Authors: Christopher J. Yates
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THE NEXT DAY I'D ARRANGED
to ride up to the Swangums with Tricky, both of us thinking this was the start of a whole summer ahead of us, not totally unlike the summer before, two boys adventuring in the mountainsâalthough obviously on Sundays I was planning to be up there with someone else.
I was too distracted to really enjoy myself, not that Tricky would've noticed, but we stayed in the mountains until late afternoon anyway. I don't remember much of what we did that day, probably played a few of our games, Houdini, perhaps, which Tricky was better at, not only because he'd learned to tie various knots, but also because he was so much smaller than me, making it easier for him to wriggle free.
At some point in the late afternoon, we headed homeward and were coasting down Grist Mill Road, closing in on town, when your green truck drifted by with all the windows wound down. Have fun, boys, I heard you call out.
Tricky and I split up on Main Street, right after the turn by O'Sullivan's Dive Inn, but instead of heading home, I stopped and watched Tricky turn left and disappear from view. Knowing that you were probably home now, I decided to pay you a visit.
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I REMEMBER THINKING THAT YOUR
place on Tall Pines Road looked like the kind of cabin you might find in a fairy-tale forest, the wood stained brick red, your house with green-painted shutters and a green front door. I walked my bike over your trim lawn and left it by the porch steps. I was about to go up to your front door and knock when I saw a light breaking from under a shade that hadn't been pulled all the way down. There was a gap about as wide as a mail slot, and seeing it I had this feeling that I wanted to know what you did all alone in your home, so I knelt by the window and peeked under the shade and there you were, boots kicked off on the rug, lowering a glass of red wine onto a blanket chest placed like a coffee table in front of an armchair. I'd never seen a man with a glass of wine before. You were still wearing your dust-colored Conservancy work shirt.
Your home was only one room, but it wasn't small exactly, more like a kind of large open space. I could see an armchair, a couch, a pine dresser, your kitchenÂ â¦ I couldn't see any kind of bed, but then I noticed a ladder that led to a loft, so presumably it was up there. I imagined it all cozy, one side of your bed hugged
by the pitch of the roof, and then, while I was marveling at everything, you started unbuttoning your shirt. I breathed in sharply, quickly becoming transfixed, every newly unfastened button spiking my excitement higher and higher. When you arched your spine, reaching back to pull the sleeves from your arms, the motion thrust your chest forward. It was a strong chest, not overdone like a bodybuilder's, and lightly forested with dark, wiry hair. You folded the shirt and took it over to the dresser, leaving it on top and taking something out of a drawer. All of your muscles were firm and compact. Then you pulled on a T-shirt, returned to the spot by the armchair, and picked up the wineglass, drinking from it and then tipping back your head before breathing out. Returning the glass to the surface of the blanket chest, you sat down in the armchair and picked up a copy of
from the floor, sinking back into the upholstery as you read, almost disappearing from view.
I stood up awkwardly, feeling breathless and faint. I had to wait almost a minute before I could knock on your door.
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MATTHEW, YOU SAID, WITH NOTHING
but delight in your voice.
I spotted your truck, I said.
Really? you said. And you tracked me down from that one clue alone? So which one of the Hardy boys are you?
Man, that's the worst show on TV, I said. My little brother loves it.
You're supposed to read the books, kid.
I pulled a goofy face, and then said in a dopey voice, But I can't read, sir. Got rocks in my head. Don't know who coulda put them there.
You leaned against the doorjamb and folded your arms. Remind me, you said, how was it I ended up with the freshest kid in town? Am I not keeping you from a more pressing engagement?
Nope, I said.
So you think I'm just going to invite you in?
Yep, I said.
You beckoned me forward. You've got more cheek than a chipmunk, you said as I passed.
Stepping inside your home, the first thing I noticed was the dense, overpowering presence of woodâand by wood I mean
wood. My own home was full of wood as well, only it was all just veneer, most of it curling away from the particleboard underneath. You could have peeled all the wood from our house like the skin from an orange.
When you turned on a lamp, the whole place glowed like a campfire. I noticed a cast-iron stove with split logs piled up below. At the edge of the room there was an old wooden workbench that you'd used for a sideboard, covering it with photos and candlesticks and vases full of cattails and pussy willow. All of the furniture was old and dentedâthere must have been a thousand stories carved into all that timber. The scent inside was heavenly.
What is this place? I said. A goddam museum?
You stepped past me, toward the armchair. I built it myself, you said. What do you think?
Everything feels so old in here, I said.
Appropriate for a sad old man then, you said, lowering yourself stiffly into your armchair for comic effect.
I sat down on the couch. You're not sad, I said.
You laughed. You're not rebutting my use of the word
There's nothing wrong with old, I said. I'm old.
You gave me an odd look.
It's true, I said, I feel a hundred years older than everyone at school. I'm old as hell.
I started to look around at your walls, which were covered in art frames, but when I looked closer, I realized it wasn't art that you'd framed but a whole bunch of religious mottoes, lines from the Bible, all of them rendered in cross-stitch. The one nearest me read,
The Lord is my shepherdâPsalm 23
, and beneath the words stood a sheep embroidered in big boxy stitches like video
game pixels. It looked like the kind of thing you'd blast to smithereens on Tricky's Atari.
There must have been ten or a dozen of those framed verses on your walls. I got up and wandered around the room peering at them.
God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at allâ1 John 1:5
(That one, I seem to remember, was illustrated with a stitched lighthouse.)
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten SonâJohn 3:16
(The picture beneath was of a cross-stitched cross.)
You watched me looking around and said, You've discovered my collection of samplers then.
You collect this crap? I said, standing under the cross.
Not collect, exactly, you said. My grandmother, God bless her soul, she sewed all of these. Mildred Mae, tough old bird, grew up picking blueberries in the Swangums. And when they couldn't make enough money from blueberries, they set fire to the mountainside and got paid to help put out the blaze. The fires were good for the blueberries as well, as it happens.
I went back to the couch and sat down.
Can I get you a drink? you said. I might have some 7UP in the fridge.
I'll take some of that wine you're having, I said.
You shot me a look and said, suspiciously, I don't know, are you sure you're eighteen?
Goddammit, I said, going by age is so stupid. Some kids are older than other kids around the same age, I said. Like with Tricky, right? I feel like I'm about fifty years of age whenever I'm around him.
Tricky, he's the one who likes to sketch the water right, the boy I saw you with cycling down Grist Mill Road just now?
I nodded. That's him, I said.
So Tricky's your little brother right, the one who likes the Hardy boys?
Hell no, I said, Tricky and me are in the same class at school.
You narrowed your eyes. Wait, so you and he areâ¦? You
stopped to take in a sharp breath. My God, you said, how old are you, Matthew?
I'm fourteen, I said, sounding immensely proud of the number.
I know, I said, not noticing the way you spoke my age, or how you were turning very pale. Everyone normally guesses maybe seventeen, sometimes eighteen.
You picked up the wineglass, and now I could see that your hand was shaking as you struggled to take a drink. It was still shaking as you put the glass back down on the blanket chest.
That's when inspiration struck. I snatched up the glass, took a healthy gulp, and then, very deliberatelyâalthough trying to make it look like an accidentâspilled what was left of the wine down the front of my long-sleeved T-shirt.
Oops! I said.
Christ almighty, you said, your body starting to show signs of panic. Matthew, no, what are your parents going to think if they see this? You rushed up from the armchair and motioned me to raise my arms. Quick, you said, I'll throw it in the kitchen sink to soak.
I lifted my hands, ready to surrender myself completely, but there was nothing romantic about the way you removed my T-shirt, trying your best not to let your fingers brush so much as a square inch of my skin, pulling it over my head as quickly as you could. Yet still I felt a surge of pleasure, my heart burning for you, my body desperate for your touch. I looked up into your eyes, but you didn't look down into mine.
You were motionless, standing above me, staring down at the bruised half of my body.
Oh dear God, Matthew, you said. Oh dear God, who did this? Who did this, you poor, poor boy? You moved your trembling hand toward my side, but your fingers stopped short of touching me. I could see the tears forming in your eyes, a single streak falling down your cheek. Taking your hand away from me, you wiped your face and then, as if all the strength had been sucked from your body, you fell back into your chair. How sorely I felt
the absence of your lips as you sat there, hands clutching the armrests, with a look of utter defeat on your face, and seeing you so desolate, so monumentally upset at what had happened to me, moved me intenselyâmoved me perhaps even more than your lips on my bruises might have done. That's when I felt something I hadn't experienced since kindergarten, tears welling up behind my eyes, an irresistible force. Soon I started to cry, an audible sob tumbling out of my throat.
Hearing my pain, your eyes shot up and, looking even more hurt, you said, Oh, my poor child, come here. Oh my poor Matthew, come here, come here, you poor child.
I stumbled over to you, your weakness feeling like my weakness now, and collapsed to my knees, my head falling into your lap as I started to cry harder than I'd ever cried in my life, my body shaking, my head shaking, all of my sadness and the hurt of every blow my daddy had ever inflicted on me coming out in one long torrent of tears. You stroked my head and made shushing sounds. Let it all out, you said, let it all out, Matthew. And then you stroked my head some more.
For how long did I continue to cry? Who knows? It was a long time, perhaps long enough to make up for all the tears I hadn't shed for years, and there wasn't a single tear left inside me by the time I was done.
When it was over, you lifted my head, held it, and looked into my eyes. Did your father do this to you? you said. When I nodded, you held my head tighter and said to me, You are the greatest of God's creatures, Matthew, don't you ever forget that.
It wasn't cold, but I remember I was shivering. You helped me back to the couch, took a blanket from the back of your armchair, and wrapped it around me. Crouching down in a kindly way, you put your hand on my knee, but then an awkwardness came over you and you took your hand away. This is a test, Matthew, you said. For both of us, you understand?
sent you to me, you said, pointing heavenward. I understand it all now, it makes perfect sense.
gave me a sign. You were nodding the way people do
when the world suddenly comes to make sense to them. Wait here, Matthew, you said, patting my knee.
You picked up my T-shirt, walked over to the kitchen, dropped the tee in the sink, and turned on the faucet. Then you pulled out a box from under the sink and poured powder into the running water. When you turned off the faucet, you walked over to a bookcase and pulled out the Bible, then came back to sit in your armchair.
I guess I thought you were eighteen, you said. Or hoped, you added. Or perhaps not even eighteen exactly, you said, and I don't know what age would be right, I honestly don't, but for some reason that's what I had in my head. And now I see why, that's how I know this was a test, Matthew. This was God's test, you understand?
You opened your Bible and started flicking through the pages. Listen to this, Matthew, you said. This here is Jesus speaking to his disciples. And this is taken from Matthew eighteen, you said, tapping at a spot on the page,
. Then you cleared your throat and started to read, your voice deepening as you spoke your holy wordsâ
If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell
Matthew eighteen, you said, tapping at the spot on your Bible and breathing easier now, Matthew eighteen.
I felt a powerful presence in the room at that moment. I'm not going to call it God because I didn't experience the blinding light of conversion in that moment and never have since, but unholy wretch though I am, nonetheless I bless you, Pete, for what you
did, for what you didn't do, and if I'm wrong, if there is a Lord above, I'm damned sure as hell that he blesses you too.