Always and Forever

by David Lee

Chapter 13

In Mysterious ways

Ben awoke to the sound of voices coming up through the heat register in the old manse. He hadn't intended to eavesdrop, but the conversation was clear enough to hear and he got interested in it before he could stop himself from listening.

The first voice was that of Don Hanson, his art teacher from last year.

"Liz, I don't know how we could take on another one. Things are not all that flush. Travis does have his college loans paid off, but we also need to consider Tom's schooling expenses next year. Whatever we do, it will have to be a family decision."

The second voice was younger, and also familiar. In Ben's mind, the voice and the sentiment didn't match. At first, he stiffened when he heard it.

"Dad," said Tom, "we have to help if we can. I know Ben. He's a nice, shy kid. I used to kick him around a lot before. I want to make it up to him. Now that football season is over, I can get more hours at the store. I'll give you the extra money for food and stuff for Ben. He can share whatever I have. I'd really like to do this as a way of atoning for how I used to be."

Travis spoke next, "I vote we take him in. I wasn't there for my kid. Maybe I can make up for some of that by helping this one. If he's as good as you all are saying, it would be worth a shot. I can work evenings at Penney's for the Christmas rush. They're always looking for help before the holidays."

"But that's a lot of stress when you're still in the first year of a new teaching position," Don remarked.

"It won't be for that long. I can make it 'til after Christmas and then I'll have time to crash.""

"Okay, I guess the family has spoken. Let's see if Ben wants us."

Ben dressed hastily, went to the bathroom, and tried to finger-comb the sleep out of his hair. It still stuck up in places making him look younger than his 16 years. Then he hesitantly went down the stairs to where the others were assembled.

Liz greeted him with a smile as he entered the dining room.

"Well, sleepyhead, I think I've found you a family. I couldn't get hold of the social worker because of the Thanksgiving break, but I'm sure I can wield some influence in this case. We can get one of these guys to have guardianship over you, and I think the court will force your parent to help with expenses since you're under 18."

Ben looked from face to face, finally stopping at Tom's. He was surprised by the friendly look he saw. He had heard that Tom had changed, but he had to make certain. He took a deep breath and found his voice.

"I'm sorry. I kinda overheard what you guys said. I didn't mean to listen. I just heard. I want to thank you for your offer, but I don't think you're gonna to want me."

Everyone blinked in amazement. Don asked the question that was on all their minds.

"Why in the world wouldn't we want you?"

"Well, I would cost too much and you have Tom already and. . . Well, I might as well get this over. I'm gay. That's why my parents kicked me out. There! I've said it."

With that, Ben turned his head away because he didn't want the others to see the big tears forming in his eyes. He especially didn't want to lose his cool in front of Tom.

It was Tom who jumped up and put an arm around him. As Ben began to sob in earnest, Tom wrapped him up in his strong arms and held the weeping boy to his chest.

"It's okay. No one will throw you out for being gay. My dad and Travis are a couple and I have friends at school who're gay. I can't out them, but I assure you that there are others with the same feelings you have. It's okay, Little Bro."

As Tom's words began to sink in, Ben knew that his life was about to make a dramatic turn for the better. Ben's tentative smile shone like the sun on a tropic isle after a shower.

Pastor Liz asked again for Ben's parents' phone number. She had a talk with Ben's mother and said that she and several others would be over to get Ben's clothes and personal belongings as soon as it was convenient.

When Mrs. Aldrich told her that it would NEVER be convenient, Liz informed her that it had better get REALLY convenient REALLY quickly unless she wanted the police on her doorstep. In the end, they agreed to meet at 1:00 p.m.

Driving up to the Aldrich's home in Liz's Grand Caravan, Liz, Tom, Ben, and Travis were greeted by a bunch of black garbage bags thrown on the curb, but not Ben's mother. So, the four of them piled the bags into the minivan and headed for Don's house.

As Tom helped Ben find places for his clothes, Ben inventoried his things and found that most of them were there. Whatever he was missing, he would learn to live without. At least he had his school books, his clothes, his boom-box and his CDs. He had correctly assumed that he would never see his computer again.

Courtney Forbes had had a pleasant Thanksgiving. She found that she was thankful for a lot of things. She was alive! She was getting better. Her family was supportive, and her mother was no longer trying to run interference in her life. When plans were made to go to Grandma's, she was given the option of going or not as she pleased. Her parents were treating her as an adult. She wondered if college made her seem more mature in their eyes, or if the family's sessions with the counselor were paying off? Whatever it was, it was a good thing. Still, something in the house didn't seem quite right. Maybe that feeling was just her imagination.

Cory was Courtney's main confidant and support. She even told him about her fears of being frigid. He wisely told her that when "prince charming" came along, she would thaw so quickly she'd think she was in a microwave. That imagery made her relax enough to laugh at her problem just a little.

Cory always did know how to cheer her up. She recalled in her mind the time when he was being potty trained, and she tried to stand up and pee like he could. She had cried when her legs got wet in her failed attempt to imitate her little brother. He had said, "Don't worry, it will grow." The memory brought another smile to her face.

On Sunday, Ben went to church with his new family. He was in the habit of going to church, but he would have gone even if he were not. These people had rescued him. They were showing him love. He would do absolutely anything for them.

Pastor Liz was nothing like the preacher in his church. She spoke of God's love rather than God's wrath. Ben had never heard anything like this. He got the clear message that God loved him. God loved Ben - gay, shy, wuss that he was. And his new family loved him as well. Ben was beginning to realize how lucky he was to have been thrown out by his father.

The short period of school between Thanksgiving and Christmas break took up again on Monday. Tom got Ben a job at the store with him and things began to move into a routine. Ben missed his brother and sister; but other than that, he found that in many ways he had never been happier. For the first time in his life, he was free to be himself.

Ben's younger brother, Joseph, prayed every night that God would change Ben, so he wouldn't be gay and wouldn't end up in Hell. Joey never voiced this petition out loud for fear of being on the receiving end of his father's wrath if Ben's name were so much as mentioned.

When Ben was Joey's age, he had made that same prayer for himself. But when God did not choose to change his nature, Ben had decided by the age of 15 that he was meant to be gay and would just have to make the best of it. He was pretty sure God wouldn't damn him for being the way he was born.

Within a few days, the social worker set up a hearing on Ben's custody and his parent's financial responsibility. They relinquished custody of him, but balked at paying anything, and a date was set for another court hearing to determine their fiscal responsibility. This would not take place until sometime in January. But, at least the custody thing was taken care of. Travis Naughton was now his official guardian.

At school, Ben found himself in a social circle he hadn't even dreamed of being in before. Tom was his protector as well as his buddy. Since Tom was friends with Brad and Alan, Ben ate lunch with them too. There was no embarrassment about brown bagging it for lunch because these guys usually did that too. Alan was still frugal despite his inheritance and Brad liked Fran's home-packed lunches better than what the school served.

There were a few other guys his age at the table also. Tom was trying to make sure that Ben wasn't left to fend for himself when the older trio graduated in the spring. Tom was acting very much like a big brother.

Adam Benson was another sophomore who had been invited into the circle. He was a quiet kid who did well in school and who was involved in music and drama. In spite of his seeming shyness, he could come on strong when on the stage or in the choir. Adam had a deep, dark secret. He had a crush on Tom. He was another of the kids Tom had pushed around in the past and he loved his new status of being one of Tom's chosen associates. He wondered what Tom would do if he knew how much he loved it.

Tom was making amends with everyone. He did his best seeking out the kids he had been the meanest to and trying to let them know that he'd changed. It worked wonders on many of them. However, some did not respond positively. Whether they'd been hurt too much in the past, didn't want to give up a favorite grudge, or didn't think Tom was genuine; they didn't want anything to do with him. His psychiatrist had warned him that this could happen, and Tom took it in stride. After all, the guys in his homeroom accepted him, he had a new little brother, and Amy believed in him. "What more could he ask for?

It was the week after Thanksgiving when Mercedes Montgomery marched into the dean's office with a complaint of sexual harassment against Dennis Gallagher. Dean Wyckoff read it carefully before making any comment. When he looked up, he seemed to be suppressing a smile. He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a small recorder.

"Ms. Montgomery, I will be taping our conversation for evidence. I assume that you know the seriousness of these charges."

"I do, indeed! Young women aren't safe around that man. He ought to be locked up, but all I want is for him to be thrown out of the university. I'll be happy to answer any of your questions on tape."

"Okay. Do you know the penalty for making false accusations of sexual harassment against another person?"

"No, I do not. What does that have to do with it?"

"Ms. Montgomery, I'm going to give you an opportunity to withdraw your charges and I will warn you once again about making false accusations."

"Dr. Wyckoff, if you don't do something about professor Gallagher, I WILL take this to the police and the Gazette and it will be ALL OVER TOWN by tomorrow night."

"Do what you must, but before you do, let me give you some things to ponder. First, I have had numerous complaints from men on the faculty about your sexual behavior. I have tried to overlook them, but now I fear they're real. Secondly, Dennis Gallagher is in love with someone else and is true to that person."

"Well, his girlfriend had better get smart really quick and dump the bastard. I know what he tried to do to me," Mercedes interrupted.

"And third," Dean Wyckoff continued, "Mr. Gallagher has never had the least bit of interest in women. His boyfriend can testify to his orientation."

Mercedes' jaw dropped nearly to the level of the big mahogany desk. The dean had left the biggest punch until last. She had been caught - on tape and in print. She jumped up and to grab the complaint she had brought in, but the dean was quicker and swept it out of her reach.

"Give me the damned paper! It's mine and I intend to take it with me. If I don't get it in 30 seconds, I'll tell Daddy to quit sending money to the music school foundation. How long would you survive without that?"

"Ms. Montgomery, this is evidence. Along with the tape, which is still running by the way, I think it pretty well proves what your game is. I'll keep them in my safe. As long as you toe the line and I get no complaints from staff about your behavior, I'll have no reason to send copies to your father."

He switched the recorder off before continuing. "Of course, I will expect the donations to continue. You will see to that, won't you?"

"This is blackmail! I will not have it! Give me the fucking papers and the tape!"

"Now, now, Ms. Montgomery; I think that I know who has been blackmailing some of the male staff members in this department. This evidence is just, shall we say, an equalizer. It's the only deal on the table, and I strongly suggest you take it."

Mercedes left in a fury. She had been beaten at her own game. Dean Wyckoff had the reputation of being tough. She couldn't do much about him. Maybe she'd transfer if she could come up with a good reason which would satisfy her father.

With Christmas a couple of weeks away, there were many festive events. Liz picked up Derek for the symphony holiday pops concert. First, they had dinner at the best restaurant downtown. Derek insisted that they go there since Liz had provided the tickets. Liz had been given the tickets by parishioners who had a conflict and couldn't use them, so she wanted to go Dutch on dinner. But, she gave in to Derek's male pride. That was a major concession on her part because it was rare that Liz backed off so easily. She was a woman with a strong personality. Derek loved the challenge and the fact that he'd won this time.

The weather was typical for December in Iowa. The sky was clear, there was no cloud blanket, and a north wind was blowing. The temperature was crisp to say the least. Liz walked at a brisk pace. Derek had said that he could wheel himself, but Liz reminded him that they could move faster this way and he could see the logic in that. Oh, how he longed to walk. But this woman seemed to love him either way. He found that her outlook made him feel a little better about his situation.

At the end of the concert, the orchestra played the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handle's "Messiah." Derek pulled himself up using the back of the seat in front of him. He stood with the rest. Liz felt her eyes becoming moist at the evidence of his courage. Once again, she knew why she loved this gutsy guy.

There were the usual holiday concerts at school before Christmas break. Alan had advanced to first chair since he was taking private lessons and had his silver trumpet. Danny Long, who had held that position up until this year, was a real jerk who thought he was God's gift to music. Mr. Maxwell, the director, had secretly enjoyed seeing him lose the number-one spot.

Adam was in the trumpet section as well. He and Alan had begun to talk more since they usually ate lunch together. Though Adam had a crush on Tom, he really liked Alan and Brad almost as much. Then there was this new kid in the group, Ben. Ben was very cute, especially since he had started to spike his dark hair. If any one of those guys would notice Adam, he would be in heaven. But he knew Tom was majorly in love with Amy. And Alan and Brad always seemed to hang together. He never heard them talk about girls the way a lot of guys did. Hmm, were they just shy? Were they being gentlemen? Or was it something else? He would have to watch and listen.

Adam nearly jumped as he snapped out of his daydream about his lunchtime companions. Mr. Maxwell was raising his baton to begin the first piece. Now, Adam was in a state of total concentration. He loved music, and when it filled his head there wasn't room for anything else.

After the winter concert, a bunch of the guys were going out for pizza. Alan was driving, and Brad had come with him to hear the concert. Alan decided to invite Ben along to let Tom and Amy have the privacy they deserved. Tom had taken his role as big brother seriously and was hauling Ben along to a lot of things. However, he was pleased to have someone else take Ben for a change. On the spur of the moment, Alan asked Adam to join them.

Adam was thrilled to be going out with the guys. His parents were equally pleased that he was becoming more social and they quickly agreed when he asked if he could go. Rita Benson was thinking to herself that the high school kids he was hanging around with were great - unlike the group he had hung around with in middle school. Those kids had seemed different, maybe queer. These guys looked like the proverbial "boy next door" types – very masculine.

"Just remember that tomorrow's a school day and don't be out too late," she had cautioned.

"A-w-w, Mom, it's the last day before break. We could sleep through it and no one would notice."

Since Brad sat in front with Alan, Adam and Ben shared the small back seat. The limited space put them close to each other and their knees touched sometimes as Alan turned a corner. Neither boy pulled back when it happened. Adam was beginning to feel hot even though the car's heating system wasn't up to temperature yet.

Ben and Adam were both quiet at first. They had rarely talked to each other during lunch, but pretty soon the two sophomores found that they had common interests. Before long, they were having a lively conversation about their favorite music. Adam found himself giving his cell phone number to Ben and asking if he could come over someday during break to listen to CDs together.

Pizza Hut was filling up rapidly, but the guys managed to grab a booth in the corner. After deciding what to order, Brad insisted on treating. He suspected that Ben was short on cash. Also, he knew that Alan would split the bill with him later because they had discussed it before inviting Ben. Brad told the younger boys that he had a check from his grandmother who had told him to spend the money on his friends. It was a kind gesture, and at least partially true.

The pizza was hot and good. The four teens devoured it and a pitcher of Pepsi in a short period of time. When they finished eating, the guys all remembered to thank Brad as they went out into the chilly night.

In the back seat again, Adam intentionally moved his leg over against Ben's. Ben did not pull away. If anything, Ben moved against Adam. Feeling a little braver, Adam made some comment about how cold his hands were and put his hand on Ben's. The touch lasted a little too long for the pretext, but Ben didn't seem to mind. Adam was beginning to be encouraged. He decided to see if Ben would like to come for a sleepover during the coming break.

The period from the beginning of Advent through Christmas Eve was the busiest time of the year for Pastor Liz. There were many extra events culminating with two services on Christmas Eve. She would not change the homily greatly for the later service, but there would be some different music and each attendee would hold a lighted candle as they stood in a big circle around the sanctuary for the final carol. It would be a simple but moving event.

The late service was going to be fuller than usual from the looks of things. There were a number of people coming to church now who had not been there last year. Liz was thankful that gay couples as well as straight ones felt comfortable in her church. That is as it should be. God didn't exclude anyone; neither should his children.

The organist was nearly at the end of the prelude when Liz saw them come walking in. "Walking?" There were Derek and Aunt Mary arm in arm heading down the center aisle. It was slow going and Derek was using pew ends to steady himself, but it was happening. When the organ finished, you could have heard a pin drop. It took Liz several seconds to find her voice.

"The Lord be with you!" she pronounced.

"And also with you," the worshippers responded.

The joy of the season was heightened by what many members of the congregation saw as a miracle. Derek, who had been as good as dead, was moving on his own two feet.

Christmas was celebrated differently in the various homes. Tony, who had no family close, was at the Jenkins' house. Alan and Brad spent most of the day with their own families but went to be with Travis and Don for a little while. Tom and Ben were both with their foster dads until evening when Tom went to Amy's. Amy was home with her parents, brothers, and their wives.

Some families were more fortunate than other in the abundance of material goods they received, but most felt blessed with love. In particular, Tom and Ben knew that kinship was based more on caring and affection than on blood. They felt like little kids do on their first Christmas. It wasn't the quantity or the cost of the gifts; it was the spirit in which they were given.

When the presents had been opened that morning, Ben was especially moved by the one from his "Big Bro." It was a framed calligraphy that Tom had carefully written and illustrated. The subject was the verse from Psalms 27 that had hit Tom hard and that he wanted to share with Ben. "If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up." Ben had hugged Tom fiercely and both had beamed at each other through misty eyes.

At the manse, Liz's mother was helping put the finishing touches on Christmas dinner. Derek, his parents, and Aunt Mary were due any minute. Liz's father was uncorking the wine to let it breathe before serving.

When all eventually arrived and were seated, Liz asked her father to return thanks. Then everyone dug in and enjoyed the bounty. Liz was relieved that 1st Lutheran was doing the dinner for the needy during this holiday so that she didn't have to. She was free to be with her loved ones instead of having to spend her day looking after the needs of others. Her thoughts made her feel selfish. After all, if 1st Pres hadn't done Thanksgiving, what would have happened to young Ben? She involuntarily shuddered.

"What's wrong, dear? Did someone walk on your grave?" It was Aunt Mary who asked.

"No, just thinking about a homeless boy who now has a family."

Derek knew who she was thinking about and related the story, emphasizing the part where Liz had, more or less, bullied Ben's mother into giving him his possessions. Everyone around the table was appreciative. Liz's father beamed.

"That's our girl. She never was one to back down in a situation like that," Harold boasted.

Lydia Thornton agreed, saying that Liz usually got what she wanted - and always had.

After dinner, Derek rose with effort from his seat.

"Mr. and Mrs. Thornton," he began.

"Please call us Harold and Lydia," Liz's mother interrupted.

"Lydia and Harold," Derek continued. "I want to thank you for raising the most wonderful girl in the world."

Derek walked slowly over to where Liz was seated. Lowering himself carefully to his knees, he presented her with a small velvet jewelry box.

"Elizabeth, will you consent to be my wife?"

"Oh, yes, Derek, you know that I will!"

Harold went to the kitchen to uncork the champagne that Derek had slipped to him earlier. Returning, he filled everyone's glass and proposed a toast.

"To our son and daughter, may they enjoy long life and happiness together!"

"To the girl who always gets what she wants," whispered Lydia under her breath.

Adam invited Ben over the day after Christmas. Adam's parents thought Ben was a wonderful boy and welcomed him to their lovely home. As the day wore on, the two guys didn't want it to end. After clearing it with Rita, Adam asked Ben if he could stay over. Ben called Travis to ask permission, but Travis wasn't home from Penney's. Don assured him that he could stay, but said he needed to come home to get clothes, toiletries, and maybe a sleeping bag.

Back at Adam's house, Ben was one happy camper. Adam was about his age and build – they were both kind of thin. They liked the same things. They even thought similar thoughts. Ben wondered if Adam could be like him. It was too much to hope for. He'd better play it cool and not lose a friend.

Adam was also thrilled. Ben was beginning to replace Tom in his dreams. Ben was so cute. He was smart and witty. Once he got over being shy, he was a lot of fun. Could Ben be like Adam? It was too much to hope for. Better play it cool. Ben didn't seem like the kind of guy to out you to the world if you hit on him and he was straight, but better not take a chance. And yet…. In a high school of over 1500 kids, statistics suggested that there should be a number of kids like Adam….

Not since he was a little kid had Adam invited another guy to sleep over. He wasn't sure about the protocol. Should they sleep in the same bed? It was queen-size. Ben would be uncomfortable on the floor in a sleeping bag. Would Ben be offended if Adam suggested they sleep together? Would he guess about Adam? Oh, Hell. He would chance it.

Ben was pleased when Adam asked him if he wanted to share his bed. He had secretly been hoping to be that close. And yet, he also hoped that he wouldn't make a fool of himself. Then he thought about their knees touching in Alan's car and the hand that lingered on his just a little too long. No, Ben would not make a fool of himself, because Adam would not make him feel like a fool.

The digital thermostat turned the heat down in the Benson house at 10:00 p.m. By 11:00 when the boys decided to turn in, Adam's bedroom was getting chilly. They stripped down to their underwear and jumped into bed. Ben decided to test the waters. He began to shiver. Part of this was from the chill and part was exaggeration.

"Ben, are you cold?"

"Yeah, a little."

"Uh, we could kinda both get in the middle and warm each other up. Uh that is, if you want to."

"Okay. Adam, first I have to tell you something. Will you promise to keep a secret and never tell anyone?"


"Will you swear it on a Bible?"

Adam was getting excited. This must be a big thing. He got up, threw on sweats, and went to the den to see if he could find his grandma's old Bible to take his oath on. Since it was kept for sentimental reasons and not for being read, it took him awhile to locate it.

"Adam, maybe I'd better use the sleeping bag. This is gonna be hard. You may not want to be around me anymore, but I have to say it. I gotta be honest with you. I'm . . . I, um, uh, I like other. . . Uh, I'm gay."

"Kewl! I was hoping you might be. This is the best Christmas ever!"

The guys talked for another hour about their attraction to other guys in general and their feeling toward each other in particular. They discussed what they wanted in a relationship and both felt that they wanted to hold off on doing anything really sexual until they knew each other better. Both wanted to be best friends – maybe boyfriends. They tentatively tried kissing and found it to their liking! Finally, sometime after midnight, Adam and Ben fell asleep nestled together like two pups.

While mainline churches were celebrating Epiphany on the Sunday after Christmas, Reverend Parker decided that he had more important things to cover. He preached on the evils of homosexuality and the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. Other churches stressed too much the love of God. He was going to make sure that his flock knew about the judgment of God! Christ would return with the sword of justice surrounded by avenging angels. He would divide the sheep from the goats; (his congregation being the sheep, of course).

When he got to the end of his message, he mentioned that only five weeks ago, a member of their own congregation had gone over to the evil side and would be burning in Hell for his perversions. He expressed his sympathy to the Aldrich family. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that he was talking about Ben. Joey felt tears welling up as he thought about his older brother. He had heard about what happened to Matthew Shepard and silently asked God to protect Ben from a similar fate.

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