Michael tensed when the jet began the descent into Boston.
This time the tension had nothing to do with being in the air, streaking
across the heavens in a heavy airplane, somehow not falling from the sky.
It had nothing to do with the high altitude turbulence the last few hundred
miles that had jostled the plane like a paper kite. No, this time a fifteen-
year-old boy had caused the stiff muscles in his neck. He was about to
meet his son, John, for the first time, the boy he didn’t know existed until a
few weeks earlier.
Justin sat next to him by the window, their legs touching in the confined
seats as he silently stared down at the clouds, silently pondering their
destiny with a teenage boy, buffeted from time to time on air currents. Now
and then he looked at the woebegone father-to-be, occasionally reaching
over to squeeze his knee.
Shannon, Michael’s nurse when they both worked together in San Diego,
and now involved with him in building a clinic in Big Bend, sat next to the
aisle on his left. Like Michael, she may have been nervous, though it
hardly showed. Most than anything she looked excited; not completely
settled on what her role might be in the boy’s life, but hatching ideas. If the
cards fell just right, she would be Michael’s partner in raising the boy,
picking up where John’s mother had left off. She had died in an auto
accident back during the summer.
From the moment the jet left the El Paso airport, Michael sat quietly, a
nervous bundle of prospective fatherhood. As the airliner streaked through
the Texas sky, perhaps to control his frayed nerves, perhaps to hang onto
his courage, he took deep breaths and let his mind wander. He
contemplated the day he met Justin, the fourth of four days of solitude at a
small campsite next to the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park. On duty
as a park ranger, Justin had spotted his amateur campsite during a routine
patrol of the River Road. He remembered sitting on a rock formation,
gazing out over the river when he first heard Justin’s voice. He turned and
his eyes settled on a rather stoic looking park ranger, accompanied by a
little dog. Thinking back, he knew it had been during that brief silent
moment that something occurred inside him, something vague, a small
voice whispering something that took the next few days to comprehend.
How quickly their friendship had formed, though both of them, during those
awkward first few moments, didn’t quite recognize what was happening.
As the plane swayed and the muted roar of jet engines settled vaguely in
his ears, he let his mind drift through those first few days he and Justin had
spent together, how Justin had found himself grappling with his sexuality,
finally giving himself over to the destiny imprinted on his genes. Michael
smiled inwardly, thinking about Justin’s first tentative steps on his path of
self-discovery, that first reticent kiss, those hands aching to explore what
his eyes already had. Nor would Michael ever forget his own giddy
emotions, after an empty life of one-night-stands, of bathhouses and
faceless men, of loneliness and doubt, having met such a beautiful,
As his thoughts shifted to Shannon, he could feel her presence beside him
and smell her subtle feminine scent. He still cringed remembering how he
broke her heart when they were working together at General Hospital in
San Diego. At the time he didn’t know she wasn’t aware of his sexuality,
though they were colleagues and fast friends. He didn’t know that when
they went to dinner together or to see a play, she was falling in love with
him; yet she stood by him when his career at the hospital came to a tragic
end. And she stood by him when she learned he was gay, joyfully moving
to Big Bend country to help found the new clinic. Now she was excited
about meeting his son, to be part of this anxious experience, to play a role
in John’s life. As the plane dropped another few thousand feet, she took
Michael’s hand and squeezed it.
Moments before the plane began its descent, before his emotions
bordered on panic, Michael had been staring at the seat-back in front of
him thinking about Jennifer, the boy’s mother. He still couldn’t believe she
had died in a car crash just a few weeks before. More than fifteen years
had passed since he had seen her. He recalled all the time they had spent
together, studying, jogging together after their last class, sharing their
secrets and youthful philosophies. Of the long string of boys he had dated
in college, and forgotten, he had never had a boyfriend that had listened
as thoughtfully as did Jennifer.
So why didn’t she tell him she was pregnant? She knew he was in San
Diego. She knew he would want to be a part of his son’s life. His best
friend in college all those years ago, his confidant. Why didn’t she let him
know he had a son? Now he feared the boy would reject him.
He remembered the day it happened. They had run three miles that
afternoon after a beautiful snowfall. Back at her apartment, he showered
while she made sandwiches. When her turn came to shower, he lit a fire in
the fireplace and listened to the water running as he sat with the bath
towel wrapped around his waist, staring at the flickering blue flames. He
remembered looking up when she walked out of her bedroom, thinking
how lovely she looked in the short nightgown. She sat on the floor facing
him while they ate the sandwiches. Maybe it was simple curiosity. Maybe
it was a sudden urge to express his feelings for her physically; he had
never quite figured that out. But when her eyes dropped, he followed her
gaze and saw the towel around his waist was gaping. He still remembered
the sudden rush of emotion, the silent communication that neither of them
had experienced with each other before, the urge that came into his hand
to reach over and touch her face. Why did she keep it from him and the
boy all this time?
“Jeez, that’s a big city down there,” said Justin.
“God, I hate this,” said Michael, staring toward the front of the cabin,
fidgeting with his hands.
Justin looked at him and gave his knee another squeeze. “Everything’ll
work out as it should.”
“His aunt said he hates the idea of military school,” Shannon offered. “I
think he’ll be glad we wanna take him home.”
“He’ll wonder why his mother didn’t tell him about me.” Michael lowered
his head and rubbed his brow with his fingertips. “He’ll think she was
ashamed because his father is gay. He must know she didn’t want him to
find out about me.”
“That’s not the way I see it, Michael,” said Justin. “Who knows why she
didn’t tell him. My guess is she figured it would be best for you.”
“Me! No. There’s some other reason.” Michael’s morale seemed to be
dropping faster than the plane. “I don’t understand it. She didn’t give me a
chance. I didn’t get to do anything, help her in some way.”
“How could you help her? You lived a continent away. You were startin’
your career. What could you do, send her a check each month? Sounds
to me she didn’t need the money.”
“Oh, God. My stomach’s boiling.”
Justin rested his head against the seatback and stared straight ahead.
Shannon looked down at Michael’s clasped hands. It reminded her of his
last day in San Diego, when he lost the little girl on the operating table to a
The 767 touched down. Moments later people were standing and
reaching for bags in the overhead compartment. Shannon stood and
stepped into the aisle. Justin scooted forward and looked at Michael, who
seemed frozen in his seat as he rubbed the knuckles of his tight fist.
“Glad we packed light,” said Shannon, reaching up for her overnight case.
She handed the second one to Michael, who stared at it, lost. Justin took
the bag and his own and waited until Michael began shifting his weight to
stand. He stood, crouching under the overhang, staring nervously at the
people inching their way past Shannon. Impatience was heavy in the air.
“Let’s go, buddy,” said Justin. “Let’s get it over with.”
Pressed like sardines, they moved with the throng, down the aisle and
through the portable tunnel that led into the airport. Michael looked
around, remembering friends and relatives could no longer meet
passengers at the gate.
“Didn’t Loraine say they’d meet us at the baggage claim area?” Justin
“That’s what Jody said.”
Jody, Michael’s sister, was at Michael’s and Justin’s house in Big Bend.
She and her husband, Brian, stayed behind to look after the new puppy,
the cocker spaniel she bought when they lost Perk, the little dog everyone
“Maybe we should get hotel rooms,” said Michael, worried the boy’s
reaction could very well make everyone uncomfortable, especially him.
“Loraine invited us to stay at her place,” Shannon replied.
“What if …”
Justin wrapped his arm around Michael’s shoulder. “Calm down, Michael.
Everything’s gonna be okay.”
Approaching the baggage claim area a few minutes later, all three travelers
paused, recognizing Loraine and John from the pictures Loraine had
emailed. For Michael it was like the sound had been turned off, and the
lights, leaving the boy standing in the glow of a Hollywood spotlight. For a
second or two his breath stopped. In front of him, separated by a mere fifty
feet and passengers grappling with their luggage, stood his son, hands in
his back pockets, staring at the floor as if his thoughts were a million miles
John’s eyes lifted, scanned the throngs around him, then paused on the
threesome staring his way. He recognized them—he had seen pictures,
too. No smile. No emotion of any kind, other than a dark gray light of
Shannon advanced first, followed by Michael and Justin. She wrapped her
arms around Loraine’s shoulders and pulled her into a hug, two men and a
boy watching awkwardly. “We’ve looked forward to meeting you,” she
said, now holding Loraine’s shoulders at arms-length. Her eyes shifted to
John, filled with a disarming smile. “Both of you.” She extended her
hand. “I’m Shannon.”
The boy looked at her hand, then took it. A quick, inconsequential
“John, this is your father, Michael Anderson.”
Michael stepped closer and offered his hand, wanting to hug him, thinking
that might not be appropriate, wanting for all of the world to be accepted by
this magnificent boy.
A weak handshake before John shoved both his hands into his pockets.
“And this is Justin, your father’s friend,” said Shannon, who, at first glance,
could see the situation wasn’t going well. Loraine seemed polite, but
disinterested, as if there might be other things she could be doing. Justin
had planned all along to stay on the sideline. Michael looked faint, as if his
knees might buckle any second. Obviously this group needed direction,
which was exactly why she was here.
“We don’t have luggage, Loraine, but why don’t we stop for a snack and
coffee before leaving the airport?” Shannon suggested, thinking their first
few moments together might be more comfortable on neutral ground.
Sitting around a table in the nearest coffee shop, the awkward party
awaited a server with furtive glances and nerve-racking silence. Then
Michael looked directly at John.
“I was sorry to hear about your mother. She and I were best friends.”
John stared at him a moment, then: “She never said anything about you.”
“I know,” said Michael, “but I don’t know why. Wish I could ask her.”
“You can’t.” The boy looked angrily away; angry that fate took his mother
away, or angry he had grown up without a father, Michael couldn’t
determine—he knew only how much his heart ached.
Michael released a sigh as he leaned forward and rested his elbows on
the table. His eyes settled on the boy. He could see the confusion, the
disappointment, the unsettling questions John’s youth wouldn’t permit him
to ask. “I’d feel the same way if it were me.”
The boy glanced at him, looked away, then looked back. Was he daring
Michael to attempt to make things right, to resolve the looming issue that
took fifteen years to create?
“My father hated me,” Michael continued. “He hated me because I wasn’t
like him, for who I am, the way I was born. Maybe this is worse. At least I
knew he was alive. He fed me, made sure I had clothes, whipped me
when I got caught playing with matches. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll never be
able to explain why this happened.”
While the others quietly stared at the table, John stared at the man that
called himself his father. In his eyes simmered contempt, and anger, and
all the other dichotomies of a fifteen year old mind. Yet behind the
contempt and anger, a small light, a need, an unrecognized desire for
something normal, something that made sense.
“Why didn’t she tell me?” the boy asked.
“No one knows why,” Shannon broke in. “She didn’t tell either one of you.
We have to believe she had her reasons.”
“She thought it was best…” said Loraine, looking at Shannon, “considering
the circumstances. My sister and Michael were close friends, but she
knew they could never be more. She told me about Michael when she
found out she was pregnant.” Loraine looked at John. “You have to
decide. You can stay here and go to school in Connecticut, or go to Texas
with your father.”
John’s gaze had settled on Justin, who was leaning against the back of the
chair, toying with a napkin, wondering if Michael would ever be able to
break the ice. John’s analytical gaze seem to suggest more questions, as
if he were trying to fathom a father partnered with another man, a black
man that had not yet said the first word.
“I don’t wanna go to military school.”
“Then you’ve decided to go with your father?” said Loraine.
“I don’t know. What would I do in Texas?” He said the word Texas as if
talking about some foreign country.
Beginning to feel a few fatherly instincts, Michael spoke: “You have to
finish high school.”
“In some hick town? Lajitas? Never heard of it.”
“We live on a ranch,” said Michael. “Lajitas is the nearest town. You’d go
to school in Alpine and come home on weekends. Justin has a friend in
Alpine. You’d room at her house.”
“I think you’d like it, John,” said Justin, quietly perturbed by the boy’s
attitude. “if you could adjust to perfect weather, beautiful sunsets and
vistas that go on for miles. Lot of pretty girls to look at in Alpine.”
“Why didn’t you marry my mother?” said John, shifting his focus to Michael.
Stunned by the question and the boy’s attitude in asking it, Michael looked
at him for a moment to gather his thoughts. “You already know the answer
The waitress came with glasses of water, took orders for coffee and
sandwiches, then left the somber group to their ongoing conversation.
“John,” said Shannon, wanting to find the right words, “your father is a
good man. He cares about you and regrets he didn’t have a chance to be
there for you. You can give him a chance now.”
Loraine added: “John, Jennifer never told me why she kept silent about
your father. She didn’t tell him about you. He couldn’t have known. You
can’t blame him for that.”
John looked at his aunt with defiance. He should have known, the boy
thought. He had sex with her. He should have stayed in Boston.
“You might like Texas,” Justin offered. “You don’t have to decide to move
there. Call it a visit. Just give it a try and see if you like it.”
At Loraine’s house, after dinner, Michael and Justin went out and sat on
the front step. Boston’s evening air chilled their skin and the sound of a
freeway could be heard two or three blocks away. John had gone to his
room. Shannon and Loraine were at the kitchen table, visiting.
“Least we know what we’re up against,” said Justin, scanning the row
houses across the street, their facades shadowy in the faded glow of a
nearby streetlight. “We have a challenge to face.”
“I knew he would reject me.”
“He’s a teenager. Just lost his mother. Maybe you were right, but what
else could we expect?”
“I guess anything else would be an unrealistic fantasy,” Michael said
wistfully. He turned to look at Justin with a pained smile. “We need
something less emotional in our lives.”
“It’s more interesting this way,” Justin said, pulling a leaf from a potted
plant, shredding it.
“Did you notice how quickly he went to his room? Disappeared without a
“He’ll sleep on it tonight. Have a better perspective in the mornin’.
Shannon’s softening him up pretty good. I caught him starin’ at her chest.”
Michael blew a laugh through his nose. “That helps answer one question,
“My guess is he don’t have a gay bone in his body. That’s probably you’re
biggest hurdle, him accepting a gay father.”
“Funny, growing up I worried about what my dad would think. Now I’m
worried about what my son thinks. Sometimes you just can’t fucking win.”
Michael craned his neck and looked up at the house looming behind him.
“What do you think of these townhouses?”
“I don’t know. Never seen houses built this close together right on the
street before. Take some gettin’ used to after being surrounded by ten
thousand square miles of desert.”
“Are you getting cold?”
“Let’s go in.”
After a two hour visit with Loraine and Shannon, they turned in. Getting in
bed beside Michael, pulling the sheet over his legs, he leaned over his
companion and said: “Guess we shouldn’t get any suspicious stains on
these sheets, huh.”
Michael smiled and kissed him, then reached for his novel.
By two o’clock the following afternoon they were in the air on their way
back to west Texas, Michael and Justin near the back of the plane,
Shannon and John sitting together over the wing. Due to the capacity
flight, four seats together were unavailable.
“All things considered, I think things went well,” said Justin over the drone
of the engines.
“I can’t get a good read on him. Will he ever accept me?”
“Sure he will. Like you told him yourself, in his place you’d be angry, too.”
“We’ll get him enrolled in school. He’ll make a few friends.” Michael
turned his head and stared out the window. Passing over a layer of
clouds, the sky was an endless blue eternity. “He’ll probably be worried
they’ll find out his father is gay.”
“You gonna start inventing things to worry about?” Justin asked. “Let it
lay. He’ll come around. Before long he won’t even think about it.”
“Were you surprised he decided to come with us?”
“No. After that walk he took with Shannon this mornin’, I figured she’d
convince him. Plus you could tell he hated the idea of military school.”
“And that was a good thing you said last night, telling him to consider this a
“He’ll stay once we get him there.”
“He stares at me a lot. I can’t tell what he’s thinking, can you?” Michael
“He stares at me, too. Who knows what he’s thinking.” Justin reached
down to scratch his ankle. “Know what I’m gonna miss? Walkin’ around
the house naked.”
Justin looked at him. “Why would I miss it?”
“No, why would you stop?”
“We can’t do that with John there.”
“He’ll be in Alpine five days a week. And besides, if I teach him anything, it’
ll be to accept and appreciate his body, his and everyone else’s. I don’t
want to start changing things around the house.”
Sitting next to Shannon, John played games on his cell phone, She
thought he was a beautiful boy, tall and lanky, broad shoulders like
Michael’s, long sandy brown hair, and brown eyes that could melt any
“You and your mother were close, weren’t you?” Shannon asked.
“Yeah,” he said without looking up from his phone. “She took me and my
friends on camping trips. Things like that. She was cool.”
“Does it bother you she didn’t tell you about your father?”
“Yeah. All she said was she had a boyfriend in college. She wouldn’t tell
me what happened to him. I didn’t think about it much.”
“But it bothered you when you did.”
“Sorta.” He looked at her. “I couldn’t understand why he disappeared.”
Shannon nodded. “Mind if I see your hand?”
He looked at her quizzically as she took his hand and examined it, running
her fingertips over the back of his fingers. “You have strong, sensitive
hands, like your father’s.”
He looked at his hand when she released it, then looked at her.
“He went to California after he and your mother graduated. Both of them
started busy careers. They lost touch. No one agrees with her not telling
you about Michael, but no one holds it against her, either. People do what
they think is best.”
“Probably because he’s gay.”
Shannon nodded thoughtfully. “Could have something to do with it.
Whatever her reason, she knew there could be no future for herself with
him. Maybe it was just too painful to explain.”
“At least I would’ve known.”
“If he’d known about you, everything would be different. He would’ve been
part of your life from the day you were born. He’s a good man, John. You
really should give him a chance. I’m sure you’ll like him.”
Holding the cell phone in one hand, John let it rest on his thigh. “Why
does he have to be gay?”
“No one knows the answer to things like that. I personally believe people
are born the way they are. Being gay isn’t a choice.” She looked at his
troubled expression for a moment. “Think that’s gonna stand in the way?”
“I don’t know.”
“You haven’t had time to think about it. Wait until you get to know him
before you decide.”
Shannon looked at him for a moment, unable to determine if her plea had
touched his heart. As he stared absently at his iPhone, she brushed her
fingers through his hair. “I haven’t asked you if you have a girlfriend.”
“Ever had one?”
“No.” He looked at her, quickly adding: “I like girls, though. I think you’re
“Thank-you, John. You’re a dashing young man yourself.”
“Are you glad you moved to Texas?” he asked.
“Oh yes. I love Big Bend. Some of the towns down there are a little
scraggly, but it’s beautiful country. You can see for miles. Mountains in
every direction. The sun always shines. It’s usually warm in the winter,
“I’m used to snow.”
“Well, if you decide to stay, that’s something you might miss.”
“I miss my mother,” he said softly.
Shannon’s heart bled for him as she watched his thumbs trace over the
iPhone, thinking about how difficult it must be at his age to have life
change so dramatically. She wrapped an arm around his shoulder,
something he automatically accepted, allowing his weight to lean closer.
The picture ahead was still a little vague, but she had a good feeling about
At the El Paso airport, they loaded John’s luggage in Michael’s Cherokee.
John looked around the parking area and then up at the sky. “Sure is hot
Michael sat down on the back bumper. “You and your mother travel very
“She liked going to Florida. We went nearly every summer.”
“Things are a lot different here. Nothing at all like Boston. This is high
country. Mountains and desert. It’s warm most of the year, but no
“How far is your house?”
“Little over three hours drive,” Michael said, wondering how long it would
be before he referred to it as our house. “You’ll see a lot of west Texas
before we get home.”
John let out a sigh of exasperation and looked around again. Moments
later they were driving through El Paso.
“It looks like a foreign country,” John mentioned as he gazed out the
window. He and Shannon shared the back seat.
“We’re not far from Mexico,” said Justin. “You’ve heard the horror stories
about Juarez. That’s it over there goin’ up the hillside, just the other side
of the Rio Grande.”
“Is it dangerous down here?”
“It is in Juarez, not here, or where we’re going.”
“Never seen so many Mexicans,” the boy observed.
“Well, this is their part of the world as much as anyone else’s,” Justin said.
“Most people around here don’t care about who you are one way or
Driving through the desert they told him about west Texas history, about
the early settlers and cattle ranches, the Comanche raids and the old San
Antonio/El Paso Road, how the government built Fort Davis to protect
“Things don’t move so quickly out here,” Michael told him. “The days are
long, the nights cool. You’ll see more stars in the sky than you ever have.
You have time and room to think, figure out what you wanna do with your
life. You’ll see vistas you never imagined.”
“How long am I visiting for?”
Michael glanced at him in the rearview mirror. “Long as you want. You
get ready to go back, just say so.”
Shannon added: “He’s planning to give it a chance.” She looked at the
boy and smiled. “I heard you right, didn’t I, when we were talking about
“Within the next few days we’ll drive you up to see Alpine. Give you a
chance to see where you’ll be going to school if you decide to stay.”
“I already told him about the girls up there,” Justin teased.
“You know, that surprised me the first time I saw Alpine,” Michael said.
“Wasn’t expecting to see so many good looking girls.”
“Bear with them, John,” said Shannon, “they just want you to think they’re
“We are cool, Shannon,” Justin said. “Haven’t you figured that out yet?”
Without a hint of change in his downcast expression, John turned his head
and looked out the window.
“Where’s the door?” John asked as they pulled off the gravel road in front
of the house.
“Never really figured that out,” said Justin. “This house was built before
they put the road in, so I guess that’s actually the back of the house. We
call it the front. The door’s on the other side.”
“They built a house with no road to it?” John said, incredulous.
“It was a ranch hand’s house, an outpost on a big ranch. Cowboys stayed
here so they could look after the cattle.”
They took their bags from the back of the Cherokee and started for the
back of the house. Rounding the corner, they saw Jody walking Chip
some fifty yards out in the desert. On the veranda, Brian sat with his feet
up on the railing, reading a magazine. They could hear the little dog
yapping as he chased around sniffing out agave plants.
Jody turned as they approached the veranda, bags in hand. She started
in their direction, closely followed by the puppy. “Where’s Shannon?” she
“That’s my sister,” Michael said to John. “Your aunt.”
“What’s that?” John asked, looking at the jug tied between two poles.
“That’s where we take showers, at least until the plumbing’s finished.”
“Outside?” said the boy with a tone of protest.
“You can use it or stink. Either way, we’ll have the bathroom in before
They set the bags on the edge of the veranda and Michael introduced the
nephew and aunt. Jody extended her hand, observing the boy with a
cautious eye as his hand came into contact with hers. Over the phone,
John’s aunt in Boston had told her he had entered a rebellious stage
shortly after his mother had died.
“You were quite a surprise for us,” Jody said, releasing his hand.
“And we were quite a surprise for him,” Michael added.
John realized intuitively that Jody was nothing like Shannon, but more like
his aunt in Boston, somewhat impersonal, instinctually suspicious. He didn’
t care much for her at all and was glad she didn’t live around here.
“How was the flight?” Jody asked Michael.
Jody looked at John. “Your father always says that. Give him a smooth,
flawless flight and he’ll still call it miserable.” She stepped closer to
Michael to hug his neck, her eye on John all the while. She looked past
her brother’s shoulder and saw Justin sitting on the edge of the veranda,
observing. “Hello, Justin. Glad you guys are home.”
“Hello Jody. Glad you could be here to look after Chip.”
Brian had stepped closer, giving John a warm, gracious smile when
Michael introduced them. John liked him better than his wife.
“I was hoping to see Shannon again before we leave,” said Jody.
“She’s coming for breakfast. You’ll have plenty of time to visit before you
have to leave.”
As they started for the house, Jody looked over her shoulder and saw
John sitting on the ground playing with the puppy. She looked at her
brother with a question in her eyes. “Is he coming?”
“He’ll be all right out here for a while,” Michael said, draping his arm
around her lower back to ease her along. Justin started a pot coffee and
they sat at the table and told Jody about how things went in Boston.
“He looks a little sour to me,” said Jody, taking a sip of coffee.
“What do you expect, Sis? He just lost his mother. He’s been thrown into
another world. Big Bend’s not much like Boston. It’ll take him a while to
feel at home here.”
She looked at Justin. “Now you know why I don’t want any kids.”
He looked at Brian. “What about you?”
Brian shrugged. “Haven’t thought about it much. I don’t have a burning
desire, I know that.”
“We’re talking about going to Italy next year,” said Jody. “How could we
do that if we had a kid?”
“Perfectly understandable,” Justin replied, doubting John would ever have
“Besides, I’m an aunt. That’s good enough for me.”
Thirty minutes later, Jody noticed John had still not come in. She pushed
out her chair and stood up. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Michael watched her walk out the door, wary of her tact. He looked at
Justin, who raised an eyebrow and then glanced at the door.
She paused on the porch. Still sitting on the ground, Chip in his lap, John
rubbed the dog’s neck while he stared at the western horizon.
“Quite a panorama, isn’t it?” she said on her approach.
John glanced at her as she sat down beside him. “It’s okay.”
“When I first came out here I couldn’t believe how beautiful this country is.
Don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t anything like this. Wait ‘til you
see the sun go down over there.”
“I’m just here for a visit,” the boy said.
“Your father told me.” She looked at him for a moment, then asked: “John
… have you figured out what you want?”
He glanced at her as if she were an intrusion. “I want my mother back.”
“I can understand that. I know you were close. You’ll have wonderful
memories for the rest of your life. I meant what you want from your father.”
“He don’t seem like my father.”
“He wasn’t around. I didn’t even know he was alive.”
“That’s what I don’t understand, why your mother didn’t contact him.”
“Because he’s gay. She knew he wouldn’t be interested.”
“But he came to get you as soon as he found out.”
“No, he didn’t. He found out last summer.”
“Your father had to adjust too, just like you’re trying to now.”
“Quit calling him my father.”
“Listen to me: I’m very close to Michael. We lived next door to each other
a long time in San Diego. I know him as well as Justin does, maybe better
in some ways. He fell in love with you the moment he saw your picture.
He didn’t come right away because he thought you’d hate him. Looks like
he was right.”
“I don’t hate him.”
“You act like it.” Jody hesitated to check her resentment for the boy’s
attitude. “He won’t give up, John. He does love you. A man has clear
instincts when it comes to his children. You’ll see that for yourself one
day. You can resent him for not being there, and break his heart in the
process, but you owe it to yourself to help make this work out. Won’t be
much longer before you can go out on your own. You’ll be a young man.
Independent. You’ll be able to do anything you want.”
“When? Years from now?”
“Think about when you were twelve. Doesn’t seem that long ago, does it?
These next few years will pass just as quickly. Let my brother help you get
started.” Jody stood up and brushed off the seat of her jeans, looking
down at him. “And do yourself a favor: tone down some of this attitude
crap.” She turned and walked back to the house.
Their first three days together passed. John had spent endless hours on
the Internet, seemingly oblivious to the comings and goings around him.
And a similar amount of time walking Chip in the desert. They had
suffered through long, painful silences during meals, both Justin and
Michael glancing at the boy from time to time. Hardly bolstered by Justin’s
encouragement, Michael often caught himself staring at John, wondering if
things would ever change.
Except for the time Justin had to spend patrolling the River Road, and the
time Michael had to invest in planning the new clinic, they worked on top of
the house finishing out the rafters. Justin’s heart ached every time he
noticed Michael standing on the veranda, solemnly staring at the boy and
the dog in the desert.
By Friday night they finished the rafters. The sun had turned orange over
the western mountains. John, his skin now sun-bronzed above the waist,
sat with his legs folded behind the house, playing with Chip. Some twenty
feet away, pondering the day’s work, stood Michael and Justin.
“At least he’s taken to the dog,” said Michael.
“Yeah, I think Chip has a new favorite. They slept together last night.”
“I noticed that when I got up to pee.”
“I can’t tell if he’s warmin’ up to us or not,” said Justin, watching the boy
and the dog, his thumbs hooked in the waistband of his jeans. “He’s so
quiet all the time.”
“Wish I knew what he was thinking.”
“Confusion is what I see,” said Justin. “Confusion masked with regret and
anger. I saw him watchin’ us today while we were finishing up the rafters.
The expression on his face. It was like he was fascinated by what we
“I think you’re right about that. Every now and then he drops the façade,
as if he’s forgotten he’s angry. He responds like he’s interested, like he
cares. It’s like we’re getting an involuntary snapshot of what he’s really
like underneath. Then sometimes that sadness comes over him. You
know he’s thinking about his mother. I wanna take him into my arms and
“Yeah, might be a little early for that. But I see it, too.”
“You never know what you’re gonna get. I’m up one minute and down the
Justin looked at John and the dog. “Let’s take him swimmin’ tomorrow.”
Michael glanced at Justin and back at the boy.
“That might loosen him up some. Maybe he’ll have fun.”
Michael nodded, agreeing with the idea, just not overly optimistic a day on
the river would work its magic spell on his son. He approached the boy,
knelt beside him and rubbed the puppy’s head.
“Wish you’d had a chance to know Perk,” he said. “He was with us when
we got kidnapped last summer. The kidnapper shot him. Chip’s a lot like
him, though. Same personality.”
The puppy rolled onto its back, all four legs in the air. “Musta’ been scary
getting kidnapped like that?” John said, a subject he seemed to be curious
“Once was enough,” Michael replied, his mind still scorched with the
dreadful memory of four endless days of captivity. “I got a taste of evil and
the endless capacity of the human mind.”
“Why would he shoot a dog?”
“Perk was barking at him, and that irritated him. The guy was living on the
edge. Just a crazy son-of-a-bitch.”
“He was an escaped convict?”
“Yeah. A child predator. Caused quite an ordeal for this part of the
country. Justin and I were in the wrong place that day. We’d just about
given up by the time they found us.”
Michael watched the boy for a moment. He had gone back into an
unresponsive mood. Michael turned to see what had distracted his son.
Justin had taken off his clothes and stood naked under the jug, which he
tilted just enough to let water pour over his head. The boy was staring as
if something weighed on his mind. Then his attention returned to the dog.
“Does our casual lifestyle bother you?” Michael asked, mindful his son had
yet to take a shower.
Unconvinced, Michael changed the subject. “We’re thinking about
spending the day on the river tomorrow. You like to swim?”
John shrugged, then nodded.
“You haven’t seen that part of the property yet. The southern section goes
all the way to the Rio Grande, right where the river starts cutting through
the mountains. Real scenic. Perfect place to swim.”
“Sure,” said John. “Can Shannon go, too?”
“Good idea. I’ll call her after dinner.”
Grateful for the relationship developing between John and Shannon,
Michael had recognized early on that John looked to her as a trusted
friend, or perhaps an older sister. Certainly not a mother figure, for as
close as John had been to his mother, no one would ever fill those shoes.
He liked Shannon and obviously felt comfortable around her; which
seemed logical since he had spent his entire life in the sole company of a
woman. Because the boy believed his father had abandoned his mother,
Michael thought he might be confused about men, found it hard to trust
them, to understand them, to relate to them. Shannon was the bridge
between him and his son, and he believed she would find a way to coax
“Guess I’ll get cleaned up before dinner,” Michael said, rising, turning just
as Justin tilted the jug to rinse his body of soap, blotting his chest with a
towel as Michael approached.
“He wanna go?” Justin asked.
“I think so. He agreed to it anyway.”
“You were hopin’ he’d be excited about the idea.”
“We can’t expect too much, Michael. It’s still too soon. We’ll keep workin’
on it. We’ll wear him down before long.”
Michael leaned forward and unbuckled his sandals, tilting his head upward
toward the man standing in front of him. “You look exceptionally tempting
tonight,” he said, rising, unfastening his jeans.
“Everything you see is yours for the taking,” Justin replied, watching the
jeans slide down Michael’s legs, reminded of thoughts that had crept into
his mind during the day as they nailed in the rafters, when they worked
close and the smell of a man’s underarms teased his nostrils. He felt the
tingles of a beginning erection, then glanced at the boy and the lift abated.
“Have you adjusted to havin’ the three of us living here? That’s a lot of
testosterone in that small house.”
Michael, stepping out of his jeans, looked over at John; he was too far
away to hear their words. “Different, isn’t it? Even if he didn’t have the
attitude, it’d be an adjustment. So much for keeping everything the
same.” Michael glanced at the boy again. “You taking any bets on when
he’ll finally break down and take a shower?”
“I saw him over here lookin’ at the jug yesterday. He’s thinkin’ about it.”
“Is he rebelling or what?”
“I figure it’s culture shock, and maybe a little modesty. Think about his life
in Boston. No tellin’ what he thought when he first saw how we take a
“Probably the same thing I did.”
“I remember.” Justin dried his legs and wrapped the towel around his
waist. “I’ll go in and start dinner.” He nodded at the jug dangling over
Michael’s head. “Is that enough water for your shower?”
Michael looked at the jug. “I’ll make do.”