone. A little baby doesn't care what color someone is or what he's like as long as he's gentle. I think kids learn to be bigots from their parents and from the other kids at school. If the parents hate something, then the kid is likely to be that way too. If the other kids at school pick on a certain kid, then a kid learns what he has to be to get along."

"How do people show their bigotry?" Mr. Cantor went on.

"They make the person feel less than he is by trying to take away his dignity," Aaron mumbled.

Mr. Cantor turned to Allie Campbell. "Have you seen bigotry here at this school?"

Allie frowned, "Oh sure."

"Can you give me an example, no names?"

She thought for a minute. "If someone does something in a different way than everyone else, people say 'That's so gay'. I guess it isn't really right to say that, is it?"

"No," Mr. Cantor smiled at her, "It isn't."

***********************

Aaron was quiet as we drove over to the feed store that afternoon. I just let him find his way.

Mr. Strickland walked up as we were climbing out of the truck. "Hey, boys. Aaron, your dad came by this morning. I told him you'd be fine here and I'd get you home by 6:30 for dinner. You go straight home, okay?"

"Yes sir, Mr. Strickland," he replied, looking at the ground. It was as if hearing that his father had been there made things not so special after all.

I watched curiously as Mr. Strickland patted Aaron on the shoulder and said softly, "You have friends here, Aaron. Just take deep breaths."

Aaron's head jerked up and he met Mr. Strickland's eyes. Something passed between them and Aaron seemed to relax. His smile came back and he really did take a deep breath.

We worked together unloading 50 pound bags of dog food and some new cattle feeders. It was hard work but the money was good and now I had Aaron here to talk to.

We took a break, grabbed a couple of cokes, and sat under a big old cottonwood that shaded the back parking lot.

"I liked what you said in class today," I said.

Aaron looked away from me, his voice low. "It's just so wrong to hate someone for the color of their skin or what they believe in or how they're born."

"I agree totally. You'd think people would have enough to worry about just taking care of themselves. It's like the church people and how their way is the only way." I realized what I'd said. "Oh, I don't mean you, Aaron."

"Nah, that's okay. I know what you mean. And besides, I don't believe in church anymore."

Whoa......that was big coming from him. "Aaron, you know you can tell me anything, right? I think we've established that we're friends."

He looked at me carefully. "Yeah, but even friends can't accept some things."

"Well, did you kill someone? Are you a drug addict?" I couldn't think of anything else.

"No," he said. "Apparently, it's worse than that. They would be happier if I was a murderer or a stoner." I saw tears welling up in his eyes.

"Oh Aaron, what have they done to you to get you to this place?"

"I thought I could tell them," he sobbed, trying desperately to hide his face. "I was so tired of hiding how I feel. I thought they loved me and I could share my unhappiness and my fears with them and they'd make it better. I trusted that they would be able to accept that I'm. . . . . . ." His words drifted off to nothing, but I knew and he knew that I understood.

I got this choked feeling in the very back of my mind. I hadn't thought it was possible, but here was Aaron trying to tell me that he was gay. Everything he was feeling, I had felt. I knew that feeling of wanting to tell someone. Of wanting to yell it from the rooftop, but I knew it didn't work that way. And, I knew my parents. Apparently, Aaron had thought he knew his.

I opened my mouth to tell him that I understood all too well, but before I could tell him, he said brokenly, "I told them I was gay. I wanted them to know. I loved them and expected them to love me no matter what. They don't. Now, all I can do is try my best to fight this. The church people are helping me. It's why I went to that retreat. They talked and talked and talked. I have to fight this. If I want them to love me ever again, I have to not be this."

Not be this! In one fast second, I knew that to tell him about me would only make things worse. It all cleared suddenly, like the sun through the early morning fog. No wonder we clicked. No wonder I couldn't wait to see him. No wonder his face lit up when he saw me.

I stood up and walked to the edge of the sunlight where the shade touched the toes of my sneakers. Everything fell into place. No baseball, no scouts, I suddenly realized no phone or friends either. They didn't know about me working here or they never would have let him have the job. Did Mr. Strickland know? I bet he did cause he went to that church.

If I turned around right now and told Aaron that I was gay and I understood exactly how he felt and his eyes met mine in a new way, what would happen?

Could we be like the other kids and just be friends? Somehow, I didn't think so. I asked quietly, "What happens if you mess up?"

"I don't know. I guess back to that place. I can't go back there, Billy. I can't."

My heart broke. There was no way that was gonna happen. Not because of me. "Well, we just won't let that happen, will we?"

"You don't care that I'm. . . . . . ," he couldn't say the word.

It took all I could not to say what I was feeling. If I could be the difference between this sad beautiful boy making it through the next days, then so be it. I had lied before, I could lie again. It wouldn't even be a lie; it would be a very very painful omission that would keep his head above the water.

"No, my friend," I said slowly, "I don't care. We'll work this out. You will not go back to that place."

"Really?" he asked, wiping his face with his hands. I handed him my red bandana and he grinned, like a little puppy who had expected to get kicked.

"Really," I smiled. "You're my bud. Buds stick together."

"I just wanted someone to talk to, someone who would understand, well, maybe not exactly understand but, at least, not hate me."

"What's to hate? It's the way God made you." (and me, I thought)

Somehow, even though I wanted to tell him so bad, I knew in my heart that this was the right thing to do. Yeah, it would be great for him to know that he wasn't alone and that the one person he had chosen for a friend was like him. Thing was, if he knew and we acted on it in any way, he would get sent back there and that just wasn't gonna happen. There would be no way to keep being happy a secret. His father would find out about it and Aaron would be gone.

I knew I'd regret my decision a million times over and I had a feeling I'd cry as soon as I was alone, but one look at Aaron's red eyes was enough for me to swear I would never be the reason he got sent back to that place.

We got back to work and I could feel every time Aaron looked my way. I would look up, grin at him and the look of pure happiness in his eyes made me know that, for right now, I would be his friend.

Wasn't it amazing, that out of 416 kids in my high school, out of the 42 gay kids, I would stumble across the one with the broken wing who just didn't need one more thing to make his little house of cards go tumbling down. Dang!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Wizard of Oz: A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.

~~~~~

Aaron Sorensen

It's funny, but telling Billy gave me courage. For a few seconds, something flickered through his eyes and I had a moment where I thought . . . . . . . but, that would be too much to ask for. I'd always heard that one out of every ten people was gay, but that would just be too easy. I had to not think about Billy that way. I'd just keep telling myself I was glad he wasn't like me. The way I felt about me, why would anyone wish that on anyone else?

I left work at six on the dot and left Billy still sweeping up. I thought about him a lot on the way home. He worked so hard. He could have gone on home when I did, but he stayed to help Mr. Strickland close up so I wouldn't get in trouble. I would have except for my father's ruling. I didn't want to do anything to rock my shaky boat.

It was so hard not letting my anger just fly out, but I couldn't go back to that place and I didn't have any choice in whether I did, one way or the other. My mom was beginning to make peace with me and I hoped we could get back to somewhere like it had been before, but my dad. . . . . . he would never change.

What I had said in class that day about bigotry; that was my dad. He believed his way and there was no other way. How do you deal with someone like that? I had lived all my life with him, and, until it affected me, I had just tried to ignore it. Now, I couldn't ignore it anymore.

I thought about how I wanted to stand up to him; tell him off. Shout in his face that I was as good as he was. . . . better, because I didn't hate things I didn't understand. I'd tell him to just f***ing eat s*** and die and then I'd leave forever. I'd go somewhere happy, somewhere that people would care about me and not mind that I was different from them. I'd find someone sweet who'd love me and cherish me. Someday, I'd find my way over the rainbow.

But, for now, I have to be Quiet Aaron. I understand that. I have to dream my dreams and wait. I will never go back to that place in the woods. I have my best friend Billy and he doesn't care that I'm gay. I wish. . . . . . . .

***********************

It's much easier to live now. I get up in the morning knowing I have someone to talk to, who will listen and not judge me. Sometimes, I have this really powerful feeling that there are things Billy isn't saying, but maybe like me, he needs time and trust. I know his family doesn't have much money, but he's working so hard to save and he's applied for a scholarship. He wants to go to the state university and study to be an architect. I know for a fact that he'll be the best architect the world has ever seen.

Me? At first, my parents said I didn't deserve to go to college, but they're easing down now. I guess I'll have to go to the church affiliated college near here, but anything will be better than living in this house. I wish I could go with Billy, be roommates and stay his friend. I wish. . . . . . . . .

Now that my eyes are open; now that I know how deep my own secrets run; I look around at the other kids at school and wonder what secrets they hold close. I wonder who is gay; who is being abused; who is pregnant; who can't get off drugs. All these silent kids with no one to talk to. I've started smiling at kids whose eyes seem dead just hoping that if someone wants to talk, they'll see it in my eyes.

***********************

Billy was tugging a huge roll of barbed wire down the back steps, heavy leather gloves on his hands; his ever present bandana rolled and tied around his forehead to catch the sweat. The days were getting cold, but hard work was still hard work.

"You got a yellow bandana today," I laughed. "You got every color, huh?"

"Yeah," he grinned, "My gramma gives me a new package every Christmas."

I haven't ever been to Billy's house and, big surprise, he's never been to mine. I knew he'd told his family about me and he told me that I was welcome any time I wanted to come over. He smiled sadly when he said it, knowing I couldn't.

Impulsively, I said, "Billy, come to my house. Please."

He stopped and gave me a look. "You sure that's a good idea?"

"I don't know. I only know that you're my best friend and I want you to."

"K," he said slowly.

So, after work, he called his mom, told her where he'd be and we drove in his truck to my house. Stopping out front, he looked at me really hard. "Why are we doing this?"

I didn't know if I could explain. "I have to try to have my life back. Maybe they will let me if I do it right in front of them."

"And if they tell me to leave?"

I didn't have an answer. They could. It was very possible. I was just counting on the kindness I knew was somewhere in my family. I'd seen it so many times when I was growing up. It couldn't have just died. . . .could it?

I opened the front door and heard voices in the kitchen. Deciding to just try it, I smiled weakly at Billy and walked toward the lighted room, him trailing along behind me.

"Mom, Dad, this is Billy Carmedy. He works at the feed store after school too."

My mom looked frightened for a second but then her good manners overtook her. "Hello, Billy." She looked over toward my father.

"Carmedy," my father said, staring at Billy, "That would be the foreman of the Grissom spread out on Highway 53?"

"Yes sir," Billy answered.

"Billy helps him," I babbled.

My father turned to look at me. "I thought you understood that. . . .,"

I cut him off. "I did, but this is my friend Billy and he knows all about me. He accepts me for who I am and he doesn't care and I brought him to meet you." I stood still, holding my breath.

Dad looked at Billy. "You are aware of the situation with Aaron?"

I saw strong emotion flicker in Billy's eyes, but he answered politely, "Yes, sir, Aaron has told me about his um. . . .situation. It doesn't trouble me. He's my friend and I'm helping him."

My father frowned. "You are counseling him?"

"I don't know about that, sir, but I am giving him my support."

"Are you like Aaron?"

Even my mother found that question offensive. "Mark, that was rude. Of course he's not."

I wasn't sure how Billy would have answered that, but I do know my father was pissing him off really big time.

"If you mean, am I seventeen, a senior, going to college in the fall, then yes, I'm very much like Aaron."

My father made a sound in his throat. "Well, you may stay for awhile, but there will be no closed doors."

I pulled Billy into the hall and we fell against the wall, our eyes wide, biting our bottom lips to keep from laughing. We went into the TV room and sat on the sofa.

"I'm sorry, Aaron, but your father is a f***in' piece of work."

I sighed. "Believe me, I know."

We watched the news and when Mom came in to say dinner was ready, Billy excused himself to go home. I stood on the front porch, watching his tail lights grow smaller and wished I was in that truck with Billy, going to his warm happy house.

"He seems like a smart young man," my mom said at the dinner table.

"He is. Billy listens to me and helps me," I said honestly.

"Well, as long as you keep away from any faggots at your school, I suppose you may have Billy for a friend."

I wanted to throw my water in his face. I wanted to say every curse word I knew; just stand up and yell at them, but he still controlled me. I still had 295 days until I was eighteen. I didn't know what would happen then, but it had to be better than this. I did get up from the table and go to my room. I didn't say anything because I so desperately wanted to keep Billy as my friend. But, I just couldn't sit there and I sure couldn't eat.

Lord, I wish I did know just one 'faggot' at my school. I wish I wasn't so alone. He made it sound like some gross disease that you caught from breathing the same air. What makes him so afraid?

***********************

It was December 16th and I wanted to buy Billy something special for Christmas. I'd only have the money I'd made from my first paycheck and I didn't get that until the end of two weeks. I didn't get any kind of allowance anymore, but when I found out that Billy never had gotten one, I didn't complain.

Everyday, Billy had on the same cap. He'd fold it and shove it in his back pocket and then take it out to pull it on his head. I liked the way it looked with that creased bill shadowing his eyes. It was an old and sweat stained Justin Boot camp cap. I asked him about it one day and he told me his dad had given it to him. It was important.

I'd seen him finger the Stetson cowboy hats over in the clothes section of the feed store. There was one he kept going back to over and over. It was dark brown suede called a Buffalo Big Horn and when I saw him sneak it on his head and peek in the mirror, I knew what I wanted to get him for Christmas. The price tag read $160, but I figured I'd make around $160 for my thirty-one hours work. I could just afford it.

December 22nd came and I was grinning from ear to ear when Mr. Strickland handed me my first ever pay check. Glancing down, I couldn't keep the frown off my face.

"Mr. Strickland, excuse me, sir, but I thought I got $5.15 an hour minimum wage."

Billy made a rude sound with his tongue and then chuckled. "Look at the other side of the check, Aaron. The government takes a pile out before you ever get any."

Sure enough, I'd worked all those hours and the tax off my check was $24. I earned $160, but I only took home $136. The look on my face must have been something to see because they both teased me.

Mr. Strickland said, "See why you need to go to college, Aaron? You can't live on $272 a month."

Lord, I had been naive. I wanted to get that cowboy hat so bad. I thought about asking my mother, but I didn't ever want to be beholden to them again. I needed twenty-four more dollars plus tax. I did what every kid does when they need money. . . . .I scavenged the house and the car, searching for loose change coming up with a grand total of $3.14. I needed $20.86 to get the hat. I decided to talk to Mr. Strickland.

***********************

The next day was the perfect time to ask because Billy had a dentist appointment and would be late getting to work.

"Sir," I said hesitantly, "I really want to buy that Stetson over there for someone for Christmas. I have $139.14. Could you maybe take the rest out of my next pay check?" I was so afraid he'd say "No'. I had lost faith in anyone's kindness.

"I tell you what, Aaron," he smiled, "Since I know who it's for because Billy loves that hat, I'll make you a deal."

"Yes, sir, anything."

"You load that feed over there, carry it out to the Lawson place, help Mr. Lawson pack it away in the barn and I'll call the hat even."

I wanted to hug him. "Oh, thank you so much, Sir," I cried as I shook his hand really hard. "I'll do a good job. I promise."

"I know you will, Aaron." He smiled again, handed me the keys to the truck and walked back to his office.

I loaded up the feed bags, got the invoice from Mr. Strickland and headed out Hwy 68. It was a forty-five minute drive each way, but I thought I had enough time. Mr. Lawson met me at the barn and more talked than helped as I unloaded the heavy sacks of feed. He was a lonely old fella whose wife had died a number of years ago and his kids were all grown and gone. He wouldn't take 'No' for an answer when I said I didn't have time for coffee.

I know how it is to be lonely and need to talk. I listened politely, let him tell me about his grandkids and his crops for the spring. It was late by the time I got back to the feed store and Billy was pacing the loading dock.

"Aaron, you're late. Jump in the truck and I'll get you home."

Even with Billy's help, it was going on seven by the time I hit the front door. My father was standing in the living room, an angry look on his face.

"You are late."

I wanted to just say 'Duhhh', but I'm not that stupid. I tried to answer calmly. "I had to deliver some feed to Mr. Lawson. I got back as soon as I could."

"Go to your room. You will not have dinner at the table."

Like I cared. Sitting at that table wasn't exactly the highlight of my day. I was really hungry, but it was a tiny price to pay for the twenty bucks I'd earned. I jumped up the stairs, two at a time, a big grin on my face. I had enough to buy Billy that hat.

I lay on my bed, sighed a satisfied sigh and knew that at least one thing in my life was good. My friend Billy would have a happy Christmas and I had worked really hard for it.

I had realized a few weeks before that the nameless boy I used to always talk to in my prayers, the boy out there that would love me and cherish me, the faceless boy who would hold me tight and protect me when the world closed in. . .  .that boy had a face now. He had a name. His name was Billy.

I knew my dreams were useless; my wanting was just that. . . .wanting. He couldn't love me the way I wanted him to. He was so perfect in my eyes and that meant that perfect boys were not gay. I would never tell him how I felt and he would never have to feel guilty for my falling in love with him. We were best friends. That was enough. My mind knew it; only my heart cried.

My stomach grumbled and growled and I flopped over onto my belly to try to get to sleep. I heard a rattle at my window. And there, again. I jumped up and peered out into the snow to see a bundled figure bouncing up and down.

Sliding my window open, I stuck my head out into the falling flakes. "What are you doing out there, you nut?" I whispered really low.

"Brought you some food," Billy called softly. He knew me so well. He picked a coil of rope up off the snow and trailed several lengths through his hands. "Catch the rope," he said.

He swirled the loop of the lasso above his head and tossed the loop up towards my window. Leaning out, I caught it and pulled it over my window ledge. He tied the other end to the handle of a cooler and motioned for me to hoist it on up. I got it up there and tugged it through my window.

"Thanks, Billy," I called.

"No prob. See you tomorrow. Night, Aaron." He stood there for a minute, looking up at me and I could have sworn he wanted to say something more, but then he was gone in a swirl of snowflakes. I watched his tail lights disappear into the darkness.

I plopped the box on my bed and opened the top to find a thermos of hot chocolate, a box of Kentucky Fried, and a big piece of apple pie. There was a note stuck in the top:

"Smile, Aaron....you're the best friend a guy could wish for."

I felt a huge smile break across my face and, as I ate my chicken and my stomach filled up, my mind knew I had a very best friend; only my heart cried for more.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Dorothy: What kind of horse is that? I've never seen a horse like that before.

Guardian of the Emerald City Gates: He's the Horse of a Different Color you've heard tell about.

~~~~~

Billy Carmedy

I wanted to give Aaron something special for Christmas, but I had no idea what to get. I didn't think his parents would like it if I gave him anything personal and I knew he didn't have a CD player or anything like that anymore.

We had talked a lot about college. I knew Aaron wanted to get away from home so bad. I tried to make him know that things would be better when he was out and away from his parents' watching eyes. He didn't have a choice of schools. His father said he had to go to the church school in the same town where we lived. It would be okay for him there because it was half religious classes and their social life was monitored. Aaron cried when he told me about it. He couldn't see any way around it. At least, he said, he'd be in a dorm and out of his house. I didn't want to tell him that it sounded very much like the place he'd been taken where all his thoughts and dreams would be crushed. I wished so much that he could go to the State University with me. I wanted to be the one who watched Aaron Sorensen grow into the man he wanted to be.

I came up with a plan and a simple gift for his Christmas. The plan he wouldn't know about and the gift was easy.

***********************

Christmas had always been a great day at my house. My mom baked a big fat turkey and we all helped with the cutting and slicing and clean up. The presents were always small and not too expensive, but came from our hearts and made us all feel special. I always promised myself that when I was an established architect, I would give my parents fancy gifts for Christmas, for their birthdays and just any time I saw something they would like. Now, knowing Aaron, knowing how much money his family had and the expensive things in their house and how little that all meant to Aaron, I changed my mind about my family. I would always be there for them with all my love and help them in any way they needed. It wasn't the expensive things that mattered; it was the love in the home.

Something had been troubling me a lot since all this with Aaron. I felt like I was living a lie and I wanted to know how my family would react if I told them. I watched everyone; Dad, Mom, Grandma and Grandpa, my two older sisters, Ginny and Marsha. I wondered how they would react if I stood up and said it.

Marsha and Ginny would be cool. I think maybe they already know and Grandma wouldn't care except that I would get hurt. It was Mom, Dad and Grandpa that I worried about. I couldn't stand it if they didn't love me anymore. I looked at my family through sad eyes, knowing I wouldn't say a word. One day maybe, but not now.

I drove over to Aaron's after we ate our turkey and carried a brightly wrapped package to his door. His parents couldn't complain about this gift. It was simple and yet it was important.

Aaron opened the door and his eyes were sparkling. He pulled me into the hall and then further into the living room. I could hear the sound of voices coming from the dining room.

"Elder Clemmons, Elder Franks and their wives are here for Christmas dinner," Aaron said, making a face and a gagging sound. "Merry Christmas to me."

We laughed and shook our heads. It was good to see Aaron try to laugh about all the crap he couldn't change. It was easier to laugh than to cry.

"I have something for you," he babbled, his grin getting bigger by the minute.

I held out the simple thing I had bought for him at the mall. He opened the paper very carefully and pulled out the 2005-2006 calendar. It had pictures of beautiful places around the world. He looked at me with questioning eyes.

"I want you to mark off the 270 days until you're free to be the beautiful person inside of you," I said softly. "Look at September 22, 2006."

Aaron flipped the pages until he came to September. It had a beautiful picture of the Grand Canyon. I had drawn a red line around the 22nd and printed the words 'Free to be me'. I watched Aaron's eyes fill with tears as he traced the red words. "Thank you, Billy. I'll mark them off one by one and know I'm coming closer to myself."

I wanted to touch his face, wipe away those tears with my fingers, but I knew I couldn't. I would wait until a time when it was right. Until then, Aaron was my best friend.

He jumped up and grabbed a big package from behind the recliner. "I got you something too," he grinned. He was practically bouncing as I ripped into the paper. I'm not a saver like Aaron is. When I first saw the Stetson and realized what Aaron had done, I felt hot tears burn the backs of my eyes.

"This is too much, Aaron," I choked. I had wanted this hat forever. I looked at him as I bit my lip to keep the love from shining through. "I don't know what to say."

Aaron smiled. "Just say thank you."

I'd never had a hat this nice. I swallowed my pride that wanted to say I couldn't accept it because the look in Aaron's eyes made me know I needed to keep it for him as much as for me. "Thank you, buddy," I said, thinking of all the things I wanted to say. I walked over to the mirror and stuck the hat jauntily into my head, turned and grinned. "What do you think?"

It was in his eyes. I read them and everything I needed to know was there.

If I could just hold to my promise for a while longer.

"You look great," he said in a soft whisper. "I knew you would."

"I'll treasure it," I told him, keeping my eyes down and away from his. It took all I had not to pull him close and show him how much this meant to me.

Suddenly, silence swallowed the room and it was awkward. There were words crashing into the walls and not a sound was being made. I had made a promise to myself and I had to keep it.

Voices from the other room came closer and Aaron's parents and their company walked in. The moment was gone as we both fought for control.

"I want to thank you for taking such an interest in our son," Mr. Sorensen said, holding his hand out to me. "I was just telling the Elders that if there were just more boys like you to help when the youth of today goes wrong, perhaps there wouldn't be so much perversion in the schools. We appreciate you taking the time to try to fix Aaron."

I watched Aaron's face close up, his eyes dulled and the joy of what we had almost said, the intimacy of the sharing we had almost done, was gone.

"I am Aaron's friend, Mr. Sorensen," I said with as much civility as I could work up. "It's a pleasure to be just that. He doesn't need fixing."

I watched Mr. Sorensen's eyes dart from my face to Aaron's and back to me. I had to be careful. "It's fun working at the feed store after school, right Aaron?" Words to diffuse what I had just said.

"Yeah," Aaron said slowly.

%#¿&$*(expletive)! . . . .that man could suck the juice out of a lemon without cutting a hole. He just couldn't let Aaron have a moment's happiness. I glanced down at the calendar Aaron had clutched in his hand and back up to his face. '270 days,' I thought to myself. 'You have 270 days to go, Aaron. Hang in there.'

***********************

School rolled on as school will do. Aaron and I worked together at the feed store and the snow banks began to melt, taking the dreary days of winter away with the rush of eddies of rushing water. I could saddle Chaco up and ride out to my favorite place by the stream. I always wanted Aaron to be with me, to see the world through my eyes, to know in his heart that nothing lasts forever and he would be free soon to choose his path.

I worried sometimes that his father would say just exactly the wrong words at just exactly the wrong time and Aaron would give up his fight. He would have days where I knew he was hurting and that the constant harangue of the 'good people' of the church was getting to him. How many times can you be told you are bad or sick or dirty before you believe it and want to stop the words? I tried to leave him every day with a smile on his face.

I tried to feel sorry for his father, but I just couldn't seem to work up any enthusiasm for it. A grown man with so little sympathy for others, including his own son, was just beyond anything I wanted to know; a man who believed totally in his own god....apparently a god who had a chosen few. I had no feelings for a man like that other than contempt and disgust.

It was April and Aaron had 144 days to go. He might have to go to school where he was told because of money but he wouldn't have to go to any dang retreat ever again. I had a calendar of my own and I was counting the days too.

My plan was in effect. I hoped it was percolating. I knew that Mr. Strickland was an alumnus of the state university that I was going to in the fall. He had helped me with my scholarship papers and had even written a recommendation for me. When I had first gone to him to talk about Aaron, he had listened quietly and then said he would see what he could do. I had been really honest with him and told him that Aaron needed to get a fresh start away from everything. I knew that he was a member of the same church as the Sorensens but I had never heard him say the harsh judgmental things they said. I crossed my fingers that he was the man I had always thought him to be. I knew that Aaron had decided that all adults would screw you if they could, but I still had hope.

It was times like this when it was really bad that Aaron didn't have a phone or a computer or a car. When I was worried and just wanted to check on him, I had no way to finding him. He was like a prisoner inside his own life. I could only imagine what was going on inside his head.

At school, he had pretty much closed himself off from everyone except me. People would ask me what was up with him cause they'd see us together and I'd just shrug my shoulders. "He's going through a rough time right now," I'd say vaguely. The sad part. . . . .no one really cared enough to look any farther. All his old friends were so caught up in their own lives that someone acting odd and different wasn't part of that life. People just don't look below the surface to what's underneath. It's good in a way cause I sure don't want anyone peering under my surface, but I do wish more people would have cared about what was going on with Aaron. The golden boy I had known before all this s*** hit the fan was gone, I guess, forever.

***********************

At work, I would talk about how much I wanted to be an architect, designing buildings and bridges; anything that would endure and create a sense of forever. Aaron didn't know what he wanted to do really. He would shrug his shoulders and say that so many jobs he wanted would be cut off now that everyone knew about him. He had wanted to be a fireman but knew that he wouldn't be accepted. I hated that his self-esteem was guttering out and that he was trashing his dreams. I could say a thousand times that he could be whatever he wanted to be but he didn't believe me. His father kept ranting that being gay slammed doors shut. I couldn't make Aaron believe that the man would say anything to make his point.

"Aaron, listen to me," I said. "When you graduate from college and go to job interviews, your father will not be with you. You will be representing yourself and your work, your grades, your personality will speak for you. I truly believe that your father knows that he is losing a battle he can't win. If you will just hold on to your faith in yourself, everything will be okay."

He would look at me with confused eyes and I knew he felt like a ping-pong ball being slammed from one side of the table to the other. I knew how much he wanted to believe me.

One day, he said the oddest thing. "Billy, I'm so glad you aren't gay like me. It hurts too much. I know if you were, you wouldn't take it like I have; you'd stand up and fight them all. I wish I could be like you."

I felt like s***. I wasn't any braver than he was. As a matter of fact, he was much the braver. He had tried. He had actually tried to tell his parents. I had taken the easy road while he had not. I began to worry that when we were far from here and I could tell him the truth, he might hate me for it. I had what I felt were noble reasons for not telling him, but he might not see it that way. Maybe it would never get said. If I ever saw the look Aaron gave his father in his eyes aimed at me, it would kill me. I was the one thing he believed in. What would he think when he knew?
. . . . . . . . . . .

Wizard of Oz: You, my friend, are a victim of disorganized thinking. You are under the impression that just because you run away you have no courage.


~~~~~

Aaron Sorensen

Mr. Strickland has been in the study with my father for over an hour. Why is he here? He didn't mention to me that he was gonna come to my house tonight. Did I do something wrong at work? I never look at anyone. I never flirt...ever. I just do my work and keep my eyes down. Billy knows that. Billy would tell me. Oh God, what did I do wrong?

"Aaron, step into the study please," my father said from the doorway.

I walked slowly in not knowing what I had done or what to expect. I stood silently just inside the door my eyes sliding from Mr. Strickland to my father. Mr. Strickland smiled at me.

"Mr. Strickland feels that the courses at the university might be beneficial to you. He is an alumnus of the school and recommends it highly. You know that I contend that you need more guidance at the church affiliated college here. The only reason I am even considering it is because Mr. Strickland tells me that there is a scholarship opening. That would be money I could then use to support the church."

I held my breath. What? Mr. Strickland was here to help me? I was being handed an escape? My eyes darted to his face and I saw acceptance and the offer of help. Did I want to go to state? You bet your cowboy boots I did.

But, I knew better than to act happy or excited or anything. I stood very still and waited. I had learned so much about my father in these past few months. It didn't even surprise me that he cared more about money for the church than he did about money to send me to school. It hurt, but it was an old pain. I could definitely live with it.

Billy's face popped into my head. Billy!! I would get to go to school with Billy! This couldn't be happening. I would agree to any terms, any conditions. . . . .just let this happen.

"I would expect you to pray diligently, attend every church service and report to the minister every day."

I nearly choked on my laughter. Right, Dad, like I haven't been praying diligently every day to be out of this house. I know how to pray diligently; just not on the topics you require.

Billy. . . . . . .I can't wait to tell Billy.

"You will live in the dorm. Mr. Strickland says that he will make sure that you are placed in the appropriate section."

I swung my eyes over to him and I swear Mr. Strickland winked at me. He winked! What was I missing? Did my father think there was a section in the dorms for queers? And that I was not going to be placed there? My mind was flying. I was going to State. I was going with Billy. Could I room with Billy?

I knew not to show what I was feeling. Inside I was yelling with joy. Outside I stood very still and waited for him to finish planning my life.

"We'll talk more on all the conditions and what you need to do to be worthy of this," my father said.

I would have eaten rattlesnakes right then to be 'worthy' of this.

He shook hands with Mr. Strickland and walked him to the door. "Thank you for your concern over our son. We will talk more."

"See you tomorrow, Aaron," Mr. Strickland said as he closed the door behind him.

I couldn't sleep for the excited thudding of my heart. I couldn't wait to see Billy tomorrow. He would just freak.

***********************

I overheard mother and father talking as I came down the stairs the next morning.

"It will be a relief to have this burden off our shoulders."

"It will be fine. He will find his path."

"All that tuition money can be used to build a new altar."

I sat down hard on the step. As much as I knew they hated what I was, I never quite believed that they would just want the "burden" of me gone. I felt the tears, but opened my eyes wide and forced them back. Right then, sitting on the fifth step up in the beautiful home where I was raised, I promised myself that when I walked out that front door to go to college, I would never walk back in. I guess people you love have so many caring and faith coupons and when they've used them all up, there's nothing left. Nothing to come "home" to. Home is truly, for me anyway, going to be where my heart is and my heart lives in Billy Carmedy's pocket. He may never feel like that about me, but he's my home.

***********************

"Billy!" I called as soon as I saw that cowboy hat.

"Hey," he grinned. "You look like you won the lottery."

"Better," I laughed. "Guess who's going to State with you in August?"

Billy's eyes popped and his mouth flew open. "NO!!!!!!!!! You? How did THAT happen?" He looked like he wanted to grab hold of me and I knew I wanted him to.

"Mr. Strickland was at my house last night and he told my dad about a scholarship and my dad cares more about money than he does about me and they both want the burden of me off their shoulders and I am going to State with you and. . . . . . . . oh, Billy!"

Billy did then. He grabbed me and hugged me tight and slapped me on the back with both hands and did a little dance and I was laughing so hard, I had tears running down my face. "I guess this means you're happy for me?"

"Happy? Wow!! This is the BEST news. You and me at State. I can't believe your father caved."

I felt a flush of sadness jolt through me and Billy saw it in my eyes. "Sorry, Aaron, I'm sorry, but your father is a total prick. But,"  he grinned, "He is letting you go. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mr. Sorensen."

***********************

As soon as I got to work that afternoon, I went straight to Mr. Strickland's office and stood in the doorway. He looked up at me and smiled. "Come on in."

"I just wanted to say thank you so much for what you did. I wanted to go to State so much and I didn't think I had a chance."

Mr. Strickland looked at me and said gently, "I believe that everyone needs a chance to prove who they are and have the chance to prove their worth. You're a good worker, a nice polite young man and I want you to have that chance. I didn't think you could get it if you stayed here."

I wanted to be totally honest. "You know about my ummm, problem and still you helped me."

"Something is only a problem if you build it into one," he said. "I only hope this has not taken away your faith in God."

I knew he was expecting a truthful answer. "No sir, not in the God I have always believed in; one of love and compassion and fairness. I have to be honest and say that I don't believe my father and I believe in the same God."

"There is only one," Mr. Strickland smiled ruefully, "And I believe in the same one you do. Now get out there and get to work. I know you and Billy have lots to plan."

***********************

Billy and I finished the last bit of work for the day, grabbed sodas and sat on the edge of the loading dock dreaming our dreams.

"Aaron," he said carefully.

"Yeah?"

"I want to be sure you know you haven't run away from problems or hidden from them. It took courage to do what you did; to tell your parents, even if it came out badly and you've suffered hell for it. I'm very proud of you. I always have been and I always will be. I wish I. . . . . . . . . . .," he stopped and ducked his head.

"What, Billy?" I wanted to touch his shoulder. He was hurting.

"Nothing," he laughed it off. "I am just so dang happy. I've wished and prayed for this to happen and now it has. You'll find yourself again. I'm gonna tell you something and you're gonna laugh at me."

"I'd never laugh. What?"

Billy sighed, "I used to envy you. You were the golden boy. You had everything I wanted and on top of it all, you were a damn nice guy. You didn't deserve anything that happened to you. I just wanted you to know that."

I blushed. "Golden boy," I snorted, "Some golden boy. I ruined my parent's lives and lost all my friends. I went to a hole they call a retreat so they could 'cure' me. I thought of all the ways I could just kill myself and have it over with." I heard Billy's sharp intake of breath.

"But, you know what stopped me? You know what made me keep trying? Gave me faith in myself and courage to go on? You. The day you talked in class and then I came to work with you and you let me be your friend. You saved my life. I owe you so much."

"I just did it cause I care."

"I know. I've learned a lot these past months. To have the respect of other people, you have to respect yourself and be the kind of person people can look up to. I always thought my father was a well respected man but I've learned that his feet are on really shaky ground. I kinda think that if God was gonna talk to anyone lately it might have been me cause I know he loves me and I've been close to hell. So, I've gotta believe that he hasn't been on the phone with my father or the Elders either. It puts us on equal footing. I have to work out my own beliefs now. . . .not what I was taught but what I believe to be true."

I felt Billy's hand on my shoulder and the warmth of it healed the last little bit of hurt in my heart.

***********************

My parents made out a list of what I needed to take with me. Then, they gave me the money to buy the things on the list. I knew that Billy wouldn't have a lot of money to spend on stuff like blankets and sheets, so I crossed some of the dumb junk off the list and bought two of stuff we would both need. I mean, who needs a rug when you can get two sets of sheets?

Billy and I worked up until graduation and then most of the way through the summer.

Graduation was an emotional time. For me, it was total joy that high school was over, I would be eighteen in 104 days and I was gone from here.

Billy's whole family attended the graduation and I finally met them. I could see where Billy got his good looks and his quiet sense of right and wrong. I loved his mom right off and felt like his dad wouldn't have been like my dad was. . . .but then, I had trusted my dad too, so who knows?

As summer closed down and it was time to move our stuff, we got letters telling us that, by some stroke of luck, we could actually be roommates in the freshman dorm. It was like Christmas all over again.

"I guess you'll be out looking for a boyfriend as soon as we get there," Billy teased me.

I flinched, but I couldn't say anything except, "Yep, and I guess I should warn all the girls."

I had thought about this a lot. I love Billy, but he isn't gay. He's my best friend. I guess part of what I have to do is find myself and to find myself I have to find other gay guys to have for friends. I don't really want to. I just want to be with Billy, but I don't know what the answer is. At least we'll be roommates and still best friends.

My hair has grown out, my parents gave me some money to buy clothes and I finally feel like a normal guy again. Mr. Strickland gave Billy and me a computer for the dorm room. He said we'd have to share and that's cool with us. I owe that man so much. One day, I'll find a way to pay him back.

It's funny, not haha, but sad funny. My parents have been nicer to me since I'm going to be leaving. It's like since the burden is leaving, they can afford to be nice. I will miss my mom. She tried to help me even though she wasn't strong enough. I will not miss my father.

My life has been hell for the last eleven months. It all could have been avoided if the people I loved and trusted had loved and trusted me back. I know one thing, if I ever have any kids, they will be the most loved and trusted kids in the world.

I think I know what I'm going to do with my life. I think I'm going to get all the training I can and then I am going to be one hell of a good counselor. I never want what happened to me to happen to another kid. We deserve better. We deserve to be trusted and believed in and held and loved. I'll help see that it happens. There will be no 'retreats' in my work; no drugs, no battering of self-esteem. There will be only warmth and listening and acceptance. Trust me.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Scarecrow: "Where are we, Dorothy?"

Dorothy: "We must be over the rainbow!"

~~~~~

Aaron & Billy

Classes started [at State University]. Billy and Aaron found a new freedom they'd never felt before. They could stay up as late as they wanted; eat what they wanted; and talk all night long if they wanted. They just couldn't seem to find a way toward each other.

It was funny that two best friends, who'd been through so much together, suddenly became shy around each other. It was as if a curtain had been raised and the first act was ready to begin.

Aaron didn't want Billy to think he was staring at him when he changed his clothes, so Aaron took to sitting at the computer and trying not to look at reflections.

Billy did his dead level best to not watch Aaron when he came back from the showers. He buried his head in a book.

And, the worst was that, even though they were best friends, they had never jerked off in the same room or seen a bit of skin or anything at all, so there they were at night, in the same room, painfully not jerking off for fear the other one would think they were thinking about each other.

Billy decided he was going to come clean on Aaron's birthday. If Aaron hated him after he told him, then he didn't know what he'd do. He'd never been so scared. If he lost Aaron. . . . . . . . .there was no end to that thought.

Neither noticed that the other was not dating, not flirting, not even looking. They were too busy not noticing each other. Any outside observer would have seen through it all in a second, but they stayed to themselves as best friends sometimes do.

September 22nd came on a Friday and Billy couldn't decide what to do. Should he take Aaron out somewhere for dinner? Should he order food and bring it back to the room? He had bought a gift and wrapped it himself, but the more he thought about it, the more nervous he got. Maybe Aaron didn't care that way. Maybe he'd look like a fool. Mostly, he was afraid Aaron was going to hate him for not telling him from the very beginning.

Aaron, on the other hand, was so frustrated, he wanted to scream. All he wanted was Billy. He saw really cute guys, but he just came back to Billy. . . . .and Billy wasn't even gay.

***********************

Aaron's birthday morning dawned bright and clear. He had gotten a card from his mother and she had signed his father's name. "I guess my birth is not a day of celebration," Aaron thought sourly. He was finding that the longer he was away, the easier it all became.

Billy hugged him with a big "Happy Birthday' grin and said, "Well, you made it. Eighteen and free to do whatever you want to. Let's go out tonight and celebrate. . .my treat."

They walked out into the courtyard and Aaron took a deep breath. The air was crisp and they could feel a touch of autumn. "This time last year, I thought my life was over, Billy." He smiled as he touched Billy's arm, "Thank you."

"I didn't do anything," Billy answered. "You made it through and now we've got our whole lives to look forward to."

"I hope so," Aaron whispered to himself, "If it could only be with you."

They split up for class, promising to be back to the room by five. "Don't forget, Birthday Boy," Billy called as he stood watching Aaron walk away.

Billy had three classes and Aaron had two. By the time Billy swung through the student union to grab a sandwich, it was closing in on 2:00. He was starting to get nervous, worrying about what Aaron was gonna say when he told him the truth. He picked up an egg salad sandwich and started for the far door.

Hearing a very familiar laugh, he turned his head, a wide grin on his face. The grin faded as he saw the back of Aaron's head. He couldn't see much more because of the guy hanging all over Aaron's chair. As Billy stood there, his heart beating out of his chest, he watched the jerk practically eat Aaron with his eyes. Dang! He was drooling all over him. Something the guy said made Aaron laugh harder and the guy took that as an invitation to sit down in the next chair. Way too close!

It had been a long time since Billy had seen Aaron that happy around other people. They laughed and joked all the time, but since the retreat, Aaron had been shy and quiet around other people. What made this guy different?

Billy walked out the double doors, throwing the sandwich in the trash. He kept walking till he found a quiet bench and sat down, huddled into himself.

It had to happen. It was time for Aaron to find boys he wanted to know better. "Why would he want to spend all his time with me when I'm this straight guy?" Billy muttered. He had waited too late. He'd blown his chance.

Aaron needed his space to find out who he was and Billy was cramping his style.

"Maybe I shouldn't tell him now," Billy sighed. "It would just make it worse. He probably doesn't care about me like I thought he did."

He saw Aaron and that guy walk out the doors to stand talking on the steps. S***! Billy noticed a girl he'd seen in one of his classes sitting under a nearby tree. He jumped up and walked over, leaning against the tree trunk. "Hi, I'm in your Lit class."

She looked up and smiled, "I know. I like your cowboy hat."

Billy kept Aaron in his line of vision from under the brim of his Stetson, but gave the girl a friendly grin. "You like Professor Greene?"

He knew just when Aaron saw him. He felt it, but he didn't look up. He bit his bottom lip and kept trying to make conversation even though he had no idea what the girl was saying. He sat down on the grass beside her and laughed loudly at nothing.

"Huh? Oh, yeah, the semester project will be cool, I guess," he replied to what he thought she had said as he watched Aaron hesitate, then walk toward the dorms with his new friend.

The girl gathered her things together quickly and stood up, brushing her jeans. "I gotta go. See you in class," she said as she gave him an odd look and hurried off.

"She thinks I'm a loon," Billy groaned. He searched the path with his eyes but Aaron was gone.

Back at their room, Billy beat himself up for the next couple of hours, yelling about how stupid he was and how dumb that had been. How Aaron didn't deserve to be treated like this and well, dang it all anyway. . . . . .until he finally fell asleep holding the box that had Aaron's birthday present in it.

When Aaron came back, balancing a big box on his hip, he found Billy sound asleep with a small wrapped box in his hand. Setting the box down on the floor next to the computer, he felt the tears he'd been holding back begin to flood his eyes.

He stood looking down at the face he loved, the only boy he wanted. He had seen Billy talking to that pretty girl. He had known it was going to happen, but he still wasn't ready for it. "The one thing I want more than anything else. . . ," he sighed.

He covered Billy with his sheet, taking just a minute to watch the way Billy's chest rose and fell as he breathed, then and took the little box out of his hand to lay it on the dresser.

He noticed the card with his name on it. This must be his birthday present. Sitting cross legged on his bed, he looked over at Billy and down at the box. He very carefully opened the paper, saving the bow and running his fingers over the little card where Billy had written his name.

Lifting the top off the box, he saw a silver bracelet, made of chain with a solid plate. His name, "Aaron" , was engraved on the front. His heart beating way too fast, Aaron turned the bracelet over expecting to see "Billy" engraved on the back. Instead, his eyes widened and his chest tightened as he saw words he never thought he'd see. "I love you ~ Billy" was engraved across the back of the plate.

Did that mean something? Did Billy mean that he loved him? Or he LOVED him? Like a friend or what? "Wake up, Billy'. Aaron stared at Billy, willing him to open his eyes, but all he got was a soft snuffly snore.

He walked out into the hall and came back in, slamming the door behind him. "You asleep?" he called out.

Billy struggled to wake up. "Oh, hey, you ready to go to dinner?"

"Billy?"

Billy heard the note in Aaron's voice. He sounded hurt. "What? Why do you sound like that?"

"I just. . . . . . . .I," Aaron tried to talk.

"You what, Aaron? It's okay that you're finding new friends and . . . ."

Aaron looked confused. "What are you talking about? You're the one with new friends. I saw you today with. . . . . . .,"

Billy looked into Aaron's clear blue eyes and saw the hurt. "Okay, let's slow down here. I saw you first."

Aaron frowned, "Well, I saw you second."

"I saw you laughing with that guy. I know you need to find yourself and. . ."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"It's your birthday. The day marked in red on the calendar I gave you. You were somewhere with someone else, laughing and I don't know what else. You were supposed to be with me."

"Well, you were flirting with that Tree Girl. I saw you."

"That was nothing. . . .less than nothing. I did it because. . . . . . . ."

Aaron wrinkled his nose, "Why Billy?"

"Cause it's your birthday and we were supposed to go to dinner and there you were. . . . . . . . . ."

"There I was what?" Aaron began to smile. It started in his eyes and spread across his face. This was getting good. . . .this was getting very good.

"Why were you flirting with Tree Girl?"

Billy threw the pillow over his face and mumbled, "Because you were flirting with Drool Guy."

"I was so not flirting with. . . .," Aaron started laughing. "This is got to be the dumbest conversation we've ever had."

He picked up the big box and set it on Billy's bed. "Drool Guy, as you so stupidly named him, had this CD player for sale cheap and I knew how much you love your country music, so I went to his room and got it for you, you dork."

Billy peered out from behind his pillow. "You did?"

"Yes, I did. I wanted to thank you for giving me my calendar and for marking it with a red pen and for being with me through everything and mainly because I. . . . . . . . . ." he stopped.

I have a birthday present for. . . . . . . . ," Billy said, as he moved his hand around feeling for the little box.

"Looking for this?" Aaron held up his arm, the bracelet shining in the light from the glow of the computer screen.

"Oh, yeah, kinda," Billy stammered.

Aaron took a deep breath. "What did you mean when you said 'I love you'?"

"What do you mean what did I mean?"

Aaron shook his head. "You're being obtuse and that's not like you. I think it's time for truths here, Billy."

Billy sighed. "I meant what it says."

"In what way? You aren't gay like me. So, like a friend?"

Billy sat up, slinging his long legs over the side of his bed onto the floor. "Here goes nothing', he groaned.

"No, not like a friend. I love you, Aaron. I've loved you since the day we drove out to the Blue Mesa Ranch and you looked at me with those blue eyes of yours and asked me to help you."

"I'm confused, Billy. I would have loved for you to say that to me then or anytime after when I was so hurt and upset. Are you saying that you love me even though you're straight?"

Billy stood up and walked to the window. He knew he could lose Aaron right now. He had to admit that he wasn't as brave as Aaron was and that he had kept a very big secret. A secret that could have made things easier or made them much worse. He knew he'd find the answer to that right now.

Turning, he looked at Aaron across the room, his heart in his eyes. "I'm gay just like you. I knew I was then. I've known it for years. I just decided not to tell my family because I was too afraid I'd lose them. I'm not as brave as you are."

But, Billy," Aaron asked, his face showing his confusion, "Why didn't you tell me? We could have been together all this time. You already know I love you so much."

Billy walked over and sat down beside Aaron, taking hold of his hand. "You told me that if you went back to that place, you would die. I decided that I would never put you in a position where you would get in trouble. I didn't tell you because I care so much. I had to protect you."

Billy felt a tremor shoot through Aaron's body. He felt him stiffen and start to pull away. "I had to, Aaron. Believe me."

"You made a decision for me. I've wanted you so bad, Billy. I couldn't sleep at night for wanting you."

"You think it's been any easier for me? Sleeping right over there with you snoring and snuffling over here. I was going crazy. And then you were there laughing with Drool Guy on your birthday."

Aaron started to yell something back and then, instead, his face broke out in a big smile. "Billy, we're kinda saying the same thing here."

Billy rolled his eyes, "Yeah."

Both boys felt their bodies begin to relax and ease into each other, voices softening, fingers lacing together. "Do you know how long I've wanted to just hold you? How many times I wished that you were gay like me? How I had to stick my hands in my back pockets to keep from touching you? How proud I am of you? How I just want to be with you every waking minute? How scared I was that you'd hate me when I told you? How could I hate you....I love you."

"Do you know how hard it's been living here in this little room trying not to watch you?"

"Duh, yes."

"Aaron?"

"Mmmm?"

"Happy Birthday."

"Billy?"

"Yep?"

"How about we work on the trust a little bit?"

"A good plan."

"Aaron? How hungry are you?"

"We can hit Mickey D's later."

"Much later."
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Paraphrased:

Billy: Have you found a place where there isn't any trouble?

Aaron: "There isn't really any place like that.  It would be make believe; behind the moon, beyond the rain.  I think I'll just stay here with you with your arms around me and watch the rain."

*


~~~~~

Six years later, William James Carmedy joined a major architectural firm in San Francisco that specialized in hospices and children's care centers. He wants to make a difference in the world through his buildings. They will all be people friendly.

His partner in crime and in life, Aaron Clay Sorensen added his name to a clinic that treats broken abused people; his specialty; children.

At night, they work together at an AIDS clinic helping the friends and loved ones get through the pain.

When asked why they chose this difficult work, Aaron always replies: "To help other people so they know they aren't alone."

Everyone can find Billy Carmedy in a crowd by the dark brown suede Stetson he always wears.

Billy finally told his family when he and Aaron went home for Christmas and was ashamed to find that all his worries had been for nothing. They loved him and would love him, with no strings attached. They welcomed Aaron into their family with open arms.

Aaron never went home again. He calls his mother every Christmas and she is planning on coming out to visit them in the spring. His father has chosen to be lonely in his righteousness. Can I hear an Amen?

They are adopting a child and will love him and teach him to have acceptance and respect for anyone, no matter what the cause.

Billy and Aaron found their way beyond the rain.



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