What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
Josh, Bryan, Eric, Frank and Dr. Warren were sitting in Paddy’s, a diner near the university where Dr. Warren frequently ate lunch. It had red leatherette booths, a black and white tiled floor and a long lunch counter with swivel seats mounted in front of it. It was early for the dinner crowd and the place was almost empty.
They were sitting in one of the large, circular booths in a back corner. The table was large enough for eight, so they weren’t crowded. Dr. Warren had told them to order anything they wanted, it was on him.
Eric sucked on the straw in his coke. “I told those guys at the table I was sitting with that I was involved with a performance art skit and asked if I could sit with them for a few minutes and if they could turn around when I stood up. They were asking about it, I was making something up when Josh waved and I almost didn’t see him. That wouldn’t have been too cool, him waving and nothing happening. It scared the crap out of me! Oops. Sorry, sir.”
Dr. Warren chuckled. “I think you can say ‘crap’ tonight without anyone getting in an uproar over it, Eric. Especially me. You guys won’t get any static from me no matter what you say.”
Frank smiled. “I was scared sh… uh, scared to death going in. Thought I’d screw it all up. But, when they arrived, I enjoyed it. I couldn’t believe it, but I did. Maybe it was because I knew the cops could be there pretty quick if either Josh or I said our safety code word, so all I had to do was try to intimidate them, and that was kind of a blast. Uh, sorry about what happened at the end there. I think I got into my role a little too much.”
Eric asked Frank, “What code word?”
Josh answered. “The police set it up that if we needed help right away, we just had to say a certain word and they’d come running. They were hidden in the first store just outside the food court.”
“What was the word?”
Josh looked at him, then got a lost look on his face, and turned to Frank. “I can’t seem to remember it. What was it Frank?”
“It was, uh, it was. . .gee, Josh, I don’t remember either!”
Eric’s eyes got big, and then both Josh and Frank were laughing.
“Hey, screw you two,” Eric said, and commenced pretending to pout. He went back to sipping his coke.
“Actually,” said Bryan, “it was ‘hold it!’ The cops thought that might delay whatever the cause for alarm was for another second.”
“I’m glad you didn’t need to use it. Were you ever worried, Josh?” his father asked.
“Only that they might not admit to anything. I wasn’t too worried physically. Actually, that’s funny, because those guys always terrified me before. If I saw any of them, I’d sort of shrink. I’d try to be too small to be seen. Today, something was different. I don’t know what, but I wasn’t that scared. A little, sure, and I know my adrenaline was flowing. I certainly knew they were there, that they were trouble and wanted to hurt me, but the dread I always had before where I was just terrified and trembling and all, no, I didn’t feel that. I’d like to think it was Frank being there, but somehow it didn’t even feel like that.
“I just wasn’t scared of them. I knew they could still hurt me. They’re all bigger than I am. Pan affected me some. The look he had, the sound of his voice, he was just so cold and unfeeling. But the feeling I had, seeing them, it just wasn’t the same. And you know, now that I think about it, I think that’s why I wanted to do this in the first place. I wanted to confront them. I’ve been feeling different for the past few days, inside I mean. I’ve been feeling bigger somehow, sort of like, well, this might sound silly, but sort of like I matter. I don’t feel so scared all the time anymore.”
He looked at Bryan, who returned the look, then blushed. Dr. Warren saw that. He spoke up.
“Bryan, you do know you deserve much of the credit for that, don’t you? You’ve made Josh believe in himself. You didn’t make him do anything any better than he already could, you just made him see how capable he was. Seeing it, he started to believe it. And what I find so amazing is, you did this on purpose. You saw someone that needed that kind of help, you recognized it, and you did it.”
Now Bryan’s blush was a full-blown, completely involved and unrelenting blush. He didn’t know what to say, and so said nothing. Frank looked at him, then laughed. “Bryan always was able to see into guys more than anyone I knew. He has this way about him that everyone admires. He can see what’s causing guys problems, and he finds ways to help them. Not many guys our age are into that. Actually, no one our age is into that. They’re all into themselves.”
Bryan finally had to speak. He was suffering. He did the best he could. “Hey, everyone. Did you know that when they were pouring concrete to make the Hoover Dam, they had to keep pouring day and night, and when some poor worker fell in, they didn’t stop, they just kept pouring? Stopping to get the guy out wouldn’t have saved him; he’d have been dead awhile before they found him. Stopping the pour would have compromised the integrity of the dam. The pouring, constant and continual, went on for months and months.”
There was silence at the table. Even Eric, who’d been constantly working on his third coke, one small sip at a time, stopped sipping and looked at Bryan. Finally, Josh spoke up.
“Uh, Bryan? Are you, um, sort of changing the subject here?”
“Well, if you can do that, so can I.”
They all laughed at Bryan’s discomfiture, and then Dr. Warren had a question. “Josh, did you know Tom was gay? I didn’t think that was part of the script.”
“I don’t know whether he is or not, but I’m suspicious. I don’t know any other reason he’d beat up littler kids. I mean, he might enjoy doing that just to feel powerful, but he called me gay when he was doing it, then called Ryan that, so it makes me wonder. But, more importantly, the way he said it to me, the hatred I heard in his voice, I just knew I could get a reaction out of him, saying that. He seemed awfully cautious to me, on the phone and at the beginning in the food court, and I thought I had to get him mad so he wasn’t thinking clearly. That seemed the best way I could think of at the moment to get him mad. And the speech we had worked out for Frank to say seemed to fit right into it.
“When those guys walked over to us in the first place, there was a real bad feeling. I wasn’t scared, exactly, but it sure was uncomfortable and unpleasant, sitting there, seeing the looks on those guys’ faces. What I kept thinking, Dad, was what you told me. This, right now, was my battleground; this was where I could fight these guys on my terms, even if they didn’t realize this was a fight.
“So we battled, me trying to figure out how to get them to say what I wanted, them trying to intimidate me and figure out how to get out of the mess they were in. I got a little lucky. I wasn’t even thinking, until it happened and I saw an opening, about getting them to admit to hurting me. When I got Pan to say that, I knew that would make the case against them with Ryan even stronger. It shows a pattern of bullying, and serious stuff as well, not just teasing or a scuffle or something like that. That’s why I talked to Lt. O’Brien before we came here today and asked him to bring charges against them for what they did to me. I had had no proof it had happened, before. Now we do.
“But the biggie was getting them to admit to what they did to Ryan. That was what was important. I’m really pleased with that. I fought that battle with them, and led Tom into saying what they’d done.
Bryan spoke up. “You sure did that. But you got him so mad, if Frank hadn’t thought quick and slugged him, I think it would have got really bad. How’d you react so quickly, Frank?”
“I don’t know. It was more his body language than anything he said. He looked like he was going to do something, and I just acted. Believe it or not, he’s the first person I ever hit. I guess people my size don’t get challenged into fights much, and it isn’t my nature to go looking for them.”
“We’re all glad you did what you did, Frank. We all owe you one for that,” said Dr. Warren. “I’m sure glad the police chose to come when they did, too.”
Josh had picked up his menu. He looked up from it. “They were supposed to wait till they had heard enough and had enough on tape to really get those guys, and I guess as soon as they heard Tom say he’d kicked Ryan, that he thought Pan had hurt him badly enough to kill him, and that he was now going to kill me, they were satisfied. I’m glad they came then too. It suddenly blew up a lot faster than I’d thought it would.”
----  ----
It felt strange, visiting a kid in the hospital they didn’t even know. Lt. O’Brien had called Josh and told him Ryan wanted to meet him. Bryan had wanted to come, too. It was afternoon visiting hours on Wednesday. Lt. O’Brien asked them to wait outside the semi-private room Ryan was in, then knocked softly on the door and opened it, slipped inside, and closed it after him.
After about five minutes standing in the busy corridor, watching nurses bustle about carrying trays with things for patients, of hearing the staticky PA system paging various doctors, the boys were happy to see Lt. O’Brien open the door and beckon them to come in. Ryan was lying in one of the two beds in the small, overly-bright room. There was another boy who looked to be about 16 in the other bed. He looked up at them, frowned, and looked back at the TV that was suspended over his bed.
Lt. O’Brien brought them over to Ryan’s bedside. Ryan was a cute boy, and in the bed he looked very small and very young. He had an IV in the back of his left hand that was dripping slowly. His reddish-blond curls spread across the pillow. He looked at them with a face that showed little expression, only a hint of shyness.
Lt. O’Brien said softly, “Ryan, this is Josh and his friend Bryan.”
He put a hand on each of their shoulders as he spoke their names. “They were happy to come see you. Do you want me here, or would you like to talk to them alone?”
“Alone, please?” said Ryan, his voice high pitched and so soft Josh could barely hear him.
Lt. O’Brien smiled at him. “Sure thing, kiddo. I’ll be right outside.”
As he was turning to leave, Ryan waved his right hand at him, catching his attention, then pointed at the drape hanging between his bed and the one the other boy was occupying.
Lt. O’Brien pulled the thin drape across its track, separating the two beds and giving each visual if not audible privacy. He then left, shutting the door behind him.
Josh felt a little awkward. He looked at Ryan, and Ryan looked back at him. Finally, Josh stepped closer to the bed, then pulled a chair up so he could sit close to the boy. He leaned forward and said, “Hi.”
Ryan got a shy smile on his face. “Hi. I heard you got those guys arrested,” he said softly.
“Yeah. They’d been beating me up for some time. I’m sorry I wasn’t brave enough to get them arrested before they hurt you. I think it’s partly my fault you’re in here now.”
“You got them caught. Can you tell me about it? All about it?”
Josh smiled. “Sure I can. Let’s see, it started. . . .”
Josh told him everything he could remember, in great detail, how they’d set it up, something about all the people involved, only leaving out some of what had been said at the food court. It took him almost a half an hour to tell it all. Bryan had taken the other chair shortly after Josh had started and pulled it to the other side of the bed before sitting in it. Ryan watched and listened to Josh intently.
When Josh was done, Ryan smiled at him. “Did Frank hit him hard?”
“Yeah, real hard. He broke his jaw.”
“Good.” Then Ryan giggled. And grimaced as he felt pain in his ribs.
“You okay?” asked Bryan, alarmed.
“Yeah. They got me on pain medicine. It was pretty bad, the first couple days. I was really out of it. I’m almost healed now. I’m going home in a couple days. The ribs are still a little sore, but they’ve knitted. They just catch me up now and then, especially when I laugh. Hey, Josh? I want to ask a question.”
“Sure, Ryan. Anything.”
“Well, when those guys were beating you up, did they call you names or anything?”
“Yeah. They were always calling me gay.”
“They did me, too! But I’m not gay. Why would they do that?”
“I skipped that, when I was telling you about it. I told Tom he was gay and he didn’t want people to know, and that’s why he did it. I don’t know, I just made that up to make him mad, but it might be true. I actually think it is.”
“It bothers me a lot. I keep thinking about it. I got beaten up for something that isn’t true. It makes me wonder if that’ll ever happen again. How can I ever be safe if I get in trouble for things that aren’t even real? It seems like, no matter what I do or who I am or anything, this can happen again.”
Josh thought about that. And it didn’t take him long to realize he didn’t have any answers. “Ryan, things happen. We can’t always control them. I know you got hurt really badly, and it wasn’t your fault at all. But even if you were gay, getting beaten up wouldn’t have been your fault. I’ve learned something recently. We can’t be afraid of what might happen. Bryan helped me to believe in myself. You have to do that too. You just can’t be scared all the time. I was like that, and I wasn’t ever really happy. Do you have friends?”
“Well, hang with them. Be yourself. There really aren’t many bad guys out there. This will probably never happen again. Just don’t be afraid, Ryan. That’s all I can tell you.”
Ryan looked at him, then glanced at Bryan. He turned back to Josh. “Bryan’s your friend?”
“Yeah. My best friend. He’s helped me a lot. I wouldn’t have had the courage to get those guys arrested without him.”
Ryan looked back at Bryan. “Hi,” he said.
Bryan smiled at him. “Hey, how are you doing?. Are you going to be all right? I mean, down there? Or shouldn’t I ask?”
Ryan grinned a rueful smile. “I think I am. I had the operation, and then they kept putting ice bags on me. It was embarrassing at first. Nurses kept coming in and putting ice bags on my balls. Well, ball. It was funny. Not ha ha, but strange. Even when I was all doped up, it didn’t seem right, them doing that, just uncovering me and looking at my private parts and all. But after a few days and a few different nurses doing it and acting so matter of fact about it, I think I could join a nudist colony now and not be too embarrassed. And, the doctor says the swelling has gone down in my good nut and that I’ll almost certainly be okay. He says guys only need one nut to function properly and have babies and everything. He says I was lucky.”
“That’s great, Ryan. That had to be scary.”
“Not really, I was too out of it to really understand what was going on. By the time I did, they told me it looked like everything was going to be fine.”
“What does it look like? I mean, with one gone? I’m sorry,” said Bryan, suddenly looking uncomfortable. “I’m just really curious, I guess, but I’m not being very sensitive.” He blushed.
“No, that’s okay. It feels better, actually, having someone ask things like that instead of hiding their questions or feelings. I can sometimes tell when someone wants to ask something and then backs off. It sort of makes me feel funny when they do that, like I’m a freak with two heads and no one wants to mention it. Talking about it, answering questions, makes it seem much more ordinary, somehow. Not something I should be ashamed of.
“Anyway, I don’t look any different. When they removed my testicle, they replaced it with a fake. The doctor who did it was real nice. I was really spacey and didn’t know what was happening when they brought me here, and when I was more conscious and aware, they’d already performed the operation. But the doctor sat and talked to me for a long time, after they’d decided there was no permanent damage to my one testicle. He told me how I wouldn’t notice any effects, just having one, and told me how they’d put a fake one in my scrotum so I wouldn’t look any different. He talked about being in the locker room or anyplace else where I might be seen naked and how he knew it was important for guys not to feel they looked different down there, especially at my age. There’s only one problem. I haven’t grown much there yet. He says when I’m 16 or 17, they’ll probably have to replace the fake with a bigger one to keep the appearance normal, but that’ll be up to me then. He said it’s an easy operation and not to worry about it.”
Just then a nurse knocked on the door and stuck her head in. “Visiting hours are over. You need to wrap this up.”
When she’d left, Josh reached out and took Ryan’s hand. “We’re so happy you’re okay. Hey, you ever want to call me or Bryan, about anything, I’ll leave my phone number. You take care of yourself.”
Bryan also told him he was happy to have met him and was glad he was going home soon. Josh wrote his telephone number on a slip of paper and put it on Ryan’s rolling bedside tray.
Lt. O’Brien drove the boys home. Both were quiet in the car. When they arrived back at their house and were alone, Josh told Bryan, “You know, that could have been me. I never fought back, I just took whatever they did to me. They could have killed him. They could have killed me.”
“Josh, they didn’t. No sense worrying about what might have happened. We’re past all that, anyway. What we need to do now is shoot some hoops.”
“What about running?”
“That’s next. I’ve got to wear you out on the court first.”
“Fat chance, Hoover Dam boy.”
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