by Richard Norway

I was running. I needed to run.

I had no earphones; all I could hear was the slap, slap, slap of my sneakers on the pavement, each slap further away from my home.

I kept running — it was do or die. I needed to get away from him: my father.

I ran and ran. I ran through the small town of St. Hilaire on my way to Red Lake Falls. It didn't take me long to emerge into open farm country again, and I found myself on Route 32.

I was exhausted and had to stop along the roadside, bend over and rest my hands on my knees.

My heavy breathing, coupled with exhaustion, was creating a growing pain on the side of my abdominals, what the kids at school called a 'stich.'

I was breathing hard.

Then I heard a voice.

"What are you doing out here? You on some kind of a marathon run?"

I looked up, still holding my knees, and saw a boy about my age. He was riding a 3-wheeled tricycle with a basket filled with what looked like a large trash bag.

"No," I panted to him.

"Well, what are you doing out here?"

"If it's any of your business, I'm running; well, running away."

"From what?"

"That IS none of your business."

"Sorry; I get it. Mind if I ride along with you?"

"I don't care. Do what you want," I said.

I got back to running while he rode alongside. We didn't speak for another mile.

"You look pretty tuckered. You wanna take a break? My house is about half a mile up the road, easy to get to. I've got water… and ice," he said.

I stopped, bent over, and put my hands on my knees again. He stopped beside me.

"I could sure use some about now," I said. "That'd be great; thanks."

"Come on. I'll show you how to get there."

I followed him down the highway, jogging a bit slower than my former pace, until he turned onto a gravel road. Up ahead I saw a farmhouse with four outbuildings. It didn't look as old as most of the farmhouses we'd passed; it looked like it had been built in just the last of couple years. He stopped at the front entrance of the main house and looked at up and down for a moment.

"Come on inside. I've got air conditioning."

He led me through the front door into a modern home. The furniture was contemporary, all glass and chrome. The clothes thrown on the sofa were those of a teenager.

I joined him in the kitchen and watched him fill my glass with ice water. I sat at the breakfast table; he put the glass in front of me. He stepped back, leaned against the counter, and continued to watch me in silence as the moments ticked by.

"Can I ask you what your name is?" he finally asked.

I looked up at him from the table. I didn't know if I wanted to tell him my name. I didn't know him. But his kindness to offer a stranger some relief with water made me rethink my solitary frame of mind. I gave in.

"It's Conner, Conner Stevenson. What's yours?"

"I'm Mark Gjernes. You live around here?"

Again, I wasn't sure if I wanted to tell him. I continued to watch him until the friendly smile across his face told me that this kid was just being neighborly.

"I used to live in Holt," I answered. "I left there for my run."

"Geez. You ran all the way from Holt? That's a long way. Why?"

I was silent for a moment, again studying him. He seemed about my age of sixteen with dirty blond hair, sparkling eyes in a deep shade of blue. He seemed about my height, five-foot-ten or so, but he was more muscular. I looked again at his face for a moment and realized he was cute as hell.

"Please excuse me, but I told you I was running away. The reason I left is personal. It has nothing to do with you. You know, you're truly kind to let me rest here for a moment, but I should be going."

"Why's that?" he asked.

"I've overstayed my welcome…" I started to say when he interrupted me.

"No, you haven't. Stay for a while, please."

I looked at him, wondering why he was being so kind.

"Are you alone here?" I asked, remembering I had seen no adult clothes in the living room.

He then took a moment before answering.

"Yes, I'm alone."

I thought that quite strange, a 16-year-old boy living alone.

"So, like your parents are out?" I braved myself to ask.

I noticed his face lose its smile as a frown spread across its lower half. He turned from me and looked across the room. He seemed troubled by my question, almost afraid to answer me. Then, as he turned back to me, the frown disappeared but the smile didn't return.

"My parents were killed in a car accident last year. Dad left the farm to my aunt, but she's supposed to turn it over to me when I'm eighteen. She lets me live here and occasionally checks in on me."

"I'm so sorry! It must be lonely living here all by yourself."

"That's why I'd like you to stay, Conner. I am lonely. I thought that living by myself would be cool, but it's not."

I thought of where I was going but didn't know. I looked at him again and saw longing in his eyes. He really seemed to want me around. When I was uncertain where I'd end up tonight and could only imagine it wouldn't be good, his wanting me to stay was very appealing.

"I guess I can stay for a little while, if it's okay with you."

His face lit up.

"I can cook pretty well. I'll make dinner tonight."

Now that floored me. He really seemed to be going out of his way to be kind to me. But then, he had supplied an ulterior motive.

I smiled at him.

"Okay, as long as it's not liver and onions. I hate that."

"Me, too," he said with a chuckle. "You like chicken? I make a killer baked chicken with rosemary."

"Sounds delicious."

"By the way, don't be upset, but you don't smell all that great. Could you like, ah, take a shower before dinner?"

"I guess. I've been running, ya know. And I'm not upset. I know I sweat a lot. I guess it shows, huh?"

"No, it doesn't especially show. It just smells. And kinda stale, too."

His buoyant personality had obviously returned. I smiled back at him.

Mark gave me a tour of the rest of the house, and what caught my eye was the hot tub located off one of the bedrooms. It was totally inside the house with windows on three sides. The house had four bedrooms each with its own ensuite bathroom, a formal dining room and a massive kitchen that looked like a chef belonged there.

"What do ya think of my castle?" he asked when we finished with the tour.

"And you live here all alone?" I asked, showing how unbelievable that was to me.

"Yup. Now you can see why I get lonely. Go take a shower. You've only got the shorts you're wearing, but we're the same size, so, unless you'd rather I didn't, I'll lay out some of my clothes for you."

"You don't have to do that. These are fine with me."

"No, they're not."

"Mark, you don't have to do this for me."

"Yes, I do. I can't have my guest running around half naked."

I showered in what seemed to be the guest bedroom's bathroom. The shower was large enough for two people with a rain type showerhead. When I got out of the shower, Mark had laid out a towel for me on the sink countertop. When I was dry, I wrapped the towel around me and walked into the bedroom. On the bed there were the clothes Mark had said he was he was going to let me use; a light tan pair of Dockers, a dark blue polo shirt, a pair of clean white socks, and I couldn't believe it, a blue plaid pair of boxer underwear. How did he know my favorite color was blue?

I dressed quickly and returned to the kitchen.

"Boy, you look sharp!" Mark said as he looked me. "Have a seat. We'll be dining spring casual tonight, and dinner's ready."

Mark, at 16, was a fantastic cook. The meal was more than just delicious; it was totally gourmet. Along with the baked chicken, he had roasted new potatoes with fresh rosemary and had assembled a green salad with avocado slices on top.

"What the hell is all this, Mark? Are you trying to impress me?"

He looked at me, and a devilish grin ran across his face.

"Just being neighborly," he said.

"You sure did that."

"I kinda wanted to have a nice white wine to go with this, but my folks didn't drink. so, they don't have any in the house. And I'm too young to buy any."

I shook my head at him.

"You're too much, you know."

We sat back, trying to let the fantastic meal settle.

"Wanna head to the living room? We can watch a movie or something," he asked.

"Or something?" I asked.

"Well, we could play a video game if you want."

"No, I'm bushed. I'd fall asleep on a movie, and I couldn't follow a video game right now."

Mark lowered his head for a moment and then looked up at me.

"Conner, would you like to spend the night here? I'd like you to. I don't have anyone to talk with very often."

Again, I thought of where I was going and still couldn't think of any place I wanted to be. It was getting late, and my prospects seemed to be someone's barn, if I could find one I could get into. This kid was the kindest person I had ever met. I was starting to like him. I figured I could stay, at least for a while. Hell, I wanted to stay!

"You sure you don't mind, Mark? It is getting late, and I really don't have anywhere to go or even a sleeping bag."

"I don't mind at all. It'll be cool to have someone here to talk to this evening, and then to make breakfast for in the morning."

He looked around the room, his gaze stopping at the hallway and then looked back at me.

"Why don't you jump in the hot tub for a few minutes. It'll help you sleep. I know it always does that for me."

"You know, I'd like that," I said. "I was in one at a hotel once when we were on vacation. I loved it and wished we had one at home."

"Well, you can use mine. You go ahead. I've got stay here and clean up this mess you created."

"Me? You did the cooking!" I explained to him, recognizing the teasing note in his voice.

"Well, you dropped some salad on the table, and I've got to clean that up."

I was starting to like Mark even more. His sense of humor appealed to me.

"Okay. I'll go relax in the steaming hot tub while you tend to your wifely duties," I said to him with a chuckle. I can be humorous too.

I headed to the bedroom with the hot tub. It sure looked inviting. I checked the temperature with my hand, and the warmth almost put me to sleep.

But then I realized I didn't have a bathing suit. I could go back and ask Mark for one, but I knew he was busy. Well, I guessed I was going to get his boxers wet. I stripped down to them.

I stood for a moment, looking at the inviting water. Mark won't see me anyway with the bubble jets going around me, I thought Do I dare to go naked?

Oh hell! I stripped his boxers off and eased myself into the water. I lay my head on the edge of the tub, looking at the ceiling and thought about Mark. He wasn't just a kind kid; he was also generous. He made me a fabulous dinner and offered me a place to sleep tonight. He made me feel so welcome and the thought made me relax for the first time today. I closed my eyes.

Later on, I could feel water rippling over my chin. I used my hand to wipe it off when I noticed Mark in the tub opposite me.

"Sorry Conner. I slipped in while you were sleeping."

"That's okay. I shouldn't have been sleeping in here."

"Yeah, you don't want to slip in and drown. Don't worry though. I was watching you to make sure you didn't."

"How long have you been in here?"

"Maybe 15 minutes, give or take."

We sat quietly for a while until Mark spoke.

"Conner, can I ask you why you were running away?" he softly asked.

I lowered my head, not to ignore him, but because I was ashamed. Mark was becoming my friend and I figured it would be okay to tell him.

"Mark, my dad is not a nice person. Matter of fact, he can be pretty fucking mean at times."

"Has he hit you?"

"Many times, but not with just his fists. Sometimes he uses his belt on me." Tears were forming in my eyes as I remembered what my dad had done to me.

"He used a belt on you?" Mark reiterated with a touch of horror in his voice.

"Yeah, on my back."

Mark moved over towards me.

"Can I see?"

I turned so my back was toward Mark, and I knew he could see the welts. Then I felt his fingers glide over my back, feeling the damage my dad had caused.

"Oh God, I'm so sorry, Conner. Does it hurt?"

"Not anymore."

I turned back to face him and saw tears in his eyes. He put his arm around me and pulled me into himself.

"I'm so sorry, Conner. I don't understand why someone could do that to you."

He stayed with his arm around me, comforting me for a few minutes.

"It's okay, Mark. I've escaped from him now," I said.

Mark moved back to where he'd been sitting before.

"Why would he do that to you?" he asked.

Now, it was truth time. Mark was such a kind, generous and thoughtful person. I figured he wouldn't react with horror. I could lie to many people, but I couldn't do that to Mark, not after he'd been so kind to me.

"Mark, it's because I'm gay," I said, watching his reaction closely.

Mark didn't move but kept watching me. Then I saw his face frown.

"That's it?" he asked. "That was why he beat you?"

"I guess I didn't grow up to be the man he wanted."

"You look like you're growing up just fine to me."

"I should have asked you first before I admitted to you that I'm gay, but what do you think about gays?"

"What do I think bout gays. Well, actually nothing."

"What do you mean, nothing?"

"What's there to think about? They're just people, aren't they? You said you're gay, You're nothing special because you are."

"But Mark. What if I fall in love with you? Then what would you think of me?"

"I don't know. I guess if you fell in love with me, you'd just fall in love with me. That's all."

"That doesn't bother you?"

"No. Why should it?"

"You're a strange person, Mark," I said to him. "If I told that to someone at school, it would be like I was challenging their manhood."

"I know who I am, Conner. I wouldn't feel challenged by you if you said that to me."

Mark scooted closer to me, and I watched him. He came so close; we were nose to nose.

"Conner, we're both naked in here. What would you do if I kissed you right now? Would you freak out? Would you get mad at me?"

"I don't know what I'd do. I've never been kissed by another boy."

Mark locked focus on my eyes, and then returned to his side of the hot tub and continued his penetrating stare for a moment.

"Did I make you hard?" he asked.

"No. I was too frightened."

"Of me kissing you?"

"Yeah. Of you kissing me."

Mark shook his head, but he did it with a smile.

"You ready for bed?" he suddenly asked. "You look tired."

"Yeah, I'm tired, but not because of the hot tub. You wore me out."

"Me? I didn't do anything!"

"Yeah, right. Those questions you asked me, frightened me. I've never been with a guy before and have no idea what I'd do if I had.

"Look, Conner. I was only trying to get you to forget what happened to you, that's all."

"I have to admit, you did a pretty good job of it."

Mark jumped out of the tub, reached for a towel and started drying himself. I saw the totality of him.

"You coming?" he asked.

I guess it was my turn, so I jumped out and stood next to him. I didn't hide anything because with Mark, I didn't feel I needed to. He looked at me and nodded his head.

He seemed to be giving my body the once over. He didn't tell me he was gay, so I wondered what his staring at me was about.

"Let me put my clothes on," I said.

"Why? There's no one here but us. I sleep naked and my room is right over there, so, what's the point?"

"Habit, I guess."

Mark showed me to the guest room, and it was spacious. It didn't seem like anyone had used the room in a long time, other than my earlier shower. It just looked like a sterile hotel room.

"This is for you tonight." he said. "There're extra pillows and a blanket in the closet if you need 'em. If you need anything else, my room's right next door."

"I should be good, and thanks for all that you've done for me today. You don't know how much I appreciate it."

"I like you, Conner. You're different from some of the kids around here."

"Why, because I'm gay?"

"That has nothing to do with it. I guess it's just because you're you. You're easy to like, but you did seem a little reserved when we first met."

"Sorry, dude. I was, wasn't I? But I've gotten to like you."

"Thanks for that. Now, get some sleep. Like I said, if you need anything, I'm right next door."

Mark left, and I closed the door behind him. I pulled the covers back on the bed and sat down. What a special boy he is, I thought. He's obviously kind and generous. He'd done a lot for me today.

I was about to get undressed to go to bed when I realized that I was naked. I had never slept naked before. Mark enjoyed it, so why shouldn't I? I slipped under the covers and felt my nakedness next to the sheets. I had never felt this kind of freedom before, and I liked it.

I put my hands under my head and contemplated the ceiling. This room felt so empty, and it was, but something else was missing. I thought about that for a long time. I heard the television go off in the room next door. Then I realized what was missing from this room. It was Mark, his humor, his gentleness, his liveliness and that captivating smile of his. I realized at that moment, it wasn't the room that was missing him, it was me. I was missing him. I couldn't go to sleep with that thought in my head.

I knew how to correct it, though. I got up and went to his door. I knew he wasn't asleep yet because he had just turned off the television. I gently knocked on his door and waited. Before long he opened the door, standing naked in front of me.

"What is it, Conner? Can I get you something?"

"This may sound stupid, but can I stay with you tonight? For some reason, I just feel too all alone in that room."

"If you want to, yes. Come on in."

"Thanks," I said and walked in.

"You'll have to sleep with me, unless you want the floor. It's carpeted."

"If you don't mind, I'd like to sleep with you."

"Okay by me, unless you snore."

"I don't, at least I don't think I do."

"And none of that gay stuff either, okay?" he said.

"Look, Mark. I'm not trying to make a pass at you. I just want to be close to someone tonight, that's all."

"Conner, I, of all people I totally understand your need for human comfort right now. Your situation is quite different than mine, but that doesn't mean that I don't see what you're going through. I'm here for you, Conner."

"You're something, Mark," I said with a budding tear trying to get loose.

"Okay. You get the left side, and I'll take the right. It's a queen-sized bed; it'll fit both of us."

We both climbed into bed. I turned onto my left side away from him. I was at peace with myself for the first time since I'd left home, knowing that Mark was next to me.

I couldn't move the next morning when I woke. Mark had his body totally wrapped around mine, his left arm over me, pulling me backward into his body. Then I noticed something. Mark had what all teenage boys have in the morning, an erection. But then I noticed… so did I. This could be embarrassing, so I tried to move away from him. But all he did was move closer to me. Oh, boy. What do I do now? I wondered.

"It's okay, Conner," he said. "I have one every morning. I hope this doesn't embarrass you."

"A little," I said.

"But this is natural. It just happens. I can't control it."

'Did you sleep with me all night right next to me like you are now?" I asked.

"Mostly. You know, you're extremely comfortable to sleep against, sort of like a warm pillow."

"So, I'm just a warm pillow to you?" I teased."

"Last night, you were," Mark said and laughed out loud.

"We should get up, you know?"

"I thought we already were," Mark said looking down while laughing.

"You're incorrigible," I said to him.

"I know, but you love me anyway, don't you?"

Shit, I said to myself. I hope he meant that in jest. Sometimes, I didn't know how to take what he comes out with.

"Man, I need a shower; you probably do, too," I said.

"Good idea," he said as he rolled out of bed. "You coming?"

"You go first. I'll wait here."

"Look, that shower's big enough for both of us. I know we've got more showers, but we've seen each other naked, even been in bed together that way, so what's the big deal?"

What have I gotten myself into? I wondered.

We both walked into the bathroom with our flagpoles waving.

After a quick stop at the porcelain throne, the shower felt relaxing on my body. The water was the perfect temperature, and it made me forget my past troubles at home. That was until I felt a soapy washcloth on my back.

"What are you doing?" I asked him.

"What do you think I'm doing? I'm washing you."

"You're not supposed to be doing that. That's my job."

"Stop being so uptight, will you. I'll get you clean and then you can do me."

"This feels so weird and so gay."

"That's your problem, not mine. Now turn around so I can get your front."

I knew I was going to have a problem with him doing my front. His hands felt so enticing that I had started to plump up again.

"I see someone likes this," he said as he continued down my torso. "Don't worry, I'll get you all clean."

"That's what worries me."

"My turn now. You wanna do my front or back first?"

"Neither. Mark, I can't do this. This isn't right."

"You're uptight again, aren't you?"

"Damn right I am. Mark, you know I'm gay. Do you know what you're doing does to me? I like you, and I respect you. I will not take advantage of you. Do you understand?"

"So, you do like me?"

I knew I had said something wrong. I could see it in his eyes when he asked me that question. It was a longing look.

"Mark, I'm getting out of the shower now. You need to wash yourself, and when you're finished, I want you to join me in the bedroom. We need to talk. I'll be waiting for you."

I could see the downtrodden look on his face due to what I had said to him.

"Okay. I'll join you there when I'm finished."

I left the bathroom and got dressed. I put on my running shorts and that polo shirt of his and waited for him.

He didn't take long before emerging from the bathroom.

"Why don't you get dressed? I feel a little uncomfortable with you being naked."

"Alright, if that's what you want."

Why did he have to say that? He's been so outspoken with me up until now. And now, he's acting like a puppy that just got spanked by its owner.

I watched him get dressed, and when he was finished, I asked him to sit with me, and he sat next to me on the bed.

"What is it you want to talk about?" he asked.

This was something I had been thinking about since he'd told me he was alone.

"Mark, how many friends do you have?"

He looked down at the floor.

"I don't have any friends," he said to the carpet.

"I didn't think so."

Mark looked up at me.

"Conner, I've never had any friends. I live here alone on the farm, and no one comes by. Why do you think I was so anxious for you to stay with me? You're a nice guy, Conner, and I wanted so much for you to be my friend."

I saw a tear fall down his cheek, and I put my arm around him.

"Mark, I'm your friend."

"Do you really mean that?" he asked desperately.

"Yes, I do. Mark, you're one hell of a nice guy. You deserve fiends, and I'll be one of them."

I saw his lips tremble just before he put both arms around me and pulled me into himself. His crying touched my heart so deeply that I couldn't help crying myself. I wanted to know why he was in this predicament. Did something happen in his past that forced him to remain in such isolation? I told myself I was going to find out, not for my curiosity, but for Mark's wellbeing.

I stayed with Mark at the farm. It wasn't simply because I had nowhere to go; it was because I truly wanted to be with him. We played together, cleaned the barn together, wrestled in the fields together, rode horses together and, most importantly, we laughed together. Our relationship seemed to be getting closer and closer as the weeks went by.

It was a Friday afternoon in early August. We had just finished mucking out the barn and were relaxing on the front porch.

"Mark, what's that big bag that you carry around with you on your bike? It's always there."

"It's nothing, really. My aunt's washing machine is broken, so, I wash her clothes for her. That reminds me, I need to get that back to her. I usually take it to her every two weeks, but with you here, I forgot."

"She live far from here?" I asked.

"No, she lives on a farm about a mile from here. You wanna go with me when I deliver these to her? You can meet her then."

"Yeah, I'd love to, but how do we get there?"

"We ride my bike. There's a passenger seat on it, you know."

"You want me to ride on that thing?"

"It's the way I get around."

"Okay, when do you wanna go?"

"How about right now? We're not doing anything, so we have time."

"I need a shower first. I stink from mucking out that barn."

"So do I," he said."

We headed to the shower, and yes, we showered together.

I climbed onto the side seat of his tricycle, and we were off. The bag was out of my way sitting in the carrier basket behind Mark. I sat back on the seat enjoying the ride, checking out the wheat and corn fields, occasionally looking at Mark.

He really was a handsome boy. I was physically attracted to him but knew I shouldn't go there. We slept together in his bed every night. Most nights I found he had his body wrapped around mine, which I didn't mind when I woke. Occasionally, it was the other way around where I wrapped my body around him. The first time I did that to him, he turned slightly to look at me.

"It's about time you did that to me. I like it."

Most teenage boys our age experimented with sex. We didn't. He wanted to, but I always said no to him. We were enjoying our time together, and I didn't want to complicate things with sex. He never did tell me that he might be gay. I felt that if I did anything with him, I would ruin the respect that had built up between us.

His aunt was sitting on her porch in a rocking chair when we arrived at her house. She got up to greet us.

"I'm glad you came by Mark. I was getting a little low on clean clothes. Who's your friend?"

"Aunt Sadie, this is Conner Stevenson. He's a friend of mine. Conner, this my aunt, Sadie Halverson. She's my mom's sister."

"I'm glad to meet you, Conner. Mark's all alone in that house, and he needs a friend. Do you live around here?"

I looked at her and then at Mark wondering what to say.

"Conner's staying with me for a while," Mark interjected.

She looked at me for a moment.

"Well, I'm glad Mark's got company. I hate to see him all alone in that house."

"I'm glad he's with me, too. We've become good friends," Mark replied.

"Well, come on in, boys. I've got some iced tea that'll help cool you down after your ride."

"Thanks, Mrs. Halverson," I said. "We could sure use some."

We sat at her kitchen table while she poured iced tea for all of us.

"Mark, I don't know why you don't use that old Ford in the garage. It runs, you know, and you've got your license," Sadie asked.

"I know, I probably should, but I really do enjoy riding my trike."

"How often do you buy food? I don't want you to go hungry."

"I'm not starving. I usually stock up on food once every couple of weeks. It gets me by."

"You still ride to Hugo's in Thief River?"

"Yeah, I love that store. They know me and call me by name every time I'm there. And that reminds me; it's time to make another run. We are getting a little low."

"That was your mom's favorite market, too," she said.

I saw Mark's face frown. I knew he was thinking of his mom.

"I'm sorry, Mark. I shouldn't have mentioned that tragic memory," she said.

"That's okay, Aunt Sadie. I'm getting over it a bit more every day now.

I looked at Mark, knowing it wasn't true. I then realized that Mark was fragile. He was a caring person who took things to heart, and he didn't want to worry his aunt. My respect for him as a human being kept growing.

"I have to say that Mark's a great cook," I said to lighten the mood.

"His mom taught him well. She could have been a gourmet chef if she'd wanted."

Again, I looked toward Mark to see how he was taking her talking about his mom. This time he seemed okay.

"We should get going, Aunt Sadie," Mark said. I think we'll head to the market."

"You gonna take your trike? It's getting late, and you don't want to be riding that thing in the dark on that highway."

"I guess we should take the car."

"It would be safer," she remarked.

"You ready, Conner?" Mark asked me.

"Yup. I'd like to see that car run."

Mrs. Halverson followed us to the door but stopped me. I waited to see what she wanted as Mark went outside.

"Conner," she said to me so Mark couldn't hear. "Mark's a good boy, and I'm glad you're with him. When I see the way he looks at you, I can tell that Mark needs you. Take care of him, please."

I looked at her for a moment. I was getting emotional.

"Mrs. Halverson, I need to say something to you. I need Mark as much as he needs me. I ran away from home because of my father. Mark took me in because of his caring nature. He saved me, and because of that, we need each other."

She looked at me and smiled.

"Bless you, Conner," she said and walked into the house.

We rode home (yes, I called it home now) and headed to the garage. Inside was a car covered with a large tarp. When Mark pulled it off, I saw a black late-model Ford sedan.

"When was the last time you drove this," I asked.

"When I got my license a few months ago. Don't worry, I passed with flying colors. Open the outer doors all the way, and we can be off."

Obviously, Mark didn't drive much, and I was a little apprehensive, but as it turned out, he was not only a good driver but a safe, defensive one. I enjoyed our drive to Thief River Falls.

Hugo's was a favorite market it seemed by the crowded parking lot. When we entered, the first thing I saw was a woman approaching Mark.

"Where've you been, Mark? I haven't seen you in here in weeks."

"I've been taking care of a friend. He takes a lot of my time."

"Is this your friend?" she asked, looking at me.

"This is Conner; and Conner, this is Helen," he said, introducing us.

"Well, any friend of Mark's is a friend of Hugo's. Check out the pork loins. They're on a super sale today and check the vegetables. Most of them came in fresh just this morning."

"We will and thanks, Helen."

Mark pulled out his shopping list from his back pocket. I looked at it, and it was huge.

"We buying out the store, or what?"

"We have to. You eat too much."

Damn him. So, I pushed him. He laughed.

When we checked out, the bill came to over five hundred dollars.

"Mark, I don't have any money."

"I know. This is on me."

"Mark, you can't be doing this. I can't be living off you all the time."

"Conner, stop worrying. Right now, you have to until you get a job. Then we'll be doing this together. Besides, you're getting pretty handy with that mucking shovel."

"You make me feel like a pauper, you know."

"Just face it, Conner. Right now, you are. Stop worrying, will you? I have enough money for what we'll need for a while. Dad left me with a trust fund."

Mark paid with a debit card.

"So, that's how you get by?" I asked as we walked out.

"Yup. Let's load this stuff into the car. I've got another stop to make."

"Where?" I asked.

"You'll see," he said with that devilish grin I was starting to get used to.

He drove into the parking lot outside of a Jos A Banks clothing store.

"What are we here for," I asked.

"You. You can't be wearing my clothes all the time. You need clothes of your own. That's why we're here."

"Jesus Christ, Mark. You make me feel like a kept man."

"Well, right now, you are. I'm going to do this. I can't have my boyfriend in rags. Let's go inside.

My head was spinning. Did I hear what he'd just called me? I couldn't get my head around it. I wasn't his boyfriend! That didn't mean I didn't want to be. I did, really. But this wasn't the time. I was still having a hard time understanding what comes out of his mouth.

"What did you just call me, Mark?

"I called you my boyfriend. Stop freaking out, Conner. You're a boy, right? And you're my friend, right? So, you're my boyfriend. That's all."

That was nonsense. But I guess the way he put it, it sort of made sense. 'Boyfriend?' huh. I liked the sound of it, but I knew it wasn't time yet.

Mark bought me everything I'd need or want. He even bought me a pair of swim trunks. Knowing Mark, he insisted that I had to have a pair of Speedos. Good old Mark!

The bill was over seven hundred dollars. Yikes!

Mark was quiet for the first few miles on the way home, until he turned to me.

"Conner, have you thought about school? It's starting in a few weeks."

"I know. I was just planning on dropping out."

"That's stupid. What do you wanna be when you grow up?"

I had to think back to my days at home in Holt.

"Back home, I thought about being an artist or a designer."

"What made you decide on that?"

"I've always been good at art. I like to draw."

"Really? Do you have any stuff that you've done?"

"Yeah, but it's all in Holt."

"I'd like to see it sometime."

"You can't. I'm not going home."

Mark turned to watch the road. I knew he was thinking.

"Conner, is your mom mad at you, too?"

"No, I think she just went along with my dad."

"Does she still love you?"

"I think so."

"Conner, for Christ's sake, you need to call her. She's probably worried sick about you."

My heart went into overdrive when he said that. I loved my mother, and I knew she loved me. I lowered my head, not wanting to look at Mark.

"We have to take you home, Conner."


"Because you have unfinished business there. I want to see your drawings, we need your birth certificate to get you into school, and you need to see your mom."

Mark was right, and I knew it. I was scared shitless about going home. How my dad was going to react was my biggest fear. At the same time, I wanted to get my stuff and show Mark my drawings. But most importantly, I wanted to see my mom.

"We need to plan that trip, Conner, and it needs to be soon. School is starting up shortly."

"I know," I told him with my head tilted towards his lap.

One Sunday afternoon, Mark suggested we take a horse ride to the edge of the property to a lake that he knew.

"I can pack a lunch, and we can have a picnic out at the lake," he suggested

"That's perfect for this Sunday. I'll saddle up while you get lunch ready. You're better with food than I am."

"It's just that fried chicken we had the other day and a pasta salad I made yesterday."

"I'm going to start calling you Chef Mark from now on. You're going to make me fat."

"I like you just the way you are," he said and hurried into the kitchen.

I shook my head at him.

We walked the horses for a half mile, and it seemed too slow for Mark.

"These horses need some exercise. Let's hurry this up a bit," he said.

We hustled the horses up to a canter, moving faster, it ended up taking us just a half hour to get to the lake.

The tranquil view was dazzling. The sun reflected off the water as if it were diamonds sparkling in the sun. Trees surrounded the lake with a single place sporting a grassy plain and a sandy beach leading to the water's edge.

"Not many people use this lake, so it's usually deserted when I come here."

"It looks so peaceful. Thanks for bringing me here," I said.

"It's my private spot, and now, it's our private spot. The horses love this spot, too. They can relax and have plenty of water to drink."

"You wanna go for a swim? Is the lake cold?" I asked.

"Not this time of year. This August sun has been baking it for weeks now."

"Well, let's go then," I said to him.

We dismounted close to the beach, unpacked our lunch, and spread the blankets in just the right spot to get the afternoon sun while the horses wandered to get some water and munch on the fresh grass by the lake.

I looked at Mark when we were finished setting up.

"I didn't bring a bathing suit."

"Me neither," he said, grinning at me.

"You just wanna see me naked again, don't you?"

"No big deal. I see you naked all the time. Let's swim."

We shucked our clothes and headed for the lake. The water was warm, just like Mark predicted. I was inching into the water when Mark cupped his hands, grabbed a handful of water and threw it on my back. I turned and ran to him, grabbing him around his waist before throwing myself into the water, pulling Mark with me. We landed with a huge splash and laughed when we got up.

We wrestled for a while, throwing each other into the water. Mark and I were laughing the entire time. I just loved his liveliness, of how his spirit seemed to make me come alive, too.

"How about some lunch?" he asked.

"I'm down for that. I am getting a little hungry."

We got out of the water and dried ourselves and didn't bother dressing. I lay on my blanket while Mark got the fried chicken and pasta salad. The chicken was delicious, but his pasta salad was to die for.

After lunch, we laid back to get some sun. We stayed that way for at least fifteen minutes until I rolled over to give my front a chance to enjoy the sun. Mark followed suit shortly and turned himself over. I closed my eyes because I had forgotten to bring my sunglasses.

I opened my eyes just enough to glance over at Mark, not because I was curious, but because I just liked looking at him. He had raised his head, with his elbow on the blanket and leaning onto his hand looking at me.

"Conner, I need to tell you something."

"What's on your mind?" I asked.

"You. Remember when you asked me what would happen if you fell in love with me, you know, when we were in the hot tub?"

"Yeah, I remember. I didn't want it to happen then."

"Well, it seems like I beat you to the punch. I've fallen in love with you, Conner. This didn't just happen. I've been in love with you for a while now, but I've been afraid to tell you. I've never felt this way for a boy before. Conner, I'm scared. You're a guy, and I don't know what the future holds for us. But I can't get over this feeling I have for you."

I had to bite my tongue. I knew this was coming. Mark hadn't been hiding his love for me for the past few weeks. I now had to tell him the truth.

"Mark, I didn't want this to happen. I fought falling in love with you for such a long time that it upset me deeply. I didn't want to hurt you if you didn't feel the same way.

"Conner, I want to kiss you. Can I?"

"You can kiss me all you want, my boyfriend, because I'm deeply in love with you, too."

He rolled over, straddling my body, and our lips met for the first time. Oh my God, his lips were so sweet and so tender. I wanted to stay connected to him for an eternity.

He broke our kiss and looked down at me. He was crying.

"Why are you crying, Mark?" I asked, as my eyes began to moisten in sympathy.

"Because you've made me the happiest man alive. I don't care what the future holds a long as I'm with you."

"Do you think you might be gay?"

"I don't know. You're the only boy I've ever fallen in love with, Conner. It's just you, and you alone; so, I've nothing to compare it to."

"I've never fallen in love with anyone else, either."

Mark rolled off me for a moment and looked down.

"I guess our bodies are telling us something," he said looking at our erections. "You do this to me, you know,"

I smiled at him.

"Likewise," I said looking at my own erection.

He reached down and wrapped his fingers around me. As much as I enjoyed the closeness, I wanted our first time to be special, not out in the woods with the danger, no matter how slight, of being spotted. I wanted my first sexual experience to be with Mark, my boyfriend, in private.

He rolled on top of me, and I felt the sweet taste of his lips again. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. My love for him was now out in the open, and I couldn't have been happier.

"Conner, it's going to be okay," Mark said to me.

"You don't know my dad, Mark. He's not to be trusted."

"Did you call your mom to tell her we're coming?"

"Yeah, I did. It was hard to talk to her because she cried most of the time. She was scared because she didn't know where I was."

"She was glad to hear from you, wasn't she?"

"She cried when she heard my voice."

"I think you made her very happy knowing that you're alright. It's obvious she still loves you."

I looked at Mark, and he looked back into my eyes. He knew what I was thinking.

"Conner, don't cry. I know that was emotional for you. But don't worry, we'll be seeing her soon, okay?"

"I really do want to see her, you know."

"Did your mom say anything about your dad?"

"Yeah. She said he still doesn't want to see me."

"Do you want to see him, though?"

"Are you kidding? After what he did to me? There's no way in hell I want anything to do with him."

"He might be there when we go see your mom, you know"

"Not if we go early enough when he's at work."

"We can. And no matter what happens, I'll be with you."

"Thanks, Mark. I've never known what it was like to have a friend like you. Thanks for being my shadow and being with me."

We climbed into the Ford the next morning at 8:00 for the drive to Holt. We didn't talk too much because I was still thinking about my mom and hoping Dad wouldn't be there.

"Penny for your thoughts," Mark said as we drove through Thief River.

"They're not worth a penny."

"Oh, come on, Conner, cheer up. We're going to see your mom."

"I'm sorry, Mark. My stomach is turning somersaults right now. I want to see my mom, but I'm just afraid that that son-of-a-bitch will be there."

We didn't say anymore until we arrived in Holt.

"Which way?" Mark asked. "I don't know where you live."

"Turn right on Marshall Avenue. The house will be on your left just across from Third Street."

Mark turned right as I had asked him to.

"There it is on your left," I pointed it out to Mark. Dad's car isn't there, so maybe he's at work."

"Where's your dad work?" Mark asked.

"He works for Arctic in Thief River."

As we pulled into the driveway, mom came running out of the house. Mark hardly had enough time to stop the car before she was opening my door. Mark got out of the driver's seat but stood watching us from the other side of the car.

"Conner," she said as she grabbed me as I was getting out. "I thought you were dead."

She pulled me into a deep hug, and it seemed she wasn't going to let go.

"Oh, Conner, I'm just so glad to see that you're safe. You can't even imagine how much I've worried about you."

"I'm okay, Mom. I've been living with a friend on a farm south of St. Hilaire."

"Is this your friend?" she asked as she looked over towards Mark.

"Come over here, Mark. I want to introduce you to my mom."

He walked around the car and approached us.

"Mom, this is Mark Gjernes. Mark, this is my mom, Ada Stevenson."

"Are you related to the Gjernes' from Oklee?"

"No ma'am. I was born in Bemidji."

"Have you known my son long?"

"Not really. We only met a about a month and a half ago."

I knew Mom was putting two and two together because it was only a month and a half ago that I ran away.

"Why don't you boys come inside? I'll fix some sandwiches."

She said that fairly abruptly. It appeared to me that she didn't like Mark very much.

Mark caught that, too, because he lost his smile, and his brows wrinkled.

Mark and I joined mom in the kitchen while she started opening cans of tuna fish. I liked Mom's tuna salad sandwiches because she always added chopped celery, chopped dill pickles and a touch of cayenne pepper. Milk was my favorite with these along with a handful of salty potato chips.

All during lunch she kept eyeing Mark. At some point, I had to say something.

"Mom, is something bugging you? You keep staring at Mark."

She looked from Mark to me.

"Is he your boyfriend?" she asked with a slight tone of hostility.

"Mom, you know I'm gay. It would be perfectly natural for me to find a boy that I could love."

She looked again at Mark.

"Do you love him?" she asked Mark.

"With all my heart and soul," he answered.

I reached over and held Mark's hand, looking directly at him.

"This is the man I want to spend the rest of my life with."

"Does he make you happy? That's the important thing," she asked me.

"Mom, when I'm with him, I'm the happiest man on earth."

Mom then let a smile cross her face.

"Conner, I don't understand anything about homosexuals or why they are that way. Listening to your dad and his hatred for people like you and Mark, it's hard for me to understand. But I do know one thing; when I see the love between you two, it makes me smile, and it helps me understand. You two are who you are. I'm happy for both of you."

She then took both Mark's and my hand, looking directly at Mark.

"Mark, welcome to our family. But I have one warning for you. Don't you ever treat my son like his dad does. If you do, you're out," she said with a broad smile.

"Mrs. Stevenson, look at your son's face, then look into his heart. How could I ever be cruel to the most wonderful, caring and thoughtful man I know?"

"Well said, young man."

"One more thing I need from you, Mom, is my birth certificate. I want to go to school in Thief River where Mark goes, and I'll need that to register," I said.

"I was wondering if you were going to keep up with your education."

"I am, Mom. Mark needs help in english, and I need his help in math."

"Let me get it for you."

"Conner told me that he draws. I'd like to see some of his art," Mark We'll be able to help each other with or schoolwork."

"I'll get the birth certificate. Conner, why don't go up and show Mark some of your drawings?"

We left the kitchen, and I took Mark to my room. The room looked as it did when I left. Mom hadn't done anything to it, nor had Dad trashed it.

I had all my supplies and drawings in the bottom drawer of my dresser. When I opened the drawer, Mark was looking over my shoulder in anticipation. Even before I took out the first drawing, Mark shouted in my ear.

"Oh my God. You did this?"

It was one of my earlier ones of a horse in a pasture.

"Yeah. The neighbor had horses and let me come over to draw. Dad didn't like me to draw, so I fit it in when I could and hid the drawings."

The next one I showed him was of a 6-year-old boy sitting on the grass holding his ball cap in his lap.

"Was the boy sad? He looks sad."

"He was. He was disappointed because he couldn't play with the older boys."

"Wow. You captured his mood perfectly."

I then showed him my drawing pad with lots of still life drawings and a few more of the boy from the baseball game.

"You must like this boy. You've drawn a lot of him."

"He's a neighbor and the only kid that would sit still long enough for me to draw."

"Can we take these with us? I want to hang some of these in the farmhouse."

"I don't see why not. They're not doing any good hidden away here."

We packed up all my drawings and supplies and headed downstairs.

Mom wasn't there when we entered kitchen, but I heard her footsteps coming down the stairs.

"Finally found it," she said. "It was buried in a stack of things to be filed I hadn't finished doing yet.

Then she had a questioning look on her face when she sat down with us.

"What are going to put down as your address?"

"I'll use Mark's address."

It was at this point that Mark jumped directly into the conversation.

"Mrs. Stevenson, I need to explain something to you about how I live. My mom and dad died last year, and they left my house to my aunt, who lives about a mile from my house. When I turn eighteen, she's going to turn the house over to me. My aunt comes over once in a while to check up on me. If asked, she's the adult supervision for me and now Conner. My dad left me a sizable trust fund. I draw money from that that to pay bills with and live on. Conner and I take care of the farm."

"I guess you two have worked this all out."

"We have," I said. "We should probably get going. I don't want to be here when Dad gets home."

"He won't be here for a couple more hours. Why don't you stay?" Mom asked.

"I would love to, but we really should be getting back. I need to give Chef Mark his time in the kitchen."

"He does the cooking for you two?"

"Yeah, and he's good at it, too."

It was shortly after 2:00 when I heard the front door open. Mom got up to see who was there, but the expression on her face told the entire story. My dad walked into the kitchen.

"What's he doing here?" he asked, pointing a finger at me.

"He's our son who came to visit me," Mom said.

"That faggot is not my son." He kept yelling.

"He may not be your son, but he's still my son."

"And who's that? Are you his faggot boyfriend?" he kept yelling.

Mark and I remained silent. Mark must have been dumbfounded. I knew my dad and sure as hell didn't want to anger him any more than he was already.

"Sit down, Karl. Please be calm and tell me why you're home so early," Mom said.

"I was bored at work, so, I left. I'm not going to sit down with that faggot still here. I want you out of here, now!" he said to me.

I didn't want to anger Dad, but he was clearly in the wrong. I had been scared of him earlier, and knew it was wrong to anger him, knowing what he could do, but I had to stand up to him.

"No! I have a right to be here," I told him. "Mom agreed to this visit."

"Like hell, you do. If you don't get out now, I'm going to throw you out."

I was on my feet now.

"I'm not leaving, I already told you that."

He took a swing at me and caught me in my face. I stumbled backward and fell to the floor. The next thing I felt was the pain in my side when the toe of his boot slammed into it.

Mom screamed, and I saw her move to the corner of the room to escape the fray.

"Stop it," she yelled.

Mark was on his feet now too and pushed my dad away from me.

"Leave him alone, you sick bastard," he shouted.

"You're leaving too, you pervert," he said to Mark and shoved him so hard, Mark stumbled halfway across the room. Dad came after Mark with a cocked fist ready to strike. I knew Mark saw it since before my dad had a chance to swing, Mark hit Dad squarely in the nose with a left fist. It was so fast; I hardly saw it move. Blood spattered everywhere, even spattering onto Mark's polo shirt. Of course, he'd worn white today. Dad wiped the blood from his face and made a move toward Mark.

Mark hit him with his left fist again, but this time it was a round-house blow that knocked Dad to the floor.

Dad growled and tried to get up.

"You boys better get out of here," Mom said to us. "I'll handle him."

Mark lifted me from the floor, grabbed my arm and hurried me out of the kitchen. I was not shaking like I had when Dad hit me before, but Mark still had to help me to the car.

"What were you thinking, Conner, by challenging him like that?" Mark asked me.

"I have no idea why I did, but he got to me. I've never stood up to him like I did today. Maybe it was you telling me I needed to be more assertive."

"I never told you that."

"Well, I thought you did."

"Are you hurt?" he asked me as we neared the car.

"Just my pride. I'll get over it," I said back to him.

We drove out of Holt and headed for home. I was thankful we'd put my things in the car before Dad had arrived.

"Conner, I'm so sorry for what happened back there. You said I should be wary of him, but I had no idea."

"It's not your fault, Mark. It was bound to happen sometime."

"Conner, I lost my temper back there. I shouldn't have done what I did."

"Speaking of, where did you learn to fight like that?"

"My dad taught me at the end of the school year, the year before last. He wasn't what you'd call a man's man, but he thought that I should learn how to defend myself. I'm not a fighter, Conner, but when I saw him hit you, I couldn't take it anymore, and I guess I kinda overreacted."

"It's alright, Mark. I'm thankful you were there, though. It could have been a lot worse for me if you weren't."

"I wonder what's going to happen to your mom. Would he hit her?"

"No, he never does. It's only gay people he can't stomach."

We drove through Thief River Falls without talking. I knew he was still thinking about what had happened in Holt.

"Mark, I want you to forget all this; put it out of your mind. It shouldn't affect us anymore. We have our own lives to live."

"I know you're right, Conner. That was the first time I had to use what my dad taught me. Funny part was that I wasn't scared. It was just something that I had to do."

I turned to Mark.

"You had felt you had to do it, so you did it. That's why I love you so much," I told him. "You can be my protector anytime."

"I don't want to be your protector. I'm just pleased that we're looking out for each other."

Mark helped me register for school, and once that was taken care of, he showed me around the campus. We were both juniors this year. The high school was a lot larger than the one I had been attending in New Folden. By the look of it, they were in the process of growing as evidenced by the number of portable classroom trailers lined up on the football/soccer field. The original brick school building on First Street was also still being used. I had a feeling I was going to like it there.

Our schedule had Mark and me in a number of classes together: home room, algebra, english and gym. That left me with art and biology by myself and Mark with computer applications and world history by himself. Of course, we had lunch together.

After homeroom we headed to our English Class. I enjoyed learning about dependent and independent clauses. Mark did not.

The rest of morning went as I expected it would, typical high school, until lunch period. Mark chose a table for four, the smallest available. I wasn't surprised as he was a loner. We sat down and were enjoying a quiet lunch when we were approached by four large boys. They looked like they might be linemen from the school's football team.

"What are you doing back here, faggot?" one said looking directly at Mark.

Mark didn't say a word to him but kept his eyes on his lunch.

"I'm talking to you, Gjernes."

Mark finally looked at him.

"I thought you told me to never talk to you, Grant."

"That was last year, faggot. This year I'm allowing you to talk to me, so, what are you doing back here?"

"What do you think I'm doing? I'm having lunch," Mark replied.

"Don't sass me or you'll get what you got last year."

"Grant, why don't you leave us alone? I'm not doing anything to you."

"You're still a poor example of a man, Gjernes," he said and walked away followed by his three cronies.

Mark watched them walk away, and I could see hate in his eyes.

"What was that all about, Mark," I asked.

"He and his friends are the reason I decided to be alone."

"Did they do something to you?"

"You can say that again."

"What? You can tell me, I'm your boyfriend."

Mark turned back to me.

"This is between you and me, Conner. I was taking my shower after gym class when they walked into the shower room. I was sort of daydreaming because I had a partial boner, and Grant noticed. They made fun of me, and Grant grabbed me and tried to shove me out of the locker room into the hall while I was naked. They didn't do that, though. Instead, they shoved me out into the quad area so that everyone could see me. Conner, I was so embarrassed that I started crying, and everyone out there started laughing at me. That made me cry even more and then they laughed more. I wanted to go home, but I had no clothes. I couldn't have run home anyway cuz I didn't have my tricycle yet then and couldn't wait for the bus."

Mr. Cosgrove, the Vice Principal, saw me, ran back to his office and brought me his suit coat to put over me. He personally drove me home. He knew I lived alone, so he didn't try to tell my mom or dad what had happened. While we were driving home, he asked me who did this to me. I wouldn't tell him because if I did, I knew it would be worse for me."

"Is that why you decided to be alone, so you didn't have to talk to anyone?"

"No. I was already alone. It just reinforced the idea that I didn't want anyone. Problem was that it just made me lonelier."

Mark and I were both in tears after I heard his story. I wanted to hug him, to comfort him, but I couldn't. He was driving.

Mark drove the rest of the way home in silence.

The next day I started looking for a job. I knew that if I got a job somewhere, I was going to need transportation. If Mark let me use the Ford, I'd need a driver's license.

Mark drove me to Thief River to the Digi-Key corporate headquarters to apply. I didn't know what to expect as I'd never had a job before. The receptionist area looked all business-like, and it scared me a little. I wondered what I was getting myself into.

"Can I help you?" the receptionist asked me.

I looked toward Mark for help.

"He'd like to apply for a job here," Mark told her.

"Have you had any experience with Digi-Key before?" she asked.

"No, ma'am. I'm new to the area."

"What experience have you had before?"

"None. I've never worked before."

She handed me a folder with three pieces of paper that was labelled 'Application for Employment' at the top.

I took the folder, and Mark and I sat in the reception area at a coffee table and started filling in the forms. I had to borrow a pen from the receptionist because I hadn't brought one.

When it came to filling in what position I wanted, Mark told me to write in 'Any Available,' and I did. I put Mark's address as my home address and his cell phone number on the application.

"We need to get you a cell phone," Mark stated. "Our next stop is to the Verizon store. They've got the best coverage up here."

I handed the completed application back to the receptionist, and she looked it over for a moment.

"Our Human Resources Department will review this and get back to you," she said.

That was it. All I had to do was wait for them to call.

The Verizon store had phones that I thought were over the hill in price. Mark told them we were here for an inexpensive phone that only had talk, text and internet access capability. He showed us a used S-9 and it fit my needs for only $ 150. We took it, and the salesperson set me up with a Verizon plan. I had my own phone.

We drove back to the Digi-Key building to give them my new cell phone number. I then called my mom and my aunt to give them my new phone number, too.

Our next stop was at the Minnesota State Patrol District Office on US Highway 59 to apply for a driver's license. I'm glad Mark had me bring my birth certificate. Mark also brought a utility bill to show our address. They handed me a driver's license written test, and I was told to sit in a designated area to take the test. As I'd been studying the drivers' handbook for the past week, I wasn't dreading this. I passed with only one missed answer. Now I had to wait thirty days to take the driver's test. Mark said that I could drive with him in the car to and from work for practice until I could take my driver's test.

Things were moving way too fast for me. I had a home, maybe a new job, I was loved, I had a learners permit to drive, and I was happy.

That was until I got a phone call from my mom, some days later.

"Hey, Mom. What's up?"

"It's your dad. Someone at Arctic found out that he has a gay son, and they wouldn't let him forget it. He'd been terribly ridiculed about it and he's furious with you. He's mad at me too because I filed for divorce yesterday. I just couldn't stand his intolerance and anger anymore."

"What am I supposed to do?"

"I don't know, Conner. He's on his way to find you, and he took his shotgun with him."

"What?" I yelled into the phone. "How'd he get my address?"

"Evidently, he got someone at your school to give it to him. Conner, you and Mark had better get out of there pronto. I think he intends to kill both of you. Right now, your dad's not thinking. He's not thinking of what's going to happen to him if he does that."

"Where am I supposed go?"

"Just get in Mark's car and go." She pleaded.

"I can't just leave. This is my home, now."

"Conner, get out of there!"

"What about you, Mom? Is he going to do anything to you?"

"Don't worry about me, I'm leaving too. I'm going to a friend's house in Crookston."

"Okay. I'm gonna hang up now and talk to Mark."

"Hurry, Conner."

"I will. Bye."

Mark was in the garage, waxing the Ford.

"Mark, get in here and hurry," I yelled to him. "My dad's on the warpath and we need to get out of here as quick as we can."

"What's going on?" he asked while coming out of the garage, wiping his hands.

"Dad's out to shoot us. He has his shotgun, and he's coming."

"Why?" he questioned, not fully understanding what was happening.

"I'll explain in the car, now move."

"Where are we going? Tell me someplace to go."

"Go south and find a county road to go on and head west. In a mile or two, head north to Highway 3, then west towards Grand Forks."

"Your dad's got a shotgun?"

"Yes!" I said to him.

"Wait a second. I want to get mine," he said as he headed into the house.

He was back in less than a minute carrying a 12-gauge pump Remington and a box of shells, and off we went.

I explained to Mark what happened to Dad at Arctic and why he was after us.

"Geez. I didn't think he'd go that far over us. I wonder if I should have grabbed some clothes instead of arming the alarm system."

"There was no time for that, Mark. He could be there any minute. My dad's crazy, Mark. He probably thought he'd shoot us in the farmhouse, and we wouldn't be found for weeks."

"I don't want to go to my aunt's because he might know where she might live," Mark said. "I don't know how he would, but he found where you were. I don't want to take that chance."

"Good thinking. If he found her there with us, he'd probably shoot her too."

Mark looked at me for a moment.

"Conner, we'll be alright. I can protect us."

"Now, I wish I had a gun," I said.

"Well, I figured if he caught up with us, we should both be armed, so ..."

He pulled out a pistol from his belt.

"Here," he said and handed me a .32 caliber revolver and a box of bullets.

"It's the only handgun we had in the house. Do you know how to use it?"

"Yeah. It's single action, isn't it?"

"Yeah, sorry. You need to cock the hammer for each round."

"Okay," I said.

Halfway to Grand Forks, I got a call from Mark's aunt. I had included her in my contact list.

"What's up, Aunt Sadie?"

"The police were out here just a few minutes ago." I put the phone on speaker so Mark could hear. Sadie seemed to be directing her remarks to him.

"The burglar alarm went off at the farmhouse, and they were out investigating. They knew I look after you, so they came to let me know what had happened. It seems that someone broke in by knocking the front door off its hinges. The house was a mess, they said, with stuff thrown all over the place."

"Looks like Conner's dad was at the house," Mark said to me.

"Yeah. I expect we left just in time. Since we weren't there, I wonder where he's going now."

"Aunt Sadie," Mark said, "I think I told Conner's mom that she was looking after me."

I jumped into the conversation and addressed Aunt Sadie on the phone. "Dad's flipped his lid and is after me and Mark, and it looks like he's planning to shoot us. We left the farmhouse just before he got there, and he may be heading to your place next. I'm actually really surprised he didn't beat the police there. He might have seen them and ducked under some cover, and once they are long gone will try to get to you.

"You need to get out of there as fast as you can, Aunt Sadie, and I mean like now."

"What's that funny sound from my phone, Mark?" I asked.

"You've got an incoming call waiting. Hang up and answer the other call."

"Gotta go, Aunt Sadie. I've got an incoming call."

"Okay, bye."

"Hello," I said to the new call.

"It's mom, Conner. Did you get away in time?"

"Yeah, barely; we're on the road right now. I was talking to Aunt Sadie just before you called. It seems that someone broke into our farmhouse a couple of minutes ago and made a mess of it. Did you make it to Crookston alright?"

"Yes, I'm here. Where are you headed?"

"I won't tell you, Mom. If Dad talks to you, I don't want you to know where I am. We're safe right now."

"Okay. I love you, Conner, and tell Mark, that I love him too. Bye."

I turned to Mark.

"Did you hear what Mom said about you?" I hadn't turned off the speaker.

"Yeah. She's sweet. I'm going to like her."

We drove across the bridge into North Dakota.

"Where should we go from here?" I asked Mark.

"I don't know. I don't know anyone in Grand Forks."

"I don't either, so what are we doing here?" I asked.

"I guess just getting away from your dad."

"That's what's bothering me. We don't know where he is or what's happened back at our farm."

I looked at Mark for a moment and continued.

"I've been wondering the same thing. We really have no idea what's happening back there.

Mark lowered his head but then glanced right back at me.

"I want to go back to find out."

"Me too," I told him.

"We need to be careful, though. I don't want to unexpectedly walk into your dad knowing he's got a shotgun."

We turned around and traveled back across the bridge into Minnesota. On the way back, we tried to work out a plan that would keep us safe. We knew we needed to find out where Dad was and what he had been doing. Our first stop would be to visit Mark's aunt. She might have some news.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at Aunt Sadie's house. We had to be cautious. First, we made sure Dad's car wasn't parked there.

"I think the coast is clear," Mark said.

"Looks that way."

"Just to be safe, I'm taking my shotgun. Take your pistol, too."

"Is that necessary?"

"Knowing your dad, yes."

As we approached the front door, an uneasy feeling came over me; there were no sounds coming from the house. Aunt Sadie should have been making noise in the kitchen getting dinner ready, or the television should be on.

"I don't like this. It's too quiet."

"I noticed," Mark said.

We stepped up to the front door, standing to either side of the door. Mark had his shotgun aimed upward and at the ready. Mark knocked on the door and then stood back.

Nothing; no footsteps or other noise from inside the house.

Mark knocked again. Again, no indication anyone was home.

Mark put his hand on the doorknob and looked at me.

"Ready?" he asked.

"I'm ready."

Mark turned the knob and instantly swung to door wide open. We both stayed outside, listening for any sounds. Nothing.

Mark put his head around the opening to see what was there.

"Oh my God," he exclaimed and walked inside. I followed him and saw what he saw.

The house was a complete mess, furniture overturned, papers everywhere, desk drawers pulled out and their contents emptied on the floor.

Mark knelled down to pick up a picture in a frame. He then looked up at me, and I could see the anguish on his face. He held up the frame to me and I saw a picture of Mark taken a few years ago.

"This is my middle-school graduation picture. Look what he did to it. The glass is broken like he ground his heal into it."

I walked over to Mark and put my hand on his shoulder.

"We'll get another one, Mark."

"No, we can't!" he said as the tears flowed down his cheeks. "My mom and dad signed this one congratulating me. They're not here to do that again."

Mark stood, still holding the picture. I put my arm around him, pulling him into me. I didn't know what to say to him. His mom and dad were obviously important to him.

Mark held onto the picture clutched to his chest.

"I'm keeping this one," he said.

We walked into the kitchen to find the same mess; cabinets opened with dishes lying on the floor, broken.

"What the hell? Who did this?" he asked.

"I can guess who did this," I said. "It had to be my dad. It looks like he must have been in a rage. There's no one here to tell us what's going on. You wanna try the farm?"

"Might as well. But we need to be super careful; he might be there waiting for us. I know a back way through the county gravel roads and then a two-track that leads to the back of the barn. He won't be able to see us coming."

We drove past the farm on Route 32 just close enough to see if any cars might be there. We didn't see any but decided to take the back way in, anyway. Approaching the barn from the two-track, we spotted my dad's car parked behind the barn. Mark stopped the car and backed up so we would be hidden behind the growing corn field, and we sat looking at the car.

"Now, what do we do?" I asked. "He's in there."

"Conner, you need to try to talk to your dad. Maybe you two can work something out so nobody gets hurt."

"You saw how he was back home. I don't think it's possible to try to talk to him. Mom said he's got it in his mind to shoot, not just me, but you, too."

"Conner, please. Just give it a try, won't you?"

"That's one thing I like about you, Mark. You're a peaceful man, always looking for the goodness in people."


"Okay, Mark. I'll give it a try."

I got out of the car and approached the barn. Mark followed me a short distance behind, but then he went around towards the back of the house. I was nervous as hell. I really didn't know how Dad was going to react.

I then approached the house, too, but stayed along the side, not venturing to the front but close enough where if Dad were in the house, he could hear me.

"Dad, it's me, Conner," I said loudly. "Dad, it's me Conner," I repeated. "Can we talk?"

I heard the door screen open followed by footsteps on the wooden porch.

"Where are you?" he asked.

"Can we talk?" I asked again. "I want to work something out between you and me."

"Step out, so I can see you."

Just as I rounded the corner of the house, I saw Mark move from the side of the house to just around the corner of the front.

Dad moved down the steps to face me.

I walked closer to him. Suddenly I felt the shotgun barrel hit me in my shoulder, causing me to step back.

"You fucking faggot," he cursed at me.

Next came the gun barrel hitting me across my upper left arm.

I then saw Mark move closer to the front steps and watching my dad and me, his shotgun at the ready.

Dad heard Mark's footsteps on the gravel and turned to look at him.

"You faggot pervert," he yelled at Mark, and took his shotgun by the barrel and hit Mark alongside his head with the gun's stock.

Mark dropped his shotgun and went down from the blow, holding the side of his head. I thought he was unconscious.

He then turned to me, holding his shotgun in his right hand while his left came out as a jab, and hit me square in the face. I stumbled backward a few steps, but I didn't fall down. He came at me again.

"I told you what would happen if I ever saw you again. You are not my son," he shouted.

I tried to face him, but he then hit me in the stomach so hard, I lost any wind I had in me and doubled over.

"There's only one way to stop you," he sneered as he leveled his shotgun at me.

"Stop right there, you pig," I heard Mark shout at him. Mark had picked up his shotgun and was trying to get off the ground.

"You hit him again, and I'll use this on you. I will kill you," Mark said with determination in his voice as he raised his shotgun and leveled it at my dad.

"You're next, you pervert," Dad said to Mark as he leveled his shotgun at me.

BAM went Mark's gun, his shot hitting my dad in the back. Dad spun slightly around and looked at Mark with a surprised look and went down.

Mark, still holding his head, walked over to me.

"Are you all right, Conner? I didn't want to do that, but he was about to kill you. I couldn't let that happen."

Mark helped me to stand, but I was still slightly doubled over from the stomach punch.

While we were holding each other, we looked up to see three police cars come racing toward us, scratching on the gravel drive to a stop in front of us. All six officers jumped from their cars: two from each patrol car.

"It looks like we're too late to stop this," one officer said to the others.

The officer turned to us, his hand on his pistol in its holster.

"Please put all the weapons on the ground," he said and then instructed another officer to tag them, indicating to whom they belonged. "Leave the weapons where they lie. Forensics will need that."

"I'm officer Petroski of the Thief River Police Department. I think I know what happened here," he said. "We were already coming here to arrest Karl Stevenson. I guess he's the father of one of you boys."

"He's my dad," I told him.

"You must be Conner then," he said looking at me.

"Yes, sir," I answered.

"We got a call from your mother explaining what your dad was about to do. That's why we're here."

He looked at Mark and me.

"I know we should have called, sir, but we didn't think of it. I'm really sorry."

He looked at us again with a frown on his face.

"Fucking teenagers," he said under his breath.

"I think we need to get both of you to the hospital. You can explain to us what happened on the way. I'm going to have to cuff you, which is procedure.

We were both handcuffed with our hands behind our backs and led to the rear of one of the squad cars. One officer held our heads down as we tried to get in.

"I'm having dispatch call your mom to meet us at Sanford Hospital in Thief River."

"Thank you, officer," I said.

We explained to the officer in the passenger seat what had happened. I wanted to hold Mark's hand but was unable to reach him being cuffed behind my back.

"I don't think you came to the farmhouse stalking your dad, Conner. I think he was already there stalking you. You boys were pretty brave back there, but you shouldn't have faced him alone."

"But we didn't know you were coming," Mark said.

"That's true, you didn't."

My mom was waiting for us when we arrived at the hospital. Of course, she tried to hug us when we walked into the emergency waiting room, but because of our injuries, we wanted nothing to do with that.

They must have been waiting for us as we were quickly ushered into an exam room. They cleaned up the blood on my face and bandaged my wounds. But, because of Mark's head injury, he was sent to have scans of his head.

An hour later, a doctor finally approached us.

"I'm doctor Harrison. Who is the boy's parent?"

Neither of us were related to Mark, but Mom spoke up.

"I am," she said.

We both looked at each other.

"He's my son," she said back to the doctor.

"Mrs. Gjernes, your son sustained a concussion from the blow to his head. The scan didn't show any adverse effects, but we'd like to keep him here overnight."

"You think he'll be all right, doctor?" my mom asked.

"I believe so, but we have to make sure. We're setting him up in a room now."

"I understand."

"Mom, Mark's car is still at the farmhouse where I'm staying. Can you give me a ride home? I asked her.

"You called it 'home,'"

"It is my home, Mom, Mark's and mine."

Mom smiled and nodded her head, perhaps a bit sadly.

Even though Mom knew Mark was my boyfriend, she still had to ask the question one more time.

"You love him, don't you?"

"With everything that's within me, Mom."

"Mind if I stay the night? It's a lot closer to the hospital for when we need to pick up Mark tomorrow," Mom asked me.

"I wish you could, Mom, but Dad trashed the farmhouse in his rage. We should have it cleaned up by tomorrow night, so I'm afraid, you'll need a motel room for the night.

Mom stayed the night at the AmericInn in Thief River that night.

The hospital called the next morning saying that we could pick up Mark at 1:00 when he's 'discharged. I phoned Mom to let her know what time Mark was being discharged. She said she'd be there.

The previous day's events played out in my mind until we got to the hospital. Even though I hated my dad, I felt uneasy about him being dead. I was actually grieving for him. He was my dad, after all. The thought brought back memories of how we would play catch with a softball in the back yard when I was younger. I will miss that time in my life.

Walking into the hospital, my mind shifted to the love of my life, Mark. He was my life now. He was wheeled out in a wheelchair, which I guessed was hospital procedure.

"How're you feeling, Mark?" I asked him.

"I'm fine, except my head hurts a bit. They gave me some pain pills, though," he said.

"You ready to go home?" I asked.

"We have a mess to clean up there. That's going to take us a while,"

"Not to worry, boys. I'm going to take you out to dinner at The Hive here in Thief River. You can worry about the cleanup tomorrow," Mom piped in.

At dinner, Mom told me she was thinking of selling the house in Holt and moving closer to me and Mark. I told her that St. Hilaire's a nice town.

We didn't attend Dad's funeral. From what I heard; it was attended by only his parents.

A week later, I did visit his grave. The day was cold, blustered by a wind the sent chills down me. His grave echoed the day; cold and alone. I stayed and looked at the headstone. It was a simple one with no words except for his name, birth date and the date on his death.

I felt a sadness for him. He was a good father when I was growing up, but something changed in him when I was in high school. He seemed to be filled with hate. I didn't know what happened to him to cause that change and suspected that I never would.

I said my goodbyes to him and left the cemetery. I had finally reached closure on that part of my life.

Within a month, the house in Holt was sold as it appeared to be a hot market. The thousands of people from Arctic Cat and Digi-Key were always looking for homes close to Thief River. With in another two weeks, Mom was settled into an apartment in St. Hilaire. She said she wanted to be close to her boys. I noticed she used the plural word of 'boys.' Yes, Mark was included in 'her boys.'

My family was back together again, and I was happy, living the life I had always dreamed of…. with Mark.

My mom visited us often, many times bringing her home-made desserts. She had have dinner with us at least once a week.

We both attended Northland Community and Technical College for two years before transferring to the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. I received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Graphic Design, and Mark received a Bachelor of Science Degree in, of all things, Fishery and Wildlife Biology. I hadn't known what a great fisherman he was, till he taught me how to catch walleye; it made a delightful dinner.

I became an adjunct professor at Northland while Mark went to work for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

The End

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