What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
When they had Bryan’s clothes upstairs and in Josh’s room, Josh laid the packages he was carrying on the bed and had Bryan do the same.
“Bryan, can we talk for a moment? I guess there are a couple or three things to get settled. Let’s sit down.”
He grabbed the chair that was at the computer desk. Bryan sat on the bed, then waited to see what Josh was going to say.
“Okay. First, you’re not going to argue with me about staying here, are you? You’ve decided you’re okay with that?”
Bryan simply looked at him for a moment. He’d sort of been steamrollered by Josh’s attitude on that before, and he’d unresistingly gone along with it. It was so comfortable doing so, and he’d allowed himself the luxury of not fighting it. But now Josh was asking him to agree with the plan, was in fact asking him to commit to it. How did he feel about that?
“We didn’t really discuss this, did we?”
“Not really. I guess I sort of bullied you.” He grinned. “I didn’t know I could do that to anyone. But we can talk about it now, we can decide, and I’ll let you talk and I’ll listen. Before you say anything, though, I want to tell you that I want you here, I want you to stay. Okay. So what about it?”
Bryan really didn’t have to think about it. The choice was fending for himself at the mall or on the streets, or living in the safety and security of Josh’s house. Of scrounging for food the best he could, or having Josh and his dad feed him. Of letting his personal appearance, his clothes and hair and everything, continue to deteriorate, or allowing Josh to take care of him. It hurt his pride a little to accept Josh’s kindness, but he’d found his pride having been worn a bit thin after living like he had for the previous three weeks.
“Josh, I’ll stay. I want you to know how much this means . . . .”
“Stop it,” Josh interrupted. “I’m just setting some ground rules here, getting agreement on some things so we both know what’s what. We don’t need a lot of mushy ‘thank yous’ getting in the way. This is just simple, routine stuff. Okay. Next. We have a guest room. Across the hall. It has a nice bed in it. It has room for all your new clothes, it can be your private room. You can stay there. Or, you can sleep with me. What do you want to do?” By the time he’d finished saying all this, his voice was a little shaky. The surprisingly confident, almost assertive Josh who had begun this conversation by asking Bryan to sit down just a few minutes earlier had reverted and was again the shy, awkward, submissive Josh whom Bryan had met at the mall the previous day.
Bryan didn’t answer right away. He looked at Josh and had no problem seeing the apprehension there. He could see Josh’s vulnerability. Josh was not a strong, self-confident boy. And he was now opening himself up to being hurt.
“Josh, can I stay here and sleep with you?” Bryan asked tentatively. “That’s what I’d like to do. I don’t know what your father would say. I don’t even know if you want me to do that. We can talk about it. But you asked me what I wanted to do. My answer is a truthful one. Can I sleep in here with you, please?”
Josh got a smile on his face that lit up the room. Then, as he realized what he was doing, his blush overpowered his smile, and he quickly looked away.
“Oh, okay then. Sure, you can sleep in here with me if that’s what you want. There’s lots of room. Great. That’s good.” He stopped for a minute. His heart was racing, and he was afraid he might hyperventilate. Bryan’s answer had left him ecstatic.
When he had calmed down, when he’d stopped glowing, he turned back to look at Bryan again. Bryan had a smile on his face, and seeing it, Josh couldn’t stop his own smile from bursting out again, too. Then Bryan stood up and offered him a high five. Josh jumped at the opportunity. Then they both sat back down. Neither had any inclination or the courage to discuss this further.
“All right, that’s settled. Now, your clothes. Do you want to put them in the guest room, or in here?”
Bryan was feeling really good. He knew he’d just made Josh happy, and that was part of the reason. The other part was, he suddenly knew he really did want to stay in this room with Josh. That surprised him, but he realized it was true. The idea pleased him. Not only was he pleased, he felt great joy. So it was in that happy vein that he replied. “Well, if I keep them in here, that sort of means we’ll be getting dressed together in the morning. I mean, dressed all the way. Are you up for that?”
Josh looked at him, then giggled. “I hadn’t thought of that. What about you?”
“Hey, I can live with it if you can. If we can do it in gym, why can’t we do it here?”
Josh blushed again, then composed himself. “Okay, that’s settled. I’ll move some stuff and you can have a couple drawers in the dresser. I can take some things from my closet into the guest room so you can have some space there, too. Hey, this is great! Really, really great.” He grinned at Bryan, then continued. “Okay, now school. You go to Taft. I go to Kennedy. I ride the school bus. I guess you ride your bike. You can ride it to Taft from here, but it’ll be a long ride. Probably a half hour or a little more. I think you said your school starts at 8 AM. Mine’s at 8:15. Dad doesn’t have to be at the college until 10 most days, so he could drive you if you don’t want to ride that far. Or I suppose you can take the city bus. We’d have to check schedules. Have you thought about this at all? What sounds good to you?”
“Oh, I’ll ride my bike. That’s no problem, and I’d feel so embarrassed if I inconvenienced your dad like that. No way. I can ride my bike both ways with no problem, and it’ll give me more independence.”
“Okay, I was just asking. So we know where we are. Now, something else. This is a little more difficult. But we need to discuss it.” Josh paused and looked at Bryan, and Bryan could see his discomfort. He didn’t say anything, however. He just waited.
It took Josh a minute to decide just how he wanted to approach this. Then he said, “Bryan, you’ve been so involved for the past few weeks just surviving, just getting by, you may not have had time to think about this. But we should. I said we, because I want to be in on this, I want to help, if you’ll let me. It’s this: where do you see all this ending? What’s the outcome going to be? I guess not even that. What I want you to tell me is, what would you like the outcome to be?”
Bryan let his eyes drift from Josh so he was just looking at the room, but not seeing anything at all. He hadn’t given much thought at all to this question. Josh was right. He hadn’t thought through an ending to this, other than having the vague thought that what he wished was that things with his dad hadn’t happened like they had. He wanted to be living with his dad and mom the way they’d lived together before his mom had died. He knew that wasn’t possible now. What did he want in place of that? He wasn’t sure. He didn’t know if he could live with his dad again, if he’d ever be able to trust him. They never had had a particularly strong father-son bond. What had happened that night had affected him deeply. He really didn’t know what he was hoping for now.
“I guess I know I have to go back to my dad at some point. I just don’t know if I can. I mean, I know I can’t if he’s still drinking. I can’t if he’s like he was the night I left. I don’t know what he feels about that, or if he even remembers it. It’s all messed up now. But you didn’t ask about that, just what I wanted. I don’t know what I want, Josh.”
“Okay. There’s no rush. As things settle down for you, you’ll be able to figure things out better. And that’s our goal for right now. I want you to relax. I want you to feel safe and comfortable. Then we can plan ahead from that point. We can make a new goal.” Josh stopped for a moment, as he was uncomfortable and not a bit used to talking so forcefully, to be giving his opinion to another boy his age. But there was more he felt he had to say, and as Bryan seemed to be listening, he felt he could and should continue. He did.
“Okay then, we’ll just go ahead and figure out how to achieve that goal. Right now, we don’t know what’s possible or impossible, we don’t know if you can live with your dad or not, we don’t even know if you want to, we don’t know much of anything. But we don’t have to. You’re safe here, I love having you here, you can relax. Is that okay for now? Can you just not worry about your dad?”
“Yeah. I’m a little confused. I’ve been surprised that Dad’s never called the school. It bothers me. I thought maybe he’d do that. I mean, it’s even possible he’s not all right, that something’s happened to him. I just don’t know.”
Josh thought for a minute. Then he asked, “Let me ask you this? What would you say to calling him on the phone? I think that’s a first step.”
Josh stopped to look into Bryan’s eyes, to see his reaction, then continued. “Bryan, I’m not saying this because I’m trying to get rid of you, or even thinking about that. I’m trying to work on your problem with you, because I know, even if it’s not bothering you right now, it will when your life has calmed down a little, and that’s what’s happening right now. I think by tomorrow night, you’re going to be feeling a lot different about a lot of things. You might start thinking about getting home, and I want to help you with thinking about it, that’s all. Not doing it! Only thinking about it. I’ve already told you how much I like having you here. Now, what about trying to call your dad? Is it something you think you want to do?”
Bryan got a worried look on his face as he thought about that. “I don’t know, Josh. I hadn’t even spent any time thinking about that. But now that I am, it makes me really nervous.”
“Why’s that? I think you could get some answers to things you need to know, things you don’t know now.”
“Yeah, but it’s scary. I mean, what if he’s still drunk? Or even worse, what if he’s not but tells me he’s doing fine without me and just to stay away?”
Bryan’s voice was quivering now, and Josh could see tears forming in his eyes.
“What if he says he doesn’t want me to come back? I don’t know how I’d handle that. Even if I’m not sure I want to go back. Right now, going back is still a possibility. What if it isn’t? What would I do then? I can’t take care of myself. I learned that. And I can’t just live with you. I’m scared, Josh. I’m scared to call him.”
By now, Bryan was openly crying. Josh moved over and sat next to him on the bed and put his arm around him. They sat like that for a few minutes. At first, Bryan just started crying harder. Eventually his crying eased, and then finally stopped.
“I’m sorry, Bryan. I hadn’t thought of all that. That’s why it’s good if we can talk about things. Together we can come up with the best way to do things. I think calling him is something we’ll have to do sometime, but not till we’ve talked about all the possible consequences, and figured out what to do about them. You’re right. We can’t call him now. You’re still getting settled in here, getting your feet back on the ground. Maybe getting your confidence back.” He stopped and stood up. “Let’s get your clothes put away.”
Bryan remained sitting slumped on the bed. Josh moved in front of him and started unwrapping their purchases, taking them out of bags and laying them on the bed. Then he crossed the room to his dresser and began clearing his stuff out of the top two drawers. He rearranged his bottom two drawers and put some of his stuff there, and he took some to the other room.
In a short while, Bryan was up and helping him. When they finished with the dresser, they did the same with the closet. It didn’t take long, and they were done.
“That’s pretty good. We’re going to have to work out who gets the computer when for schoolwork. Of course, since it’s mine, I get it in the afternoon and evening, and you can use it between 2 and 5 AM. I think that’s fair.” Josh looked up at Bryan, hoping he’d smile.
Bryan thought for a minute, then said, “Yeah, that seems fair enough to me. Just be quiet when you’re out there.”
“Well, if you’ve got dibs on the computer when you want it, I guess I get dibs on the bed when I want it. I’ll be using it in the afternoon and evening during your computer time. I wouldn’t want you disturbing me when I’m on the computer during my time. You’ll be mostly out in the hall.”
“Oh? And when you’re on the bed in the afternoon while I’m on the computer? What’ll you be doing on it then?”
“Hmmm. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. But whatever it is, make sure you don’t watch.”
Josh started laughing, and Bryan joined in.
“Hey, we better go check on dinner,” Josh said. “With my dad, you never know what’s going on.”
They went downstairs and found Dr. Warren working on dinner. He seemed less distracted, to be paying attention to what he was doing this time. The potatoes had been washed and were in the oven in their skins, the steaks were marinating in olive oil, garlic, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper and tenderizer and a green salad with slivered red onion, green olives and cucumber slices was in a bowl on the table.
The boys began setting the table, and Dr. Warren fired up the grill. “How do you like your steak, Bryan?” he asked.
“Anything’s okay with me. Probably well done, but it’s not important.”
“Bryan! That’s sacrilege!”
“Huh?” Bryan was a little shocked at Dr. Warren’s outburst. He stepped back a half step, concern suddenly showing on his face.
“Uh oh, Bryan,” Josh giggled. “You’ve got him started now. He thinks there’s only one way to eat steak, and that’s rare. Really rare. It’s one of his passions. You’re going to get his lecture now!”
Dr. Warren scowled at Bryan. “A well done steak is an abomination, young man! Some poor cow gave its life just so you could appreciate the wonderfully moist, juicy and flavorful meat it grew just for you, and you’d spoil it that way? There’s nothing ‘well’ about well done! It cooks all the juices out of the meat, it makes it tough, it takes away the delicate flavor. It’s like eating shoe leather.” Dr. Warren’s voice suddenly went from scathing to soothing and persuasive. “Tell me, son, have you ever had a steak cooked rare?” he almost cooed.
“Uh, no, I don’t think so. We always had them well done at my house. So, if I had one at a restaurant, I just got it the same way. That’s what my parents ordered.”
“Heavens! A bunch of heathens. Joshua Warren, you spoke highly of Bryan’s character! You didn’t say anything about him liking to burn his meat before he ate it!”
Bryan could see the twinkle in Dr. Warren’s eye, could finally hear he wasn’t being serious. He didn’t know the man at all, but responded to the teasing. He was warming up to Dr. Warren. He thought he should join in.
“So then tell me, sir, how do you like your steak?
“Rare! When I’m ordering in a restaurant, I don’t tell them just rare either. I order it blood rare.”
“Tell him how you order it, Dad, you know,” prompted Josh.
“All right. I tell them I want it so rare that, when I cut into it, I can hear a faint ‘moo.’
Bryan gave out a small snicker, and Dr. Warren looked at him in mock outrage, until he himself began to laugh. “That’s all right, Bryan, I’ll overcook and dry out your steak if that’s what you want. No problem. I just have to put it on the grill a half hour or so before the others.”
Bryan looked at Josh. “Do you eat it rare?”
“Of course he does! No self-respecting boy in this house would eat it any other way!” roared Dr. Warren.
Bryan raised his eyebrows at Josh, tacitly repeating the question.
“Actually, I do eat it rare. It is better. Although I must admit, it’s possibly an acquired taste. I’ve been eating it that way for so long, I don’t remember it any other way. But I do eat it that way and it is good.”
“All right, make mine that way too, please, Dr. Warren. Then, if I start gagging or I get sick or something, we can throw it back on the grill.”
“Sick! Sick! Why, the very idea! Okay, I’ll do it rare. I think you’re in for a real treat tonight, young man. A life-altering experience.” And he smiled.
At dinner, Dr. Warren opened the bottle of wine. Josh pushed his glass toward him. His father looked at him, then at Bryan. Bryan promptly pushed his glass forward too.
“Well, just this once then. Don’t either of you two even think about driving tonight!”
“Dad! Neither of us has a license!”
“All the more reason,” replied his father, then grinned.
Dr. Warren poured them each a half glass of wine, and then, after waiting for Bryan to take a bite, asked him if he wanted the steak cooked longer without any pressure at all. Bryan rather cautiously chewed a couple times, then looked at Dr. Warren with his eyes opening wide.
“This is delicious! I didn’t know steak was supposed to taste like this! Or be this tender.”
“Aha! Another convert. Josh, you were right! This is indeed a good man you’ve brought to our table. A man of exquisite taste and refinement. A good man indeed!”
Over dinner, Dr. Warren asked about their day at the mall. That was a subject neither boy was comfortable talking about, and Bryan got to see Josh doing some pretty skillful tap dancing around the truth. So, accepting the challenge, Bryan jumped in, making up some stuff of his own, and by the end of the meal they’d begun coloring and embellishing each other’s stories to a degree they both found remarkable. They’d gained a new respect for each other’s ability to be a kid.
After Bryan had thanked Dr. Warren for the meal and the boys had finished the dishes, Josh asked Bryan if he had any homework to finish. Bryan realized he did, and they both went upstairs.
“Do you need the computer, Bryan? I just have some reading and math tonight and don’t need it at all.”
“Actually, I could use it. I have a report due on Argentina’s economy. Actually, I’ve missed some assigned reports because I didn’t have access to a computer. But for tonight, I could use it for the one due tomorrow.”
“So you need Internet access and Word. You probably don’t need my help then, but if you do, just ask. I’ll work on the bed.”
Josh got his books and set them on the bed, then started to take off his pants. He’d loosened his belt when suddenly he stopped and blushed. Bryan was watching him.
“What’s the matter?” Bryan asked.
“I was going to work in just my boxers. I forgot myself for a second. No problem.”
“Josh, I’m not going to be upset or offended or anything else by you being in your boxers, and I’d hope you wouldn’t be embarrassed. Come on. We were both in our boxers going to bed last night. I was at the store today.”
Josh thought for a second, then started taking his pants off again. “You’re right. We both just have to get used to this. When I do something like that again, just hit me or something.”
Bryan grinned. “I won’t do that. I might say something. I won’t hit you.”
“Glad to hear it. We don’t want World War III in here.”
Both boys grinned at each other. Bryan loved the fact Josh seemed secure enough now to be able to kid with him. The boy he’d met at the mall the day earlier had seemed entirely unable to do that.
The room was silent other than pages turning and computer clicks for the next two hours. Josh finished his homework well before Bryan did, then simply picked up a book he was reading and started in on it. Eventually, Bryan finished, then asked Josh if he wanted the computer turned off. When Josh said yes, he went through the shutdown procedure.
“You ready for bed?” Josh asked.
“Yeah, I guess. I think I’ll shower first.”
“You want any ice cream or anything?”
“That sounds good, but I’m tired. I think I’ll just shower and brush my teeth and turn in. Hey Josh? What was with your father tonight? He seemed a completely different person.”
“Yeah, he gets that way sometimes. I think what probably happened, he was working on a book review, and he might have had a time deadline. He worked all day on it at the college and probably got it finished and was in a good mood. He’s usually too bogged down with work, but he does get like he was tonight sometimes. He’s a really good guy, Bryan. I’m glad you got to see him like that.”
“Yeah, I was surprised, after yesterday. He does seem neat. He treated me like an adult. I love it when adults do that, when they don’t talk down to me. Well, I’m going to grab that shower.”
“That sounds good to me, too. I’ll join you.”
“What? In the shower?”
Josh stared at him, startled by the shocked tone of Bryan’s voice, then laughed. “Uh, no, that’s not what I meant. I’ll follow you.”
“Okay. Just checking. I wasn’t sure if the showers here were communal or not.”
The boys both showered, then put on clean boxers and went to bed. After discussing it, Josh set the alarm for 6:45. Then he turned out the light and got in bed.
Both boys were on their backs. Josh felt a little nervous. He was tired, but this was something new for him. This wasn’t like the previous night when Bryan was almost asleep before Josh even got in the bed. Now they were lying in bed together, the light was off, and neither one was asleep.
Before Josh could say anything, Bryan spoke. “Hey, I know you don’t want me to be continually thanking you, but I have to now and then. You’re really helping me a lot, practically saving my life, and I can’t tell you what it means to me. I also want to say, I really like you, Josh. I don’t know why you don’t have any friends ’cause you’re really great. I’m glad I’m your friend now. I’m really happy we know each other now.”
Josh felt tears forming in his eyes. Bryan had just said the absolute best thing he could imagine hearing. He felt powerful emotions in his chest. Without thinking, he rolled over and hugged Bryan. He was shocked to feel Bryan reach out and hug him back. Josh didn’t want to let go, and Bryan didn’t seem inclined to do so either.
After a minute of this, both boys realized their arms were getting tired. Neither wanted to let go, but had no choice. Both relaxed their arms.
Even though he was very much afraid he would break the spell, Josh spoke. He did so timidly, which is the way he felt. “Bryan, it makes me so happy to hear you say that, and also to hug you. Can we go to sleep like this?”
“I’d like that too,” was the soft response from Bryan. And so, Josh rearranged his arms to a more comfortable position, and felt Bryan do the same. Both boys wriggled a little, getting comfortable. Then, with a huge smile on his face and a happy heart, Josh fell asleep.
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