Chapter 15

After spending the night at Paul’s house, both boys got up and showered, before putting on their best clothes and grooming themselves carefully.

Paul wore a Navy suit with a white shirt and blue and pink tie, and his hair was carefully combed into a conservative look. “So do I look gay?” he teased. “Or will I get past GI Joe safely?”

Jim laughed and said, “The problem is you still look stunning,” with a wink. “I think that’s as straight as you get, pretty boy!” Jim looked the picture of handsome, red-blooded American jock in his charcoal suit and conservative tie. Paul smacked him on the shoulder, and they went out to the car. “I just wish we didn’t have to pull up in this!”

Paul smiled and said, “It’s fine! But if you’re uncomfortable, we’ll park in the city garage and walk a couple of blocks!” Jim smiled and nodded, and then drove off. After they parked and walked out of the garage, Paul gasped and said, “You weren’t kidding about the circus, were you?”

“Oh, no,” Jim said, picking up his pace. Out front of the church, a line of policemen were trying to hold back a group of very angry army rangers, while a couple of Danny’s team mates had him pinned to the wall. Along the sidewalk, about eight members of Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church were protesting, yelling things like “God hates America,” and “God hates Fags.” The ‘church’, as most everybody knows, is a group who protests at places like soldiers’ funerals, claiming their deaths are ‘god’s’ vengeance on gay-loving America.

Jim started to run, but Paul grabbed his arm. Jim looked to see tears in Paul’s eyes. “How can they do this to those people?”

“They’re evil bigots,” Jim said. “I’m sorry you have to go through this.”

“This isn’t about me,” Paul said. “You go help Danny. I’m gonna see what I can do about this!”

“Paul, there’s nothing,” Jim began.

“GO TO DANNY! And tell him Paul’s got a plan!” the boy said, smiling and wiping away his tears. As Jim ran over to his friend, Paul walked back to a nearby Walgreens and bought a couple of posters and a couple of yardsticks, and a pack of markers. When he was finished, he asked the store manager if he could use the break room for a minute.

“What are you up to, kid?” the surly man asked.

“You see those people protesting at my friend’s dad’s memorial service?” Paul asked.

“Damn right I did! If I wouldn’t get fired I’d go down there and punch one of those assholes!”

“Army? Danny’s dad was an Army Ranger!” Paul said.

“No shit? I was a marine,” the man said.

“Well, I need to make a couple of signs,” Paul said, adrenaline in his veins. “I’m gonna make a diversion!”

The man led the boy to the room and watched him make two double-sided signs. In bright, rainbow letters, one sign read, “I’m a fag, and my God can kick your god’s ass!” while the other side read, “Semper Fi, assholes.” The second sign read, “Judge not, lest ye be judged!” and “R-E-S-P-E-C-T!” beneath a big rainbow. Paul asked, “Do you have a big stapler?”

The man shook his head and smiled despite himself. “Yeah, come on, kid!” He went into the office and helped Paul staple the signs together on the yard sticks. “What’s your name?”

“Paul, sir.”

“Paul, you got stones,” the man said with a nod. “You’re alright!”

“Thanks,” Paul said, blushing. “Can I borrow a big bag?”

The man gave him one and he bent the signs to hide them. The man was confused and Paul said, “I’ve got a plan.”

Jim was holding Danny back when he saw Paul emerge with the bag, and looked at him confused. Paul just walked over to the news lady at the big news van. “Lady, these people are media whores,” he said, “and they’re disrupting my friend’s dad’s memorial service!”

“Sorry, kid, but this is news,” she said, disinterestedly.

“If I promise you a good story, will you move this van?” Paul asked.

She looked at him doubtfully and said, “What?”

“How does, ‘Westboro Baptist counterprotest at City Hall turns ugly,’ sound to you?” Paul asked.

The woman smiled and said, “I don’t see no counterprotest,” looking down the street to the steps of City Hall.

“There will be,” he said, pulling two signs from his bag. The sight of them made the woman laugh and shake her head. Paul hoisted one of his signs in each hand and crossed the street, singing the hymn, “God is love!”

“Oh my God,” Christina said from the steps of the church. “What is he doing?” Danny and Jim both stood slack-jawed, but the protesters turned and started yelling angry taunts at Paul, who was slowly walking down the street toward city hall.

“Diversion,” a nearby master sergeant said, as the news lady and her cameraman jogged down the street to film the crazy gay boy and his lonely counterprotest. Jim smiled and shook his head. Part of him wanted to join Paul, but Paul knew Jim needed to stay with Danny. Anyway, the police would keep Paul safe.

With the cameras and interest now on Paul, the Westboro group was forced to move down the street to City Hall in order to maintain the focus of the media. More than a few of the soldiers waved to or saluted Paul for what he’d done before heading inside. A number of townseople, though, more distant acquaintances of Danny’s father, joined Paul and began singing along with him certain hymns which would taunt the fringe Baptists.

Inside, with the noise of protest silenced by distance, the service began. Then came the speeches by town leaders and friends. It was Danny’s father’s commander who would be last to speak before Danny. The man rose and took the podium, his medal’s shining and his uniform immaculate.

“This morning,” he began with a deep sigh, “I was horrified. I thought our memory of this day would forever be marred by the hatred and ignorance of people who do not care for their fellow man.” Danny was shocked to see the man’s lip was actually trembling as he continued, “But then I saw what was perhaps the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen off the battlefield, an act of courage and bravery in the name of friendship such as one rarely sees. The peace we enjoy now in this room is being paid for by someone else’s suffering and sacrifice. THAT is what WE stand for,” he boomed, addressing his comrades-in-arms. “THAT is what WE DO! It is what the man we’re honoring today lived and died to accomplish – peace for others at the price of his own sacrifice. Whatever else I might have said in honor of my friend has been eclipsed by a living memorial to the values of the man.” Then the man stepped down and shook hands with Danny and his mother.

Danny stood up and took his place. “I know this will surprise you all, but I don’t have much to say. My dad was a hero. He stood up for what was right, and always did the best he could,” Danny began, mist filling his eyes as he continued, “but what’s that to a son, who just wants his dad? I understand who my father was, and why he had to do what he had to do. I understand he’s a man I want desperately to be like. But I would give everything just to have him here with me right now.” It was clear that there was more he wanted to say, but his voice would no longer take his commands as he struggled not to cry publicly, and then failed. Jim rushed up to stand next to him, put an arm around him and tried to guide him away, but the boy shook his head and shoved the paper into Jim’s hand.

Jim himself was already on the verge of tears as he squeezed the boy with one arm, while he held the paper with the other hand. “You all mostly remember my dad as Captain America, the guy who could parachute into a jungle and kill a Honduran death squad with his bare hands.” Jim’s voice trembled and he bit his tongue as his eyes skimmed ahead. “I remember the man who took me camping when I was four. I wandered off while he wasn’t looking and I must have been gone for 30 minutes. For all your training, and all his badassery,” Jim paused as the crowd chuckled and bit back his tears again, “it was me who found my way back to find my dad crying. He thanked God and hugged me, getting me wet with tears, and immediately packed up and took me to a hotel, where we camped out in a room and swam in the pool all weekend.” Jim sighed deep then, and sucked back some snot. “He took me to a major league baseball game once and a home run ball came flying our way. Dad could have caught it but he let me try for it, even though I dropped it and lost it to a slob two rows up. Dad got the ball for me anyway. He told me he threatened to beat the guy senseless, but I saw him give the man $200. Let Iraq have their terrorists; I want my dad back!”

Jim and Danny were both sobbing as they collapsed into the front row and music was playing again. The largest group of people, those who wouldn’t be coming to Danny’s house to pay respects, filed in front of Danny to say a kind word or shake his hand, and he barely remembered it. Some of the men who were going to his house had gone ahead to make arrangements. But those closest to the family remained until the rest had gone.

When that select group walked out onto the street, they were amazed at the sight of a large impromptu gathering on the steps of city hall, where Paul was surrounded by a small throng of enthusiastic singers, some of whom had assembled their own makesshift signs. Many had heard news reports on the morning radio and come over to see. Seeing the protesters, they had joined the counter-protest. Westboro Baptist seemed puny and insignificant by comparison, and the mayor, who had left the service, now pushed his way through the crowd and put his arm around Paul. Soon the crowd, except for Westboro, fell quiet, and the man yelled for the cameras, “I want to thank all of you citizens who heeded the call of this brave young man and came down here today to show everyone what we really stand for in this town. Thanks to you, we were able to honor a great man in peace!”

The mayor shook Paul’s hand and handed him his card, adding, “Be in touch!” Then he hurried off to work inside.

Danny smiled at Jim and shook his head. Then Jim said, “You all go ahead. I’m gonna get Paul and we’ll see you back at your place!”

Jim waded through the crowd and said, “Way to go, rabble rouser! Can we get out of here now?” Paul nodded, but it was easier said than done. Everyone wanted to shake Paul’s hand or give him their card or email address – except for the Westboro people, who wanted his heart on a stick. Last was the news lady, who asked, “Can we contact you later for a comment?”

Paul gave her his dad’s number. “Call my dad and ask him.”

As they walked up the street, the protestors followed, continuing to taunt. “How can you be so calm?” Jim asked.

“More people are with us than are with them,” Paul said.

“But the ‘them’ is scary,” Jim said.

“Less scary when you know you’re not alone,” Paul smiled. Long before they reached the garage, the protestors tired of following them, and they had no problem escaping up the street in the old bucket of rust.

When they pulled up in front of Danny’s house, there was a little congregation out front waiting for them. Christina ran over to her friend and hugged him tight. “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU DID THAT!” she whispered with a laugh.

“It was the one thing I could do better than anybody else,” he laughed in reply.

Danny walked over then and hugged him as well, to everyone’s surprise. “Mom, this is Paul,” he said, introducing the boy to his mother, who also gave him a tearful hug.

“So VERY nice to meet you,” she said.

“Thank you,” he said. “Listen guys, it wasn’t that big a deal. You couldn’t hear them inside, could you?”

“No, boy, we couldn’t hear them inside,” the officer who had spoken before Danny said. He held out a hand and said, “Colonel Peter Wilcox.”

Paul shook his hand with a nod and said, “Paul Anderson, sir.”

The man put his hand on the back of the boy’s shoulder and said, “Come inside. There are a few men who want to meet you, son!”

Inside, there was laughter and light clapping as the colonel accompanied Paul inside. “Gentlemen!” Col. Wilcox said to more general laughter. “This is Paul Anderson, Danny’s friend!” A bunch of the biggest, toughest looking men Paul had ever seen shook his hands and high-fived him, while giving him a variety of off-color ‘compliments,’ which Paul took in stride. Most of them had to do with balls.

Paul smiled because he knew there were no circumstances where men like these would greet him like this; it warmed him to think maybe, just maybe, these guys would look at ‘guys like him’ differently in the future.

One of them, a young man who had been one of the last students Danny’s dad taught at OTC, sat down next to Paul later and said, “What you did today really helped a lot of people!”

“It was nothing,” Paul said with a shy smile.

“That’s what the Major always used to say too,” the young man said. “Brian Philips.” Paul shook his hand and started to introduce himself. “I remember you,” the man laughed. “Anyway, some of those guys were ready to do some bodily harm to those protesters. You saved some good men jail time, and some scum time in the hospital.”

“Plus I realized not everybody feels that way about me,” Paul smiled.

“So that wasn’t just a big show?” the man asked with a laugh.

“Gay as the day is long,” Paul shrugged.

The man nodded and said, “Yeah, well, that don’t mean much, does it?”

“It does to some people,” Paul said, and the man nodded.

“Not to say all these guys are gonna be cheering your cause, but they like you,” Brian laughed. “That’s the only way to do it, though, you know?”

“Eh?” Paul asked.

“To change people’s mind about people like you, they’ve got to get to know you as people. Once they realize you’re just people, they can hate you for all the right reasons. You cut them off in traffic, or talk obnoxiously on your cell phones… You know,” the man said with a laugh.

Jim sat next to Danny on the house’s stairs and smiled. “Well, looks like Paul’s what the doctor ordered! He’s taking all the unwanted attention.”

Danny laughed and nodded with a smile. “Better him than me,” he snorted. “These guys will love him forever, now, though.”

“I know,” Jim laughed. “I heard one of the guys suggest the colonel invite him to the base for a visit with some of the guys who couldn’t make it!”

“That will definitely happen, and he won’t take no for an answer. I’m supposed to go down before we go back to school,” Danny said. “My guess is they’ll entice him to come too, somehow!”

A little later Paul approached them smiling. “HEY, JIM! We get to go to the base with Danny!”

“WE?” Jim asked, laughing.

“Told you,” Danny said. “You coming with me?” Paul nodded, and Danny grinned and asked, “What did they do to get you interested?”

“Nothing,” Paul said with a blush. Danny raised his eyebrows and Paul said, “I may have asked if I could drive a tank….”

“WHAT?” Danny coughed, laughing.

“The colonel said he’d see what he can do,” Paul smiled.

“Told you,” Danny said to Jim.

“When are you, I mean WE, going?” Jim asked.

“Right after we get back from going camping,” Paul said happily.

“Looks like it’ll be a busy break after all,” Jim said, smiling and putting a hand on Paul’s shoulder.

“Another day alone,” Billy said to himself to break up the silence. He stopped reading on the net and pulled up a video chat program. He lied and said he was 18 and moved the camera so you could only see him from the neck down, and began fending off a few hundred unsightly dudes until he found a guy who looked like he was in college. The boy desperately wanted to see his face, but in the end settled for watching the headless jock beat off with him.

The boy on the other end of the screen had a body like a tall Paul, which is what appealed to Billy about him. His face was cute and his skin was pale, as expected for a boy with great reddish-brown hair.

“You’re hot,” Billy said. “What do you do?”

“College,” the boy said. He named his school and it was only a few towns over.

“Cool, I live over in Franklin County,” Billy smiled.

“Maybe we could hang out sometime,” the college boy replied as he cupped his balls suggestively.

“I think I might like that,” Billy laughed. “Let’s talk a little first….”

“Sure,” the boy said. “Friend me….” Billy did and the boy responded. “I’m Collin by the way.”

“Billy,” Billy replied.

“SO how do you keep in shape? Your body is fantastic,” Collin said with a grin.

“I work out a lot. I used to play baseball,” Billy fibbed a little.

“Awesome,” Collin said.

“Do you have a private room?” Billy asked.

“Yeah,” Collin replied. “I share a bathroom in a ‘suite’ but it locks on both sides so no one walks in on you.”

“Very cool,” Billy said. The young men started talking and actually got along pretty well, though they did eventually beat off together, and promised to meet again soon online.

Billy then lay back on his bed and drifted off to a nap on his bed, smiling.

It was Friday evening and the young woman, a bank teller at the Bank of America branch on 25th and Pine, was struggling to find her keys in a bottomless purse. It was dark outside and her third floor apartment faced the woods, meaning no street lights to help. “Ah ha,” she said as she pulled out her keys. As she put the key in the lock and opened the door, she felt something knock into her from behind and push her into the apartment.

Robert snatched her purse away from her and kicked her in the stomach, knocking the wind out of her. Then he locked the door behind him and grabbed her by the arm and dragged her in the bedroom, where he restrained and gagged her. “There, now we don’t have to worry about noise,” he said grimly. Seeing the look on her face, he said, “What do I want?” She nodded. “Well, I need a place to stay and rest and hide. This is that place!”

She looked at him afraid and he said, “That’s the stuff!” Robert flipped her over and ripped her pants and underwear down around her ankles before unceremoniously spreading her legs and shoving his hard penis deep into her, dry. She screamed into her gag and began to sob as he raped her, taking pleasure in every groan of pain. “Don’t worry,” he laughed. “Blood makes great lube.”

When she passed, he just pretended she was dead.

Phil called Paul and said, “I want you home tomorrow by lunch, alone!”

“Dad,” Paul complained.

“Don’t dad me,” Phil said, smiling but keeping his tone serious.

“WHY?” Paul whined.

“It’s the Saturday before Christmas!”

“OH! I forgot! Sorry dad! I’ll be there!” Paul said.

“Thanks Paul! Love you!”

“I love you too, dad,” Paul said.

“What’s up?” Jim asked.

“Dad wants me home tomorrow after lunch for the day,” Paul said. “By myself.”

“Oh,” Jim said, as if it was personal.

“No, no,” Paul laughed. “My dad loves you. It’s just we have a tradition. Dad and I go shopping the Saturday before Christmas to buy gifts for people. He helps keep me in budget, and we pick something out nice for mom together.”

Jim smiled. “That’s great.”

“You don’t mind,” Paul asked, hugging his arm and smiling like a little boy.

“Of course not,” Jim said. “It’ll give me time to do some shopping myself.”

Phil and Paul were walking around the mall with a few bags. They’d gotten some gifts for grandparents and friends at school. “So what do you think for mom?” Phil asked. “Jewelry?”

“It’s been done,” Paul laughed. Then they walked by a poster and Paul stopped. “That’s it!”

“What?” Phil asked. “A poster of a beach?”

“NO, DAD!” Paul said. “You should take mom on a cruise! You could go the week I’m gone! We’ll find last minute deals online so it won’t be too expensive!”

“Don’t you want to go?” Phil asked.

“Not without Jim,” the boy smiled. “Besides, you guys haven’t been on vacation by yourself since I was born, have you?”

Phil grinned and said, “It’s perfect. Now there’s just one more thing!”

“What?” Paul asked.

“Jim,” Phil said, making Paul blush.

“Oh, I … well, yeah,” Paul stammered. “I was going to do something for him out of my savings.”

Phil asked, “Not your college fund?”

“No, my savings,” Paul said. “I’ve been putting a little away every week besides what goes to the college fund.”

“Oh yeah?” Phil asked with a smile. “Maybe we give you too much allowance!”

“And I make a little on the side tutoring for people outside of school,” Paul pouted.

“That you do,” Phil said, putting an arm around his son. “So what are you thinking about?”

“I don’t know,” Paul asked. “What do boys like him like?”

“Boys like him?” Phil asked, laughing. “Boys like you, I think!”

“Dad, you know what I mean! Boy boys! Like you were!” Paul said.

“Paul, I was a nerd,” Phil smiled. “Maybe ask Andy?”

Paul nodded and smiled. “Maybe.”

Then the boy dragged his father home and they sequestered themselves in front of the computer for hours, booking the perfect trip for Molly and Phil. “Now I’m set for my gift to you both,” Paul winked.

When they went downstairs, Paul asked, “I wonder what Andy and Jim are doing for Christmas?”

Molly smiled at Phil and said, “I think they have plans!”

“Well, they could come here,” Paul said. “What?”

Phil said, “Yeah, Andy was saying they have out-of-town relatives they need to visit for the holiday.”

“When are they leaving?” Paul asked.

“Christmas eve, I think,” Phil said.

Paul looked glum but nodded. “Guess we’ll just exchange gifts when he gets home….”

Later, after Paul was upstairs, Phil said, “That wasn’t very nice of us!”

“He’ll be so excited he’ll forgive us,” she replied.

Sunday, Paul went over to Jim’s and as they talked, he looked around the boy’s room for a hint. Jim, Jim, Jim. He laughed. He didn’t know anything superficial about the boy; everything was substance. Jim was brave on his behalf, kind and gentle hearted. Paul knew he could count on Jim to the last. But what was his favorite football team? What was his favorite band? What was his favorite food?

“What are you thinking about?” Jim asked.

“You,” Paul smiled as he picked up a picture of a few boys out camping.

“Me and Danny, back before his dad and my mom. Our dads took us and a few other boys,” Jim explained over his shoulder. “What about me?”

“What’s your favorite food?” Paul asked, smiling up at him over his shoulder.

“What?” Jim smiled.

“What’s your favorite food?” Paul reiterated.

“Well, I do like Chinese food,” Jim said. “But as far as a single food, I like steak!” Then he smiled and asked, “Why?”

“It’s just the little things. I want to know all about you!” Paul said.

Jim wrapped his arms around the boy from behind and put his chin on the top of Paul’s head. “What do you want to know?”

“Everything!” Paul laughed.

“What do you want to know now?” Jim chuckled as he asked.

“What is your favorite book?” Paul smiled.

“So far?” Jim teased. “I loved Lord of the Flies,” he said, pondering the question. “I like mysteries though,” he added. “I like Edgar Allen Poe, actually….” Jim turned and wrapped his arms around the boy, hugging him. “Come on. What brought this on?”

Paul blushed and put his cheek to the boy’s chest. “I was trying to think what to get you for Christmas, and I realized, you know, all the little stuff … I just want to know more about you!”

Jim held him out from his chest and winked. “See, sex is no substitute for that,” Jim said, making Paul blush. “I wanted you to know the other night that I know what kind of ice cream you like, for instance.” For some reason that made Paul blush even more. So he just hugged Jim tight again.

The next evening, Monday, Paul called Christina. “I want to go to the mall again. I need to find Jim something for Christmas, and I can’t go by myself!”

“Well what good would I do as protection,” she began. “OHHH! You want me to get Danny to go to?”

“Yeah,” Paul said apologetically.

“I don’t know, Paul. Danny hates going out near the holidays. Too many people,” she said. Then Paul heard something in the background. Then, with a smile in her voice, she said, “He says for you, we go! Which is AWESOME because I have some shopping still to do!” Paul could almost hear Danny groan.

An hour later, Paul and Danny were standing outside of some store full of cosmetics and fragrances. “So I’m having trouble figuring out what to get for Jim,” Paul said. “He’s not as mysterious as you,” the boy teased, “but it’s hard to figure out what he likes!”

“Besides you,” Danny smirked.

“Yeah, besides me!” Paul retorted with a blush.

“Jim’s a pretty simple guy,” Danny said. “No expensive hobbies, no big obsessions. He likes the outdoors but he’s not one of those guys either. Glad I don’t have to buy him something meaningful,” Danny said with a smile.

Paul nodded somewhat grumpily. “What’s wrong?” Christina asked as she emerged. “No luck yet?”

“NO!” Paul said. “And Thursday’s Christmas!”

That evening, Paul sat in the dining room at his computer, trying to find SOMETHING for the boy of his dreams. At last, he pulled up a picture of Jim he’d snagged from Facebook, a portrait of the boy smiling, and maximized it, propping his head up on his arm and staring at it. He was unaware when his mother approached him from behind with a camera and snapped a single shot.

“Mom!” he complained when he heard the click, but the woman showed him the picture on the digital readout.

Paul smiled and grabbed the camera and hooked it up to his computer. “Have an idea?” she smiled. Paul frowned at her before smiling.