Excerpt for The Gift by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





The Gift





By Daniel Fleischhacker





~~~

Smashwords Edition



Copyright© 2018 by Daniel Fleischhacker



All rights reserved. No part of this publication
may be reproduced in any form without
written permission of the author.



This book is a work of fiction.
All characters are the creation of the author.
Any resemblance to actual persons is entirely coincidental



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This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.



Table of Contents



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Epilogue



Chapter 1



The Amtrak trains between Detroit and Chicago pass through Michigan’s beautiful wooded hills and flat open places where wild flowers bloom from spring through fall; through farmland where corn grows sparsely near the tracks and cows graze, protected by fences thick with invasive vines. Near Arlington, the tracks make a sharp curve, cross over a trestle, then speed westward to Chicago. The trains are fast, heavy and deadly.

Five people had chosen to end their lives by sitting on these tracks between the curve and the railroad trestle that crossed Shannon’s Creek, led there each one, hand-in-hand, by the dark spirit of death who sat them down between the rails, dropped their hands and left them. They died without seeing the leaves of the redbud trees falling on them, each one shaped exactly like a heart.

Owen Sterling had wandered miles along these tracks on this rainy April night, unable to sleep, his brain burning with painful images from the distant past. When he walked, he walked close beside the rails, as if it were there he would find solace, and at last, his headache began to fade, he could see clearly and his breathing was softer.

The rain stopped and the moon burst through the clouds, and ahead of him on the tracks was the figure of a girl, barefoot, stepping carefully from tie to tie like a windup toy unwinding now, moving slower and slower until it stopped and the girl stumbled and fell. She got up with difficulty, and picked up her ankle boots which she clutched tightly in her arms.

She wore tight black jeans and a worn black leather jacket too big for her, and her bare feet were white as a ghost’s in the light of the moon.

Bess, Owen’s dog, saw the girl and began barking urgently as she ran to her and began to nuzzle the girl’s limp body and lick her face.

Girl! Get up! Get off the tracks. There’s a train coming!

But she did not hear him. Drunk from vodka she had downed earlier, she lay unconscious.

Girl! Get up!” Owen shouted, and then broke into a run as he heard the sound of the train’s warning horn at the last crossing only three minutes from where the girl lay. He reached her as the sound of the approaching train shook the rails, and drowned out the sound of Bess’s barking. Owen pulled her by the arm, dragging her off the tracks down the embankment to where they were safe only seconds before the train rounded the curve and sped past them; thousands of pounds of steel that would have made her number six.

He sat with her until the train had passed and the leaves of the redbud trees, shaken by the train’s force, fell down around them.

Owen was a big man with a full head of shaggy gray hair and a full beard streaked with white. His hands were gnarled and strong, and he lifted the girl easily and cradled her in his arms gently, like holding a sleeping child. He carried her out of the moonlight into the darkness of the woods, with his dog following.

It wasn’t a long walk to the little house where he lived, and inside he laid her on the old sofa and turned on the camp light. The lantern lit her face with bright white light, but deep in drunken sleep, she was undisturbed by the brightness. She looked young, fourteen or maybe fifteen, and her sweet, child-like face was marred by multiple piercings, heavy black eyeshadow and black painted lips. She had a nose ring, an eyebrow ring and rows of small sliver rings that rode up the outer length of each ear, and a stud embedded in the center of her chin. Half of her hair was dyed pink and cut in a ragged shag, and the other half was cut close to the scalp. Thick black eye-liner had run down onto her cheeks washed there by her tears, and Owen brushed the smudges away gently with his thumbs. On the side of her throat was a black tattoo that said JADE.

Her breathing was shallow and barely moved her chest beneath the heavy jacket, but now and then she gave a sharp gasp catching her breath, breathing through her mouth.

He laid a blanket over her leaving her feet uncovered. They were skinned and dirty and the black toenails were not black with dirt, but painted with nail polish. He warmed a pan of water, and carefully washed her feet and dried them with a clean towel, went to the shelf beside his bed and got a pair of clean white socks, slid them on the girl’s feet then pulled the blanket down so it covered them.

With her safely asleep, all he could do now was wait. She would sleep until the alcohol had drained from her brain. He was tired, but not sleepy, and he decided to stay awake and keep watch while she slept. He filled his coffee pot with water and added six spoons of coffee, and as he sat waiting for the coffee to brew, he ran through his head what he wanted to say to her when she awoke. He wanted her to know she was safe, that was the most important thing; that there was nothing to fear, and if she wanted to talk, to reassure her that no matter how bad things seemed tonight, in the morning she would be glad she had not given her life to the train.

He poured himself a mug of black coffee and sat in the well-worn arm chair, and watched her as she slept. She had pulled her knees to her chest and lay in the fetal position her thumb in her mouth. The 2:38 train sped by exactly on time. There would be one more before dawn.

The little house was a small, comfortable cabin strongly built and covered with a genuine shingled roof. He built it himself on land he owned; forty acres willed to him by his father. It was probably worth a good deal of money, but Owen had no intention of ever selling. It was here he had come in times past, happier times, with his wife, Thalia and Jamie, his little boy, where they picnicked along the creek and caught fingerlings in the clear water of Shannon’s Creek. Here he would live the rest of his life, remembering.

The furnishings were just discarded pieces that would have ended up in the official landfill across town if he hadn’t found them beside the road. There was a decent old sofa, a nice hardly used overstuffed arm chair, two side chairs with plank bottoms and a couple of small tables. He didn’t need any more than that. Everything except the mattress on his bed had a previous life.

There was no electricity, no running water, no television, no telephone, and that was the way he wanted it. He had a battery-operated radio that he listened to at night to the news, and sometimes a classical music station, and sometimes the music was sad, and alone in the darkness, tears washed his cheeks and soothed the hurt in his soul.

On warm days, he walked along the tracks for miles with Bess at his side. He knew the schedules of every train that passed, and waved to the Engineers, and they waved back at the old man who was always smiling; the old man of the woods and his dog, sharing a ramble together, and none of them would ever have guessed that he was a life saver.

He got up and stood at the sliding glass door looking out into the woods. The moon was bright and an owl hooted softly in the sycamore tree that grew beside his house. It had taken him almost two weeks to cut just enough trees to give him a view of the tracks which gleamed like hammered silver in the moonlight; but he only cut what was necessary. The trees that surrounded him were big and richly leaved—sycamore, oak, beech, maple, sassafras, butternut and black walnut.

He sat again watching the girl sleep, and in spite of the caffeine, he dozed. The 6:48 train woke him. She hadn’t moved. He fed Bess, the black and white Border Collie who shared his every waking moment, and after eating, lay dozing beside the sliding door. It was after ten o’clock before the girl began to moan and move, threw off the blanket, and finally opened her eyes. She lay looking at the man seated in his chair again, her eyes glazed, trying to focus.

“Good morning,” he said with a pleasant lilt in his voice.

“It sucks.” It sounded like her tongue was twice its normal size.

“Sun’s out. Going to be a great day,” the man said.

“Save that shit for somebody who appreciates it,” she snarled.

“I’m hoping you will. My name is Owen.”

She swung her legs off the sofa and eased herself up, rubbed her head and tried to focus. “Like I really care what the hell your name is.”

“Jade? Is that your name?” She touched the tattoo on her neck. “I saw the tattoo.”

“And that’s all you’re going to see, old man,” she said and pulled her jacket tightly around her.

“You’ve nothing to be afraid of. I’m not going to hurt you.”

“Who are you again?” she said, and rubbed her forehead and her closed eyes with her fingertips.

“Owen Sterling.”

“You some creepy old pervert?”

“No pervert and not even close to creepy. I do Santa every Christmas at the Northview Mall. I put on a pair of old-fashioned glasses, a pillow for a belly and my red suit, and I listen to the kids tell me what they want for Christmas.”

“Sweet,” she said sarcastically. “I get wasted and wake up with Santa Claus.”

“Jingle bells,” Owen said brightly.

“Maybe if I close my eyes, you’ll go away and I can finish dying.”

“That’s not going to happen, Jade.”

Jade put her hand over her eyes and sighed a long soft sad sigh. “Did you pull me off the tracks?”

“I did.” He got a mug from the shelf above the coffee pot and poured a mug of black coffee and handed it to her. She took a sip and made a pained face.

“It tastes like dog piss.”

“Would you rather have tea?”

I’d rather be dead if I had my wish. . . but. . . yeh, tea.” Owen took a tea bag from a ceramic canister, took a fresh mug, put the teabag in it and poured hot water from a teakettle he kept warm on the little camp stove. He handed it to her, and she nodded her thanks. She sipped her tea and sat with her eyes closed because the now light hurt her eyes.

“Jade is a beautiful name. It signifies a long life,” Owen said.

“I never believed that crap. . .but. . . you pulling me off the tracks. That is intense.” She paused again, her thoughts gradually coming into focus.

“Are you hungry?” Owen asked.

“If I eat anything I’d barf all over your designer couch.”

“Eggs and toast would make your stomach feel better.”

“Another person who knows what’s best for me. Why am I surrounded by people like that?”

“They care about you.”

“Like hell. They just want to control me. Nobody tells me how to live. Nobody.”

“Being tough isn’t going to get you what you want any more than if you were Homecoming Queen.”

“Words of wisdom from Santa.” She rubbed the pain in the back of her neck. “You got a shower?”

“No shower.”

“How the hell do you live without a shower?”

“I wash up in the little river on warm days. Use a wash bowl on colder days.”

She looked around the room and then at Owen, as if seeing him for the first time “What are you hiding from?” He reacted with surprise. “Living alone in the woods without lights or running water. Are you hiding from the cops?”

“I’m not hiding from anything,” he said. “I guess you would say I’m looking for something. It’s a spiritual search.”

“Are you some kind of religious hermit?” Jade asked, as if she had just met a certified nut case.

“I’m not religious at all. But I am deeply spiritual.”

“I don’t know what I am,” Jade said.

“You’re young. I’m close to sixty and I’m still searching,” Owen said. She sipped her tea and brushed the hair out of her face. “I have a Santa complex. I love the idea of giving somebody what they ask for. But I can bet that if I asked you to tell me what you want, the one thing that would make you happy, you wouldn’t be able to tell me.”

She looked intently at him. “You’re right. I’m beginning to think we met in some former life. Do you believe in that stuff?”

“Oh, yes, I do.”

“I do too. I dream about a lot of places I’ve never been or people I’ve never met.”

“We all do,” Owen said.

Jade closed her eyes and sighed.

“Where do you go to school?”

“I’m a senior at Franklin High.”

“And I’m betting you are an honors student.”

“School is easy for me. There’s maybe two teachers in the whole school who know anything.”

I felt like that when I was in high school. Things don’t change much over time, do they?” Owen said. “We called it Senioritis. Couldn’t wait to get wherever we were going. Did a lot of acting out. Silly things. Three days before graduation, our Chemistry teacher left the room. Big mistake. He left the closet open with all the supplies. We took all the corks and opened the windows and pitched them at birds as they flew by. When Mr. Betz came back he just gave us a dirty look and sat and looked at a magazine.”

“I’m counting the days until graduation.”

Owen finished his coffee and said, “As pleasant as it has been, I’ve got to get you home, Jade. I’m pretty sure your parents don’t know you decided to walk the tracks last night.”

“They don’t care. They don’t give a rat’s ass about me.” She bit her lower lip and started to cry. “They threw me out last night.” She wiped her tears with her fists. “All I wanted to do was tell the truth. Get it out finally.”

“Well, you can tell your truth now if you want, and I promise I won’t kick you out.”

I’m gay. Everybody knows it. It was time for them to know it, but when I told them my mother totally freaked out. Like some rotten thing had suddenly crawled out from behind the woodwork. As long as I live I’ll remember that look. I’m her kid for chrissake.” Jade waited a long time expecting Owen to say something, but he only looked at her with a quiet even gaze.

“I’ll make you some toast.”

She lay back on the sofa and closed her eyes. Owen toasted two pieces of bread over the camp stove, spread them with crab apple jelly, and brought the toast to her on a pretty flowered plate. He took her tea mug and filled it with fresh hot water. Jade always did the same thing. Two cups of tea with one tea bag. She sat up and held the plate on her knees.

“Pretty plate. I would have thought you ate off of a tin plate."

“The dishes are something I saved from the past. I’m glad you think it’s pretty.”

Jade finished the toast and set the plate beside her on the sofa, and quietly sipped tea.

Owen said, “Have you got some friends who will take you in?”

I have exactly three friends, and no, they can’t take me in.”

“Kind of a rough spot to be in. Don’t they have a Safe House for kids like you?”

“Yeah, full of stoners and weirdos. I can take care of myself.”

She slipped on her boots and stood unsteadily.

“I’m going to say something you need to hear, and I’m only going to say it once. Sit down,” Owen said firmly. Jade sat as if she had been pushed. “You came out last night, a bold move and even a little frightening, and your parents couldn’t handle it, but is it worth ending your life because of this?” Jade avoided his look. “I didn’t think so. And believe me, I’m glad I found you before the train did.”

“Yeah, you can rack up brownie points in Heaven.”

“Even with only three people who would be devastated, it’s not worth hurting them. It’s not worth hurting even one person.”

“I want a cigarette.” She reached in her jacket pocket and took out a pack, pulled one out, put it in her mouth, and groped with her hand for her lighter.

“No smoking, Jade.”

Why did I know you were going to say that?” She threw the cigarette across the room, and sat again and pouted. Owen got up, walked to where the cigarette lay beside the sliding door, picked it up and brought it back and handed it to her.

“You might want it later.”

She slid the cigarette back into the pack and said, “No lecture on the evils of smoking?”

“I think you already know that.”

She sat staring down at the pack of cigarettes and said, “I almost died. last night,” as if she had just realized it.

“I’m glad you didn’t.”

My mother looked at me with disgust. Nobody deserves to be looked at the way she looked at me. I wanted to make her sorry.”

“By hurting yourself?”

“I don’t know. I felt so awful. I really hate her. I never want to see her again.”

“Jade, give her time.”

“You haven’t met her. She’s an ordained minister with her own church.”

“Not many young women can say they have a mother like that,” Owen said.

Yeah, I’m one of the lucky ones,” Jade said with sarcasm. “Everything you need to know about sin and morality is in the Bible.” She wiped her tears. “Stop defending her. It’s all bullshit.”

She got up walked to the sliding door and looked out at the sunlit woods, then turned to Owen and studied him carefully, his soft warm eyes, his gentle voice, his calm, easy manner, all made her tears seem childish. “This is the weirdest morning,” she said.

“Not at all. I think it’s been a wonderful morning.”

God, I really need a shower.”

“Can you shower at school? I’ll drive you.”

“You have a car?”

“I have two. A 2012 Chev Sonic and a ’05 PT Cruiser. The PT Cruiser just sits there. I don’t drive it anymore. It’s not reliable and needs a new muffler. They’re parked out on North Church Road.”

Jade checked her phone, deleted texts from her mother, and slipped it back in the pocket of her jacket, then followed Owen in the path that led out to North Church Road. The cars were parked beside a mailbox with the name Sterling on it and the address 73009.

“You’re not far from Northview Mall,” Jade said.

“It’s just down the road. When I do Santa, I walk. Cars pass me honking, or roll down their windows and shout “Ho, Ho, Ho.”

“Owen, I can drive. I have a license, and I know a little bit about cars. Maybe I can get it started.”

“If you get her started you can drive her. Like I said, I never drive her anymore.”

Jade opened the hood and said, “The battery isn’t hooked up. Any tools?”

Owen opened the trunk and let Jade pick what she needed. In a matter of minutes, she had the cables connected.

“You have to get in the passenger side,” Owen said. “The driver side door doesn’t open.”

Jade slid into the driver’s seat, turned the keys and it started right up.

“Looks like you’ve got a car.”

She revved the motor and blue smoke shot out of the exhaust pipe, and the muffler came awake. The Cruiser idled like she had a bad cold.

“I’m not a hugger, Owen. But thanks. . . for everything,” Jade said.

“Drive safely.”

“You’ll be seeing more of me,” Jade said.

“I hope so.”

She pulled away slowly, waved to Owen, then moved into the traffic on Church Road.



Jade had to park in the visitor’s lot at school since she didn’t have a student parking sticker. She showered in the girl’s locker room, then drove to a McDonald’s. She had sense enough to leave last night with her wallet, but she only had two dollars. She got a fruit and yogurt parfait and water.

She drove to her house, circling the block a couple of times to be sure her mother’s car wasn’t in the driveway. She was almost always gone in the afternoon—a Bible study group at church, or a visit to the gospel mission to win souls for Christ among the junkies.

Jade used her house keys and once inside moved quickly. She took a credit card that her mother left out on her desk, and two twenties from the desk drawer.

She got back in the car and drove away, the muffler loud enough to awaken napping babies. It was less than fifteen minutes to Winter Street where she stopped in front of a gray stucco house with an open porch and an old sofa and some metal outdoor chairs on it. It looked like college students lived there.

But Jade didn’t go in the house; she walked around the house to the back yard where she went in the side door of an old garage that sat nearly falling down beside the back alley. She sat in one of the old chairs they had put there, took out a cigarette and lighted it and drew deeply on it. Barry would be here after school, looking for her.

She checked her phone. There were lots of texts from her mother. She deleted all of them, laid the phone on the floor beside her chair and sat, eyes closed, smoking, but for the first time ever, the cigarette tasted terrible.



Chapter 2



The School Board met in Room A of the Education Administration Building. Barry Chase was there when they began at seven, even though he knew he wouldn’t be asked to participate until they had cleared their agenda. He was the last of the crumbs to be swept up that evening, just as it was the last meeting he attended. But he didn’t want to look disrespectful, so he made sure he was there when they began.

They sat in a circle. Somebody had told them that their group dynamic would be better if they faced each other, but if sitting in a circle facilitated decisions, it wasn’t working for this group. They gnawed away at some dry statistics that were supposed to predict enrollment for the following year, and in forty minutes of back and forth discussion, nothing significant had happened.

There were six on the Board entrusted with leading the schools with enlightened vision— five men and one woman. The lone woman, Miriam Trotter, was middle-aged, spa tended, with graying hair beautifully arranged. She had a strong open face with a cultured smile that disappeared as soon as she delivered one of her many strongly worded opinions. She was a woman who was used to getting her way. If it didn’t fit in her conservative niche, why waste time talking about it?

Darrin McCoy, an attorney, was the youngest member of the Board, probably thirty-five, and the most analytic of the group, probably because of his law background. He was also hot. He wore an expensive dress suit and tie and he carried himself with elegance. Barry had to stop checking him out even though it was a pleasant way to pass the time, and even though Darrin smiled each time he caught Barry looking at him, Barry knew he really wasn’t sending any signals.

Robert Jackson, a light skinned African–American, nicely dressed, was the most articulate of the group, always stating his opinions in a non-confrontational way. Barry liked him the best. . . after Darrin McCoy of course.

Don Conway was a chubby balding man who sent out hundreds of ripples that he didn’t take care of himself. He had heavy eye bags, dry scalp, liver spots and a sizeable paunch. He sniffed often from a Vicks inhaler to open his clogged sinuses. How did such an unappealing man get elected to the Board?

Rev. Gary Schulten was Pastor of Church of God in Christ. He was serious-minded, but surprisingly open to new ideas. When Barry had presented his initial request for a Gay/Straight Alliance at the previous meeting, he expected Rev. Schulten to freak out, but quite the opposite. He seemed very much in favor of the idea.

Alvin Bender was a retired manufacturer of some kind, retired, widowed, and looking for something to occupy his time, he ran for School Board. His face was bright red, like he needed to splash cold water on it. He rarely spoke, but when he did, he usually sliced through the thick of the discussion and nailed the problem right on the head.

Barry had dressed nicely in dress slacks and an understated sweater, and combed his hair which was cut short on the sides and fuller on top, into a pompadour that added two inches to his height. In his right ear, he wore a black zircon stud but only in one ear. Nothing “too gay” for the School Board.

They stood and stretched, and a couple of the board members came over to Barry and chatted with him. He felt comfortable here, but he knew he had to choose his words carefully. It wasn’t exactly a hot-button issue, but it was controversial. A Gay/Straight Alliance was not the Chess Club. Normally Lavinia Williams, the Principal, could approve the Alliance, and by law it would have to be allowed, but since it involved gays, and homophobia still roamed the halls of Franklin High, she said she wanted the Board to approve it.

Before Barry had a chance to make his pitch, Miriam Trotter announced, “So sorry. But I’m going to have to leave. I’m afraid I’m going to miss this young man’s comments again.” Last week she missed the meeting entirely.

“Mrs. Trotter,” Barry said, “You do intend to vote on this issue, don’t you?”

“Of course.”

“Then you will want to have all the information you need.”

Darrin McCoy went to her and slid his arm around her shoulder. “Miriam, take a few minutes to hear what this boy has to say. He’s waited all this while.”

“Ten minutes. Make it quick, young man.”

“I’m asking the School Board to approve the formation of a Gay/Straight Alliance at Franklin.”

“This isn’t just some fancy name for a gay club is it? Because I support gay rights, but not gay special rights,” Miriam said.

“The Gay/Straight Alliance is a group of gay and non-gay students dedicated to making school a friendly and safe place for gays to attend.”

“And it isn’t now?”

“Far from it. Every day gay students are made fun of, pushed around, even hit. School is not a pleasant experience for them. Many of them have poor attendance records, and some even drop out.”

“I thought there was an anti-bullying clause in the Student Handbook,” Miriam said.

There is. But bullying is something that is ongoing and almost impossible to control. Gay students are afraid to come out because they see what happens the few who have come out.”

“You are homosexual?”

“Yes”

“How are you treated differently from the other students?”

“Every day I’m greeted with cheap comments and nasty remarks. And I put up with it because I intend to get my diploma no matter what the cost.”

“I’m sorry, Barry,” Darrin, the lawyer, said. “It must be hard for you.”

Being made fun of is something you never get used to. It’s why we need the Gay/Straight Alliance. To change the atmosphere in the school. To stop the homophobia.”

“I hate that word,” Miriam said, vehemently. “I am not afraid of gay people.”

“It expresses anti-gay sentiment as well as any,” the Rev. Schulten said.

I didn’t realize that this was as big an issue as it is. No student should be afraid of going to school. What do we need to do to approve the Gay/Straight Alliance?” Miriam asked.

Barry handed her the clipboard. “Last time I talked with all of you, I was told to gather thirty signatures of students interested in such a group. I have over forty student signatures here and twenty-nine faculty members.”

Miriam Trotter glanced at the names. “I’m skeptical enough to say I want these names verified. I want to be sure these are legitimate Franklin students.”

“I can do that,” Barry said.

“How many students are there at Franklin?” Amanda asked.

“How many gay students?” Barry asked.

“No, the normal student body.”

“Two hundred and seventeen.”

“I don’t think it unreasonable to have a majority of the student body supporting this.”

“A hundred and ten?” Barry asked

“Is that a majority?” Miriam asked.

“109 is a majority,” Rev. Schulten said, dryly.

“The Squash Club was approved earlier this year with no signatures at all,” Darrin McCoy said. “A handful of students just asked.”

“A Squash club is different. It’s a sport,” Miriam replied.

There would be no cost to the school,” Barry said. “There are no national dues to pay, or anything like that. The Squash Club costs hundreds of dollars in equipment, and at present has nine members, all girls.”

“Only nine?” Miriam said.

“Well, it is a sport,” Darrin said dryly. “I think your request for over a hundred names is unreasonable, Miriam.”

No,” Barry said. “I want to get them. I need to learn that as a gay man if I want anything I’m going to have to work harder for it, and to prove to her and every other skeptic that a Gay/Straight Alliance is worth the effort. Mrs. Trotter, if I get the signatures you ask for, will you then follow through on your promise to approve the Gay/Straight Alliance?”

“Yes.” She touched Barry’s shoulder. “You seem like a nice young man. I’m sorry your life is troubled. And now, I must leave.” She gathered up her belongings, and quickly left the room.

The rest of the board members shook Barry’s hand and praised him on his presentation, then gradually left the room. Barry stood alone in the circle of chairs, feeling very good. He snapped out the light, went down to the front of the building, got on his bike and pedalled to the garage behind the house on Winter Street, and leaned his bike against one of the sagging walls. He was whistling.



Chapter 3



He went to the side door and knew even before he opened it that Jade was there. The smell of cigarette smoke greeted him like trash burning. He was right; there she was, sitting in an old sling chair, puffing away.

“I hope you didn’t cut school just to sit here smoking all day,” Barry said.

“As a matter of fact, I just got here,” she said, “and this is my first cigarette of the day.”

“How come?” Barry said. “Usually you’ve gone through half a pack by this time.”

She put out the butt on the dirt floor of the garage, and dangled the car keys for Barry to see. “Look here.”

“What’s the bit with the keys?”

“Didn’t you see the PT Cruiser parked out front?”

“I came in through the alley.” Jade just continued shaking the key ring smiling wickedly. “Holy shit, it’s not yours, is it?”

“Sort of.”

“How can a car be ‘sort of’ yours?”

“It’s Owen’s.”

“Owen? I’m sure there is a story here, but do I want to hear it?”

“Oh yeah, there’s a story here. A kind of a crazy story. I spent the night with Owen.”

“Jade!”

“Stop freaking out. It’s not what you think. You know I am not into guys.”

Barry sat in the beanbag chair and dropped his clipboard on the floor beside it, took off his shoes and rubbed his feet. “So, who is this Owen person?”

Jade lit up a second cigarette. “Owen is this sweet old guy who let me sleep on his couch and gave me use of his PT Cruiser.”

“And why didn’t you sleep at home?”

“I was kicked out.” It wasn’t easy for her, but she was determined not to cry.

“Swear!”

“I was fucking thrown out like garbage to the curb.”

He looked at her with a stern judgmental look. “You told your parents.”

“Yeah, I told them, and I almost had to call 911 to come treat my mother. She freaked out like I’ve never seen her before. She scared me.”

Barry leaned toward her looking at her earnestly. “Jade, we talked about this. There is a good way to come out to your parents, and you know it.”

“Well, smart ass, we were in the middle of a major bitch fight, and I just didn’t happen to have my handbook on how to come out in my pocket,” she said with sarcasm. Barry stood looking at her who returned his look with defiance. “Do I have to defend myself to you, too?”

“Why did you have to make it so messy?”

“There’s no other way to deal with my mother. She grabbed her Bible and started screaming. I was in the clutches of the devil and two steps away from hell. I swear that if Jesus himself stood in front of her and told her she had to love her daughter, she would start searching through the Bible to find out where it said that.”

“And this is exactly what we are trying to avoid when coming out to our parents.”

“She’s a Jesus freak. I never learned how to deal with that.”

“You could have called me.”

“I wasn’t thinking straight. The only number I wanted to call was 911.”

“That bad?”

“I just wanted to get out of there. I couldn’t think straight. My mind was fucked. I got a bottle of vodka and got so wasted I don’t even remember walking the tracks.”

“Oh, my God. Damn you!” Barry said as sharply as if he had slapped her. “What the hell were you thinking?”

I told you I was drunk.” She stood and paced the dirt floor of the old garage sucking on her cigarette. “Everybody thinks I’m immune to hurt. Well, I’m not. I felt like total shit and when I’m like that, nothing in this rotten world looks good.”

“But killing yourself? Jade don’t you have any idea how much your death would have hurt us?” She looked at Barry with genuine remorse, and tears started. Barry put his arms around her and held her. “You’re safe, Jade. It’s all behind you now. Cigarettes aren’t going to make it any better either. A cigarette is your pacifier.”

“And now we’re bringing Freud into this?”

Barry threw up his hands in exasperation. “Smoke away. If you don’t care about your lungs I care for mine. Second hand smoke is deadly.”

Jade got up and stood in the garage doorway, blowing her smoke out into the back yard. “Owen wouldn’t let me smoke either. Barry, he lives in this funky little house not far from the tracks, and he literally carried me off the tracks and let me sleep off the vodka, and when I woke up we talked, and Barry, he treated me like a special person.”

“You are special.”

She crushed out the cigarette against the door frame and threw the butt into the backyard, then came and sat with Barry. “How was the meeting?”

“I’m going to need lots of help in gathering one hundred and nine signatures.”

“I’ll have them for you by tomorrow,” she said.

“They have to be legitimate. Not made-up names,” Barry said.

“You’ll get them. But now, you are coming with me.”

“What for?”

“It’s kind of a payback. You’ll see. I really want to do this and I want to do it tonight, and I want you with me. Look at me . . . the new Jade. Starting today, I’m through taking crap from my mother and anybody else. I’m going to live my life as I want. I’m taking the first step to becoming a glorious lesbian.”

Barry applauded. “Alive and well and kicking ass. Awesome. But I must admit, you have my curiosity up about this adventure you’ve got planned for tonight.”

“Believe me, you will love every minute of it. I promise it’ll be intense.”

“I have to check on my mother first. It won’t take long. I just have to make sure she’s had supper, and is set for the night.”

Jade checked her phone, deleted the texts from her mother and texted a reply to LuLu Bennet who wanted to know why she cut school today. Long story. No time now. TTYL. On the way to the car Jade said, “Is she really kicking the booze for good this time?”

“Almost six months. Keep your fingers crossed.”

They got in the PT Cruiser with Jade sliding in first and Barry settling in the passenger side. When she started the engine, there was a loud pop.

“What was that?” Barry asked.

It needs a new muffler.” She pulled away from the curb. The traffic was light on Winter Street, but conversation was impossible unless they shouted or used sign language. Barry stuck his index fingers in his ears and held them there until they reached his house. Jade parallel parked, cut the engine and Barry pulled his fingers out of his ears.

“You really need to get that fixed,” he said.

“I’m going to. Geez, I’ve only had it one day.”

Barry’s house was a two-bedroom bungalow out of the 1920’s painted gray with white trim, and a bright red door. The walkway up to the front door was lined with bright green boxwood trimmed into a low hedge, and there were mature bridal wreath bushes along the front of the house. It wasn’t the prettiest house on the block, but it looked well cared for and comfortable, and it was close to school.

Barry’s father, Charley, died of a massive heart attack five years ago, and his life insurance was enough to pay off the mortgage, so Barry and his mother, Louise, lived here free from debt, which was a blessing because Louise never recovered from Charley’s sudden death, and turned to booze, and was incapable of holding down a job.

When Barry and Jade went in, the lights were on and the window shades were up. A good sign. Louise was in the kitchen washing supper dishes, and called out, “Barry?”

“It’s me, Mom. I’ve got Jade with me.”

Louise came into the living room, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. She went to Barry and kissed him. “Jade, so nice to see you.”

She was sober. Barry did a silent thank you to whatever forces governed sobriety, and he hugged her.

She looked older than 38, her youthful prettiness a victim of alcoholism. When sober, her smile was warm and winning, and her voice musical and easy to listen to. When drunk, she was sullen, and she snarled like a trapped animal, the sound thick with dread and paranoia. Today she was charming.

“Sorry, I went ahead and ate. I wasn’t sure when you were coming home,” she said.

“What did you have?” Barry asked.

“Leftover ham and scalloped potatoes. It’s even better the second day.” She went back into the kitchen with Barry and Jade following. She resumed wiping dishes and Jade and Barry sat at the formica topped table.

“So, you had a good day?” Barry said. “There are going to be lots more of them.”

“Lots more. Jade, can I get you anything? I have Sprite.”

“Sprite is fine, Mrs. Chase.”

“I’ll get it, Mom. You sit and relax.”

“As if I haven’t been relaxing all day.” She turned to Jade and said, “I love your name, Jade. I know I’ve told you before, but it’s perfect. Sounds almost mysterious when you say it.”

“When I was little,” Jade said, “I didn’t have any friends. Nobody seemed to like me. Then one day a Chinese princess, Jade, came to me. I knew she wasn’t real, but she was my only friend, and when she left I took her name, Jade. My real name is Amanda.”

“That’s a nice name, too,” Louise said.

Jade took a sip of her Sprite and smiled. “Mrs. Chase, I’d love to do something with your hair.”

“I know it’s all over the place. I washed it this afternoon.”

Jade went into the bathroom and got a comb and brush, and brought them back into the kitchen. She brushed Louise’s hair vigorously with long strokes. Unpinned, it hung down her back almost to her waist. Jade started to weave a long braid. “I’m giving you a Pocahontas braid,” she said. “You can leave it in for three days.” Louise smiled and kept her eyes closed enjoying the attention. “You have nice hair. I ruined mine by all the crap I put in it.”

“Do you think I should have it cut? It’s so long,” Louise said.

“I wouldn’t.” Jade had finished the braid and needed something to tie it off. “Have you got a rubber band?”

“In that little drawer beside the sink,” Louise said.

Jade wrapped the rubber band several times until it held the hair in place. “Now a picture.”

She got her phone out and took a selfie with Louise looking sweet and pampered, and Jade smiling brightly. Jade’s mother wouldn’t let her touch her hair; in fact, she would have pushed her away if she even tried to brush it. It needed something. She had worn it in the “Lady Preacher’s” bun for so long, Jade had trouble remembering when it wasn’t there.

“Remember Aunt Mitzi is coming for lunch tomorrow,” Barry said. “There’s plenty of stuff for sandwiches, or you can make a big salad. I put out a box of that pasta salad you like so much.”

“Mitzi’s on a diet. I wouldn’t be surprised if she showed up with some Rye-Krisp and a Diet Pepsi,” Louise said.

“And this is the woman who loves chocolate cake with chocolate frosting,” Barry said.

The Rye-Krisp is okay, but the Diet Pepsi is pure poison,” Jade said. “Get her to drink water.”

Mom, there’s a good movie on tonight. Into the Woods. Nine o’clock on Channel 10. Why don’t you wash your face and put on your night cream and your pajamas and robe?”

“I will.”

She went upstairs and got herself ready as Barry took the garbage out and Jade swept the kitchen, and when they finished they sat at the table while Jade finished her Sprite and Barry ate two cookies.

Louise came back down wearing her pretty pink chenille robe and slippers, her face glowing with anti-wrinkle cream. She sat in the recliner in front of the TV and Barry got her a pillow to put behind her back. “Comfy?” he said.

“Just right.”

“Jade and I are going out,” Barry said. “Now, remember, don’t answer the door if anybody knocks, and you know how to call 911.”

“Stop fussing over me. I’ll be fine.”

Barry got his light jacket from the coat rack in the entryway and slipped it on as Jade leaned in and kissed Louise on the cheek. “Maybe some night I’ll stop over and we can watch TV together,” she said.

“I’d love that, Jade,” Louise said. “Don’t forget.”

Barry kissed his mother and said, “Love you, Mom.” Then, softly in her ear, “Six months. I’m so proud of you.”

“I love you too.”

“Ready?” Barry asked Jade. When she turned to him he saw there were tears glistening in her eyes. She rubbed them out with her fingertips and said, “Ready. Oh, have you got a good strong flash-light?”

“Are we going somewhere in the dark?”

“Part of the time.”

Barry got a flashlight from the kitchen drawer and flipped it on to be sure it was working. “Anything else?”

“Nope.”

“Oh, god, my earplugs.”

“Use your fingers,” Jade said.

As they left, Jade called to Louise, “Enjoy the movie.”

Barry locked the door, turned the knob to make sure it was really locked, then they got into the PT Cruiser and rocketed off, scaring dogs and little kids and birds that had already settled into the trees for the night.



Chapter 4



“First stop, Walmart,” Jade said, and she wove her way through traffic, the hole in the muffler getting bigger with each mile.

“Why Walmart?” Barry asked.

“We’re buying food.”

“For?”

“You’ll see. Just stick with me.”

They zipped through the Walmart food aisles with Jade throwing things in the cart Barry pushed. They did U turns in aisles blocked by large women also loading up their carts. They filled their cart with the speed of a contest winner on a game show whose prize was a race through the food section seeing how much she could get in her cart in fifteen minutes. Jade and Barry’s cart was filled with boxes of cereal, oatmeal, canned soups, tuna fish, peanut butter, trail mix, even a jar of olives.





A Story

This little kid, about ten, hated grocery shopping, but his mother always made him come with her. Needless to say, he never stayed with her, nosing in every place a kid shouldn’t. Well, today was his lucky day. Behind the bags of water softener salt. he found a dead mouse, and a crazy idea took over his wicked little mind. He strolled the aisles until he found a cart half-full, and the lady shopping had left it to look at jars of spaghetti sauce. So, this kid walks up to the cart, slips the dead mouse under the bag of oranges where it wouldn’t be seen. It was only a matter of time until the scream shot through the store like a bullet. The lady with the mouse was at the check-out. Holy hell broke loose. The cashier nearly fainted, and the lady with the groceries took her purse and ran out of the store.

The manager finally bagged the mouse in a plastic produce bag and threw it in its grave, the big dumpster in back of the store.





“It’s for Owen, isn’t it,” Barry said. “Is he starving?”

“No, but my guess is that he’s not eating right. I want to make sure he has decent food,” Jade answered.

“Where’s the money coming to pay for all this?” Barry asked, out of breath.

“Plastic,” Jade said. “One of mother’s credit cards. With luck, I’ll max it out before she decides to cancel it. She never checks the bill; she just pays it. So, until she wises up, we spend, spend, spend.”

She actually stopped long enough to check the loot.

“Is that it?” Barry asked. “Are we done. . . I hope?”

“One last stop. The deli. We need some fresh food for supper tonight.” Jade bought potato salad, hummus, sliced meat and cheese, broccoli salad, fresh fruit, and fresh pita bread. “Looks like I’m done,” she said, her face flushed. “Oh, one more thing, a bag of apples.” When she returned with the bag of all apples she said, “Now I’m done.”

There was only one person ahead of them at the self-check-out.

“I’ll scan you pack,” Jade ordered, “and everything has to go in four bags.”

“No way,” Barry said.

Then you scan and I’ll pack,” she said. Jade was on a mission, and nothing was going to stand in her way.

The check-out went smoothly, and as impossible as it seemed, she got everything in four plastic bags double bagged for strength.

With the groceries loaded in the car, it wasn’t five minutes before she pulled up beside the mailbox at the head of the path that led to Owen’s house.

“Here we are,” she said cutting the engine. “See that path-way? It leads to a small house buried in the trees.”

“How far is it?”

“About three blocks.” She grabbed two bags and handed them to Barry. “Two for you and two for me. Hand me the flash-light.” She snapped it on and managed to clutch it in one hand along with the grocery bags. “Follow me.”

“One thing’s for sure, if we get lost in the woods we won’t starve,” Barry said.

“We’re not going to get lost.”

Halfway to the little house, Barry’s fingers were already numb, and his arms felt like they had stretched a foot. “I’m in pain.”

“Suck it up. It’s going to be worth it.”

Barry went along with Jade all evening because he really wanted to meet this man who had made a crack in Jade’s hard exterior. She was actually enjoying herself.

There’s a light just ahead,” Jade said. “That’s the little house.” Partially blocked by trees, the little house glowed with candle light. She walked faster and called out, “Owen? Owen, it’s Jade.”

“Jade?” the man’s voice answered. “Hello.”

“Hey Owen. Told ya I’d be back.”

As they entered the clearing where the little house sat, Bess came to them, wagging her tail and barking a warm welcome. Jade put one of her bags down and rubbed Bess’s head. “I’m glad to see you too,” she said.

“Welcome. Come in,” Owen said. “I’m glad you made it safely.”

She and Barry went in the door that Owen slid open for them. “This is my friend, Barry. I wanted him to meet you.”

“Good to meet you, Barry.” Owen turned on the camp light but left the candles burning.

Barry set his grocery bags down and reached out to shake Owen’s hand. “Good to meet you too.”

“What’s all this?” Owen said, indicating the grocery bags.

“Food,” Jade said. “Most of it’s for you, but I bought some goodies for us. We’re going to have a late picnic supper. Have you got a blanket to throw on the floor?”

Coming right up.” He got the blanket and spread it on the floor pushing his easy chair out of the way and moving his boots. “I’m really glad to see you Jade. I thought about you all day.”

“And I spent a lot of time thinking of you, Owen. I thought it would be great if we had supper together.”

Celebrate life with food. Wonderful.”

Owen set the camp light in the center of the blanket. Jade began opening the cartons of potato salad, hummus, broccoli salad, the package of pita bread, packages of sliced meats set them out on the blanket.

“All things I love,” Owen said.

Jade set the four lighted candles on the blanket among the cartons of food. “I’m starved. I’m going to pig out. I haven’t had anything to eat since this morning.”

They ate and chatted as if they were old friends. Owen filled mugs of fresh water for each of them, and true to her word, Jade ate like she had been lost in the woods for a week. Barry kept stealing glances at Owen when he wasn’t looking; sixtyish, big but not fat, dressed in jeans and a plaid flannel shirt. He smiled easily. But it was the warmth in his gray eyes that captivated Barry. He knew what Jade felt last night with Owen. You wanted to be close to this gentle bear of a man.

“Owen,” Barry asked. “What did you do before you came here to live in the woods?”

“I spent some time in the Army, and a brief stint in the corporate world after I left the military.”

“Vietnam?”

“Oh, no. I was only twenty when that ended. I was in Bosnia for a while. After that I was transferred back to the States and ended up behind a desk.”

They were finishing up their meal, and Jade was finger-wiping out the deli cartons and licking them. “Told ya I was hungry.”

“This is the best meal I have had in months,” Owen said.

“I was hoping you’d say that,” Jade said.

She and Barry cleaned up after the meal, and while Owen folded up the blanket, Jade and Barry found places for the non-perishable food.

“You need a refrigerator, Owen,” Jade said.

That would be nice, but I’ve done pretty well without one. Besides, running an electric line out here would cost a small fortune.”

“How much?” Jade asked.

“Last time I checked with the utility company they wanted two hundred and fifty just to run a line out here, and then I would have to have an electric box and fixtures.”

“Two fifty?” Barry said with disbelief.

“And the place would have to be wired with outlets and switches, and I can’t even begin to imagine how much that would cost. Getting electricity to this place would probably run eight hundred at least, and personally I don’t think it’s worth it. I’m good here without it. I’ve gotten used to it. And the candle light. I know it’s probably hard for a person your age to imagine life like this.”

“You need a computer,” Barry said. “Everybody should have a computer.”

“I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I had one,” Owen said.

“Connect with the rest of the world,” Barry said.

“Just what I’m trying to avoid.”

Computers are our future, Owen. Someday they will be able to think for us.”

“Ouch,” Owen said.

In a good way,” Barry said. “Solve problems for us or better yet, spot them before they are problems.”

Jade was playing with Bess on Owen’s bed and had not once felt the need for a cigarette.

A train burned its way past the little house. “The midnight train,” Owen said. “It’s amazing how on-time they are.”

“It’s midnight? I’ve lost all track of time,” Barry said. “We need to get home, Jade.”

Why not stay here?” Owen said. Jade had already fallen asleep on Owen’s bed. “You can take the couch.”

“Where will you sleep?” Barry asked.

“Sitting in the chair. I’ve done it many a night. Lie down, son. Get some sleep. Jade can take the car again in the morning.”

“It has been a long day,” Barry said with a yawn.

“A good one, I hope.”

“A very good one,” Barry said. He stretched out on the couch, Owen brought him a pillow and tossed the afghan over him, and he was asleep by his fifth breath.



Chapter 5



Barry Before

Edward Barry Chase was a beautiful baby weighing in at seven pounds four ounces. On the night of his birth, Louise and Charlie Chase promised each other that they would give him everything he ever wanted. They both grew up in large families, sharing everything with brothers and sisters, cared for by overworked mothers and fathers who believed that girls belonged to the mother and boys to the father.

In Edward’s case, however, he belonged to his mother. Any time Edward wanted something, he turned to his mother; and as he grew, the bond between the boy and his mother grew stronger. Charlie played boy games with him, but he showed little interest. He was more interested in watching his mother cook than playing catch with his father. When Edward cried at night, it was for his mother; and no matter how carefully Charlie rocked him, he never quieted until he was in his mother’s arms.

It was Louise who taught him his ABC’s, how to play “itsy-bitsy spider,” and “peek-a-boo,” and to recite nursery rhymes. Charlie tried. His rough-and-tumble boy-dad wrestling, or horseback rides were never fun for Edward. Charlie had fathered a “Mama’s boy.” And because of complications at birth, Edward Barry would be their only child.

Louise didn’t work outside the home. She was a mother whose greatest purpose in life was to shower little Edward with all the love and attention she could every minute of every day. She cried the day he started kindergarten, wouldn’t go to the barber with him and Charlie to have his first haircut, and refused to take away the girl toys he seemed to favor, especially a doll he named Sally. He wanted to take Sally to kindergarten with him, and Louise was going to let him, but Charlie put his foot down and said no. In one corner of Barry’s room (he told them he wanted to be called Barry,) were the toys Charlie bought for him: action toys that every boy he knew loved. “Rockeem sockem robots,” “Operation,” (Barry cried every time the “body” buzzed when he didn’t get the part out correctly,) G.I. Joe action figures and accessories, footballs and soccer balls, even a set of boy-sized golf clubs. His son preferred Sally, dressing her in cowboy outfits, evening gowns, bathing suits, and frilly dresses. He loved the plastic tea set Louise bought him one year for his birthday. Charlie sat uncomfortably with Barry and Louise sipping imaginary tea, and holding his little finger out daintily.

Charlie was of the mind that Barry was growing up gay, though he never said anything to Louise about it. She would have scoffed. He was only seven years old, but the tell-tale signs were there. He was not a boy like other boys, with his Sally doll and his tea parties. Pushing Barry to be more boyish just made him turn to his girl toys with stronger affection. Charlie loved his son; and if he grew up to be gay, Charlie would love him as much as if he were the roughest kid in the neighborhood.


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