What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
Josh was tired from their run and decided what he’d like to do was read. He was accustomed to spending a great deal of time alone reading, and since the advent of Bryan in his daily life, he’d done very little of it. He missed it. He told Bryan he was going to lie on his bed the rest of the afternoon reading, and Bryan was welcome to join him or do anything he wanted.
Bryan thought for a minute. “You know, I’d like to do that. I haven’t been able to for quite a while. I keep looking at all that science fiction you have. I’ve read some Heinlein, but you have some I haven’t. I want to try it. But there’s something I want to do first.”
Then he said something which startled Josh. “I think I’m going to call my father.”
“Bryan! Really? I thought you wanted to wait. You said you weren’t ready for that.” Then he had a terrible thought, and worry crept into his voice. “Bryan, if he says he’s sorry and wants you to come home, are you going to go?”
“I really hadn’t thought that far ahead. It’s just that I haven’t talked to him in a month, I don’t know what’s going on, I miss the idea of having a father, but not the guy he was when I left. I’m not ready to leave here, Josh. If everything he said were perfect, just what I wanted to hear, I still don’t think I’d trust him. You know what he tried to do to me. He would have if I hadn’t been able to avoid it. I can’t just forget that happened. I love it that you want me here. I’m not planning to leave yet. I’m not ready to, and in any case, I’m happier living here than I would be there.”
“Are you going to call him now?”
“Yeah. Can I use your phone? I don’t mind if you listen. I’d feel better if you were here, actually. You give me confidence.”
“Sure you can use the phone. You know you don’t need to ask.”
Bryan picked up the receiver, then just stood for a moment, holding it. “I’m nervous,” he told Josh.
Josh didn’t reply, but looked at him with compassionate eyes.
Eventually, Bryan reached down and began pressing buttons. Then he lifted the receiver to his ear and listened. He waited a full minute before gently hanging up. “No answer.”
Josh felt good about that, but didn’t want to show it. Instead, he said, “You can try again any time you want.”
----  ----
That night, Dr. Warren told Josh he’d take them out to eat. They decided to go to an Italian restaurant that was a bit upscale. Josh and Bryan both put on a pair of dress slacks and good, button-up shirts. Bryan didn’t have dress shoes so had to wear his darkest pair of sneakers with a pair of dark socks. Bryan looked at Josh as they were combing their hair.
“Damn, you look good when you dress up. You always look good, but dressed like that, wow!”
Josh laughed. “Thanks, but you look hot too. It feels good to get dressed up once in a while. We used to go out to eat at least twice a week, but with you here, we just haven’t. I guess I’ve automatically started making dinner every night, so my dad never suggested going out. Maybe if we wait for him at the university every night, we’ll be getting home later and he’ll want to go out more often.”
“Josh, don’t yell at me or anything, but, well, it’ll make me uncomfortable, him spending money on me going out like this, if we do it very often. I’m trying not to worry about all the extra food you’re having to buy. Going out a lot, especially to fancy restaurants, that’s expensive.”
“It’s nice you feel that way, I like that, but you don’t need to. I remember what you said about not ignoring your feelings. I’m not. I understand. But buying a few dinners at a restaurant isn’t going to make any difference in anything. Please don’t let thinking about that spoil this.”
Dr. Warren had made reservations and they didn’t have to wait. It was a small, somewhat dimly lighted restaurant with white tablecloths and attractive china and crystal on the tables. The waiters all were wearing black bowties on their white dress shirts and the low hum of many conversations and the smell of good food provided a welcoming ambience.
Bryan looked at the menu, scanned it, and told Dr. Warren, “I’ve never heard of any of these things. What are they?”
Dr. Warren chuckled. “They have veal cooked in various sauces, different fish dishes, various pastas, some shellfish, but it’s all written in Italian. Is there any Italian food you especially like?”
“I like spaghetti. I don’t know that I’ve had much else, other than pizza.”
Dr. Warren smiled. “I don’t think they make pizza here. Well, I can suggest the veal picatta, the chicken marsala, the linguini Alfredo. I know you’d like all of those. Josh likes the veal parmigiana and gets that a lot.”
“What’s the chicken marsala?”
“It’s chunks of chicken breast cooked in a sweetish Italian white wine, marsala in fact, and reduced cream and served on pasta. It’s very rich and very good. It’s one of their specialties here.”
“Okay, that sounds good to me, unless I can really taste the wine.” When Dr. Warren told him he wouldn’t even know they’d used wine, Bryan smiled and asked, “What’re you getting, Josh?”
“I’m in training, so I don’t want anything that rich. I’m watching my weight. I’ll have the veal parmigiana. No cream in it.” He gave a teasing smile to Bryan, who was thinking of a retort when the waiter asked for drink orders.
The meal was delightful. Bryan had occasionally gone out to eat with his parents, but they’d eaten at lesser restaurants which served plainer food. This was his first time in a fancier restaurant and he was impressed. He kept saying how good everything was. He was stuffed when it was time for dessert, but Dr. Warren ordered him a Granita al Caffe. When it came, it was in a stemmed glass containing a dark frozen mass with a dollop of whipped cream on top.
“What is it?” asked Bryan, a little suspiciously as Dr. Warren was grinning at him.
“I understand you’re a coffee lover now, so I got you a coffee desert. It’s like a sherbet, but coffee flavored and sweeter. I think you’ll like it. If you don’t, you don’t have to eat it.”
Bryan dug a very small taste out of the frozen mound in the glass and carefully tasted it. A large smile lit up his face. “This is great,” he said.
Dr. Warren smiled, watching the very full boy eat a little more. “Bryan, I wanted us to have this dinner partly to thank you for what you’ve done for Josh. He looks and acts so much happier now, has so much more confidence, and I’m at a loss for words trying to tell you how good that makes me feel, and how much I want to thank you for that. That you care about him is obvious from the way you two interact. I’m really terribly happy you’re staying with us.”
Bryan got a deep blush, hearing such sincere praise. He looked at Dr. Warren and said, “I don’t say thank you to you nearly enough. I really appreciate you letting me stay with you when I needed it. And Josh and me being able to spend time together like we have has been really special.”
“I want you to know, you’re welcome to stay with us as long as you want, or need to. Bryan, I know I get distracted with my work. It’s important to me, I enjoy what I do, and sometimes, maybe too often, I get too deeply involved in it. However, I’m possibly not as oblivious to things as my son here, whom I’m so proud of, thinks I am.”
He smiled at Josh, then paused, thinking for a second to choose the right words, and then his mood sobered a little. “Bryan, I don’t want what I’m going to say now to upset you. Please remember that before saying anything. I like you staying at our house. But I need to say this. I’ve noticed that, though you’ve been here for a week, you haven’t received any phone calls from your parents. Or made any to them. That seems very odd to me. Also, Josh usually tells me in pretty good detail what’s going on. Yet, I know he’d never mentioned you before he introduced us, and all he said was your parents were out of town. Now if they’re out of town, that means you live here in town, but rather than having me drive you to your house or apartment to pick up the clothes you forgot, we bought all new ones.”
Bryan was looking shocked, his spoon suspended over his remaining Italian ice. Dr. Warren plowed on. “Now don’t for a second think I’m bothered by any of this. I’m not. I’ve seen you and Josh together, and very little could be better than that. In no way would I want to interfere with it. I’ve seen how he’s changed. Bryan, you have all the support from me you’ll ever need. I’d do nothing to hurt you. But I sure wish you could trust me enough to tell me what’s really going on.”
Josh started to say something, but Dr. Warren held his hand up, indicating he didn’t want Josh to say anything. He needed to hear a response from Bryan. Dr. Warren wore a soft smile. He didn’t look the least bit angry. He looked encouragingly at Bryan, and waited.
“I’m sorry, sir. We couldn’t tell anyone. It wasn’t that we didn’t trust you. Josh trusts you absolutely. Every time anything we’ve been talking about has come to the point where your name has been brought up, Josh has said that you won’t be a problem. That’s never been a concern. After I’ve been with you, I trust you like he does. That isn’t the problem.”
Dr. Warren looked confused. “If you guys both trusted me, why couldn’t you tell me why you’re staying with us?”
“Because if you knew, you’d have to do something. We didn’t want to put you in that position. We didn’t want anyone to do anything. Doing something would just make things bad for me. But I know that isn’t an acceptable answer. I’ll leave. None of this is Josh’s fault. I talked him into it. He’s the nicest guy I ever met. I took advantage of that. I’ll leave as soon as we get home.”
“Bryan!” Both Dr. Warren and Josh said it at the same time, Dr. Warren with compassion and sadness, Josh with alarm.
Bryan was looking down at the table. He couldn’t raise his eyes.
Josh started to speak again, but his father stopped him, this time with both his hand and a steady, firm look.
“Bryan, look at me,” said Dr. Warren in a voice that didn’t leave room for disobedience, at least not from a scared 14-year-old.
Bryan raised his eyes. Josh was shocked. The empty look he’d had in the mall the first time they’d met was back. His face was blank, his eyes empty.
“Bryan,” said Dr. Warren, his voice soft and caring. “I don’t want you to go. I don’t know what your problem is, but I know you. Whatever it is, we’ll fix it. We will! And you’re welcome in my house always. You didn’t take advantage of Josh. I don’t think you’re capable of doing that. And I don’t for a minute believe, if you’re in trouble, that trouble is of your making. I want you to tell me all about it. I’ll decide if I have to do anything, and I won’t do anything that will make things worse for you. You have to trust me now like you said you did. But we’re not going to do that here. We’re going to go home first, my home, Josh’s home—YOUR home as long as you want it to be. We’ll talk there.”
----  ----
The drive home was silent. Even Josh and Bryan didn’t say anything to each other. Bryan sat in the front seat and Josh in the back.
When they arrived, they all went to the living room. Dr. Warren asked Josh to make coffee for him, and asked Bryan if he’d like a cup, with extra cream and sugar. Bryan almost got a smile on his lips, then nodded yes.
They sat in the living room, waiting for Josh. Bryan was on the couch, and when Josh brought in the coffee, he sat next to Bryan, almost touching him.
Dr. Warren looked at Bryan and smiled.
Bryan said, “I guess you want the whole story. If I just hit the highlights, you won’t understand how I was feeling. Okay, I’ll tell you.”
And he did. Josh listened, and couldn’t find where Bryan left anything out. He didn’t include all the details he had for Josh, but he did tell Dr. Warren the entire story.
When he was finished, Dr. Warren stood up, walked over to the couch, and asked Bryan to stand. When he did, Dr. Warren took him in his arms and hugged him. Bryan sank into him, and to Josh’s surprise, started crying. Dr. Warren helped him sit down again, but sat with him, never taking his arms away.
Bryan cried for several minutes, finally tapering off to intermittent sobs. When those had stopped, Bryan looked up sheepishly. “I don’t know why I did that. I’ve been really happy this last week. I love living here. I don’t know why I’d cry.”
“Bryan, you’ve been under a tremendous amount of pressure. Even though you’re happy here, you knew everything could change at any minute. You had no control over that. You had to be scared every time you thought of that. Yet, with all that’s going on, you took it upon yourself to try to help Josh. You’re a remarkable young man, Bryan.”
Bryan wiggled and Dr. Warren took his arms away. He tousled his hair, then went back to his chair. “Now we have to decide what to do. I understand completely why you didn’t tell me the first night. I didn’t know you then. I’d have reacted much differently then than I will now. We’ll have to think about this and come up with something you agree with. Right now, it’s late. I think we should all turn in. We’ll talk some more in the morning. We don’t have to do anything right away. We can all talk this over, come up with something. Bryan, I love having you here. Now, let’s go to bed.”
Bryan and Josh climbed the stairs together. Josh shut their door once they were in the bedroom.
“You okay, Bryan?” Josh asked when they had both slumped down on the bed.
“Yeah. Your father’s wonderful. I’m really tired. Can we just go to bed?”
“Sure. It’s been a long day.”
They did their bathroom duties and came back to the bedroom. When they were in bed, Josh just naturally held Bryan as he spooned into him.
“Everything’s going to be okay, Bryan. Dad won’t cause any problems. I think we’re better off now. Now you don’t have to worry about him finding out. That’s all taken care of. Now you know you can stay as long as you want. He wants you here as much as I do. Well, not as much, but he wants you here.”
Bryan didn’t say anything for a while. Josh could feel the tension in his body. He also felt him gradually relax. Then, softly, he heard him say, “I don’t know how I got so lucky to find you. Good night, Josh.”
----  ----
Bryan slept late. Josh got up and made breakfast, expecting Bryan to show up, but he didn’t. Finally, Josh had to go wake him.
“Why’re you waking me up?” asked the grouchy, sleepy-looking young teen.
“Time’s awastin’. Up and at ‘em! The early worm eats the robin. Move it, move it, move it! Let’s go, pardner!”
“Someday, I’m going to kill you. Maybe not today, not when you’re expecting it, but someday. Anyone who can be so cheerful in the morning deserves to die. Slowly and painfully.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s what they all say. Come on, your French toast is getting cold.”
“So stick it in the microwave. I’ll eat it in an hour or two when I get up.”
“No way, Jose! I’ve figured out what I want to do today.”
“We’re going to the mall! I like hanging out at the mall on Sunday, but always had to do it all by myself before. This’ll be fun. But you got to get up.”
“Give me another wake-up call. In about an hour.” Bryan rolled over so his back was to Josh.
“Get out of bed! He who hesitates is lost, early to bed, early to rise, makes a boy healthy, wealthy and wise, a rolling stone gathers no moss, he who hesitates is lost, you’ve only failed when . . . .”
“Dead men tell no tales!” yelled Bryan, leaping from bed, covers flying everywhere, his hair in disarray, his eyes wild.
Josh screamed and bolted for the stairs, breaking into laughter as he did.
On their bikes, riding to the mall, Bryan asked where Josh’s dad was. “I thought he’d want to talk some more?”
“He was gone when I got up. He left a note saying we’d talk later, but not to worry about it. He didn’t see where anything had to be done right away, and in any case he wasn’t going to do anything that you didn’t say was okay before he did it.”
Bryan didn’t respond, just kept pedaling, and thinking. Finally, they pulled up at the mall and locked their bikes in the rack.
Inside, the mall was typical for a Sunday afternoon, crowded and full of teenagers. They walked around, looking in the stores, waving at kids they knew. Josh was enjoying having a buddy to talk and walk with. They’d been there a half hour when Josh took hold of Bryan’s arm and said, “Look over there.”
Bryan looked in the direction he indicated and saw Paul talking to another man in a security uniform.
“Let’s go say hi,” Josh suggested.
They walked over to Paul, who was alone by the time they reached him. He saw them coming and his face lit up in a smile.
“Hey Josh, Bryan! How’s it going?”
“Great, Paul, how about you?” Bryan answered.
“Just fine. You know, I’ve been sort of on the lookout for you two. I wanted to talk to you, if you’ve got a couple minutes.”
Bryan glanced at Josh. “Sure, I guess.”
“It would be better if we could do this in my office. More private. That okay?”
Bryan hesitated this time. “Uh, what’s this about?”
“Oh, nothing much. Just a duffle bag I want to ask you about.”
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