We Will Remember Them: Book One

Chapter Eighteen

I know Dr. Arya and Dr. Foster thought this would be a cathartic experience for me, writing about what has led me to this point in my life. I think, to some extent, they were right but I realize as I get closer to February 2012 that it's harder and harder to write. I'm not sure if it's because I have so little distance on what happened or if it's because I dread re-living it. I don't think it's the latter, since I think about it, still, every day. There's very little that I encounter that doesn't, in some way, remind me of Toby. Though, it's gotten easier with each passing day. I'm almost sure, at this point, it's the former, I haven't fully processed what happened. The Docs will tell me that part of getting through it is to write about it, and I freely admit that when they told me that I was in a really dark place and I was seriously thinking about giving up. It's the only time in my life I've ever thought about that and it gives me chills today. The idea that it's all going to be overcome in some sort of cathartic act of writing just seems ridiculous. However, I trust Arya, and Foster has been really good with some of the PTSD stuff I've had to deal with, so I'm pressing on as best I can.

Back in 2011, the Wednesday morning following Thanksgiving was unusual. My father got me up earlier than normal so we could talk about being responsible with money. Well, we could have talked about that, but what we did instead was talk about what a spendthrift I was. He'd looked at the statement on the card he'd given me early that morning and saw that I'd spent $700 during the month. It wasn't a terribly pleasant conversation. At the time, I didn't know he was dealing with being 'nickel and dimed' on a deal and had just decided to vent on me a little. I think if I had, I would have taken it better but at that point, I thought it was crazy. The trust was clearing me $2000 a month and I was using it to pay the card. I knew my expenditures had been higher than normal, but putting gas in a damn Escalade (half the time to run errands for him) wasn't cheap and I'd needed some new clothes since I'd filled out more, and weighed almost 20 pounds more than I had the previous year. I hadn't even bought really expensive clothes, I'd just picked up some things I knew would hold up. None of that mattered to him at the moment.

After he dismissed me, I went back upstairs to get ready for school and sent an email to the trustee that I needed a debit card immediately. I thought that the sooner I had my father out of my finances, the better.

By the time I came back downstairs, my father had calmed down and was asking questions about how much I was spending on gas doing things for him. I just laughed and said it was close to half of the gas charges. He FINALLY apologized, but of course, had to tell me it was all out of concern for me and his desire to help me understand how to manage money and live within my means. I reminded him the trust was paying out $2000 a month and he finally said he might have overreacted a bit. In my head, I can remember hearing a voice loudly shouting, 'YOU THINK?' but I decided not to let that voice come out of my mouth. I also didn't mention that Cat could spend $700 in an afternoon while I paid for my own clothes and didn't ask for anything from him, but that would have been pointless since 'girls are different'. The fact that he could think that AND like my boyfriend was,  I'll admit, pretty impressive. Much as my father really tried to embrace new things, he clung to some traditional views like grim death.

That morning his mind was also on the weekend since he was taking Toby duck hunting and asked, once again, if I'd like to go. And I told him, once again, no. I hadn't really hunted with my dad since 7th grade. I'd been going because I got to hang out with Willy, but when it was time to shoot I'd miss. One afternoon when I was in 8th grade, we were at the ranch shooting skeet and I was doing pretty well. After about an hour we stopped and he asked me the question.

"You don't like killing ducks, do you?"

I looked at him, kind of shocked he figured it out. "How...?" was all I could manage.

He smiled, "Well, you're actually a good shot and yet when we go out, you never seem to kill anything. You don't like shooting them, do you?"

I was honest, "No sir, I don't."

He smiled, "Well, what if you had to in order to eat?"

"Well, then I'd kill some ducks. But I don't."

That was pretty much the end of the conversation. After that, I'd occasionally go hunting with my father but I rarely shot my gun. Killing things for sport just never sat well with me. Wasting ammo sat even less well with my father.

Meanwhile, since Toby was going hunting with him, he was dying to get me to go along and I finally said, "I'm not going to do it. You and Toby like it, y'all go have a good time. Willy's dad will love him and Willy already does. If y'all kill anything, clean the ducks and I'll make a cassoulet."

That got him to perk up. My father didn't really like eating duck unless it was mother's cassoulet. It was a pain in the ass to make, but I figured it would get him off my ass.

"You know how to make your mother's cassoulet?"

"Yes, sir. It's not hard, it just takes time. I can do the prep work while y'all are out and then get it ready for dinner. What would you think about having Toby's family over for dinner Saturday night?"

He thought for a second, clearly realizing he'd fallen into a trap. There was no way around it. He'd met Toby's parents once at a football game and that was it. Having a meal together would be...interesting.

"I'd be OK with that. Puts some pressure on us if we don't kill anything, though."

I laughed, "Well, then you better get me at least two or it's going to be sausage and chicken cassoulet." That caused him to make a face since my father loved a chicken that wasn't deep fried about as much as a vegan would like a rare steak.

I was still wound up from the argument with my father when I got in the car, but by the time I got to school, I was pretty calm. Since we were coming up on Christmas, all kinds of bullshit was being planned. There was my Christmas dance that Friday, and then there was Toby's the next week. Neither of us was thrilled with having to do two school events, but we figured we could endure it for a while before ducking out. And then there were parties, not to mention planning the actual holiday and spending time with three different families.

I ran into Jack walking in and he looked like he'd been waiting for me.

"What's up? You're sitting there like you want to talk about something." I told him as I walked over to the bench he was using.

He smiled up at me, "Actually, I did need to ask you a favor."

I laughed, "Oh, I can't wait to hear this! Need me to vouch for you with some innocent young man so he doesn't figure out your true intentions?"

"Son, I'm never going to need your help getting someone to do whatever I want." He told me with a cocky smile, clearly confident in his seductive abilities. "I actually need a ride this afternoon over to a shop where I'm having my truck worked on."

"Dude, you could have asked me about that in English. Is that seriously it?"

He stood up and shuffled around a bit, "Well, no, there's something else. I need your help to get something for my mother."

"Like for Christmas?" He nodded.

"Of course, Jack. You know I'll help you any way I can! What are you thinking about?"

"That's just it. I'm doing something big for her, but I don't want it to be just that. I want to get her some things that she'll want but wouldn't buy for herself because money's been so tight. You know, girl stuff, and I don't have a clue what to do."

His nervousness was really cute, "Of course, man. We'll figure it out this afternoon."

I knew what Jack was doing to help out his mother, but this was a different side of him I'd never seen. He was uncertain and it was really, I don't know, endearing. I was determined to help him be a hero for his mom, even more so than I'm sure he already was.

The morning went kind of slowly. I kept expecting a text from Toby to let me know he was done with his police interview. Before Thanksgiving, Jack had given his statement and the Ambroses and Toby were scheduled for that week. He'd thought he'd be done by noon and as we got closer and closer to it, the watch I kept on my phone got more obnoxious to the point that our speech teacher, Mr. Rosen, had to threaten to take it from me.

Finally, halfway through lunch, I got the text that he was done and that he'd fill me in that night. I didn't expect much to come of it, to be honest. I knew the mechanics, they had to interview witnesses to flesh out the case. Toby had been really sensitive with me about it, willing to discuss it in a barebones way without really delving into it. I knew why and I appreciated him being thoughtful. I also knew that his sense of justice demanded Wade pay for what he did and I knew he was going to cooperate with law enforcement no matter what, not that I would have asked him to give it up anyway. It all hit a little too close to home and while I wasn't having the really bad dreams anymore, I did still have some about that night. The theme to those was the 'One Million Ways Things Could Have Gone Badly'. I'd told Toby about it at one point and from there on out, there was very little detail in his stories about Wade.

The rest of the afternoon went well and the gym was a real treat. My bodyweight was up to 177lbs and I'd only lost a little definition. I was excited as hell because all the leg work I'd done had helped with my jumping and upped my speed. I'd started practicing with some of the other sophomores, hoping that some of us would make varsity. I knew just from the two weeks we'd been doing that I had a pretty decent shot at getting onto the team. Most of the guys played well, but Carter was the only one who seemed to have his heart in it, who really seemed to want varsity. The rest of them were kind of, to borrow a phrase from my father, 'phoning it in'.

As I walked out I found Jack waiting for me, ready to roll. We got in the truck and I forgot I'd been listening to something way too loud that morning and quickly turned the volume down.

"Damn? Good ride to school?" he asked with a grin.

 I laughed, "Nah, my father and I got into it this morning and I got in my head. So, I dug up this and listened to it on the way."

"It sounds like trance, but I don't think I've ever heard it before."

That caused me to do a double take. I took Jack for someone who listened to prog rock or something similarly meatheadish.

"Wait, you like trance?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"It's just not the kind of music I would think a cage fighter would enjoy," I said with a grin.

"Well, I'm full of surprises. Seriously, who is this?"

"It's Mat Zo..."

"No, it's not."

"Yeah, it is, it's just older. Amazon may have it. I know Beatport does. Or, I could just burn you a copy."

"What's the name of the song?"

"Fractal Universe."

"Can you replay it?" he said.

I sighed, "Yeah, but there's a part about 3 minutes in that always makes me tear up..."

"Wait, you had an argument with your father so you listened to something that makes you sad?"

"No, I listened to something that's beautiful and makes me feel better. The tears aren't because I'm sad, it's because the music touches me." I paused to hit back and then play, "It's one of those weird GAD things." Honestly, I didn't know that to be true. Dr. Arya had been pretty clear that being emotionally affected by music was really common, it's just that it went to an extreme for me. While others might feel wistful or be moved, I would break down and cry. It was that part I was sure the GAD created.

It wasn't a long drive, but with traffic, it took about 10 minutes. When that part of the song came on, I noticed him looking over at me with a smile and I silently said fuck it and let go. While I wasn't entirely comfortable with Jack seeing me like this, I realized he knew how I was wired and I could trust him. I smiled and looked over at him, tears running down my cheeks and said, "What?"

"It's just... you're really beautiful."

I smiled, rolling my eyes, and said overenthusiastically, "Thank you."

"No, I mean it. I see YOU when you're like this and it's really something. I hate to bring this up, but when Toby talks about you sometimes it can get to be a little much. But, when I see you like this, open and raw, I suddenly remember the conversation and it makes sense. The two of you aren't a couple, you're a matched set and it's amazing."

Well, at least we didn't have pet names for each other. Yet.

"Are we obnoxious? Do we get irritating?" I asked.

He laughed, "Not at all. I really like spending time with the two of you together. And, as lucky as I think Toby is, I'm not jealous of him or of you. You're just both really good together and it makes me happy knowing that's possible."

I started to stammer as I tried to reply which just made him laugh. "Look, I'm still me. But yeah, I absolutely want what the two of you have. I'd be a fool not to after seeing it."

"Ok, so tell me what you want to do for your mom?" I asked.

Jack smiled crookedly, "You really hate it when I talk about you and Toby, don't you?"

"I don't hate it, it just makes me uncomfortable. I really appreciate when someone compliments us, but I'm bad with them because I always feel so ridiculous, like 'Oh, yeah, you're totally right... I am completely badass'." I said, doing an imaginary hair flip for effect.

Jack laughed again, but it was different. I think it was more genuine, "I understand what you're saying. Think of it this way, people say things like what I just did to you because it's how they feel, it's got nothing to do with you really, it's for them."

"I hadn't thought of it that way," I responded.

"Well, start and see if that helps. In answer to your question, I'm paying off her car and the home equity line on the house which will really help her. I have some money left after that to buy stuff just for her."

"WOW! How much will be left?" I asked.

"About $5,000." he replied.

"Shit! I had no idea you were making that much from..."

"Fighting? It's not just the fight, it's the cover and the concessions. They all pay me a cut."

"Damn! OK, when you get your truck, let's head down to NorthPark and meet up in front of Neiman's Boedeker entrance. I have an idea."

By the time we got to Neiman's it was well after 6:30 and I met him at the front door. We walked in and I found the closest CSR.

"Ma'am, would you please page Johnnie Davis and tell her that Rob Hallstrom would like to see her if she has time?"

She smiled tightly, irritated, I guess, at a loss in commission. "Absolutely." She walked quickly over to a desk and picked up a phone. Five minutes later a very well dressed woman walked up with a big smile on her face. She spread her arms as she approached and gave me a big hug.

"How are you, Mr. Rob?"

"I'm good Mrs. Davis! You look amazing!" I told her.

She laughed, "Goes with the territory. Now, what can I help you with? Something for your mother?"

"No ma'am, this is my friend Jack Reynolds and he needs to pick up some things for his mother. He's got about $5000 so I was thinking about $1000 on some things she'd like then the rest on a gift card so she can come down and work with you on some clothes."

She held out her hand to Jack, "Mr. Reynolds, it's very nice to meet you. I'm Johnnie Davis and I've been a personal shopper here at Neiman's for more than 30 years. Now," she said, grabbing his arm to walk him further into the store, "why don't we start at fragrances?"

Jack just stuttered, completely out of his element, "Yes ma'am, that sounds good."

As I walked behind them, I texted my father to let him know I'd be late, then Toby to tell him I was out shopping with Jack and that I'd call him later.

Johnnie made quick work of Jack, asking leading questions about what his mother liked and didn't like, how she pampered herself, all the things that would help her give him some options she'd love. Mrs. Davis had been helping my family for years and I trusted her completely. Slowly, I could see Jack did as well. This would definitely be one Christmas his mother would remember for a long time. I told him, as we were leaving, how much she would enjoy shopping with Johnnie. She was always truthful and she had fabulous taste.

When we were done, I took off for home and arrived to find something to actually eat, an unexpected surprise since my dad and Cat usually demolished whatever and leave me with, on more than one occasion, a dinner roll.

While I ate, I talked to my dad about Saturday and made out a list for Mrs. Witsun for the cassoulet, then went up to my room to call Toby who answered on the first ring.

I laughed as he said, "How'd it go with Jack?"

"Really well. The lady at Neiman's who's been helping my mother for years got him sorted out. Honestly, it's amazing what he's doing for his mother."

He sighed, "She's been through a lot and Jack loves her."

"That was obvious. He kind of teared up about some perfume. When Mrs. Davis, the lady who was helping us, went to wrap it up, he told me it was her favorite and she hadn't been able to buy it since his father died."

"That's sweet, babe. Thank you for helping him."

"Well, of course! How'd the thing with the police go?" I asked.

He grunted, "It went OK. There really wasn't much to it. They wanted me to walk back over what happened and then sign a statement. My father was pissed because it took so long, but I guess it went as well as we could expect. The officer who was with us couldn't say much but he indicated that it would be going to the grand jury."

"Which means?"

"I asked my dad and he just said if the grand jury indicts Wade, he'll go to trial. Then I'll probably be called to testify."

"Oh, man..."

"Yeah, but I'm OK with it. The guy's unhinged."

"That's for damn sure. So are you parents excited about Saturday?"

He laughed, "Actually, there was something I needed to talk to you about this weekend... my mom wants to have lunch with you on Saturday."


"I don't think there's a specific reason, she just mentioned that it would be nice to spend some time with you."

My anxiety ratcheted up. It wasn't that his mom scared me, it was that we'd never spent any time together one on one. "Well, it's got to be quick because dinner is going to take time to prepare."

Toby laughed, "Having cooked for a family now for almost 17 years, she kinda understands that. She was thinking about meeting you around 11. I told her that would be good."

"Oh, you did? I don't get a say in it?" I asked, laughing.

He sighed, "Babe, it's my mother and she just wants a closer relationship with her future son in law."

For weeks he'd been making cracks about getting married. The first few times I thought he was joking until he grabbed me one evening the week before Thanksgiving, looked directly in my eyes with this intensity I'd never really seen, and said, "I'm serious. I love you and if you're willing I want to build a life with you." I just nodded my head, too nervous to say anything which might take away from the feeling of hope his words gave me. After that, I took him seriously. I never chastised myself for 'just going along' with what he wanted, it was absolutely what I wanted as well. I was just too chickenshit to admit it and felt perfectly comfortable letting him take the lead. I even got used to him introducing me as his 'future fiance' on occasion. I won't lie, I liked it despite thinking it was sort of obnoxious.

"OK... well, rather than meeting there, why doesn't she just pick me up and I'll ride with her?"

"Seriously? You're OK with that?"

"Oh, yeah. Seems stupid to take two cars when we're both going the same place."

We talked a little more, mostly about Friday night. We knew we couldn't stay late since Toby had to be up really early to drive to Ouichita with my dad.

Thursday was interesting. Ethan had taken it upon himself to plan a big dinner prior to the dance for a select few at a restaurant he liked, some steakhouse off the Tollway that my father said 'wasn't bad' which was just the ringing endorsement I'd wanted to hear. Picking and choosing who was in was an absolute motherfucker since no matter what, we were going to piss someone off. What pissed me off about it was that I was getting pulled into the lobbying effort, as if Ethan was listening to me. He wasn't, but that didn't seem to matter. The narrow-eyed looks I got from girls that afternoon and the next day let me know, but quick, people were angry.

That Thursday afternoon when I got home from school I started the prep work for the cassoulet, mostly just chopping things up so I'd save time on Saturday. I remember wondering, a number of times, how the hell my mother did this while I was getting everything ready. She always made it look so effortless. I started thinking about what life would be like if Toby and I got married and I briefly had this comical little daydream about us together, like a 1950s sitcom, with him coming home to find me in the kitchen, wearing an apron naturally, getting dinner ready to put on the table while handing him a perfectly made cocktail. Then we spent time eating a very relaxing meal while occasionally yelling at our 2.5 children to get the hell off their tablets and phones.

It was a lovely little fantasy that I was jolted out of by my sister.

"Are you seriously making mom's cassoulet?" she asked.

I just turned to her and gestured at all the crap out on the countertop.

"The hell does this look like to you?" I asked.

"A mess." She got up, a big smile on her face and walked over, to me. "And it's gonna suck sooooo bad!" She then walked off, laughter trailing behind her.

By 6:30 I was done and had everything ready to go, neatly put up in the fridge. All that was left was to soak the beans, cook the meat, and then put it all together with the ducks. Mrs. Witsun, being absolutely brilliant, had picked up some duck fat at the grocery store thinking that wild ducks probably wouldn't have enough.

After dinner, Toby came over and we worked on a project I had for Algebra 2 and then watched a movie. Cuddled up with him, just sitting on the sofa watching a movie or something dumb on TV, was one of my favorite things to do. I needed my downtime and thankfully Toby never seemed to mind.

The next day I was a little off when I got up, but my father was in such a good mood it kind of set me back on track. It was probably the first time that ever happened, but it made me feel like a normal person since people normally effected one another. It was just something that usually didn't work with me.

That evening, I rushed home to get ready and put the beans in pots to soak overnight. Toby picked me up at about 6 and we went to meet everyone for dinner. The group ended up being almost 20, so it was a real nightmare for the wait staff and me. Well, it ordinarily wouldn't have been for me except that instead of being seated next to Carter, his new girlfriend sat down next to me. They'd met before Thanksgiving and at first, I liked her. Then she said something nasty about Ileana and from then on I just thought she was trash. She rambled on throughout the evening about bullshit piled on top of bullshit like how much she hated school, how much she loved her new Michael Kors bag (which was baby shit brown, no joke), how insufferable poor people were (the reference there was based on people using LoneStar cards at HER grocery store), her grandmother who wasn't dying quickly enough... she was a real treat and I couldn't figure out for the life of me why she fixated on me or would choose to tell me all these horrible things.

Toby, for his part, just laughed every time she said something knowing how much it was killing me not to say something. I even thought for a moment about stabbing him with a fork but then decided not to since I had other plans for him that night. I found out later Carter had told her that he really looked to me and Ethan for advice and since she didn't like Ileana, I was the natural conduit through which she could tell Carter things indirectly. I, of course, used my influence to persuade him to run away from her.

The dance itself, when we finally got there, was fun even though we only stayed for an hour. We got back to my house and took a long shower during which we made love. Both of us needed the tension release and knew we didn't have time for much else. It started off slowly, with us under the spray, him behind me sucking on my neck, rubbing his hard dick in the crack of my ass, causing me to moan when he got close to my hole. Finally, he grabbed my hips and started pressing in, slowly, while nibbling my ear and my neck. I felt boneless and I'm pretty sure when I came, the only reason I didn't fall was that he was still inside me and his hands were holding me up.

We fell asleep about 11:30 and I barely moved when his alarm went off and he got up to get ready. I did get a really sweet kiss, then briefly opened my eyes to see him open the door and walk out to meet my father, who was standing in the hallway looking excited as he always did at the prospect of killing something.

I, on the other hand, slept until 8, then made myself breakfast and got ready for Linda to pick me up. About 10:30 I got a call from my father that they were bringing back four ducks, more than enough for what I had planned. I told them to clean and quarter them which caused my father to snap back with 'YES SIR'.

Thirty minutes later I was putting butter into dishes to have on the table and putting out place settings when Linda called from the gate. I let her in, then walked to the front door. I showed her what I'd been up to and she thought it was going to be really nice. I laughed and said it would have been better if my mother was cooking and she just laughed and said David, Toby's father, still made cracks about her cooking versus his mothers even though she KNEW she was the better cook.

"Honestly, you could serve us Burger King and Toby would be happy."

I laughed, "True, but it's not Toby I'm trying to impress...."

"Well, you don't need to worry about David and me, we're already pretty partial to Toby's judgment. Come on, let's go eat."

We ended up at a Tex Mex place I liked since I could pretty much eat enchiladas and tacos for every meal. As I got out of the car, I was determined not to let this be awkward. I don't know why, but it suddenly hit me that this woman, whom I already liked a great deal, would hopefully be family and I needed to think of her that way, not as my boyfriend's mom.

We sat down and ordered something to drink, then I tore into the chips.

"So, how have you been?" she asked. It had been more than a week since I'd been over for dinner, so we hadn't caught up.

"Good. I'm going to get an A in Algebra 2..."

"That's fantastic!"

I smiled and could feel the heat on my cheeks, "Well, it's due in large part to Toby's help."

"See, he's good for more than just going to parties and having dinner!"

I laughed, "Yeah, I think I'll keep him around." I ate another chip, "Any reason why you wanted to have lunch today?"

"Honestly, I just wanted to spend time with you," she said.

Linda's admission caught me off guard. It wasn't that it was a shift for her, she'd always been friendly and Toby had told me several times how much his parents liked me, despite my obvious shortcomings and awkwardness. No, what got to me was how she told me and the tone she used, the emotion clear in her voice as it broke and wavered just a tiny bit.

"Really?" I asked her.

Her eyes kind of sparkled as she looked back at me, "Well, yeah. I wanted to spend some time with the person who is making my son a man. He's changed dramatically in the last few months, and it's all because of you."

I just glanced at her, "Oh, it's not all me..."

She gave me a look, forcing me to stop, "Don't do that. Don't even for a second think that you haven't forced him to change. What he's going through is something that some men never go through. It's realizing who they are and what truly matters, having someone who cares about you and who you care about. He found that in you, and I couldn't be happier for him." That got me.

"But you make it sound like I did all this myself like it wasn't already present in Toby, but it was. That's all I meant when I said it wasn't all me."

She laughed, which drew some looks from the people who were around us. "Don't take it that way, Rob. Yeah, you brought out what was already there. Does that make you feel better?"

I smiled sheepishly at her, "Yes ma'am, at least not as embarrassed," I paused, taking a drink from my water, "But I hope you know how much he's changed me."

She smiled, leaning back in her chair, "Toby's told me a little about a bad relationship earlier this year, but he didn't elaborate too much."

I swallowed hard, thinking about what that meant. Toby was really open with his parents, much as I was with mine. For him not to have shared all the gory details, in my mind, meant he was being protective. There was a limit to how much he'd share out of school.

"Well, bad is putting it pretty mildly. There were some things I didn't tell him about initially because I was pretty sure he would want to take it out on the guy. When I did tell him about them, he tried to hold it together by putting some distance between us."

It was like a light went off in her head, "Was this in mid-September?"

"Yes ma'am, not long after my birthday."

"He was really down for a few days, then started to get better. He wouldn't talk to David or me about it, just said it was something he had to push through. We thought it was a simple fight, that he'd done something to get under your skin and you'd had enough."

I sighed, "No ma'am, that wasn't it at all. I..." and right then the waiter came to the table. We gave him our orders then sat in silence as he walked away, but only briefly.

"What happened?" she asked, the empathy in her voice so obvious that I really found it touching.

"Last summer I did something really stupid with my boyfriend at the time. I didn't realize it because I trusted him, but I put my life in danger in a very real way."

Linda's eyes went wide as what I said sunk in. She started to ask, "Are you..."

"OK? Yes ma'am, 100%. But it was a scare and made me really nervous about trusting anyone. I got out of my head on that a little when I was at my stepfather's place in California, but it was Toby who pulled me the rest of the way through. Your son..." I started to tear up, "means everything to me."

Linda's eyes were watering as well, "Oh, Rob...I really appreciate you telling me what happened. Sometimes... well, he's never really been private with us and I guess..."

"I'm almost certain he was trying to protect me, that it had nothing to do with y'all, but was about making sure he didn't tell you something I was really uncomfortable talking about."

"Well, it's natural. It's something David and I should have figured out on our own, given the way we are with our parents. There just comes a time when you find someone and you don't want to betray them, no matter how small a thing it might be."

I nodded. "I'm sorry I wasn't more forthcoming about it, it was a really bad time that I honestly hate even thinking about, let alone talking about."

Her eyes glistened, "I completely understand, kiddo. No need to apologize."

We talked about plans for Christmas and I was excited to meet her parents, who would be at their house, despite her warning.

"You have to remember, they're from a different time and while they love Toby, him coming out has caused some 'issues' for them. They'll be on their best behavior, but something will slip out and I'm begging you please don't take it personally."

The waiter showed up to drop off the food and after he left, I explained MoMo to her and some of the awkward things she'd said when she met Toby.

"Don't worry about me, I'm prepared. They're not going to chase me off."

By the time Linda dropped me back at the house, my father and Toby had shown up and already had the birds cleaned. Toby left almost immediately, going home to finish up some homework and get ready to come back later with his family. I got started actually cooking and by 2:45 had everything in the oven, ready to pull out around 7 for dinner. I remember standing in the kitchen, just taking a break and thinking about whether I'd left anything undone before I heard my father behind me, clearing his throat.

I turned around to see him smiling, "It's all going to be fine, son."

I smiled back at him, "Thanks, Dad."

He just stood there, looking at me, and I finally asked, "What?"

"You remind me a lot of your mother..."

I laughed, "Come on, Dad. Just because I can cook doesn't make me the woman."

"Not what I meant, I promise. You picked up the best pieces of her; kindness, and a need to make everyone around you comfortable." He walked over to me, and put his hands on my shoulders, looking me in the eye. "Those are exceptional qualities in any person and Toby is lucky."

Yeah, I teared up a bit. "Thank you."

He dropped his hands, smiled, and said, "Well, I guess we better go get cleaned up."

I went upstairs and took a quick shower, then laid down for about 30 minutes. I'll admit, I was nervous. The conversation I'd had with Linda earlier in the day ended up hitting me a lot harder than I'm sure she thought it would. I wasn't certain I was ready for all this, and I ended up chewing on that for a while. It wasn't me being uncertain about how Toby felt, it was whether or not I was ready. I was sure Arya would call it progress since I wasn't thinking about the problem from the perspective of others. For once, I was thinking about myself first and it felt odd.

I wanted a life with Toby. I didn't feel the need to 'explore' anything, but I was nervous about setting a path for my life at the age of 16. I knew when I committed to something, I was going to do it. What most people viewed as indecision was really hesitation and the knowledge that once I took the leap, there wasn't any going back... one way or another, I was going to end up on the ground, either landing easy or coming to a sudden stop, all broken and bloody.

I finally got up, dressed, and came downstairs to check on everything. About 15 minutes later, the Martins called from the gate and I let them in. My father, 'Johnny On The Spot', let them in the door and took them to the family room for drinks.

Toby came into the kitchen and we embraced, something I realized I'd never tire of doing. It was the perfect way to break the feeling I'd had earlier.

"You OK?" he asked, softly, as his face was buried in my neck.

"Yeah," I told him, "I'm all good."

"The come on, let's go join the rest of them."

We walked into the family room to find my father tending bar, talking with David and Linda, while Cat and Reese were keeping Angie entertained. My father and Toby's parents were talking about some jackass congressman who'd been by to visit my father the day before. Linda was relating how bad the guy was on LGBT issues and my father just laughed.

"Yeah, I asked him about that. He was pretty puffed up at first until his staffer mentioned that my son was gay."

"How could he have known that?" I asked.

My father just started laughing, "Son, you've never made any attempt to hide who you are and politicians keep pretty extensive files on donors. They know who the kids are, spouses, you name it."

Linda jumped in, "So what happened then?"

"Well, he tried to gloss over it, basically stumbling around for a few minutes before I dropped the axe on him."

"What did you do?" I asked him.

"I told him I wasn't writing any checks to GOP candidates until they got right on LGBT issues. He started to ramble about how much 'The Party' needed my support and how voters really wanted to maintain the status quo on marriage. That really pissed me off, so I told him those same voters are just like the ones who had issues with miscegenation and that if he felt like he needed their support, then he should ask them for money."

Linda died laughing, "You actually said miscegenation?"

My father, a big smile on his face, "Of course! I wanted to see if the moron knew what it meant."

"Did he pick up on it," David asked.

My father took a long drink, the smile never leaving his face, "Not that I could tell. His staffer was smirking the whole time, though. I got up and walked them to the door and they left. Honestly, it was the most fun I've had with a politician since I interned for Bob Bullock when I was a kid."

Linda coughed on her drink, "Bullock? You have to be kidding me?"

"Nope. Worked for him during the '91 session. He was the only person in my life who could dress me down and make me feel like I was naked. Then, 20 minutes later, he'd compliment me for doing something right and make me feel like a million bucks. He was a workaholic and probably the best boss I ever had because he gave me some good advice."

"What was it," Linda asked.

"'You're not cut out for politics. Go make money' and the way he said money was like he was saying 'dirt'."

Linda howled, "He told me I needed to run for State Representative as soon as possible and that he'd endorse me."

My father laughed, "DAMN, he musta really liked you!"

Toby, shocked, "Wait a second... who is Bob Bullock?"

Linda and my father glanced at each other and shrugged before she answered, "He was the former Lieutenant Governor of Texas."

"You worked for him? How did I not know this?" Toby asked, incredulous.

 "Because all kids think their parents lives started when they were born," Linda laughed out.

I glanced at the clock and decided it was time to pull out the cassoulet and get the baguettes in the oven, so I bowed out while Toby got to learn about his mother's life prior to having him.

15 Minutes later, I came back in and told everyone dinner was ready. Everyone filed in and while the cassoulet wasn't my mothers, it ended up really good. Linda and my father continued to talk politics while David talked to Toby and me about all kinds of things. David is a really interesting person and you can see his face light up, just like Toby's did, when talks about certain things.

By 9 we were all finished up, so I started clearing dishes. We went through all of the first and more than half of the second cassoulet and I put a note on the second one to my father to leave some for Mrs. Witsun who had mentioned that she wanted to try it.

About 9:45 we all said goodbye to the Martins. My father looked at me when the door closed, smiled, then looked at Toby.

"I have to tell you, I really like your parents."

Toby laughed, "I think they liked you, too, Mr. Hallstrom."

"Well, you boys have fun."

We left to hang out with Mark at a party in a pasture near somewhere called Melissa. I was LOVING it since it was, well, a pasture party. Toby hated every second of it, but as usual, he was indulgent and patient.

The next day, I drove Cat down to Ouichita for the day. Mother was really impressed with the cassoulet I'd brought her but recommended a little more salt next time, something I already knew from the way everyone spent their own special time with the salt shakers while eating.

That week I finally broke down and did some Christmas shopping since I was already forced to shop by Toby's insistence on wearing matching ties and pocket squares to his dance. I told him it was a bad idea, but he insisted one night, even going so far as to show me a tie he'd picked out. Toby, to be brutally honest, had some appalling taste and there was no way I was going to wear the ugly damn tie he'd picked out. So, I offered to pick something up and just decided not to say from where since he'd freak out.

Which is how I found myself at Hermes. I'd told my father what I wanted to do, sort of as an end run around yelling at me again for overspending. I'd already decided to pick up some things for my sister, mother, aunt, and grandmother so throwing in two ties really wasn't going to make much of a dent.

There is nothing more uncomfortable for me that shopping in any store at Highland Park Village. Yeah, I was gay and had great taste, but luxury shopping wasn't really my thing. If I could get away with t-shirts and shorts all year round, I'd do it in a heartbeat. That being said, if I was forced to dress up, I sure as hell wasn't going to look like I got my tie from JC Penny. In 1982.

Now, I honestly didn't expect to see anyone I knew at the Hermes store. I thought, maybe, I'd see some friend of my aunt's who might recognize me, but it was really doubtful. The last person I expected to see there was Darnell. I'd been in the store for 20 minutes picking things out when I remembered my mother had told me to get a bag for Cat, something she just had to have. As I made my way over, there was Darnell.

"Darnell?" I asked.

He whipped around in an instant, shocked that someone had recognized him and then relieved when he saw it was me.

"Oh, fuck man! You scared the crap out of me!"

I laughed, "Well, imagine my surprise when I see one of the straightest guys I know checking out handbags!"

"Picking one up. My mother made a comment about wanting one so my father ordered it and sent me to get it."

"Very cool. Any idea what it is?"

He rubbed his head, "Berkshire? I don't know, it's something you had to get on a list for or something?"

I just smiled, "Yeah, you needed to be on a list. When you're done, you want to go grab something at Starbucks?"

He smiled, "Hell yeah!"

It took me another 20 minutes and he waited for me, then we left together after I stowed my bag in the car. He wanted to just walk over,  so I finally told him what he had in that orange bag and his eyes went wide. Right after he deposited his bag in his trunk, we walked over to Starbucks. He was worried about the bag, but I told him I figured if anyone was brave enough to break into our cars during Christmas here, they could enjoy it for the time they'd have it because there was no chance for a quick getaway.

We caught up on friends and just talked in general about how things were going. There was a new girl who'd moved to Ouichita whom he'd started dating. Things were going well, but his parents weren't all that excited about it.

"What's their deal?" I asked.

He sat back, sighing, "It's her family. My parents are snobs. Her dad is an accountant and her mother is a home health care nurse. They're both the first generation through college and neither of them has a masters or a doctorate so my parents think...."

"Their daughter isn't good enough for their son?"

"Ain't that some bullshit?"

After making him promise not to share it with anyone, I told him about my dad and the $100 the first time Toby and I went on an actual date. He laughed his ass off, mostly at my father thinking I'd be the chick.

I just shrugged, "Parents can be weird, but they're just looking out for us. Your parents just want what's best for their son."

He thought for a second, "They don't get that I'm the lucky one. They think I'm going to go the way Wayne did and honestly, I don't think so. She, on the other hand, is smart as hell and for some reason she likes me."

I smiled, "I think we're in the same boat. I have a feeling my father expects me to work with him, but I don't think it's for me. Let them see Christy for what she is and I bet sooner or later they're going to realize that she's really good for you."

"Oh, they're going to see that in a few days. She's been helping me in English and Geometry and my grades are going to really improve."

"Do you ever feel like a dummy being with someone smarter than you?" I asked.

He smiled, "You too?"

"Every fucking day. Especially with math. But I don't feel bad about it, I'm just happy."

He took a long sip of his coffee and smiled, "Yeah, me too."

We hung out for another 15 minutes, then said our goodbyes and hugged. For the record, HE reached out to give me a hug which I thought was really cool. What had started when he met Toby was evidently permanent and I was really happy he felt comfortable enough with me to do that.

The rest of the week was pretty boring, leading up to the start of vacation and Toby's dance. We honestly looked damn good, and Molly and some of the other girls gave Toby compliments on this tie, which he finally told me about only after we were leaving the dance to go to a party.

The break gave Toby and me a chance to really spend time together without having to worry about school or football or, well, anything. We spent a lot of time watching movies we loved, playing games, and in general just being with one another.

Christmas Eve, we spent at my aunt's which was really nice since we did it early in the day, then went to Toby's that night. I got to meet his grandparents from his mother's side who were really great if a little put off by the whole 'gay' thing. His grandfather was a little weird about it and kept asking when Toby turned into 'a gay' while his grandmother just told him to be quiet since she didn't want me to hear. Reese was the one who had to go in while laughing his head off and tell them we could hear everything they were saying.

The next morning, after doing Christmas Day with my father, Cat and I drove to Ouichita to see my mother. We were going to be there until Wednesday, so we could actually relax and pretend, for a little while, we lived there again.

That night my mother had dinner planned for us and we all opened presents after, then settled in for Bad Santa which had become one of our favorite holiday movies, a fact that Neil found really, really strange.

I spent the rest of the time seeing my friends and hanging out. Toby ended up coming down on Monday and stayed with us, so he got to meet some of the people he'd not had a chance to meet up to that point. Plus, he got to hang out with Josh. A lot. The two of them were a lot closer than I'd ever realized and they just liked spending time together. At first, I didn't know how to feel...I mean, Josh was my brother and I wanted to spend time with him. But, it did give me chance to do things with my mother and Lane, who were more than up to the task of keeping me occupied with their games of Scrabble.

After lunch on Wednesday, we drove back to Plano and spent the rest of the second week of vacation much like the first. I was really glad my father didn't take us to New York since it would have added a whole other layer of stress to the travel we already did. I think he thought it would be too much since it was the first Christmas after the custody change, but he never actually addressed it.

New Year's Eve was what I'd been looking forward to. My father had gone to New York to ring in the new year with family and his new girlfriend. That left Cat and me to our own devices and with him being gone, he was once again easy about Toby spending the night.

Bennett was having a big party and Josh and Lane came up for it. The four of us ended up eating dinner together, then going to the party. Josh had become something of a minor celebrity in Plano after the Halloween party at Marks where he got to spend a lot of time drinking beer with his football admirers. I'd told Toby earlier in the evening that I needed that kiss at midnight since I really needed some good luck. He almost missed it, showing up out of breath at 11:58. Right as everyone said 'Happy New Year', he kissed me intensely, not caring who was around or how it might look. I, as I usually did when he kissed me like that, did my best imitation of a deboned chicken. I was really lucky to have someone whose kiss left me like that and who could hold me up when it had the effect he really wanted. The amazing thing about it was that he was never cocky about his ability to leave me breathless, he was just clearly satisfied that he could make me feel (as he put it) as wonderful as I made him feel.

We'd left the party a little after one and made it back to my house in record time, flew upstairs and got down to making one another feel incredible. It was patient, sweet, exciting... it was amazing. One thing I'd noticed was that Toby got better every time we were together. He could read me like I could read him, instant and unspoken communication of desire sent directly to the other in a way that even the brain didn't read, it just went straight to the body. Press here, lick there, rub around that spot. It was like putting on your favorite pair of jeans, the ones that made your ass and package look amazing...comfortable, sexy, and completely satisfying.

We were both so spent after that we didn't clean up, instead, we got comfortable under the covers. I fell into a deep sleep, my head resting on his chest as his right arm curled around me, holding me to his warm body. I don't even remember hearing him say good night, just 'I love you' to which I murmured a response that I'm sure was barely intelligible.

The dream I had that night started beautifully, but quickly took a turn for the worst. We were on a river, rafting downstream when we knocked into a large rock and Toby lost his grip, flipping out of the raft. He managed to grab on and I tried to haul him back in, we hit another rock and I flipped out. I couldn't find my footing and the water was so turbulent that even with the vest I was wearing, I was having problems keeping my head above water. I reached out to grab Toby's hand and brushed against it, just as something hit the helmet I was wearing, knocking it loose.

I started to panic and I knew he could see it as our eyes met, his filled with fear for me, mine filled with desperation. He stretched back as far as he could, finally grabbing my fingers and tightening down painfully. I could see him saying, 'I'm not letting you go', just as I was sucked down and he lost his grip.  I woke up screaming and coughing, thinking I was still drowning, only to feel the bed around me and Toby gripping me tightly trying to calm me down using all the tricks he'd picked up. It took 20 minutes for me to put myself back together, the whole time looking at him, pleadingly, while occasionally saying, 'Please don't let me go'.

It was the first time I saw real fear in Toby's eyes. He wasn't worried about me or my mental state, he was worried about something happening to me. He'd come to accept that while my dreams weren't prophetic, they definitely meant something bad was coming.

And he was determined to do everything he could to stop it.


Thank you for reading, any comments can be sent to Don Cornelius