Rain pattered against the bus window in a slow tempo. The rivulets of water blurred my view of the town beyond the glass, but I could make out the wreaths decorating each lamppost. The same wreaths appeared on the same lampposts every year around Christmastime. In another few weeks, lights would be wrapped around the skeletal trees that lined the street. I missed the cheer they brought.
The bus pulled into a gas station on the edge of town. Mom’s dark green sedan sat in one of the parking spaces. She stood under the eave of the building in a yellow raincoat that hung heavily from her thin frame. I stayed in my seat a moment, watching her. She straightened and patted her hair as though making sure none of it had escaped the bun at the nape of her neck. Her eyes were fixed on the bus’s door. I took a deep breath, picked up my backpack, and went to meet her.
“There you are!”
We hugged. No scent of alcohol invaded my nose, nor the perfume she used to wear to mask it. One small section of the knot in my stomach loosened.
“I’m so happy to see you, darling!” she said. “Here, let’s get in the car before we get too wet.”
She talked constantly on the way home. Updates about our neighbors and people from church. A couple of years ago, she wouldn’t have known any of their names. She lived in a crypt then. My shoulders relaxed an inch as I listened.
We drove through a landscape flattened into two dimensions by the fog. The cradling hills in the distance were completely invisible, the view cut off. When we reached the fork in the road, I couldn’t even see Uncle Hal’s farmhouse on the left branch. Mom turned to the right.
Our double-wide trailer had new curtains in the living room windows. A lamp was on beyond them.
“I leave it because it always seems more welcoming than coming back to a dark house,” Mom said. “It adds hardly anything to the electric bill, so your uncle doesn’t mind.”
I went up the steps and got the door for her.
Inside, an echo of the disorientation I’d felt when I came home for summer leave hit. The room was clean and tidy. A small bouquet of flowers sat in a vase on the coffee table. It looked nothing like the house where I grew up after Dad died. Could almost have been one of the base houses we lived in. I adjusted more quickly this time and took off my shoes on the new mat with hardly a pause.
“Now, you go put your things away and I’ll make us some tea,” Mom said.
Nodding, I went through the kitchen and down the hallway.
My room was exactly the same as I’d left it the day before I was inducted into the Naval Academy. My Boy Scout sash tacked up over my bed and the rest of the walls covered in kung fu movie posters. A cheap katana resting on a stand atop my dresser. None of it anything I was ashamed of now, yet standing in the middle of it all felt like putting on old clothes that didn’t quite fit anymore. The kid who lived here was gone (wasn’t he?).
I dropped my bag on the bed and went back to the threshold. I could see Mom filling up the kettle in the sink. The door of her room, kitty-corner to mine, was open. With another glance at her, I slipped inside and knelt on the floor at the foot of her bed, in front of the massive antique cedar chest. A blanket protected the top of it from damage. Holding that carefully in place, I unlatched and lifted the lid.
Musty clothes filled the right half. Somewhere in there was my baby blanket. I ignored the pile and took out the two photo albums on the other side. A box of Navy paperwork about Dad lay beneath. I used to look through it when Mom wasn’t around or wasn’t in any condition to notice. That’s how I found the bottles the first time. Holding my breath, I opened it.
Just papers. I rifled them, one-handed, to be sure.
“Bradley, do you want honey–”
I closed the chest, but the photo albums were still on my lap, and Mom’s eyes said she knew.
“I– I’m sorry, I just–”
“No, don’t apologize, darling,” she said, coming in and kneeling beside me. Her slender fingers gripped my wrist. “I know I haven’t earned your trust back, and that is the result of decisions I made.” She swallowed. “It’s up to me to make amends to those that I have wronged. That’s step nine. You are at the top of my list, remember?”
I nodded. She’d told me all the steps of AA over the summer, and where she was in them.
“All I can do is show you I’ve changed. If you need to verify that for awhile, it’s fine.” Letting go of me, she picked up the photo albums. “Why don’t we take these to the kitchen and look at them while we have dinner?”
“The pictures!” She patted my knee. “I would look at them and you would look at them, but I think it’s time we looked at them together, don’t you?”
Nothing bad happened. No bomb exploded when she set the first album between our plates and opened it. No tightness appeared around her eyes as she smiled and told me about the SEALs standing in the photo with my dad. She didn’t accuse me of resembling him too much, as though I did it to hurt her.
Almost as if he was sitting there telling old stories with us.
The fog had lifted enough for the glow of Uncle Hal’s back porch light to cut through the darkness from across the field. I wished he’d turn it off.
Mom pulled her car out of the driveway as I fastened my seatbelt. My phone vibrated.
Older brother still talking about his transmission 🙄 What are my men doing?
Brian was already writing back to her.
Black tie dinner with Lt. Gov.; I’d gladly trade places.
Justine replied, Bet you look hot though, all dressed to the nines and scowly
I could picture Brian as well. He’d been so annoyed at how his parents—in his word—summoned him home at the last minute. As though I’m a prop they can use to drum up support, he’d ranted. Now there won’t be time for the three of us to spend together, at Justine’s or any other place.
Secretly, that relieved me. Justine had wanted us to come out of the closet to her family. No matter how much Brian said we’d make the decision together, I was glad for an excuse to delay making it at all.
I wrote, Going to Bible study with my mom.
I’d trade with you, too, Brian answered.
Justine said simply, Have fun!
I almost replied that it depended on the discussion topic the group leader chose.
To Mom, I said, “I’m glad you’re attending church again.”
She smiled. “Me too. When I think about how far I strayed from God’s light, it makes me so thankful to have this second chance.”
“Yeah.” I shifted in my seat and looked out the window. “I was wondering, though… What if we tried another church? That one on Front Street I went to over the summer, Trinity? They were nice.”
Her forehead wrinkled. “So is our congregation.”
“Yes, for the most part,” I said, each syllable testing the strength of the rickety support my courage gave (heart-pounding). “Unless you’re, um, attracted to people of the same sex, or something like that.”
Mom looked at me. “This is about your friends I met after the Herndon climb, isn’t it? Seb and… what was his name?”
“Mohyeldin,” I said. “You met them during Parents’ Weekend first.”
“Oh, that’s right.” She put on her turn signal and then reached over to pat my knee. “Darling, I don’t agree with everything Pastor Mike says about people like them, either.”
“But, well, it’s your uncle’s church too, and if we left it would raise a lot of questions and embarrass him. You understand, don’t you? Why it’s better not to rock the boat?”
My stomach sank. “Yeah, I understand. It’s okay.”
Uncle Hal’s kitchen was airless and hot. The scent of roasting turkey brought me back to years of not saying a word other than “please” and “thank you” all through dinner. My goal was for him to ignore me. I rarely succeeded.
Mom pinched the edges of her apple pie lid, sealing it to the base. I looked around for something else that needed to be done.
“You should go sit with your uncle,” she said. “You’ve hardly spoken to him since we arrived.”
“I don’t want to leave you with the cooking.”
“It’s nearly finished, anyway. Go on. Enjoy your time off.” She gave me a push towards the living room.
Uncle Hal didn’t look away from the football game on the television as I came in. I circled around the back of the recliner so I wouldn’t block his view, and sat down on the couch. He had a bottle of beer in his hand. Mom swore she didn’t get tempted by people drinking around her. She swore it. Nothing to be worried about.
“What the hell are you staring at?”
I moved my gaze to his gun cabinet on the opposite wall and said nothing. Any answer only gave him ammunition. My shoulders hunched.
He turned the TV up.
An eternity later, Mom came in while wiping her hands on a kitchen towel. “I forgot a few of the things I need for the casserole. I’m going to run across the field and get them from our pantry.”
I stood. “I can go.”
“Don’t be silly. You two stay and enjoy the game. I’ll be right back.”
Uncle Hal grunted. “Smells good, Sharon.”
She smiled, though he didn’t see it. “Thank you!”
Taking my seat again, I watched her put on her boots and jacket. The icy air she let in as she left seemed to linger in the room.
Halftime started. Uncle Hal muted it. The clink of his beer bottle hitting the table rang out. I pretended to be absorbed in the TV anyway.
“She won’t last, you know. This sobriety shit never does with her.”
My jaw clenched.
But hadn’t I thought the same thing? So many times over the years. I let Mom see my doubt, just yesterday. No better than Uncle Hal. He thought neither of us would reach our goals. I knew how demoralizing that was. Guilt filled me.
“She’ll make it this time,” I said. “We’re tougher than we believe.”
He scoffed. “She’s weak. That’s how we got you. She crawled off and cheated–”
I heard myself cut into the middle of his sentence, my voice loud. “Why do you think I’ll buy that? Maybe it worked when I was eleven, but it doesn’t now.”
His whole upper body twisted towards me. Astonishment shifting into anger. “Is this how they teach you to talk at that school? Show some respect, you candy-ass little sissy.”
The last time I’d heard those words, they were coming from my own mouth when I told Brian Uncle Hal’s favorite ‘nicknames’ for me. Rage had simmered in his dark eyes, even as he held me in his lap. Brian thought no one had the right to treat me like that.
“I said, show some respect!”
My fuse blew.
“When did you earn my respect? When you made me sleep outside in January because I lost the keys to your truck? When you wouldn’t pay my Boy Scout dues unless I said, ‘I’m a pantywaist crybaby’? When you told me over and over that Dad would be ashamed of me if he were still alive, until I believed it? I was A CHILD!”
Uncle Hal surged out of the recliner and towered above me. His hands clenched into fists. “How about when I put a roof over your head and food on your table while your worthless bitch of a mother–”
“Do NOT call her that!” I said, springing to my feet too.
“IT’S MY HOUSE! I will use any fucking word I please!” He pointed at the floor and then out the back window, towards the trailer, as he said, “THIS is my house, and THAT is my house, and if you don’t shape up, you and your WHORE mother can go find someone else to take you in!”
My training left my head. I simply launched myself at him through the red mist and pounded on anything I could touch. My growth spurt still left me inches shy of his height, but I was a lot bigger than I used to be, and I used every extra pound of muscle to my advantage.
“STOP! STOP!” Mom screamed. Her fingers clawed my shoulders and pulled me away. Uncle Hal staggered backwards. Mom got between us. “WHAT do you two think you are doing? On Thanksgiving!”
A can of cream of mushroom soup rolled into my foot. With my eyes, I followed its path to the open door. I wiped blood off my lip. Nothing hurt. My mind was clear.
Then Uncle Hal raised his hand to Mom. She flinched.
Every single angle mapped itself into my brain, and in an instant, I knew exactly what needed to be done and how to do it. I sidestepped around her. I grabbed the arm he was holding up and the front of his shirt. I spun. He went into the air and landed flat on his back. I wished it was onto bricks, like Belcher, not carpet, but it stunned him all the same. He blinked a few times before his gaze focused on me.
No, on his wrist in my hand.
“L-let me go.”
That was fear. Unmistakable.
Yet I asked, to be sure. “Are you scared of me, Uncle Hal?”
His lips trembled as he panted for breath.
“You are, aren’t you?”
My voice sounded quiet and calm. Another of those moments of perfect understanding was hitting, and this one stretched back years. All the way back to the day two men from the Navy came and he told Mom, don’t worry, I’ll take care of you.
“It was easier when I was small, I bet. Didn’t dare go against you then. Easier when she was drunk, too.” I took my eyes off him for a split-second to look at Mom. She was frozen, watching. Listening.
“That’s why you want her to fall off the wagon,” I said. “Want her to be drunk and me to be scared so you can control us both. Keep her in that house, under your thumb, so you can play the martyr. The good guy who takes care of his lush sister-in-law a and her wimpy son. Everyone’s hero.
“People never thought of you that way when Dad was alive, did they? He was the hero and you were just his older brother. And when I become a SEAL, you’ll be right back where you started.” I paused. Tilted my head. “Actually, no. You’ll be worse, because everyone is going to know how you treated me when I was a kid. Starting with you, Mom.”
“I… I don’t understand,” she said.
I let go of Uncle Hal and stepped back. He stayed down. “You will,” I said. “Come on. I’ll take you to dinner at a restaurant and fill you in.”
“Don’t listen to him, Sharon! He’s nothing but a lying little punk bastard, and he always has been!”
Mom’s face hardened. “How dare you. I don’t know what is going on here, but you do not speak of my son in that way. Bradley, let’s go.” She marched to the door and took her keys off the hook. I followed her out.
“I should have known.”
I’d talked until my voice was hoarse from overuse and emotion. Mom’s hand clung to mine on top of the pure white tablecloth. The restaurant was nearly empty, apart from a waitress cleaning a couple of tables away.
Mom blinked, and her eyes overflowed with tears. She said again, “I should have known what that… that man was doing to you!”
I shook my head. “He made sure you didn’t.” My stomach turned as I thought about what he could’ve made sure I didn’t know. I squeezed her fingers. “Mom, has he ever hit you?”
“Just once,” she said. “He apologized and swore it wouldn’t ever happen again, and I forgave him.”
I wished I could beat up Uncle Hal again. With every fiber of my being. I looked away from Mom so she wouldn’t see the violence in my expression.
The waitress was still wiping down the same table. It wasn’t dirty. She moved her cloth in slow circles over the wood. Her head was turned a few degrees towards us, enough for me to recognize her. Jenny Bergin. We’d been in the same year in highschool, and she was one of the few kids who didn’t ignore or pick on me. Her family attended Uncle Hal’s church.
“I’m a terrible mother.”
Fear pierced my heart. Refocusing on Mom, I said, “No. Don’t think like that.” Self-loathing would lead to depression, and when she was depressed, she reached for alcohol.
Jenny moved one table closer. It was already clean, too.
I thought a moment, then spoke very clearly: “Uncle Hal abused us both.”
Jenny glanced over her shoulder in our direction. Shock and sympathy warred on her face.
“He took advantage of your addiction,” I said, “and now he wants you to start drinking again. If you do, he wins.”
“I won’t,” said Mom. Her chin set the same way mine does sometimes. “This makes me more determined than ever to be a good mother to you now.” She smiled, closed-lipped, and lines appeared around her eyes. “Not that you need me. You’re a man. You’ve grown so much, and you’ve proved how you can take care of yourself.”
“I still need you.”
“We need each other. Especially today.” She looked out the restaurant window at cars driving by. “I can’t keep living in that house. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I can’t stay there.”
“What about Dad’s death benefits?” I asked. The paperwork in the box from the cedar chest laid them out. We never talked about them. “There was a lump sum and monthly checks, right?”
“Yes, but…” Her mouth twisted in shame. “Your father and I made a lot of mistakes early in our marriage. We didn’t manage our money very well at all. When he died, most of the lump sum went towards paying down our debt. The monthly checks go towards that, too. And they’re deposited directly into your uncle’s account. He told me it would be easier to handle everything that way. Changing it will take a few days, at least.”
I frowned. “If they’re deposited into his account, how do you know he’s using them to pay down the debt?”
“Well… I assume that he is,” she said. “If he weren’t, we’d certainly have bill collectors hounding us by now.”
The unease lessened only slightly. “So you don’t know how much is still unpaid?”
“No. Hal always says not to worry.”
“How much was the debt and the interest rate?”
She took a small notepad from her purse and wrote it down. Then I took the pad from her used my phone to work out the total amount, and the benefits since Dad died.
“But. Look, see? If it’s not all paid off by now, it has to be close.”
She stared at my calculations for a long time. Her chin trembled. Suddenly, she slammed her palm down on the table, loud enough for me and Jenny to jump. “Oh!” Mom said, angry. “I am such a simple-minded fool! I let him take over the money. I was so weak and spineless!”
“Stop it! No meanness towards anyone, including yourself. That’s my rule number four.”
She looked confused. “Your rule?”
“It’s… a friend of mine,” I explained, my cheeks hot. “He helped me come up with rules for, um, self-improvement.”
“Oh.” Her face smoothed out as she thought. “I like that rule.” She nodded, once. “No meanness.”
Before she could ask about my friend, I said, “If Uncle Hal’s been pocketing the money, we should press charges. Or sue him, or something.”
Mom sighed. “No, darling. He could easily claim he’s been using it to take care of us, and it would be hard to prove otherwise. I don’t want to be involved in a legal battle, either. I want to cut ties. But tomorrow, I’ll make some calls and see where I stand, financially.”
I waited until she’d gone to bed to phone Brian. Rule two—the one about withholding—was just as important as rule four. He needed to know what had happened now. We could tell Justine later.
When I finished recounting it all, he asked, in a low voice, “You attacked him first?”
“He was going to hit my mother.”
“I mean before she came in,” Brian said. “When you, in your words, ‘just started punching.’”
I scowled at the ceiling above my bed. That was what he wanted to focus on? “Yes.”
“What is rule one?”
My heart skipped a beat. “I can take care of myself!”
“Little boy,” he growled, “do not make me repeat the question.”
A wave of heat went up from my toes. Mulishly, I said, “Stay as safe as possible.”
“Correct. Raising your fists to anyone, unless in defense against violence towards yourself or an innocent person, is a violation of that rule. It also opens you to the possibility of assault charges, which your uncle could easily bring, and which would ruin your future at the Academy.”
I swallowed. If Uncle Hal did that… If they kicked me out…
“I know what it’s like when a red mist hits,” Brian said, softer. “You cannot react with force. It’s a path to darkness. When he raised his hand to your mother is a different story. Putting him on the floor then was fine. Hopefully it made him scared enough not to mess with you again.”
My breathing was heavy. I hated the fear inside. I clung to anger. “You wanted me to let him insult her, though?”
“Was she there to hear the insults?”
“Bradley! Get out here, you chickenshit!”
I sat bolt upright in the center of my bed. A shadow moved across the window.
“What was that?” Brian asked. “What’s going on?”
“My uncle. He’s in the backyard.” Quietly, I crept across the room to pull my drapes apart an inch. Uncle Hal paced in the grass, feet away. “He has a shotgun.”
His massive form wheeled around and staggered wildly. “Get the fuck out here! See what a big man you are now!”
Brian was snapping orders. “Do not leave your house. Hang up and call 911, then call me right back.”
Mom appeared in my doorway at the same time. “What on earth is going on?”
“Don’t, Mom.” I tried to push her out to the hallway, away from the windows.
“I know you’re home!” Hal shouted. “Come face me or I’ll shoot through the walls!”
“What is he doing?!” Mom asked, and Brian kept repeating for me to call 911 from the phone I had pressed to my ear, and Uncle Hal was yelling over both of them, making it impossible to think, but I knew I had to keep her safe.
I grabbed the katana from my dresser.
“Bradley, NO!” said Mom. “You’re not going out there!”
“If you set one foot outside that house, little boy–”
“Bradley, don’t leave me!”
“I knew you’d be a fucking coward! I’m coming in!”
His shadow charged towards the back porch steps. There was a crash, and a gunshot, and then silence.
Brian said my name. No. Screamed it. I just couldn’t hear that well over the pulse pounding in my ears. I answered robotically. “I’m okay. I’m okay.” Then I took stock of my body. No pain. I searched Mom over from head to foot. Pale skin. Wide blue eyes. No bright red stains of blood. “We’re okay.”
“What happened?” Brian asked. He sounded no less frantic.
“I don’t know,” I said. A gunshot. “I think Uncle Hal fell?” There wasn’t any sound coming from outside.
“Call 911,” said Brian again. “Your mom’s there? Have her call from her phone.”
He shot at us. Did he? Did he mean to?
“Bradley! Snap out of it. You need to keep your mother safe. Call 911.”
I jolted. He was right. When I shook Mom’s arm, she tore her gaze off the window and blinked at me. “Mom, call 911. I’ll go see if he’s okay.”
“You will not,” said Brian.
“If he shot himself, I’m not leaving him to die alone on the back steps. That wouldn’t be honorable.” I was already moving down the hall. “I have a katana.”
“Oh, I forgot you’re a samurai,” he said, at his most monotone.
Mom followed me into the kitchen. “Be careful!”
“I’m going to be careful,” I told both of them. “I promise.”
She darted to the counter to unplug her phone from its charger and then returned to the hallway. I unlocked the back door.
Uncle Hal was face-down on the stairs. His shotgun lay on the porch, pointing across the field. He wasn’t moving. I stepped outside and nudged the gun farther away from him with my toe. “I don’t think he shot himself,” I whispered to Brian.
“Good, then he’s not going to die. Get back in the house.”
I wasn’t so sure. He didn’t seem to be breathing, either. Unless it was a trick.
The katana’s edge was dull, but the tip had a point. I dug it into Uncle Hal’s jugular as I stood well out of reach. Hard enough to scratch. He still didn’t move or make a sound. Slowly, I inched closer, keeping the pressure on until I could crouch beside him and check for a pulse. It was there. I heard his shallow breaths now, too.
“He must have knocked himself out,” I murmured. “I think the gun went off when he fell.” Maybe.
Perhaps I should have stayed with him until the paramedics and the police arrived. But I didn’t want to be near if he woke up. I brought the gun inside and sat with Mom to wait for sirens.
She asked who I had on the phone. I told her my friend, Brian, and then both of them wanted to speak to each other. I only heard Mom’s side of it. It sounded like Brian was making sure she was okay (warming my soul).
The paramedics took a stretcher out back. I don’t know how they managed to lift Uncle Hal onto it. I was with Mom, giving my statement to the officer.
She explained that Hal threatened to hit her earlier, and that I defended her. She didn’t mention we’d been fighting before. I saw the officer looking at my cut lip, though. I opened my mouth, and one of the paramedics came in.
“He was more too-drunk-to-get-up than unconscious,” he said. “He’ll be alright with an ice pack and a night to dry out. Busted his face pretty good, too.”
Over my words, the officer said, “Well, he’ll look pretty in his mugshot in the paper and on Facebook tomorrow, won’t he?” He stood. “I have all the information I need.”
The paramedic went out again. As the officer started to follow him, I tried to confess once more. “You should know–”
“I said I have all the information I need, son.” He stared at me until I put my hands in my pockets. Then he handed part of the form he’d been filling out to Mom. “He’ll be in jail over the weekend, until the judge gets back to decide his bail. Take this to the county courthouse on Monday and they’ll provide you with your a temporary restraining order. My number is on it here. If it’s an emergency, call 911, but if you require further assistance, feel free to call me as well, Mrs. Platt.”
“I will,” she said. “Thank you.”
She and I stayed up late. Watching Christmas movies in the living room, praying, and not talking much.
“So you think you don’t have to tell me when you get shot at because I’m not your Top?” Justine demanded. “I cannot believe you two!”
“I was already on the phone with Brian when the gun went off! And he didn’t shoot at us. I don’t think.”
“Jus, Bradley had enough to deal with last night,” Brian added. “We agreed that I would tell you.”
Mom’s car pulled into the driveway. She’d gone to get a newspaper so we could search through the classifieds. I’d hoped this call would be over before she got back. What if she asked who I was talking to this time? Brian twice in two days would look suspicious, and a three-way call with a girl? Getting up, I shut my bedroom door.
“I understand he had a lot to deal with, but I should’ve heard it from both of you! I care about him as much you do, you know.”
“Of course I know that,” snapped Brian.
Footsteps fell on the front porch. “Guys, I have to go. My mom’s home. I’m supposed to help her look for another place to live.”
Justine sighed. “Alright, but if you’re ever in a life-threatening situation again, I want to hear your voice telling me you’re okay. Brian reported it like it was a damn mission.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll tell you next time. I promise.”
Mom walked down the hallway.
“I have to go.” I hung up in the middle of Justine’s goodbye. My door knob turned.
“Bradley, I think I should make those calls to the banks first and see just how much I can afford.”
“Y-yeah, good idea,” I said.
She frowned. “Are you alright, darling?”
I nodded and wiped off my sweaty hands. “Yes, I’m fine. Let’s make the calls.”
We did. Then I held her while she cried from the betrayal. Her debt had been paid in full for three years.
“He wasn’t a nice man at all, was he?” she asked.
I swallowed and didn’t answer.
“I thought… Nevermind. It’s time for me to stand on my own, for once in my life.”
“You’re not on your own,” I said. “I’m here.”
The church fell silent as we came in. Service hadn’t begun yet. People milled around in the aisle chatting, usually. Now all their eyes landed on us, and my shoulders came up. We walked towards our pew. Bodies moved aside to let us pass. When we sat, though, the murmurs started again.
Some didn’t bother to keep quiet.
“Who are we going to believe? The long-time upstanding member of our congregation and community, or the woman who was too far gone in battling her own demons to take care of her child?”
“Exactly. One unfortunate accident doesn’t mean we should turn our back on him.”
“Abuse going on for years and no one noticed? She probably hallucinated it, poor thing.”
My fingernails bit into my palms. Mom’s smile was pasted to her face. “I’ll talk to them,” I said.
She caught my arm as I stood. “Don’t, darling. What they think doesn’t matter. God knows the truth.”
Pastor Mike appeared beside me. He looked solemn. “Sharon, we’re glad you came.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t miss your Thanksgiving sermon,” she said.
“Today’s sermon is about giving thanks, yes, but it’s also about honesty and forgiveness.” His eyebrow went up. “I chose it with you in mind.”
I wanted to hit him.
“Thank you,” said Mom, between her teeth. “Oh, I think I forgot to get a prayer list from the vestibule. Bradley, you should get one as well.”
I went ahead of her back down the aisle. Shielding her from their stares. Near the door, Jenny Bergin stepped in front of me. She looked on the edge of tears. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I overheard you talking at the restaurant, and I… I only told my mom, I swear!”
“It’s alright,” I said. “I wanted people to know.”
She leaned closer. “Me too, but I didn’t think they’d react this way. Mrs. Platt, I’m so sorry. I believed you.”
“Don’t worry,” said Mom. “The Lord will see to it that the truth is known.”
Jenny nodded, and with one last apology, went to sit with her parents.
Mom pulled me into the vestibule. “Until the Lord does, I think we should take this as a sign that He would like us to worship at that church on Front Street. What was it called?”
“Trinity,” I said, blinking.
“What’s their pastor’s name?”
“The Reverend Martha Donaldson.”
She stopped on the threshold and looked around in astonishment. “A woman?”
“Well!” A real smile came over her face. “I think I like it already.”
Snow started to fall during the service. We emerged into a pure, glistening world. Even the gas station where the bus stopped looked pretty, with Christmas lights up in the windows. The sky overhead was clear and blue as Mom’s eyes. She watched me take my backpack from the trunk, then came around the car and pulled a hat down over my ears.
“It’ll be too warm for it on the bus,” I said.
“Let me pretend you’re my little boy still,” she said. “It won’t hurt you.”
I sighed and tolerated her fussing.
“There.” She touched my cheek before stepping back.
“You’ll be okay?” I asked.
“Of course! I have those appointments to see places to live tomorrow, and lunch on Tuesday with that lovely woman we met at the new church. I’m going to be so busy. I really think this has been a blessing in disguise. Now I have a true clean slate.”
I smiled. “Call me when you check into the hotel tonight.”
I leaned down and kissed her cheek. The bus pulled in, but I didn’t want to get on. Odd how I felt the same way about leaving as I had coming home. Except that now I knew I wasn’t the boy who’d grown up here anymore.
Brian and I nearly collided in a passageway along the path between our rooms.
“Pe– Platt, I was looking for you. With me.” He steered me by the shoulder into a deserted stairwell.
Then he swatted me. It echoed as much as it stung.
I swallowed my yelp and tried not to rub. “I had to go outside to check he was alright, sir,” I said, stiffly.
“That was for attacking him earlier in the day,” he said. “This is for what happened that night.”
Before I could think of making a move to protect my butt, he yanked me forward and folded me into his arms. My nose tingled sharply. I pressed it into his shoulder and clung to him. “He was… Uncle Hal really w–wanted to kill me, didn’t he?”
“Shh, it doesn’t matter,” Brian said. “He didn’t succeed, whatever he wanted to do.” He held me a minute longer, just rubbing my back. Then I heard him take a breath to speak. “All that matters is that I love you.”
I gasped. Like a girl.
“Yes.” He drew away and let me see his eyes, warm and dark. “I wanted to tell you on Thanksgiving, once I knew you were okay, but I didn’t think the first time I said it should be over the phone.”
Around the lump in my throat, I said, “I love you, too.”
He smiled, one of his real, rare smiles, and it was almost hard to bear witness to so much glory.
“We have to call Justine,” I said. “I want to say it to her now. Do you think she’ll…?”
“Say it back?” he asked. “Yes. She may even forgive you for hanging up on us so abruptly Friday.”
I bit my lip. “She was mad?”
“She’ll get over it,” he said. “Come on. We’ll call her and then I’ll beat you at pool.”
I turned to the door and smirked back at him. “Not if I beat you.”
Then again, maybe I’d let him win…
No. Being in love was one thing. Pool was another.