It was the sound as much as the movement that told me the young man was an amputee. Although he was wearing blue jeans, the long pant legs could not hide the hesitation in his gait as he would do the forward swing to lock the prosthesis into position before taking a step. Even more of a giveaway was the almost creaking sound the device made whenever he shifted his weight to it. I thanked him as he placed the plate with its burger-and-fry lunch before me and reveled in the sight of him as he walked away.
The smile he had flashed me was brilliant; all white teeth and sensuous lips. The hair was jet black and that, coupled with the olive rather than brown tone of his flawless skin, suggested Greek extraction as opposed to the Hispanic roots one would expect in a small Texas town. The eyes were as dark brown as brown can be without turning black. His features were delicate, almost femininely beautiful, the kind one sees on classic statuary of young men.
I sighed. I knew that there was no way to try and connect with him. I was just passing through. I had almost not stopped at this hole-in-the-wall eatery for lunch, but towns in west Texas are few and far between and I was afraid it might be a couple of hours before I found another one. I had decided to drive to Tempe from my university in southern Oklahoma to attend a symposium that I didn't give a damn about. I just figured it was summer and I needed to do something for my "what have you done lately" merit report.
I looked at my surroundings one last time. The building was obviously old, dating back at least to the 1940s. The wallpaper was yellowed with age and too many years of grease floating through the air.
I bit into the burger. It was a major surprise! Not bad.
"Food okay?" The voice belonged to a rather fat man wearing a cook's apron.
I looked up and smiled pleasantly. "I was just thinking it's 'way better than average," I said with a nod. "Sure beats fast food."
"Cardboard beats fast food," the man snorted, "but thanks. I ain't seen you in here before. You new in town?"
"Just passing through."
"Well, good to meet you anyway," the fellow said, offering a hand. "I'm Al. This here is my place."
I smiled. "It's been a long time since I've actually seen a restaurant named for the owner. Where I come from they think they have to put some sort of trendy name up front."
"Well, nothin' trendy about my place," he snorted. "Al's Diner. We jus' try to cook good food f' hungry people."
I took another bite. "And you do a damn good job of it," I nodded. "I also want to comment on how polite your waiter is."
"Oh, Danny?" The man tossed a glance over his shoulder and nodded. "Yeah, he's a good kid. My nephew."
"Attractive young man. He should go far."
Al's face darkened for a moment. I was afraid I had overstepped the bounds and he was offended, but the shadow seemed to pass.
"By the way," I said, offering my hand again, "I'm Jim Weston. I teach Parks and Rec Management at South Oklahoma State."
"Al Gavrilopoulos," he answered. "Good to meet ya. Like I said, this here is my place."
"Sit down, please," I said, gesturing to a chair.
Al looked around. There was no one else in the place. "I guess I got a few." He shifted his bulk into the opposite chair.
I smiled. "What in the world is a man with a fine Greek name like Gavrilopoulos doing here in the middle of cowboy country?"
Al laughed. "Hey. You think there wadn't no Greek cowboys? My family's lived in these parts over a hundred years!" He laughed again. "Hell, I'm the first Gavrilopoulos to cook them steers rather than punch 'em!"
"Just you and Danny here in your place?"
"Yeah. Poor kid ain't got but one leg, don't know if you noticed it or not. Cain't do much else 'cept somethin' like this around here."
"How'd he lose it?" I asked as casually as I could manage.
"It's a long story," he answered. "I suspect there was a lot of things goin' on that shouldn't've."
"Was he in the wrong place at the wrong time?"
"Naw. What I mean is, I s'pect that doctor didn't really have to do what he did to the kid. "Course, I cain't prove it, so I guess I best keep my thoughts t' m'self."
I looked over at the statuesque young man sitting on a bar stool, idly looking out the window. Before I could say more, Al had hefted his bulk out of the chair and headed back to the counter. There was a brief exchange between him and his nephew and I'll swear the boy's face lit up like a Christmas tree. He made his way back to my table.
"Sir?" he asked.
"Is it true you're a college teacher?" There was an excited edge to his voice.
"Yes, it is. I teach at a small college in Oklahoma."
The boy looked around. "Can I talk to you for a few minutes?" he asked, eyeing the chair his uncle had just vacated.
"Sure," I told him, motioning to it.
"I been wondering for a long time," he began, "is there any way for a guy with no money to get into college? I'm real interested in trying to learn to do something, but my uncle and I just barely make it here at the diner."
"You'd be surprised at the scholarship money that goes begging every year," I told him confidently.
"Well, most of that won't work for me," he said. He tapped the right leg of his jeans. There was a hollow plastic sound. "I just got one leg, see, so I'm no good at sports."
"How old are you?" I asked.
"Twenty-five. Last January."
"I'm surprised you're not in college right now," I told him. "Between Voc-Rehab and Pell grants you ought to be able to get everything paid for without a hitch. Have you never talked to anyone... high school counselor... college recruiter... anyone?"
"I had to finish high school with a GED," he said, his eyes dropping to his artificial limb. "I got hurt my senior year and, well, some other stuff happened. I had to drop out."
Suddenly that symposium had taken a major back seat. I was so attracted both to this young man's physical beauty and to the sadness of his circumstances that I knew fate had brought me to this time and place to be the instrument of change in his life. I made my decision there and then.
"Well, a GED is plenty good to get into most state colleges," I assured him. "Call your uncle back over here."
He got up and quickly brought the older man back.
"Al, I was wondering if you could do without Danny for a couple of days," I began.
"'S'pose I could. Why?"
"Well, as I told you, I'm a teacher. But I know enough about how the system operates that I think there's a huge chance that we can get Danny into school somewhere with full grant funding." I smiled at them both. "I think we can swing it so he can go to college."
"So, what's that gonna cost?" Al asked, not understanding.
"Nothing," Al replied. "That don't sound right. Everyone charges for what they do."
"Danny's handicap would make him eligible for a lot of aid from a number of sources." I scratched my head. "I'm really not sure why someone hasn't tried to do something for him before."
Al and his nephew shot glances back and forth for a moment, then Al spoke again. "There's another thing you need t' know 'bout Danny, Mister," he said quietly. "It's th' reason why maybe folks around here ain't tried to help the kid. Ya see, Danny likes, uh, men."
My heart sang! There is a God. Out loud I said, "I'm sorry that you've been so ill treated, young man, but please be assured your being gay is not going to be a problem. No one is going to ask you a word about your orientation. It won't be an issue." I paused. "Besides, I'm gay myself. I understand what you've been going through. I want to help." I looked at the uncle. His eyes narrowed for a moment, then I added, "No strings attached."
Danny's eyes glistened.
Al pulled at his chin for a moment. "What ya need t' do t' get this here business started?" he finally asked.
"Well, it depends on where Danny would like to go to school... what he'd like to major in." I turned to the younger man. "What about it?"
Danny didn't speak for several seconds. "I... I don't know," he finally answered. "I've always dreamed of going to school... but beyond that... I don't know... I never bothered to think about it."
"Well, now's the time. College is not an end in itself. It is a stepping stone to other things."
The dark eyes gazed into space for a moment, then brightened again. "Don't colleges have people to help you decide what to do?" Danny asked.
"Yes," I answered, "but that's after you decide where you want to go. Do you have a particular school in mind?"
Danny didn't miss a beat. "Where do you teach?" he asked.
I smiled. "South Oklahoma State. Campus of about six thousand."
"That sounds great to me."
"Are you serious?" I asked, a bit amused. "You don't know anything about the school, about what it offers, what it's like."
"Sure," Danny answered. "But I do know one thing. You know who to go see there to get things done!"
Al giggled. "The boy's got a point, Mister."
I shrugged my shoulders and smiled back. "Good enough." I turned to Al. "I'll need Danny for about three or four days to take him there and get everything in motion," I explained. "All our admin people are in place year-round, so those offices are manned even in the summer. A lot of the financial aid business has to be done in person. We'll cut miles of red tape if he's there to sign things when they want them signed and answer questions directly instead of trading endless letters."
Al rubbed his chin again. "You act like this is gonna happen," he finally stated.
"It is," I told him. I looked at Danny and smiled. "You bet it is!"
**********"Name?" the elderly clerk asked.
"Danaos Gavrilopoulos," the young man answered.
"In English," she prompted.
"I can't, it's Greek." Danny said with a giggle. Then he spelled it out for her.
It was the sixth and last office we would need to visit: the actual registration at SOS. I had actually surprised myself in getting everything pushed through as quickly as I had. Of course, the grant decisions and actual VR acceptance were conditional, but my friends in those offices had assured me there would be no problems. Danny was one of those guys who had, quite literally, fallen through the cracks of the system. The only reason he'd never received any help was because he'd never asked for any. Doris, over at VR, thought we could probably sue social services people back in Texas for not setting up those benefits when Danny had been fitted for his first artificial leg, but the boy had just shaken his head at the suggestion. It was becoming very clear to me that he wanted nothing so much as to put his old life behind him.
On the drive back to New Hope Danny didn't speak much. I finally asked him what was on his mind.
"I was just thinkin' about Uncle Al," he said. "He's about all the family I have, least all that still has anything to do with me. I hate to just up and leave 'im."
"I think he knows it's the best thing for you," I told him. Then out of curiosity I asked, "How did you come to live with him?"
"It was just before I lost my leg," he answered. "I was seventeen." He paused, the memory obviously painful.
"You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."
"No, it's okay. I had finally decided to stop kidding myself. My mom and dad kept asking me why I didn't have a girlfriend. Dad would always hit me on the shoulder and tell me the way I look they should be lining themselves up like cows in season."
I smiled. "Been there. Heard that. Know the feeling."
"Well, the reason I didn't have a girl friend was I was already in love... with Steve Brennan. He was Doc Brennan's son, one of the guys on the high school football team. I had been thinking how great looking he was for months. I wanted him so bad! I'm not sure just what I wanted with him, but I could hardly take my eyes off him! Well, I kept trying to think of a way to find out if he was gay or not. I finally hit on a plan.
"I caught a ride home with him after school one day and got him talkin' about girls. I asked him if he'd ever screwed anyone, and he told me all about the time he and Mary Kay James did it at the drive in. I could tell that he was getting all hot and bothered talking about it. He was rubbing his crotch and saying how much he wished there was someone there right then to do him again and how much fun he'd show 'em." He paused and took a deep breath. "I don't know. I guess it was stupid, but I told him to pull over."
"Why do I see what's coming?" I asked, grinning in spite of myself.
"Yeah, pretty much. I was stupid. I reached over and unzipped him, planned on giving him some relief. His mouth sort of worked a couple of times but nothing came out. I bent down and the next thing I knew, I woke up alone by the side of the road with the side of my face bruised as hell."
"And he didn't keep it a secret," I prompted.
"The news beat me home. And that wasn't all that got beat. The old man whipped me within an inch of my life. He told me that if I ever decided I was a queer, I better get my ass out of the county before he found out about it. Told me he'd kill me before he'd see me that way." Danny shook his head. "I didn't know what to do. I called Uncle Al that night and asked him if he'd come get me."
"What made you think your uncle would come to your rescue?"
Danny mused a moment. "I always knew Uncle Al was different from the old man. He'd left the ranch a long time before and opened his place in town. I don't know. He'd been nothing but good to me all my life. He was the only person I could think of to call."
"He took me in. Just like that. Drove the seventeen miles from New Hope to the ranch, helped me pack my stuff up and told the old man he'd kill him if he ever beat me again. My father told him to have me and good riddance to both of us. I think it's the last time they ever spoke."
"That must have hurt."
"Yeah. But Uncle Al was great. He never made me feel like being queer was anything bad. He just told me that I needed to lay low with it as long as we lived where we lived."
"And you say all of this was before your accident?"
"Yeah, just barely. I had been at Uncle Al's about a week when I was out on my bike makin' a delivery one evening. A car came up on me real fast from the rear and hit me. That was the last thing I remembered until I woke up."
"In the hospital?"
"Naw. We ain't got no hospital anywhere near New Hope. As things turned out, it was Steve Brennan who found me there by the side of the street all busted up. He took me to his Dad's place. Doc Brennan's is right there in town. When I woke up I was in this sort of haze and my leg hurt like hell. That was when Doc told me it had been crushed in the accident and he'd had to take it off."
"You mean he amputated your leg right there in his office?" I asked, shocked.
"Yep. He said I was hurt too bad and wouldn't have made it to a hospital. He even showed me the x-ray he took with the bone broke and all that stuff." He sighed. "It's strange how things come back full circle, isn't it?"
I said nothing. That circle seemed a little too tight for comfort, to me. Danny's story had triggered a memory. It was the memory of something Al had told me the day we'd met, and it was something I didn't like the sound of at all.
**********Al Gavrilopoulos was exactly as I remembered him. When we walked into his diner, the graying portly man seemed genuinely relieved to see his nephew safely back home. "How did it go?" he asked excitedly.
"Like clockwork," I answered. "Danny is all set to start next month. We'll need some promissory notes signed until his grants come through, but that's all a formality. He's all set to start as a freshman majoring in social work this fall!"
"Don't say. Why social work?"
"I wanted to make sure that no other guys drop through the cracks like I did!" Danny told him excitedly. "The guy at advising said I did real high on the tests for it, Unk. It's gonna be great! I'm gonna make you so proud of me!"
"Don't rightly know what to do to thank you," the old man began, obviously fumbling for the right words.
"Well, a couple of burgers would be a good start," I said with a smile, sitting down at the same table where we'd met just days earlier.
"Two it is," he said. I could swear I saw him wipe a tear from his eye as he headed back to the kitchen.
It was about thirty minutes after dinner was over that Danny finally excused himself to go upstairs and wash up after the trip. The place had emptied out for the evening, and Al got up to lock the front door. I caught his arm as he came back by my table.
"I want to ask you something," I began. "And I don't want Danny to hear it."
Al looked around furtively. "What's wrong?" he asked just above a whisper.
"On the drive back, Danny told me about how he came to live with you and how he lost his leg. Between what he told me and something you said the first day we met, I've got some real bad feelings about what went down."
Al's voice was a whisper. "I don't ever want Danny to know what I think," he said. "A boy losin' a leg's bad 'nough. God knows, don't know that I could've managed the way he has. But losin' that leg for no good reason..."
"I would really like to know what you know," I whispered back.
"Well, that's jus' the problem," he began. "I don't really know much o' anythin'. I jus' think it's damn nigh suspicious that nobody ever was able to figger out who it was that ran Danny down. 'Course I don't think the sheriff wasted too damn much o' his precious time on it, but that's another fish t' fry. Th' thing that smells like last weeks hamburger is that it was th' same boy tha' beat his ass an' outed 'im that finds 'im run down and then takes 'im to his father who then decides to cripple the boy on the spot. No hospital, not second opin'n, no nuthin'! Just cuts his leg off and be done!"
"This is so wrong." I said, almost unconsciously.
I sat there, thinking as Al puttered back in the kitchen, getting everything ready to open the following morning. My thoughts would not be silent. There was something very wrong going on.
"Al?" I called.
"There a motel around here?"
"Nope," he answered. "But I got a spare room. Already made up fer ya."
**********Three days in New Hope and I was nowhere nearer to an answer than I had been the day I first drove in. I had started my own little investigation by driving to the county seat and checking back issues of the weekly newspaper there. Of course, the editor had told me more from his first hand seeing of the matter than ever got written down. As it turns out, Silas Ewell is a meticulous observer of the human condition. He repeatedly took long pulls on a filterless cigarette as he spoke, pausing from time to time to take another drag.
"I always wondered when someone was goin' to look into that mess over in New Hope," he told me. "'Course, ain't none of my know-bout, but I always thought it was the Doctor's boy that run that one-legged boy down."
"What makes you think so?" I asked.
"Well, here's what you got to know," he said, his voice a few dB's lower. "The sheriff and ole Doc Brennan were friends all their lives. Went to school together, married girls who were best friends... all of that stuff. Next damn thing to kin. I asked Sheriff Ward at least six different times if he'd found out anything about the hit and run. Every time I'd get a different answer and they all added up to nothin' but stall. I even asked t' see the boys clothes so I could see if I could find anything... you know... broken glass fragments, paint, that sort of stuff. He said they were at the state police lab."
"What did the lab boys find out?"
"Funniest thing about that," Silas told me with a raised eyebrow. "My buddy Carl Ventaclaus is a deputy there in the capitol. He went over to that lab and checked it for me, personal like. Seems they never got diddly! Not diddly from Sheriff Ward on that or any case around that time. Wha'da'ya think o' that?"
"He covered it up."
"That's my take on it, young feller," he nodded. He took lone last, hard pull, then stubbed out the cigarette that had been shrinking between his lips. "Course, I can't prove it, but sure seems convenient to me."
"Can no one file any charges? I mean, it looks like at the very least there's malpractice against the doctor."
"Well, ya gotta have proof of that, too," he added with a shrug. "Besides. I don't think anyone's gonna be suin' ole Doc Brennan over much o' anything these days."
"Just that he's been dead and buried for 'bout three years now. Planted in the New Hope cemetery, just in case you're interested in lookin' him up."
**********In the end, it was Al who gave me the final piece of the puzzle. It was a simple fact, and one that would not seem related to what I was looking at. I had simply asked if Doc Brennan's records were still stored anywhere.
"I suppose," he'd answered.
"Where?" I asked, dumbly.
"My guess is, they're still there in his old office," he answered. "Three streets over and two down. Signs still up if the paint ain't all peeled of'n it yet. Ain't nobody moved in there since him. I doubt his boy even bothered to take his stuff outa there."
Every windowpane of the dilapidated office had long ago been broken. The shards that hung tenaciously to the frames looked like bits of barbed wire, still guarding the contents. The place was, indeed uninhabited. That was clear as soon as I drove up. I looked for a reason for the wanton destruction and it came to me unbidden. An abandoned doctor's office will, sooner or later, tempt amateur pharmacologists searching for raw materials. The front door was locked, but upon checking I found the back had long-ago been forced. I entered the musty smelling wooden building, wondering if I would be alone.
The back door opened into what had apparently been the treatment room. There was a dirty brown couch-like contraption there, covered in imitation leather that had fittings for various stirrups and the like all around the chrome base. A small number of used condoms in various colors and styles littered the floor indicating that the examination table had, indeed, been used since the doctor had abandoned it. Suddenly, a dark thought hit me: it was probably on this very table that Danny's leg had been amputated. I could almost smell the blood and hear the whine of the electric bone saw tearing through the shank. I shook off the shudder and went into the next room.
The formal desk and set of filing cabinets showed this to be the doctor's office proper. My heart sank. All of the drawers were pulled open and riffled through, their contents littering the floor like confetti at a long-ago New Year's Eve party. Glancing at a few random sheets gave me renewed hope: these were all business receipts and the like.
An unmarked room to the right held the treasure trove behind its closed green-painted door. It was filled with open shelves bearing folders that looked exactly like what you expect a doctor's records to look like! I scanned over the G's and quickly found Danny's folder neatly stored with the rest.
I carried the contents out into the main office and gingerly tested the chair. It seemed serviceable. By the window light I read of Danny's childhood illnesses and mishaps. Pretty normal stuff. There on the last page was the write up of the accident. The diagnosis was "shattered right femur with severe tissue loss." Treatment: "Amputation."
I stared at the record for a few moments. There was still nothing there I could use to prove anything. The doctor's notes were in concert with his official story. Idly, I picked up a manila envelope there in the folder and peeked inside. It was an x-ray. Yes, Danny had told me of the film the doctor had shown him of his shattered leg. I held the film up to the window, noting how clear and detailed the picture appeared to be.
There it was, the two ends of the broken bone, one at a slight angle to the other. One could even see the shades of gray that represented the muscles running along the sides of the leg. The smooth lines of the skin were there against the blackness of the background. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks: this picture had nothing to do with the chart I had just read!
I re-read the entry. 'Severe tissue loss.' I looked back to the x-ray in my hand. Yes! The muscles where there, intact and in position. There was nothing ragged or torn in the lines of the skin. The break had not even been compound! I was sitting there with the proof in my hands that Doctor Brennan had viciously maimed Danny Gavrilopoulos for no reason other than the anger he felt over the poor teenager having made a pass at his son!
I drove back to the diner. Danny was busy waiting tables and Al was equally busy back in the kitchen. I decided to wait until the rush was over. With Danny upstairs watching afternoon TV, I tossed the folder and x-ray onto the prep table back in the kitchen. The old man looked at the evidence for a long time, saying nothing.
"Don't you understand what this means?" I asked.
"It means I was right," Al said quietly.
"Yes!" I added. "You have a case! You can sue Dr. Brennan's estate for malpractice!"
"We're not doing that," Al said quietly.
"Say what? Al! It could be a great deal of money! Money Danny could use to help him along in what's going to be a life that's harder than it need have been!"
"We're not going to sue anyone." He looked me in the eye. "I won't have Danny finding out what went down. His life's been screwed up enough. You think about this Jim. Doc didn't have to cut Danny's leg off! This is like an old bad movie I saw years ago. No. Finding this out? This would kill him."
I sat there a moment. I knew the large man was right. There are people who can withstand anything and pick up and go on, then there are people who need a steady supply of nurturing, of support. Danny was one of the latter. I shook my head. "So, it's all been for nothing," I whispered. "I'm sorry I wasted your time with this."
"Oh, no. Not nothin'," Al whispered.
"What do you mean?"
"It means that now I have th' proof o' what I've thought all these years. Steve Brennan ran Danny down, then took him to his dad for this sick revenge o' theirs. There ain't no other story that makes sense. Even if he didn' run 'im down, he saw it as an opportunity. He and the old man did this sure as my griddle cooked eggs this mornin'!"
"But you say you don't plan to sue?"
"Nope. What I plan to do is get some vengeance for my nephew."
I paled. "No! You can't just go kill him!"
Al Gavrilopoulos smiled. It was a quiet smile. "I didn' say a thin' 'bout killin' th' boy. I said we was gonna get even." His smile faded. "About as even as it can get!"
**********If Al had gone through with his original plan, he would have had to kill Steve Brennan. We had decided that. No question. At some point Steve was going to recognize the large man and he would certainly turn him into the authorities. Therefore, if there was to be vengeance extracted, it seemed to fall to me to do it.
"You sure you want t' do this?" Al asked. "Danny ain't your kin. This ain't your fight."
I nodded. "Yes. I want to do it," I told him. I took a deep breath. "In case you haven't noticed, I've really taken a shine to Danny. He's about the most wonderful guy I've ever met."
Al chewed for a moment, then responded: "Well, if what you say is true, I just got one thing to say to ya."
"You be good to that boy. He needs a lot o' love. You find you can't give it, you bring 'im back here t' me. Okay?"
I solemnly shook the old man's hand. "Deal," I told him.
**********At any rate, two nights later I found myself being dropped off about half a mile from the sprawling ranch house where Steve Brennan lived alone. I had reconnoitered the house and grounds the night before, finding that true to form in this part of the country, no one locked their doors. I would have no trouble at all getting in.
Steve had not even thought to lock the doors on his late-model pickup truck. I eased the driver side open and reached a leather-gloved hand inside, grasping the loaded shotgun that lived there by its ornately carved stock. Silently, I opened the breech to be sure there was, indeed, ammo in both barrels. There was.
My shoes were wrapped in several layers of Saran Wrap held in place by duct tape. This would prevent any usable footprints from being deposited as I went to or from the house. It was not the industrial grade that Al used at the diner, but the home type from his upstairs kitchen. The mask over my head was a simple ski mask. Elegant. Effective. Steve didn't know me from Adam, and he would never be able to give a meaningful description based on what he was about to see. He would be quite busy by the time he even knew I was there!
I silently twisted the knob of the back door and made my way to the right. Watching through binoculars on the previous evening, I knew where the last light in the house to go out had been located. It was obviously in the bedroom. I headed toward the place that window must mark. There was an almost biblical feel to what I was doing: the sins of the father were about to be visited unto the son. No. That was not the case. There was enough sin here to go around for them both. I was about to dispense justice.
It was warm that night. The window air conditioner in the bedroom was on, giving a little noise to cover any that I might make. It was a good thing, my heart was beating loud enough for a deaf man to hear at ten paces. I entered the bedroom through its open door and saw my victim sprawled out on top of his bed, covers thrown back. It couldn't have been easier!
With careful aim, I placed the muzzle of the hunting weapon about three inches from the back of Steve's right knee. I took a deep breath, trying to be quiet about it an not awaken him before the ultimate moment arrived. With steady pressure, I pulled the trigger.
The world seemed to explode.
When I discharged the weapon the bright flash it produced seemed to bring daylight to the room. By its momentary flare, I saw what had been a knee disappear into a gooey red stain that lay in a crater in the sheets between newly created open raw ends of a limb. Then the light was extinguished. I saw nothing more for a moment until my eyes readjusted to the darkness.
I heard a great deal.
Almost before the loud report had faded into oblivion I heard a blood curdling scream that seemed to shake the very walls with its anguish. By the time I could see again, Steve Brennan had grabbed the open end of his right thigh and was wailing in pain more loudly than I would have believed a man able to bellow. I reached over to the telephone beside his bed, hit 9-1-1, dropped the gun, and quietly walked out.
Al was waiting for me in my car half a mile the other side of the house. We were home by midnight.
**********The leather gloves, mask and plastic wrap went through Al's meat grinder in quick succession as soon as we returned to the diner. He mixed it with some old meat and threw the whole mess in his dumpster. Lastly, before we went to bed, we looked in on Danny. He was sleeping like a baby. He was still sleeping when the sheriff came knocking at the door about an hour later.
That little tableau played out about the way one would expect. Al knew nothing, Danny knew nothing, and he wasn't about to let the sheriff wake up the boarder he'd taken in for the night in his spare room! The boys in blue left as quickly as they had come, knowing nothing more about the most bizarre case to hit New Hope in a hundred years. Danny was back in his room when Al stepped into mine.
"What is it?" I asked. "Did they not buy it?"
"Oh, they bought it lock, stock, and barrel. I'm too fat and they know Danny couldn't have done it. He warn't big enough!"
"So what's wrong?"
"Somethin' just 'curred t' me," he said. "I was worryin' that you might think maybe we done somethin' wrong tonight." I started to protest, but he shushed me into silence. "I jus' thought of this," he said. "Why would we'uns be the first ones they come to talk to 'bout this unless they knowed why we might have done this thing?"
I looked at him and nodded.
"You sleep good," he told me, and was gone.
**********Al and I talked it over and decided that out of town was a good place to get Danny as soon as we could.
"It's going to be fine," I promised the man. "I'll take good care of him until we can get him settled in somewhere."
"I know, I know. I jus' don't want him 'round here when all of the talk starts 'bout why this might've gone down. He just don't need to know 'bout it!"
I agreed, helped Danny pack, and we headed back to Oklahoma. It was mid afternoon by the time we'd been able to hit the road and I was tired. I picked a Motel 6 and got a room with two double beds.
Before, when Danny had stayed with me in my apartment, I had put him up in the guest room, so I had never seen him dress or undress. This night was to be different. He was getting ready to take the bed next to the windows as he stripped off his shirt, then undid the jeans and slid them down his legs. I noticed the false one was a simple swing hinge type. No wonder it made all those funny noises. Perhaps that would be something to consider changing soon. Danny snapped me back to the floor show when he sat on the edge of the bed and fiddled with something on the inner thigh of his plastic leg. I hear a soft hiss, and he pulled the limb free. He pulled his left leg out of the jeans and dropped them, prosthesis and all there by his bed. I was riveted.
The young man didn't seem to notice my attentions. He grabbed his battered wooden axial crutches and made for the bathroom. A couple of minutes later, he easily swung back into the room, crawled under the covers and bid me a good night. I lay there for almost an hour with a raging hard on that just would not leave on its own. I finally dispatched it in the bathroom, hoping my young friend had not heard.
"Sorry to wake you," he said over his shoulder, sensing my movements in the bed. "I always keep my wallet under my pillow, and I forgot to grab it when I woke up."
"No problem at all," I smiled. If he only knew!
He sat on the edge of his bed, facing me. "I can cover this up if it bothers you," he said, nodding toward his nub. "I know it looks kind of gross and all cut up, but I promise you, it don't hurt."
"No problem," I repeated. "Not at all." I started to say more, but thought perhaps another time would be better to explain devotion to the young amputee.
"I was wondering about some stuff," he began.
My heart stopped. Had he figured out what Al and I had tried so hard to shield him from? I finally composed myself again and nodded for him to continue.
"I told you that I've known for a long time that I was gay," he began.
I let go a silent sigh. "Yes."
"Well, you see Mr. Weston..."
I put up a hand and stopped him. "I think as long as we've known each other you can start calling me Jim. Hell, I'm only about twelve years older than you!"
"Okay, Jim," he agreed, "The problem is, I know I'm gay, but I have no idea what to do." He blushed. "I've never had a lover."
I smiled. "God, if I was only a few years younger, I'd show you myself. You are incredibly attractive, Danny."
"Even with this leg?"
"That doesn't make you one iota less desirable. You are one gorgeous and, yes, exotic specimen!"
He smiled. "I've got an admission to make to you, Jim."
"What?" I was afraid I knew the answer.
"I think you are so great looking, too!" He paused. "That's why I was going to ask... I mean, I know you've done so much for me already but..." He licked his full lips. "Could we pretend... just for today... that you're my boyfriend?"
I reached forward as brushed a few stray locks from the velvet skin of his forehead. "You have no idea how I've been dreaming you'd say just that thing," I told him. "Except for two things."
Danny smiled shyly. "What?"
"First, let's not pretend. If you want me for a boyfriend, you've got me! Second, today is 'way too short a time. How about the next thirty or forty years?"
My only answer was a warm embrace and the gentlest kiss I had ever imagined.