I slept without dreaming, I guess because of the drug I had taken. When I was but half awake, I smiled as I recognized Derrick's scent and reached out for him. He wasn't beside me and for a few seconds I was confused, then reality came crashing in. Derrick was brain dead and I would never again feel his hard, warm body against mine. Suddenly I was overcome by grief.
It took several minutes for me to get myself together. When I had, almost, I got up and did the bathroom things--including showering and shaving--and got dressed.
When I got downstairs, Mom and Dad were sitting at the dining room table with Joe. “Morning,” I said, sounding as groggy as I felt, I'm sure. I went to the kitchen and fixed a cup of tea and came back and sat down beside Joe. “Anything new?” I asked him.
“Not really,” Joe replied. “Grams is sure she knows what happened, but as she says, no way to prove anything. She knows the Major heard you and Derrick on the landing. She's not sure whether the Major turned on the light before opening the door or whether he opened the door, saw the two of you and then switched on the light.”
“Anyway, he opened the door and turned on the light in some sequence. Grams says she does know this, when he opened the door, he lost it and started shouting. The next thing she knew, she heard the railing break and Derrick scream. She said the Major stuck his head back in the door and said, 'Call 911. He has pushed Derrick through the railing--meaning you of course.' So you see, there's the Major's word against hers and most of what she knows proves nothing since she didn't see what went on outside. In fact, the only things she can actually testify to pretty much confirms what the Major has said. She says she knows you didn't shove Derrick, but can't testify that you absolutely did not.”
“She backs everything the Major says including things she couldn't know since she, like Grams, was inside.”
We were still sitting at the table talking when the phone rang. Dad answered it and when he came back said, “That was Barry Smith. He got the restraining order, but said he was sure the it wouldn't hold up if tested. He suggested you get to the hospital and say your goodbyes before the Culpeppers can challenge it. He sent someone to take Grams over already.”
“Grams has given permission for the machines to be turned off immediately after you have seen Derrick. Barry said he understood Ms. Culpepper had agreed, but she and the Major were fit to be tied about your seeing Derrick and threatened to keep him “alive“ so he can tell how you caused his death. Of course, that's nonsense, but it has upset Grams no end. She understands it's in retaliation for her absolute insistence you have a chance to say goodbye to Derrick before he is taken off life support.“
“Tom, in case you haven't noticed, the Culpeppers, male and female, are very nasty people,“ Joe said. “I'll put nothing past them.“
I was silent, knowing I didn't have to respond to what we all knew. “I'm ready as I'm going to be,“ I said and stood.
“Tom, your dad and I will go with you,” Mom said.
“Mom, I rather you didn't. I want to say goodbye to Derrick and then go to the river.”
“You sure that's wise?” Dad asked.
“No, I'm not sure of anything right now, but that's what I want to do.”
“Very well,” Dad said, “but Joe will be there and if he thinks it is unsafe for you to be driving, you will listen to him. Promise?”
“He won't drive if I think he shouldn't,” Joe said. “Officer Hightower will also join us at the hospital to make sure the Culpeppers don't start something.”
Joe rode with me to the hospital. I was so glad he understood and didn't try to make conversation. When we arrived outside the ICU we were joined by Officer Hightower.
“Mrs. Murphy is with Derrick now,“ he said. ”I escorted her past the Major and Mrs. Culpepper who accosted her in the downstairs lobby. They were demanding she leave instructions that Tom was not to be admitted. She told them where they could go, called the Major a murderer and swore she'd see him in jail if there was any way.”
“Tom, Officer Hightower and I will wait here,” Joe said. We'll drive you home or take you wherever you want to go afterwards.”
“Thanks, but when I leave I am going to a place where Derrick and I spent some wonderful times together. I'll be all right. Just keep the Culpeppers off my back.
“That I promise,” Joe said.
It was two or three minutes before Grams came out of the ICU. She didn't speak, just embraced and held me for a long time, then kissed me on the cheek and walked away.
I took a deep breath and pushed the ICU bell. A nurse opened the door and I said, “I'm Tom McCarter. I'm here to say goodbye to Derrick.”
The nurse took my hand and led me to Derrick's bedside. She clasped my shoulder then turned, I thought to leave, but she only took a few steps and stopped. I guess she wanted to make sure I didn't pass out or something.
I gave her a weak smile and turned to look at Derrick. I wasn't prepared, I'll admit, for what I saw, but even as he was, Derrick was beautiful: skin the color of warm chocolate, long eyelashes resting on his cheeks, his well-developed, well-defined chest rising and falling as the respirator pumped air into his lungs. But his beautiful body was violated by wires and tubes attaching him to life support machines and monitors.
I looked at him and realized my time to tell Derrick goodbye was limited. It had, after all, taken an act of the court--literally--to get permission for me to see Derrick one last time. Joe told me Barry Smith said the judge had given me only fifteen minutes, but that was more than enough.
I stood, choking back tears and when I could stand it no longer, leaned over and kissed Derrick on the forehead, turned and walked away, not looking back.
“As beautiful as the shell is. It is not Derrick. Derrick is gone. He was gone seconds after he fell,” I told myself. I think I might have almost convinced myself it wasn't true, but when I saw that empty shell which had been Derrick I knew my love, my life was no more.
When I reached the lobby of the hospital, I saw Joe and Officer Hightower standing with the Culpeppers. I avoided them, but still the Major managed to call out, “Honkie faggot,” before Joe grabbed his arm and twisted it behind him.
I heard Joe say in a loud whisper, “You shut up or you'll end up in jail with a broken arm! You are disturbing the peace--in a hospital--and it seems to me you are resisting arrest!”
Outside, the day was bright and beautiful, though unusually cool and windy. Thank God, it was bright, otherwise I'm not sure I could have stood it.
I took my time driving to the river. At times tears would start and there would be so many I could hardly see. Twice, I just pulled over and stopped until I got control enough to not be driving blind.
I drove to the end of the river road, got out and, as I did, I took a blanket and my jacket from the back seat. I pulled on the jacket and started the hike along the river to the sand spit behind the bamboo. When reached it, I spread the blanket on the sand and sat down, my mind a blank. As I watched the river flow by, my thoughts drifted backward further and further as I remembered events which brought me to this moment.
I must have watched the river for over an hour before I finally was conscious enough to know I was cold and stiff. I looked at my watch and realized that Derrick was, now, finally, at peace. Of course I was devastated by what had happened, but only relieved that his body was finally allowed to die and, I knew, give the possibility of life to several other people who would be receiving his organs.
As I walked back to the car, I wondered what would happen next. Grams knew what had happened, but she couldn't testify to what she had not seen. There was no doubt in my mind that Derrick's mother would deny anything Grams said. I guess I sort of resigned myself to knowing Derrick had been killed and his murderer would go scot free.
When I got back to the house, Mom said Grams had called. She had withstood the Culpeppers and Derrick would be cremated. A memorial service was scheduled by the high school and that would be the only service. “She said she suspected you would like to scatter his ashes and where and when was up to you.”
I called Grams and we talked for a long time. She told me she knew Derrick and I were lovers. I was surprised she was so open about it. She told me she had asked Derrick right after we had gotten back from North Carolina last summer and he didn't deny or confirm it. “He loved you very, very much, Tom. Some of us never know the love you two had in our long lifetime.”
Derrick had told me Grams gotten pregnant when she was fourteen by a white man who, of course, denied it. She had raised Derrick's father by herself, often barely getting food on the table. She never liked the woman he had married, but never let that show. Then Derrick's dad was killed and she was left all alone. Derrick saw her seldom after that, only when his mom wanted him taken care of for one reason or another. “The last year has been wonderful for me too,” she said. I knew what she meant for Derrick worshiped his grandmother.
I asked her what she knew about the accident. She said it was an accident, but the Major had intended to hurt me, not Derrick, “I'm sure of that.” Joe had talked with her as had Barry Smith. Both said she could file charges if she wanted to, but they thought nothing would come of them. She said she had agreed, “I thought it would accomplish nothing. I just want them back in Baltimore, away from me and people I love,” she said.
The memorial service at the high school was scheduled for Monday at 1:00. I had been given sleeping pills so I could sleep and the doctor had given Mom tranquilizers for me to take before the service, but I refused. So far as I was concerned, that would only put off grieving I needed to do. The service was very nice and school was dismissed after it was over.
Keith and I had talked about where to scatter Derrick's ashes and had a hard time deciding between North Carolina and the river. We finally decided on the river and asked Joe and Trey to go with us. We asked Grams, but she said she thought it should be the young ones who did it.
Thank God Monday was a beautiful day and after the service, the four of us went to the river immediately afterward and scattered Derrick's ashes on the water. It would be the last time I went to the river.
The next few weeks went very well, all things considered. I was even surprised at myself, then mid-April, I fell apart. All I did was cry and sleep. Needless to say, Mom and Dad were very concerned and I was hauled to a couple different doctors, both of whom gave me drugs—which meant I slept more and was dizzy when I cried.
I felt like I was in a deep, dark hole and there was no way out. When I slept, I was tormented by dreams. When I wasn't asleep, I cried and felt helpless. Forget school, forget baseball. I did.
After two weeks of the nightmare, I had decided I couldn't really handle being alive when Derrick was dead, but I put on a cheerful face and convinced my parents I was ok.
The beginning of the third week I was in the pits, I went to school after checking the calendar and seeing both parents would be late getting home. I left school at lunch and went home. I spent an hour writing a note telling my parents how much I loved them and how my life was utterly meaningless and painful beyond belief now that Derrick was gone. That done, I went to the bathroom, emptied the bottle of sleeping pills into my hand, washed them down and went to my room. I took Derrick's picture from my desk, lay down on my bed and clutched the picture to my chest and slowly drifted into sleep.
I woke up with Keith holding me over the john, jamming his finger down my throat. I tried to fight him, but I was drugged and Keith was strong. After the finger bit, he forced warm salt water down my throat and when I fought him, he pried my mouth open and poured it in. I finally had to breathe and when I did, ended up with salt water spraying from my nose and Keith was at it again. When he had poured all the salt water in and on me, he jammed his finger down my throat again.
He got the results he was after when I started heaving. The contents of my stomach, which now included a great deal of salt water, came up with such a rush that they coming out my nose as well as my mouth. Keith was forcing more saltwater down my throat when paramedics came thundering up the stairs.
“He's all yours,” Keith said.
“Looks like you have things under control,” one of them said, “but a good stomach washing won't hurt. How'd you happen to find him?
“He's been in pretty bad shape for awhile—his best friend was killed—three-four weeks ago--and when I discovered he had left school, I was worried and came to check on him. I found him in his bed, obviously drugged, then I found the empty pill bottle.”
No need to go into the next two weeks. I was hospitalized and had daily counseling. At the end of the first week, Keith brought my school assignments so when I got out of the hospital at the end of the next, I would not behind.
While I was in the hospital, Grams died of a heart attack. She had managed to get to the phone and call 911, but was dead when the EMS team arrived. My counselor told me a couple days before I was released. I knew what had happened. “She died of a broken heart,” I told the counselor.
Keith stuck to me like a leech and when I complained, he reminded me that he was just paying me back for saving his life. “Tom, no one will ever replace Derrick. No one has ever replaced LaTasha. No one can. But if you hadn't find that gun, there would be no Janice in my life and Tom, I wouldn't have missed Janice for the world. Somewhere, there is someone just waiting for you as Janice was waiting for me.”
Gradually I got back into baseball and school—not doing as well as before, but not doing bad—badly.
It took Mom and Dad awhile to begin to relax and let me have some slack. School was driving both of them batty and they both talked more and more about retiring. They finally said they had in their years in and could retire anytime, but would stick it out until I graduated.
The week following the end of school they had both attended a principals meeting and came back discouraged, disheartened and disgusted. The long and the short of it was there would be increased Mickey Mouse for the coming year.
They had said for some time that when they retired, they would sell the College Park house since it had too many stairs and get something smaller and on one level for their retirement house. They talked more and more about that and even went to check out houses Sunday afternoons if they had seen something promising in the ads and they had nothing better to do.
One Sunday, when Keith and I came back from Stone Mountain, they asked me what I had planned and I told them nothing. “Keith is going home to get ready to go to Albany for a few days, so I'm free.”
“Good, we'd like to talk a bit about your and our future,” Dad said.
“Sounds serious,” I said, sitting down in the den with them.
“Tom, your mother and I have had it with the increasing work load for teachers and principals which has nothing to do with students. We spend more time on disruptive students and their irresponsible parents, on PR and testing than we do helping students achieve. We have been talking and we are ready to hang it up. We could retire now, but hanging in there for six more months will make a big difference in our pension, so we plan to retire at the end of the first semester,” Dad said.
“You know we need to get another house for our retirement,” Mom said. “You'll be with us one more year, then likely you will be away at college and, as much as I hate to admit it, you'll probably not be at home again. Still, and all, we'd like to hear what you think about where we should start looking for a house. There's no rush, but if we know where, we can be on the lookout for what we really want.”
“I'm sure you'd like to stay in the metro area, near your friends,” Dad said.
“Dad, we are talking one semester, right? After that my friend—and Keith is the only one who counts—will be headed off to college as well.”
“But I'm sure you'd not like to change schools with only a semester to go,” Mom said.
“Why not? What have I to hold me here? Mom, the only thing school, the baseball team, this town holds for me are reminders of what I no longer have.”
“Then what are your thoughts?” she asked.
“What's wrong with the cabin in North Carolina--I mean other than what work between now and next December can't fix?”
Both were surprised that I suggested North Carolina since they thought I needed city life and had some attachment to East River and College Park. I finally convinced them I did not and we started serious planning for a move to the mountain cabin.
When Keith got back from Albany, we talked about the rest of the summer. “I'm really not interested in baseball camp or any other camp this year,” I said. “I guess it's because I'm not interested in a whole lot of anything after Derrick's death.”
“I'm sure that's a part of it,” Keith agreed, “but I'm not terrible interested in such myself. Josh asked about my taking a job at the resort where he's interning this summer--in Montana. I gave it some thought, but I just couldn't get excited about it. Janice took an internship at a spa in the Arizona mountains. Neither of us saw spending the money for me to fly out, so I'm sitting here in College Park, with nothing to do and can think of nothing I'd like to do.”
“We're already talking like bored kids at the end of summer,” I said.
“Yeah, well, there has to be something for us to do.”
Keith arrived while I was fixing things for lunch. The past two summers, Mom and Dad came home for lunch if I got it ready so they had time to get home, eat and get back. I had lunch ready to set out when they arrived, then poured two tall glasses of ice tea and Keith and I took them to our screened porch where we flopped down on loungers.
Mom and Dad had both been to another principals meeting all morning and when they came in, they were both really pissed about another meeting which accomplished nothing except waste time. They had calmed down by the time I got lunch for the four of us set out.
“So your morning was pretty bad,” Keith said as he set ice before Mom and Dad.
“We had a miserable morning,” Mom said. “What about you guys?”
“Bored, I guess,” Keith said. “I don't regret not going to some camp this summer, but I wish I had something to do.”
“Janice in Mississippi?” Dad asked.
“Arizona, at a fat farm,” Keith replied.
“If you are willing to tough it out in the wilds of North Carolina, think I might have a job for you. We have decided we'd make the mountain cabin our retirement place and there's a lot of work to do. I'd pay you starvation wages to help get it ready for year round use.“
“I hadn't thought about the cabin,” I said. “Think Keith and I can get started by ourselves?“
“Sure. Remember we looked over the place thinking we might winterize it? I made a list and there a lot of work to be done before we get started with that. Things cleaned out, taken out, etc. You two can go on ahead and get started.”
“Sounds good to me,“ Keith said. ”North Carolina sounds real good to me.“
“You don't expect us to work all the time do you, Dad?” I asked to make sure.
“Of course not. Just keep track of your time and work as much or as little as you like.”
“You and Mom coming up next weekend?”
“I thought we would. Some things we'll need to get the professionals to do and you guys being there would let that get started as well. We could do a complete survey next weekend and get moving on some of the larger projects the professionals will be doing.”
After lunch, Keith and I started getting things together--clothes, CDs and player, that sort of stuff. There was no TV and reception would be poor to nil anyway, but we did take Keith's TV and DVD player. He had a collection of movies--including some old classics--we packed. When we finished packing his things, we did the same with mine.
We decided we might need his truck for supplies and debated taking it and my car, but finally he said, “Tom, there is no reason to take both vehicles,” and he was right. We thought about going ahead and loading, but decided his parents might have other plans for him and were waiting for them to get home. Finally, he said, “I don't know what we are waiting on. Both Mom and Dad talked about my getting bored and being underfoot. I think they'll be delighted to get me out of the way.”
“Why not call and ask?” That seemed very reasonable to me.
“I guess I could,” Keith answered. “They have always been adamant about not being called at work, but I guess one time won't matter.”
Keith decided he'd call his mom rather than his dad. “Dad has a short fuse--as you well know--and Mom may not like it, but she'll not go ballistic.”
I had always found Keith's relationship with his parents a bit strange, but over the years had come to realize it was my relationship with my parents which was more outside the usual.
Keith called his mom and she said she thought his going to North Carolina was fine, but she'd check with his father and call him back.
It was a hour before she called back. She gave him all kinds of instructions, warnings, cautions and stuff, but said she thought his working was a good idea.
Since we had everything together, it didn't take long to get Keith's things loaded and then we loaded mine. It was mid-afternoon by the time we had everything on the truck and covered by a tarp. A last check was made to be sure all was securely fastened down and we left College Park.
We stopped in Gainsville and used the money Mom had given me for groceries. We got a block of dry ice for the cooler and piled in the frozen stuff. We were back on the road by 4:00. We had the stereo cranked up and were singing at the top of our lungs. Keith had gotten a heavy foot and when I looked over and saw the speedometer sitting on ninety, suggested he come in for a landing.
“This machine is so smooth running I didn't even notice my speed creeping up,” he said as he slowed down.
Less than five minutes later I said, “Guess you're glad you got this beast under control.”
Keith chuckled and said, “Indeed I do, my brother,” when he, too, spied the State Trooper parked on the side of the highway.
It was 6:30 when we reached the cabin and, of course, still light. We set to work getting the house in operation—starting the water system, opening windows to air out the place, that sort of thing.
That took less than half an hour and we thought about going for a swim, but the temperature was already falling as evening approached.
Keith got the grill going while I made hamburger patties and then he grilled the meat and I fixed a salad. I got the condiments, eating utensils salad and all together. When the burgers were ready, Keith we sat at the table on the porch and ate as we watched the sun sink behind a mountain.
We had used paper plates and cups so we only had the silver to wash and things to put away after we had eaten. That done, we again sat on the porch, listening to the night sounds.
I was thinking about the times I had been here at the cabin with Derrick and was surprised that I was enjoying good memories without becoming too sad. “Keith, do you ever think about LaTasha?” I asked.
“Less and less often these days,” he answered. “Before the trip to Mississippi, she was about all I ever thought about, but after that when I do it's some nice memory. I guess when I was at her grave and she told me to get on with my life, I did. I guess—I know—having Janice is another reason, although I'm sure I am not as deeply in love with Janice as I was LaTasha.”
“But you are in love with Janice, right?”
“Not sure. I don't think so. I love Janice, but I don't think I am in love with her. She's a great and good friend and I think we may fall in love, but right now, both of us are not willing to take the next step.”
“Keith, I think about Derrick all the time. These days I think good memories outweigh the sad ones, but I do have those as well.”
“Yeah, I'm sure, but, Tom, time helps. I know it does and will.”
We talked for a hour or more, talking about all sorts of things. At one point, Keith remarked that we hadn't really talked in a long time, which was true.
When we decided to go to bed, we both naturally walked upstairs and after we had brushed our teeth, Keith said, “I guess I wasn't thinking, Tom. I'll go downstairs to sleep.”
“No need. I promise I won't do evil things to you.”
Keith smiled and we crawled into bed. Without thinking, I wrapped him in my arms. He didn't say anything or do anything and for the first time in months, I drifted into peaceful sleep and slept without waking up until morning. When I did, Keith had wrapped his arms around me and spooned himself in to my back. I knew it meant nothing beyond our friendship, but that meant a lot and it felt so right.