Thomas turned the sedan into the driveway of his former home and spoke to his new bride. “There she be,” indicating the modest thirties-style home before them. A girl was sitting on the front steps and jumped up and ran to greet them, pigtails flying. “Tommy” she cried, throwing her arms around his neck before turning to Anna.
“My sister Becky, meet Anna, your new sister-in-law.” Becky, obviously startled, fumbled between a handshake and a hug, but managed a smooth, welcoming smile.
“Shame, Tommy! You didn’t tell us!”
“I’m truly sorry, Sis, but old habits are hard to break.” He grinned and grabbed each by her hand with a playful swing. “My two favorite gals,” to which both replied simultaneously, “I should hope so!”
Becky glanced toward the rear seat. “Where are your suitcases?”
“Just passing through on our honeymoon!”
Becky led them into the house, calling over her shoulder, “The coast is clear, like you requested.” Tommy nodded, having pre-timed the brief visit. He wasn’t anxious to see his folks again. “We haven’t done anything to your old room,” Becky said, leading them to Tommy’s old room under the eaves. The door was not locked, and its furnishings were untouched. Thomas crossed to the small desk with the old computer on top, and stroked it. “There are so many memories here.” Anna and Becky remained silent, watching as Thomas was lost in his memories. A photo of a younger Thomas and his dog Murphy had hung on the wall above his bed, but had long since journeyed with other small items to Thomas’ next home at the community college.
Anna spoke softly. “You said you weren’t happy.” Thomas sat down on the edge of the bed suddenly, struck anew by memories set loose by his return. . He had been bullied mercilessly in school, for reasons that were still not entirely clear to him. His slight build and love of reading had set him apart, but it was not until the ninth grade that the isolation and taunting became almost unbearable. In those days there was no recognition of “bullying,” and so no effort to discourage it. One of his torturers decided Tommy was homosexual. (He didn’t participate in sports, and didn’t he walk a little funny?) Other boys started calling him “Ma’am,” and when questioned it was quickly repeated as “Man!” It was at the very end of ninth grade that the college student who boarded next door graduated and abandoned both his dog and his ancient computer. The computer went into the garbage and the dog into the streets.
Tommy had overheard the student calling the dog many times, so he knew its name. “Murphy,” a good name. When Tommy became aware that Murphy had been abandoned, he immediately tried to befriend him, but the dog was too skittish at that point. He had clearly lost weight, and Tommy thought Murphy looked as pathetic as he felt, himself. After several days of leaving food on the sidewalk, and gradually sitting closer to the food, Murphy decided to trust, and approached Tommy with waving tail. Bonding between the two progressed gradually but solidly, and Murphy was apparently happy to bed down on a pad adjacent to Tommy’s bed, despite the ambivalence of Tommy’s mother. Over the summer the two grew even closer, tromping the wood trails together and startling small, swift creatures who made for their safe havens, in the ground or up a tree.
The new relationship nearly made up for the relentless bullying from his classmates, which resumed with the tenth grade–almost, but not entirely. One day his classmates followed him after school, swishing in an exaggerated manner, and badgering him with epithets and acorns. No one was home when he let himself in, except Murphy, who showed his appreciation by licking Tommy in the face when the boy knelt down to hug him. That was several months before Murphy became gravely ill, and when Tommy’s mother finally agreed to take the listless dog to the vet, the news was grim: heart worms, often deadly and always requiring frequent supervision, and when Murphy was too exhausted to raise his head, he would still slowly thump his tail on the floor. That was about the time his mother’s boyfriend, Mike, moved in. Mike was no lover of pets, especially those requiring frequent care, but he did bring an internet connection with him. Although his mother seemed happier and less stressed, that was the only good thing Tommy could see about Mike, whose jokes were sometmes cruel.
Tommy could still feel the sliver of fear that ran through him the day Mike pulled out his pistol and aimed it at Murphy, only half joking. His mother never knew about the incident, and Tommy never mentioned it to her. Ever since his dad had died from a heart attack several years earlier, his Mom had not really been emotionally available, and Tommy had quit looking to her for strength. When Mike had “joked” around with the pistol and Murphy, Tommy quietly followed and saw Mike return the pistol to the unlocked bedside table in his mother’s room.
Without friends and the house’s new internet connection, Tommy was free to experiment with the ancient computer rescued from the trash months earlier. He wrote his heart out daily, but of course no one ever answered. His was just a diary, and although he didn’t expect or even want a reply, the satisfaction soon waned. That was about the time his mother and Mike came into his room holding hands, grinning, and announced that before long he would be getting a new baby brother or sister. Wasn’t that wonderful?
That night Tommy banged out on his computer, “I’ve had it! As soon as Murphy goes, I go, too!” He thought fleetingly of the pistol in the unlocked nightstand. He couldn’t leave while Murphy was still alive. He had to protect Murphy from Mike. The thought of Murphy looking up trustingly at Mike pointing a gun at him, then pulling the trigger, was too much. For several days Tommy decided he would postpone using the gun himself until Murphy died, but then sweat broke out on his brow as he had a horrible thought. What if Murphy lived and he could never leave? He was desolate when he laid his head down on he pillow that night. Wasn’t there, like, a support group for guys like him? He shook his head at the question. No guys were like him. But it was rumored and possibly true that there was a support group for queers after school. He could pretend to be queer! Immediately he amended his thought: he could pretend to be “gay!”
The beauty of this idea instantly relieved him, dissipating his ambivalence about whether Murphy survived. With new energy, Tommy hopped out of bed and knelt by Murphy, breathing, “It’s okay to get well, Murphy! We’ll both survive!”
Later, reading about Columbine had scared Thomas when he realized how cruelly he had been bullied and how available that pistol was beside his mother’s bed. Now, after several years safely out of the picture, he could give a sigh of relief that it was all behind him. When Becky noticed that he had finally returned to the present, she spoke to him shyly. “I’m glad you and Anna stopped by to see me. I’ve missed having a big brother.”
Tomas gave her a hug and promised to work out a way to re-connect. His mom and Mike were not a relationship he wanted to renew. Becky looked at Anna and grinned shyly. “Then I guess you aren’t gay.”
Anna laughed and opened her eyes wide, looking at her new husband. Both agreed heartily with Becky’s tentative statement. Becky continued “…Because Mom though you might have been.”
Thomas sighed as he reflected on missed opportunities for sharing and mutual support between mother and son, through no one’s real fault. Life does that sometimes. “No, Becky. I’m not gay, although some of my longest and best friendships are gay.” Thomas took Anna’s hand and gave it a squeeze, which she returned.
He took an even deeper breath. “In fact, I think we’ll stay around for awhile. When did you say they’d be home?”