by Geron Kees

© 2021 Geron Kees All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation.

I stood in the front yard of my father's house and gazed up into the maple tree that shaded the walk. A warm spring breeze moved the branches in slow spirals, and the leaves rustled with the eager voices of new life. The police had just left, the report taken in great detail, along with a dozen pictures, and the thing itself, cut down from the tree in which I had climbed and played as a small boy.


I could still see it hanging there, even though the police had taken it away. Old clothes filled with newspaper, with a rounded lump of a head, and the noose of coarse rope from which the caricature of a person had been suspended from the branch of the tree. And the sign around its neck, stuck to the front of the old flannel shirt, and what that sign said.


It was supposed to be me. I knew it, and my parents knew it. Their silence after the police had left told me they knew, told me they had already known. Mom gave me a hug, and dad a pat on the back; but their silence said more than their actions. They were in a sort of a shock, I knew, brought on by having all their suspicions confirmed in one startling moment. I didn't fear for them, didn't feel like I would lose their support. They just needed time to adjust. Time to get used to the idea that their son was gay. And that someone knew he was gay.

I should have told them earlier and spared them this moment. But I had no idea this would happen; that this could happen to me.

And no idea who had done it. I wasn't out. I didn't have a boyfriend. I'd never even looked for one. I'd never said or done anything, not to or around anybody, that might have given me away. So how had it happened?

It was a secret, my secret. The fear of it becoming known had added to my natural shyness, to where now I could barely talk to people. He's painfully shy, my doctor had told my mom. He'll probably grow out of it.

But I hadn't. I couldn't. Avoiding people was the safest course, the only course, for someone like me. Someone with a secret.

I looked up and down the street. There were still a few neighbors out in their yards. There had been more of them out earlier, when the police car was in our driveway and the two officers were talking to my parents and me on the front lawn. Beneath what had been hanging from the tree. The one good thing about all that was that the figure in the tree had faced our house, and the sign it wore was only visible from there. The branches had kept the sign's message a secret from everyone but us. The police took pictures, and, after taking the figure down, had placed it right in the trunk of their car, and no one had seen the damning word fastened to the front of the scarecrow's shirt.


As I searched out my neighbors, they turned way. Looking at someone from afar, I could do. But they refused to look back. This was not a close-knit neighborhood to begin with, but most everyone knew their neighbor's names, and smiled and said hey, or waved. But not now. They knew something was wrong, knew that something had broken the normal stillness that hovered over our street. And for now they didn't want to know more about what it had been. No one had rushed over to see if they could help. No one had wanted to know if we were okay. No one had wanted to get involved.

And then I had a new thought, a frightening one. Maybe they had not come over because they knew. Maybe they already knew what this was about, because maybe it had been one of them? One of the people that lived along this tree-shaded, quiet street?

My heart fluttered at the idea that one of my own neighbors might have done this. But who? Who could know about me?

I closed my eyes, and ran back over everything I had said and done recently. But there were no standout moments, no awkward interactions, nothing that pointed at anyone as the responsible party for what had happened in my front yard overnight. For what had caused my mother to come back to the kitchen table white-faced after stepping outside to get the morning newspaper on the front step. For what had caused my father to retrace her steps at a run, and then to come back himself looking angry and upset, there to lift the phone and call the authorities.

How had this happened? And why?

I looked around the street again, but my neighbors had seen me looking, and were now not looking my way. They had disconnected, and left me on my own.

I turned and went back inside the house. My parents were sitting in the living room, talking, but their conversation died as I came into the room. My mother looked up at me, her face drawn in worried lines. My father still looked angry, more than anything else. But as his eyes fastened upon me, that anger softened, and he smiled.

"Come sit, Michael."

I did, dropping into the recliner across from them. "I'm sorry," was the first thing I could think of to say.

My mother shook her head. "This is not your fault. This was something done by a sick mind."

My father winced, and patted my mother's hand. "It's just kids, honey. Kids do stupid things."

"I have no idea who might have done this," I said. "None at all. I haven't said or done anything that might have caused this to happen. I don't know what to do."

My father sighed. "You don't do anything. Let the police handle this."

"Maybe you should stay home from school for a while," my mother said next. "Until the police catch this person."

I had to smile at that, even though I felt no happiness at all. "They probably won't catch them. Things like this happen, and they never find out who did it. I can't just stay home forever."

"You shouldn't," my father decided. He watched me a moment. "Are you afraid because of this?"

I had to think about that. I was actually mad that someone had hung this thing in my yard. I was not afraid because it had been done. But...I was afraid because I had no idea who had done it. Because I had no idea who my enemy was.

"It worries me," I admitted. "I don't know who did this, so I don't know who to watch out for."

He nodded. "But can you function? Can you keep doing the things you do every day?"

He wanted me to say 'yes', I could see that. For me to say 'no' would only add to his worries.

But I did feel like I could still do things. "I'm okay. I'm not going to hide from this."

He smiled, and looked pleased. "No. Turning your back on problems never solves them. If whoever did this knows you're scared, they will keep after you, I think. So don't be scared."

I nodded. "Um, about the sign on that dummy..."

My father held up his hand. "No. There is no need to explain anything." He smiled, and I could see he meant it. "You're our son, Michael. We're family. That's all that matters."

"We love you," my mother added, smiling.

They didn't want to talk about it, I saw. They didn't want to talk about me being gay. That didn't surprise me. I had found growing up that they didn't want to talk about a lot of things. But that they loved me was clear, and that had always been all that really mattered. But now I could see that by never pressing them to talk about things they wanted to avoid, I had no real way to get them to talk about something I needed to talk about now.

My impulse was to press on, but the pain in my mother's eyes stopped me. I couldn't hurt her any further, and pressing them to talk now would obviously do that. I looked from one to the other, mother to father, and back again. Maybe later. Maybe after their shock had passed. Maybe.

"I love you, too," I said. For now, that would have to do.

"You should relax today," my father said. "It's a pretty day. Sundays should be for relaxing."

That was how he felt, I had long known that. He was off on Saturday and Sunday. The first day was used to catch up on all the things he had been unable to do around the house during the week; the second day was to relax, read, and not be bothered with anything. And he had already been bothered with this.

I nodded. "Okay. I have some school work to finish. I'll be in my room."

And that was it. I got up and went into the hallway, and stopped. I turned back to listen. They resumed talking in hushed voices, and I wondered what they were saying. But that they were talking about me seemed plain. I realized then how many times I had heard this quiet conversation over the years, where my parents talked about me, but not to me. I hadn't paid much attention then. I had never considered what I was missing.

And now that I did, it seemed much too late to change things.

That evening, I sat in my room with the door shut, and read. Dinner had been quiet, the TV taking the place of conversation as my parents watched their favorite game show. They had smiled at that, and laughed, looking much like their normal selves, and both had tried to include me in the trivia questions. But I was not up to it, and simply nodded, and didn't offer any answers. I didn't have any, it seemed.

The figure in the tree was not mentioned. I had been thinking of it as a scarecrow, because the clothing had been stuffed with newspaper, and the head had been without features, save for a pair of haunted-looking eyes drawn on with a black magic marker. But it was not that sort of figure, designed to be hung in a field to scare birds away from the crops. This figure had been hung by the neck, and designed to scare larger prey. It was a threat, and a direct one. Someone was out to get me, someone who had discovered I was gay. Someone that wanted to hurt me.

I had looked online for a word to describe the figure hanging in our tree, and had found one: effigy. The definition of the word had chilled me, even as the correctness of it for my own situation had burned into my mind: an image or representation, especially of a person; a crude figure representing a hated person, to be burned as a show of unacceptance.

The thought left me feeling empty. That this had been an act of hate was plain to me. Someone hated me, and I had no idea who it was.

The hollow feeling this caused inside of me hurt. But while I knew I should be afraid, what I felt instead was a sort of disconnection, as if I stood apart from these events, just watching. As if this was happening to someone else, and not me. It was unreal, and what should have been fear was just this flat feeling that was almost nothing at all.

I lost myself in a book, a mystery, and let the world simply wander away. It was a thriller, too, about a murder, and the police procedures the author outlined in the investigation were illuminating. Especially one thing, which jumped right out at me as I read along: '...random crimes were actually quite uncommon. Most crimes of passion were carried out by people that knew the victim.'

The victim. That would be me.

The way that investigators worked was part and parcel of the mystery field, and I had read more than my share over the years. That the police investigating what had happened in my own front yard might be using these very techniques intrigued me. But I was not an investigator, and what actually took my attention in the book was the way the victim's brother reacted to the crime. Not satisfied that the police were doing a thorough job, he had started nosing around on his own, looking for clues. And in the process of finding several, had come to the attention of the murderer, who now seemed to be stalking him.

Paranoia was a word I was familiar with. There were a number of kids at school that seemed to have it, those that were often bullied and who could be seen looking around corners and into classrooms before entering them. It seemed to be a state that the pursued often found themselves in, as they tried to look ahead for every possibility, and the simple act of doing so made them slightly crazy. I had always frowned at that, not being among the bullied; but now I could understand exactly what they were feeling. They were imagining ahead to the next encounter, trying to figure out where and when it might come, and what they could possibly do about it when it came. It was a frightening idea simply to live that way, but as the idea registered with me, so did something else.

Would there be more? The figure hung in my tree, an effigy of me, had been a direct threat. Someone was letting me know how they felt about me. There was no reason at all to think it might stop there. So what would be next? And where would it happen? And when?

I put down the book, aghast now to find myself among the bullied. The threatened. That someone would do such a thing as had been done in my own front yard and leave it at that seemed ridiculous to consider. There would be more, of that I was now certain.

I put the book down, having suddenly lost interest in it. I was tired, and wanted desperately to sleep. To go away from all of this. I turned off the light, and found the darkness of the room threatening, the normal small sounds of the house at night now each the almost silent footsteps of someone coming nearer. I got up finally and turned the light on in the bathroom, which provided enough of a glow in the bedroom for me to see by, and which erased all the shadows where someone could hide.

And then I got back into bed, pulled up the sheet, and screwed my eyes shut and demanded sleep to take me.

It did, finally. But it was a long time coming. And by the time it did come for me, I had become aware of a new feeling, a new knowledge, a new way of being.

Now, I was afraid.

On the bus to school on Monday, I felt as if every eye was upon me. People watching, and wondering. Reason told me it was ridiculous to think that. Only a few of the kids lived on my street, and they were all younger, and none seemed interested in asking me about what had happened the previous day. If I looked around, I would always catch someone's eye. If I didn't look, if I just stared out the window at the passing scenery, I soon felt safe again. And still I could not resist looking out of the sides of my eyes, trying to catch that one gaze that held behind it something else, something threatening.

But I did not spy it. No one was watching me. That probably meant that whoever had hung me from the tree in my own front yard was not on the bus.

Once at school, I again felt that I was being watched. I tried to push that feeling away, but it walked along the hallways with me, drawing my attention to every bit of movement, every word spoken by those I passed. It quickly became a jumble of sights and sounds, almost sickening to assimilate. I stopped at my locker, closed my eyes, and tried to find my balance again.

A moment later I became aware of a noise, something not part of the normal growl of sound in the school hallway. I opened my eyes and turned at a banging sound, and saw two boys scuffling across the hallway. One was larger, a senior surely, and the other was one I knew, a sophomore like me. Barry Solmore. He sat at the table next to mine in the lunchroom. He was in my gym class, and we'd played softball on the same team. He was quiet but amiable, never bothered anyone, and certainly didn't deserve being treated like this.

"Get off me!" Barry hollered, as he was thrust again against his locker door, creating yet another bang.

The bigger guy pushed again, and laughed. "You little dick hole. When I'm at my locker you'd better make room, you understand?"

Barry managed to shrug off the bigger boy, and dashed away down the hallway, while the other boy laughed as he watched him go. His expression seemed light, almost joking; and yet I could plainly see the meanness inside him. The intent to hurt.

I had seen him in the hallways before, but didn't know him. He'd always ignored me, and I him. Sophomores and seniors rarely mixed. But his hostility was as clear as if he wore it on a sign around his neck.

He must have felt my gaze. He turned towards me, and for a moment our eyes met. Once again I could see and feel the hostility inside him. He narrowed his eyes at me, and I broke the connection and turned back to my locker, not wanting any part of more of it. Still, my nerves were shot, and I couldn't get my lock unlocked, and by the time I did the bell had rung, and I was late for my first class.

My morning passed slowly and distantly. I had my homework done, and turned it all in, and that got me left alone by the teachers in my morning classes. But if asked about it later, I couldn't say I remembered any of it.

I was glad when lunch finally came. I sat at the same table in the lunchroom I always did, with the same school friends I'd known all year. And yet, we weren't really friends. I'd never seen any of them outside of school. We talked sometimes, but I mostly sat and listened, and only talked when talked to. That was who I was. They were used to it, and that's how they accepted me.

I remembered Barry Solmore then, and turned to look at the table behind me. He wasn't there. I knew he was in school, but today he had apparently decided not to eat lunch. I had intended to ask him about the incident in the hallway.

The rest of the day was just as sketchy. I felt like a ghost drifting from class to class. No one spoke to me, no one asked what was wrong. That this was not an abnormal state I saw now. People seldom talked to me, because I seldom talked to them. I'd never thought about it before, but I didn't really have any friends here. There were people I talked to in class, and people I sat with at lunch, and people I chatted with online, but no people I connected with deeply in person. I was a loner in a sea of loners. I didn't know people, and they didn't know me. And until now I had never even realized that I had no one in school to share anything with.

I had no one to turn to for help, no one to talk to that might understand. How had that happened?

So when the day was over, I was glad to go out to the front of the school and sit on one of the benches. My bus, usually at the head of the line, was late getting there. It happened every now and then, and I thought nothing of it now.

People were standing around, either waiting to board their bus, or waiting for them to arrive. There must have been a traffic hold up somewhere or something, because several buses seemed to be late. I sat quietly on the bench, holding my books, not really watching, not really paying attention.

So when a familiar voice reached my ears, it took a moment to seep in. And still, when it did, it took me a moment to recognize it.

It was the voice of the senior in the hallway. The one that had pushed Barry Solmore.

"I hate all these little fucks," he was saying. "They shouldn't be allowed in the same school with the rest of us."

I turned my head, and there he was, standing with two other seniors, not ten feet away.

One of the others shook his head. "You need to relax, John. You keep messing with people, it'll get you in trouble."

John. I could see the side of his face, see the play of emotions there. Mean, just as I remembered.

John scoffed. "I'd like to get rid of all the little fags. I keep warning them to stay out of my way, but they don't listen."

A cold creep rose along my spine. "...the little fags."

The third senior laughed. "They have as much right to be here as you do, Pascatorre. We were all there once."

John Pascatorre. Now I had a name.

John bristled at that. "I was never a little fag like that. I was cool."

But the third senior only laughed again. "I remember you. You weren't that cool."

John turned and grabbed the guy by the front of his shirt and pulled him closer. "Watch your mouth, Bonneville."

The other boy was unimpressed. He raised his hands, which were large, and closed them around John's smaller hands, and squeezed. For a second the two stared at each other, and then John winced as the other boy peeled his grip from the front of his shirt and pushed him back. "You ever put your girl hands on me like that again, and I'll hurt you."

John looked taken aback, and then smiled crookedly. "Aw, lighten up, Frank. I was just kiddin'."

"I wasn't. You got some serious issues, John. You need to see a shrink, you know that?"

John's face knotted up, his fury evident; but the other senior - Frank - just shook his head. "That was your warning, man. You put your hands on me again, I'll fuck you up."

John just stared, no answer forthcoming.

Frank gave an irritated hiss, and motioned at the second senior. "Come on, Carl. I'll give you a ride home."

John's fury broke then. "What about me?"

"Take the bus, punk," Frank said, as he and Carl turned away.

John's face grew livid then, as he watched the other two seniors walk away. I stared, fascinated by the hate and fury I was seeing...until John suddenly turned, and his eyes met mine. He froze as we stared at each other, and then I could see him realizing I had just witnessed the whole of what had happened between him and the other boy.

I heard the sound of an engine then, and air brakes, and there was my bus just pulling in. I jumped up and ran towards it, but I'd only just reached the steps at the open door when I felt a hand close on my arm, and I was dragged to a halt and spun around. John had me, and now he leaned down to stick his face right near mine. "That's twice you've been watching me today, you little faggot!"

I couldn't speak, I was so scared. His grip was frantically powerful, energized by his anger. I had never had a fistfight in my life, and had no idea what to do. I just stared, unable to move.

He hit me, but strangely, it was with his open hand, his palm, right in the forehead. It rocked my head back and wasn't especially painful, but I probably would have fallen if he hadn't had me by the shirt with his other hand. As it was I dropped my books, and I felt dazed when I got my head back up.

"Hey clown!" a new voice called.

John turned, and in doing so, turned me. It was Mr. Kane, my bus driver. He was standing on the steps of the bus, watching. "Get your hands off that kid."

"Fuck you, old man," John tossed out, his anger now running the show.

Mr. Kane came down the steps fast. He grabbed John, breaking his hold on me, and pulled him straight off his feet. "Who do you think you're talking to, dipstick?" He thrust John away from him, and the boy stumbled backwards and nearly fell. Mr. Kane pointed a finger at him. "I ever see you around my bus again, I promise you you'll regret it."

Twice now, I had seen John shamed. The look he gave me was one I will never forget. But he turned and hurried away, and never looked back again.

"You okay, son?" Mr. Kane bent and retrieved my books, and handed them to me. Then he looked me over, and quickly decided there was no obvious damage. "That was a pretty good clock he gave you in the head." He scowled. "Guys like that piss me off. Think they can bully people 'cause they're bigger." He nodded his head then. "You see how little he liked having it done to him, didn't you?"

I found my voice then, and nodded. "Thanks."

Mr. Kane shrugged. "You should have whacked him a couple of times. Makes guys like him think twice, I'll tell you."

I didn't know how to respond to that. I had never had to fight, and I had never even thought about hitting someone. "I didn't think of it."

The man's eyes watched me a moment longer, and then he nodded. "Maybe you should. It's a hit or be hit world, sometimes. At the very least, you should think about that."

I nodded again. "Thanks."

He smiled then, and indicated the steps. "Come on inside. I'll take you home. No charge!"

And he did.

I was restless through dinner, but my parents seemed not to notice. I found my mother watching me a few times, but she and my father mostly talked back and forth while the game show played on the TV. They each would smile at me now and then as if I was a part of the conversation. I nodded at a few things, but I don't think I really picked up on anything they said. When dinner was done I headed for my room, and could again hear a hushed conversation behind me.

This time it irritated me. Why did they talk about me, but not to me? And why couldn't I seem to talk to them? I needed them. But some crazy kind of wall stood between us. I knew they cared about me. I knew they loved me. But they just couldn't seem to...to talk to me.

And I couldn't seem to talk to them. Not about anything important, anyway. Not about the things I was feeling inside me. I just didn't seem able to do it. It was a two-way street, I guess. I was as much to blame as they were.

It saddened me in a way I can't describe. I could remember much happier times when I was younger, times when my parents and I did things together, and they did talk to me instead of about me. Something had changed a few years back, and I didn't know what it was. I'd suspected for a couple of years now that they had a good idea I was gay, but of course we had never been able to talk about it. The one time I'd had the courage to do it was after the thing had been hung in the tree out front...and they were unable to meet me halfway. They could not talk about me being gay.

I turned on some music low, and sat back against the pillow on my bed, and closed my eyes. I wanted to be anywhere now but here. I tried to relax, to clear my mind. But I couldn't. I kept seeing the face of John Pascatorre, the rage in his eyes, and feeling just this incredible sense of disbelief over the whole thing. I had never once had any interaction with this guy before today. All I had done was watch him two times, and been seen doing it. And now he was mad at me, and wanted to mess me up. How did that happen?

And what was all this stuff about faggots? The first time I had heard him refer to anyone that way, I had been alarmed. All I had been able to think about was the sign on the effigy out front. Fag.

But I was seeing now that he called everyone that. Everyone he didn't like, anyway. Everyone younger, and smaller, and less able to defend themselves. He was a bully, and maybe not someone who hated someone else just because he might be gay. He couldn't be the one who had hung me up out in front of my own house, for the whole neighborhood to see. He hadn't known me before today. So it couldn't be him.

But the idea that it was someone like him was just as frightening. Someone who was angry like him, someone who hated others like he did. Yes, that I could see.

I looked out the window; it was still light out. It wouldn't be for much longer, but for now it was, and the light seemed to draw me. I got up and turned off the music, and headed for the front door. As I passed my parents in front of the TV, my mom looked up at me. "Where are you going, Michael?"

I forced a smile for her. "Just out for a walk. I need the air."

She let a worried look slip towards my dad, but then managed to smile back. "Don't go far. It will be dark soon."

I nodded. "I'll be back in a little while."

I went outside, and closed the front door. For a moment I looked up into the maple tree, but there was nothing there that didn't belong there. A squirrel ran across a branch, but he was not interested in what I was doing.

Somewhere down the block, I could hear the sound of a lawn mower, as someone finished up some after dinner yard work. There were a few kids out on bicycles, but they were all younger than me. Once again I was struck by the fact that there were no kids my age at all on the whole street. A few were close, but even two years was a big difference. They were girls, anyway.

I walked out to the sidewalk, turned right and walked slowly down the block.

Mrs. Angelique was out in her front yard with a hose, watering flowers. She looked up as I passed and smiled and waved. I immediately responded, waving and smiling in return, feeling an immense sense of relief that she had not turned away and ignored me. I barely knew her, but to be recognized by anyone now was welcome. The Keedebaughs were sitting in lawn chairs on their front porch, old Mr. with a can of beer in one hand, and Mrs. with a cat on her lap; they also both waved as I passed. A little girl passed me on a bike and waved, and even though I didn't know who she was, I waved back.

I reached the end of the block and stopped at the corner by the cross street. Above me, a streetlight winked on, its yellowish glow quickly strengthening. Here was where I stood each morning for Mr. Kane to pick me up in the school bus, just one of a half-dozen kids, but the oldest by far. I would speak to a few of the other kids, bus stop talk, but I didn't really know them, and they didn't know me. And I had been content to leave it that way, too. Why, was all I could now wonder?

I crossed to the other corner and headed back up the block on the other side of the street. The Shannons were in their side yard, the kids playing some sort of game, while the Mr. and Mrs. sat in lawn chairs watching. Mrs. Shannon saw me going by and raised a hand in a wave, and called," Pretty evening, isn't it?"

I smiled and returned the wave, and called, "Yes, it is!"

A sense of satisfaction stole over me. These people, who I had felt had shunned me after the police were at my house, seemed perfectly okay with me now. I understood that we were being friendly, not friends, just the things that neighbors did when other neighbors walked by. But even that much was welcome. It beat the hell out of being ignored.

I passed our house, and continued down the block, exchanging waves, and even a few words, with people out in their yards, just enjoying a late spring evening. The sense of belonging it gave me was just what I needed now. It even made me smile.

I reached the other end of the block, crossed back to my side, and headed back up the street. There were a few people out here, too, and I waved, and they waved. I smiled, and they smiled. It was grand!

Three houses down from my own I heard a familiar thunk, thunk, thunk, and realized that Pat Ensley was out in his driveway shooting baskets. There is one other guy on my block my age. Patrick Ensley.

I'd talked to him a few times, but he was amazingly shy, even more than I am. His shyness had accentuated my own, for some strange reason. We couldn't seem to even talk to each other, let alone to connect, and I had given up on trying to make friends. Pat went to a private school. His father was a lawyer, his mother a teacher at the community college. They went away for summer vacation, had lots of company at holidays, and when they were home they seemed to keep to themselves.

Usually, if I walked by his house and Pat was out in his driveway, he would wave, but not really make eye contact. I had come to understand it wasn't me he was avoiding, it was everyone. I could understand that. I was good at avoiding people, too.

He was there, standing beneath the basket with the ball in his hands, looking up at the hoop as if trying to figure something out. He caught me out of the corner of his eye as I moved past, and there was just enough eye contact for him to see who it was. He pulled the ball in to his chest and held it with one hand while waving my way with the other. But it was an acknowledgment, and nothing else. I returned the wave, and went on.

It was sad, really. Pat was nice looking, with dark curly hair and gray eyes, and the one time I had seen him smile it had dazzled me. But he so plainly did not want contact that it could not be missed. Shyness was one thing. This was deeper. I'd never figured it out, and he had never given me the chance. So now we waved if we saw each other, and that was it. Pretty much like the other neighbors, actually.

I got back to my house, and didn't feel like going in. It was dusk now, and the street was lit with the warm glow of street lamps on every third pole, and people were still out in their yards and moving around. I wanted to be part of that, to maintain the tenuous link to others this evening walk had given me. I decided to circle the block and come back again. I went on past my house to the corner and this time turned it, and proceeded along the cross street. People were out here, too, and waved as I passed, even though they did not know me and I did not know them. The feeling that this was somehow a special evening would not leave me, and when I reached the next corner I didn't turn it, but instead went across to the block beyond. I kept straight, having now decided not to turn until I reached the next corner. Circling two blocks would take fifteen or twenty minutes, and the idea of extending the nice feeling I was getting from this walk seemed more than worth the extra walking.

I continued to wave at people, and they at me. In the yards I passed, across the street, on front porches everywhere. There was magic in the evening, and everyone wanted to share it. It made me feel wonderful to be a part of this event. That it was just another spring evening, and that people did the same thing every pleasant spring evening, was something I would not realize until later. Until now, I had never participated. Until now, I had never known.

I reached the second corner and turned it. This was Bauer Street, and it ran along the park. I stopped then, suddenly aware that night had fallen. Years ago, when this neighborhood had been built, street lights were the rule. They were easy enough to hang, because the telephone poles lined the streets, carrying their wires everywhere. My Aunt Anne - my mother's sister - lived in a newer neighborhood up north, and there were no streetlamps at all because there were no telephone poles anywhere. The wires were all underground. The neighborhood was dark, lit only by the lights on each individual house. It was both charming and alarming at the same time. The stars were given free reign in the night sky, but the streets could not be walked easily without a flashlight.

Bauer street reminded me of that, a little. With the park across the street, the street lamps had been placed on poles there, one on each side of the pole, intended to light both the street and the rec center parking lots and the rec area. But that had been fifty years ago, and in that time the trees lining the street had grown tall, interposing themselves between the lights on the poles and the street here. Bauer Street was a mix of softly-lit areas and deep shadows, as the light peeked between the trees where it could, and not at all where they were thick with leafy branches.

But it didn't bother me. Many of the houses on this side of the street wore porch lights, some shedding a soft white glow, others yellower in color and not as bright. Hedges around many of the yards contained that light, and the sidewalk that stretched ahead of me was in shadows more often than not. But in the distance I could see the streetlight on the next corner, warm and inviting, and this brief stroll through the settling night held no terrors for me.

I saw a wink of light by the curb ahead, and then I passed a couple of trashcans set at the curb, the old metal kind you didn't see much anymore. Trash pick up over here was obviously a different day than on my street. I knew, because I was the one to put the cans at the curb each Thursday. Amazing what different worlds people live in, just a couple of blocks apart.

I reached mid block. There were no people out here, certainly because it was darker, though I thought I could hear the whop-whop of a tennis ball being beaten back and forth on one of the courts at the well-lit park. The houses here seemed closer to the street than on my block. I could see the glow of TV screens in the front room windows of some of the houses I passed, and hear laughter and the murmur of voices through the screen doors. I felt the magic of the evening ebb then. People had gone inside now that the dark had fallen over the street, the world here a different place entirely from my own block just because of the different placement of a few street lights. I had developed enough of a bond with the brief feel of magic to mourn its passing; yet it had left me at peace - a sense of peace I had not felt all day - and now I was just determined to enjoy the rest of my walk home.

The air had cooled a bit, even held a chill now. Spring was like that, with the coolness of air patterns still dominated by winter flows subdued by the sun during the day, yet let out to roam again after that sun had set. The cool breeze was pleasant now, but anyone out a few hours now would need a jacket or a sweater to ward off the chill.

A sound came to me then, from behind me, a clank and rattle that I instantly knew for what it was. I stopped, and turned to look back. Someone had moved one of the trashcans I had passed, or hit them together, or otherwise upset their calm stance there by the street.

I squinted in the darkness, and then heard a new sound: the slap-slap of running feet on the sidewalk. A slow run, maybe, like a jog. My eyes adjusted to the darkness, and suddenly I could see the shape of someone back there. Someone large. Someone running towards me.

For just a second I stood there, frozen. And then the import of what I was seeing came home. Someone was chasing me!

I immediately thought of John Pascatorre, saw again in my mind's eye the anger and hate I had seen in his face earlier that day. I had no idea where he lived. I had no idea what he planned. I just knew that he wasn't done with me, not yet.

And there was the person or persons unknown who had invaded the peace of my own front yard and hung a hated image of me in my own tree. Hate! I had no idea who this adversary might be, no idea at all. They were just as dark in my mind as the shadowy figure chasing me now.

My thoughts on these two mysteries ran together, and suddenly I felt surrounded by unknowns, all out to get me. My head filled with dark possibilities, and suddenly the night around me was rife with phantoms.


I did just that, turning and heading for the street light at the far corner. My own feet slapped hard against the concrete slabs of the sidewalk, a sound that almost drowned out the sounds of the running feet behind me. Only almost, because the cadence was just different enough that I could hear the steps of the other between my own. The sound seemed to echo now, and fill the dark street around me. My eyes focused on the way ahead, held onto the shine of the street light on the corner. If I tripped over something in the dark and went down, my pursuer might be upon me before I could get up again. That drove me to run even faster, even as a voice at the back of my mind urged caution.

The glow beneath the street lamp grew, revealing the stolid blue presence of a mailbox there beneath the telephone pole, and the dark shape of a hedge around the house on the corner. I put on a burst of speed and reached the oasis of light, turned the corner into light, and headed up the next street. An opening in the hedge presented itself: a walkway to the front door of the house. I tilted through it at a run, dug in my feet, and turned round and hid behind the thickness of the hedge.

The other set of steps neared, still at a jog, unhurried, yet somehow intent on coming to me nonetheless. They reached the corner and turned, and my eyes fastened on the opening in the hedge as someone went by. For the second that the image registered in my brain I was frozen...and then a sense of puzzlement settled in. What...?

I crept to the opening and looked around the hedge. Running up the cross street now, visible under the street lights here, was an older man in a sweat suit, clopping along the sidewalk just as I had thought. But extending outward from his left hand was a line, a tether, at the other end of which ran a huge dog, leaping and bounding and having just a wonderful time as they ran along together. I could see the man looking over at the dog and grinning; he was having a wonderful time, too. A man and his dog, out for an evening run.

I could see it now, the dog or the tether brushing up against the trashcans as they passed, the man intent on the dog, probably not even seeing the shadowy figure ahead of them, who had taken off running as if his life might depend on it. Who had though that his life might depend on it.

I felt stupid then, and deflated, and sick inside. I had run from...nothing. I had run from fear.

I stepped out onto the sidewalk again, and looked both ways. There were people walking the other way on the walk across the street, and I could hear the laughter of young kids in one of the yards. Not everyone had gone inside yet here. The streetlights had extended the evening here, just like on my own street. But for me, the magic of the evening had been irretrievably broken.

I turned and headed towards home. The man with the dog was far ahead of me now, not in the least bit aware that he had scared me half to death just with his presence on a dark street. He would arrive home happy, and his dog happy, and think no more about it again.

But I was left with the aftermath, the dull realization that this was to be my state of being for the foreseeable future unless I acted now to control it. Unless I did something to look out for myself. To make the way ahead brighter.

I knew now that this was the way every walk out in the world would be for me, unless I fought back against the fear, and mastered it.

My parents were still in front of the TV when I got in. My mother looked up at me, examined my expression, and smiled. "Did you have a nice walk?"

My dad was nodding; it had been a long day at the office for him. But he perked up long enough to smile at me, and then let his head sink forward again.

I forced a smile. "It was okay."

She nodded at me, satisfied, and let her eyes go back to the television. "Don't stay up too late. It's a school night."

"I won't. Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Michael. Sleep tight."

Sleep tight.

If I had a dime for every time my mother had said that to me since the beginning of my memories, I'd be a wealthy man. She meant it, of course, but that she never thought it might be otherwise for me was more than a little sad. Even after what had happened in our own front yard, my mother didn't seem to understand that it might affect me. How it might affect me. Or, she did understand, but didn't want to think about it, or talk about it, lest it lead to more complicated things she felt she wouldn't understand. I read somewhere once that love is blind. It was meant a certain way, but I could see now that that phrase had a multitude of meanings.

I went into my room and closed the door. Here, at least, I felt safe. But it was a safety that was not mobile, not transportable. I couldn't take it with me.

I sat back against the pillow on my bed, and closed my eyes, and remembered what had happened to me on the street just two blocks from the safety of my room. And then I thought about the incident at the school bus with John Pascatorre. And then about the incident that had started it all, the hanging in the tree in front of my house of an effigy of me, meant to both describe me and condemn me in a single blast of hate.

They were linked, inextricably. Linked by fear, with the faceless someone that seemed out to get me towering above it all. Knowing you were in danger, but having no idea where or from whom it might come from - there was something to scare you.

As I sat there considering that, a new thought - a niggle - came to me, at first waving its hands at the edge of my thoughts, and then persistently working its way to the fore to step in front of my inner eye. It was a reminder of what Mr. Kane, my bus driver, had said to me after the incident with John Pascatorre: "It's a hit or be hit world, sometimes. At the very least, you should think about that."

I let that thought circulate inside my head a moment. I had never raised my hands against anyone in my life. I had never wanted to hurt people. I still didn't want to hurt people.

But I understood now what Mr. Kane had meant. If you didn't want to get hurt in life, you had to be ready to defend yourself. To attack your attacker. Sometimes words would do. And sometimes, they wouldn't. Sometimes you had to hurt your attacker back.

It was a distasteful idea, but I got it very clearly now. Somebody big like John Pascatorre could definitely hurt me. Maybe even kill me. The guy was four inches taller than me and probably thirty pounds heavier. No question he could hurt me. Especially if I just stood there and let him do it. Now I understood that even better. If I didn't want John to hurt me - or the faceless unknown hater to hurt me - I might have to be the one to hurt first.

I kind of had to laugh. In a way, John Pascatorre had done me a favor. The thought was ironic. But by being the absolute jerk that he was, he had opened my eyes to a fact about myself that I might never have focused upon on my own.

I was afraid to be out in the world. Because I was afraid that my secret would be exposed. I was afraid that people would find out that I was gay.

As I sat there in the safety of my bedroom, I considered how the rest of my life would be if I did not come to terms with my fear. I could imagine myself older, living somewhere by myself, keeping to myself, with just my own thoughts for company. Lonely and alone. And afraid.

I couldn't stand the idea of that. Not now, not any longer. It didn't feel like safety to me. It didn't feel like life to me. It felt like the end, not the beginning.

I got up and went to my laptop on my desk, sat down, and ran a search on self-defense. The results were amazing. Everything from ads for self-defense courses to laws governing self-defense, to .pdfs you could download that explored the strategies of self-defense. Martial arts, boxing, wrestling with opponents, fending off a knife, a gun, a club. There were more ways one person could hurt another, and defend against being hurt, than I could possibly manage to examine in a month of nights, let alone this one night.

But...reason would work here. What I had seen of John's methods indicated he was just a bully. He used his size and weight to push around smaller kids. But there was no art in what he did. When he had been up against someone his own age, like that guy Frank outside the school, or someone even bigger than him, like Mr. Kane, he'd had nothing to offer.

Maybe just something basic, to let him know I wouldn't let him push me around? Just getting him to leave me alone would let me focus on my real problem, identifying the person that had actually threatened me with a hanging. John might want to bully me, but it looked like someone else would like to kill me. Or scare me so badly that I couldn't function, like tonight.

Scare me so badly that I ran away.

Which wouldn't be that hard, I now realized. I was already on the run, from other things. The thought was sobering.

I looked up some basic topics, and started reading. How to stand to face an opponent. How to keep your chin down and your eyes on the other guy's shoulders, because that's where his dangerous movements would originate. How to keep your second hand - the one you didn't write with - up in front of your face for defense. How to strike with your first hand, and make it count.

I read, and went through the steps in my mind, and then I got up and went to stand in front of the full-length mirror on the back of my bedroom door. I stood with my feet slightly apart, my defensive foot forward, my offensive foot back. I tucked my chin, gazed at myself in the mirror, raised my left hand for defense, and pumped out a couple of strikes at myself with my right fist.

And laughed. I looked stupid, and all I could do was grin at myself in the glass. But I could see now how this could work. The foot placement was for balance, so you could absorb an impact by rocking backwards, and deliver one by going forward. You didn't just swing your fist. You thrust it. At least for a jabbing strike. The motion came from the shoulder, and you used the weight of your upper torso behind your arm, the muscles of your chest and back, thrusting forward, to make it count.

I practiced for a while, then went and put on some fast music, and stood in front of my mirror and danced with myself. The workout felt good, seeming to burn off a lot of the stress I'd built during the day. After an hour I felt tired, and in need of a shower, but I also felt better about myself. I had no illusions now that I was a badass. But at least I had learned the motions, and they felt natural to me now. I would not have to think about using them, if I needed to.

I took a shower then, beat my dick under the warm spray, and felt almost relaxed when I was done. I got out, dried off, and stood in front of the mirror one more time. And smiled.

I wasn't hard to look at. Maybe not dashingly handsome, but I had a nice smile, and pretty eyes, and I was decently fit. It would be nice to think that some sweet guy somewhere would be happy to find me. Until now I had only had fantasies. But if I ever wanted to be truly happy, I would need to come out to someone. If I ever wanted to love, and be loved, I had to make myself known.

I was still scared, I knew that. But now I didn't plan to run away. No more fleeing down dark streets for me.

I got into bed, turned off the lights, but left the music playing down low. I tried to clear my mind, to focus on something pleasant, to will myself to go to sleep.

And, amazingly, it worked.

I was nervous on the bus the next morning. But I didn't sense anyone paying special attention to me, and I was pretty sure now that there was no one on my bus that wished me harm. Mr. Kane smiled at me when I got on, and I could see that he was just trying to be supportive. I smiled back, and wished him a good morning. I remembered then that I had seen him several times at the supermarket with his wife and kids, and though I thought he had recognized me, I had pretended not to notice him. It might have meant talking to him!

I felt guilty about that now, wondering why I had been that way. He had just been the bus driver then, the guy that took us back and forth to school, mostly without comment, except to tell someone to sit down while the bus was moving, or something like that. I had never exchanged so much as a single word with him. But even the bus driver deserved to be recognized. When I had needed more than just to be driven someplace, he had been there for me. Willing to hit rather than see me be hit, as it were. Willing to help.

I saw Barry Solmore in the hallway, just walking away from his locker, and noticed the way he was looking back over his shoulder. But John Pascatorre was nowhere in sight. I knew now that we would meet again, if for no other reason than that his locker was just across from mine. But I didn't see him then, and the relief I felt was clear.

My morning classes went quickly, without bother, without incident. At lunch I spied Barry Solmore at the table behind me, and in a moment after he was done eating, I turned my chair and tapped him on the shoulder. He jumped, but when he turned and saw it was only me, breathed an obvious sigh of relief.

"Oh, hi, Mike."

I nodded. "Hi. Sorry to bother you. I just wanted to ask you about something."

He frowned. "What?"

"John Pascatorre."

His eyes darted briefly around the cafeteria. "You see him?"

I shook my head. "No. But I saw him giving you a hard time at your locker yesterday. I just wondered what his problem was."

Barry grimaced, but kept his voice low. "He's a fucking asshole, that's what his problem is."

I smiled. "I got that. But what's he got against you?"

"I never did anything. He has the locker next to mine. He would open the door when I had my locker open, and push his door into me, or open it so wide I couldn't close mine. I asked him what was wrong with him, and he's been after me ever since." Barry looked around the cafeteria. "He's making my life miserable."

I looked around, too. "He doesn't seem to be here today."

Barry made a nasty sound. "He's got one of those weird schedules some of the seniors have. Some days he has morning classes, and then goes to work somewhere. Other days he works in the morning, and is here in the afternoon. I don't know which days are which, for sure."

I frowned at that. "He just picks on you for no reason?"

"I told you: he's an asshole. He got dropped on his head as a baby. His genes are messed up. I don't know. I just hate him, I know that." He eyed me. "He messing with you, too?"

I nodded. "Uh huh. I just wanted to know what his reason was for doing it."

Barry laughed. "Because he's bigger, and he can."

I shook my head. "That's no reason."

"Okay. Tell him that."

I saw his point. "Sorry."

He nodded. "I wish that would help."

Lunch was nearly over. But now I knew why I hadn't seen John. He was probably working that morning, and would be in later. That meant I might see him after classes out by the buses again. I wasn't looking forward to it, but I had resolved this time if he came at me I would not just stand there and do nothing. Mentally, I practiced the moves I had learned the previous night, and then sighed. It seemed very little, and very late in the game for that.

My afternoon classes also went swiftly. In math class I knew the answer to something, and was surprised when I raised my hand to offer it. Mrs. Tchakawa looked surprised that I had done it, and smiled at me when she acknowledged that I was correct. It left me smiling, too. I had always avoided speaking up in class, because it made everyone in the room turn and look, and I hated that. But for some reason, this time it didn't bother me.

My last class was over before I knew it. I felt a sense of dread then, but headed back to my locker to drop off the books I didn't need to take home with me. The hallway was crowded, but I didn't see John Pascatorre.

I did see Barry Solmore. He was across at his locker, and when he saw me looking he smiled, closed his locker door, and walked over to me. "Did you hear about John Pascatorre?'

The look in his eyes was best described as elated. I closed my locker door and spun the dial on the lock. "No. Did something happen?"

Barry grinned, and nodded. "He got arrested."

I simply started at him, as this new fact ricocheted around inside my head. "Arrested!"

"Yeah. The cops came and took him out of gym class."

Barry told me the story then. Gym was his last class. Apparently, John Pascatorre had gym the period before. The news was still hot when Barry had arrived in the locker room. Two police officers had shown up and taken Pascatorre away.

"Why?" I asked, amazed. "What did he do?"

Barry laughed. "Well, Dave Salinka is another senior, and he has the same schedule as Pascatorre, and works down at the same car place that Pascatorre works. He said that one of the managers told Pascatorre to do something, and he went nuts, and pushed the guy around and threatened him. The manager fired him, and John went crazy and hit him. Some other people that worked there tried to corner him, and John left and came to school. But he only made it to sixth period before the cops came to get him."

I shook my head, torn between being unable to believe it had happened, and this just amazing sense of relief that it had. "That's awful," I said, automatically, but at the same time found myself grinning. It was a sad and terrible thing, but at the same time, a sense hit me that justice had caught up with John Pascatorre.

Barry left no doubt about how he felt. "I hope they put him in jail forever!" He breathed a big sigh of relief. "Now I can come to school and not be worried that jerk will be after me."

I thought about that, and shook my head. "It doesn't mean he won't be back. He'll probably get out on bail, and have to go to court later." All the mysteries I had ever read came back to me then. Criminal procedure was fairly uniform.

Barry nodded. "Yeah, but if he's out on bond, he can't be going around messing with other people. They'll put him back in jail so fast his pants will catch fire."

I smiled at the idea of that. "He will have to be careful." I nodded. "It probably means he'll try to be, anyway. But he has such a bad temper, I don't know if he can do it."

Barry shrugged. "If he touches me again, I'll get him locked up. I don't have to take that shit from anybody."

I frowned. From what I had read, nothing would violate Pascatorre's bond quicker than another assault allegation. "Just be careful," I told Barry. "Pascatorre's got some kind of problem. People like that don't always think before they do things. He could still hurt you a lot before they got him again."

Barry looked startled, and then sobered by the idea. "I didn't think of that." But then his smile returned. "You're pretty cool, Mike. Thanks."

All I could do was smile back. "Just be careful. And thanks for letting me know what happened. It's a load off my mind, too."

He patted my shoulder, and took off, looking happy.

I watched him go, and then looked up and down the hallway, full of mixed feelings. Yes, I was relieved that I wouldn't have to see Pascatorre today, and maybe not for a while. But at the same time, I felt an unaccountable feeling of sadness. What made someone like John Pascatorre act the way they did? What was it he hated so much that he had to take it out on everyone else? The guy was only a year older than I was, and already his life was in a mess. It took me back to thinking about my faceless adversary, the one that had hung me in effigy in my own front yard. What was wrong with someone like that, that they could not tolerate difference in others? What made them feel they were right to do the things they did?

In all the mysteries I had ever read, I had seen countless explanations for why the bad guys were like they were. Lives could be scarred irreparably at such a young age; scars which led to monstrous actions later in life. Human beings were fragile things, easily dented, easily torn. Sometimes it was life that made them into monsters, and sometimes it was nature, and sometimes it was both. But there was no real pleasure to be taken in their downfall. Only sadness, for their loss of humanity.

I walked out to the front of the school, and saw that my bus was already there. I climbed the steps and told Mr. Kane what had happened to the boy who had grabbed me outside the bus the day before. He listened in silence, watching me, and then sighed when I had finished speaking. "I can't say I'm surprised. But it's a damn shame, too. This sort of stuff could haunt him for the rest of his life. A criminal record is nothing to joke about."

I nodded, and his eyes seemed to inspect me even more closely. "You don't seem very happy about it."

I shrugged. "I'm glad he's not here to pick on me. I won't deny that. But I hate to see anyone get in trouble like that."

Mr. Kane smiled, and nodded at me. "Good for you, son." He laughed. "There's hope for the younger generation after all!"

I got what he meant, and smiled back. But more people were boarding the bus, and I was in the way, so I smiled one more time at him, and then moved to the back of the bus and sat down.

The trip home was one of the most peaceful rides I had ever had. My eyes were drawn to the scenery outside the window, and I watched as people moved about the streets and sidewalks. I saw something on that ride that had escaped me until then: how often the people out in the world beyond the window smiled at each other in passing, or waved. How they acknowledged each other. How they got along.

They didn't know each other, or anything about each other. As strangers, they were just people. Apparently, most humans could accept others easily enough as long as they were just people. It was when they got to know each other, got to know how those others thought, how they acted, what they thought was proper, what they thought was not; there was where the trouble began. Warfare started between opposing ideas, long before it started between people.

And even that was an oversimplification. Two people could hold differing views of the world, and still get along just fine. Or, some people could. Maybe even most people?

But for some part of the human race, the idea that others held beliefs and ideas and views that did not match their own was intolerable. These same people, when their intolerance was coupled with a complete disrespect for the welfare of others, made them extremely dangerous adversaries. These were the people for whom there was no right but their right, no justice but their justice. These were the people that would destroy everything good, if given the chance.

I was not one of these people. That I could see that so clearly now made me both relieved and happy. Contentment stole over me on that ride home, with the knowledge that I was never going to act against others as my mysterious hangman had acted against me. To some, I knew, that meant that I would always be the victim, always the one to lose the fight. But that was because they were limited in their thinking, constrained in their ability to imagine the world around them. Even if they killed me, they would not win, because people like them were not the ones that drove the world to move forward. People like that only tore it down, pushed it backwards, stifled the growth that was the heritage of us all. People like that had no vision for the future beyond what they wanted at any given moment.

People like that were losers.

Whoever had hung the effigy in my tree was a loser. Their limitations were now clear to me. Their smallness apparent.

I imagined myself in front of the mirror in my room again, chin tucked, arm raised in defense, ready to strike at my attacker. Ready to defend myself, and defend who I was. It felt good to know I was there now. That I was ready, even if I hadn't needed the ability today. I might still get hurt down the road, somewhere; but I wouldn't just stand still and take it.

I said a nice goodbye to Mr. Kane as I got off the bus, and thanked him for the ride. He seemed to like that. I would always acknowledge him thereafter, always speak to him, always remember the brief role he had had in my life. Some people, you never forget.

I walked up my street, smiled at my neighbors, waved, said hello. How many times had I walked past them, without acknowledging them at all? Too many times. Never again.

My euphoric feeling lasted all the way until I got to my house and saw the police car in the driveway. Two officers were just ascending the front steps. My good feelings were suddenly displaced by a feeling of panic, but some new part of me refused to let it take hold. I wasted a moment staring, but then bolted across the lawn to meet them. "Hi!"

They were the same two officers that had come the other morning. What were their names? Bollinger and Jackson, I remembered.

Jackson was the bigger of the two, and the one that had done most of the talking when they had been there before. He turned and saw me, and smiled. "Michael, right? Are your parents home?"

I jumped up the steps to the door. "My dad's at work, but my mother should be here. Come on inside."

I unlocked the door with my key, and led them inside. "Mom!"

I heard the TV in the back room, and then saw my mother look out into the hallway. Her eyes widened at the sight of the two officers with me. She ducked back into the room, and the sound of the TV muted. And then she was coming down the hallway, wringing her hands, her eyes going from one face to another. "What happened? Michael, are you okay?"

"Yes, mom. Relax. These guys were just coming up the steps when I got home from school."

The relief on her face was clear then. "Oh. They didn't bring you?"


"Good afternoon, ma'am," Officer Jackson said. "We're just here to present our follow up to the incident that happened the other day."

Incident. Using that word to describe something that had changed my life forever seemed so inappropriate somehow.

My mother nodded. "Well, come back to the den and sit down."

We did that. I dropped my books on the coffee table and sat down next to my mother, and leaned forward expectantly.

Officer Jackson smiled. "Relax. This is good news."

My mother took my hand and gripped it gently in her own. It was the first really comforting thing she had done since all this had started.

Officer Jackson removed a small notebook from his breast pocket, flipped a few pages, read something, and then put the notebook down on his knee with his hand atop it. "We found the people that hung that thing in your front yard."

"Oh, how wonderful!" my mother said. "What a relief that is!"

I sat forward even more, still having trouble believing what I was hearing "You caught them?"

Officer Bollinger nodded. "We did. Several investigators spoke with your neighbors, and it turns out that one of them, across the street and several houses down, has exterior cameras on their house. These were new, and fortunately had IR capability, which means that they can see in the dark. From the video capture of one of these cameras, we were able to get the make and tag number of a car that parked near your house on the night in question."

"Around three AM," Officer Jackson added. "And we could plainly see the two boys get out of the car, drag that dummy out of the back seat, and climb up in the tree and hang it. There is no question these are the ones."

I shook my head. "Who was it?"

Officer Jackson picked up his notebook again and looked at it. "Kevin Shanahan and Gabriel Valasquez."

I pulled back, staring. "I never heard of either one of them."

Officer Jackson smiled. "Well, here's where it gets good. They never heard of you, either."

No one said anything for a moment.

Then my mother leaned forward. "Are you saying this was some sort of mistake?"

"Yes. The boys apparently got the wrong house."

I felt my mouth hang open, and quickly closed it. "The wrong house!"

Officer Bollinger nodded. "The act was supposed to be carried out against another teen boy on your street. He was apparently having problems with these two at his school. They were trying to scare him...but they got the wrong house. Maybe not so hard to do on a dark night."

My mother squeezed my hand hard, and sat back. "Oh, I'm so happy this is over! Wait until your father hears this!"

But I was already deep in thought. Another teen boy on my street? There were no other guys my age on my street. Except for...

I didn't say the name. By what the officers had just said, they knew who this other boy was, but they hadn't mentioned his name, either. I liked them for that small bit of protection they had offered.

"We spoke to this other boy's father on the phone earlier. Since nothing was actually done to them, they aren't really involved in this except peripherally. It will be up to you to proffer charges against these two."

"Though I may add," Officer Jackson inserted quickly, "that the state's attorney has already said she will charge them on behalf of the state if you don't press charges. What they did falls under the hate crime statute. She doesn't feel it should be dismissed lightly."

I didn't, either, but I didn't say anything then. That would be up to my dad and my mom, after the three of us had talked about it. And we would talk about it. We would have to.

"And that's about it for now," Officer Jackson said, smiling. "I wish all cases like these were so easy to solve. Many aren't."

"You get a lot of cases like this?" I asked.

"Well...not exactly like this. But along the same lines, yes. Sadly, they seem to be on the rise today." He smiled at us. "Any questions?"

"Well, not now," my mother said. "I'll need to speak with my husband about it first."

Officer Jackson put the little notebook back into his breast pocket, taking out a business card at the same time. He placed it on the table. "I gave your husband one of these the other day, but this is to make sure you have contact information. Please give us a call when you've had time to talk about it and come to a decision."

He stood then, and Officer Bollinger got up as well.

Officer Jackson smiled at me. "Okay?"

I nodded. "Yes, sir. Thank you both."

They looked happy, and we walked them back to the front door and let them out. My mother turned then, and hugged me. "I'm so glad that's over."

I closed my eyes, and hugged her back. "Me, too."

She released me. "Your father will be home in a couple of hours. I know this will make him happy. We were...we were worried about you, Michael."

It seemed an effort on her part to make that admission. But it felt wonderful, and I smiled at her. "I'm sorry you were upset by all this. But...I love you, mom. Thanks for being there."

Her lips pressed together a moment, and she nodded. "I love you, too, Michael."

I sighed then, and patted her arm. "I feel like going for a walk. It's such a pretty day out."

She nodded. "Come back by five-thirty, okay? Your father will want to hear this whole story."

"I will."

She smiled, looking happier than I had seen her in some time, and headed back to the den. In a moment I heard the TV again, and gave a little sigh. Situation normal. But then I had to revise that immediately.

Situation improved.

I went outside, into the sunshine, into the world. I could feel the change in me. My fear had been put away. My secret was still my secret, but somehow it was no longer the huge and terrifying thing it once had been. I had had an opportunity to take it out and exercise it, to get to know it better, to see how small it really was. It had only been huge in my own mind. I had empowered it. I had given it life. But now I vowed to never let it own me again.

And I understood something else now, I thought. About someone else with a secret, one that had also made him painfully shy. One that had incapacitated his ability to be part of the world. That also needed to end.

I turned right, and headed down the street. When I got to Pat Ensley's house, he wasn't out in the driveway yet. I looked at my watch; he either wasn't home yet or just had gotten there. A guy needed time to change, right?

I did a slow, comfortable walk around the block. People were out in their yards, and on the walks. I smiled and waved to all of them, and received the same in return. I was just people, to them. And that was okay with me.

I came back around to my house, passed it, and immediately heard the thunk-thunk-thunk of the ball in Pat Ensley's driveway. I reached it, and there he was, tossing the ball at the basket. He saw me out of the side of his eye, and waved.

But I didn't wave, and I didn't go on by. I started up his driveway. He froze then, still not looking directly at me. I arrived beside him, and smiled. "Hi, Pat."

His gaze came to mine then, brushed past, and he nodded. "Hi, Mike."

I extended my hands towards him, and he looked at them, puzzled.

"Toss me the ball," I said quietly.

He squinted, and for a moment his eyes actually touched mine firmly. "The ball?"

I waggled my fingers. "Yes. I can't take a shot if you don't give it to me."

That seemed to confuse him; but he extended the ball in my direction. I took it gently, dribbled it against the concrete a few times, then danced past him and made my shot. The ball circled the hoop, fell through the net, and I caught it. I dribbled it a few more times, smiling, and than bounced it back to him. He caught it deftly, and then stood watching me.

I nodded. "Your go."

He stared at me as if he couldn't understand me. I squatted a bit, and held my hands out defensively. "Bet you can't get past me."

He gave his head a little shake, the confusion still in his eyes... but then he was at me and past like a shot. I spun with his passing, watching. The ball arched upwards and went cleanly through the basket, while I stood up straight in admiration. The boy was quick!

I held out my hands. "My go."

He stared at me again, until a slow smile came onto his face, first in his eyes, and then touching his lips.

He passed the ball back to me. I grinned, bounced it a couple of times, and then tried to get around him. He blocked this time, but I faked, and managed to get the ball in again.

We did this six or seven times, all in silence. Then I whistled at one shot he made, and patted him on the shoulder on another. He was better than I was, definitely. He'd had a lot more practice.

I went at him again, and he moved to intercept. I stopped suddenly, and he swept past, but turned instantly and darted back in front of me. I leapt high, made the shot, and....miraculously...the ball went into the hoop.

He laughed at that, and turned back to me, now openly smiling. "Not bad."

I bounced the ball slowly a few times, grinning. "You're better. But I'm expecting to get some practice now, okay? You can show me your moves."

He looked uncertain again. "Yeah?"

I never stopped smiling. "Yeah. I see you out here every afternoon. This is no game to be playing alone. You need competition. You need a partner." I held out the ball to him. "I'll be by after school each day. Okay?"

He watched me a moment, and I could see the decision being made. It wasn't easy for him, and it didn't come right away. I had more practice in this area now than he did, and I gave him the time he needed.

Slowly, he reached out and took the ball from me. The smile, when it returned, was the same one that had dazzled me once before. He nodded then, bounced the ball once, and then held it up on his splayed fingertips, his gray eyes smiling at me across the top of the ball.

"You're on."

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